Look out for moose on the loose

Newfoundland is wild, beautiful and almost tourist-free. But the wild animals are large and dangerous, writes Cleo Paskal

Newfoundland is that rare thing - a place full of incredible sights to see but empty of tourists. In fact, the province's Great Northern Peninsula alone has two World Heritage Sites.

The two sites form the start and finish of the Viking Trail, a route that takes you through the best that the Northern Peninsula has to offer. Why the "Viking" Trail? Because the Vikings were the first Europeans not to ignore Newfoundland.

One of the Sites is L'Anse aux Meadows, the only authenticated Viking settlement in North America, and one that the Vikings were considerate enough to found in a memorable year - AD1000.

But for most people, myself included, L'Anse aux Meadows - way up by the northern tip of the peninsula - is the end of the Viking Trail. The start is down by Deer Lake, in Gros Morne National Park - the second World Heritage Site. Gros Morne is one of the few places in the world where you can actually see the effects of the geologically slow collision of the continental plates.

From my car, I can see huge segments of the Earth's mantle exposed, creating land-locked fjord lakes, tremendous waterfalls, and jutting mountains. The view is spectacular but the driving can be perilous. Geologists from all over the world make pilgrimages to Gros Morne and you have to watch out for them as they wander around dumbstruck, jaws agape, minds boggled.

The only thing more dangerous than the discombobulated geologists are the moose. "Watch out for the moose," I had been warned. But I thought nothing of it. I drive in London - what could be more dangerous? I wasn't even worried when I saw a sign by the road saying: "Moose Vehicle Accidents This Year: 16." And when I heard moose warnings on the radio, I couldn't stop laughing.

And so I drive north up the Viking Trail, hugging the west coast of the peninsula. On my left is the ocean. Occasionally, I see whales playing close to shore. Over the centuries, the area was settled by natives, Vikings, Basques, Spaniards, and the French. Along the way I stop off at archaeological digs and historic sites.

Just before getting to the tip of the peninsula, I veer off, crossing over to the east coast. I am heading toward Barb Genge's Tukamore Lodge in Main Brook. I'm told she knows the area better than just about anyone.

One of the things Barb later tells me is that I had passed through an area with the highest moose density in the world. I am not surprised. This is what I had learned on that drive: moose are big; when a moose is standing beside the road and it sees a car coming, rather than run away it jumps into the middle of the road and stands there, trying to stare down the car; my brakes are better than I thought they were; honking at a male moose in rutting season only makes it charge; Moose sometimes forget, halfway through a charge, what they are charging.

I arrive at Barb's lodge half-stunned. Dinner is moose stew, which cheers me up no end. Barb comes over for a chat. She is herself a force of nature. Slight but steely, she is president of the Viking Trail Tourism Association and, apart from her lodge, she runs snowmobile expeditions, teaches women to fly-fish, and cooks bear penises for German tourists (when they ask nicely).

I blabber on about all the sights I had seen. Barb isn't impressed. I hadn't seen the icebergs or the puffins, dolphins and seals or the cliffs so full of birds that the noise is almost unbearable. And there were other things I had missed, too.

"Tomorrow, you'd be wanting to see the drawings on the rocks near the cliffs the Indians used. There's also the two-mile long cave down by Conch. If the weather's good, you want to go where the wild orchids grow. If you're up early, walk over to the fossil bed first. And if you are heading out to the Hare Bay bird sanctuary, stop in on Bubbling Brook. The water never freezes, even in winter. Don't know why." My mind boggles, like a Gros Morne geologist's.

But the next day I travel north for the last stop on the Viking Trail, L'Anse aux Meadows. I know I'm getting close when I pass signs for the Valhalla B&B and the Viking Mall. When I get there, it is late in the day. As I walk towards the water, the sound of traffic fades, replaced by the timeless sounds of rolling waves and wheeling gulls.

I pass the archaeological dig and continue on to a carefully recreated sod-hut encampment, populated by convincing locals in period dress. I feel that I am the one who is out of place. And time. In the distance, a replica of a Viking boat sails by. Nearby, icebergs drift past and whales breach and feed.

Why did the Vikings leave this charmed spot? No one is sure. Maybe it was the moose.

NEWFOUNDLAND

GETTING THERE

Canadian Airlines (tel: 0345 616767) offers daily flights via Montreal to St John's from pounds 665 plus pounds 27 tax, if you buy the ticket 28 days in advance.

WHERE TO STAY

Barb Genge's Tukamore Lodge (tel: 001 709 865 6361) in Main Brook charges C$80 (pounds 35) per night for b&b in a single room or C$90 for b&b in a double room.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Viking Trail stretches 300 miles from Deer Lake to St Anthony. For details, contact the Viking Trail Tourism Association, 83-93 East Street, Room 111, PO Box 251, St Anthony, Newfoundland, A0K 4T0 (tel: 001 709 454 8888). Alternatively, call the Visit Canada Centre in the UK (tel: 0891 715000; calls cost 60p a minute), or the 24-hour lines for Tourism Newfoundland and Labrador (tel: 001 800 563 6353; 001 709 729 2830).

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