The Valley of Death – and Life!
It was promoted as a 'cycling challenge' and no-one expected it to be easy. But as we toiled up towards the high pass on 5
March, the second of our five day (and 263 mile) trip through and around the mountains ringing Death Valley, with the
thermometer climbing slowly towards 90 F, some of us wondered whether we might have taken on too much. The first 15 miles
of the climb was taxing enough, along a road so long and straight that it simply disappeared into a shimmering horizon.
Then the real ascent started, as the road narrowed and twisted into the mountain of bleak rock. At a welcome break after
five miles of this, the organiser told us that the gradient would soon flatten out. We wanted to believe this but quickly
realised that it wasn’t the whole truth – unless 'soon' meant after another four long miles of what proved the steepest
section so far! Relief came at last as we crept slowly – in my case at least - up to Emigrant Pass at 5318 feet. The next
20 miles would be all blissful freewheeling.
The Mines Advisory Group – MAG - (www.maginternational.org
seems to have been the first charity to invite people to pit themselves against the
unforgiving environment of Death Valley National Park in California to raise money. MAG experts de-activate landmines and
cluster bombs wherever past conflicts have left them as a poisoned legacy to succeeding generations. They are now working
in Angola and Bosnia, Somalia and Chad, Cambodia and Laos, Nicaragua, Kosovo, Vietnam, Cyprus and 25 other countries around
the world in places where no everyday activity – gathering wood, ploughing fields, tending goats – is free from risk. In some
localities, land mines in their hundreds turn fertile farmland into areas where no-one dares set foot.
We were a very mixed bunch on the ride – a vet, a physiotherapist, someone who arranged lighting for theatrical (and corporate)
events, an ex-'white van man' who now worked in a children's home. There was a finance director, a banker, a security adviser
and, a little surprisingly, a colonel still serving in the marines. However, the man who would have baffled even the canniest
panel member of What’s My Line was undoubtedly Gary, whose niche occupation was renovating suspended ceilings. The forty
or so participants have already raised more than £70,000 for MAG, making this its single most successful event in terms of cash
pulled in. I was the second oldest! My one senior, a man of 62, almost completed the ride unassisted but had to take the
supporting bus on one occasion.
According to folklore, it was one of the lost '49ers' – prospectors looking for a shortcut to the Californian gold fields -
who said 'Goodbye Death Valley' as the remnants of her group found their way out of the burning salt flats to the Panamint
mountains and safety, leaving more than a dozen behind dead of exposure and dehydration. Average annual rainfall is a meagre
1.6 inches and summer temperatures can be as high as anywhere on earth. Despite this, the desert supports a remarkable wildlife,
including three dozen species of reptile, and an amazing 60 species of mammal. Most of these are rodents but mountain lions occur
as well as bighorn sheep and even badgers. Many of these creatures emerge only at night. I had hopes of seeing at least some new
birds but the only really conspicuous species was the raven. Around the sparse settlements – some of them now substantial
tourist resorts, like that at Furnace Creek – coyotes strutted about boldly even in the daytime, much as urban foxes do here.
And on day three, when camping at Panamint Springs - another oasis, in effect – I was excited to see a roadrunner. (Those
who watched Bill Oddie in America recently may recall that no roadrunner could be persuaded to put in an appearance for the
camera and that poor William was eventually reduced to imitating one – not a pretty sight).
As a vegetarian travelling in a notoriously carnivorous country, I had been slightly concerned about
what I might be given to eat. My worries were at least partly justified, for where the standard breakfast on one occasion
consisted of eggs, hash brown potatoes, sausage and bacon, the “special vegetarian selection” was simply eggs and hash browns!
The one vegan among us, however, fared far worse. “You’re a what? Did you say “vegan”? I don’t even know what that is! – was
one baffled response. Another was to ask the poor woman whether she ate fish or chicken.
Towards the end of the fourth day (19 miles up, 10 miles down, 17 miles up, 11 down and then three up!) and by now outside the
national park and back in Nevada, we came to the outskirts of the appalling town of Pahrump. Thanks, it would seem, to the
absence of planning restrictions, this hideous place – with a population no bigger than that of Lewes - has spread itself like
a disfiguring rash over about 60 square miles of former wilderness. Here, some of us witnessed a near collision between a truck
and a car at a crossroads. This might have happened anywhere in the world. What happened next, however, could surely not. The
driver of the enormous SUV, evidently feeling somewhat aggrieved at the behaviour of the other person involved, whipped his
vehicle round in a dramatic U turn, leapt down from his cab and brandished a weapon in the face of the terrified woman behind
the wheel of the saloon! No shots were fired, but we did begin to wonder whether the signs outside the casinos warning people
to leave their guns at reception before entering the gambling area were not simply there to titillate the tourists, as we had
at first imagined!
By the morning of the last day, my thighs felt bruised and my muscles had started to stiffen up at each stop we made for water
and fruit. (I must have eaten more oranges over these five days than I had in the previous six months!). This was a stage of 63
miles, starting (inevitably) with a long ascent, this time over 32 miles to Mountain Springs at 5490 feet. Reaching the top was
a strange an anti-climax – it was (almost literally) all downhill from here although the last few miles into Las Vegas were
That last night, MAG had arranged a celebration dinner. We dressed in what felt like finery after a week wearing cycling
shorts and T shirts. There were congratulatory speeches and then our star rider – Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel (for readers
under 45 – if there are any – the band had four top ten hits in 1974-6 including the number one “Make me smile - Come up
and see me”) told us of a visit he’d made to Cambodia several years ago as a result of which he’d become committed to MAG’s
work. He had spoken there to a one-legged fisherman, his other leg having been lost to a mine, who still had to walk through
the same, uncleared minefield every day to have any hope of feeding his family. He had also met two children who had,
unknowingly, played safely in a mine field when they were very young and their tread was too light to trigger the fuses
but had then been suddenly maimed for life when their weight reached a critical point.
I hadn’t been a great fan of Steve Cockney (as my mother-in-law insisted on referring to him!) at the peak of his fame but
have become an admirer now.
Friends and neighbours have already contributed with quite stunning generosity to my fund-raising efforts on behalf of MAG
but should anyone else still want to chip in and help boost the total beyond its current £3810, I’d be extremely grateful.
Visit the www.maginternational.org
and pay on-line with a credit card or just send me a cheque, but payable to MAG, please, rather than me.
Very many thanks!