On Tuesday we drove off from Big Bend, with mixed feelings.  We loved the place, but the facilities were very basic and, due to the irrigation the whole place was swarming with tiny (non-biting, thank goodness) flies.  It was so bad in the washrooms of an evening, I could hardly make myself get close to the basin to brush my teeth as they were all swarming around the lights.

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We wondered if some people had realised how bad the facilities were

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and if there was any place on earth where a certain brand could not reach

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We headed north west to Fort Davis so that we could visit the McDonald Observatory.  This is the observatory of the university of Texas and it’s sited on top of the Davis Mountains due to the sky being very dark there and light and other pollution being very low.  They hold ‘Star Parties’ three times a week, when for a fee of $12 you can go along and watch the stars.  We managed to get two of the last twelve tickets, which is just as well, because they turned an awful lot of people away.  Why would you drive to such a remote place, without checking that they would actually let you join in?  

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It was well worth the drive.  We turned up early and ate delicious hot roast beef sandwiches and then at seven thirty we were invited to go outside and sit in the auditorium.  We were a bit worried because, despite the day being totally clear, the clouds had come in and we could barely see any stars.  There was a fabulous sunset, mind you. 

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They lit the area with red lamps, because this does not affect your night vision.  A nice young lecturer then came and gave us a talk about the constellations we couldn’t see through all the cloud.  He was not certain whether we would stay outside,or have to go in doors for the wet weather program, but gradually the sky began to clear.  Apparently it takes about forty five minutes for your night vision to fully adapt so that was one reason why he kept us hanging around so long.  We were not allowed to use any device with a screen nor torches, as this would set everyone’s night vision back to square one.  At the end of the time we could see so many stars.  We could see the milky Way and all the old favourites that even a novice like me can spot, such as Orion etc, but the familiar constellations were actually hard to spot because you could see so many stars around them.  Then we went and were allowed to look through some marvellous telescopes, some quite portable, others hugely complicated, with their mirrors several feet apart and some in permanent domes.  The detail we could see was startling.  A smudge in the sky became a constellation of thousands of stars (there are more stars in this cluster than you can see with the naked eye)  We could see detail of one of the clusters in Orion, which included both dark and glowing clouds of gas and dust.  Most exciting of all, we got to see Jupiter together with four of its moons.  We came away on a real high and I suspect we shall be buying a telescope when we get back to the UK.

The next day we headed on up to Carlsbad so that we could visit the caverns.  The route was pretty dull after we had left the Davis Mountains behind. 

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We ended up driving through seemingly endless Texas oilfields.  I had always imagined them to be exciting places with oils spouting up from the ground and huge flares everywhere.  Nope.  The long, straight road felt very unloved as it was strewn with litter nearly the whole way. 

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There were hundreds of ‘nodding donkeys’, peacefully pumping up the black stuff, together with dozens of drilling rigs

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and quite a few (small) flares burning.  The road was full of lorries, all in a rush to get past.  There were only two or three towns in the two hundred or so miles, hardly any cafes, one or two rest stops and so little else that there was actually a sign to tell us that this trash bin was coming up in half a mile.

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There is obviously no love lost between Texas and New Mexico, as demonstrated by the gunshot holes on the state line sign.

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There were more in the ‘Welcome to New Mexico’ sign, but I missed the photo op, due to the shock of seeing so many holes in one poor, little sign.

We eventually got to Carlsbad, where we found a very nice and friendly campground, with clean, if rather tatty, washrooms.  It had lots of room for tents, even if the pitches didn’t have electricity.

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and yet another beautiful sunset,

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which is probably due to the dust blown around by the high winds; we experienced gusts of up to forty miles an hour as we were pitching the Tentipi.

The next day we headed out to the Carlsbad caverns and were pleased to start using our national Parks pass.  The ranger who gave us our tickets for the caverns subjected us to the ‘third degree’ about any other caves we had visited in the last TEN years.  Can you remember what clothes you wore ten years ago?  Or what handbag you had?  He let us through, because we were pretty certain that nothing we had with us had been into a cave before.  They are trying very hard to stop the spread of the white nose bat fungus, which has devastated bat populations throughout Europe and the USA.  I understand that but it would have been helpful if they had put a warning on their website so we could have checked our gear beforehand.  The walk down into the caverns is pretty steep and there are signs all over the place to warn you that you need to be fit and that you might get light headed and weak kneed from the climb back out. 

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The Ranger who checked our tickets gave us stern warnings and instructions not to touch anything, as the grease from your skin can stop stalactites from forming. 

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The route down was very steep, but,as usual, the Parks Authority had made a very good path down into the cavern. 

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It was very hard to see anything in the cavern at first, but then I realised that my Reactolite glasses were still very dark.  (Doh!)  We walked down and down for ages and then we finally ended up in what they call the great room.  It was outstandingly beautiful, with a huge variety of formations, from giant stalactites and stalactites to to stuff that they call popcorn, formed by water oozing out of the walls and evaporating rather than from drips.

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It looked like a fairy grotto and I thought that all it needed was a bit of glitter and a few garden gnomes and it would have been perfect.  Nah.  It was perfect, just as it was.  When you get to the deepest part of the caves, there is a very pleasant cafe selling very good sandwiches, which is just as well as it is about a four hour round trip on foot and you are not allowed to take any food with you to avoid contaminating the caverns.  The caves we were allowed to see are just a minuscule part of the whole system, which goes on for well over a hundred miles and they are finding new caves all the time.  The real mystery is how come the whole hillside has not collapsed.  Usually you take the lift back up to the surface, but it was out of action.  The walk back out of the cave was quite hard work as it is pretty steep and unrelenting, but we took it as a  challenge and both made it back out into the light without stopping. 

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(well I paused to take a photo of this Ranger who was having to fish coins out of the pools despite the notices saying not to do it because it discolours the rocks and causes all kinds of problems.  People can be really stupid sometimes.) Along the way we passed people puffing and panting and swearing to never put themselves through such an ordeal again.  Didn’t they read the signs?  I do hope they get the lifts back in action, because it means that even people in wheelchairs can see some of the best formations.  And there is less likely to be heart attacks on the way up

After we came out of the caves , admiring the view across the plane (complete with a brush fire)

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we drove around the scenic loop,

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along a pretty rough gravel track and Tim enjoyed himself immensely. 

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Camel seemed right at home and we had fond memories of some of the main roads in Iceland.

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