Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Can we please come in? pretty please....

After four months in Canada it is time to move south. Before we even got fifteen minutes down the road Lindsay remembered that he had left the stone guard back at the house. Luckily we had factored in an extra half hour into our travel plans. Any further and we would have left it behind.

The Visa system is flawed. When you have a five year visa for the USA it allows you to stay up to six months per year, even all at once. When we first came over we filled in an i94 with our details and this was stapled into our passports, when we left it was taken by the airport or the country you were entering and given back to border control. Now it's electronic. No bits of paper, but what that means is that they only track you when you come into the country, not when you leave. So if you change your mind and leave early, bad luck, your time was allocated and you don't get it back.


The first night we stayed at Walmart, we do this for transit stops. No point in paying for an RV park when we are in late and leave early, plus we have the convenience of doing a little shopping - as it was we went in three times! The police put a note on our windscreen at 5am, the checkbox indicated that our building was found to be secure, and in the comments they had written "have a nice trip". So different from the others we have met.

Along the highway, the farmer's have signs on their fences telling us what crops they are growing.

Next stop was Vantage WA. We had rung ahead and she had said there was no need to make a reservation as it was winter. No water would be provided - you are self contained aren't you? yes. They turn the water off so that the water doesn't freeze and burst the pipes. Charge for the night $11, even though it was a Passport America park, not surprisingly they don't give a discount on this price!


We had come this way to see Jerry and Myra who live in Harrison just outside Coeur d'Arlene in Idaho whom we had met in Harrison Mills British Columbia when we were photographing the Bald Eagles. It was originally on our way but Tom Tom took us south before I realised what it had done, so we had to come back up again. We stayed at the Tamarak RV park in Coeur d'Arlene, which a really nice town sitting on a lake. It was so cold that the water froze in our hose overnight and we had to turn the water pump on and use our tank water for our kettle in the morning.

Tamarak, not a bad RV park
I can't believe how many lakes and rivers this country has. So many places to have a house overlooking the water. We brought our travel dates forward so that we could catch up on a weekend day when Jerry wasn't working, even though he works from home, he works long hours. We had brought a few things online and it is always better to have them delivered to an actual address than a post office, so they had lots of goodies there to give us when we arrived. Lindsay had bought a f/2.8 300mm second hand lens from Adorama on eBay and Jerry could not believe that it looked brand new but was a third of the original sale price. Adorama are a large photographic store in New York and we have bought a number of things from them before, so we knew that if they said it was a good lens, it was.

Jerry and Myra's house is magnificent, it's right on the lake, on a steep slope, so that there are three levels and you enter on the top one. Their gated road runs behind the houses but in front of the garages. All their neighbours are down in Arizona for the winter! There is a void over the living/kitchen/dining area so that there are two stories of windows that look across the water. In summer there is a large verandah to sit on with lots of outdoor furniture - from the company he started on a shoe string 40 years ago which has grown into a one of the largest outdoor furniture companies in the world. His office has a glass wall so he can then look over the living area and through those amazing windows across the lake. The price they pay for this magnificence? it's a 30 minute drive into town for supplies and you have to take your rubbish back to a residential garbage spot just before the highway.

fuel is so cheap at the moment
Travelling through Montana, there is a light sprinkling of snow on the ground and on the branches of the trees, it is very pretty. It's -13ºC /28ºF outside at 8am which is playing havoc with my laptop battery, I should have taken it to bed with me. We had to buy another heater to heat the cavity of our trailer to warm up the pipes. Apparently it is too cold for it to snow.

Today we head to Mammoth in Yellowstone, which should be a bit lower in altitude, but it's only -11ºC there now, so maybe not!

Yellowstone in snow

Ever since we started going to Yellowstone, Lindsay has wanted to visit in winter. Fred from Seattle suggested that we look at snow mobile tours. There are a some from the west entrance and two from the north entrance. As we planned to camp in Mammoth campground, we chose the private company Yellowstone Year-Round Safaris as opposed to Xanterra who run all the government campgrounds. They run out of Gardiner and have two tours, one to Old Faithful and one to Canyon, we wanted to go to Canyon  which goes down the right hand side of Yellowstone. The last tour available when we rang was on the 27th February, so we made sure we got there a couple of days beforehand so that we could get over our travelling and therefore enjoy the experience more.

