Tale # 2
May 2007, and John and I set off for Las Vegas and The Grand Canyon

 

John and I went to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon for a 10 day break at the end of May – now those are two spots where there was definitely no diving to be had …  

It may seem trite, but I can sum up my reaction to the two, extremely diverse, places as: 'Las Vegas is amazingly awful, and the Grand Canyon is awfully amazing!' 

We had 5 night in Vegas, staying at Caesar’s Palace, right on The Strip.  We went to two Cirque du Soleil shows - 'Love' (based on the Beatles songs, and a perhaps a bit jaded already) and the Celine Dion one, a whole different kettle of fish - now she is a consummate professional artist, and boy can she belt out her songs and deliver them with panache (the C-du-S backing was of the ‘modern dance’ variety, not tumbling etc, and very well judged).  We had a few nice meals too.  We were lucky enough to get a window table at Circo at the Bellagio hotel on our first night, so we had a perfect view of the hotel’s fountains – which can shoot up to 73 metres high and dance a 5 minute ‘water ballet’ - a great show!  Another evening, John got to have his 'late-birthday Parisian meal' at Guy Savoy's branch at  Caesar's Palace – probably not as good as our meal at the ‘original’ in Paris many years ago, but very yummy nonetheless.   

During the day we either slobbed by the pool, went shopping, or visited some of the other hotels – just to see what their public areas were like and take in their free attractions. There’s the direct descendents of the original MGM Films roaring lion at the MGM Grand; a very bored-looking White Tiger at Mirage; a (half-sized) Eiffel Tower with its ‘legs’ coming down into the middle of the slot machines at Paris Las Vegas; and gondoliers serenading their (paying) passengers as they float 300 metres on an indoor canal at The Venetian ... all rather weird! 

But all in all, I'm afraid I didn't quite see the point of being there if you don't gamble, as was our case - in fact I had a positively physical revulsion to that side of it ... all those mindless slot machines with zombie-like people pressing a button every few seconds ... urgh! ... This place in the middle of the desert, a totally man-made-for-man’s-delight creation, centred around gamblers and gambling, where an average hotel makes 40 million dollars a month (an average hotel, so not the likes of Caesar's, you understand!), where you lie by an over-chlorinated pool and bake, where the hotels are so huge and sprawling you need a map to find your way around (Caesar’s has about 3350 rooms!), where you’ve got no idea what time of day it is as there are no clocks and nothing but artificial light inside … even if some of it is clouds projected on to the roof supposedly mimicking the time of day (straight out of the film ‘The Truman Show’). 

But then we went to the Grand Canyon ... and OH what astounding natural vistas opened out!   

On our way to the Canyon, we stopped at the Hoover Dam.  A very large expanse of concrete built in the 1930s.  Apparently, they poured concrete every 75 seconds, day and night, for a solid 2 and a half years to build the thing, having diverted the Colorado River to allow themselves the space for construction.  It not only supplies electricity to far away cities like Los Angeles, it also supplies water (from Lake Mead, created by the dam) to cities such as Vegas and San Diego. 

After the Dam, we headed on towards the Canyon … stopping en route for lunch at a real ‘straight out of the 50s’ all-American Diner … complete with bright fushia and turquoise walls and sofa-booths … with a huge picture of Elvis for the Gents’ toilet and .. yes, you’ve guessed it, Marylin Monroe for the Ladies’! We had the best hamburger and milk- shake - I’ve not had one of those for decades! The whole thing was like walking on to the set of Happy Days or American Graffiti … complete with a home-grown Fonz … Yep, this (at least 50-year-old) rolled up in his convertible, with leopard-skin patterned seats (!!) … he had it all – the jet-black hair, the quiff at the front, the T-shirt with cut-off sleeves, the skin-tight jeans, the gum, the swagger … hysterical!

We stayed 3 nights on the South Rim of the Canyon, in the 'village' within the National Park.  It's extremely well organised, with shuttle-busses taking you around to the western view points, or round the village (you can drive to the further eastern points). 

Here, we were at the widest part of the (277 mile long) Canyon - from our side to the North Rim was 18 miles ... and it looked no more than 2 or 3!  It’s a vertical mile down to the Colorado River, deep in the deepest gorge ... where it is carving its way through 1.8 billion year old rock ... while the limestone we stood and walked on was a mere 270 million years old - what a youngster!  Words can't describe the awe-inspiring-ness, vastness, and age of the place, and photos can't capture it either ... though I tried.  

And they still don't really know how and why it has occurred - in fact there's even a crazy theory that the river flowed the other way at some point, as so many of the tributaries come in that the opposite angle to what you'd expect.  One certain fact, though, is that it used to be under the sea near the Equator – and yes, we spotted fossils of shells and corals and sponges all the way up there.  Looking out at the Canyon is a great lesson in geology – the differing layers of rock are so clearly visible, with the whiter sandstone near the top being referred to by the Rangers as the ‘Canyon's bathtub ring’. 

