It had been eight hours, and yet the journey was only half complete. My knees were drawing ever closer to my chin, the cramp in my thighs now unbearable. The bus was filled with a cacophony of strange and mysterious noises; ungodly snores and monstrous grunts, whole families munching their way through their egg sandwiches, the impatient cracking of knuckles.

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Strangely, it wasn’t.

It was May 2013 and my boyfriend and I were making the long journey from Vancouver to the heart of the Canadian Rockies, Banff. Despite it being one of the longest bus journeys of my life, it was fast becoming the most memorable.

The decision to visit Banff was perhaps one of the most impulsive of our entire six months on the road. We knew that we only had a limited amount of time – and money – to get ourselves across Canada, and had originally planned only to stick to the cities for ease. It wasn’t long, however, before my ‘country girl’ instincts began to kick in. As much as I’d loved Vancouver, I was tired of urban grit. I realised pretty quickly that this wasn’t the Canada I wanted to see. I wanted snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes. I wanted to breathe in fresh alpine air and walk in the footsteps of grizzly bears.

After a lot of debate – and only a little time spent actually looking at maps – we decided that if it was physically possible to visit a National Park while we were in the country then we should, and so we decided at the last minute to include Banff in our travels.

“It’s not exactly a small detour!” The locals had warned. Having just travelled the length of Australia, it did little to put us off.

Within hours of leaving Vancouver, we knew we’d made the right decision. Gone were the high rise buildings and ugly, sprawling freeways, and in their place was the most spectacular mountain scenery imaginable. As the bus climbed higher and higher in to the Rockies, so too grew the impressiveness of the scenery. For once, we did not need to read. Our ipods were put away. All other distractions and nuisances seemed to fade into darkness as we gazed out of the window and immersed ourselves completely in this beautiful new land.

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Barely a word was spoken, nor did it need to be, until some time in the early hours of the morning, as our driver came to an abrupt halt precariously close to a sheer drop.

“No need to panic folks,” He cried, as the passengers shifted nervously in their seats. “Just gotta make some room for the elk.”

I began to wonder if this was some kind of bathroom-related euphemism, but no, we really had stopped to let some elk cross the road. Yes, this was exactly the sort of Canada I’d hoped to find.

We finally reached Banff, our butts suitably numb and our eyes suitably weary. When we stepped off the coach, we were hit by two things; the bitterly cold air – which I suppose was to be expected, given that Banff is the highest town in Canada – and the fact that we were very, very out of place.

Banff is beautiful, but not exactly designed for bedraggled backpackers such as ourselves. Though tiny, the town is packed with an inordinate amount of designer shops and expensive-looking cafes and hotels. It reminded me a lot of Aviemore, a ski resort in Scotland – gorgeous, but pricy, and built clearly with wealthy tourists in mind. We became increasingly aware that we hadn’t slept or showered and two days, and that our backpacks clashed somewhat with the trendy skiwear adorned by most visitors. Needless to say, we were pretty keen to check in to our hotel. Our worries were soon put to rest, however, as the views from the main street were somewhat humbling to say the least:

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It would be very easy to spend a lot of money in Banff, but as far as we were concerned, we had come there do one thing, and that was to enjoy the Canadian wilderness. Thankfully, we didn’t have to look far – you only have to take a short walk out of the town centre to be greeted with views like this…

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On our second day – after getting some much needed beauty sleep – we decided to head to the tourist information centre to pick up some hiking guides. As we went to pay, I decided to ask the assistant something which had been on mind since arriving;

“What happens if we see a bear?”

I half-expected – or, perhaps, hoped – that she would laugh at my naivety and tell me not to be so silly, and so I was taken back by her casual response.

“Oh you’re going to want to take some bear spray with you. Lotta bears this time of year.”

I could almost feel the blood drain from my face.

“You mean you actually get bears close to town?” I choked, the words barely able to leave my mouth.

“Sure we do. That’s why we have locks on all the bins!” She laughed.

We looked from one to the other before picking up a can of the said spray and reading the instructions.

“Aim at face and eyes of aggressive bears,” it read. “Only use as a last resort.”

Somehow, I failed to see the funny side.

With more than just a little trepidation, we decided to opt for a route popular with local walkers, reasoning that at least if we were to be mauled to death, our cries would be audible. As we looked out over Bow Falls, taking in the view of the spectacular Fairmount Hotel, our worries began to subside.  The area is absolutely stunning, and it was great to be there during Spring; though there was still some snow left on the mountain tops, much of it had began to melt, bringing the river to life and giving the trees a vitality so rich they practically glowed in the sun.  At times, the scenery was strikingly similar to Scotland, and I couldn’t help but feel a little pang of homesickness as I thought of the Highlands.

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Thankfully we didn’t run in to any bears on our hike, though we were lucky enough to stumble upon a family of grazing deer, who didn’t seem to bat an eyelid as we stopped to take a picture:

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We were also lucky with our timing; shortly after returning, a white mist descended upon the town and we found ourselves caught up in an almighty snowstorm.  The blizzard lasted a full twenty-four hours, and though in some ways it restricted what we could do, there was also something quite exciting about being trapped indoors in this historic Alpine village – though of course, I wish we had been better prepared for cold weather.  What use was a sarong and a pair of flip-flops going to do me now?

Thankfully, our hotel was just around the corner from a great little cinema and a neat  Irish pub.  Tucking into bowls of hot stew by the old log fire, it was hard to believe that only ten days ago we had been sunning ourselves on a beach in California.  I began to wonder whether our little detour into the mountains could end up costing us dearly.  What happens you get snowed in?   What if you miss your flight to Toronto?  What happens if you get stuck here for weeks?  It may just have been the hot toddies kicking in, or it may have been that we had fallen in love with the Canadian Rockies, but in that moment, I couldn’t have cared less.

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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