Saturday 27 February 2010

Muy peligroso

I just heard on the news that a seven-seater plane has crashed in the desert at Nazca, with no survivors - how awful. The announcer went on to say, a little too quickly it seemed to me, that there had been no damage to the spider, the geograph nearest the crash.

It's easy to imagine how it happened: there are so many sight-seeing planes taking off and landing there all day long, flitting up for a half-hour or so to see eight or ten of these amazing and mysterious shapes in the desert. The pilots are doing alternating wing-stands all the way, so that people on both sides of the plane can get a good view of the ground - either too much enthusiasm or nonchalance could have been the cause; or possibly weather. Flying over desert between the Andes and the ocean, I expect conditions can be tricky and changeable.

As it happens, when I did the flight, crashing was the last thing I was worried about...

>>> My chin is hooked on the window sill and I’m staring up at the daytime moon just off the tip of the wing. Then everything lurches, especially my stomach, and now I’m looking at shapes etched into the brown plain beneath us. There’s just time to snap a photo before, augh, here we go again and I’m gazing back up at the moon, my forehead pressed against the cool glass and all my concentration focused on not losing my lunch. In the next seat Chuck, beads of sweat trickling down his face, is doing his best not to live up to his name.

We’ve come a long way to see the Nazca Lines having heard all about these mysterious drawings in the Peruvian desert, but somehow we missed the bit about the air-sickness pills. This is a shame, because our cheerful pilot Raul is determined that we will all have good views and spends the half-hour banking, circling and standing the plane on alternate wing-tips as we fly over the huge shapes below. It says a lot for the Lines that, even pallid and bilious, we are still astounded by what we see. Stretching across 500 sq km of red-brown plain is a complex network of dead-straight lines, triangles and rectangles that are each several kilometres long. More fantastic, though, are the pictures: we see a monkey with a spiralled tail, a hummingbird, a flamingo with a zigzag neck, a whale, frog and condor, a fat spider and a giant figure waving from a hillside. That they are all instantly recognisable is the most amazing thing of all because they are drawn on such a large scale, each one up to 180m long, that they are impossible to make out at ground level, where the edging lines of rocks went unnoticed for centuries.

Discovered by chance in 1939 by a scientist flying across the desert, the Nazca Lines have intrigued people ever since, prompting far more questions than have ever been answered. No-one knows who made them, or how, or why, or even when, although they are generally agreed to be ancient. Theories abound: they are irrigation channels, an astronomical calendar, religious icons, pathways, landing strips for hot-air balloons – even, in a nod to the waving figure who has a big round head and is nick-named the Astronaut, doodles left by aliens. All that is certain is that this World Heritage Site is a marvel and irresistible to tourists, generating a flight-seeing industry that keeps the skies busy above the small dusty town of Nazca and has scores of stomachs protesting every day...

[Pub. Press 17/11/08]

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