THE TRANS-LABRADOR HIGHWAY 2010
NOW THIS REALLY IS THE WILDERNESS - part I
The paved road comes to a dramatic stop just outside Churchill Falls and I don't much like the look of the road that I'm having to drive on. It's pretty dreadful, to say the least.
And at 270 kilometres on a mile post, Casey's tripmeter is showing exactly 8.0 kilometres from fuelling up. So for all of the distances that I record on the tripmeter I'll be adding 262 in order to give you the mileage from the Labrador frontier with Québec. That is, until further notice.
So at 278 kilometres I encounter a grader here and that seems to be working the highway for a couple of kilometres. Ironically, while the road where he is working is pretty rough, just 1 kilometre further on it is abysmal. He would really earn his money on this bit but it doesn't look like he's coming up here.
10 kilometres further on, at 288, there's another one of these poignant little crosses with a floral tribute. They really are sad little sights out here.
A few kilometres back I was complaining about the road, calling it abysmal and all of that. But that stretch of the road is nothing and I mean NOTHING compared to what I encounter at kilometre 290. It is easily the worst section of the highway and I am everywhere, all over the road here and if I had had my coffee in my hand when I hit it, it could have been a disaster. What kind of highway is this?
Mind you, just up the road a couple of kilometres they are doing some kind of roadworks and these include ripping out the trees at the side of the highway. My first thought was that they were planning to widen it but subsequent enquiry revealed the real reason. It is so that motorists can see moose as they approach the road and thus take appropriate avoiding action. As I have said before, moose can do a great deal of damage to a car and its occupants.
The deciduous borders at the side of the highway in other places that I have been noting are where the trees have been ripped out a few years ago but where no further maintenance has been carried out.
The first place of any significance, and a humorous significance at that, can be found at kilometre 296. Some people will do absolutely anything to get themselves into the media or onto my website or whatever.
You can see that we are still in the conifer zone, and you can also see the kind of condition that the highway is in. This part here isn't quite so bad but you can tell by the potholes that travelling on here involves a fair amount of slaloming, especially if you are trying to drive this route in a hired Chrysler PT Cruiser.
A kilometre or so further on is another one of these graves set up on a mound at the side of the road. There's a quarry right by it too and I wonder if the proximity of the two items to each other is of any significance.
Almost immediately, at kilometre 298, I find myself stuck in a queue of traffic. Or, at least, what passes for a queue of traffic around these parts. We have some major roadworks.
And do you see these two vehicles in front of me? The MPV and the pickup in front? I'm totally convinced that they are the same two vehicles that passed me earlier while I was stopped at the side of the road taking photos of the landscape somewhere before I arrived at Churchill Falls. Fancy meeting them again!
And so we wait ... and wait ... and wait ... and then there's a thud and a cloud of dust ... and then we wait ... etc ... etc ... Finally I notice that a guy walks up to the lead vehicles, has a quiet word with them, and they turn off the highway and head into the brush and wilderness. The two in front stay put, and then the guy walks up to me for a chat.
It appears that they have been dynamiting the road up ahead, but the guy with the dynamite has been a little over-enthusiastic and it is going to take a little while to clear the road. He reckons another half an hour. He's given some vehicles the opportunity to have a go at getting past by going down some kind of ski trail but apparently Casey doesn't have the ground clearance to make it.
Well, such are the perils of travelling on the Trans-Labrador Highway, I suppose. I make myself a butty as I'm fairly hungry by now. No sense in getting all shook up about the loss of time and the loss of light and so on. Nothing I can do about it anyway.
After a little wait, which certainly wasn't another half an hour, they start to let the traffic through from the other side. You can see how many vehicles have accumulated at the traffic lights during this lengthy spell of waiting. It's hardly the M25, is it? I count five. Two pick-ups, one articulated tanker and a couple of articulated box-bodies. That's the kind of traffic that there is around here.
And just look at the road again. It's really depressing, isn't it?
Once we advance into the devastation I make the camera ready and as I pass by the roadworks I can take a crafty photo through the windscreen. They haven't half made a mess of all of that, and now they have to clear it all away.
As you might expect with all of these wagons and machinery and all of this road-building and rock-clearing the road is churned up to hell. At one particular point I was in danger of losing my traction and that would have been awkward.
There are more roadworks at 307 kilometres but here they are just bulldozing, not scraping. And not dynamiting either. That's an encourahing sign.
The road is a real mess again, though. It's just like in the UK and I don't mean the fact that the roads are total rubbish (although they are, of course as you can see) but that we are all driving on the left-hand side of the road. That is because this side of the road is the ... errrr ... least bad. The part on the right hand side is dreadful.
