How to safely & responsible watch wildlife in Canada

Safe and responsible bear watching in Canada

Having lived in the UK all my life, seeing a bear was top of my list of things to see in Canada - as it is for thousands of visitors. If you're heading to Canada, or any country for that matter, and are planning to do a spot of wildlife watching, there are a few things you need to bear in mind. 

Since I don't get enough of fangirling about Canada on here or Instagram, I've written a blog post for Canadian Affair all about how to safely and responsibly watch wildlife in Canada - which you can read here

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Ben A’an – our first Scottish peak

View over Loch Katrine from the top of Ben A'an

"What on earth did I pick this walk for?" I thought to myself, as the sun beat down on us and we dragged ourselves up the steep path to the summit of Ben A'an.

We decided to celebrate our anniversary by tackling our first Scottish peak. The weather looked good (slightly cloudy, around 16C - ideal for hillwalking) and we picked Ben A'an (pronounced 'ann', I'm told) because I'd seen it described as a 'mountain in miniature' somewhere on the Visit Scotland website, and had seen beautiful views over Loch Katrine on Instagram. We packed our lunch, took a very quick glance at the Walk Highlands guide and enjoyed the hour and a half drive to the starting point. 

The path up Ben A'an

The path to the peak of Ben A'an, as it heads into the trees

The trail up Ben A'an on a hot, sunny day

The trail begins at the Ben A'an car park; it's owned by the Forestry Commision and costs £3 per day to park (coins only, no card reader). It's not a huge car park, so if you're planning to tackle Ben A'an on a weekend, I would get there early. We went on a weekday and arrived about 1 pm and it was almost full then. 

Though the trail isn't signposted (we saw a small sign a couple of hundred metres into the trail), it's easy to follow; you would struggle to get lost to be honest. Put it this way, if I have no problem following the trail, you'll be absolutely fine. 

Within a few hundred metres, you're rewarded with stunning views over Loch Achray and the surrounding area. The trail starts off quite steep and remains pretty steep for the majority of the hike. There are a couple of flat-ish bits, but for the most part, you're giving your calves and knees a good workout on the way up. 

After about 20 - 30 minutes, you'll come across a bit of a crossroads but keep going straight ahead. It's pretty obvious that you don't need to turn off, because if you look left you'll see the path has quite a big gate. Not 100% sure what it is, but it kinda looks like forestry access. 

As you get closer to the top, it looks like the summit is a huge lump of rock and you might wonder how you're supposed to get to the peak. Fear not. The rocky path leads you around the back and to some absolutely stunning views over Loch Katrine, Loch Achray and the Trossachs. 

We sat down on a rock, overlooking Loch Katrine, feeling a slight breeze on our faces and questioned whether or not the view was even real. Obviously, we knew it was; it seemed so vast and on such a beautiful day it was hard to believe it was real. It definitely made the steep slog worth it. 

To be honest, had we researched the walk a bit more and realised how steep Ben A'an is, we probably wouldn't have done it. I'm not going to lie to you, we aren't super fit. We get out quite a bit, but the majority of our hikes are pretty easy. I guess this is a lesson in forcing yourself to do things you think you can't do and pushing yourself. 

The summit of Ben A'an

View over Loch Katrine from Ben A'an

There are a few different spots to sit, perch, enjoy lunch, rehydrate, and take in the view at the top of Ben A'an. Our favourite was not quite the summit, but provided a front seat view over Loch Katrine, which you can see in the photo above.

How long did it take to climb Ben A'an & how hard was it?

It took us about 3 - 3.5 hours to get there and back, but we took it pretty easy (even though it didn't feel easy) and stopped often. You could definitely do it faster if you were fitter.

Once we got to the top, it didn't feel like it had been that hard at all - or, rather, it felt like it was 100% worth it. It is steep and your legs might feel it for a couple of days after; but what's that for the memory of doing it?

