Why did I plan an expedition in Canada? The Trans-Canada Highway (TCH) is the third longest highway in the world, at over 7,750km from Mile 0, Victoria, British Columbia, to St. John’s Mile One Centre, Newfoundland. I had already completed expeditions on the world's longest (the Australia Highway 1 at 16,500km), the second longest, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg (11,000km), and the fourth longest (the Indian Golden Quadrilateral at 5,800km).
Do you see the gap in the third position?
After completing the TCH in May-June 2019, I can claim to be the first person on the planet to complete all the four longest highways in the world, solo. TCH is the longest paved highway in the world and is marked by distinctive white-on-green maple leaf-shaped road markers with slight variations along the 10 provinces of Canada.
The first task upon landing in Vancouver, after the long flight from Hong Kong, was to get the car that I had booked online through Hertz. I told the Fijian lady who was handling my booking that I would like a car in good condition. She gave me a brand new Chevrolet Impala that had only run 643km! In the 1960s, years before the Indian economy opened up, I had heard people in Kerala talk in awe of “the man who owned an Impala”. And, here I was, ready to drive that massive white beauty. I paid around $3,000 for on-road assistance and car hire.
My first adventure was getting locked out of the car before the expedition started! I called Hertz assistance and, to my utter disappointment, was told that I would be charged $12 for them to remotely unlock the car; I had only paid for premium assists, not silly things such as being locked out of the car!
It was also my first time at the wheel of a left-hand drive car! This was a test. I had to be careful about clearance on the right side and drove over a couple of kerbs in the first two days. I did not have a proper view as the seats were too low. Till I got used to the car, I said to myself that I would sacrifice speed and ignore annoyed drivers.
Mile 0 to Banff (via Nanaimo, Kamloops: 1,032km, three days)
Mile 0 monument marks the beginning of the TCH, which spans Canada from west to east. The monument is on a field adjacent to Beacon Hill Park. Mount Rundle and Mount Cascade dominate the landscape of Banff, a resort town of 9,000 people. The Bow River cuts the town in two but lends it immense charm. Banff is a feast for the eyes and a relief for the lungs. The Athabasca Glacier is 160km from Banff and is one of the six principal toes of the Columbia Icefields, one of the most visited glaciers in North America. It is documented as having receded by half in the past century and a quarter.
The glacier cannot be reached beyond a certain point because of hidden crevasses. It is said that many tourists have disappeared without a trace. I was proud to see an Indian flag at the glacier and it was an honour to take a picture holding the tricolour.
Banff to Fort Frances (via Swift Current, Brandon: 1,940km, three days)
My jaws dropped when I turned into the avenue that housed the Bayview Motel in Fort Frances, where I had made reservations for the night. From the map I knew that only a river separated the town from US territory. The motel was bang on the Rainy Lake, which was the international boundary. Jamie Pryde, the young owner, told me that more than half the waters were in Canadian territory. When I remarked that people could easily swim to the US, he cautioned that the strong undercurrents prevented such efforts and, “In any case,” he asked, “who wants to go to the US?”
Fort Frances to Quebec City (via Schreiber, Saulte St. Marie, North Bay, Montreal: 2,377km, six days)
I had been warned about the French-speaking Quebec natives who looked down upon those who could not speak their language. The lady at the Departure Bay Motel in Nanaimo said she was told to get a map when she asked for directions. I can lose my way even on a straight road; it did not bode well. I was also told about how fast the drivers are even within city limits. All this had me nervous as I set off for Montreal. Nearly 170 km after North Bay, at Deep River, I made an unscheduled halt to refuel. I met Kuldeep Singh who owned the outlet. He told me that he longed for the place of his birth — Chandigarh. Kuldeep goes home at every opportunity. Today's global citizens will never understand the emotions of a person like Kuldeep, whose heart is still deep in India despite leaving her shores in 1994.
Montreal is like no other city I visited in Canada. The work underway in many parts of the city made it dusty and dirty. When the local authorities washed the roads, the dirty streets became dirtier. People shouting, ranting and violently gesticulating are not unfamiliar in the city. But, despite all this, Montreal has a charm. Maybe it is the city's Europeanness, maybe its internationalness.
