Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Grand Canyon River Adventure – Part 2

It became a running joke, the extra activities on the trip.

On the second day, after we made camp for the night (at a campsite that has apparently been voted one of the top ten best campsites in the world), we hiked up the side of the cliff to look at where some Native Americans used to store the food they harvested from the land below. And to see the best view of the Grand Canyon. As in. The very best view it’s possible to get.

See?

It’s the longest stretch of visible river, because there are no cliffs obstructing it, so you watch the Colorado winding its way down the Canyon, with the green of the banks blending into the blue of the water, and the stark browns and oranges of the Canyon walls rising above it.

We stayed there for a while, just gazing out. It occurred to me, like at the Getty, that this might be the only time I would ever see this magnificent view. You can’t helicopter in, or do a day trip. The only way is to paddle (or motor…) down the river, and hike up. I wondered how few people had been lucky enough to look out at this vista. I knew that nothing was going to beat that moment.

I was, as I’m sure you’re beginning to anticipate, wrong.

The next day, we came face to face with the Little Colorado River. Or, as our boatmen affectionately called it, the Grand Canyon’s little slice of the Caribbean. The water was ocean blue, that perfect kind of pale turquoise that just seems to be saying “Come on. You know you want to go swimming.” I wasn’t really paying attention, but it has something to do with a mineral deposit a little further upstream. I was more concerned with how cold the water was going to be.

Practically bath temperature.

Just your average day in the Grand Canyon.

We were in heaven. And then they showed us how to strap our lifejackets to our legs so that we could ride down the rapids. Of course, we didn’t just go once. By about the third time, people were hurtling down in pairs, and then in threes, and some were attempting to go backwards. Another rafting group arrived and suddenly there were kids going down on blow up animals, and someone wanted to see how many people joined together could make it down. I think the final count stood at about 21.

Complete with blow-up whale.

Well, clearly, nothing was going to beat that. But amongst ourselves we began talking. That was two days of incredible activities that hadn’t even been achieved by doing any rafting. What else would they be able to pull out of their sleeves?

As it turned out, waterfalls. The fourth day we made camp and then rafted a little further up the river to a small pool (again, beautiful, warm water) which had a small waterfall cascading into it. One you could sort of slide down. It felt like the sort of place you could never be unhappy in.

By that stage we were expecting to see unicorns on the following day. Instead, we got more waterfalls. A waterfall we jumped off the top of, a waterfall that was like nature’s own shower, and a waterfall so high the pressure of the water caused people’s hats to blow off. The challenge was to swim under it and see if you could touch the back wall. Spoiler: I couldn’t. (Although certain people were in fits of laughter at how I’d been just sort of swimming on the spot).

We treked up Havasu Creek and played in the small pools there, again the same beautiful colour as the Little Colorado. We watched the stars come out at night, so much brighter than we’d ever seen them, without any other light competing for the sky. We learnt about rock formations, and the explorers who’d travelled the same waters we were. We dined on the best prime rib steak I’ve ever eaten, and had peach cobbler for dessert on our last night. (Eugene wanted a note on logistics: Everything we needed came on the rafts. All the food, all of our packs, all the tents and the chairs and cooking equipment. And of course, the toilets. And the solid waste from the toilets that couldn’t be left in the Canyon…)

Havasu Creek. Incidentally, to get here, they had to park the rafts in the middle a rapid. Took skill, I’m telling you.

It was a week of spectacular experiences. The things I loved most weren’t what I was expecting to love most. My favourite time of day was just after dinner, when the heat had receded, and the sun was setting over the Canyon walls, and everyone was sitting in a circle, talking and laughing and sharing stories. I felt as if home was a trillion miles away. I felt as if home was there.

Tell me you’ve seen a sunset that beats that.

To the four guides from Wilderness River Adventures, thank you for making it such a fantastic experience. And to all the wonderful people I was lucky enough to share that week with, thank you for being so welcoming, and so caring, and such magnificent friends.


The Grand Canyon River Adventure – Part 1

Seven days. Six nights. Twenty-six passengers. Four guides. Two rafts. One river.

Your typical view of the Grand Canyon from the Colorado River.

I had many expectations. In many ways, this was the part of my trip I was most looking forward to. After all, how many people get to say that they’ve rafted through the Grand Canyon? I also had a lot of misgivings. I didn’t know a single other person on the trip. Seven days is a long time to spend with anyone, let alone a group of people who may end up being really, really annoying. My worst fear: what if they were all Americans?