We didn't walk down to the river - it takes 5 or 6 hours to get down and twice that to get back up (so you stay overnight) ... and John refused to take a mule down and back - the other option.  So we settled for a half hour 'hike' down and back up the Bright Angel Trail, just to get a feel for it, and left it at that.  We did spot some Native American pictograms though, that date back about 800 years, well above the path and protected by an overhang. 

On our second morning we were treated to an astonishing flight display by several California Condors.  These birds are rare (I think there’s only something like 250 left in total), and they’ve been introduced to the Canyon as there is plenty enough space for them there  With a wing span of nearly 3 metres, a condor glides past extremely fast and is over at the other rim (remember it’s 18 miles away) in a few seconds (they’re said to often go at over 50 miles an hour).  We had four of them wheeling above our heads for quite some time (there must have been some carrion somewhere nearby) and not a wing-beat to be seen, soaring effortlessly on the wind … quite a spectacle! 

As you go along the rim, it’s amazing how the views change from one point to the next.  At some spots you can look both north, east and west, while at others you only really see in one direction.  

Going westwards from the village, you either walk or take the shuttle bus (no cars are allowed here), so we did a bit of both.  Between two of the points (Maricopa and Powell) is the Orphan Mine – originally a copper mine in the late 1890s, but then they discovered uranium in the 1950s … and it became the largest uranium mine in the United States!  It’s been unused as a mine for about 40 years, but you still have to skirt wide around it due to radiation.  Having scouted out the other points, we returned to Hopi Point for the sunset, watching the Canyon as it changed colour and the shadows deepened in the rays of the descending sun.  

Driving east, the furthest point is called Desert View … because from there you can see the Painted Desert stretching away beyond the Canyon.  You also get good views of the Colorado River, way below (from most other view points you just get glimpses of it at most).  

Although I took a pad and pencils etc, I didn’t do a single drawing – the views were just too big to focus and frame in a drawing.  It was much better to just look and remember the feeling of the place – a very grand Grand Canyon. 

On the way back to Vegas, we didn’t go the direct route, but headed out east and.  First of all we passed the Little Colorado River, and stood on the edge of a 250 metre cliff to see the gorge.  Then on to Cameron, a Navajo Trading Post (where I couldn’t resist another Native pot!), and the last stop was at Wupatki - a 12th century Hopi Pueblo.  OK, they've re-mortared it a lot, but nonetheless it was worth the detour, and I've long wanted to see such a place.  There is a ‘blowhole’ there, an ancient shrine for the Hopis as they believed the earth was breathing here.  It is in fact an opening in the limestone that inhales and exhales air, depending upon the difference between air temperature and atmospheric pressure on the surface and down inside the cavities. When we were there, it was a cool breath that blew out of the hole (as the air outside was much hotter than inside). 

Then one more night in Vegas before the flight home ... and a very nice meal at another restaurant in the Bellagio called Picasso, decorated with original works - paintings and ceramics - by the great man ... and we took my time looking at each one (millions of dollars-worth) as we left.

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     Las Vegas

 

 

 

     Inside Caesar's Palace

 

 

 

 

     Looking down at the Power Plants,
     with river water coming out from
     them, at the Hoover Dam

 

 

 

     Grand Canyon, seen from
             Hopi Point

 

 

 

 

    Comanche Point, seen from
            Desert View

 

 

 

    Sunset from El Tovar ... a very
    nice way to start the evening

 

 

 

 

   Wupatki Pueblo with its round
   'community room' in the foreground

 

 

Tale # 1
March 2007 -
Dive trip to the Philippines

 

Organised by the Aquanaut Dive Club (that is Ross-the-Boss, with help from Wayne who goes out to the Philippines diving a few times a year), 8 of us travelled out to Sabang Bay, near Puerto Galera.  Who went? - well, of course, there was Ross, and then there was Eva, Isabel (my room-mate for the trip), John C, John Henry, Margaret and Cristine.  Wayne met us out there, but wasn't with us all of the time.

Leaving London was quite a palaver, as the queue to get through security snaked its way through Terminal 3 and out into the Car Park!!!  We thought we'd got loads of time to spare (3 hours before the flight) but that queue was so long and slow that we had to be taken out and prioritised to catch our flight!

It was a long journey  - 24 hours all in:  first to Singapore, then change planes to Manila, then a 3 hour (rather hairy) drive to Batangas, followed by an hour's crossing by banca (wooden boat with bamboo outriggings to each side) to Puerto Galera. 

No matter how tired we were, we all managed to be up in the morning to register with Asia Divers and get on with our first dive.

I did 31 dives in the 9 days there - I didn't miss a single dive.  There was so much marine life, such an abundance of creatures of all shapes and sizes, that it's hard to pick out 'special moments', but I will try!

I saw my first sharks.  Ok, they were resting under an overhang, but nonetheless they were White Tip Reef Sharks.

I saw my first Seahorses.  Ok, we only found one each time we went to Boulders (the site where they live), but one is better than none!

I saw a number of Banded Snake Eels which, according to my book, are a rare sight.

