California, dreaming?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am

The scene is classic cowboy country. You can almost hear the wind parching your skin. The trail is rocky, the vegetation sparse. A lone golden eagle circles in the cloudless sky. Only one thing wrong, pardner: what in heck are them there palm trees doing in the distance? An oasis? Huh? With no camels or sand dunes?


A trip to the Joshua Tree National Park, in California, is an exercise in surrealism. The park covers the junction of two deserts, the low-level Colorado and higher-altitude Mojave, each with a unique ecosystem, and protects


an area 40 times the size of Hong Kong Island. The incongruous Fortynine Palms Oasis - the end of our first short hike in the park - is not the work of some misguided movie maker but a geological fault that allows water to rise to the desert's surface.


'J-tree' receives as much rain in a year as Hong Kong averages in two weeks, but sustains myriad weird and wonderful desert plants. Chief among them are the Joshua trees, crooked-armed creations that look like something dreamed up by Dr Seuss, particularly when they flower, which happens in spring. The tree - a member of the lily family - is said to have been named by Mormon pioneers who thought the branches resembled the prophet Joshua beckoning them westwards.


Joshua trees are a big drawcard these days but, historically, they were once less popular. Nineteenth-century explorer John Fremont complained their 'stiff and ungraceful forms make them the most repulsive trees in the vegetable kingdom'. Cactuses also abound, their spikes primarily designed to discourage animals from grazing on them ... although park pamphlets warn hikers against the soft-looking 'jumping teddy bear' or 'jumping cholla', a cactus with spines that drive deep into the flesh.


In summer, the park bakes. But in spring, temperatures can be low enough for hikers to require warm clothing, even when trekking uphill. Another advantage of not visiting in summer is that the rattlesnakes are hibernating, according to a horrifically fascinating book about the creatures thoughtfully provided in our rented cabin near Joshua Tree Village.


More literature describes the heart-rending tale of the desert tarantula, which is not poisonous to humans but instead deserves our sympathy. For starters, the tarantula is prey to the tarantula hawk, a large wasp that disables the spider, incarcerates the creature and lays eggs inside it. On hatching, the wasp larvae eat the tarantula alive. Male tarantulas are also, famously, eaten by the females after mating, providing the mother-to-be with nutrition. Less scary species in the park include jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, stinkbugs, coyotes, lizards, bighorn sheep and 240 types of bird, including the roadrunner of cartoon fame and a type of wren that eats its own excrement.


Historically, humans have also managed to live in the harsh environment, with occupation stretching back more than 7,500 years, as proved by artefacts such as rock paintings and pottery. From the more recent past, the park boasts a handful of old ranch houses and numerous disused gold mines.


Today's wild west is 225km away and goes by the name of Los Angeles, from where Joshua Tree National Park makes a handy weekend escape. The park can be visited in a day from the wealthy resort town of Palm Springs, but by car is the only means of reaching it. Accommodation options in the park are limited to tents, but the nearby modest townships of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree Village provide motels and rented cabins. Another possibility is to stay at Pioneertown, built in 1946 as a movie set for westerns and a place for the actors to live. It featured extensively in such gems as Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Cisco Kid, Silver Canyon, Annie Oakley and The Gene Autry Show, and gunfights continue to be staged here for the benefit of tourists.


After a day of hiking, we stagger into Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, a restaurant and bar popular with locals - ours is almost the only non-four-wheel drive parked under the shimmering stars - and gorge ourselves on barbecued ribs and beer drunk from jam jars. After dinner, we take on some cowboy-booted Texans at the pool table and watch off-duty soldiers from a nearby military base dancing to a country and western band. Not surprisingly, the town is somewhat fake, but that is appropriate when you consider the wild west portrayed on film never existed, at least according to


the author of Made in America, humorist Bill Bryson. He notes that farmers outnumbered cowboys by about 1,000 to one, that many cowboys were black or Mexican and that, in reality, cowboys did not spend much time having shoot-outs. Also, families taking the trail west, he notes, did not cross the prairies in sturdy Conestoga wagons, but in lighter prairie schooners - pulled by oxen or mules, not horses - which they did not arrange in a circle when attacked by Indians.


Our last stop in the park is Keys View, a look-out point where visitors can see the lights of Palm Springs by night and, on clear days, mountains in Mexico.


As we cruise down the freeway back towards Los Angeles, we laugh that one of the only western cliches we haven't managed to come across is the tumbleweed. That is moments before one tumbles directly into our car from behind a truck. Talk about ending a trip with a bang; weeks later, we're still picking bits of tumbleweed from under the bonnet.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) and United Airlines (www.unitedairlines.com.hk) fly from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Joshua Tree National Park is about three hours' drive from Los Angeles and an hour from Palm Springs, which has a regional airport. For permission to camp in the Joshua Tree National Park, see reservations.nps.gov. Outside the park, Pioneertown Motel (www.pioneertownmotel.com) offers rooms from US$75 a night ... and corral space for your horse for US$10. Luxury accommodation is available at Le Parker Meridien Palm Springs (www.theparkerpalmsprings.com) and La Quinta Resort (www.laquintaresort.com), which charge upwards of US$400 a night.