Gaborone, Tropic of Capricorn, and Serowe

Happy Boxing Day 2016. As the year draws to an end I’d like to squeeze a couple more snippets of my Botswana 2015 story into this coming week. Rewinding to a crisp morning on July 13th aboard our white Toyota SUV in Gaborone, Botswana, en route to the Tropic of Capricorn and Serowe, home of rhinos…

Good morning Gaborone (Day 2 in Botswana)

Sunrise over Gaborone, Botswana, from my hotel window

7:55 AM On highway driving to Mahalapye.

The time now marks my first 24 hours on the African continent (jokingly, “SoAf” for Southern Africa like “SoCal” for Southern California. Doesn’t seem to work).

Although I got up at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM, the colors of the sky outside our hotel window slowly illuminated by the rising African sun were incredible. We went to Jane’s house first to pick up some snacks before setting out at 7:15 AM. The 15-20 minute window before 7 AM is rush hour in Gaborone because parents need to drive their kids to school by 7 AM. Residential, community (e.g. schools), commercial and industrial plots of land in Gaborone are distinctly allocated, so we burrowed into bottlenecks of traffic as commuters, parents and kids alike filled the roads in their metal vehicles.

After leaving downtown Gaborone, we embarked upon the A1 highway, which takes you straight up from the capital to as far as Kasane, if you aim to drive for 11 hours.

A curious incident

Driving into an unexpected encounter in the bush

Less than an hour’s drive into the bush, we were stopped by a roadside police and almost illegally fined. The man peered into our window. My sleepy eyes blinked into wariness when I realized that he was in uniform. I offered a tentative “how are you?” whereas Jane stayed silent.

He did not respond. Instead, his purposeful eyes gave our Toyota SUV interior a three second sweep, before he jerked his head meaningfully toward his dilapidated desk on the roadside dust, indicating, “someone get out. We need to talk.”

Jane’s Dad confidently left the SUV and we peeked behind the window to see what might unfold. I was sure nothing extreme would happen. One or two cars whizzed by every two or three minutes. My lips felt as cracked as the bush.  What felt like a dry spell later, Jane’s Dad walked back, hopped onboard and started the ignition so that we were on our way, before explaining: the cop accused Jane and me of not fastening our seat belts in the back row. This allegation is in fact unfounded by Botswana law. The negotiation, which was eventually resolved with “compensation”, proceeded as follows:

Police:  You need to pay me the fines for breaking the law.

Driver: Botswana does not require passengers in the back seat to fasten their seatbelts. [In hindsight, this was an understatement. We have passed numerous pickup trucks filled to the seams with passengers, open-air seating, where seatbelts are clearly nonexistent.]

Police: I am teaching you the traffic law to help you.

Driver: No problem. Why don’t you write me a slip and I will pay it at the police station in Gaborone.

Police: That is not possible.

Driver: Alright, man. Talk to me straight. What do you want?

Police: I’m hungry.

With that, we settled the unexpected matter with 100 Pula and continued on our way. The cons outweigh the pros in a system where anything can be settled with money. On one hand, as evidenced by my Zambian friend’s experience in Jo’burg, you can get away from gunpoint situations with your life. On the other hand, prevalent bribery signifies a greater politico-economic system weighed down by graft and corruption.

Hello earth:  the Tropic of Capricorn

Looking for the Tropic of Capricorn in this parched landscape
A big smile as we spot our marker!
There it is! A big hug around the lower belly of the earth.

Two hours’ drive out of Gaborone, we began to scan the roadside for a signpost that marked the Tropic of Capricorn, one of the five key rings of latitude that marks the sphere of the earth. To my delight, we found the lonely signpost “TROPIC OF CAPRICORN” just ahead of the town of Mahalapye. Here I was on one point of a circle that marks the most Southerly latitude touched by the sun. Every year, it peaks above my exact location on midsummer day (summer solstice)- that is, December 22nd at 12:12 PM. How cool is that?

