Having escaped the controlled itinerary of the photo tour we embarked on 9 days of independent travel, covering some of the same territory that we had just covered. The reasons for this are a long story with the photo tour itinerary changing a few times over the previous eight months.
Covering the same territory again is not necessarily a bad thing - as an unconstrained re-visiting of places visited on the tour allowed us to be more touristy and also find our own photographs away from some of the more obvious locations. We had obtained a modicum of familiarity if not local knowledge to help us along the way, which helped the driving on the wrong side of the road and the navigation. Besides, we had only just touched the surface of what we could see in all those places.
A return to Las Vegas before our flight home was also a much more enjoyable experience - a much better hotel with more accessibility to good food, shopping and entertainment certainly helped.
So after 14 days captive to someone else's itinerary we returned to Monument Valley, staying at the View Hotel - the only hotel within the park that is a stunning location for the sunset view of two buttes (the Mittens). The View Hotel was a truly wonderful location - pricey but worth it for the view. Surprisingly the food here was inexpensive given the select location - and booze prices were not an issue as the Navajo nation is dry. Non-alcoholic beer was surprisingly tasty. Non-alcoholic wine was disgusting!
From Monument Valley we then travelled to Page, on Lake Powell - the upstream dam on the Colorado River. Here we finally got touristy - mixing a six hour photographic tour in Canyon X with a Lake Cruise. Canyon X is another slot canyon that is accessed by only one operator. With travel and walking time taken off we had nearly four hours photographing in the two parts of this slot canyon with no distractions from other tours.
Lake Powell is starkly beautiful, and a houseboat mecca in summer. Our cruise took us into the lower reaches of Antelope Canyon to the point where the boat could go no further - narrow cliffs and just 5 feet of water under us. A boat cruise on a river or lake is always refreshing and set us in good mood for the rest of our trip.
The Grand Canyon was our next stop - and we took the opportunity to play tourist with ranger talks and headed in the opposite direction around the rim to that which we had done on the photography tour. Strong contrasty and hazy light again filled the canyon adding to the photographic challenge of making interesting compositions of something so familiar to all.
Our next stop took us to new territory - Death Valley. Primal landscapes and 30 degree C heat in late autumn met us as we finally found our accommodation at Stovepipe Wells - a village that our GPS did not know about. This village is near the Mesquite Sand Dunes, very photogenic but almost always covered with tourists and their footprints whether at dawn or sunset. (Fortunately Photoshop can fix this minor distraction.)
Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley - with or without Photoshop help
Parts of Death Valley had been mined for Borax and other minerals in the late 1800s to mid 1900s so it is hard to say how much of the landscape is natural, however the floor of the valley is well vegetated (in an arid sense) and the surrounding mountains were essentially free of vegetation. From the US low of 282 feet below sea level to over 11,000 feet in just a few miles are the extremes on show.
Much of the landscape here exhibits classic badlands erosion - none moreso than Zabriskie Point, where the lookout will soon be closed for repairs to the erosion that is undercutting the famous monument. Whilst there we saw a group of photographers making and exposing collodion glass plate negatives (an 1850-60s technology) using a tent as a makeshift darkroom.
Finally we returned to Las Vegas, where our Presidential Room at Planet Hollywood erased the after effects of the horrible hotel from where we started our US tour. I say Presidential Room - it was really a Presidential Film Room - as the Planet Hollywood has film-themed rooms throughout. This was a positive Vegas experience - we found good food (Gordon Ramsey's Burgr Bar was a real highlight and not too expensive), interesting shops and even great coffee (real latte and macchiato).
Being located on the strip was also a bonus so we could venture out into the action if we wanted. We had to wonder about a couple of things though - M&M world was a 4-floor marketing push of everything M&M without any free samples. We didn't bother with Hershey World as the chocolate is not worth worrying about.
Finally, we had to return home tour our now lonely puppy Tawny as we had lost Dalace just before we went away. Our final future laugh point once the pain goes away was to find that our travel agent (used by the tour company) that we had booked things through had only allowed us 65 minutes from landing in LA to our Sydney flight's departure time. Fortunately American Airlines and Qantas came to the party and got us onto a later flight from LA to Sydney which was just as well. At LA we had a delay in the shuttle bus arrangements between domestic arrival and international departure such that we didn't arrive in the international terminal until 10 minutes after our original flight had departed. Our Airbus 380 flight, carefully booked on our part was lost to a much noisier flight on a 747.
In all we enjoyed the hospitality, politeness (they don't seem to swear much at all) and customer service (one notable exception).
There was familiarity in the arid landscapes (apart from the big bumpy bits); the look of the arid vegetation; the long, wide and fairly straight roads; and, even the light was similar to our outback light.
Poor quality or non-existent wifi bandwidth and phone coverage was another reminder of travelling through the outback regions of South Australia.
The movie references everywhere were strong (especially in Monument Valley and Death Valley) - but a favourite movie poster at Death Valley was for Robinson Crusoe on Mars from 1964, listing Mona the Woolly Monkey as third in the acting credits.
Along the way we lost the novelty of mexican food - but not margeritas, became accustomed to filtered black coffee in the mornings and enjoyed the steaks, ribs and crispy bacon.
Finally, it is the beauty of the national parks visited that will stay with us. Wonderful just for the experiences of being there, as well as providing interesting photographic locations.
Keith & Barb