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Disdain popular tourist traps all you want, but don't miss 'the big ditch'

This is the first in a two-part exploration of the Grand Canyon.

Some spots on the planet – despite all the hype and rhetoric, crowds and clichéd postcards – consistently exceed expectations. Such "power places" seem to affect all who pass near, imparting a sense of the profound. The Potala Palace in Lhasa is a prime example. Subjected to 60 years of Chinese occupation, denigrated by the plastic palm trees and Western junk-food restaurants sprouting where pilgrims once gathered, engulfed by snarls of tour buses and infested with closed-circuit cameras that spy on visitors and monks alike, the place has an overwhelming spirit that not only endures, but shines on.

Another such spot – and one that took me completely by surprise – is the Grand Canyon, in whose shady depths lies the granddaddy of all river trips, a near-mythic journey through time.

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Some years ago I joined a group of friends for an 18-day raft journey down the Grand Canyon. Before departure, my thoughts were only of jocular fun: big waves, good laughs and cold beer. "The Big Ditch" is the birthplace of modern river tripping; the home of dories and enormous J-rigs (monstrous rafts, originally constructed from military pontoons). The canyon's rapids – including Crystal, Granite, Lava – are legendary; mentioned in hushed tones, training ground for many of the world's most celebrated river runners.

This rift on the Colorado Plateau was first explored by Lieutenant Joseph Ives in 1858, in search of an inland route from the Gulf of California. At the time, he noted, erroneously, that "ours has been first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality." Instead of retreating into anonymity, the Grand Canyon is visited by five million people annually, and stands alongside American icons such as Yellowstone National Park, Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty.

The river that whisked us away from the Lees Ferry ranger's station was cold and green, having just emerged from the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam. Upwellings and whirlpools rippled the glassy surface, whispering of power.

Despite air temperatures soaring into the 30s, we squeezed into dry tops and wetsuits. Once described as "too thin to plow but too thick to drink," the waters of the Grand Canyon sparkled clear in the afternoon sun, all the sediment having settled upstream in Lake Powell where the Colorado loses its Spanish namesake, no longer running the colour red.

River life was good. It always is. Up at dawn, our boats adrift long before the heat of midday, one day melted into the next. Laughter. Splashes. Silence. We stopped often to explore fern-shaded slot canyons, stumbling upon sapphire waterfalls and swimming into deep cool pools. Water-smoothed rock echoed with the call of canyon wrens, and carefree afternoons were consumed with Frisbee on the beach or sipping margaritas with ice. At times, the opulent style of our travel – with coolers full of fresh fruit, holds full of vegetables and mesh bags full of beer slung in the river – jarred with the stark environment; without such supplies, life here would be a bitter and desperate fight for survival.

By and large, the river was languorous, imparting an overwhelming sense of calm, which was interrupted occasionally by monumental cataracts, 161 major rapids to be exact, every one created by boulder piles and debris washed from side creeks during flash floods. Despite losing a frightening total of 600 metres in elevation during its 365-kilometre journey through the Grand Canyon, the Colorado is kind to boaters, its rapids starting small and gradually growing, day after day.

Nine days after we bid the world farewell, the walls began to press closer, and we entered the Inner Gorge, the heart of the journey. An overwhelming silence blanketed these depths, lying more than a mile below the baked plains of the Sonoran Desert. Great walls of Vishnu schist – some of the oldest exposed bedrock on the planet – lead the river through a maze of serpentine bends.

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Science remains uncertain of the canyon's origin. Did the plateau rise up around the river, or did the Colorado River cut down? And how did 350 million years of sediment – known as "the Great Unconformity" – disappear completely? One thing is certain: The rock is old and the river is new. These walls have been carved only in the past few million years.

A trip down the Grand Canyon becomes a journey in time. Time on a grand scale – a planetary scale – where 1.7-billion-year-old rocks lie exposed on the riverside, while the water continues to cut ever deeper, carrying away one million tons of sediment every day. Earth is roughly 4.6 billion years old, meaning the rocks in the gut of the canyon are one-third the age of our planet. The sheer, ruddy orange walls that we dragged our fingertips along contained a linear record of time right from the very first unicellular organisms to present day.

A trip down the Grand is also about time on a personal scale. Eighteen days away from it all. No phone calls, e-mails, news or tweets down there. The isolation is utter and complete. Our small group was dwarfed beneath the giant and ever-looming rock walls; waking with the sun, eating on riverbanks, sleeping on sand beneath blankets of stars. Eighteen days to rinse the body and mind in the river's cool waters.

Next week: The big rapids, and the story of the Canyon's disappearing water.

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About the Author

Bruce Kirkby has spent more than two decades exploring the most remote corners of the planet. His journeys have taken him through the heart of Arabia by camel, down the Blue Nile on raft and across Iceland by foot. The author of two bestselling books, Mr. Kirkby is the recipient of three National Magazine Awards. More

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