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From Outdoor Travel & Photography


Randa Bishop

An early morning mist thickens, and lingers around the lush tropical greens of Iguacu National Park, broken only by the refraction of splintering light from colonial lampposts, the wakening chirp of parakeets, and the distant thunder of waterfalls.

My assignment was to photograph this remote southwestern corner of Brasil where two rivers converge and three countries meet, at Iguacu, kown mostly for its beautiful waterfalls, and a new dam under construction, billed as the world's largest hydroelectric plant.

During my first two days, I wandered around the waterfalls, listening to the sounds, from those early morning parakeets, to tourist-borne helicopters circling above, and local guides expounding the history and legends that surround these great waterfalls.

I learned of Cabeza de Vaca's thousand mile march from the Brazilian coast to Ascuncion in Paraguay, when the first foreigners gazed upon the falls of Iguacu. I learned of the Guarani indians, who named the falls "great waters" centuries ago. The guides gave an extra little smile as they repeated the story of Eleanor Roosevelt's visit, when she alledgedly termed Niagara as a leaky faucet compared to Iguacu's gigantic amphitheater of 275 catacracts of turbulent, tumbling, cascading water.

Several kilometers of catwalks made of concrete planks on a metal frame, edge along the top of the falls on the Argentinian side and provide exhilaring close-up views, From a winding trail through the Brazilian side, one gets the panoramic sweeps of cascades named individually - Devil's Throat, Floriano, Deodoro, and San Martin.

Finally, I was ready for the visit to Itaipu Dam on the Parana River. Here the romance of legends was replaced by the romance of numbers -- as explained to me by Paul Folberth, the project's design coordinator.

As we entered the area, which looked like a sprawling construction site, we stopped at the visitors center for a briefing on the construction project, which by now had been in process for eight years, and was destined for another five years before completion.

A joint project of Brazil and Paraguay, the Itaipu Dam is the largest of its kind in the world; six times larger than Egypt's Aswan Dam, and it will produce three times the kilowatt hours as the Grand Coolie Dam.

Nicknamed Brazil's Colossus, the 12,600 megawatt dam is the most monumental hydroelectric project in history. A thousand cubic yards of water per second are carried to l8 turbines, where enough power is produced to supply a city three times the size of Los Angeles.

It is nearly 90 stories high at 190 meters - 12 million cubic meters of concrete were poured into it (one and a half times the amount of concrete needed to lay a highway between New York and Los Angeles). The initial contract weighed in at 220 lbs. and its cost represented a sizeable portion of Brazil's national debt.

To start all this off, the river had to be diverted - the largest diversion ever undertaken by mankind, and a lake was created. A population of 20,000 people were relocated prior to the diversion, and a major environmental group worked untold hours to save and relocate the wildlife of the area taken over by the new 2400 square mile lake.

Folberth took me to an elevated look-out point for a panoramic view of the Lake and the Dam. The experience reminded me of mountains - for some reason they always look smaller when you are on the top looking down. Neverless, the entire area was indeed huge and spread onward for as far as the eye could see in every direction.

It was not until we were walking along the concrete mass just below the turbines, that I began to get a sense of size. I saw a small white volkswagen covered in reddened dust sitting below one of the turbines, and translated the relationship to something like an ant next to twenty elephants.

We spent almost an entire afternoon wandering through the dam's cavernous interior with huge void areas, called cathedrals. By early evening, I had plenty of exposed film, and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the hugeness, the numbers, and the odd fact, that the one thing that made all this possible - sheer volume of water - was something that couldn't be seen.

The next day, I was further frustrated by a helicopter ride which flew me over the 8-mile long dam, the lovely spillway complete with spray rainbows, the lake, the towns which had been constructed to house some 28,000 people just working on the dam-site. After all, I was still only looking at the top of all this, and never getting a sense of its quantity.

After the chopper-ride, I remembered something Folberth had told me about the spillway. At the time, the dam was not yet in operation, there had been flooding in the river from heavy rainfall, and nearly three times the normal flow of water was passing through the spillway.

I returned to Itaipu, and Folberth accompanied me over to the spillway. Again, we were viewing this enormous spectacle from the top - water was rushing down like an overfilled water slide. Far in the distance, near the bottom, the water hit a concrete block and made a small wave, before plunging back into the river. Thinking back on my memory of mountains, I asked Folberth to take me down to the bottom of the spillway.

As we approached, I immediately saw the shot. I could feel the spray and hastened to protect my Olympus OM-2's. That tiny wave, was now an incredible, powerful, white, thundering mass, which created a cool, gusty wind. Suddenly, I felt that all the number crunching was real - that megawatts had a meaning. And those hardhats -- looking like mere toothpicks against the concrete mass.

I collected my thoughts and started to shoot leaving the camera in automatic, bracketing for all the white by using the compensation dial, and changing shutter speeds from l/30th to l/250th for varying effects in the water flow. (Back in New York at my editing table, I would be really glad I had thought to varied shutter speeds - that's what would give the sense of flow, and the crispness at the edges.) Ektachrome film helped soften the contrast, and gave good detail in the white. I used moderately wide angle lenses 35mm and 24mm to capture the entire scene with sharpness throughout.

Standing at the bottom of the spillway, all the time, I knew this was the picture that would tell the story of this dam without water.

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