Wednesday, November 16, 2016


On our way to the mountains, canyons, and oases of the
San Andreas Fault
A plume of dust rises behind the red jeep as we bump our way into the sandy reaches of the San Andreas Fault east of Palm Springs in California. We're at the most southerly point of this famous 800-mile fault line that marks the junction of the North American tectonic plate with the Pacific plate. Houses are only one storey here; swarms of minor tremors occur often but are rarely felt; and the topography is rugged, caused by eons of upheavals.

Our guide, Cheyenne, drives home the need of hydration in this arid and hot desert today. Then we stop on flat sand for a geology lesson before we reach the mountains and canyons. It's sobering. This fault is 200 years overdue for a massive and destructive earthquake of over 8 or 9 on the Richter scale.

Palms show an underground water course

The jeep rumbles to life and we head directly at the long ridge of low mountains. Below them lies a line of indigenous California Fan Palms. They indicate an underground water course — a huge aquifer lies below this area and small streams occasionally flow close to the surface. The flat plain in front is an ancient sea bed, and the mountains show striations and wadis caused by erosion and are penetrated by narrow canyons. Desert plants look nearly dead, but aren't — they are just adapted to deal with the heat and evaporation loss from leaves.

I've been here once before but it's my traveling companion's first time. She's fascinated, madly pointing her camera in all directions. I'm hoping I won't have seen it all before. Soon I realize that we are visiting places I didn't go to last time. 

Serpentine Canyon
We're lucky, one of our fellow tour members is a member of the First Nation who have lived here for more than 10,000 years. He tells us about the oral histories, storytelling of his grandfather, and his spiritual traditions. I listen, wondering how anyone could survive in this wilderness of sand and rock.

The jeep winds along barely discernible tracks in the sand as the rocks pile up beside us and seemingly lean over the vehicle. Narrower and narrower. A crow attacks a Cooper's hawk high above us. Wildlife exists here — coyotes, wasps, desert mice. And rattlesnakes; we have to keep our eyes on the ground when walking.

Serpentine Canyon (above) is an old watercourse that was created by huge flash floods in the past and which still occur, but rarely, from massive rainstorms to the north. The heat is stifling in the sun and the canyon sides shelter us from any breezes. The small round holes in the rock face are created by pieces of rock that is harder embedded in the softer silt stone. Erosion takes place around it until the pebble falls out of the round opening. Small creatures then take up residence.

A wide section of the slot canyon

The slot canyons here are a highlight. We squeeze our bodies upwards as we slowly trek through. Sometimes we have to turn sideways to get our shoulders past and bend forwards or backwards to get through as the rock walls press inwards. I see the marks of water erosion as the floods pour through, swirling and twisting. At the top is a small cave that we can climb to for a photo op. Some visitors find this canyon intimidating and claustrophobic. I didn't, but was acutely aware what might happen here in a big earthquake. I heard a sigh of relief from one person as we emerged at the bottom again. 

We explore a big oasis that is managed by the Cahuilla tribe. Here water trickles on the surface, palms crowd around the stream, arrow weed bushes grow thickly –the indigenous peoples made arrow shafts from
California Fan Palms with grass skirts
their straight branches – and creosote bushes. I discover that palms are related to grasses not trees and have rows of shark-teeth thorns at the base of the leaves to keep herbivores from eating them. It's cool in the shade from three well established palms with long grass skirts. 

The Red Jeep tour ends at a recreated Cahuilla village. The longhouse has artefacts showing their way of life as hunter-gatherers and their system of three ponds — top one for drinking and cooking water, middle for washing containers and food, the lower for washing bodies (grey water). Wise conservation and use of water is not a new concept here.

The 90F heat assails us as we move away from the rocks and oases at the end of four and a half hours. Normally the tour takes about three+ hours, but we were delayed by a movie shoot in which we were extras. .

Red Jeep Tours has been operating in the desert for over twenty years. Each guide is very knowledgeable and welcoming. The jeeps hold six guests and one in the passenger seat. Red Jeep supplies endless bottles of water and make you drink it, and granola bars. Choose the morning tours, rather than the afternoon tours as the heat is at its highest from 2-4pm in the winter months.

I heartily recommend Red Jeep and the choices of tours in the Coachella Valley.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2016. All rights reserved.