On a solo road trip in the Rockies, Nicholas Roe discovers he's not alone.
I was driving through the Rocky Mountains thinking about nothing much except whether to have another mint when a disembodied voice said, "Let's take the next left to Athabasca Falls ...". I did as I was told, took the turn and trotted off to see the waterfalls, as commanded. When I came back to the car, the Voice told me to drive on, adding, "Hope you didn't get too wet!"
This is the intriguing world of GyPSy, a device that is changing the face of drives in Canada and spreading to other parts of the world. Using the same direction-finding technology that powers satnavs, this gizmo - using a box stuck to my windscreen - considers which tourist route you have chosen, gives directions to your ultimate destination, comments on sights you pass, offers historical background and local stories, suggests where to take photographs and proposes side trips - from which it will guide you back to the main road.
I had picked up the GyPSy at Calgary airport from a woman at the tourist office who explained how to link it to my hire car's radio. As I nosed into the airport traffic, the Voice spoke to me with a sense of command that was to dominate the next 800 kilometres. In a drawling, down-home Canadian accent that changed personality and even sex during the following days, it gave me alternatives. Did I want to drive to Calgary? Turn right. The Rockies? Keep going.
As unseen satellites monitored my progress, the Voice then began a periodic commentary on my journey, offering stories that were at times accurate to within metres. During a tale about the history of horse-riding on these prairies, for instance, I found myself driving past fields full of the beasts. When I got my first sight of the looming Rockies, I'm told, "Those mountains'll be with us for the next few hundred kilometres!" On I motored.
I had decided on a four-day journey from Calgary to Banff, then north along the lonesome Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise and Jasper - one of the finest drives in the world - then east to Edmonton. Admittedly, my entry to Banff that first night was awkward because I had to remember that the Voice was not actually God and did not know which hotel I was planning to stay at (I had to stop and ask). But next morning, as soon as I started driving again, it gave me choices. Did I want to go to Lake Louise? Head straight on. Calgary? Take a right. Or why not just mosey around local high spots for a while?
I let it take me to the sweet isolation of lakes close by, where I walked a couple of trails. I took its advice and boarded Banff's cable car, soaring to the heights of the Rockies for views beyond description. Afterwards, the Voice asked if I would like to go to Lake Louise now. Turn left on the Trans-Canada Highway ... there you go.
So it went. The Icefields Parkway, an engrossing, 300-kilometre wilderness route past hanging glaciers and immense peaks, took me steadily north. It was here that the Voice made itself especially useful, urging me to get out of the car from time to time, something easily forgotten on long drives.
So up Johnston Creek I slogged for one sweating hour, past limestone rocks carved by eons of river run; into picnic areas where squirrels bustled; and to the snowfields of the Athabasca Glacier, where I walked on glinting ice.
At Lake Louise, then Jasper, I explored forests and mountain lakes. But I was always happy to start driving again as the Voice told me about Alberta's oil riches or the settlers who carved this route from wilderness. "I'm going to leave you to enjoy the drive and I'll be back when you reach the turn-off down below," it would say. And it always happened. I liked that.
The GyPSy operating company has produced commentaries for several routes in western Canada and is expanding to Hawaii, the US mainland and perhaps Europe. It is not cheap at up to $40 a day but the script is written by journalists and local guides in a conversational tone and it enriched my journey.
Occasionally, it was too cute: "This walk is one of my favourites!" Several times it whisked past well-signed stopping points without saying why. Generally, though, it aimed for an interesting, gently informative style and pretty much hit the mark, which was particularly welcome on the 370-kilometre haul across the Alberta prairie to Edmonton, a journey so greenly uniform it was hard to stay alive, let alone interested.
The Voice knew this and threw in desperately distracting stories, such as telling me that Albertans "get back to nature" each weekend by splashing mud on their trucks, which made me laugh.
Then Edmonton grew on the horizon like concrete shrubbery and I had to turn the Voice off at last - a sad moment. I don't think the Voice will ever put human guides out of business, because technology can't match human company. But on those drives when you are tempted to slump and dream of mints, the Voice is more than a set of orders. It is a friend.
Air Canada has a fare to Calgary from Sydney for about $2160 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Vancouver (14hr 10min), then to Calgary (1hr 20min); see aircanada.com. Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney to connect.
The GyPSy guide covers routes across British Columbia and Alberta. It can be attached to private or car-hire vehicles and plays commentary through a vehicle's stereo system. Pick-up/drop-off locations include Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton airports and visitor information centres in Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise and Victoria. Minimum rental is for one day. The GyPSy guide is also available in Las Vegas and Hawaii. See gypsyguide.com.