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View over Loch Achray from the Ben A'an trail

Tips for hiking Ben A'an

  • Take your time; it's steep so pace yourself, especially if (like us) you're not a regular hillwalker
  • Wear layers & sunscreen; there isn't much shade on the trail at all, so if it's hot you'll probably want to be wearing something thin, but it might be chilly when you reach the top. Also, long sleeves are great at protecting yourself from the sun, too. 
  • Take plenty of water; like I said, it's steep and you'll be wanting that water 
  • Snacks, always take snacks; for the top to refuel yourself for the way back down
  • If you have time, I highly recommend visiting Loch Katrine, too - that car park is pretty expensive, so take more change.

With an ascent of 340 metres, Ben A'an is a good hike if you're looking to explore the Trossachs and are a novice looking for a challenging hike. If you want more information, I highly recommend the Walk Highlands website because it contains all the info you need and you can read reports from people who've done the high. Use your common sense though, and walk to your ability and know when to stop and turn back if you need to. 

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Been to Banff National Park? Can you help with my research?

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Have any of you lovely lot been to Banff National Park? If so, do you fancy helping me out with my research for my masters dissertation?

I'm looking at how visitors to Banff National Park are educated about responsible behaviour around wildlife, it's effectiveness, and if there might be better ways to reach people. All of this is to help reduce negative impacts (direct or indirect) on wildlife which can lead to human-wildlife conflict incidents. 

Surprisingly, my project budget of £500 will not get you to Canada for a couple of weeks to survey people while taking in the scenery. Which means, I'm spending the next two months sending my surveys out online and annoying people into taking it. 

The survey will take 10 minutes, is completely anonymous, and none of the questions are mandatory. It will ask you about planning your trip to Banff, what you saw while you were there, how you received information about wildlife, and a bit more. 

If you want to take it, the survey is embedded below or you can follow this link and do it on the SurveyMonkey website. Please consider sharing the link with any friends or family who have been on their own trips to Banff National Park as well, and let's help save some wildlife! Thank you so much if you do take my survey, I truly appreciate it and it's going to (hopefully) result in some awesome research. 

 

Create your own user feedback survey

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Does Instagram impact people’s travel expectations?

The Imlil valley, looking towards Toubkal

I recently read a fantastic book called Manufacturing National Park Nature by Keri Cronin, which looks at how photography influences our expectations of national parks. It’s a seriously interesting read, with lots of pretty photos and postcards of Jasper from decades ago. The book was released in 2010, and at the time I imagine social media wasn’t having a huge impact on people’s travel expectations.

In 2010, I was a red haired Hayley Williams wannabee (uhm, it’s 2018 and things haven’t changed that much - my hair is orange instead) who was begrudgingly switching from the abandoned ship that was Myspace and moving over to Facebook. Which I hated. I think my first status update was something typically passive aggressive and emo like “I don’t even want this but no one’s on MySpace anymore.” Instagram was launched at the end of 2010.

Flashforward to 2018, and social media is pretty much all about the ‘gram. As a photographer, I love Instagram because it’s so inspiring and helps me improve. As someone who loves travelling, I have a love-hate relationship with the wanderlust it gives me (I love it, the ol’ bank account does not) - but I can’t help but wonder how it changes people’s expectations of a place.

In Manufacturing National Park Nature, Keri talks about the way that marketing photographs and postcards are shot so that there are very little people in the photo. We see those photos and expect we’re going to somewhere pristine, untouched, and quiet. And I think that’s something a lot of us are guilty of promoting on social media as well, whether we’re doing it consciously or not.

Bahia Palace, in Marrakech - definitely not as quiet as it looks

I’ve definitely waiting for an opportune moment when everyone magically clears from the shot and I’ve definitely removed people from my photos. I don’t do it because I want to portray the idea that I’ve been to somewhere beautiful that no one else knows about - I do it because that dude was stood in an annoying place on the edge of that lake and it looks better without him. But do you know that? Or do people see photos and expect to see somewhere quiet, only to get there and be like “HOLY CRAP, I thought no one knew about this place but there’s six coaches here.”

