Sunday, October 3, 2010

Camping at Death Valley

This is a guest post written by my friend Vidya. She wrote this in 2005 after we came back from a trip to Death Valley National Park. This funny account of our camping trip brings a smile to my face every single time I read it. Our friends loved it and we encouraged Vidya to write more. This post hopes to serve as a giant kick in the butt and get her back to writing

One fine bright and sunny day, my husband and I decided that it was time to take yet another vacation before getting frustrated all over again with work. Destination Death Valley National Park was our first spot. Vam and Pengo took care of all reservations while Saru and me spent time at work happily browsing all sites we could find on Death Valley and Channel Islands. I for one, could hardly concentrate on anything else for the last week and a half .

There was one tiny teensy snag to this excitement however. Well you see, our friend Vam had this brilliant idea that we should all camp-yes camp, in Death Valley for one night, her reasoning being that all hotels in a 100 mile radius were booked or sold out (which I do not believe for one second – she and my husband are peas in the same pod when it comes to camping – my hubby being even worse – his idea of camping does not even include sleeping bags and enclosed restrooms – I rest my case here) – well, anyways, Vam bet each one of us a $100 bucks if we could find one vacant hotel, and seeing as she was so confident, we had nothing else to do but go where she took us. The night before the trip, I made a call to them with the sole purpose of trying to allay my fears with respect to the camp…you see I have been bred in the city all my life and the most I have been close with nature would be a school picnic to Powai lake for 3 hours. And this was hard-core camping complete with tents, sleeping bags, freezing-extreme temperatures, not to mention, wild animals like foxes, coyotes, snakes and all kinds and varieties of bugs and insects (the last few of which Pengo was most eagerly looking forward to and the only reason he agreed to the trip in the first place). So I had high reservations about anything to do with camping – the mentality of people who want to deliberately lie on jagged stones in the peril of being eaten up alive by a bear, stung by a scorpion, poisoned by a snake or worse get drenched in the rain when all you are trying to do is get one night’s sound sleep - is well beyond my realm of comprehension, - and thankfully there was one sane person in the group, Saru - who happened to agree with me.

When I expressed my doubts about this camping idea to Vam and Pengo, firstly everyone beat it down saying that I have led a sheltered and protected life till now in Bombay - and that even though it was called a jungle – it was but merely a concrete one – my husband put in his 2-bits saying my idea of adventure was to travel from West-Mulund to East Mulund – which I thought was a totally uncalled for comment.

The drive

Vam then proposed that we should take the ‘scenic’ route instead of the staid old freeway. Now, what I didn’t know in my naiveté then and what I have now learnt through bitter experience now, is that when Vam says ‘scenic’ what she really means - is a gut-wrenching, heart-stopping thrill ride through deep trenches, narrow gorges, mountains on the brink of mudslides which could bury you under any second, valleys and so on and so forth…Basically we got our money’s worth of amusement park thrills and chills sans the long queues.

My way of dealing with the situation was to mumble prayers under my breath and mutter a string of predictions of the exact manner in which we were going to meet our end and other fore-sayings of doom throughout. By the time we were close to our destination, both Saru and I were slightly sick and had turned a delicate shade of green in color – Saru don’t deny it – I have a picture to prove it.

Wildflowers at Antelope Valley State Park

Death Valley

After a short detour to see wild flowers, we decided to drive non-stop to Death Valley, in the hope of putting up our tent before the sun went down. I use the term non-stop very loosely here; Me, Vam and Saru made Pengo stop at the sight of every lake, flower or hillside that caught our attention and had our fill of oohs and aahs. By the time we were done with our random loiterings and umpteen photo stops, it was well past daylight and we had not even reached the outskirts of Death Valley. The road to DV was pretty much the similar thrill ride I mentioned earlier with the elevation and grading losing 100 feet for every mile or so. And I kept up my steady monologue of doomsday uttering's and dark prophecies about how we were soon going to go crashing down the hill. By this time we had given up all hopes of ever putting up tent in daylight and were resigned to using the car headlights once again as Vam, Saru and Pengo fondly reminisced about the umpteen times they have camped and never once have they reached their goal of setting up a tent under natural light before the sun went down.

The Episode of the Tent

We finally reached our campsite at around 9pm. Masters in the art of camping the Vam and Pengo are, the tent was up and about in almost no time – Saru also seemed to be very useful with the manual labor, while I simply hovered around being of no use to anyone - but I did get second by second in- action shots of the masterpiece being created. That should count for something.

