Sunday, July 1, 2007

Kurt out of the Canal

Friday 8 June

Well, it didn’t happen.

I take back all and anything complimentary that I said about Panamanian efficiency. We did not leave Gamboa when the fog had cleared. We did not leave Gamboa at 8am, nor at the announced (by them) time of midday, nor indeed at the re-re-announced time of 7pm. We finally released our buoys and set forth towards the Gaillard Cut at something more like 8.30pm.

And thank goodness for that.

We had a delightful day bronzing on the upper decks in the sometimes fierce tropical sun, watching the procession of huge container ships and bulk carriers passing first one way and then the other on their way through the canal. The entertainment was varied by the occasional flash little yacht (American flag, inevitably), the occasional long, winding train, laden with containers, which – with a shrill and piercing hoot – snaked its way along the dark green banks, and by the antics of the giant crane with the improbable name of ‘Rialto M Christiansen’, which turned out not to be a fixed item, but officially a dredge and mounted on a barge. Like everything here, it seems!

It was well and truly dark when we steamed out of Gamboa and took a gentle virage to starboard, past the Chagres River bridge and into the newly widened (to almost 200 metres) Gaillard Cut. What a sight! One would say a fairground on water, or the airstrip of Fairyland Airport. The more or less straight ‘Cut’ (and that is exactly what it is, a C19th ‘cut’ through the original hills) simply glitters with lights of all kinds, lights which rebound from the daytimely-uninviting brown surface of the water in a delicious festival of dancing colour. The bright directional pillars of gold and green, lined up on the adjacent banks, which in the sunshine hours are such ordinary-looking aids to navigation, now, lit up, are almost exciting. The little gold ‘alligators eyes’ which mark the edge of the waters, water-level blue lights and green lights all with some doubtless vital meaning too obscure for a layman, the huge ‘radio masts’ higher up the hills with their irregular silver flashings, like the RKO logo gone mad on all-white firework night .. and, creeping darkly towards you, in a flurry of tug-light, in this wider two-way portion of the Canal, the shadow of an other-way-bound ship, with just its red and green navigation lights showing. Here a maintenance barge, equipped with all sorts of looming equipment and blazing with busy ‘overtime’ light, there a coven of tugs bathed in their own busy little brightness, and there again a team of busy dozers and diggers, working through the night, behind glaring gold eyes and under vast panels of floodlight.

Since my last passage of Panama, six or seven years ago, the widening works then in progress have been completed, to be replaced by goodness knows how many other endless kinds of amenagement. However, the most noticeable change is a whole new bridge! Whereas before the Bridge of the Americas (which actually isn’t strictly ‘in’ the canal) was the only span over the water, now we have what is called the Ponte Cucaracha or the Cockroach Bridge. This isn’t a comment on its cleanliness but simply because it sprouts from a piece of the canal known as the Bordava Cucaracha (which may very well have been such a comment, back when it was named). It seems to lead from nowhere to nowhere, although I did spy a few lights amongst the dark vegetation on the previously untouched southern bank of the canal. Anyway, it is apparently, if relatively useless, determinedly commemorative, and wherever it comes from and goes to, there it is, a nice modern suspension bridge, outlined in the traditional halo of electric lights, with the occasional vehicule buzzing across its span like a glowworm with an outboard motor.. a fine addition to the tourist scenery.

It seemed like no time at all before we glimpsed, down the ‘runway’, beyond the bridge, a veritable city of lights and the Pedro Miguel locks reared glitteringly up before us. And, with it, eleven o’clock reared up as well. The ice bucket was empty, and the festive whisky bottle seemed to have taken a bit of a bashing too. And since one lock is pretty much like another, and we’d already had one bridge, the last Monkey Island survivors decided to call it a day. Or, rather, a night. Graham (who had slept much of the early part of the evening) later crept up to watch us through the last locks, just after midnight, but the rest of us cried happily ‘enough’. I watched the first Pedro Miguel ‘hoist’ from my private porthole and then went contentedly off to sleep.

Alas, I have no photos to illustrate this very pictorial part of my story. Given the humidity here – which has reached 100 percent at times in the last couple of days – the lens of one’s camera insidiously fogs up, resulting mre often than not in pictures of nothing but a humid, foggy blur. Oh well, you can’t win em all.

The morning of Friday 8 June dawned to find us parked out in the Pacific Ocean, in misty sight of the Bridge of the Americas, and of the tower blocks of Paitilla on the Gulf of Panama, in a gentle warm rain which had – from the evidence of the inundated decks – previously been very much less gentle. Limpeted to our side was a very punctual sludge barge, downloading our waste oil. It has gone now, but is soon – or not soon -- about to be replaced by a fellow barge (largely late, wouldn’t you know it) which will upload the fuel which will take us through the Pacific.

So … here we go! En avant and Tally ho for Tahiti!

When Panama gets its act together.

Scenery, or Officer Cadets at work:

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