Saturday, 31 December 2011

Big Sur coastline

Along with half of California we drove along the scenic highway 1 coastal route as far as Big Sur. The advantage to this was that I didn't feel like I had to drive fast to prevent the people behind me from getting angry, because everyone else seemed to be driving slowly too. First we stopped off at Point Lobos, according to the artist Francis McComas "The greatest meeting of land and water in the world." Perhaps we're feeling a bit coasted out, because although it was beautiful it was not that much different to the Cornish coast. The main difference though were the five migrating whales we saw going past. Once again Jenny had to drag me away, or we'd have spent the whole day whale watching. The scenic drive to Big Sur was scenic, but we were really starting to feel that we've seen this all already.
After queuing to get in to the Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park and immediately having to decide where we were going for a walk, we headed up to a valley overlook and then to the waterfall. It was a hot but nice stroll through the oaks even though the waterfall was not much compared to the water full waterfalls of Oregon.


On Christmas morning, once we'd got the obligatory phonecall to the family over and done with, we had a whale of a time. Driving the deserted streets to Pacific Grove, just North of the Monterey hostel, we took a look at the Monarch butterflies. There weren't nearly as many as I was expecting, considering this is meant to be the biggest Monarch butterfly wintering colony in California. But the morning's main spectacle was to be seen from the northernmost point of the Monterey peninsula. First we saw one whale, then more whales, and at one point three whales to our right and two whales to our left, that we didn't know what direction to look in. We must have seen at least fifteen whales, all of them headed southwards, grey whales, presumably on their migration. When we'd finally dragged ourselves away from the whales (I feel like I've become addicted to watching them)we drove back to Monterey, along with what now seemed the masses (seems the Americans take a while to get started on Christmas before they hit the roads en masse in their cars). From the hostel we walked to a beach where loads of harbour seals were hauled out before going to prepare our overexpensive sprouts, roast vegetables and vegan stuffing, while dancing around all the other people in the kitchen who were preparing a communal Christmas dinner in the hostel.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Monterey aquarium

Getting up at the crack of dawn we waited around to be the first to request the Monterey aquarium guest passes from the hostel's manager. Having got the passes we arrived at the aquarium at opening time. A crowd assembled round the sea otter enclosure to watch the feeding. I couldn't help but feel sorry for these three otters which can't be released back into the wild. Their enclosure as pitifully small and they were being fed bits of squid and fish, but not the shells you seen them hacking open in the wild. Voted the second best aquarium in the US lots of people seem to rave about the Monterey aquarium, but we weren't feeling too impressed,had we actually paid the $60 entrance fee we'd have been even more unimpressed. The tanks all seem pretty small, one poor penguin was trying to build a nest with no nest material, a turfed puffin swimming desperately into the glass trying to find freedom and shoals of fish would have to swim in circles all day and night. There was an area where you could go and touch starfish, sea slugs, urchins and other rockpool beasts. Surely this is a horrible existence for these animals being touched all day and perhaps constantly thinking they're going to be eaten. Perhaps they're not thinking anything though..

Thankfully the aquarium doesn't have any other marine mammals apart from the otters. There is just the big tank of the Pacific ocean. The star exhibit there was a really close grey whale. We were walking around when Jenny said she'd seen a whale right outside. So we rushed out to the balcony to join a few of the staff looking at the whale. It was so close that you could see the barnacles on its back, but it was tricky to imagine how big it was. After about five minutes what seemed like all the aquarium's visitors had emptied out onto the deck to look at the whale. Even the staff seemed excited that it was this close. By the time we'd seen enough of the whale there were very few people still looking at it.

In the aquariums auditorium we went to an interesting talk on biomimicry, inspiration from nature for great inventions. Bumps on the leading edge of humpback whales' flippers have inspired a new design for windturbine blades. Bumps on the edge of blades can lead to 40% increase in output. There's also a new car design based on the boxfish, which is a very square yellow fish that maneuvers well into small spaces and is very fast. Mercedes-Benz makes the cars, although I don't think they're selling them yet. Apparently they can get 80 miles to the gallon.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Sea otters

A short drive around the University of California Santa Cruz (which wasn't quite as exciting as I remembered it to be) was followed by the drive to Moss Landing, said to be the best place for sea otter spotting. Lots of cars were parked at the state park, but most of those belonged to the surfers. On a sand bar loads of harbour seals were lying, on a pier hundreds of sealions and between the two were some of the sea otters taking it easy. We managed to spend probably around three hours looking at sealions and sea otters swimming past, after which we drove to the sealion pier to examine them more closely.