If I kept walking (and swimming) along the Tropic’s circumference, I’d slice through South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Australia, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay and Namibia. According to research on glaciation and Milankovitch cycles at Montana State University, this line is actually moving northward, albeit very gradually, at a rate of 15m/year. At this rate, it would take the Tropic roughly 50,000 years to shift north to the Botswana-Namibia border by Kasane, where I will fly to tomorrow. Imagine squeezing that seismic shift into an hour’s plane ride! Time warp.

Engraved: this point is on the Tropic of Capricorn, which is the most southerly latitude reached by the sun. Here the sun will e at the zenith each year on midsummer day at midday local apparent time which is on 22 December at approximately 12 minutes past twelve o’clock noon. At the above time the sun will shine directly down the tube above this notice.
The tube into which the sun shines precisely every midsummer day, approximately December 22 (summer is in December in the southern hemisphere, remember)

I later read some amazing facts about the native tribes, or San people (“bushmen”, though that is somewhat pejorative), we passed on the way. They are the hunter-gatherer people of Southern Africa who primarily farm for a living after the modernization program of the nineties. I learned to greet locals with “dumêla”, which is Setswana for “hello”. The Peace Corps has compiled a handy booklet if you’d like to be a better tourist, volunteer, or migrant in the Setswana-speaking countries of Botswana and its neighbors.

Setswana: dumela “hello”, Zama “let’s go”, baba “guy”, mama “girl”

Random observations 11:55 AM Nandos at Palapye

Making new friends every Nando’s I go. True joy.

Every stop at Nando’s is a good time, even if your order for chicken wraps is mistaken for burgers. This is easily rectified by re-ordering wraps to-go AFTER your burger. I’m shocked that the only Nandos available in the US is in Washington DC. I need to expand it to the West Coast ASAP.

Our entire crew is on navigation mode so as not to miss our turn into the Khama Rhino Sanctuary north of Serowe. Yellow grasses and endless bush flash by the corners of my eyes. We slow occasionally in case traffic police stop us for over-speeding or any other reason that can possibly be conjured. We are approaching Serowe.

Note on car plates: Botswana plates begin with “B” followed by 3 numbers and more letters. Cars from South Africa have more diverse plates, though most of which I observed begin with DS, CA, or other double/triple letter patterns.

If you love wildlife, better join me at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary tomorrow for a breathtaking safari.


A Taste of Gaborone, or Four

Day 1 (Part 2). Sunday 7/12/2015. 11AM.
Let’s eat.

I stepped into the Gaborone Airport arrivals hall, straight into the faces of Jane and her family.

I felt like royalty. And overjoyed to finally see familiar faces.

We took a bunch of photos at Sir Seretse Khama airport, where statues of the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) guard the entrance, and began our drive into downtown Gaborone.

Rhino 021
Outside Gaborone Airport. Ten minutes elapsed between aircraft landing and this photo.

Gaborone is only a 10 minute drive from the South African border. The capital of Botswana was moved here from Francistown after independence from the Commonwealth in 1966.

The streets are wide and easy to drive on. Small, blue metal shacks form scattered bus stops. Public transit by bus is really by white minivans. Transportation of choice/ by necessity is car, otherwise you have to walk everywhere. Most people drive SUVs so it’s easier to drive into the bush. There are lots of international schools; we passed at least 4 or 5 in one day. The “sidewalks” consist of dusty paths patched with dry winter grasses. You see the occasional goat and chicken running about residential neighborhoods. Malls such as Airport Junction are very modern, selling trendy clothes and filled with Nandos/Wimpy/Mugg and Bean fast food chains. Clothes and shoes on average cost 20-30USD.

Outside the city center, lots of hitchhikers give us thumb-ups for rides. Further out, bushmen and their kids drive donkey carts to move cargo and water between villages. It’s not easy living out there. It hasn’t rained in this country for three years (!!!). It has a very chill pace and I can see how the bush becomes a familiar notion of home for immigrants who have settled here for a long time.

I dropped off my luggage at Jane’s house in plot 6, a fairly new community inhabited mostly by Asian families. Many run retail stores and wholesale businesses. The 200-person headcount of early Chinese immigrants in the ’90s has burgeoned to a smashing 30,000+ population today. Astounding.

