ROUND THE WORLD WALKABOUT
Part 4. San Francisco and Yosemite National Park.
1st September 2011
I love Chinatown and its vibrant crowded streets. Shops are brim-full with fascinating antiques, jade, jewelry and knicknacks. People spill over into the streets, causing patient cars to crawl at a snail’s pace. I catch a tantalising glimpse of San Francisco Bay down a hill between busy shops; a cacophony of languages, smiling faces, happy, bustling people. It is Labour Day weekend and the entire world is out and about, carefree and looking for fun.
The aroma of a crowded Chinese bakery attracts my attention. My airline meals don’t warrant a restaurant tonight, but I am feeling peckish. I settle for a delicious melt-in-the-mouth saucer-sized almond cookie, and duck into a fruit stall to buy some bananas and a couple of juicy yellow plums. Chinese shopkeepers swallow their consonants, but once my ears are attuned I catch the gist of what they are saying.
After an enormous bowl of porridge for breakfast in the hotel café, I meet my Explore group. We are twelve, plus leader Jane who does this part-time but whose real job is with the BBC, and French driver Manu. Four of us are Janes! I am immediately nicknamed Jane RTW (Round the World).
We pile into our crimson mini-bus for a city tour. Sprawling satellite towns spread into the distance below the Twin Peaks. Mist swirls around us, blotting out parts of it. We can hardly see the Golden Gate Bridge. We motor over the Bridge and park above it to catch glimpses between the clouds, caused by a cold Arctic current meeting the warm ocean; but we see no gold. We march for forty minutes across the length of the Bridge, the incessant four lanes of traffic booming by on our right. Boat foghorns echo mournfully as they pass beneath us in the mist.
We are left to our own devices near Fisherman’s Wharf. Crowds of holidaymakers spill onto the streets. People cram the pavement cafes, and I let myself be carried past several street performers. I elbow to the front and watch a “wild bushman,” face smeared with some black stuff, hiding behind a wall then suddenly jumping out at an unsuspecting passer-by, rattling his prop of leaves and roaring ferociously. The crowd goes wild with hilarity at the fright on the face of the victim, who then stops to chortle at the next casualty.
I approach comparative peace at the end of Pier 39 and see a fleet of yachts racing, spinnakers billowing in bursts of colour. Alcatraz Island lies in the background. I have to apply extra sun block on the back of my neck. Behind me, a grotesque gathering of sea lions honk and seethe over each other among the moorings, especially when a pleasure-boat steams past.
A bewhiskered busker sings of the sixties as I queue to ride the length of Hyde Street in a cable car, clutching my back pack on my lap between crushed people hanging onto the poles in front of me. Enormous wheels or “shivs” pull the cables through the streets, and the cars are hitched on or off with levers operated by the drivers. It is nerve-racking on the steep slopes approaching intersections. The driver has to ring his clanging bell to warn the traffic operators to switch the lights favourably and allow the car a smooth run. Our bell-ringer sweats a bit as a long tailback looms at a set of lights, and it seems his frantic ringing is falling on deaf ears.
That night, I retire to my hotel room to watch Martina Hingis in an easy victory over Justine Henin in the US Open, and on the journey out of San Francisco the following day we pass thousands of giant windmills churning on the hilltops.
If you’ve never been there, you must go; bigger than big scenery, sheer silvery cliffs rise above gigantic redwood pines, and a grove of amazing sequoia mammoths. We camp in a narrow valley beside a river. Water is a problem, and the Indian Flat campsite outside the Park asks us to conserve it. We watch a black bear (she is brown, actually) and her cub foraging by the river outside the camp site, and are warned to lock all food in smell-proof containers before we retire to our tents at night.
Two hikes. The first among the sequoias, a hard fast slog in the heat of the afternoon, and although we are mostly in the shade, I find it difficult to breathe. I bring out my solar cap with its little fan for the sunny patches, and it proves a good talking point as well as producing a welcome breeze for my brow.
We drive through altitudes ranging between 2000′ to 7,500′, stopping at the beauty spots. Half Dome glistens across the valley, at 8,800′ the highest rock climb in the States. A seven mile walk up one side of Vernal and Nevada waterfalls and down the other, takes four and a half hours, and I am proud of myself for surviving the ordeal. At the top where we lunch, a mule train crosses the wooden bridge.
The final day finds me sitting on a bench at the edge of a meadow on the road to the Ahwahnee Hotel. Half-Dome is before me, the sun shining directly onto its ashen face. Tall redwood pines strain up in the foreground, and robins hop tentatively close, while a stellars jay screeches harshly in a pine tree behind me. I wander the paths round the Happy Isles and the fen, where I spot a black phoebe (quite like the African bulbul). I catch the shuttle to the stables and hike the trail through back-packers camp, past the Ahwahnee ruins to Yosemite village. The heat is intense, and I can smell the burning tarmac under the cars and shuttle buses which pass by.
The others have dispersed to climb Half-Dome, hike a trail, or hire bicycles. Things are expensive – mainly because of the 18% tips. I pay $20 for a tough steak, baked potato and salad. Explore plan their trips well, but I do think we could have more meals in camp.