Mammoth Campground
When we arrived into the Mammoth campground, there was no-one else there. Surprise surprise. Only one block of restrooms were open, so we chose a campsite close to them as we had drained our fresh water tank and winterised our pipes so they wouldn't burst. That night snow fell and we had a light sprinkling over everything. Lindsay got up at 7am and wanted to go down to the Lamar Valley straight away. My priorities lay with breakfast, so I sent him on his way. He came back with photos of elk, bison, big horn sheep, a golden eagle and coyotes. Thursday, we both went into the Lamar and saw some wolves which were a bit too far for a photo.

Coyote
Big Horned Sheep
Friday, we had to be in Gardiner by 7am. The temperature had got down to -24ºC/-12ºF overnight. The walls in our trailer were glittering with ice crystals. The bedroom windows were iced too. We had left our catalytic gas heater on 24/7 but it could only warm inside up to 0ºC/32ºF!

It looks so much colder in celsius -24ºC at 2am!
We had four other people on our tour, so five snow mobiles including our guide; a good number. The Xanterra tours had huge numbers which means you would have been always waiting for other people.

our new Ski Doo snowmobiles
They fit you out with a suit, boots, helmet and gloves. Luckily Jerry & Myra had introduced us to hand warmers in Harrison Mills when we were photographing the bald eagles. So we stocked up on foot warmers, hand warmers and body warmers - an absolute saviour. I had body warmers on my thighs, toe warmers on the bottom of my toes (later that morning our guide gave me more and I put them on the top of my toes) and a hand warmer in each gloved hand. They were providing lunch but we didn't know if we had to carry it, so we only took one camera and one lens - the 1D Mk 4 and f/4 300mm lens - perfect for wildlife, not for landscape. I was kicking myself for not taking a landscape lens and camera as we went to Artists Point and the Falls.

Artist's Point

The snow mobile was an amazing trip. Coming from Australia, we never envisaged doing anything like this. It is like riding a three wheeled bike, one at the front, two at the rear. It was great fun to drive for Lindsay and much more comfortable than a motorbike for me. The morning and late afternoon when the sun went in were pretty cold though.

Luke, trying to get back to the "road"
Coyote
Bald Eagle
Red Fox
We were taken down to Canyon Village for hot chocolate (I also got to warm my feet on heat pads!) , then Yellowstone's Upper and Lower Falls, Artists Point, Canyon Village again for lunch, then Hayden Valley. We saw coyotes, a bald eagle, a back and grey wolf, and two red foxes. A tour the day before had seen a grizzly and a beaver, it's a luck of the draw with wildlife. Luke gave us some afternoon entertainment by driving off the road and getting stuck in the soft snow leaning the snow mobile towards the river. We managed to save him though. Admittedly he had driven all night to come on this tour so must have been very tired.

Bison

Going down to the Lamar Valley, Sunrise
Lamar Valley

Elk

Please leave comments below...


Thursday, 12 February 2015

House sitting on Vancouver Island

Our house sitting on Vancouver Island is coming to a close. A big thank you to Cameron and Christine, we really have appreciated it. We met a lovely family next door who have taken us in like their own children and we have become friends with their children too. We even spent Christmas with them. We got to see some great renovation and property shows on HGTV which I am going to miss, it was the International relocation show gave us the idea to go to Mexico next winter! We have also seen some great movies and TV shows on Netflix, something we can't subscribe to on our measly 6GB per month of WiFi. The guys at the gate house said they are so glad we are leaving considering that we have been so much trouble!

We had a couple of days of snow
The weather is sort of starting to warm up, most days are around 10ºC. We have enjoyed our time here but have itchy feet to get back on the road again. I can't wait until I can complain about the sun waking us up early or it still being light when we go to bed, or that we are too hot! At least it's not dark at 4pm now, sunset is now at 5:30pm! The squirrels are scampering around, they seem to have come out of hibernation or wherever they have been. Even the deer on the golf course are enjoying the sun.



Here are some pictures of our time here:


When we first arrived, Lindsay would get up early and to down to Goldstream Provincial park to look for the bear that would be there around 7am. He would swoop his paw down into the water to try and catch some fish.


Down the end of our street is a Manley Creek Provincial Park, there are a few wooden bridges that span over the creek until it reaches the sea. You can walk right down to the pebbly beach.


There haven't been that many sunny days, but this was one of the rare occasions to so we went exploring to Honeymoon Bay, there is a wildflower walk, but of course it's the wrong time of year for the flowers.

