Friday, March 30, 2012

Acquiring our new home in Vegas (of all places!)
Thursday March 1st

Finally our new home - the Sportsmobile - is ready, but to avoid Californian sales taxes we have to pick it up in Vegas. This required us to spend a couple of nights on the strip, where we quickly figured out that the various gaming options  were all on a one way street - out of our wallet and into someone else's - the Casino owners! Now, I know that gambling can be addictive, but when some stupid machine just sucks up your cash with not even the slightest hint that it is going to give any of it back, why would you keep doing it? Maybe we were lucky enough not to win anything on our initial splurges, so hence the absence of incentive to continue. On the up-side - we quickly figured out that the cheap food and margaritas were available regardless of whether you gambled or not, so we focused on the former and ignored the latter. 

And then....drum roll.... the delivery of our the front door of our “New York, New York” hotel. Some papers signed (by a casino notary who presumably normally does instant marriages and divorces) and we were out of there - to another planet, called Red Rock - a beautiful mountainous wilderness just 20 minutes out of town.  

First camp in the new wheels!

Near Death (Valley) Experience
Sunday March 4th
Sure, coming from Vegas, you do approach Death Valley from the desert, but suddenly the desert becomes a lot more deserty We never cease to be amazed by the extraordinary diversity of rocks in the US and, in Death Valley, much of that diversity is packed into a relatively small area - let the pictures do the talking - although even they don’t do it justice. 

One of the great things about Death Valley is that you can free camp on the small 4x4 backroads provided you are more than 2 miles from the main roads. So after watching the sunset from Dante’s View, we found the nearest side road, drove 2.1 miles and found a place to spend the night under brilliant stars. 
The next day was spent driving around the valley interspersed with hikes up side gorges. As the sun dipped we climbed up a 4x4 trail on the western side of the valley till we had a vista over the flats and settled in for another not insignificant evening - that of our first home-made margaritas! Yes, our fridge actually produces ice. 

It’s tough in the desert!

So - what is the beast capable of?
 This morning saw us continuing our circumnavigation of Death Valley, passing firstly through the abandoned mining town of Rhyolite, before passing through the aptly decorated Teakettle Junction, then over the corrugations (“washboard roads” here) into a dust storm being whipped up from a huge player lake that is home to some famous rocks that, on very rare occasions, skate across the muddy surface, their circuitous paths reflecting the vagaries of the  strong winds that propel them.

From here, pretty much everybody turns back to the resorts, but our map indicated a 4x4 road that could potentially take us out of the west side of the valley, which is sort of the direction that we were wanting to go. After an uneventful initial climb, we came to a crest and before us was a daunting descent - the Lippincott Rd - a precipitously narrow track with drops of hundreds of meters below and no obvious room to pass should someone come from the other direction. After some nervous moments, we walked the first section to a point where  we could turn around if it got worse, and then drove it. In this manner, we walked, then drove, section after section of the trail.

Eventually we could see the track emerging onto the valley below and, thinking that the worst was behind us we threw caution to the wind and committed to pushing on - we had reached the point of no return! For a while all was well and our confidence mounted - until - the track cut across a cliff face, through the middle of which, an erosion gully had cut its way, taking a significant portion of the trail with it. Previous travelers had hammered some metal posts into the ground on either side and put some cable across, piling rocks behind the cable. Some sections clearly had lost their rocks, presumably falling down the 50-60 meters to the creek bed below, as previous vehicle crossed, so we piled some more in to try to level it off. Our problem was that the wash-away was in tight bend in the road so, whilst I could get the front wheels around the crevice, the turn meant that the rear wheels would take a shallower angle and the left hand rear would have to go over the loosely piled rocks. The cliffs would not allow us to take a wider angle - in fact, we had to take the bikes off the back so that they didn’t get taken off by the overhanging cliff. After inching forward bit by bit, we had the two front wheels across and one rear still on solid ground. We convinced ourselves that with three wheels on solid ground and sufficient forward momentum, we would be able to drag the fourth wheel across the loose rocks, even if they were to give way. So, hearts in mouths, we (actually I - Christine had got out and was watching - or trying not to watch - from a safe distance) pushed forward , and the rocks did indeed slip downwards under the weight but our momentum took us across! Fortunately from there on, whilst a slow and bumpy grind, there was no real drama apart from a huge dust storm that swallowed the sun and the surrounding mountains.

Climbing another range took us into the snow and cold, but above the dust, and we found a spot of the side of the track where we set up camp and drank to our first successful but intimidating off-road adventure in the new beast.  We subsequently bought a guide to 4-wheel drive trails of California that said of this section - “extremely remote. Suitable only for experienced drivers. Go with another vehicle” Question is, can we now consider ourselves experienced? Or just dumb?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Back from the brink - maybe there is hope?
Approaching Anapaca Island - one of the Channel Islands
How many islands does it take to make an archipelago? If five is sufficient, then today was spent visiting the Channel Islands archipelago. 

