Driving the General Lee

IMG_5630

I had always wanted to drive a good ole Detroit muscle car.

Any from the Golden Age in the mid-to-late sixties would have done, but by preference a second generation Dodge Charger R/T: Bill Hickman’s car in Bullitt, Vin Diesel’s in Fast and Furious and the real star of The Dukes of Hazzard, the General Lee.

Warner Brothers had a fleet of twenty-odd General Lees for the 2005 movie, but some were just shells and many were trashed in filming. Aside from wrecks, there are apparently three survivors. I got the chance to drive one of them on a circuit.

DSC_0146

It was parked in the pits, dwarfing a modern Camaro. The ’69 Charger is a great big brute of a car: seventeen feet by six and a half, as long and as wide as a builder’s van, but with a seven-litre V8 under what I suppose I ought to call the hood.

The driver’s door closed with an undamped clunk. (At least it was not welded shut.) The black vinyl interior was as battered and bruised as you would expect in a car built back in the year that Nixon was inaugurated, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Marvin Gaye Heard it through the Grapevine. It had the faint smell of old oil and unburned petrol which seems always to cling to classic cars.

There were big austere gauges, ringed with chrome, for speed and RPM, a row of smaller ones for fuel, battery charge, oil temperature and pressure, and a few clunky rocker switches for lights and wipers and such like. There was only a lap belt; and the steering wheel was a thin-rimmed wooden thing with three alloy spokes and a big fat boss in the middle. Health and safety had not yet been invented in 1969.

DSC_0138

I pressed the brake pedal experimentally and it sank to the floor as if air had got into the system, but that was apparently normal. The steering wheel rocked a couple of inches in either direction before it thought about telling the roadwheels. That was normal, as well.

At idle speed, the General Lee krob-krob-krobbed like a fighter plane from the Second World War. I clicked the gear selector into Drive and moved out onto the track and the V8 snarled and settled into a staccato growl.

The General lurched into the first corner and drifted across to the other side of the track as a drunk might weave home from a late-night bar. It handled the way that a motorboat handles, but I ought to have expected that. Even in Bullitt, with a professional stunt driver at the wheel, the Charger tumbled round corners with all the finesse of a barrel which has bounced off the back of a truck.

032A7827

But then I was on the kind of straight which muscle cars were built for and buried the accelerator into the carpet and the General surged forward with the angry roar of a sorely provoked V8 – an awesome sound. Driving it hard on the straight was like surfing down stairs: exhilarating but tempered by the growing worry about what to do when you get to the end.

I braked hard coming into the corner, earlier than I would in a modern car but later than I ought to have done, and it slowed at its leisure and I managed not to lock up the wheels (it doesn’t even have disc brakes, let alone ABS), then flung it towards the apex with a wobble and screech and let it ride across the track and lumber through the chicane.

DSC_0070

With each lap, I got a little more confident, learned when to brake and how hard, when to floor it, when to ease off, and how to roll with the weight shift. I got used to the way that it wallowed into corners and stumbled out, wobbling like a fat man promenading down the Las Vegas Strip. It would be terrifying to drive it fast on the roads – at any rate, on narrow, twisty European roads – but it was a lot of fun on a circuit once I knew what to expect, and even more fun to accelerate down the straights, and oh my God the sound!

Then, eventually, I had to give it back and reluctantly walked away.

© Richard Senior 2016

65km/h on a Sandboard

(120)

Swakopmund, Namibia. A mind-bending, hallucinatory place: an authentic slice of small-town Germany deep in Southern Africa. Cutesy, pastel-coloured Jugendstil buildings. Signs on store fronts in Gothic script, all umlauts and harsh consonants. A Lutherian church; a bierhaus selling good lager and sturdy plates of sausage and sauerkraut.

Leave town early in the morning in an old Volkswagen minibus. The sandboards strapped to the roof; a mangy dog standing on my knees so it can look out the window, wobbling as it tries to keep its balance.

Arrive at the dunes. Take down a sandboard, change into snowboard boots; trudge up the long curving track to the top. Grab a cloth, dip it in wax and smear it over the bottom of the sandboard. Find a place to sit at the edge of the slope.

(76)

Third in line. The first guy struggles to stay on his feet, falls over a few times, wobbles, squats and touches the ground, as if reassuring himself it is there. The second is an experienced snowboarder and streaks down the dune at speed, slaloming round imaginary poles to show off.

My go then. Follow the instructions: turn my back to the slope, do a backwards roll. Straight away scudding diagonally across the dune, balancing better than expected.

