As the airplane begins its descent, the city of Calgary appears in the distance like a space station floating in fields of green. Soon we will be heading north to Red Deer under the 'Big Sky' of the Prairies. On the way we will pass neither town nor city, only endless fields of grain, for it is not only oil that makes Alberta Canada's wealthiest province.
The two-hour journey to Red Deer from Calgary is one of my favourite drives anywhere in the world. The overarching sky is immense - and yet seems within reach, as it shelters uninterrupted fields of lush green wheat and bright yellow canola. The luxury of land, beautiful and bountiful, as far as can be seen in any direction, speaks of boundless freedom.
Canada is a nation forged out of the wilderness. When the first European settlers arrived in the early sixteenth century, there were some 500,000 aboriginal inhabitants scattered across infinite lands that would one day become the second largest country in the world.
Canada's aboriginal people lived in harmony with the environment, leaving it virtually untouched. And so today's population - a mere thirty-five million people - are blessed to live on the borders of vast tracts of untamed land.
The nation's bountiful wilderness is being strategically conserved through a system of thirty-eight national parks and countless provincial parks. And so the Canadian passion for the wilds is not to be endangered.
Alberta's UNESCO World Heritage Parks
A century and a quarter ago, Banff, Canada's first national park, was established in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Banff is renowned for its breath-taking beauty in soaring mountain peaks, pristine lakes, spectacular canyons and luxurious hot springs. It is one of the world's most visited parks, the main attraction being Lake Louise, a glacial lake that is pure turquoise in colour. In a scene straight from a dream, the Lake's jewelled waters are edged with green trees and framed by snow capped mountains.
Banff's fabled turquoise lake was named for a Princess - HRH Louise Caroline Alberta (1848-1939), daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the Governor Gene Princess whose sojourn in the comparatively rough conditions of nineteenth-century Canada was unusually successful. Not an ordinary princess, Louise was a feminist as well as a talented artist who appreciated the great outdoors; and, contrary to royal convention, married for love.
Jasper National Park also belongs to the Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage reserve. This magnificent alpine park is a place of emerald lakes, sparkling waterfalls, and untouched wilderness. The Jasper Park Lodge has long been a favourite destination for luxury travellers, but I prefer a more direct experience of the sublime peace that only nature bestows. And so I set up camp on the silent shores of an alpine lake and glide in a canoe over its shimmering surface, hearing only the swish of the paddle and the occasional cry of a distant bird.
There are four more parks in Alberta that have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites - The Dinosaur Provincial Park, The Wood Buffalo National Park, the Waterton Lakes National Park, and the Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump.
Badlands, dinosaurs and the head-smashed-in Buffalo Jump
Alberta's Dinosaur Park is in the Badlands of the south, a dry volcanic terrain with fantastic wind-blasted land formations known as hoodoos, and steep canyons cut from the rock long ago by rushing rivers. The naked bedding layers are clad in a spectacular array of colours - rust red, mustard yellow, black, viridian, and white. In the nineteenth century, the Badlands further east were a hangout for notorious outlaws, including the legendary bandits, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.
In the strange, other-worldly realm of the Badlands, more than 300 dinosaur specimens representing forty species have been found to date. Along these is the largest dinosaur skeleton discovered anywhere on earth - a gargantuan Tyrannosaurus Rex, more than twenty-six metres high. We may have seen giant dinosaurs in the movies, but to stand at the foot of this towering skeleton is an unsettling experience. The human being becomes an insignificant speck of a creature, happy in the realisation that these monumental beasts have been extinct for more than sixty million years.
The Museum brings back the time when dinosaurs were the earth's most ubiquitous species. They evolved some 200 million years ago when the continents were one great land mass (Pangaea). After Pangaea was split apart by the steady movement of tectonic plates, dinosaurs had dominion over every continent.
The Park with the strange name, Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, features a steep escarpment in the grassy plains of southern Alberta where Blackfoot hunters used to drive wild herds of buffalo over the edge so that they would smash their heads on the rocks below. It was an efficient way of hunting,,,
Archaeological evidence indicates that buffalo slaughter on this site is older than the great pyramids of Egypt. It is a haunting place with a strange appeal. While I do not like the thought of speeding beasts crashing head-first into rocks, I cannot forget the echoing loneliness of the Great Plains and the howling wind that blows through
the ghosts of the buffalo herds of all ages.
Where the buffaloes roam…
A long way north-east is the Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest park in Canada with an area as great as any nature preserve in the world. The massive wood buffalo, North America's most powerful land mammal, was almost extinct a hundred years ago, but now more than 5,000 buffalo roam the parklands.
The Park also shelters the endangered whooping crane, which, in 1941, numbered a mere twenty-one birds. The whooping crane count in the Park now stands at a few hundred. This magnificent, long-legged, pure white creature has a wing span of up to seven and a half feet and is over five feet tall. The distinctive 'whooping' call of the crane can be heard several kilometres away. It is a sound that stays in memory, especially when mating cranes cry out in unison, as is their habit.
The Wood Buffalo Park has another remarkable feature - the world's largest 'dark sky ' preserve, made all the more wonderful with the advent of the Aurora Borealis, the spectacular Northern Lights caused by the collision of solar winds and magnetospheric particles with the earth's upper atmosphere in the north polar region. Iridescent emerald green streaked with pink and blue fills the night horizon with crowns of flames, which, when viewed from outer space, adorn the earth with a halo.
Alberta and Oman
Alberta's vast parklands represent a mere fraction of its total area. Both Oman and Alberta have populations of roughly 4,000,000, although Oman with all its uninhabited terrain is less than half the size of Alberta - 309,500 square kilometres (Oman) versus 661,850 square kilometres (Alberta). The two places share a wide-open sense of space and the feeling of unending geological time within the present. The similarities go further - an oil economy, spectacular scenery, exceptionally hospitable people… and both places count as home.