Just about every dive brought a sighting of a new type of Nudibranch - from frilly pale pink ones, to stripy blue ones, to knobbly black & white or coloured ones ... and many more.  If you'd have told me I'd be fascinated by a type of mollusc I'd have thought you were nuts, but that's how it was ... really pleased with myself when I spotted yet another 'naked gills'!

I saw Harlequin Sweetlips of three different 'generations' - first of all the fully grown adult, then on another dive I noticed this black and white blotchy thing that was wiggling madly around ... it turned out to be a juvenile Harlequin Sweetlips (the photo - on the right here was taken by Ross), and on the last day we spotted a couple of teeny tiny baby ones, also doing their mad wiggling.  No wonder they are so sedate when they are adults - they've expended so much energy as 'children' they need to slow right down!

We managed to see a rather large (and poisonous) Frogfish twice - it's in Albums 1 and 3.  The first time it was on 'walk-about', moving quite quickly on it's fins.  The second time, it was 'melded' onto a piece of rock ... almost impossible to spot, and really hard to tell it was a fish at all!  There were other Frogfish sitting on the various wrecks, so well camouflaged you were amazed each time you realised it was actually a fish!

Pete, our main guide from Asia Divers, organised a day trip for us to Verde Island.  It took an hour to get there, and we dived the same drop-off site twice - there was just so much to see, including lots of Redtooth Triggerfish all around, tons of different Nudibranchs, and Moray Eels slithering from hole to hole - but the main 'event' was at the end of the wall.  There, we came up on it's top edge and hung on for grim death as we peeked over ... into a ripping current on the other side, full of big Trevallies and Jacks and even Tuna, lazily swimming against the enormous flow of water.  The power was so strong it threatened to rip my mask off by catching on my snorkel!  You'd've been halfway across the ocean if you'd been caught by it!!  WOW!

Pete also organised a 'Sunset Cruise' one evening. We all gave him our drinks orders - they made up our favourite cocktails (jugs-worth of lime daquiris, mango daquiris and banana daquiris), as well as loads of beers and soft drinks for us to sip on the way.  The big banca sllid gently past our island and we watched the sun go down.  We stopped at a wide, tree lined,  picturesque cove where we each tucked in to a huge but delicious pizza.  Pete came with us, as did Ruben (another one of our guides, a Philippino who had grown up in the area).  It was a very jolly evening!  As we returned to the boat, we stopped to gaze up the beach - there was a full moon, and its light glinted off each tiny wavelet that broke on the shore - beautiful!

With clear skies each night, the moon accompanied me on my night dives too.  At night you see all sorts of creatures that only come out in the dark, such as octopus (we saw a very small one in the sea grass), and various types of shrimp and crab (in holes on wrecks and rocks, even in barrel sponges).  I was also lucky enough to see 2 Ornate Ghost Pipefish - deep red , heads down, looking like a tufty bit of seaweed - hiding next to some sunken oil barrels.  Other 'creatures of the night' are gorgeous, dancing flatworms - a black one with red and orange rippling edges, another one white with black edges (Ross's photo is on the right), a bright golden one. One of them even landed on my hand - it felt like slightly sticky velvet and was mesmerizing to watch as it undulated away.

On another evening an absolutely huge Giant Pufferfish swam towards us - Ruben said he'd never seen one so big!  And just after that had gone, a juvenile Round Batfish (which isn't round and silvery at all when it's young, but quite golden and triangular!) came right up to me.  On our final night dive there was a different juvenile Batfish, a Shaded one, that was almost black with bright red edges (photo on the right).  At first I thought it was a very big flatworm, but then I realised it had eyes, fins and a tail ... it was so unusual I didn't want to move away!

As we were there on April Fools' Day, we all got together (with Pete) to play a trick on Ross ... who fell for it hook, line and sinker!  Towards the end of the first day's dive, Eva swam a bit away from us, and came back all exited:  she had seen a Whale Shark!!!  Some of us managed to follow and catch a glimpse of it, out in the blue, but Eva had even got a photo of it - AMAZING!  I swam to Ross and pointed excitedly out to the blue, making gestures about something large, so he hung there and peered into the gloom, but saw nothing.  We all came up and talked of nothing else - wasn't it incredible and mind-blowing to see? ...  Poor Ross got really grumpy, grumbling that people hadn't used their clangers to attract his attention.  He kept looking at Eva's picture - just the one rather blurry photo, but it's all we had to remember our encounter by ...  At midday, as is the custom, we put him out of his misery, and admitted that it was all a hoax, including the photo, which was a photo of a photo in a book - which is why it looked so convincingly blurred!  In the meantime, we had also April Fooled some of the other divers including Ruben, who were all on the look-out for a whale shark!

All in all, it was a wonderful holiday, with some fabulous sea-creature-memories - each thing weirder and more fascinating than the one before!

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        All of us, and our guides,
        enjoying a Pizza together

 

        My first sharks (photo by Ross)

 

        Seahorse (photo by Ross)

 

        Harlequin Sweetlips adult,
        nice and sedate

        Ross took this photo of the 
        juvenile Sweetlips

 

        Flatworm (photo by Ross)

 

         Juvenile Batfish (photo by Ross)

 

        Me, on our Sunset Cruise