Picking up speed. Halfway down. Much faster now; faster than feels comfortable on a first attempt. Shift my weight to my toes to slow the board; but it digs in and stops dead and the kinetic energy flings me forward onto the sand and rolls me like a barrel with the board still clipped to my boots.

(121)

Unclip from the board, spit out the sand, empty it from each of my pockets in turn, wipe the thick off my arms, then plod back up to the top of the dune.

You looked like a helicopter trying to take off sideways,” someone says.

I get further down the slope on my second run then come off again, but not as spectacularly. Land head-first. Glad of the pisspot helmet. But it rattles my brain nonetheless. On the third run – or it might have been the fourth – I glide all the way to the bottom and feel good. The snowboarder, by then, is doing jumps.

(222)

Move to a different slope, and a different, brutally straightforward, style of sandboarding. Take a big sheet of plywood, lay face-down on it, lift my feet, grab the corners and curl them up, then just hang on as the board careens down the slope. There is no slowing, or stopping, or steering, as there is with a proper sandboard: just staying on or coming off. It feels stupidly fast – I will find out how fast – and totally out of control, which I suppose it is, except I could bail if an unexpected springbok suddenly heaves into view.

Whisk past the guy at the bottom with the speed camera, heading for the run-off slope. Somehow hit it at the wrong angle, bury the board in the sand, fly a few metres then bury myself. Spit out the sand, shake it from my hair, rub it from my t-shirt, empty my pockets again.

65k,” the guy with the camera says.

© Richard Senior 2016

A Spin and a Soaking in Sydney Harbour

rsz_jet_boat_sydney_harbour_15967179529_1

I sat in the sun on the edge of the jetty while I waited for the boat to come in. But they made me get up and stand behind a fence to avoid the small risk that I might, somehow, fall in the harbour.

I had forgotten all that. I had been in Southeast Asia for the past three months and no one, there, stops you from doing things because they might be dangerous. You are allowed to – have to – gauge risks for yourself, like an adult. But I was in Sydney, now; back in the developed world, where  you are forever being politely pushed about:

Could you put your seatbelt on please … take your bag off the seat … can you pop that in the cloakroom … please don’t touch that you’re not allowed up there … excuse me, that’s not safe … can you move back towards the wall, if you don’t mind… due to safety regulations… stand in a line, please … for the safety and comfort of all our passengers … could I see your ID again…and, erm, if you wouldn’t mind just WAITING there….

The jet boat had the pugnacious look and deep-throated growl of a racing powerboat, but worked like a jet ski with a big inboard motor which forced water from under the hull out the back. It went like stink, stopped in its own length and could be encouraged to spin like a coin on a table.

EDM pumped from the speakers at the back; the passengers punched the air. The skipper eased out of the harbour, past the Opera House, into open water, soundtracked by Avicii’s Levels. He whacked open the throttle, the motor snarled, the boat stood up on the plane and lunged towards the Heads. Then he flung the wheel over to starboard and held it in a tight turn while the passengers, feeling the G, gripped the bars on the seats in front; and straightened up, hurtled forward, and flung the wheel over to port.

Straightening up again then, and pounding ahead, the skipper chopped the throttle and locked the wheel and the boat whirled round its axis, sending a mini-tsunami over the whooping, shrieking passengers. Throttle back open, streaking across the bay, a brutal crash stop, an incredible deceleration, like nothing I had experienced before in a boat or car; another wave consuming us; soaked through to the pants.

Throttle wide open again, on course to ram the Manly ferry, then skidding away; then spinning around a buoy; more spins, more crash stops, more screams, more whoops, more Avicii, more soakings, then slowing and sliding back into harbour.

I peeled off my t-shirt, wrung out a gallon of water and drip-drip-dripped up the quay.

© Richard Senior 2015

Image: By FotoSleuth (Jet Boat Sydney Harbour) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped from original)

Winning Entry: Wanderlust Magazine Travel Writing Competition

Wanderlust

“A Flight I’ll Never Forget (no more than 700 words)”

Down Under (and Back Over Again)

I had been thrown round the sky by an aerobatic pilot before. But it was in an aggressively capable modern aircraft, built for that sort of thing. I had been strapped down firmly with a seven-point harness and had a canopy slammed and locked into place above me. And I was twenty, then, and had no fear.

This time, I was in a Tiger Moth: a flimsy-looking, open-cockpit biplane built of fabric and wood in the Second World War to a design from the early thirties. I had nothing but a pair of straps, much like the ones on my backpack, to stop me from falling to my death. “If you fall out they can blame me,” said the pilot as he strapped me in. I was not too reassured.

