A Spin and a Soaking in Sydney Harbour

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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)

Vang Vieng: The Town Travellers Conquered

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I got the last seat in the minibus going to Vang Vieng. A bossy woman of somewhere around sixty sat in the front with the driver. She scolded him for using his phone at the wheel and told him to put it away, which he did, but drove the rest of the way with his foot to the floor in revenge. We barrelled through villages at motorway speeds, leaped bumps in the road and felt the g-force on the corners as the tyres screamed in panic.

When we stopped for a welcome toilet break, a young backpacker told the woman she should have kept quiet, but she said that it was the height of arrogance to tell people how to behave. Hang on a minute…everyone else thought, but kept quiet.

Sixty years after France lost its Indochinese empire, forty years after the US pulled out of Southeast Asia, travellers have recolonised this sleepy town armed with nothing more warlike than elephant print trousers and back-to-front baseball caps. They have turned it into an adventure playground.

There are karsts to climb, and cave systems to explore, and the rapidly flowing Nam Song River to float along on an inner tube with a Beerlao in one hand and a joint in the other, as if relaxing on a beanbag at home. There are ‘happy shakes’ and ‘happy pizzas,’ garnished with ganja, ya ba or magic mushrooms, and bars where eating is cheating and water is for washing in and drinks are to be downed in one. And this in a nation so conservative that pop music and jeans were once illegal and sex outside marriage still is.

Every fourth building downtown is a guest house; every tenth is an internet café. The stores in between are bureaux de change, souvenir shops and places to make an “over seacall” or buy a “busticker” to the next destination. The locals shop at stores in villages way out of town or at stalls set up on the old Air America runway, unused by planes since the covert war was abandoned in the middle seventies.

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There is an Australian steakhouse, a French bistro, a kosher restaurant and an Irish pub, which does stews and roasts in the tropical heat, and there are dozens of places to go for a burger, or an English breakfast, and to watch an episode of Friends as you eat.

Wherever you go, there is a hubbub of British, American and Australian English, and English spoken with the accents of other rich countries. Sometimes you hear Spanish, sometimes Russian, sometimes Korean, but rarely Lao.

I am no better than the other travellers: I climbed rock faces, crawled through caves and got hammered; I would have gone tubing, as well, if I were more of a swimmer and less of a coward. But it was hard not to feel ashamed to be part of it all.

Yet, if not tourism, what? A third of Laos’ population lives on less than a dollar a day. Just the other side of the river, across the bridges of bamboo and twine which creak and wobble as you walk on them but which, nonetheless, you share with scooters and cars, it is a world away from the imported culture of Europe and North America which dominates downtown: a world of subsistence farming, of thatched huts, children running naked, women kneeling at the river beating clothes on the rocks, and bent old men pushing older carts, which past generations pushed before them.

It is a scene unchanged since long before Vang Vieng was somewhere you Must Go Before You Die, before it appeared in a profusion of odd-numbered lists, before the first travellers discovered it; before the Pathet Lao came to power, before the CIA sought to influence local wars; before the French folded Laos into their Indochinese empire; before the Burmese and Siamese invaded.

This is the real Laos. Travellers see it briefly from their rented scooters as they hurtle out to the further-flung caves.

© Richard Senior 2015

Thank You for Flying with the Bangkok Helicopter

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It was evening rush hour in Bangkok. The offices emptied of workers and they swarmed on the transport hubs. Motorcycle taxi drivers sat in a line on their bikes at the ends of the sois. Meter cabs worked the main streets. The queues for the buses at the Victory Monument were as long and unruly as they are in London when the Tube drivers strike and there are dozens of applicants for every place on each bus.

I didn’t know which bus to catch to get back to Banglamphu, so I shuttled between stops, and forced my way to the front of each queue in the hope of finding a route map or someone who could tell me where to go; but there was never a route map and no one told me where to go, or at least not in a good way.

I waited to see if the crowds would thin out, but they swelled instead and I gave up on the idea of catching a bus and walked to the main road and flagged down a taxi. “Khao San Road?” I said, and he abruptly drove off by way of reply. The next two ignored me and drove past, and several after that already had fares, so I gave up on the idea of taking a taxi, as well.

That left what is known locally as the Bangkok helicopter: the fastest, most dangerous way to get across town. I approached a knot of drivers and interrupted their sniggering conversation and asked the one who had a spare helmet clipped to his bike if he could take me to Khao San Road. He quoted an inflated price and I tried to haggle but it was a waste of time so I agreed and got on the bike.

I asked for the helmet but he waved a dismissive arm and roared off while I tried to insist. It is illegal in Bangkok to ride without a helmet and I would have been the one to be fined if we were stopped; farangs are easy targets and assumed to be good for the money. I had more immediate anxieties, though, than the risk of being handed a fixed penalty.

I held onto my hat and bag with one hand and gripped the handle with the other. I have no idea what speed we were doing on the expressway, and nor had the driver because the speedo was broken; but it was comfortably above the speed limit. Everyone busts the speed limit in Bangkok if their cars or bikes or trucks will go fast enough. It is so widely ignored the police barely try to enforce it.

The driver kept up the speed as the streets became narrower and busier, ducking through traffic, overtaking a bus, undertaking a truck, carving up a taxi, mounting pavements, weaving to the front of queues at the lights and setting off shortly before they changed, ignoring the horn concerto which the other drivers performed. It seemed to me to be more of an adrenalin sport than a mode of transport. All it would take is a car to swap lanes without warning, a passenger to fling open a door at the lights, a pedestrian to step out between buses.

But locals, as ever, seem relaxed. It is, for them, just a convenient way to get to the office, or school. You see kids of ten or eleven on the back of motorbike taxis, and office girls side-saddle, using the time to finish their make-up. Only the cost would deter them from using the Bangkok helicopter: not the danger.

© Richard Senior 2015

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.

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.

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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.

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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

Going for a Spin in Rotorua

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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

Jetting Off

It is a postcard day in the Whitsundays with a flawless blue sky and turquoise ocean and little wind to speak of.

You flick the starter and open the throttle and ease the jetski out of the marina, keeping it under the speed limit. Then you are out in the water and gun it towards a cruise ship moored in the bay, circle that, then a half-sunken yacht, then tear off again – faster this time – turning, turning, turning, much faster than seems at all safe when you have never done this before; but you are following a guy who knows what he is doing and stick with it.

You hit a wave at an angle and take off, scare yourself and let go the throttle; but you are not supposed to do that and get warned not to do it again. Your job is to keep the throttle open, hang on and trust in the machine, much as you do on a motocross bike.

You are going faster now, gaining confidence. But then the guy you are following pulls a sharp turn and you wind off the throttle, and he is at the other side of the bay. You open it right up to catch him, too focussed to look down at the speedo; but you know – because they said – that you have 130 brake horse power, roughly the same as a 1.9 Audi A4 in a craft which is smaller than a rowing boat. It does 90 knots flat out; or 104 mph, 167 kph.

You slow and stop and edge into a cove at idle speed. The sun-dappled water is perfectly clear and green sea turtles the size of coffee tables swim past so close you could reach down and touch one.

You give the turtles time to get clear, then you turn and you open the throttle again; and you are confident, then, to keep the power on in the turns and leap the waves and trust the jetski to stay afloat; and you want to stay out on the water all afternoon but have only booked for the morning and reluctantly head back to the marina.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

Going Solo

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Fancy going up on your own?”

“Oh. Err. Yeah. I guess…”

Right,” said my instructor, “well I’ll go and get a coffee and I’ll see you when you get back”.

This is a change of detail,” he told the tower over the radio. “Captain’s name is Senior. First solo”. He threw off his headset, shut the door behind him and waved, as if I had driven him down to the station.

Oh shit.

Though I had been flying okay for the past few lessons, I still made mistakes and some of them seemed pretty serious to me. I wasn’t sure I would ever be fit to take charge of an aeroplane. But I was sure I wasn’t yet. The spring sunshine started to feel hot in the cockpit and each exhalation growled into the microphone.

GolfEchoZulureadyfordeparture,” I gabbled.

Golf Echo Zulu. Take off at your discretion.”

First stage of flaps. Yank the lever between the seats until it clicks once. Squeeze and drop the brake.

TakingoffnowGolfEchoZulu.”

I roll forward onto the runway, expecting all the time that someone will run out, shouting, angry.  “Oi, what the fuck do you think you’re doing!? Where’s your instructor?”

Boot the rudder pedal to bring the nose round to the centreline, straighten up and slam the throttle forward. The plane bumps along the runway, the engine roaring over the headphones. The torque wants to pull it off into the grass, but I fight against it with the rudder. It is lighter than normal with just me in the cockpit, and anxious to get in the air. Sixty knots, equivalent to motorway speed. Start easing the yoke back. The nosewheel lifts, the rear wheels follow. Lower the nose to climb at 80 knots.

The nerves have gone now. I have done this dozens of times with my instructor in the right-hand seat. I know what I am doing. Release the flaps. Wind the trimwheel a couple of turns to hold the airspeed. Then bank the wings to 30 degrees, turning south towards London.  Straighten up, still climbing. Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and Wembley Stadium shimmer in the haze. The needle is creeping to 1,000 ft now, circuit height. Lower the nose, trim for 100 knots, then bank to the right again and fly parallel to the runway.

Run through the checks, brakes, undercarriage, mixture, fuel, instruments, carb heat, harnesses, hatches. Call the tower:

“Golf Echo Zulu. Downwind.”

“Golf Echo Zulu. Report Finals.”

“Wilco.”

Something flashes past, low and fast. Shit, what was that? It was just a bird doing 100 knots, or rather me doing 100 knots away from it.

Level with the end of the runway now, looking over my shoulder as it slides under the wing then emerges again behind it. Quick look to the left for traffic, then bank to the right, heading north. Kill the throttle. Let the airspeed fall. Trim. Pull the flap lever up one click, then another. Raise the nose until the airspeed falls to 75 knots. Trim again

Bank to the right, bring the nose into line with the runway, then level the wings. Another click on the flap lever. Call the tower:

“Golf Echo Zulu. Finals.”

“Golf Echo Zulu. Land your discretion. Surface wind calm.”

“GolfEchoZulu.”

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Lower the nose! Add power!

The airspeed was hovering around the stalling point, the speed at which the wings stop working and the plane drops out of the sky. Stall at altitude and you can dive to pick the airspeed back up. Stall close to the ground and you crash and die and are on the front page of the local paper.

But it is okay again now and I am sinking right on to the number at the end of the runway. I shift my gaze to the other end and pull the yoke gently back. Floating, floating, floating. Yoke right back now, stopping it landing for as long as I can. Still floating.  Halfway down the runway the back wheels touch the tarmac with a slight squeak but no bump. The nosewheel follows and kisses the ground and I am hard on the brakes and calling for permission to taxi to park.

A good landing, they say, is one you walk away from, but this was one of my best.

(c) Richard Senior 2014