• Margravial Opera House Bayreuth

Visit: 24th September 2019

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In September 2019 I travelled alone to Nuremberg for the exciting purpose of attending the packaging industry trade show, “FachPack“. Spending one night away, my task was to talk to various makers of plastic and metal drums and try to find out anything interesting that pertained to a particular company we have invested in at the firm I work for.

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After a good few hours of touring the booths I had learned all I was going to about the topic, and, having some time to spare before the flight home, I hopped on a train for the short ride to the city of Bayreuth.

Located in Bavaria, Bayreuth is famous for its association with the composer Richard Wagner. Every year it holds a music festival dedicated to his works, which is a magnet for opera fans the world over. Wagnerian operas are not for the faint of heart, being famously long (the Ring Cycle takes 17 hours to perform in full) and, of course, performed in German. But those who appreciate his work tend to become passionate about it, and they include in their number a stalwart of this blog: a Mr Peter Nowell (see, for example Hamburg, Bamberg, Riga, the Wieskirche, Amiens, Warsaw or the Stari Grad Plain). I have been to see a couple of operas with him over the years (of which the only Wagner was a live-broadcast of the Flying Dutchman) so it was a shame he wasn’t here on this occasion to give me a better tour than I managed to glean from the German-language group I ended up accompanying.

The photos I took came out horribly dark and really do not do it justice. The interior is intricately carved out of wood, in a garishly Baroque style that bombards the senses from every direction except the floor. The opera house was completed in 1750 and remains the only example of its type. It was renovated a few years ago to bring it back to its full glory, and I felt the conservationists had certainly acheived the desired effect.

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The opera house is called ‘Margravial’ by UNESCO because it was commisioned by Margravine Wilhelmine, wife of Frederick, Margrave of Brandenburg–Bayreuth. Margrave was a medieval title meaning ‘Count of the border land’, given to nobles in the periphery of the Holy Roman Empire. The building was designed, however, by an Italian by the name of Giuseppe Galli Bibiena.

After the short tour ended we were shown outside and all that was left for me to do was  return to Nuremburg and fly home, safe in the knowledge that if I ever have a spare 17 hours to kill I will know where to do so in style.

• Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks

Visit: 8th – 9th August 2019

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Although this post is being written months after the last one, it is the final entry on our honeymoon in summer 2019 when Natalie and I travelled around Alberta, Montana, Washington and British Columbia. On 7th August we checked out of our hotel near Olympic National Park and caught the ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville, west across Puget Sound.

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Driving north along the island chain of Island County, Washington, we stopped off at Fort Casey, which used to guard the strategically important port of Seattle from invaders, and at Deception Pass, which has one of the fastest tidal races in the world.

After crossing back into Canada I had an urge to check out the geographical oddity that is Point Roberts. This five square mile patch of land is an exclave of the United States, accessible from the rest of Washington State only by sea or by driving 25 miles through Canada. Whilst popular with Canadians looking for cheap food and fuel, it nonetheless features a full border crossing post and we were questioned – as always – as to our intentions when visiting (I found it difficult to explain when asked!).

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Point Roberts exists because of a historical oversight, when the US and Britain (which then controlled Canada) agreed to define their border as the 49th parallel between a lake in Minnesota and Vancouver Island. Nobody seems to have realised at the time that a small bit of Canada drops south of this line to the east of Vancouver Island, hence the strange and inconvenient geographical anomaly.

Although it has a pleasant beach, there wasn’t very much else in Point Roberts – we couldn’t find anywhere to eat dinner so after about an hour we headed back into Canada to seek out the familiar flavours of fish and chips in the town of Surrey. The next morning we dropped off the car in Vancouver and flew back to our starting point, Calgary. We had two nights left before going home, leaving just enough time to visit the Canadian Rockies.

We had already been to the Rocky Mountains a week prior when we drove through the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The mountain range stretches 3,000 miles, reaching as far south as New Mexico, but the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks (of which there are seven contiguous parks covering an area of 9,000 square miles) have their own UNESCO inscription separate to the peace park down on the US border.

It’s about a two hour drive west from Calgary to the mountains. Arriving in the foothills we stopped for a B&W Burger in the town of Canmore before continuing to our hotel outside of Banff. At this point it was time to abandon the car, as the Sunshine Mountain lodge is only accessible by cable car. Not being a fan of heights, Natalie was not too pleased about having to spend half an hour ascending the mountain in a glass box!

