Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The worlds tallest commercial abseil: the 140 meter (460ft) Gordon Dam, Tasmania

7th April 2007:

Every once in a while I like to try something I haven't tried much or at all before. In Thailand it was Scuba Diving, Cairns it was Sky Diving and here in Tasmania it is Abseiling.

Abseiling, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, is where go stand at the edge of a high structure (usually a cliff), and lower yourself down to the ground via a rope. You are strapped into a waist harness and in addition to your rope there is also a safety rope as a backup.

Now, I did go abseiling once before. About 15 years ago as part of a school outdoor excursion trip I abseiled from a height of about 20 meters(about 60ft): it seemed high at the time.

In Tasmania, though, they claim to have the "World's highest commercial abseil" and while I was in the area I figured I might as well give it a go.

How high is the world's highest? It is 140 meters (460ft). Putting that in perspective, its taller than the Sydney Harbour Bridge and is roughly equivalent to a 38 story building. Gulp.

Joining me in this madness was an esteemed bunch. I met up with Drew who was a dental surgeon, and a husband and wife who were engineering lecturers in a university in Melbourne. All three originally hailed from India and having never met a native Indian it was a good opportunity to find out about Indian culture.

The tour operator for the day was Aardvark Adventures and our guide's name was Tom. Tom came across as a real outdoor adventure type: it seems he regularly goes on white water rafting expeditions which last over ten days. Based on his descriptions of the rafting, it might be something I could pencil in for the next time I'm in the area as it sounds like great fun.

The trip to the Dam took about 2 1/2 hours and we traveled in our Mercedes van through some pretty remote countryside. And boy was it pretty: there was no wind so all of the lakes were mirror-like, the countryside was lush green and mountains towered over the countryside below.

We were all in high spirits during the trip there although looking back I don't think we talked about the activity we were doing today at all: there may have been an unconscious decision not to even think about the ordeal ahead(!) But then we arrived at the Dam and avoidance was no longer an option...

We could not get over how big it was. The approach road for the dam comes in from above and we were all trying to peer down from the high vantage point to see the base of the dam but it was just too deep. It went on, and on and disappeared down into murky darkness.

Once the insurance waivers were signed, Tom brought out the gear and got us all strapped into the waist harnesses to which the ropes would be attached to the front. We then each grabbed a bag of equipment and labouring under the weight of the long ropes we made our way down onto the dam structure.

There are three possible abseil points on the dam: 30 meter, 50 meter and the full 140 meters. Tom explained that because we were all inexperienced, we would not start on the 140 meter height straight away: he wanted us to get some practice on the 50 meter height (about 13 floors in a building) first. That was fine by us because standing on the dam structure itself we did finally see the base 140 meters below: I wasn't nervous with the Scuba or Sky Diving, but standing on the pedestrian walkway on top of the dam and looking all the way down to the bottom, I found my heart rate starting to quicken slightly(!)

Drew was first up. The second hardest bit of this abseiling business is climbing over that safety rail (while attached to the safety rope) and clinging on to the rail knowing that there is a bit drop below. Once Tom finished attached the guide rope (the main rope which is used to control your descent) to Drew it was time for the hardest bit: letting go of the rail and leaning backwards until you are horizontal with the ground below.

By now we had gathered a little crowd of onlookers and soon it was cheers all round as Drew let go of the rail and started to walk down backwards. It all went without a problem.

Then it was my turn. My usual tactic for these activities is to just not think and to get on with it. Despite clearing my head of all thoughts, climbing over the rail started the heart rate beating faster, clinging onto the rail on the other side with the big drop below waiting for the guide rope to be attached made it beat faster again and then it was time to let go of the rail...

As it turns out, abseiling it like riding a bike: my one encounter with it 15 years ago came in most useful and I was straight away bouncing out from the wall, letting the rope fly through my glove and letting the friction of the rope going through the waist harness slow down my descent and pull me back into the wall, where I bounced out again for the next near free fall.

All too soon I was at the bottom and after unclipping the ropes from the harness, I raced back up the stairs ready to go again.

