Death Valley in the backyard of Las Vegas is below sea level

The first thing you notice outside the Las Vegas man-made metropolis is the vast nothingness of the desert. Miles and miles of scrubby bushes interlaced with sand, rocks and gravel. We were in an air-conditioned luxury coach and grateful for being spared from the searing heat. It was also nice to have a tour guide like Joan who was so devoted to her group of beady eyed tourists. Today we head for the desert, the rocks and heat of Death Valley.

Death ValleyCredit: Jim Visser

During the trip on the bus to Death Valley  Joan told us all about the Roswell incident near area 51 and the nuclear experimentation and testing that took place a few decades ago. So by the time we reached this barren wasteland we were all very excited and took lots of photos of the hot rocks and sand (probably in the hope of shooting an alien or a foreign object or entity that nobody could explain). How did all that alien trash get there and what was it made of? 

Area 51 home to aliens, the Roswell incident and nuclear testing

Area 51Credit: Sue Visser

 Death valley is as hot as hell and people died trying to cross the desert

We walked up to the viewing site at Death Valley and embraced the vastness of the lonely wastelands. Earlier pioneers who tried to reach the Californian coast via a shorter route through this desert died here because they could not find any food or water to sustain them. We took photos and returned to the air-conditioned bus for a drink of water and a snack. Joan explained about the borax mining that used to be a lucrative source of income for the area. Borax is a mineral that comes from volcanic regions and has a crystalline almost glass like structure. We use it at home to kill cockroaches or as a household cleaner to enhance the effects of dish washing liquid. It is obviously wonderful for cleaning glass and is used industrially for paint, textiles, ceramics and other products.  In Death Valley you can have a game of golf at the lowest depression on earth at Furnace Creek. A mere 56 meters below sea level. This small oasis provides lush emerald green fairways that are nourished by an underground aquifer. We enjoyed the Museum of Natural History at the visitors center and continued on our journey.

We reach the Sierra Nevada mountains and head for Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth lakes from ground levelCredit: Sue Visser

The Mammoth Lakes are housed in the craters of extinct volcanoes high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We spent a chilly night in Alpine chalets that double up as a ski resort in winter. We flew over this area on the way over from the North Pole and I took pictures from the air, including the crater lakes and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. So nine days after leaving Cape Town we arrived at Mammoth at a chilly altitude of over 2 600 meters  from 60 meters below sea level in the heat of Death Valley.

Flying above Sierra NevadaCredit: Sue Visser

The Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is the oldest national park and is one of the most popular places for both winter and summer holidays. Americans love to pack up and travel to places like this in their mobile homes or Recreational Vehicles as they are called. The steep white granite walls of El Capitan are majestic and the atmosphere is pristine. A resonance you can sense from ancient crystals as you stand on domes of rock, surrounded by pine and cedar trees. The air is fresh and the lakes are deep and cold. But they reflect the warm sunshine, the autumn colours and the towering monoliths in a friendly way. A few tame deer parade in front of the camera for us, followed by squirrels and blue birds.

YosemiteCredit: Sue Visser

Modesto is a typical modern Californian Town with a gigantic Wal-Mart store, supermarkets and a lot of restaurants. A boring, regular middle class hangout on the main highway to the coast. But this is where most of the agricultural produce is grown, on a flat plain that is divided into fields of fruit trees, nut trees and vegetable patches. I also took pictures of it from our aircraft when we flew in from over the North Pole. Down below it looked like a sprawling checkerboard of precise, neat patches of green and brown. The terrain is flat and hopelessly drought stricken by the prolonged Californian drought. Some of the fruit trees were dead. They need rain!

San Fransisco with flowers in my hair

Golden Gate bridge

I picked a gardenia at the hotel and wore it in my hair. We baby boomers remember the hippie era, the love rallies and gay times that put San Francisco on the map. We enjoyed taking pictures of the Golden Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf and the exquisite Victorian style architecture. The Holiday Inn where we stayed had been refurbished and the business-like interior was efficient, clean and comfortable. All the gadgets worked! The view from the 21st floor provided constant entertainment with spectacular sunsets and night life. We were woken by a gentle pink sunrise the next morning. Fitness is an advantage when the street levels rise and dip at steep angles. Some of the upward stretches were more strenuous than any stepping machine at the gym. What made it more exciting was the countdown timer at every pedestrian crossing - 5 seconds or less it took to race over the tram tracks to the other side. We took our own picnic along and spent a happy day doing our own thing with no particular agenda. Here are the places we visited:


San FranciscoCredit: Sue Visser

The tram station museum

Our first surprise was the trams charging up the steep hills, loaded with excited tourists who paid over R 90 for the thrill of riding around the streets. Nope, not with our tight budget but we took plenty of pictures. We stumbled upon the transport museum and found out how these trams and trolleys run. The trams are driven by an underground system of cables and pulleys. The museum is actually the original working station for the trams that are still running. Here you can see all the machinery at work. In the viewing gallery underground huge steel wheels and cables are driven by engines in a ghostly cavern - like something out of science fiction.