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The hotel functions as a ski resort in the winter, but in the summer the rooms go cheaply. The cable car ride costs a shocking C$45 per person, but tickets are included if you book a room at the hotel so we didn’t feel the sting. The reason the operators can charge visitors such a steep premium is because the area at the top, known as Sunshine Meadows, is simply breathtaking.

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Sitting on the spine of the Rockies, the meadows straddle the Great Continental Divide. Simply put, this means that a drop of rain falling west of the divide will flow into the Pacific Ocean, whereas a drop falling to the east of it will end up in the Atlantic (or the Arctic) instead. As well as being the border between two provinces, the divide at this point marks the boundary of two of the seven Rocky Mountain parks: Banff to the east of it and Mount Assiniboine to the west. Thus, by embarking on only a short and leisurely stroll we were able to visit both.

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As always, we were paranoid about bears, though less so than we had been in the wooded lakeside trails of Waterton-Glacier. Up at these altitudes (7,800 feet) we experienced nothing more dangerous than midges and the occasional ground squirrel.

With the light fading we sampled S’mores around the campfire before turning in for a quiet night in the tranquility of the mountains.

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The Rockies are inscribed on the World Heritage List under criteria 7 and 8: for their natural beauty and as an example of an ongoing geological process (the formation of mountains).

We certainly saw plenty of natural beauty on our honeymoon, both in the US and Canada. From the vast open spaces of the prairie to the rugged Pacific coast and the mountains in between, we experienced a side of the Americas that neither of us had seen before. But we also took pleasure in the little things, such as the barbecue restaurants of Calgary, the Beyond Meat burgers of A&W and the ‘half-and-half’ coffees of Tim Horton’s. And it was productive: we were able to tick off six World Heritage Sites and two parkruns, bringing my totals to 136 and 45, respectively!

Trip recap: Canada/USA 2019

• Olympic National Park

Visit: 6th August 2019

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Olympic National Park was the penultimate World Heritage Site on our six-site honeymoon, and to get to it from the last one (Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump) we had returned to Calgary and flown across the Rockies to Vancouver, where we stayed for two nights before driving south to Washington state. Vancouver was nice: rather like San Francisco in its climate, trendiness, homelessness problem and the price of everything being unreasonably high (those last two points being connected, I suspect). We stayed in the area of Richmond, near the airport in a remarkably crummy hotel that had the distinction of being the most expensive one on our entire trip. It did at least put us relatively near to the Richmond Olympic parkrun, which I took part in on the Saturday morning. In Vancouver we walked for miles along the beaches and through the parks, catching sight of a raccoon and marvelling at the totem poles in Stanley Park. We enjoyed an excellent meal at St Lawrence restaurant courtesy of our friends Chig and Sadini who had given us a voucher as a wedding present.

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After two days we hired a car and drove south to Seattle, where we stayed just one night. We enjoyed some Creole food at lunchtime and by night could not resist the siren song of Taiwanese chain Din Tae Fung. The local tourist sites include Pike’s Place market, which was shutting down for the night when we visited, and various notable branches of Starbucks. Along with Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing, it is one of Seattle’s numerous world-leading corporations that help make this one of the most prosperous cities in the US.

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The following morning we boarded a ferry across Puget Sound, after which it was an hour’s drive to our base for Olympic National Park, the town of Sequim (pronounced squim). The place names around here illustrate the mix of settlers and indigenous people who have called the area home, ranging from the English Dungeness to the Spanish Port Angeles and the native Klallam Sequim. In terms of climate and landscape it felt very much like home. That is, until you notice the huge mountains towering over the coastal plain, chief of which is the classically-named Mount Olympus.

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Our experience of the park involved a day’s walking from the Hurricane Ridge visitor centre. It is accessed by driving 40 minutes up a steep and winding dead-end road, but that doesn’t put off large numbers of tourists like us. It’s always fun in America to look out for licence plates from faraway states, and we saw plenty in the car park up at Hurricane Ridge. That included several from Florida, which is as far from Washington as you can get in the contiguous United States. In three hours walking along mountain trails we covered 11 km and ascended 1,800 ft, giving us plenty of appetite for a hearty American lunch at Natalie’s new favourite restaurant – where we received complimentary ice creams when the server heard it was our honeymoon!

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Olympic National Park is known for its variety of ecosystems, of which we only really saw the alpine one. Snowy mountaintops are the most visible reference points throughout the park, but at lower levels you can find temperature rainforests, which are most unusual. The western edge of the park features America’s longest stretch of undeveloped coastline (although it has a road running through it so I’m not sure I’d class that as completely untouched). We scoured the Strait of Juan de Fuca for whales but were unable to spot any, nonetheless enjoying the rugged beauty of the Pacific coastline.

