There are uplifting experiences to be found in the depths
of Arizona's Grand Canyon, writes former Otago Daily Times
editor Robin Charteris.
We've rafted the Shotover and the Sun Kosi, canoed the
Zambesi and cruised the Danube - but no such wonderful river
trips present the ordinary package tourist with a combination
of scenery, history and adrenaline as does whitewater boating
on the Colorado River, deep in the Grand Canyon of Arizona.
Judi and I, well into our 60s now, did grumble a bit about
the ungainliness of clambering into the eight-passenger,
outboard motor-powered pontoon boat perched on the edge of
the fast-flowing but flat and otherwise benign-looking
muddy-brown river, reached after a heart-stopping bus drive
down a steep and winding dirt road to the floor of the
Embarrassment, though, was quickly forgotten as we and our
very much younger American shipmates were raced around a
corner and into the first of a succession of swirling and
foaming grade 7 whitewater rapids [the Colorado is the only
river in the world with rapids rated out of 10; all others
are on a scale of five].
"Hang on tight like I told you," shouted Cole, our Hualapai
Indian guide and driver. "First one up's a doosie."
A "doosie"? It was a douser, a surging, racing, whirling mass
of brown and white foam into which our craft plunged and
bucked. Water, masses of it and cold, rose from the V between
the twin bows, loomed over us and crashed down, battering,
drenching and chilling.
We were to stay soaked to the skin for two more thrilling
hours as, buddy boat close by, we surveyed then battered our
way through a succession of grade 6 and 7 rapids and even a
grade 8 that Cole said dropped us fully 15ft (4.5m) in a few
My eyes were closed for most of that one, white knuckles
clinging desperately to the safety rope beside my hips.
"Always lean in, not out," Cole had said. "That way, if you
fall you fall inside the boat." His good advice was well
taken by Judi, who did lose her grip on the grade 8 rapid but
fell forward into the water-filled bottom of the boat rather
than the river and emerged laughing with relief.
The 20km-long rapids section of the river trip passed in a
flash. There was little time between rapids to take in the
canyon itself; we were flat out hanging on and surviving, it
But the adrenaline rush was only part of the experience. This
is the Grand Canyon, described as the world's most
spectacular example of the power of erosion - a chasm 443km
long (measured by river course), up to 29km wide and 1.6km
deep that has taken between three and six million years to
form, and is still being formed.
The powerful forces of the rushing river, of rain, snow,
heat, frost and wind, go on sculpting and melding the
fantastic shapes of precipitous bluffs and towering
After the rapids, on the 45km flat section of our five-hour
river ride, we drift leisurely along and look up from the
river - straight up, almost, a mile to the top.
There's wall after sheer wall, buttress after buttress,
cliff, canyon, arroyo, gulch; colours too, browns, golds,
red, white; curves and contours.
Above it all, a narrow band in the distance, is the clear
cobalt-blue Arizona sky. We and our fellow passengers,
Americans all, are simply awed.
A New York husband and wife, plus 12-year-old son, on their
first visit outside their state, are so proud of their
country they're almost crying.
Two newlyweds going to live in Namibia hold hands and drool
at the scenery; a 30-something guy on his own softly croons
"America the beautiful". Two elderly Kiwis just stare and
stare in wonder.
It's hot down here, now that we've dried off somewhat; under
the noon September sun, 100degF (37.7degC) plus, but there's
a cooling effect from the river, 150m wide and running quite
The water's at least 30m deep, says Cole - no wonder the
2250km-long Colorado, which drains nearly 12% of the United
States, is recognised as one of the country's great river
Today, following recent rains, the river is high and muddy
brown but it runs clear most of the year.
We have a sandwich lunch on the river in the shade of a
towering bluff and drinks from Cole's large chillybin.
There's a beautiful waterfall up a side canyon to visit, and
we continually scan the canyon walls for cougar and big-horn
We see neither, not even near small patches of wild tobacco
that the sheep like to browse. A few gnarled forms of cacti
and some twisted, tussocky weeds are the only vegetation.
Further east, below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at
Indian Gardens, near the Bright Angel Trailhead, terrain and
climate are kinder; Havasupai Indians farmed there until a
Another Indian tribe, the Hualapai, has the concession to run
the river trip we're on.
While many companies offer commercial trips on the Colorado,
all are 7-10 day rafting, canoeing, rowing or motor trips.
Charges are high - $US200 to $350 a day - and it can be
difficult to get a booking within six months.
The Hualapai River Runners provide the only one-day trip on
the river, with up to nine rafts available, and waiting lists
The Hualapai Nation originally lived on two million hectares.
Its 2100 members now have a reservation of 400,000ha that
includes 160km of the Colorado River and south rim of the
It owns and operates Grand Canyon West, a commercial tourist
operation whose facilities include the much-hyped Skywalk, a
vertigo-inducing horseshoe-shaped, glass viewing platform
jutting out 1430m above the canyon floor and popular with
tour groups from Las Vegas, three hours by road or 30 minutes
by helicopter to the west.
We spot helicopters everywhere as we prepare to beach at the
end of our river trip. I count 12 in view as they ferry
tourists from Las Vegas to the Hualapai's own heliport and
airport on the canyon rim, and deposit others on the
riverbank for brief boat trips on the river.
It's a sophisticated operation, with its own air traffic
control system, one far removed from the tranquillity we've
That's how we leave the riverbank - in another burst of
adrenaline, in a natty, five-passenger chopper that whisks us
straight up the mile-high canyon wall to civilisation. Talk
about the icing on the cake!
No matter it's then a two-hour bus trip back to our Hualapai
Lodge on historic Route 66 at Peach Springs, from whence we'd
started; we need some down time. Running the Colorado River
has been an exhilarating, exciting - and absolutely uplifting
On the river
• River trip operates mid-March to October 31 each year.
• Costs $US328 ($NZ399) per person, buses and helicopter
• Hualapai Lodge accommodation (optional) $US90 ($109) per
room per night.
• Book through any travel agent. [Robin and Judi Charteris,
on a private visit to North America, were guests of Hualapai
Tourism for this experience.]