The HaliFax of Life

When having dinner with my brother in London, I had a fortune cookie which said that I should “Take a moment to rework your schedule”.

I can’t say I took that advice, as I was on my way to Heathrow and about to embark on a four month coast to coast backpacking adventure across the second largest country in the world, Canada. This is something I had been wanting to do since at least returning from Australia, although I had always planned to return in some fashion since a brief visit 14 years ago.

Starting on the east coast I arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was greeted at the airport by Ashley, a friend I had made in Melbourne and who was more than happy to catch up and show me around her home city. Although it is not as big as many others it is one steeped in history, and not just because being on the eastern coast made it easier for European settlers to reach.

To explore some of this one of our first stops was the city’s Citadel, a fortress looking over the surrounding area and heavily armed with numerous cannons positioned looking out over the bay. The city’s main defence in a region constantly fought over by the British and French, it was in fact so well fortified and intimidating that it was never once attacked.


“Ian where’s your troosers?”

As well as explaining the history of how the Citadel and city developed, there are also several hands on exhibits, including a tailor’s shop where you can try on a historic uniform, part of which is requires a kilt. The decision for me to do this was made as soon as Ashley saw them, but I was happy to give it a go, and soon was being instructed on how to go about actually fastening one up.

To mark the centenary of the First World War, the Citadel is also home to a recreation of a front line trench. While Halifax might be about as far from the fields of Europe as you can get, the port played a large role in both World Wars, in part by serving as the embarkation point for the Canadian Navies who carried and escorted convoys of troops and supplies from North America. The city is also still host to the shipyards today which, in the 1940’s, allowed Canada to boast the world’s third largest Navy.

That’s not to say the city didn’t see any tragedy itself unfortunately, as a collision involving a munitions ship in 1917 killed around 2000 people in the surrounding area and was the largest man made explosion until Hiroshima. Aid poured in from neighbouring provinces and even the United States however, and neither the explosion or the help provided have been forgotten, with Halifax still gifting a Christmas Tree to Boston each year in recognition of their efforts.


And it was gooooooood.

Today the city is rightfully proud of how its seafaring heritage has gone from strength to strength, and like any similar boardwalk, there are also stands and shacks set up to make the most of the tourist trade which was beginning to appear for the season. Something I took advantage of by way of having my first Beaver’s Tail: a delicacy which is merely the same shape as the Canadian mascot’s appendage, but is actually a thin slab of fried donut batter, which is then covered with a sweet topping of your choice. Naturally I went for the Maple option.

The boardwalk also boasts a number of artistic sculptures including some drunken lampposts (apparently this was the most humanlike pose the artists could envision), and for the small price of $2.50 you can also take a return ferry journey to the opposite shore in Dartmouth. Affectionately known as “The Darkside” to local Haligonians, there is also the option of strolling along this shoreline as well, although as a more industrialised area it’s main attraction is the view which takes in all of downtown Halifax and the whole boardwalk, which also includes historic vessels and monuments dedicated to those who fought in the wars and for whom Halifax Harbour would be the last place they would leave their footprints on Candian soil.


Pre-peak tourist season.

In contrast to this is Pier 21, the place which was the first step for an even greater number, and is now the site of the Canadian Museum of Immigration. My first port of call here was in a temporary exhibition which focused on the causes and plights of refugees around the world today, dispelling several commonly held beliefs and which also explained Canada’s role in helping many find new homes, including the fact that Canada was the first to recognise and take in refugees who had to flee their own countries for gender or LGBT+ reasons.

The bulk of the museum was dedicated to the history of those who came to make Canada their home, from the earliest settlers to those who passed through Pier 21 itself until it closed in 1971, and beyond. There was also a section which included questions from the Candian citizenship test and I’m happy to say I scored the pass mark of 75%. Although I’m sure the actual test consists of more than just eight questions, it’s nice to know that it could be one possible post-Brexit option.

As with any country however, Canadian immigration has not been without its controversies, something which at one point included hefty charges for Chinese citizens who came to help build the railroad. Even during my time in Halifax the news was reporting on demonstrations and counter protests towards illegal immigrants making their way to Canada across the Quebec border from the U.S.

All in all though, as the start of my adventure it would have been hard to have topped the hospitality of old and new friends alike in a seaport city which perhaps made the biggest contribution to Canada adopting the Multiculturalism Act as an official policy.

Yes we Canberra

Despite being the national capital and purposefully placed between Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra is a city that not many backpackers visit. One reason for this is that not all venture further south than Sydney anyway, but also because there isn’t as much to do there.

Far from the coast it doesn’t have any beaches or lagoons, and any buildings that could be described as landmarks are mostly functional rather than anything else. There are several galleries and museums, but again, these are not always at the top of young backpackers’ to do lists. Whilst I am glad I got to visit Canberra on my trip (which I have to admit was mainly out of curiosity), I was only there for little over 24hrs, which personally I found to be adequate.

Still looks rather swish, regardless of what it resembles.

Still looks rather swish, regardless of what it resembles.

