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The ultimate adventure: rock climbing
The ultimate adventure: rock climbing

How to have an adventure in Arizona

‘That’s the thing about the desert. Almost everything in it wants to kill you’

Nicola Brady
Monday 11 March 2019 16:44
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I’m clinging on to the side of a boulder, my clammy hands trying desperately to find any kind of grip. Little indentations in the granite give my fingertips the tiniest bit of traction, but they are few and far between. Beneath my feet, giant rocks are piled up against the foot of the boulder and tall cacti poke up between the crevices. I know this, because I go against all the advice I was given and look down.

I’m at Boulders Resort & Spa, a Flintstones-esque desert retreat just outside of Scottsdale. While others golf, or hike, or see the desert on horseback, I’m giving rock climbing a bash for the first time.

In my head, I look like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2, scaling the side of a mountain with grace, skill, and impossibly toned arms. In reality, I look like a sweaty starfish, the entirety of my body clinging to the rock like I’m made of Velcro. Oh, and my right leg will not stop shaking.

“That’s what we call Elvis Leg!” my instructor Rico shouts, as he holds me steady.

I had warned him that this might happen. Though I was cool and confident on the ground, I fully expected that, half way up, my logical brain would take over and ask why on earth I wasn’t crashing to my death.

But I had also quizzed Rico extensively on his weight, after worrying that he only had about 10lbs on me.

“Oh, that’s nothing,” he said. “I once took a former footballer climbing – he was 6’8” and weighed around 300lbs.”

The pool at Boulders Resort & Spa

He showed me how the pulley worked, and how, even if he collapsed of a heart attack, the system ensured I physically couldn’t fall. I knew in my logical mind that I was perfectly safe, and that I wasn’t going to fall. And even if I did, I thought as I looked up at the not-so-high-from-the-bottom boulder, I’d probably be OK?

“Oh no. You most definitely would not.”

The helmet began to make sense.

Nicola on top of the world in Arizona 

That’s the thing about the desert. Almost everything in it wants to kill you. There are the scorpions. The tarantulas. The (shudder) rattlesnakes. Hell, even the cacti are out to get you. Brush up against a jumping cholla and you’ll be picking painful stems out of your flesh for days.

But there’s a captivating beauty to this hostile landscape. And I didn’t just want to drive through it – I wanted to experience it properly, and have an Arizonan adventure. An adventure that, preferably, included absolutely zero rattlesnakes.

I hadn’t expected a desert escapade to include a spell on a stunning stretch of water. But the Lower Salt River is an (almost literal) oasis in Scottsdale, and I set out to explore it on kayak, with Arizona Outback Adventures.

The splash from my paddle is blissful in the 8am heat (it’s nudging 32c) and the river is that heavenly shade of deep blue that you only get when the sun is blazingly hot.

Nicola kayaks in the Arizona desert

Our kayaks are inflatable, but impressively sturdy and nimble in the water, which occasionally spirals into a patch of rapids. A combination of overeager paddling (and an urge to show off in front of the handsome instructors) means that I unintentionally find myself alone, ahead of the group. As I paddle, I reach a pack of wild horses and foals, cooling off in the shallow banks of the river, just feet from the tip of my kayak. The bulbous Red Mountain rises in the distance, its reflection tingeing the water with crimson streaks.

As views go, it’s going to take some beating. But the next morning, it has competition.

It’s still dark when I drive just a few miles out of Scottsdale into the Sonoran Desert, the first modicum of dawn glowing blue on the horizon. It’s not long before we’re met with the scene of our chariot laid out upon the sand. The balloon from Hot Air Expeditions rests on the sand, its silky material billowing as it starts to expand. It looks like one of the parachutes you ran underneath in primary school (but the stern staff at its helm instantly quash any temptation I have to run squealing inside it).

In the Arizona desert, getting in a hot air balloon counts as adventure

There are lots of rules to listen to before we ascend. But when we do, it’s far smoother than I had expected, our wicker basket lifting elegantly into the rapidly blushing sky. A few other balloons surround us, creating a Phileas Fogg vibe. Above me, the bursts of flame feel like they’re singeing the top of my scalp, but no matter – the sight below is worth scorching a few flyaways.

Shadows start to form beside the cacti as the sun continues to rise. Dust flies behind trucks as they power over the soil, and honest to God tumbleweeds skim along the ground, nudging a couple of coyotes. And you know what? Even cows look cool when you’re watching them from the sky.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways flies direct to Phoenix from London Heathrow from £767 return. Scottsdale is a 20-minute drive from the airport.

Staying there

Rooms at Boulders Resort & Spa start from $139 (£107), room only.

Visiting there

A rock climbing session at Boulders starts at $135pp. River kayaking with Arizona Outback Adventures is $145pp. A sunrise hot air balloon ride is $179pp, including a champagne breakfast, with Hot Air Expeditions.

For more information, visit experiencescottsdale.com

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