Friday, September 17, 2010

The Panama Canal

August 18th

When in Panama you obviously have to visit “The Canal”, but first we head to The Canal Museum off Plaza de la Independencia to get some background info. We're a bit geeky like that.

It starts right back at the beginning showing the routes that sturdy mules overloaded with silver would have taken before the canal was even built. The 50 mile over land route took 4 day by fast horse – used for messages and important passengers, cargo took longer - 7 to 14 days which considering the heat, insects and dense jungle was tough going. In the 1850's the Americans built a railroad to help prospectors get from the East to the West coast of America during the gold rush. When it was opened it was the most expensive railway in the world: $25 for a first class ticket and $10 for second class, but many speculators happily paid given the vast wealth they thought was waiting for them in San Francisco. Ironically the railroad “paved” the way for a canal, showing both a viable route and also providing the logistics to bring in supplies and remove excavated earth.

Interestingly several routes were proposed for a canal; several in Panama and some through Nicaragua where a simpler route might have taken a canal through the San Juan River on to Lake Cocibolca where a small excavation to Lake Managua would have left just 15 miles to cut through to the Pacific. The final decision was largely political and some portions of Nicaragua were actually bought up to prevent a French Canal Company using that easier route.

The French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps who had just completed the Suez Canal was contracted to construct the Panama Canal, a company was duly formed and a team of engineers recruited. After de Lesseps's success at Suez, obtaining funding was no problem. A map at the museum shows the size of the prize, displaying some of the trade routes that benefit from the canal, rather than taking the extra 8,000 mile voyage around South America....

The French started building in 1881 and it was a disaster, Following the Suez model they planned to build at sea level, arrogantly smashing their way through anything and everything in their path. Unlike Suez the rainy season in Panama is savage and heavy rainfall simply filled the excavations as quickly as the steam shovels could make them. Landfalls were a daily occurrence and 22 000 people died from accidents, yellow fever and malaria. De Lesseps hid the bulk of the problems from investors whilst continually returning to them for more money. Engineers begged him to reconsider building a lock system and finally walked off the project when he obstinately refused to consider anything other than the sea level canal.

Finally the project went bankrupt in 1889 causing stock markets to crash around the world. De Lesseps died not long after, a broken man.

Nothing else happened until the Americans bought the concession from the French in 1903, however Columbia objected (Panama was part of Columbia at the time) so Panama declared independence backed by US money and a couple of US battleships. A treaty was signed that gave Panama it's independence and the US sovereign rights over the canal and land 8km either side of it – effectively splitting Panama in two!

The Americans more sensibly decided to put in a series of locks rather than making the canal all one level so they didn't have to excavate so deeply. Also medical advances had now discovered how malaria and yellow fever were spread so they took 4,000 men off the project to improve sanitation and help wipe out the breeding zones of the mosquitos. They successfully eradicated Yellow Fever from the whole of Panama – a legacy that remains to this day!

Still 6 000 people died during the construction, 80% of whom were Afro-Caribbean as they were housed in worse conditions than the white labourers from Europe who in turn were housed in worse conditions than the American engineers! The canal was finally completed in 1914. The first boat to sail through was a lowly tug-boat on August 15th 1914.

OK, long winded introduction over....

Armed with a bit of history we take a mad dash through Panama City traffic on the bikes for the 10 miles or so to the “Miraflores Locks” passing the old railway station on route....

As luck would have it there is a giant “Pana-Max” size car carrier lumbering up the canal and we manage to overtake it before it gets to the locks. Pana-Max is a specification for the largest ship that can fit through the locks and has become an international standard for ship builders wanting to use the canal.

We head out on to the viewing gallery to get a sight of the massive lock gates holding back tons of fresh water used to raise ships 54 feet to the level of Gatun Lake. Two workers stand by these giant gates to provide scale across from the control building....

I won't bore you with any more details except that in a space of around 15 minutes this enormous ship is raised upwards and passes through the 66 feet high gates which open to lie flush against the canal edge. The ship powers forward, guided by eight “mules” that run on rails and keep the ship safe from collision using huge steel chains before being raised again in the second lock....

You can see just how much the ship rises by looking at the name “Wallenius Wilhelmsen” painted on the side. A massive crane “Titan” looks on as the ship passes. This mighty lifter floats on a pontoon and can be used to raise the lock gates in and out for maintenance....

We decide to race the Wilhelmsen up canal to the next set of locks at Pedro Miguel and on to the famous Gaillard Cut where engineers channelled this waterway through a massive slice in the hillside.

Pedro Miguel locks are less impressive and hard to see from the road so we carry on to “Centenario Bridge” built over the canal at Gaillard.

The bridge itself is impressive, but unfortunately there are “No Stopping” signs along it's length. I decide that they can't possibly apply to bikes so I can get some photos of the monumental effort involved to move a mountain at “The Gaillard Cut”. It is an awesome sight looking down on a man made canyon 1800 feet wide at the top and 155 feet deep. Huge excavators look like tiny dots on the valley floor....

I just manage to spot our boat the Wilhelmsen dawdling towards us as we return along the other side of the bridge when the police politely ask me to “shift it” and I am forced to leave the bridge....

The scale of the project is immense and we haven't even seen the largest of the three locks that lie 35 miles away on the Caribbean side, nor the giant Gatun Lake that was created by damming and flooding a 164 square mile area of land. At the time it was by far the largest man-made lake and it still provides all the water supply not just for the canal, but for drinking water and hydro power as well. It is just a stunning achievement when you consider Panama was effectively sliced in two and flooded to allow these mighty ships to pass across a country. It's even more impressive when you think it was all done with steam and muscle power.

In stark contrast we head further into the canal zone to the Summit Botanical Garden and Zoo. Summit was established to help introduce new tropical plants and animals to Panama, but also to help The US military to identify species they would encounter here in the field.

A beautiful King Vulture....

A Keel Billed Toucan.....

Whilst most of the animals look in good condition, their behaviour suggests their boredom, caged as they are in too small enclosures....

This magnificent (unnamed) cat is wildly aggressive, charging the confines of it's area and snarling at passers by....

We have seen plenty of spider monkeys at play in their natural habitat and they are an energetic and social animal. It's just too depressing to see this kind of graphic display of hopelessness so we leave and head back to the city....


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