En­gi­neer­ing marvel on show

De­spite watch­ing for three hours one traveller still didn’t have the key to the locks

Life & Style Weekend - - ESCAPE - BY Rae Wil­son

FOR three hours, the marvel of one of the world’s great­est en­gi­neer­ing feats eluded me. As I waited pa­tiently dur­ing the un­usu­ally long gap be­tween ships travers­ing the Panama Canal, my brain was work­ing over­time.

It has al­ways been fas­ci­nat­ing to know that more than 100 years ago peo­ple carved a chan­nel through a con­ti­nent to im­prove world­wide trade.

But the con­cept of how mas­sive ships would fit through into the Mi­raflo­res Locks and then sink down to the Pa­cific Ocean wa­ter level was a tough one to grasp.

The vis­i­tor cen­tre at Mi­raflo­res had ex­cel­lent ex­pla­na­tions and graph­ics to help vi­su­alise and com­pre­hend the feat – but see­ing it un­fold in per­son is just in­cred­i­ble.

As the first ship pulled into the locks and blew its horn, the crowd wait­ing went crazy.

This was no or­di­nary goods car­rier – this ship’s horn blasted the first few bars of When You Wish Upon a Star.

Be­fore we knew it, Mickey was wav­ing at us and putting on a show from the front deck of the Dis­ney Won­der cruise ship.

Then as the ship pro­gressed, two of the Chip­munks greeted us from a port-side deck and then a less lively Don­ald Duck bade us farewell in a cheek­ily ar­ranged in­stal­la­tion as the ship’s stern passed by.

Watch­ing the lock grad­u­ally empty to lower the ship to the wa­ter level on the other side of the gi­ant gates and then see­ing said metal doors slowly swing open so Dis­ney Won­der could move through was amaz­ing. There are 40 pairs of gates along the Panama Canal. They are made of steel and dis­plays at the vis­i­tor cen­tre say they are on av­er­age 20 me­tres wide by two me­tres thick and can weigh up to 643 tonnes – equiv­a­lent to more than 300 ele­phants. The height of the locks is equiv­a­lent to an eight-storey build­ing.

The lower cham­bers of the Mi­raflo­res Locks, clos­est to Panama City, have 25-me­tre-high gates to make up for the tidal vari­a­tion of the Pa­cific Ocean.

It takes 100 mil­lion litres to fill each lock with wa­ter supplied from a nearby lake through a chan­nel sys­tem.

The al­most 80km wa­ter­way con­nects the At­lantic and Pa­cific Oceans, sav­ing time and cost for the trans­port of goods.

To­day, the wa­ter­way has an av­er­age 14,000 an­nual tran­sits, each of which takes about six to eight hours.

Nearby Panama City is a fab­u­lous new world city with pock­ets of old town charm – not just fa­mous for its con­nec­tion to the canal.

Panama Viejo, the orig­i­nal old city of Panama, is full of de­light­ful ru­ins. The cathe­dral tower re­mains and can be climbed for views over the city but many build­ings have been plun­dered for build­ing ma­te­ri­als.

Casco Viejo is a mix of di­lap­i­dated ru­ins and charm­ing build­ings – with some ar­ti­sanal stores sell­ing hand­made leather goods and chic cloth­ing.

It’s worth go­ing out on the cause­way to the Smith­so­nian Wildlife Cen­tre which has plenty of sloths, tur­tles and nurse sharks.

And if you want a good view over the city at night, try the Trump Ocean Club Tow­ers and have a cock­tail in their in­fin­ity pool.

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

◗ Panama City com­bines mod­ern twists with old-world charm.

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

◗ Two cargo ships enter the Gatun Locks from Gatun Lake, which forms part of the Panama Canal.

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