After another normal abseil, we decided we'd try something a little different. I took off my harness and put it back on backwards so that the ropes were attached to my back (instead of my front). I climbed out over the rail again and instead of leaning backwards, I leant forwards and did a front abseil where you walk/run down the side of the dam face first(!)

We only got to do that once as it was time to go to the main event: the 140 meter abseil. Drew went first again and made it look very easy. He also looked microscopic once he arrived at the bottom. Calling down to him was also pointless, Tom explained, as he was just too far for somebody's voice to travel. I went next and again just stopped thinking and went with it. This particular abseil was different to the previous ones done that day. The dam has a concave curve at that point so as you descend the wall slopes away from you and you end up sitting in the air 38-floors above the ground. I hadn't noticed how comforting the wall had been in the previous abseils until I could no longer touch it. Also, not having a wall to stabalilse yourself with meant that I gently started twirling a little left, then right. The view down through the gorge behind the dam was great and all too soon I reached the bottom, feeling great having successfully done the world's highest (commercial) abseil.

All in all, it was well worth the effort. We did have a 2 1/2 hour drive back to Hobart which was a pain, but otherwise it was all good. Another box ticked on the list of activities!

Port Arthur Ghost Tour

One of the more popular activities around Hobart is to do a tour of the nearby penal settlement, Port Arthur.

The tour operator I went with for the trip was called "Port Arthur MEGA day tour", with the mega in capital letters making it sound suitably exciting. The hostel receptionist had said that most people who come to Hobart do things which aren't very active and sure enough this particular tour, most of which involved being chauffeured around, was full with people all of whom were about my age. Joining me in discovering some history about the area was a bloke from Staten Island, NY, two Taiwanese girls, two Malaysian girls and a French speaking couple from Montreal, Canada.

The first stop on the tour was a quick drive by the Hobart Zoo. Seeing as it closed down in the 1930s, there wasn't much to see except an open field. However, its claim to fame is that the last known Tasmanian Tiger died here and now that species is extinct. The pictures which the guide showed displayed a very unusual animal: picture a kangaroo with four legs and a dogs head. It was able to go back on its back legs like a Kangaroo and even had the same pouch for carrying its young, but its head looked like a dog: very odd.

Next up we drove through Richmond Village, which is famous for having the oldest of just about every type of building in Oz (e.g. the oldest Post Office, the oldest bridge, etc.) The bridge resembled a million other bridges I've seen around Ireland, except for one minor detail: when it was built in the 1850s, it wasn't trolls under the bridge that you had to worry about, just sharks! Changes to the harbour closer to the sea since it was built has prevented sharks from coming in and today the only creatures in the water are the ducks.

The route to Port Arthur took us next through "Dootown", where every house uses the word "Doo" eccentrically enough(!) Some were normal ("Little to Doo"), while for others you'd wonder how the home owner keeps a straight face whenever he is required to write down his address somewhere ("Doo Me"). The village was located in the exciting sounding area called "Pirates Bay" which makes those Doo addresses look even more unlikely ("I swear officer, I do live at Doo Me, Pirates Bay"!)

After Dootown we made our way into Port Arthur. The tour guide took the unusual step of warning us NOT to ask a particular question. It seems within the last ten years, a local kid lost the plot and ended up murdering 33 people in the space of a few hours. Many of the locals were there when it happened, so the guide told us not to say anything about it.

Port Arthur itself was a penal colony where the British sent the worst of the worst to live out their days doing hard labour. Today, many of the old buildings remain and our tour group was booked into doing a Ghost Tour of the ruins, late at night...

We arrived at dusk, so Roger (from NY) and I did a quick walk around the ruins taking pictures before it got too dark. About two hours later though, when it was pitch black and freezing cold, a group of about 20 set off on the candlelit tour. When the tour guide asked for volunteers to hold one of the three lanterns, I didn't hold back: the candle inside did a great job of keeping my hands warm.