Diamonds and mining form almost half of GDP in Botswana. In fact, the world’s largest diamond production company De Beers (not to be confused with pizza chain Debenairs) chose Gaborone as  its operating headquarters. More specifically, De Beers’ mining arm in Botswana, a company named Debswana, operates through a 50:50 joint venture with the Botswana government. Of De Beer’s 20,000 employees across 5 continents, almost 90% are in Africa, and half of that in Botswana. As of 2011, 85% of De Beers is owned by Anglo American.  So last year may have been rougher than usual on fiscal revenues…

Mining aside, I indulged in an afternoon getting to know Gaborone through food. Stomach, battle stations.

Four tastes of Gaborone:

  1. Nando’s
  2. Bush and Bear
  3. Sanitas Tea House
  4. Mugg and Bean
Nando’s, Nando’s everywhere. #periperi #sauce

It was a meticulous plan. Jane (or rather, her strategic dad), got us started off with Nandos. Oh, my first Nandos. Love at first bite. I wanted more but we needed to take a short break before heading (almost immediately) to Bush and Bull for the Best Steak in Botswana. I coined that superlative because I grant it every right to claim the title.

Having been around for a couple decades, Bush and Bull is a local favorite and the only real nightclub in town. We got there around 3pm, in time to crash some 70 year old’s birthday party. Jane ordered a Malawi shanty for each of us straightaway, a sweet fizzy drink with a special red flavoring on ice. The steaks themselves were gut-blowing. Imagine 750g of T-bone grilled to tender perfection.

Bush and Bear, the perfect afternoon in the shade. In the back left, you can the granddad’s fun birthday party.
First, a glass of Malawi shanty
Bring on the game
Bull and Bush menu. The Pula had been approximately 1USD to 10 Pula last summer, and has depreciated further since then.

Next, we sampled some lemonade at Sanitas Tea House, an arts-and-craft slash open-air café complete with playground for the kids. Jane ran into her high school teacher here. Small world.

We also took a trip down memory lane to Jane’s International Baccalaureate (IB) school, Westwood international. To think we took the same curriculum (and got the same grades) in 2 utterly different worlds years before we met!

Westwood International School, Botswana. Cool place to study, huh?

Finally, we had dinner at Mugg and Bean, a South African café chain. The original plan was a Brazilian restaurant but workers are keen to go home so the operation closed its doors on us at 7:50pm even though its official close was later. I held no grudge as I felt replenished for the next 3 days running.

11:05 PM Grand Palm Hotel

Peacocks wander by sundown at the Grand Palm Hotel, where Gaborone officials, diplomatic visitors, and casino players alike convene.

This marks the end of my first day in Gaborone (Ha-bor-ro-nee), Botswana. My first day on earth’s Southern hemisphere. From striking up conversation with the Chinese miner returning to Zambia on my HKG-JNB flight, to my first sighting of the Mozambique coastline, to sinking my teeth into my first legendary Nando’s chicken, followed more steak into the night, the land I have experienced so far is a breathtaking yet gritty place which kindles a strong mix of feelings and questions.

So far, the trip has been anything but lonely. My first new friend of the day, at departure from Hong Kong, was Mr Zhang, my seatmate at 49B. His only son had just completed the strenuous high school 高考 process in China and is looking to apply for college abroad. However, he hopes to enroll his son into one of the 2-1-1 universities in Mainland China to study medicine or pharmacy. Mr Zhang had lived in Zambia for the past 3 years on his own. His family live in Gansu Province in Central/Northwest China, and he goes home twice a year to see them. It’s rough. He advised me vehemently to stay safe in Jo’burg and not meet “strange men” in Cape Town bars. He shared hours of stories of life in Johannesburg and a mining town in Zambia whose name I cannot remember…

[My diary stops here as I fell asleep from jetlag]

Later, I recall this glimpse into his life with profound amazement as I zoom out from the individual to the statistics capturing the mass migration of Chinese miners into the African continent. If this interests you, I highly recommend Howard French’s “China’s Second Continent” as a starter on the topic.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s road trip halfway across Botswana to the Khama Rhino Reserve.

10 Days in Botswana and South Africa

Last year today, I returned to Hong Kong after 10 unreal days in Botswana and South Africa to celebrate the transition from college to first job. I was (and still am) roommates with Jane, a Botswanan native, who adopted me for her annual trip home. What better time to make this happen?

