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We were on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton.

You sure you know where you’re going? he asked.
Absolutely – Meat Cove – most northerly point in Nova Scotia. It’s at the end of this road, isn’t it?
Sure is. But are you sure you want to go there? he persisted.

I met Eric on the Cabot Trail, about 11 km from Meat Cove. He drives a gravel truck. We were stopped by a flagger on a road under construction and we got chatting. As you do. He told me that bloodlines were very thin in Meat Cove. And that the cops dared not venture in. Shoot-outs weren’t unusual and, as Chuck (another trucker) would tell me later, the foundations we would see were not new houses waiting to be built, but old houses that had been burned out ‘cuz the locals didn’t like ’em. 

Cabot trailCabot trail Cape Breton

We were on the Cabot Trail. We’d left Margoree Harbour that morning and had driven into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The scenery was nothing short of spectacular. It was like driving through a Monet exhibition, had the great man ever painted autumn. As the day progressed, we wended our way in and out of the park, stopping here, there, and yonder, with little aim other than to reach Ingonish by six-ish  or seven or whenever.

We ran into Chéticamp, famous for its hookers – and no, I don’t mean boats or prostitutes, I mean rug hookers…people who use hooks like crochet hooks to make rugs. The things ya learn on the road. We sailed past Pleasant Bay and declined all offers that guaranteed us a whale sighting – it was if we’d been divinely inspired and knew what awaited us at Meat Cove.

Cabot trail Cape Breton cemeteryCape North Highlands museumWe stopped at Cape North where the North Highlands Community Museum was closed (qu’elle surprise) but the local cemetery was open – and full of McLeods. The Settlers Garden represents, in miniature, the natural and cultivated world of the early European settlers who made their homes in the North Highlands of Cape Breton. I tell you, these lads have it sussed – simplicity all the way and ten times as effective and emotive than the grandest of displays.

Meat Cove Cape BretonFrom there we took the road to Meat Cove, as advised by Gordon, our host the night before. Some miles in, we hit construction, where I met Eric. Some might well have been put off and turned around … but I’d never seen a thin bloodline or witnessed a shoot-out with shots being fired and I was curious. When we finally got to the end of the road, it was beautiful – yes. There was a humpback whale playing in the water, and he a shameless exhibitionist at that. Magnificent. There were two restaurants – one of which was closed and the second didn’t have enough veg in the kitchen to make a salad. Enough said.

Waiting for the flagger to take us back up the trail, I got chatting to Chuck. He’d been part of a work crew there to lay gravel for 12 days and he couldn’t wait to get home. He was a big man. A tough man. And he was casting furtive glances over a massive shoulder and speaking in whispers. We didn’t hang around. Before we left though, I did ask one of the four locals I saw (there are nine families in total….) why it was called Meat Cove.  Back when, I don’t know the date, sailors used to drive by and see caribou. They’d get out and hunt and so it came known as meat cove. Enough said (I said that already, didn’t I?). Still, I got to chat with Chuck and Eric and have breaded clams from Dingwall, enjoy the thought of a salad, and see a whale relatively up close and in mammal. Not bad for a Thursday afternoon in the boonies. Meat Cove Cape BretonWith the petrol light blinking a violent orange and three successive gas stations closed, we were happy to ride on vapours into Neal’s Harbour and find a gas station open. The map had conveniently pointed out the gas stations, but hadn’t said when they were open or closed. This part of the world is getting ready for the last hurray of the year – the Celtic Colours Festival – after which the place shuts up and half the occupants snow-bird it to Florida – the other half have already left 🙂

Cape Breton Neal's Harbor

We thought we were staying in Ingonish but we were actually 45 minutes further up the road, closer to Baddeck. Prompted by some sixth sense (in honesty, more to do with the number of ‘closed for the season’ signs we were seeing), we dropped by the one liquor store we’d seen in two days. These Bluenoses are a clean living people – they don’t smoke, don’t seem to drink, and always obey the speed limit, even when there isn’t a cop within a hundred-mile radius. The place is pristine clean with not a rubbish bin in sight so they don’t litter either. Did I use the word ‘surreal’ already?

Church Cape BretonCape Breton ChurchWe passed plenty of churches of all denominations, shapes, and sizes. I wonder how so many of them make do with so few people – but they seem to work and what’s more, they’re open. Regular readers will be familiar with my rants about closed churches in Europe and how difficult it is to find one open and with candles. It was a pleasant surprise to see a sign, no less, saying that St Peter’s was open for prayer (without the candles though). Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what part of the road it was on but I think it safe to say it was the Baddeck side of Ingonish because we were still praying we’d find the Sea Parrot Inn before dark.

