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TRAVEL

Spectacular, as ever

KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

Tourists gather to gape at the Niagara's beauty and marvel at its might every year.

PHOTO: AP

MILLIONS OF GALLONS: Stunning by night and day, the Niagara is both hypnotic and cathartic.

"THUNDER of the waters," is what the native Americans call it. And as usual, the original inhabitants of this land have got it evocatively right. The description fits these magnificent falls perfectly. They rush down with an inexorable force, their spray rising to the skies and mingling with the cottony clouds. A visit to the Niagara Falls-spectacular by night and day — is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As you drive to the Niagara from Toronto, you travel through the best wine growing regions in the New World. The province of Ontario is famous for its wineries and guided tours are a part of the tourist itinerary. "Ice wine" is a speciality of these parts, our host tells us and we find it as sweet as he had promised. On the route to the falls is the historic, strategic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake that saw plenty of action in the early 19th-Century when the Americans fought numerous battles with the Canadians in trying to wrest Ontario from them. When we reach the city of Niagara Falls, we are met with a blaze of spring colour. Riotous beds of tulips border the roadsides surrounded by emerald sloping expanse of grass. It is only when you get off the vehicle and walk to the iron railings that the impact of the main falls in the shape of a horseshoe hits you.

Three parts to it

The Niagara Falls comprises three parts — the American, the massive Canadian Horseshoe and the slender Bridal Veil. Though you have heard so much about it, nothing prepares you for the awesome splendour of the Horseshoe Everything fades into insignificance and the international crowd of tourists becomes a pleasant multi-hued blur of faces. Nothing seems to exist except the millions of gallons of roaring, and dangerously beautiful waters. The effect of the frothing sheet cascading down 167 feet is both hypnotic and cathartic.

We learn that the falls contain 1/5 of all the fresh water in the world and 35 million gallons flow over them every minute. Ninety per cent of this is over the Horseshoe while 10 per cent is over the American.

The Niagara river split in two half a century ago resulting in the creation of Goat Island. We are so close to the American border that we can see the minute figures of tourists on the other side. There is friendly rivalry between the Americans and the Canadians today over the falls but it was not so in the past. A small bird trills its song, vaingloriously trying to compete with the thundering waters before flying away perhaps to try its luck at the Bridal Veil.

The world of Nature

You could stand for hours, admiring the power and shuddering at the fury of the Horseshoe. But it is time to go deep below on a Journey behind the falls from the Table Rock House Plaza. The elevator shoots down 125 ft. in a jiffy. The tickets you bought at the car park cover most of the natural highlights of the Niagara. The bright yellow raincoats provided prevent you from getting a complete drenching when you stand a couple of minutes later watching the angry waters at unbelievably close range. The tunnel constructed in 1904 has outdoor decks that give you a vantage view. One cannot imagine there could be a more thrilling experience. But you realise you are wrong when soon, you are guided to a steamboat, "The Maid of the Mist".

The boat's name comes from the legend of the beautiful Indian girl Lelawala. Married to a village elder, whom she cannot love, the maiden sets off in a canoe to answer the mysterious call of the gods of these waters. She rides right over the falls and is immortalised as the chief of the Thunder beings — the gods of the Niagara — receives her in his arms.

The steamer takes you within touching distance of the falls and it is indescribably exhilarating to feel the force of the spray so close that it drenches you again and again. You taste the joy of the water once again as next, the Spanish aero car takes you right above the whirlpools. The White Water walk leads you to the gorge and the rapids. In the 19th-Century, the acrobat Blondin undertook a tightrope walk over the gorge watched by hundreds of heart-in-their-mouth spectators.

The spirit of adventure and the desire to conquer the Niagara has led to a breathtaking variety of feats. The Imax film "Niagara: Myths, Miracles and Magic" depicts them. The six-storey tall screen captures the demoniac fury of the falls in such realistic detail that you cringe with fear as you watch it. Among these stories of triumph and tragedy are those of the school teacher Annie Taylor who in 1901 went over the Niagara in a wooden barrel along with her cat. She survived and so did the cat! But many have fallen victim to the waters, among them a teenage boy who was helplessly swept away in an ice floe while vainly trying to help a stranded honeymooning couple.

The Niagara region is crammed with attractions for the tourist, which range from the pleasant to the bizarre. It is a strange medley of gardens, museums, forts and golf courses side by side with casinos, halls of horror and those to induce nightmares. But the Niagara flows on majestically — as if in icy disdain of this commercialisation — as it has for the past 12,000 years, cutting down to their minuscule size, the 18 million tourists who gather every year to gape at its beauty and marvel at its might.

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