Some like it hot

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iol travel july 16 death valley2 AFP Randy Kern and John Rice dress as Star Wars characters for their own annual snapshot tradition near an unofficial thermometer at Furnace Creek Visitors Center reading of 131 degrees.

Death Valley, California - Would you holiday in hell? “Come to Death Valley!” screamed the advert. “It has all the advantages of hell without the inconveniences,” it continued, an April Fool's joke printed in The Death Valley Chuck-Walla - A Magazine for Men in 1907. It must have seemed terribly funny at the time. However, the pranksters were on to something.

Crossing the Deadman's Pass and Funeral Mountains, I pulled to a stop just outside Furnace Creek as a scaly chuckwalla lizard ran for cover, a flash of movement against the bare stone. Nearby, in the middle of the deserted children's playground, a rusty swing creaked in a barely-there breeze. There wasn't a soul to be seen. Death Valley sizzled in the midday sun.

It was here, among the cracked valleys, tall dunes and deep canyons of eastern California that the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth was reached. It happened exactly a century ago today. A day that went down in history, one in which swallows in full flight fell to the ground dead as the mercury rose to a blistering 56.7C.

That's hot, even by Death Valley standards, where the average July temperature is a roasting 46C. Last week Death Valley was on the brink of topping its own record during the current Californian heatwave. However, according Cheryl Chipman, a Death Valley National Park Service spokesperson, “It got very hot last week, but the 1913 record still stands.”

For a time, Libya held the top spot (58C was recorded in El Azizia, south of Tripoli, in 1922) but the readings were later discredited by the World Meteorological Organisation; Death Valley's record was reinstated.

The summers here are indeed brutal, but they are also peak season for travellers. First on the agenda for most of them: a hike through Mosaic Canyon, formed millions of years ago and famed for its colourful rocks. I scrambled up slippery slabs of pale marble as the winding three-mile trail narrowed through tight passages until opening up to a natural amphitheatre of dark-red cliff faces.

iol travel july 16 death valley Heat waves rise near a heat danger warning sign on the eve of the AdventurCORPS Badwater 135 ultra-marathon race in Death Valley National Park, California. AFP

Later, I hit the road with the air conditioning on full, driving along a stretch of shimmering Tarmac that sliced through the valley. The view was punctuated by dead trees with twisting limbs and dunes that rose and dipped into the distance.

Travelling north-east, I crossed the Nevada state border and rolled into Rhyolite, the largest of Death Valley's four ghost towns. The discovery of gold at the turn of the 20th century lured people in their droves. Rhyolite was soon a 10 000-strong metropolis, complete with churches, bars, hotels, and even its own stock exchange, opera house and red-light district.

The good times were not to last. Even by 1908, the mines were failing. By 1920 the population fell to just 14. Today, dilapidated buildings line what was once Shriner's Parade, a busy thoroughfare of shops and saloons. The long-forgotten remnants of the grand casino and three-storey Overbury Bank still stand, crumbling reminders of past prosperity.

Death Valley is said to have earned its macabre name from some pioneering miners from the East Coast. Seeking a shortcut to the riches of the Californian gold rush in 1849, they crossed this barren wasteland with wagons and oxen but soon ran into trouble. They were lost for two months; one of the party perished but the others emerged unscathed. Turning for one last look, one of of the survivors muttered a final farewell: “Goodbye, death valley.”

Others had settled here long before the miners showed up. The Timbashi Shoshone tribe have lived in Death Valley for thousands of years. “Every summer we ask ourselves why we live here,” said elder Barbara Durham. “But we like our desert, our night skies and solitude. Our forefathers had it worse. All we have to do is hop in our caravans and switch on the swamp coolers [a form of air conditioning].”

But what makes this place such a furnace? Low elevation is partly responsible. Death Valley - one of America's largest but least visited national parks despite its proximity to Los Angeles, which lies 275 miles southwest, and Las Vegas, 120 miles east - is the lowest point in North America. Badwater Basin sits 282ft below sea level, encircled by mountains that trap and recirculate the heated air.

Being one of the driest places on Earth doesn't help much either. Four mountain ranges separate Death Valley from the Pacific, each dispersing moisture as the clouds roll east until almost nothing remains. However, Death Valley hasn't always been so arid. Around 10,000 years ago these basins were deep lakes fed by water from receding glaciers.

The conditions may be extreme but life thrives. Many of the 400 animal species here have adopted novel ways of survival. The white-tailed antelope ground squirrel uses its bushy tail as a parasol; the kangaroo rat cleverly reabsorbs vapour from its own breath.

For me, though, there was only one option: the spring-fed swimming pool set among shady palm trees at The Inn at Furnace Creek. Accommodation in Death Valley is limited to a handful of campgrounds and resorts. The Inn is the park's most luxurious option and has been in operation since 1927. Marlon Brando was a regular back in the days when the restaurant served rattlesnake and scrambled eggs for breakfast. He always had room 107. Down the road and neighbouring the Timbashi settlement, is the inn's sister property, the family-friendly Ranch at Furnace Creek.

Stationed outside the 224-room property is the Old Dinah, a 1894 steam tractor, and ore wagons that replaced mule teams used by the early miners searching for gold and borax. Elsewhere there's a golf course (the world's lowest), a Wild West-style saloon and general store (the only one for over 30 miles) and stables tended to by a Stetson-wearing cowboy called Tony.

“Sunset is my favourite time to ride,” he said as we set off through tamarisk trees towards the parched valley floor. A black-tailed jackrabbit appeared from behind a clump of silvery desert holly, presumably keeping watch for coyotes. Tony isn't from these parts. He hails from Colorado but was first drawn to Death Valley many years ago. “Death Valley is a harsh but magical place,” he said from within a haze of swirling dust created by the disturbed sand.

We rode in silence as the sun softened and dipped beneath the Panamite Range. Behind stood the rugged Funeral Mountains, rising like giant pieces of crumbled cardboard with deep ripples and dark crevices. Up ahead were sparkling salt flats, infinitely spread out and illuminated by the warming tones of the gently setting sun. Hell? It was rather heavenly, if you ask me.

If You Go...

Getting there

The nearest airports to Death Valley are Las Vegas, served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com), and Los Angeles, also served by the same airlines plus Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.uk) and United Airlines (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk).

Visiting there

Horse rides with the Furnace Creek Stables (001 760 614 1018; furnacecreekstables.net) start at $45 (about R400).

More information

Death Valley National Park: nps.gov/deva

California tourist board: visitcalifornia.co.uk - The Independent

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