Bogota To Caracas, 1992
by Roderick van Gelder.
In 1992 Sydney Dance Company performed ‘Some Rooms’ in Bogota and Caracas as part of a world tour. I was the production manager and lighting designer. The challenge was to get the sets for ‘Some Rooms’ from Bogota to Caracas on a 3 day turn-around. The roads are notoriously bad. Many trucks are held up, and if nothing of value was found, would be burned, so it had to be airfreight. What complicated things is that the set for “Some Rooms’ consisted of large mesh panels, each 2m wide and 4m high, that were covered with rear-projection material.
We had built large crates to safely freight them around the world. Other interesting items were a wall of changeroom lockers, a double sized bed that was flown in during the show with dancers on it and the pièce de résistance: a cast-iron bath tub. The bath tub was used by Janet Vernon and replacing it with anything else was not an option. And obviously we travelled our own Tarkett.
It was mainly the size of the panels that caused the problems in freight, it would only fit in a 747 (this is well before Airbus came in the picture) or a Hercules, neither are on a regular route between Bogota and Caracas.
But we had some luck. Circus Oz was performing in Caracas and had to get to Bogota, facing very much the same problems. The solution was found by the Caracas Festival who managed to arrange a Hercules from the Venezuelan Air Force to take Circus Oz to Bogota and collect us on the way back. Awesome!
I had decided to fly with the freight because, hey, how often do you get a chance to fly in a Hercules? The only drawback was that the plane had to leave at 7AM and we were told to be at the airbase no later than 5AM to load. Not ideal after bumping-out the night before but you did what had to be done to make things happen.
During the bump-out the production manager from the Bogota Festival came up to me and explained that he had been in touch with the airbase and the flight wouldn’t leave until midday so we only had to be there by 10AM. Perfectly fine with me so we could have a few drinks with the local crew.
The company and the rest of the SDC crew were travelling later that day on a commercial airliner and I was picked up by the Festival guy at 9:00AM. There was a small problem with a flat tyre on one of the trucks. They used two smallish trucks to freight things around, but we still made it to the airbase by 10AM. And that is when things turned for the worse.
The sentry at the gate would not let us in. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing until a bloke with an awful lot of gold on his uniform popped up. Trying to explain to him that we were booked on the Venezuelan Hercules that was on his airbase he uttered the words I really did not wanted to hear: “El avión que salía a las siete” or in English: The plane that left at 7?
The Festival had f****d up and the plane was gone.
I expanded my collection of Spanish swearwords substantially before we headed back to the Festival office. They were very apologetic and promised to start organising a different plane straight away. They also suggested that I should go back to the hotel, have a swim, and they would be in touch as soon as they had a plane.
I politely declined, and explained that I would be more comfortable sitting in that chair across his desk and monitoring progress. And yes, I spoke enough Spanish to follow his phone conversations. They did try very hard but by the end of the day, still no solution.
Back the next morning, pretty much the same scenario. Me sitting in one corner, them calling everywhere trying to find a plane. I am getting nervous because we are opening the next night in Caracas. I managed to get hold of the crew who were now in Caracas, having a wonderful time around the Embassy swimming pool, and told them to start bumping in the next morning regardless so that if I made it in time, we had something to work with.
Just after lunch, a breakthrough; they had found a plane! One small problem, it was a DC3, not quite the same size as a Hercules. But it was all there was so off we went to the airport. The big problem was the size of the loading door on the side of the plane, 2 metres wide and only 1.8m high. The crates with the set were never going to fit.
The solution: on the tarmac next to the plane, open the crates, take out the panels, very carefully cut the projection material from the frame and cut the frames in half with an angle grinder. To make matters more fun, it had started to drizzle. All of this was taking a lot of time but we managed to get everything loaded onto the plane.
At that point I learned something new about the DC3; it has a payload of 2.5 tonne. It was the pilot who told me this and then asked me how much stuff we had on his plane. From the carnet I knew it was a little over 3 tonne, maybe a quite a bit over 3 tonne, so I lied and told him around 2.5 tonne. He looked at me, looked at the plane suspension, looked at me again, and looked at his watch. It was getting close to 5PM, and he told me we couldn’t leave today and had to wait for sunrise the next morning. No discussion was entered into.
Back to the hotel for a final night rest. I also took the opportunity to raid the hotel mini-bar (and the room dolly trolley) of mini bottles of vodka, bourbon, cognac and rum because the second thing I learned that afternoon was that there were only two seats on the plane, one for the pilot and one for the co-pilot. I would be travelling in the unheated cargo hold, sitting on a skip.
The next morning I met the pilot and co-pilot at sunrise and that is when I learned the third nugget of information, Bogota, already at 8500ft above sea level, is surrounded by a 17000ft mountain range. With the plane being overloaded it would take quite a bit of time to clear the Cordillera Oriental!
But finally we are off and flying, I settle in on my comfy wardrobe skip with my selection of grog and sandwiches I snatched from the hotel. A good hour and a half later we are still circling trying to clear the mountains, it is becoming obvious it is not going to happen. The pilot called me to the cockpit and explained the situation. He also explained the solution.
Instead of clearing the mountains, we will fly in between them. I already had firm suspicions on how he usually made his money, this pretty much confirmed that. From my skip I could see outside through a small window, I swear I could see the wings touch tree tops.
I have forgotten how long it took to clear the mountain range. I was in complete survival mode and locked out the whole time/space continuum. On the other side of the mountain range we had to find an airport to refuel the plane; we were running on empty. We landed safely on a minute remote airfield. They scrambled to find a Customs officer because the
freight and I had to enter Venezuela here or the paperwork would be a nightmare once we got to Caracas. Luckily I had scored the whole touring petty cash and the money earmarked for per-diems on me. I had to pay for the fuel in cash (US$1200) and grease a few official’s palms to encourage a speedy process without too much inspection of goods.
Confirmed my thoughts about the income sources of the pilot. We finally made it to Caracas by 5PM on the day we were supposed to open. There was a whole team of welders and set-builders standing by to put everything back together again but I stood firm in my refusal to run the show without a proper dress rehearsal.
Remember the flying bed? That was only one of the many things that moved on and off, up and down on stage whilst dancers ran around. So opening night was cancelled, the festival director was furious, but we kept a high professional level of the performance. In hindsight I guess I am lucky I made it out of Caracas alive…
From CX Magazine – February 2019. CX Magazine is Australia and New Zealand’s only publication dedicated to entertainment technology news and issues – available in print and online. Read all editions for free or search our archive www.cxnetwork.com.au
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