We took a couple of trips off the island over to the mainland, which entails driving an hour, waiting an hour to put the truck onto the ferry, then a 1.5 hour ferry ride. There are a number of routes to the mainland, so now we've done Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay and back, Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen and back and our last one will be from Victoria to Port Angeles in the US. We have to get there 90 minutes before sailing as we have to go through US customs on the Canadian side - you could imagine the chaos if everyone went through immigration when they get off the boat on the other side.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Life on the road: where do I start?

To go to a foreign country, buy a vehicle and travel can be a bit daunting and finding information on how to do it, can be difficult. So how do you do it?

The first year we bought a Dodge van, fitted it out and travelled for six months, we loved it so much we decided that we wanted to do it more, but the Dodge was too small and we couldn't face it again.

US Travel Visa

A normal ESTA travel visa is only for three months, which is not long enough if you want to buy a vehicle and travel. Go to the US consulate in your country and apply for a five year visa, you will need bank and investment details to show you can support yourself and have an idea where you want to travel. A five year visa only cost us $50 more than a six month one and saves you going back each year. On a travel visa, not only can you not do any paid work,  you cannot do any volunteer work either such as being a camp host.

How long can I stay in the country at a time?

Okay, you have your five year visa that allows you to stay in the country for six months at a time. You've been here six months, go out for a few weeks and want to come back for another six months, right? no. Technically you only need to go out for a day, once every six months, but the border control staff will tell you that you have to be out of the country for as long as you have been in. Been in for six months, you need to leave for six months. We managed to get a second six months after some negotiating but he said we couldn't do it again. Not wanting to have to leave for a full six months during spring and summer, we decided to go into Canada for four months in winter.

Travel Insurance

If you only come to the USA from Australia for six months at time, then you can use the travel insurance that comes free with your credit card. Most of the banks use Zurich which I have used once for medical treatment and they were fantastic. The insurance only lasts a maximum of six months (depending on your card) and you must pay for your tickets with that card and leave from an Australian air or sea port.

Most other travel insurance companies will not insure you if you have not left from an Australian port for the trip you are wanting to be covered for ie recently. So you need to find one that will. I am currently using TID - travel insurance direct. As long as we intend to return to Australia at a later date and agree to be sent home for treatment if they ask, contact them before any treatment; then we are covered.

You can suspend your private health insurance in Australia for a maximum of 12 months only. I did it twice - 2 x 6 mths, you need to send them copies of your boarding passes (outgoing and incoming) along with a form to resume it. If you cancel your private health insurance longer than that you will be up for a levy increase on your premiums for the next ten years. We now pay for private health insurance in Australia that we will only be using if something horrible happens. I don't mind if we never need to use it.

Where do I buy a vehicle?

It doesn't really matter where you buy the vehicle, trailer, motorhome etc. as you can organise for "an out of state delivery". Why would you want to do this? Because each state has different taxes and laws for buying vehicles. There are hundreds of RV dealers in all the states. We ended up buying our truck in California (had to drive it to Arizona to take possession) and then registered it in South Dakota. We bought our 5th Wheel in Utah and registered it in South Dakota.

You can buy second hand or new vehicles and trailers for a fraction of the cost that you would pay in other countries. It's a bit daunting looking online, it is better to come over, hire a car and go and look.

What sort of rig do I buy?

There is always personal preference of course, but here are some things to think about when making a decision.
  • class B motorhome is a bit like our Dodge Van, but larger. Pros: can park in small spots, can take on a ferry without costing a fortune. Cons: not much room, depending on size may not have a bathroom.
  • a Travel Trailer is like a caravan that hooks onto a car or truck. Pros: no need for an extra car, roomier than a class B, usually have a bathroom.
  • a Fifth Wheel is like a caravan but hooks onto a truck via a hitch, making manoeuvrability a lot easier than a travel trailer. Pros: no need for an extra car, roomier than a caravan, bathroom.
  • class A motorhome - this is like a bus. Pros: a house on wheels, they are large and roomy, even  luxurious Cons: they are big and you can't always fit into all spaces, they cost a lot to service, tyres are huge and therefore expensive, use a lot of fuel, will need to tow another vehicle.
  • Buy the vehicle in the name of the person who is going to be driving it. We bought ours in joint names which became a problem as I didn't go for my SD licence.

