My granddaughters, Cora, age five, and Ella, age one, are a problem. They're lovable, cute munchkins, but they live in Kitchener, Ontario, and I live on the west coast of British Columbia. Separated by most of Canada, I don't get to see them as often as I'd like. When the opportunity arises, we have to cram in as much "grandpa time" as possible.
The five of us - my daughter Tiina, son-in-law Chris, Cora, Ella and Gramps - set off early one morning on a mission: to see if the old guy had the stamina to keep up while exploring the
Our first stop was the brand new
Waterloo Region Museum on the west side of Kitchener, a building with a colourful mosaic exterior. Inside, we stood on a representation of the intersection of Huron Road and the Galt to Elmira Line of the Grand Trunk Railway, major transportation corridors for a century. Cora immediately followed the railway track outside to the huge
Locomotive 894, pulling Grandpa along. We clambered up and down and pretended to load coal into the firebox and, of course, we blew the whistle to let everyone know we were thundering down the line.
Then we wandered through a covered bridge to the Doon Heritage Village, which represents the early 1900s. Tiina pushed Ella in a stroller and Cora, in turn, raced ahead or dragged Gramps by the hand. We wandered through a blacksmith's shop, patted the noses of enormous Clydesdale horses and chatted with enthusiastic students in period pioneer costumes. They showed us how wool was shorn from sheep and made into yarn.
A short drive took us to the
Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory. We strolled through an amazing lush tropical jungle complete with waterfall. Dozens and dozens of butterflies hovered, flapped and zipped alongside of us. It was exotic and fascinating. With Cora and Ella pointing, Grandpa tried valiantly to identify the many fluttering patches of colour. We saw, (I think we did) blue morphos, owl butterflies, monarchs and many more. Glancing at the brochure, I put on a wise face and explained that the Conservatory had about 2000 butterflies that came mostly from Costa Rica and the Philippines. The girls were not impressed.
I was particularly excited about our next stop, the
African Lion Safari. Never having been to Africa, I was keen to photograph lions, zebras, giraffes, rhinos and other exotic and dangerous big game. Of course, I was also eager to see the looks on the kids' faces as they encountered such enormous and unusual wildlife for the first time. Well, I should have known. The highlight for both Cora and Ella was the water park, a wonderfully warm, shallow one for Ella and a complex, jungle of slides, swings and tumbling water for Cora, a veritable water sprite.
Finally we boarded a bus to see the big game animals. I knew excitement awaited when a sign wisely proclaimed: "Stay in the car or you'll be eaten" and we passed through a double security fence. As the bus zigzagged for miles through a rolling pastureland, we saw an astonishing array of African beasts including a shaggy-headed male lion lolling with a harem of females, a herd of brilliantly striped zebras grazing amongst towering giraffes, ponderous rhinos who eyed us ominously, a herd of buffaloes grazing together with dozens of dainty deer and gazelles with delicate sharp horns. The highlight, however, was a group of ostriches who raced over to the bus and pecked vigorously at outstretched hands, even though the bus windows (which didn't open) were in between. Every child on the bus - and quite a few adults - were fascinated by the Pavlovian response of these enormous birds and repeatedly pressed their open palms gratuitously against the windows.
After the safari, Cora and Ella demanded, and enjoyed, another stint at the water park. Then we embarked on a boat ride aboard the African Queen and saw bright pink flamingos, striped lemurs and baboons with enormously long arms. A train ride followed with yet more unusual beasts never encountered in North America. By this time Grandpa was flagging. Goodness, those kids have energy!
But the day wasn't over yet. Cora and Ella demanded to see the elephant show. My drooping eyes opened wide as four Asian elephants pulled and lifted enormous logs, walked over a trainer, and even painted a T-shirt, all within a few yards of our seats. The elephants showed amazing intelligence and obedience. I was impressed; the girls were mesmerized.
As the sun inched low on the horizon and we finally pointed the car homewards, the grandkids showed not the slightest weariness. And there was so much remaining to see in this region:
St. Jacobs Market,
heritage train ride,
paddling on the Grand River. I was exhausted, the grandkids had scored a clear victory; indeed, I had met my Waterloo.
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. He is the environment columnist for the Vancouver Sun.