“Everything in the Sonoran Desert sticks, stings, bites or eats meat. There are quite a few things you don’t want to touch and in the dark it’s harder to discern between safe and scary,” said tour guide Bruce Leadbetter.
He was gearing up to lead a night hike of McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills, north-east of Phoenix.
The cautionary note was not comforting as I headed into the vastness of the desert after dark with a dozen other hikers.
Nothing but the moon illuminated the shapes and shadows of barren trees, wiry plants and cacti.
Then the near pitch-black was ablaze with streams of bright white lights as meteoroid after meteoroid shot through the sky for what seemed like minutes.
The natural fireworks were a prelude to several hours of darkness on a hike that mixed the mystical beauty of the desert at night with the humorous warnings from our guide, a former Marine and co-owner of outdoor adventure company 360 Adventures.
For example: “If you get lost, look for barrel cactus, they tend to lean south.” But don’t get too close. Pointing at the “jumping cactus,” which looks like the pale lovechild of a cactus and a pine tree, he warned the species would pierce your skin with its sharp needles if you brush against them. Moments later, someone in the group yelped as the cactus lived up to its name.
Exploring the Sonoran on that moonlit night was an almost solemn experience and a stark contrast to the heat and blue skies of a daytime trip.
The sinking sun beams a fiery light over the mustard-red buttes, spires and mesas, and you gradually adjust to the calm of the cool air and dark and quiet landscape with dilated pupils and a heightened awareness. Depending on the time of year, lizards, toads and other nocturnal creatures can be spotted.
The night treks are arranged on request, year-round at $80 each (R630) for a group of six or more – www.360-adventures.com/
In addition to private expeditions such as the one by 360 Adventures, the park offers public monthly moonlit tours led by interpretive ranger Amy Burnett for just $6 a carload – www.maricopa.gov/parks/mcdowell – Sapa-AP