The maximum speed along this road is 70 kilometres per hour but at the rate at which we are currently travelling we won't do 70 kilometres in a week
There's a weighbridge at 317 kilometres and what on earth would this be about? I'm sure that an overloaded lorry or two isn't going to make any difference at all to the condition of this road. It can't get any worse than this. But wait a moment. A couple of hundred metres further on I encounter a huge, monster dump truck and then there's a small quarry with a digger digging out all kinds of rock and loading it into another huge dumper. That might explain the weighbridge.
And then another couple of hundred metres further on there's some kind of industrial complex. Offices, cabins, those tube-things that they use for making culverts. This must be mission control for all of the roadworks around here.
The tow vehicles in front of me, the MPV and the pick-up, disappear into this complex and leave me all on my tod out here in the wilderness. And I'm straight away into a construction site where the speed limit is 30 kilometres per hous and quite frankly I don't want to go any faster than that right now just here.
But the roadworks don't last for too long and the highway becomes a little better. Well, not much but at least it is all flat and not so full of potholes. There's still plenty of them of course but nothing like as many as before and so I can go just a little quicker. I need to - I'm running miles behind schedule and between here and Goose Bay there is nowhere to stay for the night.
I still plod on my weary way and at 320 kilometres I see a mountain range away in the distance. I can just about make out what looks like a road over that (and with the excellent zoom facility on the Nikon it all comes out so clearly). I wonder if that's where we are going to be going. It looks quite impressive.
We are back in the pine trees again and there are also bits of where the forest has evidently died off and some kind of very roungh scrubland has taken its place.
Getting to the top of that hill was something of an issue. For a start, the road was its usual rather rough self but at about 324 kilometres it started to look a little better - or maybe we ought to say a little more substantial. But just as my spirits started to rise, the road miraculously transformed itself into about a 2-inch depth of liquid mud. That rather put the wind up me, especially as I was trying to go uphill at the time.
I was urging Casey on in the hope that I wouldn't lose traction completely until I reached a more solid bit, because there's always the same trouble with automatics. If I had a car with a manual transmission, I could take the HT lead off the coil and wind myself out of a mudbath on the starter motor. I lose count of the number of occasions that I've had to do this in the past.
No, I didn't fancy this part of the road one little bit
When I finally did arrive at the top of the hill (and not without a considerable effort), the view from the summit made it all worthwhile. I had a quick nip out of the car to take a photograph of the valley that I had driven up and it really was magnificent despite the weather.
While standing on this spot at the top of the mountain I came to the conclusion that although Labrador may not be the end of the world, it can't be far away. I'm sure that over there away in the distance in the murk, haze and fog, that is probably where it is.
The road is in a little better shape up here, although you might not think so looking at it in this photo. The surface is rather more hard-packed although the ruts in it are currently being transformed into small streams - hence the muddy patches on the flatter parts where the water accummulates.
It was also round about here that I came to yey another conclusion. This was that I would describe the Trans-Labrador Highway as "patchy". There are patches where the road is bad, and there are other patches that are bloody awful.
And it isn't like me to curse like this without good reason.
The top of the hill is at 326 kilometres out, and a mere cockstride further on we have some major roadworks. So there is hope for this highway yet. And ar 329 kilometres, I encounter, yes, I actually encounter a compacter or whatever you call them working on the road just here. And this road certainly needs one, that's for sure. It's certainly been a long time coming.
"Some hope yet for this highway" did I just say a few minutes earlier? Right here at kilometre 332 are some parts of the highway that have clearly only just been built and while you might think that this surface is nothing much to write home about, it's a great improvement on what I've been driving on just recently.
Perhaps the large works depot that I saw at kilometre 317 might be something to do with all of this, and that they are planning some serious construction on the highway.
Yes, I may well be right about all of this. Just a couple of kilometres further on there's another stretch in the same kind of situation. You can see all of the effort that they are putting in just here to improve the highway. And every now and again you go past a load of armco barriers dumped at the side of the road, so its clear that they are still in the process of working on this particular part of the highway.
Strange as it might be for me to say it, although there is a part of me that wishes that they would get a move on and finish the blasted thing so that I can move about in relative comfort and safety (because, make no mistake, this is neither an easy nor a safe road to travel if you have never done this kind of thing before), there is another part of me that realises that if I can manage to make it to the Labrador coast in a Chrysler PT Cruiser without any kind of mishap with the road in its present state it will be something of a personal achievement.
The day that they transform this Highway into just another two-lane blacktop with petrol stations, motels and fast-food outlets every 50 kilometres will simply banalise the road and signal the end of an adventure for everyone.
But who am I to pass comment? I don't have to live up here and confront these challenges day after day after day.
Nevertheless, people with an urge to conquer the wilderness in whatever fashion that they can are having their own little challenges taken away from them one by one. A little adversity is good for the soul.