The septuagenarian engine coughed hard, spat out a gobful of smoke and settled into a throbbing rhythm. We chugged across the field, then turned and accelerated along the runway. The Tiger Moth limbered into the air, like an elderly man mounting a stile, and climbed at a leisurely pace as we pottered out towards the bay. There was a wonderful view from 3,000ft over the marina at the boats at anchor and out towards the Barrier Reef.

DSC_0591

In straight and level flight, it is easy to imagine yourself back in the days of boaters and blazers and croquet on the country house lawn. But we were not there for civilised flying.

“Okay here we go
,” said the pilot over the radio, chopped the throttle and pulled the stick right back. The Tiger Moth reared up to the vertical, stood on its tail and stalled. It fell sideways with a bang, as if a wing had come off, and spun. All my senses screamed that I was going to die. I gripped the edge of the cockpit, as if that would somehow save me.

The sky, the ocean, the marina, the reef whirled round me in the confusion of a tumble down stairs as the pilot dived to build up airspeed and unstall the wings and then pulled straight up into a perfect loop. Over the top, upside down; my headphone lead flapping about in the air; the wind howling through the rigging, the sun flashing off the glass in the windshield. I looked up at the ocean and down at the sky; and we tipped right over, back round to where we had started. Then, straightaway, sideways into a barrel roll – boats sailing upside down in the sky – under and over, and the world righted once again.

Terror to elation and back again. Rolling, looping, spinning. East to west inverted, west to east right side up. The engine snarling, then abruptly cut. Just the whistling of the wind in the wires. Sky and ocean switching places again and again, until I was no longer sure which was right.

But no one can hear you scream from up there.

(c) Richard Senior

Byron Bay: If You Can’t Surf or Skate, Do a Handstand

DSC_0205

No one in Byron Bay seems to do what parents call a proper job.

They run craft shops and galleries, surf shops and skate shops. They play Spanish guitars on street corners for dollars. They make and sell funky jewellery. Or they sit on the rocks and sketch. In their spare time, they surf. Everyone surfs. Old men, surf. Teenage girls, surf. Little kids surf.

You are never more than six feet from a surfboard. They are on sale and for hire in the shops. Strapped to the top of Volkswagen campers, slung in the back of vans, poking through the hole where the window used to be in an old Holden estate. Laid out in rows on the beach.

I watched the surfers riding the swell and gliding right onto Main Beach, or else falling headlong into the waves, then getting right up and trying again. It has got to be the coolest of sports.

But if the surfers are cool, the lifeguards are cooler, strutting about the beach, looking as if they have been carved out of marble. Those who are neither surfers nor lifeguards find their own way to be cool. One spent a day on the beach doing handstand after handstand. Another stood facing the sunbathers, juggling four balls without pause for a morning. He was not after spare change: just showing off.

DSC_0208

One evening I saw a guy on a mountain bike pop a wheelie and sustain it all the way down Jonson Street. A unicyclist passed him, going the other way. Guys in their twenties and thirties skate barefoot round town on old-fashioned downhill boards. I saw one the other side of 45 skating down Marvell Street. Even he looked cool.

Jonson Street, Marvell Street, Tennyson Street, Burns Street: it was all, apparently, a misunderstanding. Captain Cook sycophantically named Cape Byron after Vice Admiral The Hon. John Byron, whose grandson, George, would become a famous Romantic poet to help him pick up girls. But a clerk in Sydney assumed it was that Byron, and named the streets of the town after all the poets he had heard of.

I am not a surfer and I have not skated since I was 15, and I have never learned to ride a unicycle; so I went sea kayaking instead.

I paddled hard through the waves the surfers are there for, let them lift me up and carry me over and slap me back down at the other side; then again and again, until I was through and into smoother water. I spotted a pair of dolphins out to the left, leaping joyously out of the ocean: a wonderful sight. They slipped under the water and disappeared and I paddled on round the easternmost point of Australia.

The sun was hot, the sky was clear and it was hard to think of a more perfect morning.

© Richard Senior 2015

Rapids Response

SONY DSC

We were rafting a 10km stretch of the Mae Tang River in Northern Thailand.

They told us at the briefing that the rapids were Grades III and IV, but that meant nothing to me at the time. To give it some context, though, a kid in half a barrel could traverse Grade I, while a very lucky maniac in a kayak might survive Grade VI. I got a better sense of what to expect when they said that the river fell sixty metres in a kilometre and a half, sometimes over a metre in one drop.