A year and 9000 words later, I finally convinced myself that it is time to publish my Southern Africa special. Don’t give up on your readers, Mel. They like you! They do!

I present you 10 days in Botswana and South Africa. For those unfamiliar with this blog, it is the electronic version of a travel diary I’ve kept since 2012. My personal pensieve (what is a pensieve?). In hindsight, I should have written more how-to’s and planning resources, but that was no easy feat in the face of furious scribbling onboard a moving safari truck or staying focused at the sight of my first lion. The good news, however, is that you need not worry about any loss of authenticity from Day 1 to Day 10.

Unconventional situations for pen and paper ahead.

I want to leave you with the real-time emotions and unencumbered voice of your favorite travel writer’s first time on the African continent. Warning: embrace the starry-eyed college grad.

Day 1. Sunday 7/12/15 9:34 AM.
Boarding for flight BP 208 from Johannesburg to Gaborone

Arrival in O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg. Alone and ready to transfer to Gaborone, Botswana.

This is the last segment of my solo leg before I reach Jane’s mysterious, landlocked nest in Africa. Couldn’t contain more excitement, or as much excitement as one can contain after a 16 hour flight from Hong Kong to Jo’burg.

The boarding area resembles countless large bus stations I have embarked in China- a long row of gates where you line up to get onboard a bus that takes you to your plane. Time to go.

10:15 AM, Seat 5A of 14-row Air Botswana propeller plane.

I’m sitting right next to the giant propeller engine attached to the wing. I don’t remember the last time I’ve boarded such a small plane.

Welcome on board Air Botswana, the primary (and only) airline that operates within Botswana.

The propellers are whirring at full speed, a mechanical buzz of centripetal force, as we prepare for liftoff. The overhead broadcast tells me that we shall fly from Johannesburg to Gaborone at 18,000 feet, first in a language I don’t recognize (Setswana, I later learn) and then in English. We are taxiing rather slowly across the O.R. Tambo International Airport tarmac in South Africa’s capital city, and I’m beginning to wonder whether these propeller blades will ever be able to lift our metallic body off the ground, when we come to a complete halt.

Beyond the whirring blades, Tambo Airport is an endless, flat grassland on which humans plonked a maze of tarmac runways. In the current winter season (July in the Southern hemisphere), the dry red-yellow grasses bow under the windy criss-cross of air currents from planes landing and taking off. I was seeing many airline vessels for the first time- Egypt Air, Air Namibia, RwandAir, Air Zimbabwe, and of course, my airline of choice on my previous flight, South African. Alone and taking in my new environment, I fed off their exotic names like a hungry bird.

On this new continent, I can be sure that I’m seeing new faces for the first time. I definitely get a high out of this. If I were a battery, I would be powered by curiosity, with just a drop of discomfort to complete the sensation of novelty. That stuff is delicious.

And would you believe it- we’ve taken off! You have to put a lot of trust in small planes. At takeoff, it was a slightly wobbly experience where for a few minutes I was teetering from side to side with my eyes fixed on the whirring blades, daring them to freeze for some bizarre reason midair. When that didn’t happen, I let loose an irrational sigh of relief. Then I proceeded to enjoy the flight, defined by Botswana biltong: a bag of jerky made of the toughest beef I have ever had the pleasure to chew through. I was hungry and it was the bomb.

From above, Johannesburg is primarily flat (on my flight back to Jo’burg 4 days later, I realized there were exceptions to this observation). There are lots of townhouses, quite a few with bright blue swimming pools, and many factories, warehouses and mining grounds. Mostly, a mass of red-colored buildings, some with blue tops. The land is also heavily cultivated for agriculture, especially as we move north. We must have flown over South Africa’s political capital, Pretoria, at some point, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell. Some of the farms are perfectly circular, a surprise of geometry on a terrain of irregular shapes. I wonder why.  Maybe it makes it easier for farmers to measure volumes of crops, as the circles have been meticulously sliced such that different crops occupy different partitions. Ideas?

Quick take on land use to explain regional terrain: the Botswana-South Africa borders are defined by mining and agriculture, key revenue sources for government and private sectors.

