Highs and lows

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 November, 2004, 12:00am

The National Parks shuttle bus came to a halt at the South Kaibab trailhead. 'There's no shade, no water, the mule trains have right of way and steer clear of mountain lions,' warned the driver. 'And watch out for ice.'

The vast majority of visitors to the Grand Canyon spend half an hour gazing from the lookout points, somewhat longer in the gift shops, then hit the road hoping to reach Las Vegas by sunset. The experience awaiting guests at Phantom Ranch, the remote and rustic accommodation on the canyon floor, is as far removed from flashing neon lights and casinos as you could find. First, though, you need a bed.

'People book at least two years in advance,' chided the woman in charge of reservations, astonished that anyone would be foolish enough to inquire about lodgings for the following day. When a few clicks on her computer unearthed a cancellation, my partner and I were too slow to find excuses to back out. Two dorm beds were available with the option of pre-booking a beef stew dinner. We raced off in search of sunscreen, water bottles and salt tablets.

The 363-kilometre-long canyon was granted world heritage status in 1979 and is a must-see on even the most jaded traveller's itinerary. The Arizona Tourist Office claims 'no photograph does the place justice' and 'you have to see the chasm to grasp its sheer dimensions'. The prospect of power-walking through gullies formed aeons ago was irresistible. A more hands-on geology lesson would be hard to find.

In 1857, explorer Joseph Ives noted in his journal that 'ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.' In 1920, 44,000 curious adventurers visited the newly established Grand Canyon National Park. Today the South Rim, with its range of hotels, motels and campsites, plays host to about five million people a year. Autumn and winter are the best times to go. The trails are quieter, temperatures benign and hotel rooms a little easier to come by.

Two main trails lead from the South Rim down to the Colorado River. Most hikers head down the steep Kaibab route and return up the longer but less strenuous Bright Angel Trail. Many day-trippers over exert themselves. As one park ranger lamented, 'Why is it that people who drive a few hundred metres to their local store suddenly think they can hike the Grand Canyon before lunch?' More than 400 people were rescued last year, most suffering from exhaustion and dehydration.

We settled into a steady pace with frequent breaks to gaze and gape. In Paiute Indian, Kaibab means 'mountain inside-out' and at Ooh Aah Point, 750 metres down, the enormity of the chasm is brain-bending. You feel insignificant as you thread between craggy sandstone formations created up to 1.8 billion years ago. The variety and subtlety of colour in the rock strata bemused the exposure meter on my digital camera. This is no place for the colour blind.

The slanting sun painted the cliffs crimson as we entered a new climatic region. Cactus replaced vanilla-scented ponderosa pines. Red dust replaced ice. We caught glimpses of the Colorado River below us, almost within reach. It wasn't of course. It took another three hours to get to the Kaibab Suspension Bridge. Twilight found us feeling our way along a riverside path to Phantom Ranch, drawn to the smell of beef stew like children in a gravy commercial.

Originally named Roosevelt Camp after a visit by the American president in 1913, the ranch took its current name from Phantom Creek, which is in a narrow gully unseen from the rim. It's an attractive oasis and is the only place to stay below the canyon rim. Many guests book longer stays and explore historic pioneer routes, the ruins of an Indian pueblo or just paddle in Bright Angel Creek. Everyone gathers in the dining hall each evening to swap stories over dinner and cool beers. Then it's time for an early night.

Rarely has a concrete, 10-bed dormitory strewn with rucksacks, smelly boots and bodies been more welcoming. There are also private cabins, although you would need to put your unborn children on the waiting list now if they're to stand any chance of staying in one. A bunk bed is more than adequate. You're tired - you'd sleep on a cactus if you had to. Morning call is at 5am for the first of two breakfast sittings. Here's where communal living loses its appeal. Only the deepest sleeper could doze through the first shift waking, dressing and stomping around.

We set off before the sun reached us. It stained the towering walls a ruddy scarlet, but all remained dark in the creases and crevices for another hour. It's usually 17 degrees Celsius warmer on the canyon floor than at the top. The sun could wait. We avoided the temptation to look up - no need to get discouraged with a long day ahead of us.

Indian Gardens marks the halfway point between river and rim. It's a pretty area of cottonwood trees, a ranger station and offers a rare opportunity to refill water bottles. Havasupai Indians, or 'people of the blue-green waters', farmed the area until the 1920s using the Bright Angel Trail to commute from the rim. Gold prospectors improved the path until it fell under the control of enterprising miner Ralph Cameron. In 1903, he set up a toll booth and for a number of years charged sightseers a dollar for admission.

Mule wranglers transporting supplies down to Phantom Ranch stopped for rest and refreshment while we were there. During the summer, when the mercury hits 40 degrees Celsius, the descent to Indian Gardens becomes an ambitious day hike. Even in December it's a good place to rest aching limbs in preparation for the next stage.

At Jacob's Ladder, the path corkscrewed upwards through a wicked series of switchbacks. Surefooted bighorn sheep followed our halting progress from rocky ledges; munching mule deer didn't bother to look up. It began to feel cooler. Ice patches reappeared and we were grateful when the sun's rays finally found us. The canyon walls took on hues only seen when you slide the colour settings on a TV to maximum. The Alice in Wonderland surrealism continued: I saw a desert cactus lightly powdered with snow; a sightseeing helicopter throbbed underneath our feet.

The final few kilometres were deceptive and dispiriting. The gift shops above didn't seem to be getting any nearer and our packs felt twice as heavy. An elderly couple raced past, a blur of waterproofs and hiking sticks. 'Would you like us to wait for you?' they called out.

Eventually we sensed the trailhead approaching. Crowds thickened and clothes looked smarter. The Kolb Art Gallery, perched on the rim edge, had been tantalising us for the past hour, but when I saw tourists with high heels and shopping bags I knew we'd made it.

The noise and bustle of Grand Canyon Village were a shock after the previous 24 hours. Roads replaced rivers. Cars replaced calm. Grubby, sweat-stained strangers exchanged satisfied glances in the car park. Sightseers peered through telescopes searching in vain for Phantom Ranch, buried 1.6km vertically down. At the reservations office we discovered that a private cabin was available for January 2006. We booked it.