Let's take this photo of Bahia Palace in Marrakech. You can see a couple of people in it, but maybe you would see this and expect the place is quiet. And judging from the photos of it I saw online before I went, I thought it would be quieter. What you don't know is that behind me are loads of people and I somehow got lucky and everyone moved out of the way as I was about to take this photo. Believe me; Bahia Palace = not quiet.

I think this is a really interesting discussion point. I definitely don't visit places now expecting it to be exactly as it was portrayed on Instagram or on blogs, because I know there have probably been people photoshopped out. Or they used a tripod to get rid of everyone from the scene. Or they waited and waited until the stars aligned and everyone got out of the photo. I don't hold that against any photographers. I like my landscapes to look pretty empty in photographs, but I don't expect them to be like that when I visit anymore. I'm not sure how obvious that is to people who aren't photographers, though.

What does bug me is when I see people promoting something unsustainable. When I see a photo someone has taken where someone is posed in a place they shouldn’t be, it annoys me. I am one of those people who will not walk on the grass if there’s a footpath - ask Daz, he is forever asking if we can walk on “this piece of grass” to annoy me because I am so weird about it.

I don't dispute that sometimes, from a photographic point of view, the ideal place to pose someone or take a photo from might be off the trail; if there are signs asking people to stay on the trail, you’re contributing to the destruction of that place. To simplify, if someone sees a big Instagrammer post a photo taken off the trail, other people are bound to do the same to get that amazing shot because they think it must be ok. Plus, they want an incredible photo. And that makes me sad.

We visit places to explore and learn more. We don't visit with the intention of damaging it, and I think it's easy to forget how fragile some of this environments are. If more and more people visit, something as seemingly innocent as straying from the marked trail can easily destroy vegetation and habitats. We can all do better.

I could waffle about this for hours and I'm beginning to wish I could do a second dissertation because I would love to carry out a study on how social media impacts people's expectations and behaviour while travelling. If anyone wants to fund me to do that, I'm waiting. I take payment in cash, peanut butter noodles, and coffee (but, peanut butter noodles don't pay rent or for Netflix, so...).

What do you think? Has Instagram ever influenced your travel expectations? Did it let you down?

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Calton Hill – the best place to watch the sunset in Edinburgh

Why Calton Hill is the place to be to watch the sunset over Edinburgh

Watching the sunset over Edinburgh from Calton Hill

I'm ashamed to say it took us nine months before we actually got up Calton Hill at all, let alone to see the sunset

When we first moved to Edinburgh we came up with my Mum and one of Daz's best friends, who had lived in Edinburgh for years. Daz and I were talking about all of the things we were excited to see and do, and mentioned wanting to watch the sunset from Arthur's Seat. His friend told us that while it's pretty good, the party is at Calton Hill because it's closer to the city. (He didn't say "the party is at" because no one says that, apart from me...on the internet.)

And he was right. And it seems everyone else in Edinburgh, nay, the world, knows about Calton Hill and how incredible the views are at sunset because the place was packed. The nice thing was that it seemed to be full of both locals and tourists. While it might be a tourist attraction, it seems the locals love it too. 

For me, the best thing about seeing the sunset from Calton Hill is that you can walk the whole way around it. So you get a 360 view of the sun setting over the city. If you've ever been to Edinburgh, you'll know that the skyline is so diverse. You look one way and you can see the beautiful, old city, the castle, and the Balmoral Hotel dominating your view. And then you can turn around and see hills and mountains lurking on the edge of Edinburgh. If you turn around some more, you can see the Firth of Forth and the North Sea. 

I go on about Canada and Vancouver a lot but it's recently occurred to me that Edinburgh and Vancouver have a fair bit in common when it comes to the city and their surroundings. 

I'm going to leave you in the capable hands of Google Maps, Lothian Buses, and some more of my photos to convince you that you need to come to Edinburgh and watch the sunset from Calton Hill. And maybe you should come this summer and take a picnic. I feel like a picnic on Calton Hill, with the sky painted like fire would be incredible. 