Spoiler: They were all Americans.

But by the end of the first day I realised that I had been totally stupid. I also realised that I had got very, very lucky. There was not a single person on the trip that I disliked. There were five families on the trip, with eight kids under 19, which meant that we had a good dynamic, with a playful attitude and a tendency to look out for each other. Over the week we bonded over the usual things like books, and music, and tv shows. We also bonded over the lack of privacy (most noticeable whenever you wanted to go to the toilet), the animals that threatened the camp at night, and jumping off waterfalls together.

A moment of peace. The calm before the storm, if you will.

I have a friend sitting here telling me I should write an entry about how the rafts crashed and we were stranded in the middle of the canyon and had to hike out into the Arizona desert with only a water bottle and a pick-axe. Luckily, our trip wasn’t quite that dramatic. But it did have its moments.

We learnt to fear names like Hermit, Horn Creek, and Crystal. You would think that after baking all day under the sun, and sweating off any water we drank, we’d be thankful to be utterly drenched as we powered through the rapids of the Colorado. But this would not be taking into account the freezing temperatures of the river. It was definitely a week of extremes. We were either chilled to the bone, shivering as we waited for our rain gear to dry out, or getting sunburn on our sunburn and ready to give our right leg for a glass of iced water.

On the first day they told us there were three spots you could sit in on the rafts: in the boat itself (up against the bags which were stacked in the middle), on the side of the boat on the pontoons, or right in the very front, in a seat called “the bathtub.” For obvious reasons.

I, like any sensible person, avoided the bathtub. I managed to gain a seat toward the back where I was safe from a lot of the spray and didn’t spend the entire day feeling like a drowned rat. On the second day, I wasn’t so lucky. Somehow I found myself in the seat next to the bathtub. This, I later found out, was affectionately called “the shower.” You got almost as wet as in the bathtub seat, plus you got all this annoying spray from any small waves, and you didn’t get near as good a view. So on the third day, I decided to brave the front. After all, I couldn’t get any wetter than the day before, right?

Us. And the Canyon.

The third day happened to be the day we went down all the big rapids. So: wrong. Our boatman kept gleefully telling us that no one else in the world was getting better white water than we were that day. I’d like to give you a blow-by-blow description of what it’s like to hurtle down rapids at break neck speeds as the waves tower above you and then crash down so hard you’d be swept off the boat if you weren’t hanging on for dear life. But to be perfectly honest, I kept my eyes closed for a lot of it.

I definitely emerged from some of the rapids surprised to still be a) alive, b) sitting on the raft in the same position that I entered the rapid, and c) still wearing my hat and sunglasses.

Don’t let me disabuse you, though. It was terrifically fun. The way your stomach plummets as you go down the first drop, and the cheers of everyone else on the raft as you plunge through wave after wave, and the exhilaration when you come terrifyingly close to the Canyon wall, all of it combines to make it one hell of an adventure. I was definitely disappointed when we surfaced victorious from the horrors of Lava Falls on the last day of rafting, because I knew that I was unlikely to ever experience anything quite like that again.

You might think, after reading all that, that riding the rapids was the highlight of that week. I would urge you to stay tuned for Part Two.


Redwood trees and banana slugs

You might think that there is nothing particularly special about a tree that’s more than a little on the large side. You would be wrong. There is something particularly awesome (in the true sense of the word) about standing in a grove of Redwood trees and looking skyward. The sheer enormity of them, and the knowledge that they’ve been standing there for hundreds of years, makes you intensely aware of your own size and fleeting lifespan.

On Saturday the 23rd of June, I was lucky enough to be taken hiking in the Sam Macdonald park, nestled in the western slope of the Santa Cruz mountains. In the midst of all the trees it was so easy to forget that less than an hour away lay the bustling highways and shopping centres of the Silicon Valley. There weren’t many other people on the track, and we seemed to have the park, and the Redwoods to ourselves, listening to the birdlife and the ocassional deer.

Of course, the other point of interest was an interesting species called the banana slug. Wikipedia tells me that the banana slug is the common name for three species of air-breathing land slug in the genus Ariolimax. But basically all you need to know about them is that they are slugs that look like bananas. No, really. And once we started seeing them, we started seeing them every where. I don’t know exactly what it was that made them so amusing and interesting, but I was so totally unprepared for seeing something that bizarre that I was rather more than fascinated by them.

