Rite of pas­sage

By raft through the Grand Canyon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - CHRIS TAY­LOR

There’s a tiny speck of some­thing in the sand. A bro­ken cor­ner of a potato chip, per­haps. In a sweep of Ari­zona where every­thing is de­fined by its epic size, it’s odd to watch my river guides sud­denly ob­sess over some­thing so small. “Where did it go?” one asks anx­iously.

A fever­ish search for the morsel en­sues, as the guides comb the sand like crazed prospec­tors pan­ning for gold. Soon guests are search­ing too. “Was it a sour cream and onion Pringle or na­cho cheese?” one asks. “They have dif­fer­ent colours so I need to know what I’m look­ing for.”

Then in a tri­umph of per­sis­tence, more than 20 min­utes af­ter the search be­gan, the world’s most wanted Pringle is un­earthed (for the record it is na­cho cheese), be­fore be­ing car­ried like crime-scene ev­i­dence on to our raft and safely de­posited in a bin.

To the ca­sual ob­server the episode might have looked like a slightly ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive approach to lit­ter, but in the Grand Canyon Na­tional Park it is sim­ply an ex­am­ple of the “leave no trace” pol­icy in ac­tion.

Such is the aes­thetic mag­nif­i­cence of the place it would take a rare kind of insen­si­tiv­ity to pol­lute it in any way. Leav­ing no trace is lit­er­ally the only thing the park asks; it’s an easy bar­gain to up­hold in ex­change for the priv­i­lege to gawp at such awe-in­spir­ing, pris­tine beauty.

There are var­i­ous ways to visit. Many in­volve pulling up at a carpark, walk­ing to a crowded look­out and tak­ing what­ever de­fen­sive mea­sures are nec­es­sary to avoid get­ting de­cap­i­tated by a selfie stick. Or there’s the Brady Bunch op­tion, where you can hire a mule to take you and your wise­crack­ing house­maid on a butt-pun­ish­ing trail ride. Both op­tions have their mer­its, and there’s no be­lit­tling the ex­tra­or­di­nary spec­ta­cle of look­ing down into the canyon from its high­est rims. But it’s some­thing else to wit­ness it from the river 1850m be­low.

Like any re­spected el­der, the Grand Canyon de­serves to be looked up to, not down on. And even the most slowwit­ted trav­eller should see that it’s eas­ier to grasp what makes a thing “grand” when it hap­pens to be dwarf­ing you.

The river op­tion re­quires time. The Colorado River stretches 446km through the Grand Canyon and, de­pend­ing on the craft, it takes any­thing from five to 23 days to com­plete its mes­meris­ing, rapids-filled length.

You’ll also need luck or at least a keen ca­pac­ity for plan­ning. Only a hand­ful of tour op­er­a­tors are li­censed to take vis­i­tors down the river, and most trips book out a year in ad­vance. For many Amer­i­cans it’s seen as a quin­tes­sen­tial ex­pe­ri­ence through the na­tion’s most iconic nat­u­ral won­der. In my raft­ing group, four are tak­ing the trip for the sec­ond time, and one guest is on his third. He has brought all his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren be­cause he wants to share the trans­for­ma­tive en­chant­ment of his pre­vi­ous ad­ven­tures.

The river has a hyp­notic way of mak­ing not just fam­ily mem­bers bond, but strangers. Spend­ing six days with any­body in close quar­ters on a sod­den triple-rig raft will in­vari­ably bring you closer, but there’s another be­witch­ing force at work that seems ex­clu­sive to the Colorado River. Chalk it up, per­haps, to the benev­o­lent vibes of the Navajo, Hava­su­pai and Huala­pai, the na­tive Amer­i­can tribes whose spir­i­tual con­nec­tion to this river has a way of rub­bing off on you.

It is felt most sharply dur­ing a side-trip to Havasu, the most im­prob­a­ble col­lec­tion of opal-blue pools and wa­ter­falls to be found in a desert. Havasu’s swim­ming holes aren’t just blue, they’re 7-Eleven slurpee blue. It’s the kind of colour that glows, and the in­can­des­cence is so invit­ing it’s easy to for­get th­ese pools also pos­sess tear­away cur­rents that will suck you to­wards the near­est wa­ter­fall if you lose your foot­ing.