Chinatown - cheap clothes and gifts and loads of fresh fruit and vegetables 

China town sweet potatoesCredit: Sue VisserWe could see a small section of the Bay Bridge bridge from our hotel window, way in the distance. Chinatown was somewhere down there, on the way to downtown San Francisco with its the modern skyscrapers. Along the way we kept stopping to take pictures of the beautiful Victorian facades of the apartment buildings. Many exquisite examples of this period of architecture are well preserved and many of them have miraculously escaped the ravages of earthquakes and fires. We were told that the term "Bay Window"originated in San Francisco as residents of these houses wanted a view of the bay and hence projected the windows out from the walls.  Chinatown is characterized by fruit and vegetable shops and cheap mass produced clothing that smells of plastic and synthetics. Little Chinese people scurry up and down the streets where there are feeding frenzies at the eating stalls along the pavements. Eat as much Dim Sum as you like for a few dollars. Then quaff down a cardboard carton of Chop Sui, like they do in the movies. Chinese love their traditional food, based on fresh meat, vegetables and rice. Here in Chinatown food is cheap and abundant. Uncle McDonald is not welcome here and these people are not like the super sized blubbery blimps we have seen elsewhere. I was delighted by their selection of sweet potatoes. The red sweet potato is what I used for my studies on progesterone boosting as a way to alleviate menopausal issues. No shortage here, and what a selection of these root vegetable for enjoying at just about every meal. 

Memorabilia from californiaCredit: Sue Visser

Downtown skyscrapers and the piers.

There is a connection to eating habits and the way you look and feel. Especially as you get older. Sooner or later a steady intake of starches, sugars and fats to the exclusion of fresh fruit, vegetables and lean protein will take over and manifest as morbid obesity and what we call "syndrome X". But in San Francisco people have a keener leaner mindset and a leafy lunch followed by a workout along the pier or in a nearby park is a popular option. We saw many examples of the greening of the dinner plate in this area. A welcome change to the Golden Arches and the stench of old cooking oil.


Fisherman's wharfCredit: Sue Visser

At the waterfront the old pier warehouses have been renovated and now they provide unique accommodation for offices, design studios and food markets. There is an abundance of fresh organic produce, locally grown in the fertile coastal agricultural areas of California. We sampled olives, olive oil, a variety of unique mushrooms and delicious pickles and preserves. But no preservatives! A gluten-free specialist stall provided all the ridiculously expensive and often not so healthy alternatives to wheat products. But to any gluten-free vegan green bunny, this place is heaven. People tuck into plates of salad and business corporations provide health incentives for their employees. The promote wellness and walk their talk.

Silicone Valley just outside of San Francisco

An efficient highway system heads out of the city and races towards the famous Silicon Valley, Who was to know that it was such a beautiful hilly area abundantly wooded with trees and shrubs. So this is the home of computer technology: Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Steve Job's Apples and applications. We flash past the turning to the famous Stanford University where people from all over the world come to study for IT degrees. Ironically, the greatest innovators like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not have any academic degrees. Genius is genius and no certificates are required, it seems. How pleasant this area is in a clean environment away from industrial pollution and grimy concrete. 

Farming near San FranciscoCredit: Sue Visser

We rode past San Jose - somewhere in the greenery, we were told by our guide. 75% of the population are Mexicans and most of them work on the ubiquitous Californian fruit and vegetable farms. The sky overhead shows an eerie display of what people with a conspiracy complex would call chemtrails. But at lest the six lane freeways are not full of stagnant vehicles belching black fumes in your face. The traffic races along in a verdant setting of rolling hills. So this is where the Silicon Valley crews hang out. Further along we reach the agricultural zone with fields of vegetables - rows of green lettuce, kale, artichokes, strawberries and other produce. The best strawberries I have ever tasted. Norma Jean who was the lady who became Marilyn Monroe grew up in this area. As a child she won her first beauty pageant - crowned as Miss Artichoke.

