Thursday Sept 26, 2019

We’re home. (You probably guessed.) We ended our Alaskan adventure several days ago in that country’s northern-most centre: Fairbanks – once a rough-and-ready goldrush town, now the region’s Golden Heart City. Fairbanks is just a couple of hundred kms from the Arctic Circle. In summertime it’s still twilight at 1am in the morning – and darkness lasts barely three hours. During Alaska’s frigid winter, of course, when temperatures drop to 40°-below (or worse), it’s daylight that’s in short-supply. But that doesn’t stop Fairbankers from having fun. Their far-north town is Start-Line for the Yukon Quest – a 1000-mile dog-sled race. It’s also Ground Zero for viewing the weirdly wonderful Aurora Borealis in the northern night skies.

We didn’t witness any auroras, regrettably, despite (some of us) freezing our butts off in the super-dark middle-of-nowhere until 3am in the morning. (Too much cloud – aarrgghh!) But we did sample a slice of Fairbank-life, touring a restored steam-dredge … panning for gold in the hope of a lucky strike … riding the river aboard a lovely big paddle-steamer, Riverboat Discovery … going ashore in the rain to tour a traditional Athabascan Indian village … and eyeballing some Rudolph-the-Brown-Nosed reindeer (real) plus a whopper moose-at last (stuffed)!

By this stage, it was all over bar the shouting. Rising next morning at 2:30am, we caught a southbound flight (via Seattle) to Vancouver: the magnificent City of Glass … celebrated our Mad Midlife Farewell Dinner at the Black & Blue restaurant … crawled into our huge beds for the last time in North America … then dragged bags and bodies back to the airport for our 13-hour Air New Zealand flight home to Godzone.

Alaska? It’s totally amazing! So you’ve gotta add it to your ‘bucket-list’. We’ve had a BALL, we truly have! And we’ll never forget our lovely long weeks in these vast wild regions …

PEOPLE-NEWS: One lucky-last oinky pink pig has fled the pen and found a new home …

  • Heather earned herself our ‘Flushed Away Award’ – for pulling down a pile of fluffy, nicely-folded towels in her hotel bathroom and accidentally dropping them into the loo! Whoops – splash!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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PPS: And if you’d like to join us on one of our UPCOMING CRUISES OR TOURS, go to www.midlifemadness.tours … phone Glen or Rochelle (House of Travel Ellerslie) on 0800 323 333 … or email info@midlifemadness.tours.

  • We’re touring JAPAN in cherry-blossom season, March 2020 …
  • river-boating along the RHINE & DANUBE in May 2020 …
  • enjoying a WILD AFRICAN SAFARI in August 2020 …
  • cruising on the QUEEN MARY II (Dubai to Suez Canal to London) in March 2021 …
  • and lots more!





Saturday Sept 21, 2019

We’ve worked for it and, a week ago (gosh, how the time flies!), we got it – a full day at sea with little else to do as we cruised across the Gulf of Alaska.

On Sunday morning, we said goodbye to the Westerdam and its friendly crew. 1950 of us (plus 779 crew) had cruised 1,661 miles (2673 kms) up the frosty Alaskan coast, at an average speed of 14.6 knots, consuming 1,271,300 gallons of water, 124,670 gallons of diesel, and 24,000 eggs along the way.

It was raining as we headed ashore in Seward – gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park – and we took to the water again, this time in a big purpose-built catamaran. We rock’n’rolled through choppy seas for close-ups of another giant glacier – spotting otters, orcas, bald eagles and sealions along the way. Of hoped-for puffins we saw not a sign (except on the wall of Hotel 360) – apparently these colourful birds had finishing nesting, and had headed out to sea for the coming winter. Shame …

On Monday you might have found us in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, where we grabbed a lift on a restored Anchorage Trolley for a 24km scenic past-&-present tour, and learned about the devastating 1964 earthquake.

Tuesday dawned blue-skied and sunny, and we settled ourselves into a domed railcar on the luxurious McKinley Explorer train. Hard to think of a nicer, more relaxed way to travel into magnificent Denali National Park – 24,500 untamed square kilometres, exploding with glorious autumn colours. En route we were treated to clear-as views of the icy monster Mt Denali (used to be Mt McKinley, known to native Athabascans as the Great One), raising its massive alabaster bulk high above the surrounding plain. (At 20,000 feet, or 6,190 metres, Mt Denali is North America’s highest peak – fully twice the height of Mt Cook!)

