Sailing in Sydney

I took the lift to the viewing platform at the top of the tower which sprouts from the Westfield centre and looked out across the city and over the harbour to the Heads. It was Sydney Regatta week and an abundance of yachts was sailing in the bay with spinnakers puffed up with wind, a swirl of blue and pink, purple and green.

I would be out there myself the next day.

Sailing on an America’s Cup Yacht had been on my bucket list since the summer of the previous year when I crewed on a boat in the Round the Island Race. I was not even sure whether it was possible, and had no expectation of making it happen on this trip.

But then I found out by chance about an outfit which ran voyages out of Darling Harbour in a pair of IACC yachts from the nineties.

The Darling Harbour Yacht Club invested US $10m in its challenge in 1992, when the International America’s Cup Class standard was adopted. Its boat, AUS 21, came sixth, out of nine, in the Louis Vuitton Cup races to decide which of the challengers would face the defending team.

The other one, AUS 40, was built for the Antibes Yacht Club as a challenger in the 1995 Cup with the flag number FRA 40. But it was not finished in time and, in the end, the nearest it got to the  America’s Cup was as a training boat for the Swiss challenger in 2000.

I was on the older boat with the better backstory. Nothing about AUS 21 looked dated, even if it was two decades past its prime by then. It was all Kevlar, carbon fibre and alloy, everything pared right down to save weight; everything streamlined. It made the yacht I had raced on the year before seem as clumsy and well-padded as a cross-Channel ferry. But then so did our place in the results table.

I had been sort of working then, even if I was doing it for fun and paying for the privilege: I had an appointed station and had to stay there and do as I was told.

This was different. Some of the passengers wanted no more than to laze on the deck and top up their tans and that was fine; but you could get involved if you wanted to. It would have frustrated me just to watch. I manned one of the grinders, as they call the winches which tension the sheets (that is, ropes) which trim the sails and regulate speed. It is a good upper body workout.

We raised the mainsail as we slipped out of the harbour and motored round Millers Point. The staysail went up as we passed beneath the Harbour Bridge.

Then cruising towards the Heads, making 8 knots according to the digital display. The yacht could do about 18 with a good wind behind it. Then heeled right over with everyone up on the rail. Then tacking across the harbour. Throwing my weight into the grinder. Sliding over to starboard. Heads down as the boom crashes across the deck.

We were out for around two hours then headed back, lowered the sails and motored under the Bridge. I watched a group slowly make its way up the arch.

I would be up there myself the next day.

©  Richard Senior 2020*

*Except America’s Cup images via Pixabay:

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At a Glacial Pace

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Three miles wide at the snout, nineteen miles long, filling the expanse between the mountains like builders’ foam; the powder blue ice, its hollows and crevices appearing backlit by the water within, juxtaposed with the deep green coniferous trees and the stark grey-black of the mountains, lightly dusted with snow and engulfed in low cloud at the margins; a wall of ice, striped with seams of deeper blue and black, rising an average of 240 foot above the surface of Largo Argentino, carved by nature into tens of thousands of tightly-packed columns ranking into the distance like an ancient army massed for battle.

The Perito Moreno glacier in the far South-West of Argentina feeds from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which straddles the border with Chile and is the last redoubt of an Ice Age which ended 11,000 years ago. It sprawls over an area more than four times bigger than Manhattan or about two and a half times the size of Barcelona.

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Boardwalks on multiple levels connected by stairs take visitors within a few hundred feet of the snout. Pops and cracks echo from around the glacier as if hunters were out on its surface shooting birds. Calved ice litters the waters around it.

Hours could easily be spent just gazing in awe at the glacier and listening to its cracks and creaks and bangs.  But I was not just there to look.

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Three years earlier in New Zealand, I arrived in Franz Josef too late to be able to hike on the glacier, as I had hoped, and had to make do with seeing it from the foot of the mountain on my way to the bus the next morning. Now, on a different continent but back in the Southern Hemisphere, the chance had come round again.

I took a boat across the lake to the shelter on the shore by the South Wall, where I was herded into a group of about 15 and had crampons attached to my boots. Two groups were out on the ice already, one about a third of the way up, the other about a third from the summit.

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In the middle of the briefing, there was a boom as if of a cannon and then a rumbling, shuttering sound like an office block succumbing to the wrecking ball. I turned and watched as a section of ice thirty, forty, fifty feet high detached from the glacier and slid vertically into the lake, rose again as pulverised fragments and caused a tumult in the water.