MontereyCredit: Sue Visser

Monterey Bay, Steinbeck and Cannery Row.

Where have all the sardines gone? The bay of Monterey is where the sardine canning industry flourished between 1920 and 1940. Author John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row is based on real people who lived and worked with the sardines - and the stench of them. He wrote many profound real life dramas, including East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath that earned him a Nobel Prize for literature.

John SteinbeckCredit: Sue Visser

Carmel is a town for the rich and famous who enjoy a pristine environment at the coastal area made famous for its movie star residents and golf courses. Clint Eastwood was the mayor of the town and he persisted in maintaining the old fashioned laid back atmosphere. Pebble Beach Golf course is on their doorstep, made famous by the American Open tournament. The town streets are too narrow to allow big vehicles to pass each other. I found a cheese shop in the beautiful little shopping centre where I sampled some of the local as well as imported cheeses. The gardens are beautiful and there is a special doggie fountain in the courtyard.

Pebble beach, Carmel areaCredit: Sue Visser

The Salinas Valley is a long strip of farms that produce more fruit, nuts and vegetables than any other region in the USA. Later on we drove through vineyards and next came the oil fields with the pumps they call nodding donkeys. The desert runs parallel to the farms, a grim reminder of dry heat. But here the plants flourish, thanks to underground water that has helped this area to survive the severe drought .Many farms have already been affected. Evidently this is the worst drought in history. We have just heard that there were a few earth quakes in the Sierra Nevada's where we had spent the night. It is scary enough to ride along the world-famous San Andreas fault line and I am sure that the drought, oil fracking and nuclear testing (although denied) is contributing to what could soon become a mighty quake. 

Pismo beachCredit: Sue Visser

At the Seacrest resort at Pismo beach where we spent the night, most of the whole tour party wanted to laze around for a few days. We were all exhausted from the 6:30 am luggage calls and full days on the bus, with a sensory overload of sightseeing. This 12 day bus tour has been a fulfilling and unforgettable experience. Top marks go to Joan, our wonderful tour guide and Mike, the bus driver who pampered and fussed over us from dawn till well after dusk. We had a lovely swim in the Pacific ocean followed by a wallow in a steamy Jacuzzi spa at the beach hotel. 

Local wineCredit: Sue Visser

We helped the sun go down with a few glasses of excellent Californian wine. You can buy wine at the supermarkets throughout the trip and for the stingy SA rand to dollar exchange, it saves a fortune. For us, the wines are a lot fruitier than our Cape wines. Zinfandel we enjoyed, especially because we were looking forward to giving it a try. (Thanks Jack, for your excellent introduction to Californian wines.) Although we share the same Mediterranean climate as California, the higher sugar content may have something to do with the extreme drought and long, hot sunny days. They also grow a lot of strawberries here and they are definitely sweeter than our local sour ones. Under plastic covers, there are rows and rows of the other types of berries: blueberries, raspberries, cranberries and blackberries, so the soil supports a berry nice load of polyphenols.

The Californian drought has devastated this area

All along the 101 route we see how the drought has affected the vegetation. Some farms have been abandoned because the fruit trees have died and the dry yellow grass can't provide enough grazing for their horses, cattle and sheep.The winter rains have been cancelled for another year. The names of most of the towns and cities in California have Spanish names, you may have noticed.

All the saints

The Spanish missionaries came here two centuries ago to convert the area to Christianity and build churches and schools for the indigenous population. Their style of architecture inspired what we now call Spanish, a popular and attractive use of terra-cotta tiles, adobe and whitewash. Santa Barbara is a coastal town and familiar to lovers of soapies who watch the antics of the rich and famous. We walked along the path where the celebrities jog and visited their overexposed pier. Now for Santa Monica, the official end of Route 66. The place where we also ended our wonderful Western Adventure.

SAnta Barbara


If you would like to find out more about Los Angeles then hop back on the bus

for part 1 of this tour.

From there you can link up

to part 2 to see more of the interior. But this is the last chapter - part 3 of our tour of the Western landscapes. 


Now sit back and enjoy the short movie!

The Western Landscapes circular Route

From LA to Vegas, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, San Francisco and back.

Get Directions
California, USA

Take a good guide book along!

Lonely Planet Western USA (Travel Guide)
Amazon Price: $24.99 $12.42 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 13, 2015)
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Southwest USA & Las Vegas
Amazon Price: $23.00 $11.21 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 13, 2015)