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Running out of superlatives: rotors over the Grand Canyon

I drop off the rim of the world.

The helicopter yaws and bounces in updrafts as it dives into a different planet ablaze with yellow ochres, rose madders, and burnt siennas.  The rim is above me now and I see a tiny speck just dipping over the edge. It’s our sister chopper five minutes behind. A limestone butte with alizarin cliffs two hundred metres high looms dead ahead, and over two kilometres (1 mile) below winds a muddy river—the Colorado.

My day had begun early when I boarded a mini-van in Scottsdale for a thirteen-hour, eight hundred-kilometre (500 mile) exploration of northern Arizona, which included a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. My choice of a tour company couldn’t have been better – only ten people, each with a window seat and a captain’s chair, and a knowledgeable guide. Les had degrees in earth sciences and history, and his commentary held me spellbound. The dramatic elevation changes on the northerly drive meant we passed through five distinct climate zones from desert to high alpine. The tour took us through Sedona with its famous red rocks and into Oak Creek Canyon with sheer mountain walls and evergreens that made the Canadians homesick. Then it was through Flagstaff and up onto the Colorado Plateau dotted with dozens of extinct volcanoes.

I step out of the van at the Grand Canyon Airport and pull on a jacket – the temperature drop with a brisk breeze is a shock. First I’m weighed at Maverick Helicopters check-in, strap on a life preserver, and then I concentrate on the pilot’s instructions. Inside the goldfish-bowl cockpit I’m overheating in the sun as we roar along just above the trees to the rim of the canyon. This is the moment – all reference to the ground vanishes in a heartbeat and we seem to hang in space. Sights overwhelm and sound diminishes.

A palette of colours surrounds me. We swoop up and down cliffs, around buttes, and along knife-edge ridges, each more breathtaking than the last. Every sight is a perfect image and I start shooting with abandon. In a side canyon far below is a brilliant turquoise river, dyed by the calcium carbonate deposits it carries; folds in the earth are sage-green where desert vegetation grows; ribbons of black basalt and ivory sandstone encircle the vermilion buttes; and in the distance, screes are painted shades of burgundy and lavender.

An hour’s flight compresses into fifteen minutes. My adrenalin bleeds away when we land. I have my “hero photo” taken with the pilot feeling the ground sway gently under my feet. “More, please,” I say when he asks what I want to do next.

He laughs and turns to start his pre-flight check for the next batch of passengers.

I spy elk and pronghorns among huge Ponderosa pines as we drive to Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim and later to the visitor centre further east. For me the canyon is less exciting from land, but I hear gasps from tourists beside me seeing it for the first time; one actually weeps. From the South Rim, the valley floor is two and a quarter kilometres (1.4 miles) straight down from my big toe. I fear the edge, but many hang over the fence, their cameras clicking and whirring. Two Buddhist monks climb right over and perch on the rock edge making me queasy, but not enough to stop recording their foolhardiness.

From a mile high, the Colorado River looks about six metres (20 feet) wide when in reality it is over ninety-one metres (300 feet) across with standing waves of nearly five metres (over 16 feet). Although I know the dimensions of the Grand Canyon and that it is the seventh wonder of the natural world, I can’t help underestimating everything about it. Two billion years in the making, the canyon whispers the story of planet Earth into my ear.

Our guide hurries us to the next viewpoint where the light is deepening and long indigo and violet shadows creep across the vastness of rock walls and gullies. I hope my camera can capture the changing light. I rub my hand over the grey, weathered bark of a Pinyon Juniper at Moron Lookout and smell the distinctive resin from the needles I crush under my nose.

“That tree’s over one thousand years old,” my guide says. “The Spanish conquistadors tethered their horses to it in September 1540. They were the first Europeans to encounter the Grand Canyon – just imagine how they reacted to this sight!”

“Without the comfort of a guard rail, they probably crossed themselves,” I reply.

I tear myself away from the canyon’s enchantment and settle back for the long journey home. My memory repaints the experience; my camera holds it safe.  I’ve been to many places in my life, but nowhere has had this effect on me. As the full moon rises in the east, I relish deleting number three from my bucket list and adding two more—the mule trek to the canyon floor and a river rafting expedition.

A visit to the Grand Canyon will be a highlight of your life, so aim to spend as long as you can afford here; there’s a lot to see and do. (Prices in USD.)
• Official website:
• If you arrive by car, the entrance fee to the Grand Canyon National Park is $25.00. Park your car and take the hop-on, hop-off free bus.
• Accommodation: P: 1.888.297.2757.
• Listing of tours available: P: 1.866.944.7263.
• From Scottsdale: I took Detours of Arizona’s Colors and Canyons Ground and Helicopter Tour – $370/person incl. lunch, water, fees. (Excl. flight costs $145.) P: 1.866.438.6877
• Maverick Helicopter tours: Canyon Spirit Tour, 50 mins, $250/person. (DVD of flight extra.) P: 1.888.261.4414.
• River-rafting trips: and (smooth water, suitable for families).
• Mule trekking tours: (strict height and weight restrictions apply).

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