We started our ascent.  The crampons, impossible on land, were intuitive on the ice. We moved slowly, in file, behind the guide.  The route weaved between cracks and ponds and glacier mills, where surface meltwater spirals into a shaft in the ice. The ice glistened in the sun. We drank the coolest, freshest water straight from the glacier.

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Then, at the summit, the first of the guides produced whisky and glasses; the other harvested ice from the glacier with an axe. ¡Salud! We drank the whisky tempered with chunks of Perito Moreno, packed up and made our way back to the shelter.

© Richard Senior 2019

 

Another Day in Swakopmund

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Another day in Swakopmund, another group of travellers, another early minibus out to the dunes.

This pretty German Colonial town is marketed as Namibia’s adventure capital. There is sandboarding, quad-biking, ballooning, camel-riding, sky-diving, parascending and deep-sea fishing. Yesterday was sandboarding, today is ATV’s.

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Travellers stepped out of the minibuses which had collected them from tour agents, guest houses and campsites around town. We were funnelled inside, given waivers to sign and helmets to wear, and led off in small groups.

I pulled on the helmet, started the quad bike and we rolled out of the centre in line astern behind the guide, past grassy hillocks into the open desert. The sun cast long shadows behind us, the sky was a deep and improbable blue, the sand glowed orange and pink.

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Skudding across the floor of the desert, throttle wide open, engine howling, feeling the heat rise from the crankcase, looping up, along and down a high dune, treating it like a berm on a mountain bike trail, kicking up the odd puff of sand; back onto the flat, then bumping over the crest of a smaller dune. The driver in front takes the next one too slow and bogs down; the back wheels dig in, churning up sand in clouds. I swerve round her and keep the throttle open and make it up and over the top, getting momentarily airborne.

It is a landscape of majestic nothingness: a sea of sand blown into waves by the wind, the colours changing as the sun rises as the morning unfolds. They filmed Mad Max: Fury Road here, using these dunes to represent the apocalyptic landscape of a world after a nuclear war. In reality, the toxic smoke would block the sun for years and start another ice age, but only the cockroaches and hardier sorts of wasp would mind: humans and everything else would be extinct.

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The guide raised his hand to get us to stop, left his quad bike running and walked off into the desert. He came back with a namaqua chameleon in his hand. When he released it, the dark chameleon began to lighten until it was a similar colour to the sand, although it is said to be a myth that they change colour for camouflage. It shuffled off, then, with its comedy power walk, all elbows and knees.

We pressed on into the desert and the surefooted ATV’s clung to the side of the dunes, and powered up steep slopes and rolled down the other side, and I felt in control throughout and never in much danger and came round to thinking that the popular idea that these things are deathtraps was just scaremongering by the tabloid press.

Then I heard later that one of the guys I had got the minibus with that morning had gone over the handlebars and wound up in hospital with a broken scapula.

© Richard Senior 2016              

Climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge

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For generations, Sydneysiders tumbled out of the pub, looked up at the Harbour Bridge and felt compelled to climb it, in the way that others are compelled to make a hat of a traffic cone. They used to be able to scale the gate, negotiate the spikes at the top, then go up the steps to the arch.

The legendary climber, Bryden Allen, did it the hard way. He squeezed into one of hangers from which the deck is suspended, climbed 200 feet up the inside (“rather like caving…great fun”), roping onto struts, until he got to the lower chord of the arch, where – in his estimation – the “real climbing” began. He had to stretch backwards to reach the lower lip, grip on rivet heads, let his feet fly out into space and force himself up onto the ledge with his arms, and once there, repeat the move on the upper lip six feet above him. “From there the climb [was] easy,” he reckoned.

A decade later, the French high-wire artist, Philip Petit, climbed the bridge one night, strung wires between the pylons and walked across them in the early morning in full view of the rush-hour traffic. The police were good-humoured about it, even when Petit continued performing by relieving one of his watch and tie; but they arrested him anyway and the court fined him $200.

By 2011, when the former soldier, Michael Fox, climbed the bridge to protest the custody laws, the fine had gone up to $3,000 and there was talk of three months in jail, but the judge might have seen the irony of a custodial sentence and left it at a fine.

