CALAFATE, ARGENTINA - PERITO MORENO GLACIER
"We fly northwest to Calafate, next to the Chilean border on the shores of Lago Argentino, some one hour and the minutes away, and every-thing starts to look possible. The airport has a tower, with its mandatory flight plans; yet the Argentines are friendly and supportive. The usual problem with the flight plan forms and their limited supply is overcome by the tower operator simply understanding that we are on yet another photo-graphic flight for reconnaissance. He gets used to us and Macarena works some magic." …
The Andes rise rapidly. and the continental divide is the international border. Many glaciers end as rivers of ice spilling into the lake. The scaling is immense. The sheerness of the area creates a bewildering set of photographic choices." …
"I can't rely on the camera to show that all by itself - I have to feel it first and the camera will follow. That's one of the unsolved mysteries about photography. If I don't feel anything, the pictures are dead on arrival. How can a machine know what I'm feeling?" … "We are doing this together - the three of us - the camera, the plane, and whatever's left over of myself after dealing with everything else.
"Calafate is a relaxed and friendly town, far enough away from the government to have its own open quality. It's small enough to be intimate and big enough to have almost every-thing we need. The local population gets the general drift of what we are doing rather quickly, and steps forward to help." …
"Northwest towards Fitzroy is a different story. Like Torres del Painey the peak has a famously stunning character, an international destination for rock and ice climbers. In the exact border with Chile, the wicked west wind carries mois-ture and airborne ice at speed anywhere from calm up to one hundred knots. The particular difficulty in high winds arrive with smooth air on the upwind side becoming vicious turbulence downstream. And to get an effective film shot, one must come perilously close to the downdrafts." …
"It's time for a film resupply. Customs opens the film can; or, at best, seizes the shipment and demands exorbitant fees. On one occasion, customs told me to give them one thousand in cash "while they looked into what might be done." No. To bring film into Sputh America it has to be brought in person. As circumstances unfolded, Vladimir Van Maule was the choice - a Czechoslovakian tank commander … to power through border resistance. He brings twenty rolls to Santiago, Chile, catches a flight to Punta Arenas and drives to Río Gallegos, Argentina. Vladimir has his own recollection of events:
"What's in your bag? - The customs official squeezed my duffel bag studying the stamp filled pages of my passport. The American Airlines flight landed in Santiago fifteen minutes ago and here I was, with the composed confidence of James Bond, attempting to smuggle 20 rolls of Kodak motion picture film to Chile and Argentina." … "It was a James Bond mission, as far as I was concerned. 'Sir, what's in your bag?' the customs official asked again. For a brief moment, I saw my life passing in front of me, realizing that I am about to be busted, then tortured, being brutally beaten with rubber hoses by sadistic guards… 'Just... stuff.' I blurted James Bond nowhere to be found." … "Thank you, sir. Have a nice stay!" …
With shaking hands I accepted my passport and as I walked toward the door, James Bond returned." … "Robert was to fly from Calafate to Río Gallegos to meet us. " … "It is an odd feeling, seeing the familiar in the unfamiliar surroundings: there he was, Robert Fulton himself, standing on the strut of his Cessna 180, polishing the windshield." … "I climbed into the right seat of the Cessna and we took off in a severe and ever present crosswind for about an hour flight to Calafate. Twenty four years before this flight I climbed into the right seat of Robert Fulton's Cessna 180 for the first time, to fly from Chicago to Aspen. A flight that injected me with the aviation bug, propelling me to become a pilot the following year, buying a Cessna 182 and shooting films and aerials for living. I mention this only to establish myself as a fellow pilot whose comments on Bob's flying are based on over two thousand hours in the cockpit of my plane."
"Would you like to see the glacier?"