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• Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Visit: 1st August 2019

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The day after returning from Montana into Canada, we found ourselves driving along a dusty gravel road for a disconcertingly long distance into Alberta’s backcountry. As stones pinged relentlessly inside the wheel wells I looked forward to finally setting foot on the intriguingly-named Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump that I had first seen on UNESCO’s list some six years ago. I do occasionally feel a sensation, usually approaching some obscure WHS far away, that I shouldn’t really be here. That the powers above did not intend for me to visit this place and that – like in the film The Truman Show – a team is frantically constructing it at the last minute. Well, I can confirm that this is indeed a real-enough place, and a rather interesting one too.

The premise is simple: for native Americans, who had not developed metal tools, hunting buffalo was tough. They had to work incredibly hard for every kill, and if they were unsuccessful they might starve. But at some point it was realised that an effective method of slaughtering dozens or even hundreds of buffalo simultaneously would be to exploit the herd mentality by driving them off a cliff. There is evidence of numerous ‘buffalo jumps’ across North America, but no site proved as productive as this one in southern Alberta, not far west of the Rockies.

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It is not a high cliff, but the drop was sufficient to kill most of the buffalo that thundered over it, with hunters finishing off the survivors. The reason for its efficacy lies more in the run-up area, which is wide and flat, with a slight upslope before the drop that masks the cliff-edge.

We learned at the well-curated exhibition centre that the entire tribe would have a role in a successful buffalo jump. First, they would spend days or weeks building a ‘runway’ by moving trees and bushes to form the sides of a vast funnel that would guide the buffalo toward the jump point. When it was built, most of the tribe would depart the plateau, leaving only the elite ‘buffalo runners’. Two men, usually the youngest and fastest hunters, would don wolfskins and chase the buffalo down the funnel, whilst the others manned the runway’s edges to deter the herd from breaking out. If the effort was successful the hunt could yield many tons of meat, which the old, the rest of the group would butcher, dry over fires and mix with berries to make pemmican, which could be stored for the winter months.

The buffalo were the lifeblood of the native people and, despite how effective the buffalo jumps might sound, they were very difficult to get right and so did not have much of an impact on the buffalo populations. The arrival of Europeans, however, did. Initially hunting them for their meat and fur, the Europeans moved on to shooting them from moving trains just for fun. It didn’t help that buffalo bones were also useful for making explosives, further adding to demand for their carcasses. Predictably, the species was quickly extirpated from North America and the Native Americans lost a major food source – on top of having to endure exposure to unfamiliar diseases, land enclosure and a general climate of oppression from the newcomers.

This was the only place on our trip that we met any Native Americans. The groundskeeper, who had done some good buffalo-shaped topiary, told us that he had previously been employed by the Royal Family back in England. In terms of wildlife, we saw no buffalo here, and despite signs warning of bears and rattlesnakes, there was nothing scarier than a sunbathing marmot.

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This concluded phase 1 of our honeymoon. Stopping first at a Dairy Queen and one of the surprisingly ubiquitous pho joints run by Vietnamese-Canadians, we made our way north to Calgary to catch a flight west across the Rockies where ahead of us lay Vancouver and Washington State.

• Waterton Glacier International Peace Park

Visit: 30th-31st July 2019

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Having visited two WHSs in Canada we had by the 30th of July crossed south into Montana. We spent a night in a nowheresville town before driving west toward the spine of the Americas – the Rocky Mountains. The site UNESCO calls Waterton Glacier International Peace Park is made up of two national parks: Glacier National Park in the USA and Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Because the lakes and mountains respect no boundaries, the two friendly neighbours decided in 1932 to designate the parks an ‘International Peace Park’. The peace park was added to UNESCO’s list 63 years later, in 1995.

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The US part is significantly larger than the Canadian part, so it made sense to spend a night there before turning north. I booked a curious hotel that was built by what is now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad company in the early 20th century as a base for its teams of snow-clearers in the winter months. Some of the rooms are still used by railway employees, but the rest (especially in the summer) are nowadays taken by tourists like us, who get the enjoy the sight of passing freight trains over a mile in length.