That night, we joined the fun at a local roadhouse for a hearty family-style Alaskan dinner, followed by ‘Music of Denali’ – lively songs and sounds from talented musicians, celebrating the legendary adventures of the early mountaineers who first scaled Mt Denali.

The next day saw us roaming deeper into this remarkable wilderness, enjoying a famous Tundra Wilderness Tour aboard an old-fashioned school-bus – and spotting a lonely grazing grizzly bear (hooray, at long last, even if it was mostly his backside!), plus a handsome bull caribou foraging in a distant valley. These critters were a long way off, and we only managed to pull them closer (albeit fuzzy) with binoculars and zoom lenses – but with wildlife-viewing proving so unpredictable (the local moose population avoided us entirely), we were glad to get what we could!

COMING UP: We take aim on our final (and most northern) Alaska stopover: Fairbanks – once a rough-necked gold-rush town, now the region’s Golden Heart City, and start-point of the Yukon Quest 1000-mile dog-sled race. Our tour’s end is drawing nigh …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Phew! It’s been rush-hour at the piggery! Five of our sought-after little pink piggies (oink, oink) have become overnight celebrities …

  • Marie took away our ‘Suction Award’ – after confessing that, on one of our flights, she accidentally flushed the aircraft’s loo while still sitting thereupon. She wouldn’t say what happened to her nether regions, but she did admit “I nearly swallowed my tongue!”
  • Kathy was nominated for our ‘Colgate Award’ – for losing her toothbrush at some point on tour, rushing out and buying a replacement, then discovering the original in the bottom of her bag.
  • Trisha earned herself our ‘Persil Washes Whiter Award’ – for getting her little container of face-cream mixed up with her (identical) little container of liquid laundry detergent. Trisha’s complexion has never been shinier, but every time she blows her nose she gets bubbles.
  • Catherine & Grant have sneaked away with our ‘Pyjama Party Award’ – having been caught short last night in the corridor of our hotel. How did that happen, you ask? Well, we all had to put our big bags outside the door by midnight for pick-up and delivery to our next stopover ­– ­and, as Catherine & Grant were dragging their heavy bags out of their room, the door swung shut, locking their key-cards inside and our erstwhile friends outside in the corridor, barefoot and dressed only in their pyjamas! You can imagine the conversation that followed – and the debate about who was going to go down to the lobby in their sleep-wear and ask for another key-card.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Wednesday Sept 18, 2019

Not sure where to start. I’m so far behind with these blogs aint funny. And so much of what’s happened these past few days is blimmin’ hard to describe …

Take the tiny frontier town of Skagway, for example. It’s nestled up the end of a beautiful fjord and surrounded by rugged wilderness and looming peaks. And it’s where, last Thursday, the Westerdam dropped anchor (well, docked, actually).

Skagway just about freezes solid in winter, and it’s not hard to imagine the frightful conditions endured by gold prospectors of old who plodded through here during the famous Klondike gold-rush. This morning we rode a giant-tyred ‘unimog’ up into the mountains … enjoyed an exhilarating ride (across dry land, sorry, not snow) on a dogsled pulled by energetic Alaskan huskies (not to be confused with their fluffier cousins, Siberian huskies) … went gooey and girlie over some cute husky-pups … and met one of the dedicated ‘mushers’ who compete in long-distance sled-dog races, like the 1000-mile Iditerod.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough excitement already for one day, we rode a couple of helicopters up-up-up into the snow-covered landscape for some pinch-me-please views of the massive ‘river of ice’ known as the Meade Glacier. The weather wasn’t as kind as it might’ve been, but the heli-ride was thrilling – and, especially when we landed on the glacier and took a guided walk-around tour, the scale of this landscape was simply, totally, utterly overwhelming.

Sorry, folks, but this one highlight you’ll never appreciate secondhand – you’ve gotta see it for yourself. I mean, against this huge, slow-moving, thousand-year-old, rock-littered, kilometres-across iceblock, our helicopters looked like insects. And we humans felt like SPECKS!

