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The rock that sings

June 6, 2010

Puerto Iguazú: At the kissing point of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay the jungle is thick and heavy with tropical vines, humidity and exciting rainforest creatures, including toucans and caotis.

Caotis aren't shy about begging for food from tourists

People here drink maté as if their life depends on it. Many carry leather satchels on them at all times, containing a thermos of hot water, a maté cup and their ‘bombardeio’ (metal straw), so that they can walk around sipping maté on the street. It grows here, so I suppose that’s where the obsession originates, but it’s still strange watching grown men sipping round the clock like a baby at the teat.

A transparent flutterby

Puerto Iguazú is more than a border town, it’s a destination for tourists from around the world, who come as we have to watch the incredible spectacle of the Iguazú River plunging down 80 metres of vertical riverbed in a series of falls more pretty and awesome than Niagara.

This is just half of the Iguazu Falls

We stroll along the red mud track through some of the last remaining Atlantic Forest to reach the falls. Native bamboo towers above us and butterflies flutter by in every colour, size and transparency. We disturb a capybara as it bumbles along through the undergrowth, encounter a few caotis confident enough to beg for food, and give army ants a wide berth. Colourful birds chatter in the trees above us, including woodpeckers, comical toucans and a cheeky type of crested jay that snatches a bite of apple from my outstretched hand.

Crested jays are pretty confident

Funky hairdo on a woodpecker

The falls themselves, walls of water wider than Victoria Falls, that descend through lush forest in a perfect setting of rocks and river islets, are stunningly beautiful.

An army ant feasts on a massive cricket

We spend a happy day walking along sensitively laid out walkways between viewpoints to see them from every angle. How they built the walkways is an engineering mystery to me, but it works. We get up so close an intimate with the falls that I feel a part of that incredible torrent of powerful water. It’s breathtaking – and we get soaked.

The Devil's Throat

It's impossible to capture the power of these falls

The walkways terminate over the highest part of the falls, the Devil’s Throat, a viewing platform so terrifyingly close to the cascade that I have to force my legs against my every impulse to take the unnatural steps onto a fragile piece of metal suspended above the action. It doesn’t help that we have to walk past the remnants of an identical walkway, which was destroyed in floodwaters.

A walkway that disappeared under the water

Careful of snake charmers?

We stand for some time simply staring it the water – at the most familiar of materials suddenly so powerful, so uncontrollably bigger than anything we could handle. The power is thrilling and invigorating – a Japanese guy starts to sing out loud. Children cry, scared by the water and the cold spray. Everyone breaks into a wide grin (it’s impossible not to) at the sight of it and complete strangers make to strike up conversation with fellow grinners – it’s impossible, of course, because the water is so loud.

Nick and the falls

We return to our hostel a tired as if we ourselves had flown with the river off that cliff.

The next morning we take an early bus to the Brazilian side of the river to visit the world’s biggest hydrodam (in terms of electric generating capacity; Three Gorges produces 85,000GWh to Itaípu’s 94,000). Entering the Itaipu Dam facility requires security checks, hard hats and a going-over by the military, but soon we are inside a smoothly-run US-style PR operation. We are shown an ‘information’ film first to ‘explain’ the dam, which turns out to be a wonderfully choreographed piece of corporate fluff involving baby animals in children’s hands being ‘relocated’, grinning, dancing indigenous people in traditional costume (presumably representing the 10,000 relocated families) ecstatically happy at being moved from their bulldozed villages to their new houses elsewhere, etc. There is no mention of the world’s biggest (by volume) waterfalls, the Guaíra Falls, which were drowned during the creation of the Itaipú reservoir. Tragically, 80 people died while trying to get a last glimpse of these bigger-than-Iguazú marvels, when a viewing bridge collapsed beneath them.

Some of the Itaipu dam

The dam overflow also generates energy

We are shepherded into a company bus and taken to the dam panorama to view the structure. It’s an incredible feat of human engineering – the scale is awesome and it was achieved in such an impossibly short time. The dam has an installed capacity of 14 gigawatts (95,000 GWh), with 20 generating units (the last of which came into operation in 2007, a smiling photo of President Lula testifies), each of which is 118 metres in diameter and generates 750 MW because of the great height from which the water drops.

We reboard the bus and drive across the world’s seventh largest river, the dammed Paraná River, on the Friendship Bridge to Paraguay. The dam is based on a water management treaty signed by Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina in 1979, a time when all three were under military dictatorships. It means that the energy generated from the project must be shared equally, so four of the transmission towers are on the Brazilian side, and four on the Paraguayan side in a symbolic gesture. In 2008, Itaípu generated 20% of Brazil’s energy from its 50% share, and 90% of Paraguay’s from just 7% of its share – the rest of Paraguay’s share it sells back to Brazil, making the small country the world’s biggest exporter of energy.

Nick feels the vibrations of thousands of tonnes of water passing through the generating unit

The power is sent directly to Sao Paulo – that bought from Paraguay goes via efficient DC (direct current) lines, whereas Brazil’s own share goes by AC because apparently they couldn’t afford to install DC transmission and conversion plants, which seems a little crazy.

Creating electricity from water

We trek inside the dam’s control centre, an enormous structure made with 20-metre-thick concrete walls (containing no metal reinforcement) to hold back the reservoir. The walls tower above and below us in a cathedral-inspired design (something that the promotional film made much of) and the scale is exhausting to comprehend: 40,000 people worked in shifts over 24 hours for years to build the structure; the excavation required was equivalent to 8.5 times the Channel Tunnel; the amount of concrete used would fill Rio’s Maracana stadium 210 times; the steel used could build 380 Eiffel Towers…

Last year, a storm interrupted transmission from the plant, blacking out the entire country of Paraguay and much of Brazil, including, for 2 hours, Rio and Sao Paulo.

Brazil buys almost all of Paraguay's share of the electricity

As we walk around the parapet above the dam, I spot what I think is the small island called Itaipú, meaning ‘the rock that sings’ in the local Guarani language. If it does sing, it certainly can’t be heard over the roar of this enormous engineering masterpiece that has triumphed over a natural wonder and reduced it to a regular flow capable of supplying electrons to the cities of Brazil. Even with the efficiency of its position and the superbness of its design, it’s hard to celebrate the destruction of so much.

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