We were four to a raft – the others were strangers to me – with a professional skipper to shout out instructions, “paddle forwards,” “paddle backwards,” “get inside,” “over to the left,” “over to the right” and “jump,” when we snagged on rocks and had to bounce ourselves off.

It was as leisurely at first as a punt on the Cam as we drifted down a calm stretch of the river, and the sun was hot and the landscape was lovely with mountains and fig trees and thatched huts along the bank.

Then we entered the rapids and the skipper’s instructions became urgent, and we tumbled and twisted through rocks, over ledges, like a spider being washed down the plughole. I turned away from the guy next to me and when I turned back he was gone: he was over the side of the raft. The skipper grabbed his life jacket and held him fast, but his head bobbed repeatedly underwater and the raft ran right over him.  I had a sudden horror that I might be watching him drown. But when we were out of the rapids and we hauled him in with a bust lip and grazes, he was laughing like a kid who had come off his bike and wanted to pretend it did not hurt.

SONY DSC

Then another fast stretch, crashing against rocks; spinning one way, then the other. “Jump! Jump!” Plunging forward. “Get inside!” Gripping the safety rope tight, paddle tucked against hip, foot locked under the tube inside the raft. The roar of the rapids overwhelming. Two inches of water in the raft. My trainers soaked. A cut on my knee. But I stayed in.

Spinning anti-clockwise. “Paddle forward! Paddle forward!” Slamming into another rock, peeling off, and over the edge, spinning in the other direction. Flashback to the time I lost control of a car and pirouetted across the road and bounced off the barrier. Still in, though.

Toppling over another drop backwards, just hanging on. Rocks palpable underneath as the raft scrapes over them. Then another drop, a bigger drop; the raft bending in the middle. And just as it seems that it will tip end over end and catapult us out, we are through.

SONY DSC

And then we were floating peacefully again, past a group of elephants whose mahouts had led them down to the river to drink. Some looked up; most ignored us.

I relaxed then, elated that I had managed not to end up in the water; and the skipper capsized the raft.

© Richard Senior 2015

Travelling by Tube in New Zealand

330px-'Cathedral'_in_Waitomo_Cave

There were six of us in the minibus on the way to the Waitomo Caves, all looking ridiculous in wetsuits, ankle-length wellingtons and miners’ helmets, each clutching an inflated inner tube out of a tractor tyre.

We squeezed through a gash in the side of the mountain and climbed down into a chamber, stooping and huddling together to fit. I was nearest to the crevice which led further in, so the guide sent me on ahead and told me to stop when I heard a roaring sound. I inched along between the walls, splashing through water, seeing what little the lamp on my helmet cared to light up, and listened for a roaring sound. I realised what it was when I heard it.

All I had to do, the guide said when the others caught up, was to approach the waterfall backwards, stand on the edge, hold the inner tube up to my bum as if suffering with haemorrhoids and leap backwards into the water.

The sensible part of my brain warned me sternly against it, as if I were five and it were my father grabbing hold of my arm to stop me running into the road. (Fair enough, as I never got round to learning to swim.) But if I listened to the sensible part of my brain, I would still be at my desk in London, alternately stressed and bored. I would be on the Tube, instead of on a tube.

I backed up to the edge and jumped, ducked under and swallowed a mouthful of nasty water, then bobbed back up on my tube with the endorphin rush you always get when your brain says no and you go ahead anyway and come out of it okay.

We reclined on our tubes and floated along the underground river which led through a passage with stalactites bearing down on us, until we got to another waterfall, twice the height of the first. I stood back and let the others go first – “no, no, after you,” I said with the pantomime politeness of the British, and nothing to do with being scared – then jumped and sank deeper and ingested more water and came up choking and spitting, but felt fantastic as soon as I could breathe again.

We switched off our lamps as we came out in a cavern and stared up at a roof which was speckled with glow worms and looked like a diorama of space. There were thousands, no tens of thousands, an uncountable number of blue-white dots of effulgence stretching as far as I could see.

We slid silently through the darkness and the LED’s on the backs of the helmets advanced in a line and wound round the corners and the glow worms winked above us until the river burst out above ground through a fissure in the rock and we came out squinting into the afternoon sunlight.

© Richard Senior 2015

Image: “Cathedral in Waitomo Cave” By Karora (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Going for a Spin in Rotorua

DSC_0652

The landscape was Jurassic, all ferns and sulphurous pools. Smoke issued from every pore in the ground. Mud pots belched and cauldrons bubbled, as if hard-boiling the eggs whose smell hung over the town.