But wait – there’s even more!

Having briefly witnessed the TOP end of Alaska’s glaciers (there are more than 200,000 of ‘em up in those mountains) we spent Friday getting up-close-and-personal with the BOTTOM end of a few biggies … as our ship (arriving in the foggy drawn) cruised ever-so-slowly through the UNESCO World Heritage Reserve known famously as Glacier Bay National Park. This 100km-long fjord, filled with inlets, looming peaks, frozen cliffs and floating icebergs, has more tidewater glaciers than any other place in the world.

Look, why don’t you do what we did? Put on your long undies and warm layers and woolly hats and go sit in your fridge while I give you a few Staggering Glacial Facts:

  1. These shorelines are no strangers to ice. In fact, only 250 years ago, this vast region (including the Bay itself) was completely buried, up to 4000 feet thick, under the stuff.
  2. The monster ice-slides we Kiwis saw began life some 4000 years ago, and were formed high in the mountains from densely compacted snow (just like the glaciers in NZ).
  3. When these giant, now rock-solid ‘rivers’ get heavy enough, they begin inching (centimetering?) downhill, reshaping the landscape and gathering rocky chunks, rubble and ground-down glacial flour (dust) on the way.
  4. When their front-ends finally reach the ocean (the glaciers we photographed from the ship were a LOT further away than they look, and some were several kilometres across) they begin breaking up …
  5. It’s called ‘calving’. It happens when slabs of ice split off from the towering face of a glacier and crash into the sea. And when it happens (especially if it’s a big chunk) it sounds like thunder, shooting water hundreds of feet into the air – and seriously rocking the boat (if you happen to be close enough)!

Anyway, some of us spent hours out on deck trying to capture this explosive moment on our cameras – not caring that we got cold and hungry and frostbitten. We waited, and hoped, and held our breath, and even prayed for a calving-to-beat-all-calvings. But the best we saw was a few smaller ice-crunches that went off like a gunshot and hit the water in a cloud of spray.

Not that it mattered. Because this was yet another mind-blowing, gob-stopping Alaskan experience that we will always remember.

COMING UP: We say goodbye to the Westerdam, and head ashore in Seward – gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park and home to more awesome mountains, glaciers, and creatures great and small/ It aint over yet …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Another little pink piggy has wriggled under the fence and found a new owner – oink, oink …

  • Vijaya earned herself our Temperamental Temperature Award’ – for secretly closing the window in a trolley-bus we were sharing the other day, robbing the Tour Leader of the fresh air he craves and causing him to overheat and almost explode.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Friday Sept 14, 2019

Our long-anticipated Alaskan Cruise is actually happening – and Monday, as we sailed through the fabled Inside Passage, gave us the chance to experience shipboard-life to the full. We were in one of the most scenic sea-lanes in the world, and one of the few where deep-draft vessels can sail close to steep mountain walls. With most of East Alaska accessible only by boat or plane, this route through forested islands, endless wildernesses and teetering peaks is a lifeline to the outside world.

Tuesday saw us waking up in rustic Ketchikan, a cheerful fishing town that clings to the foot of steep hills along the shores of Tongass Narrows. Supported on wooden pilings, with boardwalks and staircases everywhere, and fishing boats moored in a jumble, Ketchikan claims to be the Salmon Capital of the World.

We enjoyed a short drive along the coast to nearby Herring Cove, and (with cameras locked and loaded) we headed out into the dark, spooky Alaskan rainforest with high hopes of eyeballing some big black bears! This region is home to lots of them. They show up in greater numbers after the spawning season, gorging themselves on the dead and dying salmon that have done their business upriver.

A big bearded bear-like guide named Red led us on a trail through the undergrowth, identifying tree-species and shrubs and berries and bugs – but we saw no black bears. We saw sphagnum moss by the acre, and strange mushroom-like growths – but no bears. We saw a fat toxic pink slug that slimes about in this rainforest, and a cosy den snuggled under roots where a bear had hibernated through the long previous winter – but no bears.

We saw seals chasing their lunch, and a tall brown heron poking for hers in the mud, and a salmon that had been clawed by a bear then left to die in the flattened grass – but no bears. We watched a totem pole being carved by an artist from a First Nations Tribe, and got up-close to an injured bald eagle in an animal-rescue centre – but we never saw a single, solitary big black bear.

