Antelope Canyon: The Inconvenient Truth
Upper Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation, USA
Words and pictures: Colin Bushell, CPP
“I was being tossed around violently, like a ragdoll in a tumble dryer.”
It was an unpleasant vision, and one I was not expecting from my wife as she returned from a chemical toilet behind our meeting point. She was right though. The weather was being cruel. A dust storm was blowing red sand around in a maelstrom of abrasive, skin-eroding pain. Eyes stung, lips dried out in seconds and breathing was restricted by the necessity of wearing a bandana wrapped around our faces.
I had been commissioned by an Australian based eco-tourism magazine to photograph, and write an article about the way that the Navajo people were managing one of the world’s great photographic destinations. My brief was to show how such an iconic destination had been converted into an eco-tourism must see by its indigenous hosts, somewhat like the way the Kuku Yalanji people have done in Mossman Gorge here in Queensland.
Following the death of 11 tourists in 1997 from flash flooding, the organisation of tours is now strictly controlled. The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tse’ bighani- lini, which means “The place where water runs through rocks”. Sitting at over 1100 metres above sea level, a length of 200 metres, and a depth of 37 metres, the Canyon is a labyrinth of textured sandstone fabrics with portals delivering shafts of sunlight onto the floor below. Consequently, this has become something of a Holy Grail for photographers and geologically-minded tourists alike, with mid-morning tours in the spring and summer months, allowing you to be awed by the orange, purple and yellow glow of the underworld.
Upper Antelope Canyon is on the outskirts of Page in Arizona, about four hours east of Las Vegas. My tour specifically catered for photographers (we had to prove our credentials by having the minimum of a DSLR and a tripod) and was hosted by Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours. Navajo owned and operated, it is the only company offering tours beyond Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons; to Rattlesnake Canyon, Owl Canyon and Mountain Sheep Canyon.
And so it begins. While there is no doubt that the tours are being managed with visitor safety in mind, this is the point where the mention of the ‘crowds’ must be revisited, and this is where my story of eco-tourism success hits a beautifully coloured brick wall!
There are a number of ways to dress this up, but I’ll stick to some of the harsh realities instead. The writing on the wall was being prepared at that chemical toilet. Located behind the back of a fragile tin shed, let us remember that this was the meeting point for one of the world’s most gloriously beautiful natural attractions. The crowds gather an hour before their departure time, and what we don’t know at this stage is that we will eventually converge with other groups at the mouth of the Canyon. As my wife heads one way in a modern Land Cruiser for the ‘walking tour’, my ride heads in another, and I’m in the back of an old army truck, bones rattling and dust flying. The drivers appear to take much glee in racing and sliding across the desert floor, and I pause to wonder whether native animals are being sacrificed at their expense.
At the Canyon entrances, the photographers are given VIP status, as the masses of smaller groups are frequently forced to wait while chambers and other vantage points are photographed under strict timelines. While it appears chaotic, it quickly becomes apparent that this is the only way that so many people can benefit from the descending sunlight, which does not stick around for long. Later in the day, tours may be less busy, but by then, there will be no shafts of light to enjoy.
My photography group are a mixed bunch. One ‘professional’ next to me, leans across to advise me that his battery is flat and he doesn’t have a spare. A few minutes later, another tells me that her memory card is full and doesn’t have a spare. Thanks goodness they weren’t at a once in a lifetime destination! Certainly, concern for the welfare of the camera was justified. No camera bags were allowed. Advice from the local guide was to put your camera into a plastic bag, but I didn’t see the wisdom in that. You couldn’t shoot through the bag, and placing it in and out of a bag that was rapidly filing with sand, seemed less that favourable. Thankfully, Canon make good cameras and sturdy lenses, and my fingers are very good at crossing.
It would be accurate to say that some of the shots are assisted by the tour guides, who throw sand up into the shaft of lights on cue, although I can claim credit for repositioning a tumbleweed that looked a whole lot better as my subject at the end of one such shaft.
The experience is a whirlwind of its own. You have little time to work out your settings, with barely more than two minutes at each location. The two and a half hours underground goes by in the blink of an eye. Tripods get tangled in the tight spaces, and there is a degree of assertiveness required to find that vantage point before someone else gets in the way. Ironically, the glorious tranquillity generated by the finished photos bely the frenetic nature of the experience. I suspect Peter Lik’s questionable $6.5 million imagery benefitted enormously by his ability to rent out the entire Canyon for himself!
The first priority on our return to Page (OK, after a beer!) was to get some compressed air canisters and raid the department store’s make-up counter for various sized brushes (my cleaning kit was not up for the job!). I spent almost an hour cleaning the camera before opening or inserting anything. It must have worked; my trusty 5D still works a treat.
The Navajo Nation encompasses over 17 million acres, and occupies the entire north-eastern quarter of Arizona. It’s stunning. The amazing Horseshoe Canyon is literally around the corner too, but Antelope Canyon is the jewel in the crown and, while tours may appear too ‘mass managed’ and a tad exploitative, the environment appears robust enough to sustain such attention. There’s no doubt that this is a success story for entrepreneurial tourism, managed resourcefully by the land’s rightful owners.
As to where the prefix ‘eco’ can be added to anything currently happening… well, that’s another question.
All photos shot on a Canon 5D MkII with an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM.