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Engineering marvel on show in Panama Canal

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. Check the trees as you enter because you can spot them before you even walk in.

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.

Topics:  cruise ship disney wonder panama canal panama city rae wilson smithsonian wildlife centre travel

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