How to get to Calton Hill

*Announcer voice* On your right you will see a walking route to Calton Hill from Waverley Station. The train station is pretty central to Edinburgh, and after Avengers Infinity War, I feel like everyone's gonna be checking out the train station anyway so...y'know. It's a short walk, though I would give yourself double the time because you'll probably want to keep stopping on the way to take photos. It definitely takes me double the time to get most places in Edinburgh because I'm constantly whipping my camera out and saying to Daz "LOOK AT THE CHERRY BLOSSOM" "LOOK AT THAT DOOR" "IT LOOKS LIKE HOGSMEDE!" 

The bus service in Edinburgh is astonishingly good and cheap. If you don't fancy the walk, head over to the Lothian Buses website where they have a nifty tool that can tell you what bus to get and where. OR you could get the Lothian Buses app for your phone, which is probably easier to use - especially when you're out and about. Buses cost £1.70 for a single journey or £4.00 for a day ticket - that will get you on as many Lothian Buses as you want all day. 

If you have a car and are visiting Edinburgh, I recommend leaving it wherever you've managed to park it. We (that's the royal we because I did not drive) have driven in Edinburgh a handful of times and it isn't worth the hassle or the extortionate parking fees. Either walk in, park and ride if you're staying out of the city, or just hop on the bus. 

Purple, pink and orange sunset from Calton Hill over Edinburgh Castle and The Balmoral

Silhouettes of cranes against the sunset in Edinburgh

Sunset over the Firth of Forth from Calton Hill

Sunset over Edinburgh and the Blackford Hills

Sunset sky behind The Balmoral, Edinburgh, taken from Calton Hill

Watching the sunset over Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Have you been up Calton Hill? Are you going to? Should we have a blogging picnic on Calton Hill? LET'S MAKE IT HAPPEN.

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15 photos to inspire you to visit Morocco

15 photos to inspire you to visit Morocco - watching the sunrise in the Sahara Desert, Zagora.

Riding camels in the Sahara desert at sunrise

Sunrise in the Sahara Desert, Zagora, Morocco.

Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

A tourist shop in Ait Ben Haddou

A village in the Imlil valley, Morocco

View across the Imlil valley towards Toubkal from Asni.

Moroccan decor at Dar Imlil

Red door in Marrakech

Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech

Bahia Palace, Marrakech

Le Jardin Secret Marrakech

Le Jardin Secret, Marrakech

View over Essaouira from the rampartsA street in the Essaouira market

My trip to Morocco is a perfect example of why it's good to be pushed out of your comfort zone. It isn't a place Daz or I would have considered visiting (primarily because it's not Canada, duh), and I'm so glad we had the chance to go there. 

Whenever anyone asks us how our trip to Morocco was, the first thing we say is "different" or "an experience" because it was. Never before have I had to try not to get run over by scooters, tuk-tuks, horse and carriages, donkeys with carts, or hundreds of people all at the same time - but it's a new skill we acquired in Morocco, and I think I'm going to put that on my LinkedIn profile. It was exciting to explore a completely different culture and the architecture was stunning. There is a good reason you keep seeing pretty doors from Morocco popping up on Pinterest and Instagram.  

I spent two weeks in Morocco in total. The first was part of a field trip with my university, where we spent our time in the beautiful mountains and valleys of Imlil, which is about an hour and a half outside Marrakech. (And well worth visiting if you have the time.) We got to play in rivers, play with soil, wander around, do some science, and spot mountain goats. After that, I spent a couple of days with my friends, where we endured the sweatiest ride to the desert ever. They then went on to explore Fez and Chefchouan, while Daz and I chilled in Marrakech, and took a day trip to Essaouira/Game of Thrones. And, to our surprise, we did not get lost inside Marrakech's medina - which is impressive given I can get lost five minutes from home. 

Morocco is a huge country and I think you could easily spend a month exploring the country, and you still might not get to see everything in that time. I would have loved to have seen Chefchouan (it's that beautiful blue city you keep seeing on Instagram) but given the short amount of time I didn't fancy a such a long bus ride there for such a short visit. It is doable to visit Chefchouan from Marrakech in three days if you really want to - I just needed time to unwind a little and not be rushed. 