It’s not quite as per­ilous as it sounds. Most wa­ter­falls, although force­ful, are only about a me­tre high, so it’s not out of the ques­tion to treat the whole sys­tem of chutes and cataracts as one gi­ant nat­u­ral wa­ter­slide. There’s no his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence the Hava­su­pai ever saw their home as a wa­ter amuse­ment park, but there’s no ev­i­dence they didn’t. And to spend an hour or two hik­ing and swim­ming in this hid­den Elysium is to taste some­thing of the im­pulse that con­nects a peo­ple to a land.

Long days on the river, and at camp each night, make de­tach­ment im­pos­si­ble. Life on the raft works best when ev­ery­one’s work­ing for the com­mon good, such as self­lessly hand­ing around the never-shrink­ing in­ven­tory of lol­lies; fetch­ing cans of beer from the drinks bags that drag in the wa­ter to keep the beer cool; join­ing the all-in Broad­way sing-alongs; sport­ingly avert­ing one’s eyes when­ever any­one needs to spend a penny, which, thanks to the ales, is prac­ti­cally ev­ery 10 min­utes; and col­lec­tively yield­ing to the river folk­lore and po­etry that the guides in­fec­tiously re­cite in down-time be­tween rapids.

Even the seat­ing ar­range­ments are ro­tated with egal­i­tar­ian fre­quency, although ci­vil­ity and fair­ness might have noth­ing to do with it. On my trip the peo­ple who on day one perched them­selves at the front of the raft to be clos­est to the white wa­ter were beg­ging for dry refuge up the back by day two. The fa­mous rapids of the Colorado might be one of the trip’s big­gest draw­cards, but to con­front them head-on is a bru­tal test of will.

Crys­tal is the rapid with the scari­est rep­u­ta­tion, and by all ac­counts it’s the most dif­fi­cult for pi­lots to nav­i­gate, but on our run it is Her­mit Rapid that proves the rud­est as­sault. It con­sists of a se­ries of 10 waves that smack the raft with vary­ing lev­els of fe­roc­ity.

A small wave will merely drench you com­pletely, whereas a se­ri­ous wave is like an aquatic wreck­ing ball to the face. It’s a bit like at­tempt­ing rodeo rid­ing on the world’s wettest bull. By wave No 6 I am giv­ing se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to jump­ing over­board, where I wa­ger I couldn’t pos­si­bly be as wet as if I stayed on the ves­sel.

The wa­ter is nerve-spank­ingly cold. And the cold­ness is all the more re­mark­able given that, dur­ing my trip in July, the tem­per­a­ture away from the river is never south of 40C, so it is not at all un­com­mon to feel both too hot and too cold within the space of a few sec­onds.

In this environment, shade be­comes para­mount. And river guides have a knack for find­ing patches of it that not only pro­vide respite from the heat, but re­veal a whole new side to the canyon. The most ex­quis­ite of th­ese is Red­wall Cav­ern, a pro­saically named but spell­bind­ing odd­ity that’s part beach and part cave, with a yawn­ing curved ceil­ing that re­sem­bles a gi­ant lime­stone bed­sheet, bil­low­ing in sus­pen­sion above an un­made bed.

This is the site of the in­fa­mous Pringle hunt. And I’m glad my group leaves noth­ing be­hind. The “leave no trace” pol­icy has par­tic­u­lar per­ti­nence in light of plans to build sev­eral ho­tels and a tramway down to the Lit­tle Colorado con­flu­ence. The the­ory goes that the project will pro­vide much-needed jobs to the Navajo, as well as al­low peo­ple who lack the fit­ness to hike, or the time to boat, to en­joy a be­low-the-rim ex­pe­ri­ence.

But the con­flu­ence is a del­i­cate, mag­i­cal place. And if the de­vel­op­ers know their his­tory, they’d be aware in­dus­trial ad­di­tions to the Grand Canyon never make it a bet­ter place, only a di­min­ished one.

Peo­ple come to this great won­der to be touched; to be put back in their place by its an­cient, im­pe­ri­ous, god-like walls. Leav­ing noth­ing be­hind is the surest way of en­sur­ing the Grand Canyon will for­ever leave a mark on us.

• rafta­ri­zona.com • nps.gov • vis­i­ta­ri­zona.com

Clockwise from top: raft­ing in the Grand Canyon; the view from above; Red­wall Cav­ern; Havasu Falls

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