This is a short flight as we are descending in the next 10 minutes. We must have passed the South Africa-Botswana border by now.

I really wonder how Jane grew up here, not in the sense that it’s difficult or undesirable, but that her childhood experience is unlike any environment I had known before.  At one point, we flew over a mountain range splitting the earth in two, abruptly raising one half of land above the other. After a lot of mulling, I came to the tentative conclusion that this might be a fault-line, but who knows if tectonic plate even exist in this part of South Africa?

Sometimes we pass red lands undulating with contours in a dough-like quality, but it is mostly flat. A long road cuts across the vegetation, and as its subsidiary roads branch off like capillaries, they trace the land with more irregular marks.

I think we are almost there. These are mighty good propellers. Closer to the ground, I see endless stretches of bush, no houses. If you go for a wild guess, you might even be tempted to think we’re in Nevada. With two loud crunches, I feel the plane’s wheels unfurl beneath me. God, it is so yellow with so much space. I wouldn’t have believed it a year ago that I’m landing in Gaborone, Botswana, today!

Do lions accidentally wander onto runways? (They don’t.) My imagination has come alive.

10 days and 3 destinations. #2 (not labelled on this screenshot) is Chobe National Park.

Southeast of the Tibetan Plateau: Daocheng Yading

In a few hours, I will be flying to the province of Sichuan to embark upon my summer expedition into Daocheng-Yading. Digging deeper into the profiles of Daocheng county and Yading National Reserve, I was surprised to find how closely they bordered the Himalayan plateau and Myanmar to the West; the latter is merely 200km away, a two hour drive!

Daocheng county in red, relative to Lhasa (capital of Tibet), Chengdu (of Sichuan), Kunming (of Yunnan) and Hong Kong (our starting point!)
Daocheng county in red, relative to Lhasa (capital of Tibet), Chengdu (of Sichuan), Kunming (of Yunnan) and Hong Kong (our starting point!)

So why Daocheng in Southwest Sichuan? I’ve developed a habit of looking up quick specs of any upcoming trips (call it being prepared) and It looks like I’m joining an electic group of keen tourists and dedicated Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims who flock to this breathtaking alpine expanse known as the “Last Shangri-la”. I’m anticipating a rich dose of natural scenery and the chance to observe and experience Tibetan Buddhist practice. Also looking forward to exploring local life and trying yak butter.

From what I understand, Daocheng county is inhabited by just over 32,000 people, of whom 96%+ are Tibetan and 90% work in agriculture. It is home to ancient mountains, lakes and glaciers considered highly sacred to Tibetan pilgrims. In particular, three holy mountains were believed to be blessed by (and hence named after) bodhisattvas in the 8th century. I’d just had the pleasure of spending a semester studying Buddhism in China (shoutout to RRO at Cal) so this history captivates my mind. Not sure if I’ll be visiting any one of these peaks but excited to see the 6,000+ m tall giants in all their quiet grandeur.

We’ll be bussing from Chengdu which should grant us a nice, gradual adjustment to the rising altitude, averaging 4,000 m (~13,000 ft) when we reach our destination within the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. I’d last visited Lhasa and its neighboring towns in Tibet in 2010 (Potala Palace in photo above). To say the least, it was a spiritually, visually, and physically unforgettable experience- respectively, for the Buddhist culture, the astonishing plateaus, and my body’s first and relatively comfortable attempt at coping with high altitudes.

In my imagination, Daocheng will offer something of the sort mixed with something entirely different. I shall find out! Goodbye, Hong Kong.

Lois Weisberg: To See the Beauty of All Worlds

I want to be a Lois Weisberg of all worlds- nations, cultures, philosophies, professions, and craftmanships.

Read of the day: The Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg, Malcolm Gladwell for the New York Times, 1999. Lois Weisberg is not the most powerful, important or charismatic person in the room, but an open-minded connector with an “involuntary affinity for people.” There is something beautiful about her instinct which “makes everyone seem like part of a whole,” unbound by socially constructed partitions.

To display an unqualified mind in understanding people.
To be in the thick of idea exchange between disparate worlds.
To maximize the power of weak links.