Cabot Trail Cape Breton Mind you, stopping as we did every ten minutes or so to marvel and something that was just as gorgeous as what had gone before, it was a wonder we got there at all. There are no words to describe the beauty of it all. A thousand adjectives couldn’t do it justice. Billed as the most spectacular drive in the world, the Cabot Trail, in the autumn, has to be as close as you get to perfection on this earth. I would challenge the staunchest atheist not to wonder if there is a God because it is difficult to ascribe this sort of beauty to anything other than a miracle.

Cape Breton

We made it to the Sea Parrot by six, with time enough to catch the ONE restaurant – The Clucking Hen – open for miles before it shut at seven. We got a take-out and coated up, braving the cool evening to dine al fresco and watch the sun go down over the Atlantic from the deck of our top-floor room. We had the place to ourselves. And it was lovely. It’s been a while since I’ve sat looking out over the ocean with a glass of good wine (who’d have thought there were vineyards in Nova Scotia? I’m a convert…), in good company, with nothing to see for miles but a few lights on the horizon and one lone star in the night sky. An old childhood rhyme came to mind:

Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight
I wish it may, I wish it might, this wish I make come true alright

Here’s hoping…

Cape Breton

 

 

 

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Safari south africa rhino

Alaska. South Africa. Could two places be more different? And yet, while in South Africa on safari, Alaska kept popping into my head. And it started when I saw a buffalo. Alaska is a great place to spot moose, caribou, bear, and the odd buffalo if you are lucky. In Africa, they talk of the Big 5: elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion (interestingly, this is to be expanded to the Big 7, to include whale and shark…mmmm).South Africa Safari Bison

Two completely different casts of characters, animals known for either their predatory nature or danger potential in compromising situations, with one common denominator. The Alaskan bison and the African buffalo don’t look alike all; it’s a bit like me having, say, Japanese cousins.  But the relationship is there.

South Africa Safari lioness

As the late AK was fond of saying, for every one animal you see in the bush, 49 see you.  HR is convinced that when he goes to heaven, St Peter will play back a video showing him all the animals he failed to spot on his trips to Kruger on safari and that will be his purgatory. Driving through the park gates was like driving into another world, a world where humans are locked up and animals roam free. A world where looking out the window of a kombi you might spot nothing for hours but acres and acres of bush and scrub and then suddenly, you round a bend and happen across a lioness on the side of the road.

Much of the excitement of being ‘on safari’ is not knowing what you’ll see next. Every bit of your being is tuned in to where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on high alert for the best part of the day. You react to the slightest movement in the trees, call ‘stop’ to the driver (the incredibly patient EK) who will then reverse and give you time to check out what you think you’ve seen. It can be very frustrating – rocks, trees, bushes all begin to take shape and morph into animals. You’d put money that what you saw was alive and breathing but no… it was another one of nature’s tricks.

South Africa Safari

But to truly enjoy it, to really get it, you need to be aware of the majesty of it all. It’s not about spotting the Big 5. It’s about spotting the chameleon on the side of the road; it’s about never tiring of seeing herd after herd of water-buck; it’s about dumping that ‘gotta be big to be great’ attitude that is so prevalent in our world of blockbusters and bestsellers. Yes, your first elephant or lion or zebra will always have that extra ‘specialness’ of being your ‘first’ …but the shame of it is that it’s so easy to devolve into a ‘seen one, seen ’em all’ attitude.

South Africa Safari water-buck

On a night safari (the only option available to see animals at night as private vehicles cannot leave the compounds after 6pm) it was upsetting to hear people groan ‘it’s only a herd of impala’. How anyone could tire of seeing these gorgeous faces is beyond me. Likewise, the zebra. Amazing creatures. I could watch them all day. Their black and white stripes (28 on each side of the average Z) moving and merging into new patterns and shapes. Art on hooves. Whether their stripes are for camouflage or to prevent insects biting  is still under discussion and has been so for more than a century.

South Africa Safari zebra

While the days did take on a certain sameness as we found our groove, that sameness was superficial. Up at dawn. A quick coffee and some rusks (ours made by the incredibly talented SD from Ermelo, Mpumalanga). Pack the kombi. Then out the gate. Brunch about 1oish (Pretoria’s HR in charge of the braai) and lunch late afternoon before back to the camp to supper. That was the routine of it. DR has it down to a fine art – she’s the mistress of order and organisation and could run a small nation. She’d get my vote for president any day. The excitement, the wonder, the magnificence of  it all came in between. During the long hours of nothing, years of collective memories surfaced and I realised how lucky I was to be in the company of such greatness.   And then the adrenaline rush when I thought I saw something. The frustration when it turned out to be a rock. Another rush and this time I was sure it moved… and it did… and I saw nature at her best, in all her glory. And I felt insignificant.South Africa Safari bird on a giraffe

For all our modernity, for all our inventiveness, for all that we claim in the name of progress, nothing can match the uncomplicated complexity of nature. A world where survival is what it’s about; a world where beauty is not augmented by creams and lotions; a world where big and small live side by side and being different is part of simply being.

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