At Moss Landing harbour I thought it was pretty pointless trying to see seaotters, but we discovered a really close one feeding on mussels attached to a pier. A friend then joined it and they frolicked through the water together, up and down the harbour. As the sun began to set we headed onwards to the Monterey hostel where we'll be staying till we leave California.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Santa Cruz

We didn't get in the car today!! Instead we walked along the coast seeing sealions, seals, sea otters, egrets, many surfers and another whale. We were heading to the Natural Bridges State Park to go rock pooling (or tide pooling as they call it here) and then see the monarch butterflies in the grove. Rock pools in England seem to be more easily accessible, whereas here they were on a rock plateau. The pools were really deep and we had to be particularly careful not to slip in them, we can't cross the Atlantic on the cargo ship with any broken legs. There were many large green anemones, purple sea urchins, purple starfish, orange starfish, some little pink coral-like things, mussels coating the rocks, a range of brightly coloured slimes and sludges and Jenny managed to find some crabs. Sharing the rocks with us was an egret, some gulls, oyster catchers and other excitable rock poolers.

The monarch butterflies were all flitting around in the sunshine, so the number of them resting on the eucalyptus trees wasn't that great, but there were still plenty of them. Notices told the onlookers to talk in hushed voices and creep along the boardwalks, one man however seemed to think that playing his ukulele to the monarchs was permissible. On the walk back we passed lemon trees in gardens and a small twig with tangerines on it. Opposite the hostel a grand old house has been fumigated, we are presuming against termites. The house now resembles a gigantic yellow and blue striped circus tent.

Thursday, 22 December 2011


Being on a roll with losing things we searched high and low for my room key, before giving up and resigning ourselves to the loss of the $20 deposit. Turned out I'd never taken the key in the first place and that's why I couldn't find it!

We then drove to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park (the first state park established in California), past the spot where four years ago Sorrel and I had wandered aimlessly and seen pitiful redwoods, because we'd didn't have a car. You just can't get to most of these places without one sadly.

These redwoods seemed far more impressive than those at Muir Woods, and looking at them was much less of a tourist circus. One of the trees had its middle burnt out in a forest fire and you could look right up the middle of it at the sky. 'Mother of the forest' is the tallest tree in the park, it did measure 329 feet, but lost its top in a storm. After walking around the redwood trail in the basin where the huge trees are we went on a hike along the river, up the valley, into the chaparral, to the ocean viewpoint and then back down into the redwoods (a round walk!). Whilst walking alongside the river we discovered another bobcat slinking up the path in front of us. It amazes me that there are only a handful of bobcat pictures on the nature picture library website (where Jenny used to work) since we're finding it seemingly easy to discover them.

Once again it was hard to get a true sense of scale and appreciate the great height of the redwoods. To be in the presence of such old and tall trees though is humbling, I can't help but be impressed by them. Jenny though I feel has seen more than enough of the redwoods.

Jenny cruised us along the road to Santa Cruz where we're now staying in the hostel, which stocks its kitchen with a bounty of out-of-date freebies. Although there's no cranberry and grain Christmas special like I had when I was last here there are mountains of radishes, bags of spinach, a packet of mixed organic salad leaves, some cake with a lengthy list of additives, plenty of a-bit-too-green-for-comfort potatoes, onions, loads of carrots, some cabbage, breads in all shapes and sizes (the apple cinammon swirl loaf will make a good breakfast) and quite a bit more. We can't help wondering why we bothered doing a big shop in San Francisco.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Lighthouses and elephant seals

Today we traveled from one lighthouse hostel to another. We're currently staying in the grounds of the Pigeon Point lighthouse, one of the tallest lighthouses in America. This afternoon we attempted rockpooling (or tidepooling as they call it here) again, but the tide just wasn't low enough. We did see a lot of sea anenomes clinging to the rocks like barnacles. From beside the lighthouse we spotted harbour seals lounging on the rocks, and raising their heads and tails in the air when waves were approaching. We also spotted two, maybe even three migrating grey whales on their southbound journey.

Elephant seals were however the main attraction of the day. At 10.30a.m. we left from the Ano Nuevo State Park visitor centre on a 'docent' guided tour to the elephant seal colony. In November/December the huge male elephant seals return to shore and begin sparring with each other. The females arrive in December, shortly before giving birth. The dominant males establish large harems of females. About four weeks after birth the pups are weaned and left to fend for themselves, while the female seals mate and return to the sea. Usually by now they would be seeing pups already born at Ano Nuevo, but this year the females seem to be late to come ashore.