Disappointed? Yeah, we were. You could tell by our faces. But, by then, we’d learnt that an unusually dry summer has left Eagle Creek with not enough water for the spawning salmon to swim upstream – and, without the chance of a seafood feast, there was little to tempt bears down from higher up the mountains where they were chomping on tasty berries.

We got over our disappointment, of course, and a glorious sail-away sunset made up for it …

We woke on Wednesday to find ourselves in Juneau: Alaska’s capital city, tucked away up the end of a fjord and overlooked by the massive Mendenhall Glacier. Mad Midlife tourists aren’t the only ones who come visiting in these island-studded waters. They’re also frequented, a couple of times each year, by hungry humpback whales and their oversized babies!

A jet-powered catamaran took us out to their feeding grounds, and, before you knew it, we were right amongst them. Several of these majestic mammals were coming to the surface for air, their distant spouts giving them away, then their signature humps showing proudly before they dived oh-so-gracefully for food, tail-flukes waving wetly in the air.

It was magic. Pure magic. And while these aquatic giants rarely came as close as we wished, we managed to score some shots with the help of a zoom lens!

Enjoy – and try not to turn green with envy …

COMING UP: In the wild west town of Skagway we ride a ‘unimog’ up into the mountains … we ride a dogsled pulled by Alaskan huskies … and we ride a helicopter up-up-up onto the endless Alaskan Icecap, before landing on the monstrous Meade Glacier. Well, that’s enough, don’t you reckon – so hang about!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Friday Sept 13, 2019

I don’t know what you did last weekend, but we Mad Midlife Kiwis spent some lovely leisurely hours in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Vancouver is truly a scenic dream, with rain forests and mountains towering over mirror-glass skyscrapers everywhere you look.

On Day 1, we got a quick look-see at magnificent Stanley Park (1000 acres of majestic evergreens and 10 kms of scenic seawall) … the iconic Lions Gate Bridge … some genuine West Coast Native Totem Poles … colourful Chinatown (second in size only to San Francisco) … British-flavoured Gastown (with its unique steam clock) … and several other things I’ve forgotten.

Then on Day 2, we enjoyed an early-morning drive to Tsawwassen (bet you can’t pronounce it) where we caught a 90-minute ferry ride to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island … followed by a leisurely-stroll-plus-botanical-treat in the world-famous Butchart Gardens: the fragrant Rose Garden, the relaxing Japanese Garden, the unique Sunken Garden, the accented Italian Garden, the Concert Lawn and Ross Fountain, to name just a few highlights.

Words simply cannot convey the gorgeousness and colour of this magnificent place. So, instead, grab an eyeful of some flowery photos. (Would you believe me if I told you this 50-acre botanical estate used to be an ugly quarry? Well, it’s true!)

Finally, our coach dropped us off for a drive-by-get-out-and-walk wander in Victoria – the picturesque capital of British Columbia.

Day 3 saw us fancy-free in lovely Vancouver – dabbling in a little exploring, sightseeing or shopping. While some mad Kiwis cycled in beautiful Stanley Park, others checked out an audio-visual spectacular – ‘Fly Canada’ – in downtown Canada Place.

That afternoon we transferred to the posh cruise terminal, boarded our waiting cruiseship, the ms Westerdam, and began our long-awaited Alaskan adventure … gliding away under the Lion’s Gate Bridge and entering the scenic wonders of the Inside Passage.

Yeehaa! Let the pampering begin!

COMING UP: We experience luxury shipboard-life to the full as we journey deep into one of nature’s most isolated wonders and sample the magnificence of the Ice Age. With most of Southeast Alaska accessible only by boat or plane, this route through forested islands, endless wildernesses and sky-splitting peaks is a lifeline to the outside world. Don’t change channels …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our second little pink piggy has left home – oink, oink …

  • Warwick scored our ‘Lost & Found Award’ – for leaving his wife’s bag at the check-in counter in Vancouver’s cruise terminal. The bag, thankfully, was located, but, with the panic over, our shell-shocked Warwick mistakenly joined a queue to the wrong cruiseship, narrowly escaping a more serious ‘lost & found’ incident.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)