Well satisfied with our handiwork, we gazed fondly at it one last time and proceeded to head to the 49-ers Café for a well-earned dinner.

Just as we were close to finishing our dessert, (I ordered an amaretto liqueur coffee for the first time in my life and to say the least, was disgusted with it), we heard loud downpour outside and saw that it had started raining heavily. It suddenly dawned on us that even though we had finished pitching our tent, we didn’t know if we had secured it enough to withstand such a heavy deluge.

Just as suddenly as it had started, the showers came to an abrupt end, and we hurriedly paid our bills and left to see the state of our tent. Sure enough, there it was, wet and soaked in the rain, lying in complete shambles on the ground and with it went the product of an hour’s worth of sweat and toil. It must be registered on record that our morale definitely spiked sharply downward at this point, as we were all so tired after our long eventful day, and all we wanted to do was hit the sack as quickly as possible.
But kudos once again to Vam and Pengo, who did not let us give up, and quickly chalked out a POA to salvage what we could of the tent. We grabbed a couple of beach towels and wiped out all traces of water from the outside of the tent. Luckily the inside was still nice and dry due to the rain-shield that we had had the foresight to put over the tent. We pitched the tent again, this time, making it stronger by securing it with heavy rocks. We then brought out the sleeping bags and comforters and laid them neatly inside, and wrapped up our pillows that had become a bit soggy, in blankets and voila – everything was perfect again.

Only after this were we able to see the humor in the situation and had a gala time joking about it till we finally fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion and all the excitement of the day. This officially marks the end of the chapter in my life where I had my first camping experience, and for the record, despite all that I’d heard and thought about it, despite all the misgivings I had, I definitely had a great time and – I know I’m laying myself on the line here with Vam and Pengo – and would be open to considering another camping trip – in the distant future!

Sand Dunes

We stopped our car at the dirt track on the side of the road and walked the rest of the way to the sand dunes, and when we did catch the first glimpse of them – man what an awe-inspiring sight it was. Just imagine – Mounds and mounds of pure clear sand heaped high shining with a pearl-like luminescence towering against the backdrop of the soaring Grapevine Mountains surrounding the valley. Saru practically went into raptures of blissful ecstasy trying to get as many shots of this bounty of nature as possible.

The initial few miles of the dunes were covered with footprints but we trekked a bit further into the interiors and here the dunes were even more pristine, untrammelled with and untouched by human steps. Here we were even more amazed by the innumerable soft patterns engraved by the winds on the dune, ranging from simple lines to a myriad of stripes and shapes.

Completely mesmerized and lost in the bliss for a long time we sat in silence enthralled taking in the beauty

Devil’s Golf Course

After this we drove further southward to hit the spot that intrigued us the most just by the sound of its name – Devil’s Golf Course. Doesn’t it sound jazzy? Well, whatever we expected, it definitely couldn’t match up to what we actually saw.

More than 2000 years ago, this part of Death Valley was a deep lake. When the climate warmed, the lake dried up and the minerals became increasingly concentrated. Eventually, only a briny soup remained, forming salty pools. Salts began to crystallize, coating the muddy lake-bed with a three to five feet thick crust of salt. Over the years, the silty salt at Devil's Golf Course grows into fantastic, intricately detailed pinnacles.

That concludes the chemistry class for those who really understood it. Me- even though I still haven’t really grasped the finer points (or the not so fine ones, for that matter) – I’m still struck by the actually imagery of it. To think that the knarled terrain of 1 foot hard mounds jutting out from the lake, actually is ordinary kitchen salt! Now that sounds utterly implausible and far-fetched, doesn’t it! The salt crystals seemed so delicate in their formation. We gingerly stepped on it thinking it’s apt to crumple at any minute but much to our surprise, they were rock solid and more than held up the weight of 2 humans. To top off my excitement, I even could hear the musical pings of the tiny salt crystals bursting apart in the heat and was thoroughly thrilled.

Since the day was so beautiful and the waters calm, we could even see the reflection of the Panamint Mountains flashing in and out from between the salt mounds in the gleaming waters – the whole thing was incredible.


The low, salty pool at Badwater, just beside the main park road is apparently the best known and most visited place in Death Valley. I really don’t know why. After all of the amazing sights that we had enjoyed at Death Valley so far, I guess our expectations were set a bit high, and so seeing Badwater was like splashing ice cold water on your face - a complete anti-climax. Badwater.....was well!!! BAD WATER!!

