Watch the sunlight paint pictures in Antelope Canyon, teeter on the edge of Horseshoe Bend and get close to the land in a traditional Navajo hogan
Is a cool, still morning and Baya Dine is awake early to tend to her flock. As the curly horned Navajo-Churro sheep graze — across the wide-open plains, her big white Maremma sheepdog Elvis keeps the stragglers in check. Baya knows every inch of this land as if it were a part of her, from the spectacular curve of Horseshoe Bend a few miles north to Antelope Canyon in the east.
Baya’s family has farmed here for 15 generations. Her ancestors lived in hogans, homes built with cedar and juniper logs, and packed with earth, which could be taken down and moved seasonally. Baya herself grew up in her grandmother’s hogan, a permanent wooden structure which still stands and was, improbably, built with pieces of the set left over from the making of the 1965 epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, after her grandfather appeared in the film as an extra. Baya’s grandmother, who had always lived in buildings made of earth, considered it a palace.
“My grandmother lived here the way the Navajo had lived for many generations,” Baya explains. She herded her sheep through this land and then down the ridge all along to where the town of Page is now. This is a harsh environment and they were just trying to survive, foraging and living off the land. They were one with it, really. This was part of them and their way of life.”
Baya’s land is in the west of the Navajo Nation, which at 16 million acres is the largest Native American reservation in the US. Although her ancestors moved their homes to different spots regularly, they have left no trace beyond a few petroglyphs, arrowheads and shards of broken pottery.
“You’d never know now where their homes were,” says Baya. “These days there are buzzwords, like “sustainable” and “green-built”, but that was just a way of life for Native Americans. They reused and recycled way before it was the thing to do.”
On the land where Baya now stands, the ancient Navajo stories say there was an antelope birthing area. The animals also gave their name to the nearby Antelope Canyon, although the Navajo refer to the area as `Tse Bighanilini’, which translates as `the place where water runs through rocks’.
Entering the now-dry canyon on a Navajo-run tour, visitors are awed into hushed tones when they see how water has sliced a narrow crevasse through the sandstone. Inside the slot canyon there’s an otherworldly atmosphere, as the only light comes from sunbeams playing tricks upon the canyon walls as they fall 40 metres. Flash flooding is still a danger and tour guides with torches pause to point out where previous floods have lodged trees high between the canyon walls.
Photographers jostle each other for the best spots and angles —no surprise considering the world’s most expensive photograph was taken here. Landscape photographer Peter Lik sold Phantom, an image of dust in the canyon appearing to take the form of a ghost, for $6.5m in November 2014.
West of Antelope Canyon, on the other side of the small town of Page, sits Horseshoe Bend, where photographers have no such problem competing for a spot.
The only danger here is getting too close to the 300-metre drop that overlooks the meandering path of the Colorado River as it travels west from Lake Powell to the start of the Grand Canyon itself. This is that same canyon on a more intimate scale and among the tourists taking selfies there are also joggers from Page who come simply to marvel at nature’s signature, carved deep into the earth. Standing on the precipice, it’s easy to understand what Baya means when she explains why the Navajo have stayed in this place for so long. “This land,” she says, “has its own special power.”
At Shash Dine EcoRetreat, Baya allows visitors to stay in her grand mother’s simple wooden hogan, a cabin heated by a wood-burning stove. Bring your own food to enjoy as a late-night fireside picnic.
Antelope Canyon Tours offers both sightseer and photographers’ tours, which is recommended for those taking tripods or SLRs.
Horseshoe Bend, a gentle half-mile walk from the car park just off US-89, is free to enter. There are no toilets or shops, so remember to bring water.