It is really cheap to stay and eat in Marrakech, and the flights from the UK are quite decently priced as well. We couldn't fly from Edinburgh and had to go out of Manchester - you can get flights from Edinburgh but it looks like they are all indirect. 

Have you ever been to Morocco before? Is it on your list?

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A quick guide to hiking Johnston Canyon & the Inkpots (you really should go to the Inkpots)

The Inkpots, Johnston Canyon, Banff

By far, the hardest hike of our Canadian adventure was from Upper Johnston Canyon to the Inkpots. It was a punishingly steep hike, but the beauty of the inkpots and the alpine meadow they're in more than made up for it.

Johnston Canyon is one of the busiest places in Banff, and it's evident by how quickly the carpark fills up in the morning. The first time we visited Banff, we thought we'd rock up to Johnston Canyon about 1 pm - ha, no. While we did find parking spaces at an overflow carpark, the place was so busy there'd have been no point trying. 

This time, we turned up nice and early and enjoyed the lower and upper falls while it was relatively quiet. If you want to avoid the crowds, arrive for 9 am - especially during the summer. Very few people actually go further to the Inkpots, so that trail being busy isn't really an issue.

Johnston Canyon, Banff

Rainbow at Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon, Banff

It quickly becomes apparent why Johnston Canyon is so popular. The falls and the canyon are stunning, and walkways allow the whole family to get up close to them, and a little soggy. It's impressive walking through a canyon and trying to comprehend how water created something so incredible. I mean, we all get how erosion works but standing in somewhere like that and trying to comprehend it frazzles my brain.

 

Most visitors don't bother hiking the extra 3km/1.9 miles to the Inkpots, which is simultaneously ridiculous (it's so beautiful) and understandable (it's steeeeep). While Johnston Canyon is definitely something special, the Inkpots are even better.

 

That said, I can understand why so many people don't go; it's not a particularly family friendly trail (though we did see a couple of kids on the trail). We both found it the hardest hike of our trip; it was bloody steep, it was definitely leg day, and there isn't a huge amount to look at because the forest is so thick you only get the occasional glimpse of the mountains around you.

Alpine meadow, Johnston canyon and the inkpots

The inkpots, Banff

The inkpots, Johnston Canyon

It took us just over an hour to reach the inkpots , and my complaining and leg burn went away as soon as I saw the alpine meadow coming into view. (Don't let my complaining put you off, plenty of people seemed to storm past us so perhaps I'm just unfit?)

 

When you reach the meadow, you're rewarded with a stunning view of a few vibrant-coloured ponds you associate with Canada nestled inside an awe-inspiring alpine meadow. A couple of trails take you around the inkpots and there are a few benches too, making it the perfect place for a picnic.

Alpine meadow - Johnston Canyon and the Inkpots

The inkpots, Banff

Alpine meadow at the inkpots

The inkpots

Alpine meadow, johnston canyon and the inkpots

I don't think I'd ever been in an alpine meadow before this hike, and it was everything I wanted it to be - it reminded me of Heidi. It was so serene and neither of us wanted to leave and head back down the trail.

If you do fancy further hiking in this area, there are a couple of overnight trails into the backcountry along Mystic Pass, and Johnston Creek. If you're thinking about doing any backcountry trails, make sure you know your safety stuff; we read plenty of information saying bears use both of those trails regularly to get to drinking spots.

Tips for hiking Johnston Canyon & the Inkpots

• Give yourself at least four hours to enjoy the trip there and back
• Return distance: 10.8km/6.7miles
• Be there at 9 am if you want to see Johnston Canyon in relative silence
• Wear good, supportive footwear
• Take layers - you might be hot hiking but it'll be cool when you stop 
• Take plenty of water and snacks
• There are no toilets after the car park
• Enjoy a picnic when you reach the Inkpots
• Know how to behave responsibly in an area that's home to wild animals; make noise, keep dogs on a leash, never leave any food or food packaging, and keep your distance.

The inkpots, Banff, Johnston Canyon.

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