The water here really bad – the toxins in it would kill you if you drank enough of it. Legend has it that one of the early surveyors at Death Valley saw that even his mule wouldn't drink from the pool, even though the place was sweltering hot and they were dying of thirst. He noted the place as "badwater" on his map and the smart marketing folks in the US spun it as a tourist spot. At 282 ft below sea level, Badwater is the lowest spot on land in the Western Hemisphere, and also one of the hottest. But all it really consisted of was a smelly pond and a wooden sign that says you are 280 feet below sea level.

Between all of these magnificent geological sights, one other thing worth mentioning, is that desert though it may be, this time around, the unusually unstinting rainfall that it received, sparked off an extraordinary and bountiful growth of wildflowers all over the place. The contrast is especially striking when you juxtapose it with the dry scorching temperature of the place and the barren landscape you’d expect of a desert.

The next day we went to Channel Island off the California Coast, but that is another trip report.

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Lavender Fields of Provence


  1. Lovely post Vidya. If I could tie you down, put a gun to your head and make you write, I would!! Your writing is just great. I have a smile on my face EVERY single time I read this. Posting this writeup is my way of showing how much I enjoy your writing. DO write more. If you are too lazy to start your own blog, I will be very happy to post them here.

  2. But why the name 'Death Valley when it is so beautiful.

  3. Vidya, what a riot! This post is hilarious! When I saw the length of the travelogue..I was like...ya I am going to read all of that! I'll just look at the pics and leave a nice comment at the end. BUT...once I started reading, I couldn't stop! It was such a fun read! You should definitely write more often. Loved Pengos snarky comments...West Mulund to East Mulund, huh? :)

  4. OMG Vam...u really did it...i thought you were just threatening me with it:-) Thanks for this giant kick in the butt...its been a while since I read this blog, but reading it now reminds me of why I love to write...I am instantly transported 5 years back and reliving all the FUN we had then! I sort of cheat now by just clicking a massive number of pictures on trips, thinking I can bypass the writing this way...but clearly..there is no equivalent to the sheer joy you get by recounting the adventure in black and white...I can see y u have so much drive for ur writing Vam! I will definitely try to write more often now...'Starting trouble' is the problem with me...once I start I dont know when to stop! Exhibit A- this blog above;-)...And this comment also it seems...Pengo is sitting behind me right now glancing at my screen 'wise-ass'ing that my comment is now almost as long as the blog itself ;-) Btw...the pics are all courtesy Saru right? Making sure I mention that!:-)
    Thanks again!

  5. @Kala - Thanks so much for your words of encouragement! If you thought that this blog was long, you should have seen my original was a 10-page account of a two-day trip! Vam was kind enuf to read all that material and edit it such that it retains the important parts but is still ok for a quick read (rather than as a novel for when its a rainy day;-)! And yeah...Pengo never tires of reminding me how completely city-bred I am and what all I missed coz of that;-) Btw...Baskar is so great at writing too (I read one of this things)...u shd ask him to blog too..he is so funny!

  6. So well related. :)
    The pics are mind blowing.

  7. Fab pics and narration.... Great work, Vidya... you should certainly write more, and Vamsee, great work,putting this up so that we could all get to read this!

  8. Mridula,
    This National Park is in the middle of Mojave Desert. For 100's of miles, there is no food or water, so the English Surveyors gave that name!!
    Even to this day, we have to drive through 200 miles to wilderness to get there. There are no rest areas or hotels on the way. There are two small motels in the park and a large camping site where we stayed.

  9. Everytime I read this blog (completely), I am always amazed by Vidya's beautiful prose and ability to write (and write..) Really, more than the photos the written word brings fonder memories. Vam thanks for the expose'. Vidu it is absolutely time for you let loose again... BTW dont think I ever read the Channel island blog...

  10. Great writing Vidya, mind-blowing pics!!! Why haven't you been blogging all this time? You should!! Good job!

  11. superb , u should write more ya

  12. Cool Vidya..I did not know you wrote that should write more about our colorado remmeber that's been years...

  13. Very well written Vidya. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The mention of Mulund West-Mulund East should be extended till Ghatkopar.. I was fondly remembering all the adventures u always encountered..

  14. Hellow!

    I love your site, It is a pleasure to visit.
    I have added your site to my site.
    Please link my site to your site.

    Thank you!

  15. Great post vidya. I have never heard of this place before reading your blog. I am sure this will help me for my trip to Death Valley. india travel

  16. A very good narration of your fascinating trip in the wilderness, and I loved the humor in your writing Vidya. You ought to write more often. And such superb photographs!. Thanks for sharing Vamsee.

  17. awesome shots!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    and an interesting narration!!!

  18. Very well written and great images...


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