Quebec City was swarming with people. I had enormous difficulty finding a parking slot, which I eventually got near the Dufferin Terrace, possibly the most crowded location with the attractions around it and magnificent views of Chateau Frontenac and the St. Lawrence River. The terrace is named after the former governor general of Canada who directed its construction. The 350-step boardwalk along the Governors Promenade took me along the fortification of the walled city. In this old city, history beckons at every turn. When I returned to the parked car, I noticed that I had neither rolled up the windows nor locked the car. I feared the worst, but not even a piece of paper was missing.
Quebec City to St. John’s (via Moncton, Prince Edward Island, Grandfalls-Windsor: 2,400km, four days)
After disembarking from the ferry in Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland, I set Google Maps for the accommodation I had reserved, Maple Tourist Home in Grandfalls-Windsor. After driving nearly five hours and 500km, Google Maps landed me at a Carriage House Inn in Grandfalls-Windsor. Michael, the owner, confirmed that there was no Maple Tourist Home in Grandfalls-Windsor. He told me that one such accommodation was available in Grand Falls, New Brunswick. I was 1500km away from where I had made the reservation! Fortunately, Michael told me that he had a couple of rooms free for the night. What flabbergasted me the most was that Google Maps led me to Carriage House Inn, when I had set my destination as Maple Tourist Home in Grandfalls-Windsor. I regarded it as the work of the ‘unseen hand’.
It was freezing cold and windy on the day of the drive to St. John’s. With about 100km to go, it started snowing. The sound of breaking ice under the car was alarming. The chances of skidding were very real and I became overcautious. However, vehicles were zipping past at the maximum speed. That is an experience of local conditions, I guessed.
I reached St. John's Mile One Centre at 1.45pm local time (-2.30 GMT). The rain had eased, giving me the opportunity to take a few pictures and savour the successful completion of the expedition, in 407 hours and 45 minutes. It was indeed a proud moment. The ‘gap’ was filled.
* Dr Perry Doolittle is thought to be the first to cross Canada by car, in 1925 from Halifax to Vancouver in his Model T Ford. He drove his car fitted with railway wheels for over 800km where there was no road! Dr Doolittle, as a lifelong promoter of the highway across Canada, is hailed as the “spiritual father of the Trans-Canada Highway.
* The stretch of the TCH running along the North Shore of Lake Superior is considered the most scenic and was also one of the most difficult to complete because of the rugged terrain. The section came to be known as “The Gap” in the 1950s when 90km between Wawa and Agawa was unbridged. It is said that four men walked from Wawa to Sault St. Marie in 17 days and met with officials there to appraise them of the difficulty of the inhabitants without the road. Officially, “The Gap” became operational in 1960. Such stories stand testimony to the importance given to roads to develop the land
* As TCH is the longest paved highway in the world, there is no need to source a 4x4 or an SUV if you stick to the highway
* March/April would be the right time to go to enjoy a winter drive. If the idea is to enjoy the colours and attractions August/September would be fine
* Vegetarians and vegans have nothing to worry — there are plenty of options to choose from in food courts, restaurants and shopping malls
* All along the highway, there are plenty of options to refuel, eat and sleep. Tim Hortons is a ubiquitous brand all along the route
* The weather can change dramatically from the west to east. The east, like Newfoundland, is cold and windy all through the year
* There are plenty of off-roading options such as Alaska and the central parts of the country
* Butchart Gardens in Victoria, Lake Louise, Athabasca Glacier, Kakabeka Falls, Niagara, Iceberg spotting in Newfoundland, Whistler, waterfalls in Wells Grey Provincial Park, Gros Morne National Park, Montmorency waterfalls, and the Cabot Trail are certainly must-dos on the TCH.
* A drive from west to east or vice-versa, touching both extremities of the TCH, would require at least three ferry crossings—the first from Nanaimo to Vancouver, the second from Prince Edward Island to Caribou Island, Nova Scotia, and the third from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland