Page last updated at 10:39 GMT, Saturday, 3 September 2011 11:39 UK

'Heat Armageddon' in California's Death Valley

Death Valley

By Huw Cordey, California

This year's British summer has been officially declared the coolest in two decades. But what is it like to experience the inferno of California's Death Valley?

Death Valley is the lowest, driest, hottest place in North America. And if that is not enough to persuade the die-hard sun-seekers to visit, it also has the record for the hottest July ever recorded anywhere in the world - a blistering 134F (57C).

But while this may be heaven for sun gods and goddesses, not everybody appreciates the conditions.

It's like trying to breathe in a pizza oven
Skaidra Kempkowski, Death Valley National Park

For those living here year-round like Skaidra Kempkowski, the concessions manager of Death Valley National Park, thoughts of July are enough to bring on a case of phantom heatstroke.

This is Skaidra's second year in the post so, trying not to smile, I ask her how long it was after arriving that she thought about a transfer.

"Four months," she says breaking into a giggle. Or to put it another way, the experience of one summer.

"In July and August," she explains, "you can't really do anything outside. It's like trying to breathe in a pizza oven. Just walking to the car from the house can leave you utterly drained."

No escape

Getting into your car does not necessarily bring relief. Skaidra tells me that sometimes the steering wheel gets so hot she has to wear gloves just to hold it.

When I arrive for the interview, I notice the bonnet of Skaidra's car is up. "Has it broken down?" I ask.

"Oh no," she says. "It's to stop the desert rodents from taking shelter from the heat under the hood and then chewing through the wires."

Death Valley
Sand dunes in Death Valley
Situated in California's Mojave Desert
It is the largest national park in the US and covers more than 3.3 million acres
Summer high temperatures commonly run above 120F
It was named in 1849 by a group of prospectors during the California Gold Rush

Even her house, cooled by air conditioning, is not immune from the Death Valley inferno.

With ground temperatures hitting 160F (71C), the water coming out of her taps in July flows at one temperature - hot.

So, just when a cold shower would seem the perfect antidote to the hellish heat, it is not an option.

Skaidra's previous posting was at Everglades National Park in sub-tropical Florida, so I ask her what she misses the most.

"Green," she says. It's a response that needs no further explanation.

Apart from the bizarre sight of the Furnace Creek golf course (the lowest golf course in the world) and the occasional strip of mesquite, a shrub that appears oblivious to the desiccating temperatures, Death Valley is essentially brown.

And this year it is even more brown than usual.

The valley is well known for its vivid wild flowers which bloom for a few weeks in spring, but the failure of winter rains means these splashes of colour are very few and far between.

Yet even at its most barren, its steep-sided mountains, canyons and gravel plains are startlingly beautiful.

Map of California

Driving through parts of Death Valley is like witnessing a scene from the beginning of the world, when the only living thing knocking about was the odd single-celled animal.

Of course you do not expect to see herds of wildebeest in a desert, but this one does seem surprisingly lifeless.

The park biologist tells me that this year there is even less wildlife around than normal.

Her evidence comes from the absence of road-kills on her morning commute. It seems a strange barometer, but I can appreciate the challenges of looking for wildlife on foot here. I did it and still did not find much.

In three weeks, I can almost count the number of different insect species I have seen on one hand.

Even heat-loving reptiles like lizards and snakes are thin on the ground.

Sand dunes in Death Valley

And mammals - well, leaving aside the wire-eating rodents - I have seen just two kinds.

The tiny antelope ground squirrels, that race around as if their tails are on fire, and coyotes.

These legendary wild dogs are one of the toughest and most adaptable mammals on the planet, but this year they might have met their match.

Right now they would normally be feasting on caterpillars but caterpillars need wild flowers to eat, so no flowers, no caterpillars.

This is one of the United States' most popular national parks and the onset of "heat Armageddon" does not alter that.

"Americans tend to steer clear of the place in July and August," says Skaidra, "but there's plenty of Europeans - particularly British.

"They like to test themselves against the hostile temperatures," she adds.

Possibly - or maybe they are just escaping the British summer.

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Southern US sizzles in heatwave
04 Aug 11 |  US & Canada
Country profile: United States of America
18 Oct 11 |  Country profiles

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