In what appears to be an emerging pattern, the activities we thought we had booked keep turning into something else (Alzheimer's  here we come!). On this occasion we were only three days wrong with our booking for a trip to Anapaca Island! So, in lieu of a boat going to where we wanted to go, we simply jumped on whichever one was going anywhere, which, in this case happened to  be a whale watching (searching for?) trip which took us from Ventura out to the waters around the islands. Whilst we lucked out on the whales, we were fortunate to see a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins, some of which chose to surf in the wake of the boat, and later, huge numbers of common dolphins, california sea lions and sea birds. 

You wouldn’t believe how cool surf scoters are - crazy little sea birds that feed in the huge surf, managing to dive below the water just as you think they are going to be beaten to a pulp by the dumping waves. 

So...the point of the section heading? Many of these beasties are returning from the brink of extinction. Sea Lions were down to about 600 individuals, Brown Pelicans were hammered by DDT and Elephant Seals were also almost exterminated, but now all can be found in healthy numbers so I guess the point is, never give up. Whilst all the other signals tell us that we are screwing the place, there are a few success stories that encourage us to keep fighting the good fight in spite of seemingly overwhelming odds. 

Sunset at Sycamore

Marbled (?) Godwits
California’s Highway One has to be one of the world’s great drives, particularly as it winds its way down the Big Sur coast. It’s only down-side is that it cuts a swathe between some beautiful beaches and some stunning gorges that make their way back into the spectacular coastal ranges. Sycamore Canyon is one of these places - miles of trails leading inland and a stunning beach at the mouth of the canyon. Just have to remember to look to the left, look to the right and look to the left again (yep, the opposite to Oz) before going from the gorge to the beach. Spent the day cycling the gorge trails on our new bikes and ended it on the beach with godwits, sherry, red wine, cheeses and pistachios as the sun burnt its way into the sea behind the islands.

Amongst the Joshua Trees
Yet another spectacular traverse of California’s coastal ranges took us from pine forests to deserts and the world of the bizarre Joshua trees - Yuccas on steroids! These remarkable trees provided the backdrop to a jumbled mosaic of granite boulders - home to a host of small ground squirrels, all sorts of odd cacti and way to many rock climbers. Put the bikes (well..our legs actually) to work again as we cycled through this surreal landscape.   

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Back to the beach
Thursday February 16

Big Sur Coast near Lucia
The vast flat agricultural lands of the San Joaquin Valley were not able to keep us fascinated for long (although the splashes of pink and white afforded by the early blossoming fruit trees provided bursts of color) so we found yet another circuitous and spectacular byway through the mountains, this time descending steeply from the Santa Lucia Range to emerge on a fairly deserted part of the spectacular Big Sur coast. The lowering sun found us watching elephant seals misbehaving only meters from the coastal highway - the huge males beating  each other up between molesting the females in their harem (or in someone else’s if they didn’t have their own and were quick enough!).

In the dying light, we arrived at the Margaret River coast driving through the tall stands of elegant karri trees to.... what the!!!! Where the hell are we? No...this isn’t some weird time warp and we haven’t been teleported back to Western Australia. We are actually driving through spectacular stands of eucalypts on the California coast! How bizarre. Rolled into camp just as the sun dipped over the horizon and fired up the campfire once again. 
Seaside strolling...
Friday February 17

..was meant to be a hike but...well, we just didn’t seem to be in a rush.....

Santa Barbara butterflies
Crappy photo in low light - but you get the picture
Saturday February 18

Staying for a few nights just out of Santa Barbara with my niece, Rowena, and her partner Adrian. A healthy mix of good eating, walking, cycling and more good eating. Less than a mile from their house in a grove of eucalypts - yep, more bloody gum trees - is a huge colony of over-wintering Monarch butterflies - millions of them, some of which are flying around, but the majority of which are clustered in huge, pendulous masses which hang from the branches. We thought that we were going to have to go to Mexico to see this, but here it is just out the back door of the relies!

Santa Barbara Mission
Now, one of the things that we are all guilty of, is not visiting the tourist attractions in one’s own town until someone visits from elsewhere. So, we being the elswerians, we took Rowena off to the Santa Barbara Mission, established back in the 1780s as part of a chain of missions throughout California, each within a day's walk of each other. 

Suitably cultured,  we jumped on bikes and cycled along the foreshore to lunch in a local cafe.
Lunching with Rowena in Santa Barbara
Now it just happens that the above mentioned Adrian is a competitive down-hill cyclist and one of his multiple jobs is working in a bike shop. So we went to sample his wares and, the next thing we knew, we were the proud owners of a pair of hard-tail 29’er  mountain bikes (we don’t know what any of that means, but it’s important to pretend that one understands the lingo  (not that Americans would understand what “lingo” is).