As we went around from building to building, the ghost tour guide gave us lots of details on the ghoulish deaths which prisoners suffered during the (final) stay there. The tour operators wanted to "keep it real", so if you are after scary music, funny lights and people jumping out at you, you may want to try elsewhere.

At one point in the tour, one of the group became agitated because she saw something dark moving in the shadows outside. Sadly it was just another tour group, but everybody's laughter had a slightly nervous aspect to it. Otherwise, nothing else weird happened during the tour. However, when I was looking at my photos afterwards, I did spot some weird white spheres near peoples heads. I hadn’t seem them when taking the picture, but they did appear in the photograph. Make what you will of it in a particular photo in my photo gallery.

The ride back to Hobart along the dark roads proved to be just as unsettling however. Nighttime is when most of the wildlife in Oz becomes active and there was quite a bit of road kill on the side of the roads. It happens quite regularly that a kangaroo will start jumping across a road just as you come around a corner... despite it being late at night I had no trouble staying wide awake while keeping my eyes glued to the road.

Hiking up Mt. Wellington

6th April 2007:

Towering over the city of Hobart is the rather imposing Mt. Wellington. At a mere 1,270 meters in height, it is high enough to be regularly shrouded in clouds. It also acts as a giant sponge, soaking up most of the rain from those clouds and helping to make Hobart the driest of Australia's capital cities. Walking up it sounded like just the thing for clearing away the cobwebs from the last couple of months of work.

To go up the mountain, the cheapest option is to hop on a public bus to its base, and start walking. While nice 'n cheap, you would need to be well prepared: what if you were in the midst of the forest which blankets the lower parts of the mountain and the clouds suddenly descended making it hard to see...? navigating could prove tough... So, keeping that in mind, I booked myself on a day tour with an experienced local who acted as a guide, chef, comedian and chauffeur all rolled into one.

The tour started at 8AM. Hobart was deserted at this hour of the morning. All you could hear were the beep-beep-beep noises from the pedestrian crossings and I found myself looking out for tumbleweeds rolling down the streets: there was literally nobody about.

My fellow travel companions for the day were two Melbournians and once we met up with the tour guide and got out of the ghost town it wasn't long before we were all trudging up the steep slope. The others in the group were all experienced hikers so we kept up a good pace. There had been a serious fire in the 1960s which burnt out most of the forest along with 4,000+ nearby houses and 40 years later we hiked through the remains of the dead trees which still towered over the forest floor.

If you do take the walk up the mountain also, dress warmly. Once we got to the top it was chilly and our breaths were hanging in the air in white puffs. We just made it before the clouds started descending and the view over the valley below while it lasted was well worth the effort of the climb.

It did become a bit surreal when a stranger came up to me at the peak, noticed I had a Canon camera similar to hers and asked me to show her to to operate her camera. Soon, the word spread amongst the different groups of strangers up there that I had "Tech Skillz" and people kept coming up to me asking how to delete pics from their cameras, how to do panoramic photos, how to stop getting blurry photos and half a dozen other photography related questions. If my career of IT doesn't work out I might setup a stall at the top of that mountain and start a little advice-giving business :)

Thankfully we didn't have to walk back down the maintain as the ride down was provided as part of the tour. We got back into Hobart for about 6PM and it was then that my lack of planning for this trip showed through again: being Good Friday in the Easter weekend, all the shops were closed and I had done no shopping: oops! Fortunately, Kentucky's finest restaurant (KFC) was one of the few businesses open. However, due to the bars being closed, my plans for a social drink in a nearby bar were dashed :( As a fall back, I made do with discussing the merits of globalisation and the lack of multiculturalism in post-millennial TV show Neighbours with an English girl and a Spanish girl both of whose knowledge of the show somewhat outweighed mine (seeing as they both had actually watched the show before).


5th April 2007:

Having just left the sprawling Sydney airport, Hobart airport was "cosy" in comparison and if anything resembled a large room. So, conveniently, the baggage carousel was meters away from customs and the baggage carousel was next to the shuttle bus pickup area. The position of power for arrivals security was handled by a Beagle dog who sniffed the bag of each and every passenger as they passed for dangerous contraband items: I'll never look at oranges and bananas the same way again.