"'I need to film the glacier, but lately it's been bumpy a bit.' --Bumpy a bit-is a classical fultonian understa-tement. What it really means is flying sideways in a vicious wind into areas which, if inhabited, would be evacuating. 'Let's go!' I answered, pretending to ignore the lashing wind, and suppressing the building of a mild anxiety. 'Are we really going to fly in this?' I thought but never asked aloud. With the camera mounted, film loaded, with fuel on board for seven hours of flying, Bob was ready to go." …
"Yesterday I was flown by a pilot. Today I as flown by a filmmaker, And so we took off and continued south." "Two-Six-Alpha". "We are approaching the glacier. 'Let's take a closer look', Bob suggests. Another fultonian understatement. Closer look means touching the water with the tires. I already know what is coming and nod in agreement, unable to speak." …
"The air is quite unstable, not a good day for filming. Still, there are occasional pockets where the air is smooth. Bob hopes that perhaps near the water it may be smoother. He is right. We make several passes, witnessing a giant piece of glacier breaking off and making a spectacular splash. The four-minute film magazine is suddenly empty." … "We either fly one hour back to Calafate to change the film, or land somewhere nearby and change the film. Bob surveys the area and finds what he calls a 'perfect spot'. It is perfect because it is only five minutes from the glacier. An certainly is a 'spot'.
The question in the mind of this pilot, is whether it is a 'prefect landing' spot." … "Here we were about to land on rough, uphill prairie, overgrown with short stubby underbrush. I mumbled oh, god, please let us live through this, and then we touched down. For a moment I felt like every rivet will come out of the plane, then we slowed down and came to a smooth stop. 'I think we're on the ground', Bob announced cheerfully. My throat was to dry to respond."
Huw has a smouldering, seemingly irreparable, ongoing confrontation with Miranda, the lady in charge of the twin giant river otters. Her environmental protection organization found them in a fishing shack where a man had captured the otters to create house pets, As the otters are endangered, Miranda is empowered to - and does - take them away to an enormous cage outside her house. The BBC makes an agreement with Miranda to be able to film them while they are in 'captivity'.
That all sounds fine; however Miranda finds everything just slightly wrong with Huw's procedures. The otters need to be transported to the Huw's filming pool on the back of a pickup truck. Miranda critiques the time of day, the size of the truck, the lack of shade, the time the otters will be away from their 'accustomed habitat', the number of 'strange' personnel around the otters during the filming, the inadequacy of the protective fence around the pool, etc. Just when Huw conforms to everything requested, Miranda comes up with new conditions. Huw's patience is exasperated. However, Huw is so impeccable that Miranda eventually runs out of excuses. This in no way reduces her - and for that matter Huw's - irritated manner.
Meanwhile, the otters seem to love everybody. They are swimmingly attractive, high energy aquatic mammals with endless playful curiosity and a delight to be around. Their close cropped oily fur, tiny ears and sleek design along with powerful body length muscles makes them brilliant swimmers. They are just a bit awkward on land, being a cross between a dachshund and a slinky. Their paw-hands are prehensile- webbed while sharp teeth crush and tear fish instantaneously. Then Miranda decides there is a problem with feeding the otters - 'They are away from their cage too long and will not be able to accept Huw's food, they are too young to catch fish.' Huw throws the otters in the pool and empties four buckets of live piranha after them. The otters - never having seen piranha before - devour all the fish with lightning speed in less than three minutes. Huw's glee and Miranda's annoyance are about equal.
Miranda complains that 'strangers are handling the otters.' That's difficult to avoid when a soaking wet fifty pounds of otter - fresh out of the pool - leaps up on you, squealing with delight at making a new friend. On one side I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one running into difficulties with South American regulations. But careful - this is only the beginning. The story is pieced together slowly, with a combination of Huw's unbeatable instincts, natural wariness and long suffering experience with Miranda; and William Crampton's impeccable Portugese, able to overhear and translate the most innocuous mutterings.
Be patient, page three will be published here around the end of October, 2002.