A Brief History of Geological Time, as told by the Grand Canyon

Now you can skip right to the Grand Canyon National Park’s geology homepage for details, but there’s NO way I’m allowing you to pass my blog without seeing a few geological highlights about this World Heritage Site.

First of all, as one of the most studied geologic landscapes in the world, the Grand Canyon offers us a sense of “deep” time. The concept inspires in me a sense of awe akin to smashing two Higgs bosons together (if that’s possible) or extracting some important insight through deep hierarchical learning.

Think about it this way: the earth was formed 4500 million years ago in the Hadean Era. The Grand Canyon offers rock formations that span over 1800 million years. Boom, that’s over a third of the earth’s history right there before your eyes.

The Grand Canyon offers us almost half (180 degrees) of the earth's geological history. Clock image courtesy of
The Grand Canyon offers us almost half (180 degrees) of the earth’s geological history, from the Proterozoic era onward. Clock image courtesy of
The story of rocks
The story of rocks layer by layer. 
Bouldering across rock strata and time
Bouldering across rock strata and time

These rocks’ immense age and fossil records show transitions in environments far different from present-day Arizona, or the world for that matter. In brief, continental drift caused the Pacific Plate and North American Plate to collide some 1800 million years ago, forming the ancient Rocky Mountains range Northwest of the canyon all the way up to Sierra Nevada. Then, a series of advancing and retreating ocean coastlines littered the flat Arizona plains with sedimentary rock layers and embedded them with time-telling fossil records. Eventually, the coast retreated and these mountains were eroded into a level plain. Shoutout if you took Geography 40 with me at Berkeley with Prof Chiang. That was the best.

Some 5 million years ago (relatively young in the scheme of things), the Colorado River began to take its modern course, flowing through the Colorado Plateau and into the Gulf of California. As I mentioned in my last post, the Grand Canyon’s North Rim is actually 1000 ft higher than the South Rim (where we stood) because the Colorado Plateau began to uplift some 17 million years ago. As a disclaimer, all the facts in this paragraph are still under debate by geological experts. Such is the nature of knowledge.

5 million years ago: impact of the Colorado River in forming the Grand Canyon. 
The Colorado River carried everything downstream, cutting deeper into the canyon. 
And there you have it: erosion's masterpiece.
And there you have it: erosion’s masterpiece.

What really astounds me is the power of erosion. Pause and consider how this gaping canyon began as an average river at ground-level. It flowed and flowed for 5 million years, wearing away the rocks and cutting the canyon down to the bottom of its heart its present depth of 6000 feet (1.14 miles) at its deepest point. All because of the simple element that is water. Distance is deceiving: I’d never have guessed that the opposite rim of the canyon is 18 miles away. That’s longer than a half marathon! No wonder astronauts search for this mind-boggling sight from space.

I’m just waiting for iOS/ Google Glass developers to make a “Star Walk”-like app that lets me scan these rock formations in real-time to parse their geological history.

As evening drew near, I left the Yuvapai Geology Museum and made efficient use of time by taking the shuttle back to the parking lot and driving to a different lot to take the red shuttle to Mohave Point for sunset. From Mohave Point, you see an endless expanse of the Arizona rock plain, with visibility 40-50 miles- an impossibility in Hong Kong. I don’t even have to close my eyes to imagine this land engulfed under an ocean. It was a time-travel kind of moment.

When the sun dipped behind the clouds and melded into a chromatography of colors, it got cold very quickly. We were lucky the last shuttle bus of the day came right away. Our driver was the friendliest guy ever and simply hilarious. He warned us about the 5000 elks that roam the area/ Highway 64 on which I drove to return to our motel. These idiots are the cause of 200 accidents a year, 90% in the nighttime. I did not run over any elks tonight (breath of relief) and slept with peace of mind.

Stay tuned for Antelope Canyon (see your Apple/ Microsoft desktop sample images for reference) and an hour of Utah tomorrow.

Sunset 1
Sunset 1 from Mohave Point
Sunset 2
Sunset 2 from Mohave Point
Sunset 3... And the day's gone
Sunset 3… And the day is gone

Grand Canyon State, How Ya Doin’?

