Ultimate theatre

Print edition : February 11, 2011

At the Grand Canyon, watching nature's own virtuoso performance which is unrivalled by any of the other rock formations on the earth.

IN a planet shrunk by satellite television, one in which armchair travel has excised the excitement out of journeys and rendered them redundant, and where superlatives are used to describe exotic destinations, there are places that still awe the visitor with their beauty and grandeur. The Grand Canyon in Arizona in the United States is one such. It richly deserves its appellation. Chiselled by the Colorado river that courses through the desert State of Arizona, the Grand Canyon is one of nature's marvels.

On a recent trip, I had the opportunity to get a bird's-eye view of this spectacular rocky range from the window of my airplane. This was supplemented with a worm's-eye view subsequently. From the top I got a glimpse of the folds and creases of shale and rock that stretch endlessly across the desert, while the view from the ground offered a collage of nuanced striations wrought by the Colorado river over millions of years to create nature's most spectacular cleave a mile deep and ten miles across (one mile is 1.6 kilometres).

Five million tourists visit the Grand Canyon National Park every year and most of them head straight to the southern rim. The national park can be visited from both the North and South Rims, each offering its own unique experience. The southern rim can be more easily accessed and has the most spectacular and panoramic views. The northern rim is at a higher elevation and supports a variety of wildlife.

Having visited the South Rim a decade ago, I would have liked to have hiked to the North Rim this time. However, being neither young nor fit enough, I had to be content with a visit to the South Rim with a short trek down to the valley to get a better glimpse of the vertical rock formations that rise like giant cathedrals from the entrails of the earth. There are hardy trekkers who hike from one rim to the other in four or five days. The park offers several adventure options for those in search of the adrenaline rush. You can raft in inflatable dinghies through the tortuous bends of the river, trek from rim to rim, parasail over the cliffs or simply hover over the rock formation in a helicopter.

The sedentary need not despair. They can still get the feel of all these and more at the IMAX theatre where the camera zooms through the choppy Colorado river in a raft and flies dangerously in a mini-plane in stomach-churning loops and dives. For those venturing to the western canyon after 2007, there is a controversial skywalk; you can walk on a transparent fibreglass pathway across the canyon to get a glimpse of the canyon floor 4,000 feet (1,200 metres) below and observe the environs from a cantilevered observation deck.

Drama in nature

The Grand Canyon is indeed nature's theatre, but one in which the theatre itself is the drama. The design of the theatre is the handiwork of primeval upheavals, the colour scheme has been wrought by the geological composition, the brilliant light effects have been specially put up by Arizona's desert sun, while the echo of caverns and the whistling wind provide the sound effects. The Grand Canyon is nature's own virtuoso performance, unrivalled and unsurpassed by any of the other rock formations on Planet Earth.

The Grand Canyon can be accessed easily from Los Angeles or Las Vegas from the west coast of the United States or from Phoenix through the towns of Williams and Flagstaff. As is the case almost everywhere in the U.S., there are few public transport options if you cannot drive. Fortunately for us, Bhabani and Milu, our friends in Phoenix, graciously offer to drive us to the park nearly 400 kilometres away, a distance that is covered in just under four hours. The road splices through rolling hills sparsely covered with vegetation. Brown is the predominant shade. Cacti line the highway on both sides against the backdrop of distant mounds. There is little inkling of what to expect when you reach the site.

Then it bursts upon you in all its grandeur. A seemingly endless gorge sporting the entire spectrum of colours from smoky blue-grey to various shades of brown, red and russet, interspersed with the dark green vegetation, craggy rock faces that rise up to a height of one mile, the bright desert light casting chiaroscuro patterns on the surface of the rocks. I had been warned that the national park had notoriously unpredictable weather and that even in summer it could suddenly turn chilly and windy, so I had come well-prepared with layers of clothing and good trekking shoes. But the weather turns out to be excellent, and the light is just right for all those brilliant photographs.

