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Ice, Dinosaurs, Bison, Salt Flats (Salt Lake City and Utah, Part II)

While Utah is justly famous for its skiing, it is also full of many interesting sites besides mountains. That being said, there are some very, very pretty mountains (particularly for someone who has grown up on the driest continent on earth).

Salt Lake City was the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics (a fact made famous by 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's leadership), and many of the facilities constructed for the Games remain present in the city. The large Olympic Oval is now used as an ice skating and ice hockey rink.

At the rink we got to watch people learn curling. Possibly the most hilarious sport ever invented, curling is like lawn bowls on ice played between teams. Two of the players on each team are called "sweepers", and they use brooms to brush the ice in front of the "stone" (puck/ball). This then alters the path of the stone, allowing it to continue further or stop earlier depending on the sweeping. Players generally wear shoes on the ice rather than skates (balance would be much more challenging on skates!), and the whole spectacle is great fun to watch.

Around an hour south of Salt Lake City is Thanksgiving Point, featuring the Museum of Ancient Life. Touted as housing the world's largest display of mounted dinosaurs, the museum is a fascinating walk through millions of years of history of life on earth.

The museum is laid out in a linear path through time, starting with the very beginnings of life on Earth before reaching the dinosaur eras.

Stunning skeleton models and fossils occupy every nook and cranny of the museum. Many are set in recreations of their natural environments (at least, the environments that paleontologists believe they lived in).

The museum described the process of locating, identifying, and classifying fossils in great detail - often complementing the exhibits. One of the most impressive displays was a Supersaurus and an Ultrasaurus, towering over a three storey high room. These things were truly enormous.

This little carnivore was huddling in the shadows of the Supersaurus and Ultrasaurus. Somehow, I think it wouldn't have been too frightened of their bulk.

Of course, no dinosaur museum is complete without the King, Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Museum of Ancient Life featured two of them, stomping down in a room that otherwise featured clutches of dinosaur eggs and a water exhibit. Even without flesh, the skeletons were intimidating, particularly the enormous jaws with rows of jagged teeth.

Is anyone else amused by the comically small arms of T-Rex?

As the age of the dinosaurs came to a close, other enormous forms of ancient life came to prominence. One of the areas that prospered was the ocean. Each flipper of this enormous turtle is larger than a adult human; many people could comfortably fit underneath the bony shell.

Carnivorous fish also came a long way, laying the evolutionary grounds for modern day sharks. To give a sense of scale, a young child could easily stand inside the mouth of this large shark predecessor below. It's a bit of a shock to turn the corner and run into, that's for sure!

Some more fanciful exhibits were also on display, including this one of a giant woolly mammoth, under attack from prehistoric humans armed with rocks and spears. I'm not exactly sure whether this sort of thing happened very often, but it makes for a great mental image.

Finally, outside the museum was a pen with reindeer! We were quite excited to see them; I have never before seen one of these Christmas-themed animals. Unfortunately, I can report no bright red-nosed varieties - just the standard brown. I did feel a bit sorry for them: I wouldn't like to carry those horns around on my head all day.

Utah is also blessed with many beautiful landscapes. We visited to the Antelope Island State Park, which sits in the Great Salt Lake to the north of Salt Lake City. The Lake has no outlet flows, and so is almost perfectly still. Surrounded by mountains, fresh air, and the salt lake, the area is tranquil and beautiful. The reflections of the snow-capped mountains in the Lake are particularly stunning.

Antelope Island is famous for being home to a herd of around 500 bison. We managed to catch a glimpse of some of these up close as they crossed the road, stopping traffic in both directions. Thankfully, the island also features its namesake antelopes. We spotted stopped by grassland with some antelope in the distance, and crept as close as we dared to take some photos.

It's hard to overstate just how beautiful Antelope Island was. We had brilliant blue sky (though the air temperature was relatively chilly), the amazingly still lake, rolling hills, and not very many other people. It was tranquil.

As we left our hotel on the last day, we happened upon this touching sight. I don't think I've ever seen a wedding vehicle so organically decorated.

Our final destination in Utah was the Bonneville Salt Flats, around two and a half hours to the west of Salt Lake City. The Flats are an enormous, densely packed salt pan that stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. Getting there was a long trek on the Interstate highway, before turning off onto a little country road that curved out onto the Flats before disappearing entirely, dumping us in the middle of the salt. The air is crisply chill at this time of year, matching the stark whiteness all around. There is a strange light in the air as sunlight reflects off the whiteness.

The Flats are where many a daredevil straps rocket engines to their car and guns it in the hopes of setting a land speed record. Great stretches of the Salt Flats are just that - perfectly flat - and the isolation is perfectly suited to driving very, very, very fast, with large run-off areas in case of emergency. Each year, a special mile section is marked out by the Bureau of Land Management, in preparation for that year's crop of speedsters.

We didn't attempt any records in our more pedestrianly-spec'ed car (they recommend against it in winter as there many be treacherously slushy or watery sections hidden under the salt). However, pictures of our little Toyota Yaris did look as if they had come straight out of a car commercial.

Now that's an advertising shot if I ever saw one.

Utah was a terrifically interesting place to visit. It highlighted many differences in people, climate, landscapes, and wildlife between the US and Australia - even between California and other states. Now, it was quite bitterly cold, and a car is mandatory for getting around with any form of convenience. But there are quite a few worthwhile attractions - and I feel like I learnt much about heartland America from my visit.

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