The shuttle bus cost about $12 and the ride into the city took about 20 minutes. I was sharing the bus with a seniors athletic team who mischievously tried to convince me that I had the wrong address for my hostel. They were messing with the wrong tourist though(!) and once I whipped out my GPS sat nav'd pocket pc showing the route we were taking with the exact distance in meters to my destination, they had to give up and concede defeat.

The sweet sense of victory was short lived though, as looking outside the window of the bus I noticed something unexpected. People were wearing coats & scarfs... My coat and scarf was 17,000 kilometers away (in Ireland) as based on my bible for all things Australian, the Home and Away TV show, there is never a need for anything warmer than a t-shirt in Oz. I had packed a Sydney jumper which was probably designed to keep you warm when its 20C and realising that the next stop south of Tasmania is Antarctica, I suddenly felt somewhat unprepared....

My preparation for finding accommodation, on the other hand, worked out rather well. I am staying at the Central City Backpackers hostel in a private room and as the name suggests it is smack bang in the center of Hobart. Hobart itself reminds me of Cork in Ireland: all low-rise buildings in the city center and you could walk from one end of the shopping district to the other within ten minutes. The city itself has a population of about 250,000 people and is based around the mouth of a large river.

The girl manning the hostel desk was very friendly, although in hindsight she may have been just bored as the hostel seemed quite quiet compared to others I have stayed in before. She did ask what I planned to do in Hobart and once I described my little list of activities she responded: "You plan to do WHAT?! We don't get many active people here...", which left me wondering just what, if any, people do come to Tasmania?

The rest of the day was spent wandering around the shopping area (I thought I did rather well, lasting 20 minutes before shopping-boredom set in) and then I popped down to the harbour area. The highlight here was a ship that was rather hard to miss: it was painted bright orange and was an Antarctic Ice Breaker: cool!

On the way to Tasmania

5th April 2007:

Its the Easter Weekend down under, as I'm sure it is all over the world(!), so its a handy time to take off on my next trip.

I had looked into going to a variety of locations for this weekend including the Whitsundays, Vanuatu, Fiji and Cairns but I'm slowly learning that the airline industry in Oz is not like Europe: you can't just book flights a couple of weeks in advance of leaving and hope to get a good deal. All flights were upto five or six times more expensive than normal with the only good deals being for the Pacific Island of Samoa which was cheap because of civil unrest/rioting and... Hobart, Tasmania. Hobart does not have the excuse of rioting so I'm not sure why it was comparatively cheap but regardless: Hobart it is!

I knew NOTHING about Tasmania before booking the flights. Its a big island south of Australia and I just presumed that it was its own country with its own government, similar to New Zealand. My geography, it turns out, sucks!

Tasmania is another part of Australia. Apparently it was the last stop for the original explorers (Amundsen and the rest of the team) who traveled to the South Pole and the main comments most of the locals have about it, after "why bother?!", was "nice scenery" followed swiftly by "dress warmly".

My main source of information was the official tourism website, DiscoverTasmania.com and there seems to be quite a few different activities to do: it comes across as being similar to New Zealand, but less developed.

The flight down from Sydney takes about an hour and a half and cost nearly $500 return (Ryanair: please come to Oz! I miss the 1 cent flights!). It was business as usual at the security center in the Airport as I was "randomly" selected for additional chemical/explosives testing. Ironically, the only flight in my world travels where I have not been selected for the explosives testing was in the Middle East in Bahrain airport where I stopped off on the way back from Europe over Christmas. Still, getting selected for the additional tests did give me a chance to get the security guard's opinion about Hobart, although his responses of "it never even occurred to me to travel down there" and "is there anything to do there at all?" sounded somewhat similar to the other opinions :)

I'll only be in Tasmania for 4 nights so I'll try pack as many activities in a possible. Lets just hope the local's are mistaken and there are actually activities to do!