The park is not too crowded, giving us an opportunity to explore its many splendours at leisure. Falcons glide languorously over the cliffs while the Colorado river, visible only from some angles, seems like a supine little serpent sensuously wending its way through the cracks in the rocks.

The vertical cliffs might seem like lunar landscape or Martian surface to the untrained eye, but to the animals and the many tribes of native Indians who had settled here 4,000 years ago, the canyon is a cornucopia. It is home to a host of flora and fauna, including big-horn sheep, mule-deer, mountain lions, bobcats, coyote, squirrels, racoons, beavers and gophers.

Radiocarbon dating of artefacts found in the caves is said to have established the existence of humans, who inhabited its numerous caves, crags and crevices, or had settled on the sandy banks of the river, building tiny mud dwellings. The Anasazi Indians, who made their settlements on the banks of the Colorado, coaxed the rocks to yield cotton, corn, beans and squash which they grew on its terraces.

The canyon was almost continuously inhabited for several thousand years, testifying to its ability to support life not just of the hunter-gatherers, but also of settlers and cultivators.

Periodically, cataclysmic events of nature, possibly climate change, forced the tribes to move on. The Anasazi relocated to Rio Grande and the Little Colorado river drainages where the Hopi and the Pueblos of New Mexico now live. For about a hundred years, the canyon is believed to have been uninhabited by humans. Subsequently, the Paiutes from the east and the Cerbat from the west re-established their settlements in the early 19th century. John Wesley Powell, a soldier-geologist and the first Caucasian to raft down the Colorado river in 1869, found the Paiute and two other tribes in the canyon. The Navajo Indians arrived later. The native Indians were leading their idyllic existence in the canyon until the U.S. Army moved them to the infamous Indian reservations in 1882.

Native people are, in fact, still farming in the Grand Canyon, if not in the park itself. In the Havasu Canyon, a narrow side spur, the Havasupai, or Havasu 'Baaja (people of the blue-green water), tend fields where they have lived for at least 700 years. In the village of Supai, inhabited by around 450 villagers, there are no roads or cars, so almost everyone takes the eight-mile trail on foot, horse or mule. Mercifully, it is this very inaccessibility which has kept them away from prying eyes and prevented them from being turned into exhibits for tourist benefit. As we pick our way through rocky ledges we spy many tourists posing for photographs literally on the edge of the cliffs. The risk of falling off the cliff is real, but the risks of dying of a heat stroke are greater. In the canyon, the temperatures could touch 80 {+0} Celsius in the Inner Gorge. Anyone hiking in the canyon even for a short duration is advised to carry enough drinking water. We rest frequently on rocky ledges, admire the vistas and move slowly so as not to tire ourselves. But even after hiking for a couple of hours, the river is nowhere in sight and we turn back reluctantly since it might soon get dark and we could lose our way. There are, of course, guards of the national park on duty at every few yards to lend a helping hand to stranded or weary hikers. As we make our way back, a setting sun has streaked a riot of red on the horizon, a perfect end to a glorious day.

Red rock monoliths

The next day our friends drive us to the picturesque town of Sedona with its striking red rock monoliths named Coffeepot, Cathedral and Thunder Mountain. We make our way to the Oak Creek Canyon where natural rock formations offer wonderful bathing and lounging. The place is choc-a-bloc with visitors, many who have come for a swim while some lounge around sunning themselves on the rocks.

Sedona is a seductive spot where many Hollywood films have been shot. The red rock buttes and the desert landscape provided a striking setting for films like Broken Arrow (1950) starring James Stewart, Midnight Run starring Robert de Niro and Stay Away Joe by Elvis Presley. A wilderness until 50 years ago, Sedona is now a holiday destination for those who seek refuge from the tumult of towns.

We wrap up our visit to the magnificent State of Arizona humbled by the overwhelming manifestations of Mother Nature's raw power.

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