The city really reminded me of Washington D.C., built specifically to be a capital city it is comprised almost entirely of government buildings and memorials to the armed forces and various wars and conflicts. I walked through the city to Capital Hill which involves walking past the old Parliament House to get to the current new one. The first being regal and ornate, almost exactly what you would expect from a building of its period, whereas the new was highly modern. So modern in fact, it has the appearance of being built right into the hill itself, much like something from the Teletubbies. I’ll leave you to make your own decision of what that says about politics in the 21st Century.

While Canberra might be lacking in quantity of places to visit, these certainly do not lack in quality; some deliberate, some just amusing. I continued walking down across Lake Burly Griffin, and found a great example of the weirdness of how the Commonwealth works. On Aspen Island stands a Carillon, a musical instrument composed of dozens of bell, and which was a gift to the people of Australia from the British government, and was accepted by H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth II. Seems a long way to come to accept something from people who are basically your neighbours.

G for George, kept in pristine condition since the 40s.

G for George, kept in pristine condition since the 40s.

Chief among those places of actual quality however, is the Australian War Memorial. A place to remember those who fought and died in Australia’s wars, going below the surface (both figuratively and actually) brings you to a museum of uniforms and artefacts, each telling their own individual story. These then lead you to the Anzac Hall, which houses the biggest, and most treasured pieces, chief among them being G For George, an original Lancaster used by Bomber Command in World War II. Sticking to the memorials principle of not glorifying, but commemorating war, George, along with various other planes, and even a Japanese Submarine, are accompanied by videos which use both original and recreated footage to give a sense of what happened on both sides of aerial conflict.

Over 62,000 names from WWI alone.

Over 62,000 names from WWI alone.

The exit again brings you to the memorial itself, along the walls of which are the names of all the Australians who died during World Wars I and II. These in turn lead up to the tomb of the unknown soldier, a feature used by several countries but here accompanied the emotional epitaph that recognises the bravery and sacrifice of a normal man who will never be known but represents so many:


Coffing it up!

In many ways Coffs Harbour is not unlike other places I’ve visited along Australia’s east coast; it has a marina, several beaches, and a botanical gardens, for example. Despite this sharing the same amenities however, it still manages to stand out; with so much to do in the town itself and local area, but without being too big, it is very much a Goldilocks town. When you have to walk 15 minutes to the nearest supermarket, there’s something especially nice about only seeing one traffic lighted pedestrian crossing, especially when it’s quiet enough to ignore it, and just cross regardless. Allowing backpackers to make the most of this was the hostel I stayed at, Aussitel.

What Coffs Harbour has to offer.

What Coffs Harbour has to offer.

Apart from the several beaches, there is also a meandering creek running through the town, and as such it us great for those wishing to try their hand at various watersports. Not only does Aussitel lend out snorkels, surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, and even canoes, it does so for free! As any backpacker knows, free isn’t always easy to come by, many hostels will generally charge for wifi, and so with all this on offer I tried to make the most of it. Especially as group activities were organised twice a day.

Thanks to this generosity, it was here I had my first experience of surfing in Australia, and my first in general for what has to be about 15 years; I once tried in Woolacombe, but only managed to get as far as kneeling on the board a couple of times. Here in Coffs Harbour, taking part in the true Australian past time, in the Pacific Ocean itself, I managed it just the once. I won’t try to excuse myself, but will say that my hair is now substantially longer, and despite being tied back as securely as I could manage, still got in the way a bit more than previously. How others can surf when you have to wipe it from your eyes every time a wave has gone by is beyond me, and I can only assume that to passionate surfers long hair is a badge of honour. You get to show off what you can do despite the handicap of it falling in your face all the time.

Even Ratty would be jealous.

Even Ratty would be jealous.

Not that being unsuccessful spoilt my fun you understand, I still thoroughly enjoyed the attempt, although the kayak through the gently flowing creek was definitely more leisurely. Snorkeling was also great fun, although didn’t have the best visibility, but jumping from the jetty was also a must do, and somehow I managed to win at ten-pin bowling as well. While I didn’t get to try paddleboarding (yet), I still think it’s fair to say that my accommodation at Aussitel was certainly the best value for money.

The activities I took part in courtesy of the hostel also meant I didn’t get to try as many of the others on offer, such as 4×4 jungle trekking, horse riding, and even flying lessons (because what backpacker has a big enough budget for that?), but did get to see a decent amount of the towns more specialised tourist spots.

Obviously there were windmills

Obviously there were windmills

These included a converted WWII bunker which now housed a small cartoon gallery, and when I visited it also had a display of local nature photography. Just on the edges of the town there is also a small model dutch village simply called Holland Down Under, which is also on the way to the most unique attraction possibly anywhere, The Big Banana.

Following in the Aussie tradition of giving things well suited names (like the lizard with a blue tongue which is called the blue tongued lizard), the Big Banana is just as it sounds.

Does exactly what it says on the ... well, banana.

Does exactly what it says on the … well, banana.

Accompanying the most yellow of Australia’s big things, this particular tourist attraction also includes an ice skating rink, a toboggan run, and laser quest arena, as well as a tour of a banana plantation. Despite the amenities on offer, I was content to take a few photos, and just enjoy a nice banana crepe for lunch.

Served with banana ice cream of course.