How to pay for a vehicle with foreign currency

When we first went to look at our truck, they didn't want to know us. As an international buyer, they thought we were just wasting their time. We have found a number of times that people will say that they can't do something, just because they haven't done it before and therefore don't know how. It's just easier to say it can't be done. Pay the deposit in cash or your credit card. The balance will have to be done by electronic transfer. To do an international transfer you need the sellers bank name and address, the name of the account and the swift number. A swift number is like a BSB. If the seller doesn't know the swift number you might have to ring their bank. I made the transfer online in the payees currency and then wondered why it didn't go through. When you make an international transfer Citibank's transfer team in India rings you to confirm the transfer and the rate. My contact number was my Australian mobile which of course I have turned off! Unfortunately they won't give you a number to ring the back, even the customer service centre in the Philippines doesn't have the number and can only email them - unbelievable. I gave them our friends landline number and asked that they call between certain hours, but of course they rang in the middle of the night. When we finally hooked up, he asked me if I was happy with the rate, I said "no" but that didn't give me a better rate, it's was a rhetorical question! I have to say, it was a bit of a nightmare.

Registering your vehicle

You need to decide on a home base. Somewhere where you can have mail sent to such as registration, and insurance. Somewhere you can set up "residency" (no you don't become a US citizen) so that you can register your vehicles.

Oregon may have no sales tax but you have to produce evidence such as rental agreement and utility bills to show you have lived there for at least six months before you can buy a vehicle. So not practical.

Montana (MT) - you need to set up a limited liability company which then buys the vehicles. This sounded too difficult to us but apparently it's not and doesn't cost that much. They have no sales tax. This is probably the one I would recommend looking at first. You need to go to a lawyer to set up the LLC, but I'm not sure what else is involved as we didn't go down this path.

South Dakota (SD) - you need to contact one of the mail forwarding companies and they can tell you what to do. We stayed in an RV park for one night to establish residency, then organised to take a licence test - written and practical. It pays to find out their road laws beforehand and you can take practice tests online to get you in the groove and see how they ask the questions. The licence test only costs $20 but only lasts six months, why? because as a non US citizen, that is how long your visa (assuming you have a five year visa) allows you in the country for any one period. Theoretically, you then need to renew your licence every six months, but you have to do this in person. It would be difficult to go to SD every six months as we are usually no where near the state. So now we travel on our Australian licence and an International Driving licence. The insurance company is okay with this. Truck and RV insurance is cheaper in SD than MT. Sales tax on vehicles is 3%.

Other states that people register their vehicles in are Texas and Florida.

We sent the registration papers and sales tax (money order) to our mail forwarding company who organised the registration for us. The plates were then posted to us. I think we had 60 days to register the vehicles. Even though we registered the vehicles in June, both have renewal dates in March for some odd reason. You get a coloured sticker with the number of the month which you stick onto your registration plate.

Mail Redirection

You will need to sign up with a mail redirection company. They usually forward mail to you on a monthly basis but of course you have to be somewhere they can send it. For an additional cost, some will send you an email whenever you get mail and can then scan and send it to you via email.

Insurance

The cost of insuring our Dodge van for damage to others only in California cost nearly as much as insuring our brand new Ford F-250 diesel 4WD for fully comprehensive in South Dakota. Not all insurance companies will insure non US citizens, is there a pattern here? Yes, life is a lot more difficult if you are not a US citizen. We also took out Good Sam Roadside Assistance and Good Sam Travel Assist. Which is the equivalent of RACV total care which includes getting the trailer back home too, so we registered our friends address in California with them so that the trailer goes there and not South Dakota!

Setting Up, Where do I go?

You will find most of what you need to set up your camper at Camping World, Walmart and Target. Other outdoor things can be bought at REI.

They don't understand me!

We all speak English, except when we don't!
  • LPG is called Propane and you buy it at gas stations (service stations) either by the bottle or by the gallon (1 US gallon = 3.7 litres)
  • Propane also comes in little green cylinders that run out very quickly, it pays to buy a small bottle at Camping World and refill it.
  • Shellite is called white gas
  • Dry camping is any camping that you are not hooked up to any services. Being hooked up to water, electric and sewer is called full hook up. Being hooked up to electric and water is partial hook up
  • Pull through or back in - they are referring to whether you can drive right through your campsite to go out the other side or whether you have to back in and go out the way you came in.
  • A double adapter is called a connector. We brought a power board from home and changed the plug on the end of the cord to a US one, that way we don't need as many electrical plug adaptors.
  • The outback or bush is called back country
  • Boondocking is camping in the middle of nowhere

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