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The bridge is now watched by CCTV and patrolled by security guards and, in this jittery age, it is too easy to imagine a drunken prank being misread as a terrorist incident and some poor student being shot down from the arch by snipers.

But anyone with $228 (£140, US$170) to spare can now climb the bridge quite legally. Prince Harry’s done it, Oprah’s done it, and Usain Bolt, Katy Perry and Matt Damon. So have I.

The breathalyser seemed an unnecessary precaution at half-past ten in the morning, but the whole thing is organised like a commando assault.

Once the Climb Leader was satisfied that nobody was drunk, she handed us each a pair of overalls in BridgeClimb’s corporate colours and sternly warned us not to take anything out onto the bridge: not a camera, not a phone, not even a handkerchief. It seemed, again, a bit over the top, but then I suppose a dropped handkerchief could do plenty of harm if it draped itself over a motorcyclist’s visor.

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We were allowed sunglasses, provided they were secured with a cord round the neck like your Grandma’s reading glasses; and there was an optional clip-on BridgeClimb cap for anyone who wanted to look more of a dick than they already did in the overalls.

Then, once we had gone through a metal detector to check that we had done as we were told, there was a training session to make sure we were familiar with steps and ladders – just in case we had reached adult life without using them. We were kitted out with harnesses and one-way radios and, as often in Australia, more or less forced to apply sun cream.

We went out in single file behind the Climb Leader, clipped into the lifeline and followed her up a series of service ladders, as the cars and the bikes and the trucks thundered past, through manholes, under stanchions, watching elbows and heads, until we came out on the top of the arch. Helicopters constantly buzzed the bridge, as if this really were the military exercise it felt like.

It was thrilling, in its way, but it is not really an adrenalin activity. There is no sense of danger. A clumsy person could probably twist an angle or even break a leg, but a clumsy person could break a leg walking to the shops. It is hard to see how someone could fall off the bridge by accident.

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It is worth remembering that none of the 1,400 men who worked on the bridge between 1924 and 1932 used any protection at all, and only two of them fell off. They only had rivet heads as footholds, too: now there are steps welded into the arch. It is, in truth, more of a walk than a climb.

Nonetheless, it is quite something to see the business end of the bridge close up. You get a much better sense of its scale than you ever can from ground level. The Climb Leader told us that it was 440 feet above the harbour at its highest point, although to be annoyingly pedantic it is actually 440 feet above mean sea level. She also said that it was the longest single-arch bridge in the world, and apart from five others, it is.

The view silenced everyone: right across the harbour, over the Opera House, the Botanic Gardens, the Rocks, Circular Quay and the financial district beyond it, out east over Bondi Beach, north over Luna Park and Manly, and west towards the Blue Mountains. It is worth your $228.

We crossed over to the western side of the arch and walked back towards the south pylon, down the ladders and inside. I had lost all sense of time while I was out on the bridge. It felt like half an hour, perhaps an hour, had gone by but in fact it was three and a half.

© Richard Senior 2016

Slow Boat to Amsterdam: a Sailing Diary

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In the summer of 2012, I worked a passage from Stavanger to Amsterdam on the Dutch tall ship, Wylde Swan. I kept this diary, of sorts, with the idea of writing it up into a feature, which never happened: 

Thursday, 30th August

Arrive in Stavanger in the late afternoon. Blustery day. Call up the number and they come to collect me in the tender and take me out to the ship, which is moored off a small island. Dutch skipper, German mate, Danish engineer, German cook.

The Swan was originally a steamship, built in 1920, on a German flag. It was a herring boat, built for speed. A Dutch outfit bought the hulk in the Noughties and refitted it as a two-mast topsail schooner – biggest in the world, apparently.

More of the crew arrive in the evening, two Dutch, one British (but born in the Netherlands).

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Friday, 31st August

Bright and sunny in the morning. Not sailing until evening so get the tender into Stavanger, look round, take photos, get lunch.

Back to the ship. Three more crew aboard, one German, two Dutch.

Sail around 5pm.

I’m on the 1pm-8pm and 1am-6am watch, so I’m on straight away. Weigh anchor. Slip out of harbour. Stop alongside another ship for the last crew member (Norwegian) to jump aboard. Get a couple of stay sails up. South, south, south…

Can’t sleep. Read until midnight. Shaken awake at 12.30. Back to work.

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Saturday, 1st September

Still heading south. Up on the roof at 4am sweating a sail down, gathering and tying. Trimming and tidying; hauling ropes and cranking winches.

