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October 23, 1988|THURSTON CLARKE | Clarke is author of "Equator," due to be released this month.

Follow the Equator around the world to Cayenne, Macapa, Booue, Mbandaka, Bukittinggi, Pontianak, Abemama, Bahia de Caraquez, Sumatra, Rwanda, Equador, Kenya and Christmas Island.

Why do maps attract the finger? Who has not run a finger across an atlas or globe and imagined traveling to the end of this highway or that river? Sailing to every island in a chain or climbing every mountain in a range? Several years ago I picked up a globe, ran my finger around the Equator and decided to follow it around the world. It took me to Cayenne, Macapa, Booue and Mbandaka; to Bukittinggi, Pontianak, Abemama and Bahia de Caraquez; to snow-covered volcanoes in Equador, atolls in the Pacific, savanna in Kenya and jungly mountains in Sumatra. I saw mountain gorillas in Rwanda, the most dangerous snake in French Guiana and, on Christmas Island, the world's largest colony of sea birds. I traveled the length of the Transgabonaise railway, floated down the Ogooue River in a pirogue, met the King of Abemama and the self-described "Johnny Carson of French Guiana," dined with Africa's second-richest dictator and broke a chunk of propeller off a crashed plane said to have belonged to Amelia Earhart. When I returned, my more adventuresome friends asked, "Well, which of those countries did you like the best? . . . . Which had the

best beaches? . . . . The best hotels? . . . . Would you return to any of them for a vacation?"

I had never thought of the Equator as a holiday paradise, but the more I considered it, the more there was to recommend it. In the last decade many countries in the Middle East and the tropical world have become inhospitable to Americans; yet in most equatorial countries Americans are popular and terrorism is unknown. On the Equator there is no danger of traveling thousands of miles to stay in a high-rise hotel surrounded by one's own countrymen. Except in Kenya, I hardly saw another traveler, I almost never slept in a hotel more than three stories high, and everywhere I met people who still considered a foreign visitor a curiosity or a treat.

IF YOU DECIDE TO GO to the Equator, don't allow anyone to say you have merely crossed an "imaginary line." In many ways, the Equator is as much a "natural feature" as any river or chain of mountains. Although you cannot see it, you can sense its presence, and feel its effects. Since the earth is an imperfect sphere, rotating about the poles and bulging in the middle, the Equator--like a river, desert or mountain range--can only be exactly where it is: equidistant from the poles and perpendicular to the earth's axis, at 24,901.55 miles the longest circle that can be thrown around the earth. It divides the world into climatic and vegetative mirror images.

On the Equator at sea level, gravity is weakest, barometric pressure is lowest and the earth spins fastest. To its north, winds circulate clockwise around zones of high pressure; to its south, counterclockwise. Where it crosses oceans, you find the belt of lazy winds and dull seas known as the doldrums. Placid seas spin unpredictable hurricanes into the hemispheres. The powerful equatorial countercurrent forces the captains of even supertankers to adjust their steering and stirs up a feast of plankton that attracts whales, and their killers. Where the Equator crosses land, predictable temperature and rainfall nurture life in sensational variety. On land and sea, it is noted for a consistent absence of twilight and daybreak. Nowhere else do you have less time to adjust between day and night. Nowhere is the sun so high in the sky at midday for so many days of the year.

You cannot feel the lessening of gravity at the Equator, but you can see the results. A scale would show you weighing less at sea level in Borneo than in Belgium. A pendulum clock calibrated to mark time at a temperate latitude will slow down if moved to the Equator, and connoisseurs of aquavit believe that some alchemy occurs at zero latitude that improves their favorite beverage. Multiple voyages make it still more prized and expensive. I have a bottle of this "Linie (Line) Aquavit." Its label certifies that on Jan. 19 and July 5, 1985, it crossed the Equator on the M/S Tourcoing.

COUNTRIES TOUCHED BY the Equator have tried claiming national sovereignty for 22,300 miles into space, from their land Equators to the necklace of satellites hovering exactly overhead in geostationary orbit. These satellites relay telephone calls and television pictures and are positioned over the Equator so they can travel at the same rotational speed as the earth. In 1977, some nations attempted to form a cartel to regulate and charge rent for the satellites sitting above their Equators. The Colombian delegate to a United Nations conference argued that since "parking places" above the Equator are limited, the equatorial orbit is a "natural limited resource" over which the equatorial states have "inalienable rights of sovereignty."

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