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The railroad was a frequent theme in many of the towns we passed through during our time in the western US and Canada. Constructed at immense cost, they spread people and economic development westward, opening up both countries’ underpopulated hinterlands and making fortunes for their owners along the way. Today North America’s freight railroads are the best in the world, moving 18 billion tons of goods annually. The major cargoes include chemicals and shipping containers (with the transcontinental route competing against the Panama Canal), but the most important by tonnage is still coal (31% of tonnage in 2018). Wyoming is a major coal production area, so I am sure a lot of the railcars we saw crossing the Rockies were loaded down with the black stuff. Being a keen student of Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns BNSF, made it particularly thrilling to see the company’s orange locomotives chugging along the mountain passes.

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We took in some Mexican food in a beautiful, if incongruous, roadside setting and then headed to Lake McDonald, where we hired a kayak and paddled off in search of nesting bald eagles. Not having invested in expensive anti-bear spray, it seemed a daunting prospect to hike miles into the forests, so we viewed the water as a welcome alternative way of experiencing the great outdoors.

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Later that day we drove along the (regionally) famous Going to the Sun Road, which weaves its way high into the mountains and offers breathtaking valley views. As we stood at what-our-American-cousins-call a “scenic overlook” I heard a parent tell her kids to remember what the brilliant blue glacier across from us looked like, because at the rate it is currently melting it won’t be there when they come back as adults. There is some irony in that lifeblood of the rails – coal – being in large part responsible.

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The road took us out of the park, after which we turned north and returned to Canada at the Chief Mountain border crossing – which is only open in the summer months. We then re-entered the peace park on Canada’s side, paying again for the privilege. We found Waterton Lakes (above) to be a lot quieter than the US Glacier Park, which was welcome. Finding the courage to hit the footpaths, we were momentarily perturbed by the sight of fresh bear droppings – but that was as close as we ever got to an encounter. I enjoyed a swim in Waterton Lake before we had out first chance to sample that most Canadian of dishes: poutine. Basically chips with curds and gravy, I’ll simply say it’s an odd combination but I can see why they like it.

Exiting the park, our hotel for the night was in the tiny town of Pincher Creek, Alberta before our visit the next day to the wonderfully-named Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

• Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi

Visit: 29th July 2019

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Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, was the second WHS of our honeymoon road trip. We were lucky in the timing of its inscription to the UNESCO list, as it was added only one month before our visit – so we almost missed it! I had already booked flights and a few hotels for a planned five WHS trip when I noticed a new one had popped up in the very region we were heading to – so with a bit of reorganisation I was able to fit this site into our itinerary and become one of the first WHS travellers to visit it.

We had spent the previous day at Dinosaur Provincial Park and the unremarkable town of Brooks, Alberta. Today we were off to Writing-on-Stone, but had a whole day to kill as it was scheduled to be a sunset tour of the rock art. Looking at a map I was intrigued by a city with the name of Medicine Hat, so we decided to stop off there for lunch. After a great deal of arid prairie we arrived at the small city on the South Saskatchewan River. It had the air of an old western frontier town, with a subdued centre consisting of square red brick buildings on wide streets. We noticed an eye-catching mural on the side of a liquor store that revealed I was not the first person to be drawn to the memorable name, which refers to a tribal medicine man’s headgear. The mural references a letter written in 1910 by Rudyard Kipling entreating the townsfolk to abandon a move to change the city’s name to Gasburg (to market the newly-discovered natural gas deposits in the area).

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After lunch it was a two hour drive along some very quiet rural roads to the provincial park, overlooked by the Sweetgrass Hills across the border in Montana. Here, the Milk River snakes through a landscape where the sandstone has been sculpted by thousands of frosts and thaws into figures known as hoodoos.

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We walked for several miles along a hoodoo trail before going on the rock art tour. Natalie even got lost in there for a while, causing me a mini-panic as I raced around the maze of gulleys trying to find her!

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With access to water, vegetation and wildlife, this was not a bad place for bands of Native Americans to set up camp. Over time, it took on a special significance as a place to draw pictures in the rock, always on the south side that overlooked the river. We joined a tour in the early evening and were taken into the rock art zone to see some of these pictures up close.

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The people who lived in this area were the Blackfoot, and much of the art pre-dates the arrival of the Europeans who had such an impact on their way of life. Áísínai’pi – used in the title of the WHS inscription – in the Blackfoot language means “it is pictured”. On this rock face you can clearly make out people and bison.

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The most recent one, drawn by a Blackfoot who had been forced to resettle hundreds of miles away, actually shows a Ford Model T motor car – which seems a bit incongruous with the medium used.