Sailing ships are incredibly noisy things: banging and clanking, creaking and groaning. The wind howls across the deck, slapping hard against the sails. It means I can shout and swear when I repeatedly make a mess of coiling a sheet, and nobody hears me.

The sun is coming up and I want to stay and watch it, but I want to sleep more. It comes easily this time.

Ship pitching heavily when my next watch starts at 1pm. A few of the crew are seasick. But it’s a dull watch. Not much to do. A couple of sails up, a tack, but mostly pootling along on the motor. Cloudy and cold but no rain.

I stare out to sea for hours. It sounds dull but it’s more peaceful than anything I can remember. No rushing, no deadlines, no shouty emails.

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Sunday, 2nd September 

The work always seems to be in the early morning watch. Strong wind across the deck. Ship heeled right over. Deck soaked. Hard to stay upright. A few involuntary sit-downs. Stretch the safety net across the leeward side so no one goes overboard. Stay sails back up. Exhausting first two hours then quiet after that. Quiet and cold.

Only me and the watch leader still standing. Everyone else on the watch is seasick. I can understand it. The ship rolls and pitches and suddenly the horizon rears up at a 30 degree angle. But thankfully I don’t get seasick.

We reach Danish waters around midnight, down the coastline, past the oilfields. Rigs lit up like Harrods at Christmas. The computer shows tankers all around us but none is in sight. The watch leader shows me how to fill in the log and I do it next time.

Still cloudy at lunchtime. The last watch put up the jibs and top sail. It looks more like a tall ship should now. No mainsail though. It takes 10 men to raise it. They call it “the Bastard“.

Two thirds of the way down the Danish coast by 2pm, heading for Germany. I belatedly hoist down the courtesy Norwegian flag. We forgot about it until now. Don’t suppose it matters.

There was talk of being in Amsterdam tonight but the skipper thinks lunchtime tomorrow at best. We take it for granted now that we can be anywhere in Europe in two hours, and anywhere in the world within the day (more or less). Everyone travelled like this until a couple of generations ago. It used to take a couple of months, I think, to get to Australia.

Another quiet afternoon. Ship porpoising gently. Cruising at around 6 knots. A cruise ship going north is about the only thing I see for an hour. Not even any gulls here. The mate has resorted to cleaning the ship. Must be bored.

And then it starts drizzling.

Slight change of course to break the monotony. Re-trim. Swing on the grinder. Make a mess of coiling the sheet again. How hard can it be for fuck’s sake?

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Monday, 3rd September

The 1-6 watch is hard. Just as you start to get properly to sleep, some bastard wakes you up and makes you crawl from your bunk and put waterproofs on.

We are in Dutch waters now, I think. Tracking 190 degrees. Cruising at 7 knots. Busy waters here. Tankers all along the horizon.

A quiet watch. Some trimming of sails, nothing too exciting. Music and tomfoolery on the quarter deck.

Dutch coast in sight at 10 30. Sun out too. The last watch has pulled the sails down. Just motoring all the way now: into Ijmuiden, through the locks and down the canal to Amsterdam. Due in early afternoon

Sunbathing on the half deck until my watch starts; sunbathing a while longer as well. Nothing much to do.

On the outskirts of Amsterdam we monkey out on the nets round the bowsprit and pack the sail. Six of us wrestle with the bloody thing to wrap it into a sausage, get it onto the bowsprit and tie a daisy chain round it. People on the bank whip out phones to photograph us and that feels good.

We arrive around 3pm, throw fenders over the side and moor up. Climb the rigging – like something out of a movie – to lower and tie up the topsails.

 Grab my bag, say goodbyes and wander towards Dam Square.

© Richard Senior 2016

Cycling the Shimanami Kaidō

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I set off too late from Hiroshima, then got the wrong train, and it was going on for lunchtime when I reached Onomichi. But I decided to skip lunch because I wanted to cycle at least some of the Shimanami Kaidō between the eight islands, from Honshu to Shikoku, across the suspension bridges over the Inland Sea.

I have since read about travellers planning and training for the ride for weeks and basing their trips to Japan around it, but I am too spontaneous, too chaotic for anything like that. I had found out about the Shimanami Kaidō by chance a day or two before when looking for something else in the guidebook.