The trees were wearing their autumn clothes in reds and greens, yellows and browns, and the leaves were beginning to carpet the ground. The air was fresh and the silence was perfect, except for the squawk of the gulls and the honk of black swans; and the lake was still and reflected the mountains and trees and strips of blue sky in its surface. Seaplanes stood idle while geese moved out in a convoy, and spindly-legged, red-beaked, blue-chested pukekos tottered on the grass and immaculate gulls glided expertly in to land.

Such a sleepy town. Yet it was here, in Rotorua, that New Zealand’s second craziest adrenaline sport began. The original Zorb company is still doing business on the outskirts of town; but I booked with Ogo, the rival outfit, run by the ball’s inventor. The name is different but the idea is the same: a big rubber ball suspended inside a bigger rubber ball, with an aperture in the side.

They drove me up to the top of a long, steep hill with a track carved into it, and tipped a bucketful of warm water into the Ogo ball; I dived through the aperture, Superman style, and they zipped me in and shoved me down the hill. I tried to stay upright but fell down straight away and slithered about in the water as the ball picked up speed as it careered down the hill. I was laughing hard all the way down and carried on laughing when I got to the bottom and stopped with a bump, rolled back and landed upside down in a jumble of arms and legs.

Then I moved onto the Fishpipe, which is an Ogo ball fitted with a seat and a six-point harness and attached to a frame which allows it to spin like the rig on which astronauts train. The operator dialled up the speed, by turns, until I was tumbling like washing in the machine and laughing again, until the coins worked themselves out of my pockets and pelted me as I spun.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Tumbling through the Air in a Tiger Moth

I had been thrown round the sky by an aerobatic pilot before. But that was in an aggressively capable modern aircraft, built for that sort of thing. I had been strapped down firmly with a seven-point harness and had a canopy slammed and locked into place above me. And I was twenty, then, and had no fear.

This time, I was in a Tiger Moth: a flimsy-looking, open-cockpit biplane built of fabric and wood in the Second World War to a design from the early thirties; and I just had a pair of straps, disturbingly like those on my backpack, to stop me from falling to my death. “If you fall out they can blame me,” said the pilot as he strapped me in. I wasn’t reassured.

The septuagenarian engine coughed hard, spat out a gobful of smoke then settled into a throbbing rhythm. We chugged across the field, then turned and accelerated along the runway. The Tiger Moth limbered into the air, like an elderly man mounting a stile, and climbed at its own leisurely pace as we pottered out towards the bay. There was a wonderful view from 3,000ft over the marina at the boats at anchor and out towards the Barrier Reef. In straight and level flight, it is easy to imagine yourself back in the days of boaters and blazers and croquet on the country house lawn. But we were not there for civilised flying.

Okay here we go,” said the pilot over the radio, chopped the throttle and pulled the stick right back. The Tiger Moth reared up to the vertical, stood on its tail and stalled. It fell sideways with a bang, as if a wing had come off, and spun. All my senses screamed that I was going to die. I gripped the edge of the cockpit, as if that would somehow save me. The sky, the ocean, the marina, the reef whirled round me in the confusion of a tumble down stairs as the pilot dived to build up airspeed and unstall the wings and then pulled straight up into a perfect loop. Over the top, upside down; my headphone lead flapping about in the air; the wind howling through the rigging, the sun flashing off the glass in the windshield. I looked up at the ocean and down at the sky; and we tipped right over, back round to where we had started. Then, straightaway, sideways into a barrel roll – boats sailing upside down in the sky – under and over, and the world righted once again.

Terror to elation and back again. Rolling, looping, spinning. East to west inverted, west to east right side up. The engine snarling, then abruptly cut. Just the whistling of the wind in the wires. Sky and ocean switching places again and again, until I was no longer sure which was right.

But no one can hear you scream from up there.

DSC_0591

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Stunt driving day: a snapshot

An old Sierra, a disused runway, a bitter cold winter’s day. Into reverse, foot down, gearbox howling. Dump the accelerator. Fling the steering wheel round to the right, clutch down, into neutral. The front whips round, the tyres scream in protest. Smoke and gravel; melting rubber. Clutch in again, first gear, straighten up, drop the clutch, paint black lines on the surface.

Second gear, third. Haul the wheel over again, jerk the handbrake up, flick the back end round. I knew how to do these already. I taught myself long before I had my first driving lesson, at 15 in a Mini I bought for twenty quid. I have grown up a little bit since then…but not too much.

(c) Richard Senior 2014