Saturday, 9 October 2010

Long way back

The journey between our old home in the UK and our new home in Gabriola is always long and tiring. No matter what time of year, the uncertainties of transcontinental flights make it unwise to commit to booking floatplane connections at this end, only to find that you're still somewhere over the Rockies as your floatplane soars off across the water, taking your money with it as it goes.

Add to that the challenge of making the journey at the start of Thanksgiving weekend, and all prospect of a smooth return to the island goes out of the window. 24 hours before my arrival at YVR, pretty much every floatplane seat to Gabriola or Nanaimo was sold out for Friday afternoon - and warnings of walk-on passenger overloads on BC Ferries had also appeared.

I hadn't chosen to travel yesterday because it was Thanksgiving weekend, that was just a bonus (?) - Friday 8th October was a date when I could get a return flight from the UK - with taxes - for
just £350 (about $550) with Thomas Cook, and it seemed an offer too good to miss. Especially when you think how much it costs to fly anywhere in Canada these days. But there again, if I hadn't flown to Vancouver, I could have flown to Italy and back for just £20 ($32) with Europe's favourite (and most reviled) low-cost airline, Ryanair. How do they do that?

Anyways, back to yesterday. Having got a good deal on my flight from London, I thought I would see whether I could carry that through on the rest of the trip to Gabriola. With meticulous planning and a following wind, I had worked out an itinerary which seemed doomed to failure at every step of the way - but if it worked I'd be here in time for fresh-cooked pizzas with my cousins at around 6 in the evening.

Getting from home to Gatwick Airport before 8am is always a bit of a lottery, but on Friday mornings the traffic around London's orbital motorway is lighter than usual, as so many people seem to take Fridays off work these days. Travelling with just hand luggage doesn't actually save you any time at check-in with Thomas Cook (you still have to get in line for your boarding pass) but it sure does when you get to the other end. The flight departed on schedule at 1010 and touched down at YVR five minutes ahead of schedule, at midday. So far, so good.

I knew that my itinerary would succeed only if I could be on the Canada Line before 1230, and arriving just behind our plane was a Korean Air 747 no doubt laden with complex challenges when they all reached the immigration desk. My luck held, and by 1220 I was on the Canada Line platform with transfer ticket in hand. Fortunately, someone had handwritten a whiteboard next to the ticket vending machine to say that Horseshoe Bay was a two-zone fare; there was nothing on the machine or the posters behind to tell me that. Maybe TransLink really wanted me to pay $10 for a 3-zone ticket just in case?

Just after 1245 and I stepped out from Vancouver City Centre station to find the bus stop for the Horseshoe Bay Express. I knew it was close to the station, but couldn't remember where. The bus stop outside helpfully said "downtown". Nothing else. I head back into the station looking for an interchange map, or even a real person to ask. Nothing. Undeterred, I crossed the street to where a large crowd of people were gathered around a bus stop. Half of them were waiting patiently in line, the other half under the canopy of The Bay, keeping out of the rain. Bus stop says that the 250 to Horseshoe Bay and the 257 Express both stop there. Just when was anyone's guess. The 250 was the first to arrive and I ponder the idea of not waiting for the Express, in case it's full, or doesn't turn up. About half the crowd packs into the 250 and away it goes, leaving the rest of us standing there. Hopefully.

My mental itinerary told me the express bus went at 1300 and it wasn't long after that the bus appeared and, creaking ominously under a very  full load of passengers, headed off a few minutes later towards Horseshoe Bay. I made it to the last seat, right at the back, and was very grateful that I didn't have a suitcase in tow. Thankfully, only one more passenger boarded along the way and with about 20 standing along the aisle, it wasn't really surprising that the driver was very careful NOT to pull to a complete halt at the stop signs as he climbed 15th out of Park Royal to the highway. I'm not saying the bus wouldn't have started again if he had, but I did begin to wonder.

As we crossed the bridge high above the ferry line-up at Horseshoe Bay, the full joy of Thanksgiving weekend on BC Ferries was unfolding. Diving through the maze of narrow streets that is Horseshoe Bay village, the bus misses all this mayhem and pulled up right outside the ferry terminal just before 1350. I avoid the queue for tickets and head straight for the self-serve machines - and the message that says no tickets will be issued less than 15 minutes before departure. It's 1352 and my ferry leaves at 1410. The machine fails to read my card first time, so I curse, and quickly sort out another card. Done - with 1 minute to spare!

It was good of BC Ferries to schedule an extra ferry at 1410 on October 8th. They must have known I was coming. Saved me an hour's wait for the regular ferry - and aboard Coastal Renaissance the line-up for food goes halfway round the ship. I opt for the easy option - a large Latte and muffin at a window seat in the coffee bar. Sitting with me are a couple from Alberta who joined the ferry line-up in their car a full half hour before I landed at YVR. I'm feeling sort of smug.

As we approach Departure Bay, the rain's running down the windows and I try and remember what time the bus leaves for downtown Nanaimo. It's 1547 as I walk through the terminal. I know that, as I thought to myself that I wouldn't quite make it onto the 1545 ferry to Gabriola.  Next one was 1700 and as I left the terminal, found the bus stop. No information, just a bus stop. My memory said there wasn't a bus until about 1615, so (taking heed of the advice that everyone seems to give about Nanaimo's buses) I decide to walk. The rain's stopped and I've plenty of time.

Walking past Nanaimo Shipbuilders I can see the hulk of the MV Sun Sea - towed in that morning from Victoria, where it arrived on August 13th with 492 Tamil migrants aboard. It beggars belief that someone made a fortune selling weeks of hell to hundreds of people so they could be packed like sardines onto a rusting hulk. It's incredible that only one of them died along the way - or so we were told.

Crossing Maffeo Sutton Park, I pause to watch an impatient wedding photographer trying in vain to choreograph a dozen or so suited wedding guests (bride and groom in the centre) to join hands and jump in the air simultaneously in front of the harbour wall for the wedding album. At the third failure, they all collapse in fits of laughter and I decide that it might be a long wait. 

As I approach the harbour, the floatplanes are roaring in packed with more fortunate souls, and I catch sight of the Quinsam rounding the harbour entrance. I quicken my step just a little, to be sure I don't miss it. I curse to myself as I realise I left my BC Ferries experience card on Gabriola back in August and grudgingly pay my $8.90 for the privelege.  Even so, I've made it; against all odds my itinerary worked and I saved over $50 in the process.

Twenty minutes later, and at the end of my 20 hour journey, I see friendly faces waiting to give me a ride back to my island home. Bad news. They haven't had time to light the pizza oven.