The next series of posts will feature your happy writer’s first time setting foot (and 4-wheels) in the state of Arizona in the last spring break of her quickly disappearing college life.

Special mention and photo credits to Dad, who I had the pleasure of traveling with this weekend. Second special mention to my Nissan Sentra 2014 rental, which I drove over 840+ miles of highway, a new personal record. Third special mention to Madame Mother Nature, who I take my hat off to for producing some of the most awe-inspiring wonders my young human self has ever seen.

I jotted my memories down before hitting the pillow each night- darn good pillows and darn great memories. Back to the Grand Canyon State we go…

3/21/2015, 10 PM, Grand Canyon Inn on the 180-64 Junction, Arizona

I totally lucked out yesterday. It was the first time I have ever missed a flight, but thanks to a four hour connection in Los Angeles Airport (LAX) and being cleared on the 5pm standby for the SFO-LAX flight, I made it to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) as planned. After finding Dad, I drove a Nissan Sentra, registered only in January 2015, to the Red Roof Inn on Highway 17.

LA from above- goodbye, California!
LA from above- goodbye, California!

Today: started off with a scenic Northbound drive up the 17 from Phoenix, past Sedona, to Flagstaff. Transferred to Hwy 180, where I stopped by Mount Humphrey’s (3852 m, 12637 ft tall). Ironically, its tallest peaks are known as the San Francisco Peaks. Not only are they the highest among a group of extinct volcanoes, but also the highest points in Arizona. The Snow Bowl next door offers winter skiing and throwback to my last Thanksgiving in Tahoe. There’re still remnants of melting snow (to my surprise) by the highway, flanked by a breathtaking expanse of short, dry grasses. I found it a little hard to believe that this was the southern-most tundra in the USA. The altitude (~6000 ft) probably accounts for the cold. Jumped back into car after pictures because it’s a bad idea to wear shorts here. Oops.

Presenting Mt. Humphreys, highest peak in Arizona. Also, do not recommend driving with passenger door open.
Presenting Mt. Humphreys, highest peak in Arizona. I do not recommend driving with your passenger door open.

Next: drove through Kaibab National Forest and at 180-64 junction found our motel, the Grand Canyon Inn. Let me assure you, this is in the middle of nowhere. Period. In retrospect, I’d recommend living in Flagstaff because it’s a more convenient junction for accessing multiple scenic spots in Arizona besides the Grand Canyon.

We drove up the 64 North toward the Grand Canyon National Park at 2ish and FINALLY found parking around 3 PM. It’s as bad as parking in San Francisco. We meandered to the Visitor Center, gauged our action plan and attempted to make the 3:30 PM geology tour at the Yuvapai Geology Museum by walking the Rim Trail from Mather Point, and utterly underestimated how easily the Grand Canyon would detract us from our path.

You know that anticipation you carry when you’re about to see something really meaningful or eminent, something you’ve envisioned for the longest time, something your eyes are bursting to drink in at any second? Exactly. When you walk up the Rim Trail in search for that Grand Canyon view you’ve only seen through NASA’s photos from space (on the Internet, duh), but not with your own eyes, you will literally stop everything you are doing when the real view falls into sight.

It is magnificent. The pictures have a right to do the talking first.

The Grand Canyon South Rim: a panorama of geological time
I present you a panorama of geological time from the Grand Canyon South Rim
Too wide for my iPhone to capture: the North Rim you’re looking at is actually 1000 ft higher
Rock formations by day
3PM, rock formations by day. Note the horizontal rock stratification. 
Rock formations by sunset
6:30 PM, rock formations by sunset. The red of legends. 
Oops, dad fell off the Grand Canyon today.
Meanwhile, dad fell off the Grand Canyon today.
We are small but the canyon (and 2 billion years in between) is ours!
I found him! We are small but the canyon (and 2 billion years in between) is ours!

Three viewing points and several megabytes of photos later, we dragged ourselves off the Rim Trail and into the Yuvapai Geology Museum to understand what exactly we are looking at, which I will detail in the next post.

Prepare for the coolest geological crash course in my next post.
Prepare for the ultimate geology crash course in my next post. Cheers!