Just in case you didn’t believe me.

And I doubt that just like I’ll never forget that feeling of looking upwards at the Redwood trees, I will never forget seeing banana slugs in the Same Macdonald park.


A food tour of San Francisco

The first day we visited San Francisco the weather was what you might describe as chilly. It would have been a good day to be homesick because it was basically like your average winter day in Melbourne. There is apparently a saying that goes: “I’ve never been so cold as the summer I spent in San Francisco.” That doesn’t really ring true for me (I mean, it wasn’t snowing) but I am now well acquainted with the irony of a San Franciscan summer. Faced with brisk winds and dark skies, my cousin Clare and I did what any normal people would do: we hid out in places that served food.

Our first stop was the Ghiradelli chocolate shop where we warmed our fingers on mugs of amazing hot chocolate. Stop number 2 was for clam chowder at the Boudin bakery. The Boudin bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf is one of those places you walk into and just know that it’s been there forever. You can stand outside the windows and watch the bakers rolling out the dough, which sounds only vaguely interesting until you realise they’re rolling it into snails, and turtles, and lobsters, and even alligators.

A baker making bread turtles behind a bread alligator.

Luckily, our clam chowder was served in a bowl made out of sourdough bread, because after looking at all those bread animals I was surprisingly lusting after bread. By the end of the meal, the chowder had soaked into the bread, so it was all soggy and delicious, because the chowder itself was so delicious.

Look how delicious it looks. Just look. I want to eat it all over again.

After visiting the sea lions at Pier 39, and seeing spectacular views over San Francisco from Coit Tower, we were about ready for food stop number 3.

The sea lions at Pier 39. In case the sign didn’t give it away.

But not before we’d visited City Lights bookstore, famous for being the birthplace of the Beat movement, and for being home to authors like Jack Kerouac (nope, still haven’t started On the Road). There are a couple of things you sort of hopefully expect when visiting a bookshop like City Lights. But when you actually are accosted by a poet at the door it comes as a bit of a surprise. And yes, I did tell him I liked poetry, so he did stand there and recite one of his poems to us. Thank you, San Francisco, you outdid yourself.
Food stop number 3 turned out to be coffee and cake at a little French-style cafe, which led to the inevitable discussion about how Melbourne coffee is so fantastic and why it is that Americans somehow missed the memo on how to make coffee. It also began my search for really good coffee in America (spoiler: results will be found in Charleston, South Carolina). While they may be lacking in the coffee department, there are some areas of the food department they have well and truly covered, i.e. clam chowder. Stay tuned for notes on Mexican food, breakfast cereal, cornbread, and the mysteries of orange cheese.


A brief introduction to San Francisco

Everyone told me I would love San Francisco. And I did. To be honest, how can you go wrong? The houses are narrow, three storey buildings, painted in pastel colours, with cute white shutters, rising gently up the sloping streets.

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There was a lady in one of these windows, and she waved at us. So sweet.

The cable cars clamour their way steadily over the hills, packed with tourists hanging onto the edges for dear life.Fisherman’s Wharf is bustling with energy, boats standing at attention at the edge. Other areas of the city are set in stark contrast – the quiet Washington Square, the regal Coit Tower, and the panic of Chinatown. There is a refreshing feel to San Francisco, that perhaps has something to do with how easy it is believe that people live there (as opposed to Los Angeles…)

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Coit Tower.

And of course gracing the skyline is the Golden Gate Bridge. I don’t have a thing for bridges. I mean, I enjoy driving over them, or playing Pooh sticks off the edges, but it’s not as if I get a lot of thrills out of bridges in general. But there is something about the Golden Gate Bridge that is impossible to resist. Maybe it’s the symmetry, or the sheer length of it, or the way its scarlet arches contrast with a cloudy sky. I wasn’t the only one entranced by it as we strolled across it on a brilliantly stunning Sunday. All the tourists in San Francisco seemed drawn to it, and for once I didn’t mind that I had to share it with a bunch of crazed, camera wielding families, because everyone seemed happy just to drink in the beauty of a bridge that was somehow more than a bridge.

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Does it really need a caption?