"After two days of perfect filming weather, we run low on fuel and return to Río Gallegos for ninety gallons." … "I fly with Argentina car gas, ninety seven octanes verde high test special - just three octanes below the one hundred minimum." … "The engine runs hot and rougher, but it runs - and gets the job done. I'ts on a diet. I am more careful about how I feed engines than I am about feeding myself " …
"Incredible landscapes unfold, magically smooth like a studio simulator. At time it's hypnotic. you simply cannot believe the sight-sense." … "Calafate is on the the shores of Lago Argentino, a lake some fifty miles long bordering Chile on the western side.
13 June 1999, Tefe, Brasil: Tach 3886.5 Roll 106
We fly many forays along the banks of the Amazon, which are flooded by a fifty-year high water, possibly sixty feet higher than normal. Many things are seen and not understood. Huw Cordy - BBC's director of the Amazon film - is adamant about seeing water 'between the trees' from the air - one of the facts of the flooded jungle - and this is difficult to reveal from the plane, as the glints of water can only be glimpsed in a steep dive. The vegetation is thick, and there are few spaces between the trees. Huw experiences a few of the dives.
Everything has to be just right - the distance, the angle, the length of the shot, the frame rate; and Huw is not certain that he's satisfied. He's impressed by the flexibility of the plane and the number of choices made from a moving platform. It's startling at first to realize the plane cannot stop. We fly up, down and across tributaries, between the trees, over flooded villages; showing the expense and the intimacy and omnipre-sence of water on this vast spongy morass of shoreless lakes and bottomless swamps. If I let myself think about it, the number of places of solid land are very few - such as the airport itself. Every landing over a number of days puts us in front of the military base, shared with the civilian and airline terminal. Slowly, a considerable difficulty is developing behind the apparently serene.
Aerial view of the "Pantanal" of Mato Grosso, Brazil
The questions are loaded and difficult to defuse. "Since you have been filming in Brasil without permission, how do you account for your illegal activity?" It's not true, we do have permission. In the deposition, we are required to answer the question as stated. And this is martial law - we are guilty until we prove ourselves innocent. However, we don't even know what we are guilty of and there does not appear to be a lawyer within two hundred and fifty miles - about the distance to Manaus.
William Crampton 'doesn't want to get involved.' 'I cannot afford to endanger my professional scientific status in the country.' Huw and I put some pressure on him and he agrees, reluctantly, to translate. After the hotel room search, we are driven to a military compound where all film equipment, exposed and unexposed film and personal effects are locked up. I get to keep my toothbrush. Miranda looks very pleased and I say to her that I am sure she can help with the situation. She responds with forced calmness that there's nothing she can do about the Colonel's decisions. These are not ordinary police - they are high level Federales investigators. I call Flavio the 'fixer' in Rio - the gentleman commissioned by the BBC to 'straighten things out' - and he is astonished. There is of course no precedent for this, etc., and as a last resort he 'will come personally to Tefé to see what can be done.' Flavio takes the 'problem' to the desk of the President of Brazil. A flurry of calls to Bristol keeps the BBC headquarters informed.
Tefé, it turns out, is considered to be the dregs of Brazil; and a glimmer of hope ensues when after the second day of exhausting, reptilian questioning, that the Federales despise being in Tefé and can't wait to leave. There's no place to spend money even if you have it. Crampton hears them muttering about bedbugs and warm beer. After another four days, a Senhor Washington - clearly in charge - exonerates us of all charges and strongly suggests there be no further aerial filming in Brazil. Huw can continue with his schedule. Washington compliments my calm demeanor and cheerfully invites me to leave the coun-try, with the airplane.
All equipment is returned with a sincere apology. We never learn either the source or the nature of the charges. Huw, William and I compose an experiment to get to the root of the situation. We call on Miranda at her house and request a sit down meeting. She looks very uncomfortable. After an excruciating ninety second pause, William gives her the good news: all charges have been dropped with an apology from the Federales. Miranda turns white. She cannot speak. We never do meet the Colonel.