It is a 70km (43 mile) route, end to end, and my guidebook reckoned it would take somewhere around eight hours to ride, which to me seemed too pessimistic. I reckoned four or five.

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The rent-a-bike point was hidden in a car park but I found it eventually and chose a cheap ‘mountain bike’ over a selection of old ladies’ shopping bikes. I revised my estimate to five or six hours when I saw it, dropped my daybag into the basket and rattled along the waterfront to the ferry across the Onomichi-suido Channel. I had picked up a map of the route but it was, in any case, marked with blue and white lines on the road. It would be hard to get lost.

If I wanted my deposit back, I would have to return the bike to Onomichi before 6pm, but the deposit was only ¥1000, or £5.89. (The hire cost was half that, which made it a cheap afternoon’s entertainment.) I saw when I skim-read the back of the map that I could drop off the bike at the end, or at points along the way, and take a bus back; and that was all I needed to know, for the moment.

The bike was too low-geared to go anywhere fast, but the route was flat – or at least so it seemed after the merciless hills of northern England – and the sun was hot and it was a perfect day for cycling. The route took me through a slice of Japan which you rarely see as a tourist, neither the sleepy towns of old wooden houses, nor the bustling cities of neon-lit skyscrapers, just workaday hamlets with a few houses and shops, a filling station, then nothing until a big-hammer factory, and nothing again for the next ten minutes.

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I tracked diagonally across Mukaishima Island and came out at the waterfront and followed its contours round towards the Innoshima suspension bridge. The blue and white lines led under the bridge and round a corner and then twisted back on themselves up a steep hill which spiralled to the cycle lane of the bridge suspended beneath the roadway.

Two hours in, I had worked across Innoshima Island and traversed the Ikushi Bridge, with orchids lining the approach road and big barges trundling underneath and the sun glinting off the water. I was on the fourth island of eight and seemed to be making good time.

There is apparently a temple worth seeing on Ikuchijima Island but I was too focussed to detour to it, and in any case I had been to Nikkō, Nara and Kyoto already on that trip and would not feel cheated if I never saw another temple. There were, as well, a few curiosities at the side of the road: an old bus in faded psychedelic paint in the style of Ken Kesey’s Furthur and a group of life-size dummies seated in a row as if they were waiting for a bus.

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It took me somewhere around an hour to get to the next bridge, 36 kilometres from Onomichi, a little over half way to Imabari. I had, it seemed, been wildly optimistic to think that I could finish the route in four hours but about right with the more conservative six. I was not sure why the guidebook thought you needed eight, but then the map said eight to ten and I have since read that some travellers spread the ride over a couple of days.

I could still, just about, have turned the bike round and headed back to Honshu before the rent-a-bike terminal closed, but I was enjoying myself too much for that. The other terminals, I saw when I read the back of the map properly, closed at 5pm. There was an outside chance that I could get all the way to Imabari on the edge of Shikoku and find the terminal in time, but it was no more than an outside chance.

There were three other terminals along the way, so there was no need to give up just yet. It was a lovely ride along the waterfront on Omishima Island and across the arched bridge to Hakatajima, where I caught up with a group of serious cyclists with sprayed-on lycra and bikes made from carbon fibre and fresh air and passed a couple of them; but there was too much face to be lost in being overtaken by a tourist in street clothes on a pig-iron mountain bike, so they clunked down a gear and streaked past me.

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I decided as I snaked through the national park to the west of Hakatajima Island to drop off the bike at the next terminal, just before the Hakata-Oshima suspension bridge, the last but one before Imabari. I only had 20km left to ride to the end of the route, and plenty of energy, but by then it was clearly too late to get there before 5pm.

I imagined the bus interchange to be a big building with helpful things like timetables and an information desk, but it was actually just a turning circle with a few wooden shelters. There was no one else around. In a few of the shelters, there were photocopied sheets with bus times on them but the destinations – naturally – were only in Japanese. The last bus going anywhere seemed to be at half-past five.

At somewhere around twenty-past, a bus pulled in but the driver denied that he was going to Onomichi.

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Of course I had no contingency plan and I thought I would be lucky even to find an English-speaker within reasonable walking distance, let alone a hotel or a taxi firm. If it came to it, I supposed I would just have to walk back to Honshu.

But then, at something to six, the bus turned up.

© Richard Senior 2016

65km/h on a Sandboard

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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

Rapids Response

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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

 

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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: Shutterstock