Spot the Hazards...

Camping between the banks
Friday February 10
 So ... we’d got a rental RV (the one we are buying is not ready yet) but by the time we sorted out computers and stuff it was too late to leave town so we found a RV park down by the Long Beach foreshore - the equivalent of the Perth foreshore for those of you who know Perth. The harbour bank on one side and the Bank of America on the other. And then we got a fireworks display to top off the evening followed by a fly over of more than a dozen airforce helicopters the next morning - it’s all happening in Long Beach!

Union Bank on one side ...
river bank on the other, Long Beach.
Elevated above the ordinary - an afternoon at the Getty Centre
Saturday February 11

Perched in the Santa Barbara Hills, the monument that is the Getty Centre looks down upon the brash glitz and pseudo glamour - not to mention pollution - of LA. From below, looking up, it appears to be somewhat of a fortress, but once one arrives, the sheer elegance and refinement of design becomes apparent - it is a building to be in and around, not one to gaze on from afar. On the balmiest of days in what is an unseasonably early spring, the flowers are already out - azaleas, tulips and yes - you’d better believe it - kangaroo paws, in an unlikely but stunning garden arrangement with striking sculptures strewn throughout. The travertine pillars and gateways create windows on different parts of the gardens as well as on the city below, where waves of clouds could be seen building off the coast, seemingly contemplating whether or not to shroud the city in fog.
A few hours was sufficient to provide only a sample of what obscene wealth can buy - a select but impressive collection with both older masters and contemporary works arranged through a time series of some of the greatest artists that the world has produced. The ability to wander in and out of galleries, alternating the displays with beautiful garden vistas makes this a place that one could easily spend a day or two.  
Headed into the hills behind Malibu and found a picturesque camp site for a couple of nights interspersed with some walking around the trails of Malibu Canyon State park.

Our campsite at Malibu Creek State Park

Santa Barbara Sunday
Sunday February 12

Well ... a bit of poetic license, but we have been in the Santa Barbara Mountains and on our way back to the coast somewhere in the vicinity of SB. And it is Sunday. So what do Los Angeleans and Santa Barbarians (is that what they call themselves?) do on a Sunday? Many get on their motor bikes, or in their Porsches and Maseratis and speed around the windy roads through the hills just behind the LA / Santa Barbara Coast, presumably considering the fines dealt out by the police car tucked behind one of the sharp corners to be part of the price for a day’s entertainment. A smattering of fitness freaks do it on their pushbikes, thereby avoiding the speeding fines. A couple of old farts (us) in an oversized RV spoils the fun of the former and scares the daylights out of the latter! There is obviously a requirement for all motor bikes to stop in the same spot at a cafe / restaurant that couldn’t possibly meet the needs of the 100+ motorbikes (& not a Ducati to be seen) that are there at any point in time, but clearly the main purpose is to be part of the mob that are getting away from it all (together) rather than actually getting any coffee or cake. All the Porsche drivers waited ‘till they got to the coast and then lunched in a swanky seaside restaurant. We parked by the beach and had fruit and yoghurt - not very fashionable I’m afraid - but there was no crowd. high does the tide come in??
The end of the day sees us camped literally on the sand at Point Mugu State Park just south of Santa Barbara.  The waves are currently breaking about 50m away but the damp sand and scattered debris on the beach suggest that they may be lapping around our tyres in the night - haven’t pointed this out to Christine - will inform her in the morning. Beautiful sunset over the ocean (complete with pelicans), but windy as, so we canned the idea of a campfire and instead, snuggled indoors with a good Sonoma red.

Brown Pelicans about to call it quits for the day

Over the hills to Fresno
Monday February 13

An early cup of tea and we were on our way meandering the narrow winding roads through the Las Padres National Forest and over the Sierra Madre mountains. Hardly a soul to be seen on the roads as we twisted and turned up the steep inclines over ridges clad with pine and gullies lined with deciduous trees, many already starting to shoot new bursts of green.

“So why the heck would you want to go to Fresno?” asked my niece Rowena. Other than being the methamphetamine capital of the US, it doesn’t seem to have a great deal to offer the tourist - but we had good reason - we were off to meet our new home, and what a scary looking abode it turned out to be! Still under construction, it looked a lot bigger than we expected with huge wheels and jacked up like crazy. I don’t think there will be many places this beast wont go! Still half constructed, it looks more like a workshop at the moment, than our living quarters, but we were assured that it will be looking sparkling new in a little over a week. Can’t wait!

The other highlight of Fresno was the discovery of REI outdoor gear shops. Signed up as a member and started getting adventure-ready, checking out their range of mountain bikes, buying some new hiking shoes and, most importantly, a cute little espresso coffee pot.