Our walk led us to the dunes, to viewing areas and right between sleeping males. We didn't see any pups, but some heavily pregnant females and many many males, some huge with large proboscises. The males make a tremendous bellowing sound. more to follow...

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

To Montara Point Lighthouse

The morning was spent navigating San Francisco without going on the massive freeways and highways (they scare me too much), shopping for provisions (and somehow managing to buy brussel sprouts for $11.26) and driving to the Montara Point Lighthouse further to the South. We then went for a walk to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, where there are good rockpools. The tide was too high but we saw quite a few harbour seals instead. The hostel here is in the buildings surrounding the lighthouse and rather picturesque.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Point Reyes and the Marin Headlands (17th and 18th)

With the best of intentions to get up early and walk along the spit our morning plans went awry. The previous evening two Canadian hitch-hikers had arrived at the hostel and when they weren't singing were trying to find a ride on to Portland. We decided we could take them to the main road after our spit walk. They got a better offer though from the mysterious Brian who had also appeared at the hostel that evening. He was driving to Bandon, Oregon which would get them most of the way. Having arranged to leave with Brian around nine they were getting ready only to discover that he'd returned his sheets, asked a few questions and went on his way an hour earlier. Some discussion followed as to whether he'd purposely 'forgotten' the Canadian girls or had really just forgotten them. Without much chance of getting to the highway for a few hours we offered to take them and forget our walk. Kate who works at the hostel was right when she said we wouldn't need to turn the radio on with them in the car, they started singing almost straight away!

The rest of the day was spent driving, trying to walk but deciding not to because there were too many horses (too much like a normal day down Harcombe Road), driving to the South of Point Reyes and going for a short coastal walk (it's hard to keep going when you know you just have to go back the way you came, have they heard of circular walks?), driving past a few arrays of photovoltaic panels, listening to Christmas music (or American Christmas music which isn't proper Christmas music at all), visiting the hippie ville of the area- Bolinas (had a BC island feel to it), walking at Stinson Beach which according to a guidebook 'can't fail to impress' (well it did), winding round the bendy road along the coast, stopping at lookouts to take pictures, stopping at lookouts to let cars past, looking at what may or may not be 'the longest row of mailboxes in the States, trying to find a way not to go on the freeway, failing to find a way not to go on the freeway and you've guessed it- finally driving on the freeway.

Our day at the Marin headlands began with an early start to watch the sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge from the lighthouse. Unfortunately the lighthouse and the path to it was closed so we just had to content ourselves with watching the sunrise from the car-park. The sunrise did not manage to fully justify the 6.15a.m. start. Most intriguing was this luminous or certainly unnatural looking green fibre plastered on the soil along most of the roadside. It was bright blue on the underside, but we later learned from the park ranger that this is a native seed, grass and fertiliser mix that has been sprayed from a truck where the grass has been disturbed.

After our unsuccessful lighthouse trip we took a walk to the marine mammal center and went on a 'docent' (they seem to have an obsession with this word here) led tour of the facility, which was interesting. There weren't many patients though, just seven sealions and two fur seal pups. They had a variety of maladies and the fur seals weren't eating. One of the sealions has some condition they know very little about with air bubbles in it's brain. The facility is in part powered (only about 15%) by photovoltaic panels above the cages, which also provide shade for the animals. Production was at 3.3 kW on this overcast day.

The rest of the day was spent in a desperate search for my wallet, searching through all our bags and all nooks and crannies. I did finally find it though wrapped inside the towel from the hostel. Now I just better not lose it again!

Still in Point Reyes (16th December)

It wasn’t the best of starts to the morning, woken by a lady and a child traipsing with their torches in their hands to the toilet at the other end of the room, and kept awake by the two ladies in our room who were evidently stuck in some other time zone having gone to bed at 8.30 p.m and then thinking six o’clock was a civilised time to start asking each other in loud voices how they had slept. I think I place too much value on sleep. We were going for a hike along the Drakes Estero Trail, but first got side-tracked by the promise of mountain views at Mount Vision, accessed by Mount Vision Road. The road wound into the hills for what seemed like forever and with no vision onto a view, although past many flickers and beautiful lichen draped trees. Eventually we found a view after a short walk up the hill and through an area that looked very much like Stonebarrow with a view that looked very much like the Dorset coast.

