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Real-life Noah's ark built with Swedish pine

DORDRECHT, July 17, 2011 (AFP) - For three years, the quaint old city of Dordrecht has watched in amazement as a local businessman's dream of building a real-life Noah's ark, stocked with thousands of plastic animals, became a reality.

The enormous vessel stands at an abandoned quay on the Merwede River, about 65 kilometres (40 miles) south of Amsterdam. Here, Johan Huibers, 52, and a team of 50 dedicated employees put the final touches to what they believe is the only life-size wooden ark in existence.

"We want to tell people about God," the deeply religious Dutchman told AFP when asked why he undertook the project. "We wanted to build something that can help explain the Bible in real terms."

The plan is to open what Huibers, who is in construction, calls "a Bible museum" by the end of the year, but he will allow local residents in on a one-day sneak preview later this month.

His undertaking is all the more amazing as Huibers is building the replica according to ancient standards cited in the Book of Genesis, which say the boat was 300 cubits long, 30 cubits high and 50 cubits wide.

With a cubit estimated roughly as the distance between the elbow and fingertips, or a half-metre (1.5 feet), this makes the ark's dimensions staggering -- about 150 metres long (490 feet), roughly four storeys high and some 25 metres across. It weighs around 3,000 tonnes, Huibers said.

A massive roof protects sprawling decks where Huibers plans to place life-sized replicas of some 1,600 animal species to represent the Biblical tale of Noah, who was ordered by God to build the ark to save his family and animals of all species before the earth was swamped by a massive flood.

"The wood is Swedish pine, because that's the closest we think to the 'resin wood' God ordered Noah to use in the Bible. The animals are plastic and come from the Philippines," Huibers told AFP.

On board there will be sleeping quarters, including Noah's bedroom, a theatre and stage, a fully equipped restaurant as well as conference facilities to seat 1,500 people. There is even a millstone to grind wheat to make "Biblical bread", and artists are painting walls with the story of the ark and other Biblical tales.

-- 'I've always been a dreamer' --

The idea for the project came in 1992, said Huibers, when in true Dutch fashion he had a nightmare about the low-lying Netherlands again being flooded by surging waters from the North Sea.

"The next day I bought a book about Noah's ark. That night while sitting on the couch with my kids, I looked at it and said: 'It's what we're going to do'."

By 2004, he had build a smaller ark -- 70 metres long -- which he used to take passengers on joyrides along the Dutch canals. Huibers pushed these profits into his grand plan and by mid-2008, construction of the "big ark" had started.

The rest of the financing came from a three million-euro (four million-dollar) bank loan, 500 euros a year from his church and a "100-euro donation from my 93-year-old mother".

Not all share his vision, including his wife Bianca, a police officer, who "berated" him with the Dutch saying "being normal is being crazy enough," Huibers laughed.

"In the beginning my dad's project was a bit strange," agreed his son Ray, 23, who now works full time to help finish the ark. "But now I find it really great."

Others like Dennis Langeveld, 30, who works on a construction project across the quay, are less convinced.

"He has to do what he has to do," he said munching a sandwich during his lunch break as he watched activity at the ark. "Maybe he knows something we don't."

Next year, Huibers wants to tow the ark like a barge across the Channel and moor it somewhere in London during the 2012 Summer Olympics "to tell people about God."

He has already done a trial run to Rotterdam, Europe's largest port, and believes his vessel is completely seaworthy.

"I have always been a dreamer," Huibers said smiling.


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