The best way to see the Grand Canyon by helicopter

I love the smell of hyperbole in the morning, especially when it is mixed with Avgas.

And we're getting a Gillard-full of it from our helicopter pilot and tour guide Isaac Etherington as we head towards the Grand Canyon. Mega-cynics say the Grand Canyon is one of the few places in the word that live up to the hype, and Isaac is laying the foundation with a steady stream of facts and figures as big as the blue expanse outside.

We take off from Boulder City Municipal Airport – about an hour's drive from Las Vegas – and within seconds the vast, dry starkness of the surrounding desert is apparent. Interesting landmarks are few and far between early in the flight, so Isaac fills with folksy observations about "being stuck in this office every day" and "yes, I do get paid for doing this but don't tell the boss". It's a well-rehearsed patter and he nails it.

Soon we are over the 1930s engineering marvel that is the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border, and while it looks small from up here, Isaac is ready with the numbers. He is better than most Americans when it comes to the metric system, but he can't convert the "three and one-quarter million cubic yards of cement" used in the dam's construction, so he explains this is enough to pave a five-metre wide highway from San Francisco to New York City. He adds that because the workers' camps were "dry", the dam was finished two years early and under budget.

The canyon comes into view slowly, teasing, until suddenly we are over the north rim gazing down at the stupefying, horizon-stretching immensity. Isaac is silent. He loves these awestruck moments of revelation. The Grand Canyon speaks for itself.

It took six million years of erosion to make this, and quite a few minutes more to fully absorb the wide-angle vista of towering layered walls, yawning ravines and raw, earthen, Kimberley-esque colouring. It is beyond spectacular, beyond breathtaking, beyond hyperbole.

Isaac sweeps his hand across the cockpit window to indicate points on the opposing rims that look a few hundred metres apart. "That's three miles from point to point," he says. There's nothing about the scale of this that's not extraordinary.

He moves on to the geology of the thing and is soon using phrases such as "conical upswing" and "aeolian sand dune deposition" but, as interesting as it sounds, the science can't match the sweeping ethereal panorama. With apologies to Isaac (and Carl Sagan), they should have sent a poet. Neither grandiose prose nor photography nor whimsical chopper pilot can do it justice.

Isaac sets his bird down on the canyon floor and we enjoy a quick champagne picnic lunch by the Colorado River, along with the passengers and overworked cameras from another six choppers.

It's hard to imagine this is actually America – there's not a Maccas or Starbucks in sight – so it is not totally surprising when Isaac tells us it's not. "We're not technically in the US. This is Hualapi Tribal Nation land and they are subject to their own laws and autonomy. The land is still blessed by the natives and apparently their ancestors live in the cacti, which grow 12 inches every hundred years." 

The Grand Canyon and Isaac were both awesome. Not even Bronwyn Bishop could create a more compelling reason for a helicopter flight.

The writer was a guest of Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

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