Having wound our way back down the hill of vision we did finally make it to the head of the Estero trail, but found it difficult to get ourselves going. Having eaten copious flapjacks, visited the outhouse and just getting started on extolling the virtues of the copious toilet paper situation among the outhouses of Point Reyes National Seashore Jenny spotted us a bobcat just visible on the side of the hill. We then observed as the bobcat, which looked very much like a cheetah, prowled through the grassland and waited patiently before pouncing at some prey. Not being successful it moved on to another patch and then came straight down towards me. I did get a bit scared (having heard too many cougar and bear stories over the past months..), but moving my camera and telephoto lens from my face, realised it really didn’t look like much of a threat.

Drakes Estero trail wasn’t greatly exciting, there were lots of birds, but we couldn’t see them well and even if we could have we wouldn’t have known what they were. The trail allows ‘the observant hiker opportunity to see owls perched in the pine trees’ according to information at the hostel. We were observing with all our might, but to no avail. But it didn’t really matter, because we saw the bobcat! Mammal watching is a far easier hobby, especially here.

Tule Elk (15th December)

On a mission to see the Tule Elk (red deer) of Point Reyes we headed to the Tule Elk reserve in the north of the national seashore. About 400 hundred elk are confined within the reserve in an attempt to protect these reintroduced animals from contracting a chronic wasting disease that elk elsewhere in the park have caught from cattle. Seems the wildlife here catches disease from farm animals, rather than apparently gives it to them (badgers...TB…). Threatening to rain on us for the first time since our arrival in the States we left the hostel in dense fog and concluded that American cars don’t have fog lights. Just another little bit of technology that seems not to have reached these shores. As we drove on though, the fog lifted and the light was too good not to keep stopping for a few photos. A coyote ran across the road and off into the distance before I’d managed to get the right lens on the camera, a full battery and find an empty memory card. I never seem to learn.

As the road bent round to the Pierce Point Ranch in the reserve we spotted a herd of elk lounging around. On our walk in surrounds looking like a combination of Scotland, the Lake District, Cornwall and Devon we came across some flowering plants (it’s such a pleasant surprise to find all these plants flowering in California), loads of turkey vultures circling around, some hawks and as we came into a valley there were more elk. Sitting down in a valley just next to a sign telling us to stick to the path and not disturb wildlife it wouldn’t really have been appropriate to try to approach them. Continuing on our walk we began to wonder whether we should not just turn back. Coastline (as I know only too well from walking almost half of the UK’s southwest coast-path) gets repetitive, so we weren’t sure if we needed to see the end of the Tomales Point Trail. Jenny was striding ahead to see over the next hill while I took some photos and I couldn’t understand why she kept on going and then why she was beckoning me towards her. But below us were even more elk and these were right on the path. We sneaked slowly along and the elk weren’t too perturbed to run away. They seemed more interested in listening to bird calls.

Back in the car we drove through the elk we’d seen from the road before, heard them bark and flock together as another car approached and then we spotted another whale! On a slight detour to Abbott’s lagoon in search of birds we found ourselves a bittern, lots of coots, and some sand dunes. After sitting in the car park in the wee village of Inverness and writing some letters, we drove back to the hostel in the dark and spotted two more bobcats.

Point Reyes (Wednesday, 14th December)

Today I told Jenny if I had two tick boxes, one with good day, the other with bad day, I’d definitely be ticking good day. We saw loads of California quail, stood on the San Andreas fault (even though it’s not as exciting as I’d been imagining), admired the lichen draped trees, spotted a herd of radio collared deer, spotted even more deer, saw sparring, snoozing and swimming elephant seals, plenty of harbour seals, scoters (which I for a while excited myself immensely into thinking were the elusive tufted puffins that breed all along the coast of Oregon and here too), a sealion, eight whales around Point Reyes Point and, as we were driving through the dark with a lady in tow whose car had run out of ‘gas’, another bobcat!
Point Reyes it seems abounds with wildlife!

From San Francisco to Point Reyes National Seashore (13th of December)

When we’d finally managed to make our way from the hostel to the budget rent a car, got away again with having no credit card but a sellotaped together debit car and got them to sign off the scrape the car had, we drove out of San Francisco in our huge white mafia truck (not an SUV but still..). Going over the golden gate bridge and up the hill beyond on the highway shared with another five lanes was somewhat terrifying. But we were soon on the smaller and very windy road heading to Muir Woods, admiring birds of prey and purchasing figs from a roadside stall. Muir Woods is one of the few remaining forest fragments of tall trees- coastal redwoods or Sequoia sempervirens. The redwoods are the tallest trees in the world.

