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Donkin on Travel

1996, Palm Springs, USA

Cook Islands

Leaning back in his Harley Davidson, black leathers and droopy moustache, ready to motor out into the Californian desert, at a glance he might have been mistaken for Dennis Hopper in a scene from Easy Rider. His T-shirt said: 'Sink your claws into something wild.'

But the desert heat can play tricks. In fact he was an ageing German businessman from Cologne, with a paunch to match his wallet. He and his pack of 14 bikers had flown over to Los Angeles to re-live their fantasies, hiring their machines at Dollars 1,000 a week each.

They were staying in five-star luxury in downtown Palm Springs where raising hell equates to a foursome at bridge on a Monday night. Born to be wild they might have been, but these latter-day Valkyries rode their Harleys like souped up zimmer frames with wheels. Hell's grannies had come of age.

The German bikers were typical of those who have been infected by the gentility of life in Palm Springs . It was the same in the seedy bar where a skimpily clad barmaid in off-white mini-skirt and cantilevered breasts, chewed gum and took turns on the Karaoke machine. A red-necked pool-player turned to our group and said: 'Excuse me but would you mind moving up a few inches so that I can play my shot?'

He could not have been more polite had he said it with flowers. I wondered if I might find a plaque on the wall saying: 'The last recorded bar-room brawl in Palm Springs took place here in July 1972. This was the final occasion that a pool cue is known to have been used in anger.'

Maybe it is a combination of the old people and the heat, but Palm Springs is an oasis of good behaviour and old fashioned manners in a country not noted for either.

Another factor may be the civilising influence of golf. The town has more than 100 golf courses and 350 days of sunshine a year on which to mow them. There is even a practice putting green at the airport.

Its most famous golfer, most famous resident indeed, must be Bob Hope, the film actor, now 93, who lives above the town in a 29,000 sq ft villa, sleeps in a 4,000 sq ft bedroom and eats in a dining room with seating for 300 people. I know these facts because they were supplied by Bruce Poynter, one of that peculiarly American sub-species, the sort who were weened on Ripley's Believe It or Not, who seem to retain an inestimable capacity for storing useless statistics.

Poynter is a guide with a company called Desert Adventures which takes people out into the desert to look at cacti, old Indian settlements and the graves of long dead gold prospectors. He does not consider himself an authority on the homes of the stars. But in Palm Springs you have to know where the stars live. The stars demand it. In their carefully disguised search for anonymity they have all contrived to live in the same large housing estate.

Nobody seems to mind the tour buses except the people at Marilyn Monroe's old pad. They got so fed up they slapped restraining orders on the tour companies, preventing them from pointing out the place. Poynter was discretion itself as he told us to ignore the house with the white railings. 'Whoo woo,' we shouted in a juvenile display of defiance.

We gasped as we admired Randolph Hirst's former residence, now owned by the doctor who gave Betty Ford her last face-lift, and there was undisguised admiration for 'Lassie's trainer's house'.

Liberace's house had a post box shaped like a piano. They say he used to come to the door personally at Halloween at which point, no doubt, the kids would run off screaming into the night.

Nothing could compete in banality with the discovery that one of the houses was owned by the man who invented the yo-yo and the parking meter. Most of the houses now only seemed to enjoy associated status, their former owners having passed on to that great casting couch in the sky. Dean Martin, Sammy Davies jnr, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Carol Lombard remain with us only in celluloid. Others such as Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor's mother are hanging on in there. And Elvis Presley? Who knows?

Their former haunts, such as the Racquet Club where Marilyn Monroe was 'discovered' and the Ingleside hotel, where Greta Garbo went to be alone, are still there. Today there are new stars on the block: Kevin Costner was spotted recently driving a white Volvo. But their lifestyles are less flamboyant than their predecessors.

Today's owners of Palm Springs , the mega rich who flaunt their wealth in ostentatious Rolls-Royces and big houses on the edge of town, are the native Americans. The 284 Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians are said to share a net worth of $2.9bn, more than $10m for every man, woman and child. It is not, however, shared so equally. Perhaps 30 per cent live below the poverty line.

The very rich ones are those that owned land on which casinos and hotels have been built. You, like me, may have been reared to believe that native Americans had been run off their happy hunting grounds. In most cases this was indeed what happened, but late last century Palm Springs was dismissed by US government land valuers as worthless desert so the tribe held on to much of the land.

The government realised its mistake when people started going there for the spa waters and a hotel was built, but it was too late. After a series of Federal Court actions the Cahuilla finally got their hands on more than a fifth of the land in Palm Springs.

Now everyone wants to be a Cahuilla. To qualify you must be one-eighth Indian and there is talk of watering it down further to one-sixteenth. The chief is not called Running Deer but Richard Milanovich.

None of this deters Poynter whose knowledge of the Indians probably matches and in some cases, exceeds their own. He runs survival courses in the desert. He knows which plants to eat, which make good tea and which get you as high as a kite.

He knows Latin names, Indian names and folk names of plants, insects, lizards and mammals. His party trick is to pick up a rattle snake in his bare hands. 'Hollywood has greatly magnified the danger of rattle snakes. Bites are rare,' he says.

He is one of those people who confesses to having learned little at school but who, upon leaving, have had the capacity of a human sponge to store facts and figures. I tested him frequently. 'Is that a humming bird?' I asked.

'Sure is,' said Bruce. 'The humming bird has a heart rate of 1,250 beats per minute and breathes in and out 250 times a minute. We would need to eat 350 pounds of hamburgers a day if we had the metabolic rate of a humming bird,' he said.

I saw people in Palm Springs who appeared to have combined the eating habits of a humming bird with the metabolic rate of a hibernating hamster. Many were youngsters in T-shirts, shorts and spiky hair-cuts who appeared to have stepped straight out of a Gary Larson cartoon.

So this is Palm Springs where the air is clear and most of the stars are in their firmament, where the golf courses breed like jack rabbits and where the Indians sell whiskey to the visitors. See the oasis where Rudolph Valentino filmed The Sheikh and the cowboy town where Roy Rogers shot a thousand baddies. Get on a Harley and live out your fantasies. It's perfectly safe.

© Financial Times

   
©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved