Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Death Valley - a barren wonderland

During my official trip to Sunnyvale, CA, one of the must visit plans that Sahana and myself had was to visit Death Valley! Both had this place in mind without even being discussed among us! So during our planning it became easier to arrive at the decision of visiting Death Valley!

As the planned dates come closer we got company for the visit. This time it was my good old friend Vijet and his wife Anisha, who agreed to join hands with us for the long journey of about 500 miles!

After some rounds of search for a good place to stay we finalised on Panamint Springs Resort. The place was within the Death Valley boundaries and we thought it would be nice to stay within the park premises. Our plan was of two days. We knew that just two days are not enough to explore such a big National Park (with more than 13000 sq kms, this is the biggest of the lower 48 states of US).

500 miles drive, that too just for a weekend visit necessitates very early start and that is exactly what we did. Starting at 4AM helped us to cover more ground before the dawn broke out. Couple of fuel stops enroute and we were almost near the badlands (another term for the area of Death Valley)! The route we took from Sunnyvale was - I-5 => Bakerfield => I-58 => I-14 (via Red Rock Canyon State Park) => I-395 => I-190. The route was very scenic all along, which made the journey very pleasant.

The journey along I-190 feels quite haunting. This is mainly because many times you may be the only one driving on a road that looks as if it is endless and merging completely in the horizon! With almost nothing around you hardly notice the speed at which you are driving! It was almost 2 PM by the time we reached the place where we had booked our stay - Panamint Springs Resort! Unlike what the name suggests, it was no where near to a 'resort' but in a barren and remote place like this getting something is more than anything.

Since we were spending two days, the plan was to visit the areas beyond Furnace Creek on Saturday evening and spend the sunset at Badwaters area. Since Artists Palette was on the way to Badwaters the plan to cover that also looked feasible.

We all had read that Death Valley is a huge area. Reading is one thing and feeling that is altogether a different experience! Furnace Creek was at about 55 miles away from Panamint Springs, where we had booked our stay. Stovepipe Wells lies in between, which has some nice sand dunes around. But our plan was to get to these sand dunes the next morning. So we just went past that area to go to Furnace Creek. After a short visit to the visitor center there we headed straight to Artists Palette. A drive through a narrow space would bring you to a place which is hidden from the main road. It is then when you realise why the place is named so! The mountains in front were full of different colors! At one point in time it became hard to believe that what we are seeing in front is completely natural!

The drive through Artists Palette was about 45 min, including our stops to make some images. By the time we came out of that drive to the main road the Sun was already getting ready to pack up for the day! It was winter and Sun was setting quite early! Day time was short. So we rushed to Badwaters to catch the evening light in the hope of making some good images there. I had seen some wonderful images made at that place by leading landscape photographers from US. So needless to say I had huge hopes on the place for various compositional opportunities. The salt cracks of the region had provided wonderful foreground for those amazing images from the region. Combine that with evening twilight or few stars in the sky and your recipe for a beautiful image was ready! With all these things in mind and more we reached the place. By that time Sun had gone below the mountain range on the west. But the evening glow was still there. People who had come there were also leaving slowly due to low light. Low light is not always a problem for a Landscape Photographer! Sometimes it is a boon - to make long exposure images. By consoling like these to myself, we set out to see how the place is. To our bad luck the salt cracks were all wiped off due to heavy rains few days back and the whole place had become a pile of brownish white salt clusters with no shape and form. I was utterly disappointed. I had high hopes on this place and what we were seeing in front was in no way giving any good images. It was just useless. Our plan of spending time there to make quality images tanked. Mood was grim on our way back to the hotel. Now I became anxious to see what would happen for rest of the plans!

Sahana had planned Death Valley to coincide with Geminids Meteor shower. Since Vijet was an avid astro-photography enthusiast our next plan was to shoot the meteor shower at night. Though the place around the hotel had few street lamps, the sky was pretty much clear from light pollution. When we looked up to see whether we are able to see the stars, we all shocked completely by looking at the amount of stars visible in the sky. Vijet got super excited as it was his dream to shoot milky way! By the time we finished our dinner and came back with our camera gears, the milky way was emerging from behind the distant mountains. It was an awesome sight! Last time I had seen milky way was when we were doing Leonids project and I was placed on top of Kodachadri. That was around 5 years back! That was also a meteor shower night and it was a clear deja-vu moment for me! As we were enjoying the sight of milky way, we saw couple of meteor streaks! With that sighting we just accelerated our search for a good foreground to make a decent image and set up our equipment. With few initial images we got the idea of the exposure and once that is set we just prayed for some good show in the sky! It was not like Badwaters! This time we were not disappointed! We all got few good images of Milky-way with meteor streaks! Finally we tasted the first fruit of our planning! That was an amazing night!

Next day morning was planned to be spent near the Mesquite sand dunes in Stovepipe wells area. we started off quite early in the morning. The idea was to be there near the sand dunes by sun rise. We managed to do that. The early morning light was making those huge mountains look so beautiful all along the drive. We were spellbound by the vastness and the silence of the place. It was an elegant silence! Since there is no vegetation, there is very less lifeforms in the whole region. The bird population is limited to either human settlement areas or in the areas where there is some water and vegetation, like Dante's Falls area. In rest of the area there is hardly any bigger life forms. Hence if you get out of the car and listen to the sound, you will just hear silence!! An absolute SILENCE! The vastness of the area confuses your senses totally because one would not expect that much of silence in that vast land. One would atleast expect some fluttering of leaves or chirps of birds or any other sound to make him feel his existence! But here in Death Valley, if you are not near the human habitation areas (which are tiny by themselves) you will definitely feel that either you have gone deaf or you are non-existent! It would be like a muted movie with spectacular scenes in front! With all these thoughts running in the mind when I got down from the vehicle I was in front of the mesmerising sand dunes! The Sun was just coming up from behind the mountains in the east. The early morning golden glow was just touching the golden sand which was a bit moist due to the dew last night. The sand curves were playing a nice light drama. It was my first encounter with sand dunes. I was excited. Especially after witnessing the meteor shower last night and getting some decent pictures I was in a mood to enjoy. The place had not disappointed. It offered excellent opportunity to make some good images and enjoy the process. We walked through the sand dunes for some distance and that helped to get good perspectives in terms of composition, lighting and interesting foregrounds.

Once light started to loose its softness we decided to pack up and head to our next point - Mosaic Canyon. Death Valley has several beautiful canyons such as this, which offer a wonderful close look at the colorful nature of the landscape. In Mosaic Canyon it was colorful layered rocks that offer spectacular views and insights. It was a small walk from the parking area and the whole stretch was simply amazing. The array of colors on the rocks was simply fabulous. After about an hour we started from that place to head back to Panamint Springs. 

We had about an hour and a half left before we start our 500 miles journey back. We decided to explore Dante's Falls area. Having seen completely barren land from past two days, it was a welcome change to see patches of green vegetation along the route to Dante's Falls. We walked for about half an hour with photo stops in between and reached a small stream, which is made from the water of the falls. After spending some time there we decided to head back as the road further looked a bit narrow and needed careful manoeuvre, which we were not keen on. So we just decided to head back and spend some time enroute shooting some interesting stuffs.

It was around 12:30 PM or so when we finally started our return journey via the same route as we had come. It was almost midnight by the time we reached our place in Sunnyvale with loads of memory and tonnes of images!

What remains in my mind for a long time is the experience of silence that I felt in Death Valley. I had never listened to silence so clearly till then! In my mind the images of the place come and go, but the silence remains like an eternal truth!