Pulling into the second overflow car park we realised we were not alone in wanting to visit the redwood grove on yet another sunny day. The entrance fee into the park was $5 per person. As we sat eating our lunch loads of people emerged from the grove at once and we unknowingly both calculated their worth to the national park ($80). An Englishman, his two teenagers and a little squirt received a blank look from the ticket office man after asking if they would be able to push a buggy on the path, he got there in the end though and concluded the trail wasn’t ‘strollerable’. The trees themselves were majestic and smelt pleasant, but it was hard to get perspective and realise how tall the trees really were. As it says in ‘The Wild Trees’ book that I read a few months ago, you can only truly appreciate these trees while climbing them. A fallen down tree though gave a bit more of an idea as to how tall these trees really are.

Leaving the well-trodden tourist path behind we headed up the side of the valley passing many lichens on the ground which must have been blown from the very tops of the trees in the fierce winds that California apparently had a week ago. Unfortunately there was no longer a view from the Ocean Trail, due (as we found out from a sign when we’d finished it) to fire prevention (we might have to Google how this works..). After our walk we headed to our destination of Point Reyes hostel via a very windy road in ever increasing darkness. As we drove through the national seashore we spotted two deer and a bobcat.

San Francisco

Oregon 4

Oregon 3

Oregon 2

Oregon 1

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Hiring a car

Perhaps I shouldn't even admit on this blog that we're going to hire a car. I should just gloss over it, pretend we miraculously got around Oregon (and then California) without one. But I can't do that to you dear reader (if indeed there are any of you aside from my mother!).

This blog is meant to be about going around the world without flying and thereby trying to reduce my carbon emissions as much as possible. Renting a car goes against that. It does make me feel bad or a bit like I've failed a mission. But sadly there really is a lot to see in North America that you just can't easily get to without one.

So we've reserved the smallest car we could find (which isn't all that small) and we'll refuse to upgrade to a bigger one, not just because I wouldn't be capable of driving anything larger. Tomorrow we'll visit Portland's Saturday Market and, provided they accept my debit card and lack of credit card, head to the Columbia River Gorge and in a few days time the Oregon coast.


The train to Portland was salubrious enough, but Portland itself is brimming with salubrity. One of the USA's most livable cities Portland is much to my liking. Like Seattle there is an element of free transportation within the downtown area- free trams (the buses were free too until a few years ago). It's also a very walkable city, which for North America is high praise indeed. There is even interesting architecture.

We've been staying at the nwhostel on the edge of the Pearl district, an area where many warehouses have been converted into upscale shops and fancy residences. The hostel itself is in a grand old wooden house and has a bright roomy feel to it, aside from the cramped kitchen. One of the most famous stores in the district is Powell's City of Books- the largest independent bookstore in the US. It was hard not to while away our entire stay in Portland perusing the many shelves and multiple floors of the bookshop. Open most days until 11pm (when it is still rather busy!) about 3,000 people walk through the store's doors each day. There are more than 1,000,000 different books on the shelves. Pam the Jam's new River Cottage cake book graces its shelves of course! On my second visit I came prepared with a notebook to write down all the books I want to get out the library and read one day. It took at least an hour to get through the environment section. Ironically these books shared their isle with hunting and shooting, and on the other side the fine art of golf. There seemed to be many locals browsing the shelves as well as tourists, one of whom declared to his wife 'Who works in this place? Must be Gods.'. I managed to leave with only one book, but was sorely tempted to buy 'the joy of cooking' which Joanne has at the blueberry farm.

Portland is a very wealthy city, or at least there are lots of really rich people that live here. Many company headquarters are based in the city including Vestas (the windturbine company), which we discovered near the university. Other less savory companies such as Adidas and Nike are also here. We've been walking around a lot and stumbled upon, while walking in Washington Park, and then purposely sought out some of the most salubrious houses of Portland. These often pompous homes are found in an area known as the West Hills where the roads are filled with sparkling new BMWs, Volksagens, Rangerovers and some of the largest SUVs known to man. These should be known as the West Hill combine harvesters as a Portland alternative to the 'Chelsea tractor'.

This superfluous wealth is such a stark contrast to the poverty that can be observed in the downtown areas of many North American cities. In Portland however it actually feels safe to walk around in the dark. And although there are some beggars they are a rare species and do not seem very threatening.

I do seem to think though that there are a lot of people in North America that talk to themselves. Jenny points out though that I don't often go to public places or sit on a bus to witness this phenomenon in England (and that time she wasn't talking to herself, I was listening!). Anyway, on the bus the lady next to me was saying in an accusatory voice 'you're fired. you're fired. Man you're fired'. I gather she wasn't talking to me because neither am I a man nor do I have a job to get fired from. Well not at the moment, but perhaps one day..