A lot of damage has been done to the site over the years, largely in the form of graffiti and bullet holes by Mounties on anti-smuggling duties who used the pictures as target practice. Our guide told us a lot of the graffiti was done before it was made illegal to deface the rock art, so it too is considered a part of the historical record and the preservers cannot remove it!

We saw about eight rock drawings in all before the sun fell below the horizon. I thought it was quite an interesting site, but there didn’t seem to be a great deal of rock art available for public viewing. As a site combining the natural features of the landscape and the man-made carvings, though, it was overall quite a unique experience for us – and far from anything we have seen in Europe or elsewhere. Exiting the park, we headed across the US border into Montana where we spent the night in the railroad junction town of Shelby, before heading west toward the Rockies the next morning.

• Dinosaur Provincial Park

Visit: 28th July 2019

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In June this year Natalie and I got married in Cornwall. From St Ives, we went two days later to the Scilly Isles, off the western tip of the county, where we enjoyed three nights at the fantastically secluded Hell Bay Hotel on the island of Bryher. This relaxing break was our “minimoon”, as we had to wait until school term ended for Natalie to get time enough off work for a longer trip away. The main honeymoon came in late July, when we flew to Calgary for a two week road trip around the Pacific Northwest. The journey would take us to Alberta, Montana, British Columbia and Washington, through seven international border crossings and to six World Heritage Sites:

  • fly London to Calgary
  • drive southeast to Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta
  • drive southwest via Medicine Hat to Writing-on-Stone Park, Alberta
  • drive southwest across the Sweetgrass border crossing to Glacier National Park, Montana
  • drive northward through the Rockies, cross the border at Chief Mounting crossing to Waterton Lakes Park, Alberta
  • drive north via Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump back to Calgary
  • fly to Vancouver, spend two nights there
  • drive south to Seattle
  • cross Puget Sound by ferry, driving west to Sequim, Washington
  • hike in Olympic National Forest
  • re-cross Puget Sound further north on the way back to Vancouver
  • fly back to Calgary
  • drive west to Banff in the Rockies
  • return to Calgary and fly home

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We started with one night in Calgary, where the staff at the Marriott Beltline hotel were kind enough to send up a cake once they heard why were travelling there! I liked Calgary – it’s a small city with an economy known for cattle trading, railroading and oil & gas, and with its wide, empty streets and clutch of tall buildings surrounded by a wide suburban ring it felt like Omaha, Nebraska (another cattle and railroading town). That night we had a great meal at BBQ joint Comery Block. Below we’ve got a brisket sandwich, beans with bacon, cornbread, dry rub ribs and collard greens.

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The next morning we headed to Dinosaur Provincial Park, 140 miles east of Calgary. After about two hours of travelling down dead straight roads through rolling flat prairie, the scenery gives way to badlands – a terrain defined by soft rock that has been worn away by water and wind to leave an often-dramatic and inhospitable landscape.

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The park is notable as the site of significant dinosaur bone finds dating from the 1920s to the present day (the finds, that is – not the bones!). Dinosaurs lived all over North America, but for their remains to have been preserved required a number of factors to coincide. Dinosaur Park’s fossil collection is diverse, although our tour focused on the Centrosaurus – a herbivore similar to the better-known Triceratops. A large number of Centrosauruses died here 75 million years ago, probably killed by a flash flood, and as they were rapidly covered with a layer of silt their bones were fossilised.

Fossils do not typically contain the original piece of the plant or animal that died all those years ago, but are more often a trace or mould of the shape left after the original biological matter has turned slowly to carbon. Petrified wood, for example, still looks like wood but is in fact formed of stone due to the process of permineralisation.  Below you can see a scattering of fossils, the most prominent of which is a piece of hip bone from a Centrosaurus.

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The fossils at Dinosaur Park date from the Late Cretaceous period, which was pretty much as late as the dinosaurs made it – as it was ended by the mysterious dinosaur extinction event thought to have been triggered by an asteroid strike. To give some perspective, the Cretaceous was the latest of three periods in the Mesozoic era. This era is known as the Age of Dinosaurs, and comprises the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

The event that ended the Mesozoic era put three quarters of the world’s animals into extinction, including virtually everything over 25kg (crocodiles being a notable exception). Evidence for an asteroid strike is visible in the park, where the rock displays a thin layer rich in iridium, which is rare in the Earth’s crust but abundant in asteroids.

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Once our tour was over we spent the night in the small city of Brooks, Alberta. Our next day was taking us south to the brand new World Heritage Site of Writing-on-Stone Park to see some more recent history from the Cenozoic era (which is simply the geological name for the era we live today!).