Monday, December 11

New Zealand's Scariest Activity?

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Amongst my friends, I’m known for being the eccentric one – the go getter who will have a go at any crazy sport once. This is the tale of how I nearly met my Waterloo; my bridge too far; I found my Kryptonite. I had no idea how I managed to get through it, but somehow I lived to tell the tale and how I managed to walk the hard way around the outside of the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest building – round the outside 192m above the ground.

In February this year, I ventured once more to the other side of the world, all set for adventures and crazy sports. One such activity featured a little guided stroll at a gentle pace around an iconic tower in Auckland in which I got excellent views of the sights of the city. “Huh, what’s so extreme about that? I wander around buildings all day and I don’t write reviews about it!”, I hear people say. Ah well, this little stroll came with a bit of a difference. Not for nothing is it dubbed “Skywalk”, for reasons that will soon be apparent!

Me dangling above the ground

Where in the world is this Skywalk?
Skywalk is a walk around Skytower, a 328m tall tower in Auckland, New Zealand. Skytower is the tallest freestanding building in the Southern Hemisphere. Though really it cheats a bit – much of that height is a mast on the top. The interesting observation deck parts that visitors go to is only about a “mere” 200m up. That’s about 650ft in “old money”.

Huh? What’s extreme about walking around a building?
Ah, I see your confusion. A nice little guided stroll at a gentle pace, taking in the sights and sounds of Auckland. Sounds great? Sounds relaxing? Well, when I say that the walk is around Skytower, I mean literally: the walk is around the outside of the building on a tiny 1.2m-wide ledge 192m up. With no handrails!

Good grief! Are you mad? Was it scary?
Well really it’s a lot safer than driving, and I do that without paralysing fear. So, I figured what’s the problem? And yes, it is a little bit scary. Well, when I say a little bit, I mean it was so scary I told all my friends NEVER to let me do that again and I got several nightmares about it.

And yes, I now want to go do it again. Will I never learn?

So, how much does it cost?
The basic price to do Skywalk is NZD$135 (about £60 or US$100), but there is a 20 dollar discount for students and children can take part for $100 (about £45/US$75). This also gets you a ticket to visit the main part of Skytower, which would usually set you back $28 (about £13/US$20) If you decide to splash out and also do Skyjump (more on this later, but for now I’ll just say that it is exactly what it sounds like), they have a Look ‘n’ Leap combo for $260 (about £120/US$200).

Allow another $50-100 for photos and videos and the like which the guide takes as you are going around. Yes, like many sports, they take videos of you up there so that you can put them on youtube and show all your friends how brave you are and make them really envious. Or in my case, I can show them how brave I’m not and make them all cry with laughter at the sight of my anxious little face instead (I’m AdventuresInNZ over there in case anyone fancies a laugh at my expense. I have no shame.).

You may also want to consider budgeting several hundred pounds for counselling for PTSD afterwards.

What’s the availability like?
Tours around the building happen the whole year apart from Christmas and Boxing days and run from 10-4.30 every 20 minutes. The tour lasts about 75 minutes total, much of which is outside. You’ll be in a group of up to six people. In peak season, book well in advance. I managed to go with just a couple of hours notice.

Who can take part?
Physically, it’s a really easy walk, so most people can manage it. If you can’t walk at all, though, they have a hang gliding harness rig that you can sit in and be winched around the building instead. Children 10 years and older can do it (with permission), but if the winds are high, there is a lower weight limit of 45kg (about 7 stone/100lbs). The maximum weight that you can be to take part is 130kg (290lbs). If you have some kind of heart condition or similar and need to avoid stress, you’ll need to discuss carefully with them whether you can do it or not. Unlike in the UK, they let you do a large number of adrenaline activities in NZ with quite a lot of medical conditions.

I’m scared of heights, can I do it?
Well, if you had no fear at all, would it really be any fun? Have a word with the guide before you start. Some people do freak out and they can just winch you back to safety if you need it. But I managed it even though I lose my balance and feel dizzy when confronted with heights (or, more precisely, big drops).

Right, that’s enough questions. Now tell me about your experience!
The day before I was due to leave New Zealand, I realised I had a spare afternoon. So I dug out my city guide and called Skywalk up on the off-chance that they had a slot available – advanced booking is definitely needed. They had a couple of spaces, so I booked one for 2 hours later and got some friends to drive me there.

I checked in at the desk in the basement of Skytower some 15 minutes before my slot and filled in the standard array of forms that signed my life away saying I won’t blame them if anything went disastrously wrong. My friends went off to find a nearby roof ready to take some pictures of me on their fabulous new camera. I knew that the camera had 20 times zoom and was fabulous but I figured (incorrectly) it couldn’t possibly manage to get anything too incriminating. This, it turned out, was wrong: my friends got to laugh themselves silly at my expense as they snapped some of the most terrified expressions I’ve ever seen.

Once everyone in our group of six (the maximum number) had arrived, we were taken for preparation by our guide, Leigh, a Kiwi who had that slightly scary perma-grin you learn to associate with most adrenaline sports guides. Firstly, he established who actually had a fear of heights – which some of us had actually put on our forms Just In Case; I said that yes I did a bit and I’d like to apologise in advance for any swear words that I might end up using later. They’re used to that sort of thing and generally find it immensely amusing. Then, we had to divest ourselves of everything loose that could fall down and kill someone standing below. Keys, phone, watch, necklaces, earrings and everything else had to go in a security locker. Even tissues were forbidden.

Then we put on overalls over our existing clothes for “safety reasons”. These overalls are a lurid orange colour, which led to a lot of Guantanamo Bay jokes. Fetching and flattering these are most definitely not, particularly when you sit in your harness – it gives a pot belly look to even the slimmest person. Our shoes were tug-checked for secureness, and several of the group were issued with sturdy plimsolls as their flip flops were most definitely not secure. Then we were breathalised – doing this activity after a bit of Dutch courage might seem like a good idea, but it’s not allowed. Finally, we were strapped up in our harnesses and ready to go up.

The lift (elevator) that takes you up has a glass floor and a glass wall and moves dizzyingly fast. This can cause some people to get vertigo (spinning dizziness that makes you feel like you are falling) and led to groans from several people and one or two had eyes shut tight.

Once at the observation deck level, we were led out onto the outside of the building. This involved walking on a wire mesh floor with holes that went straight down all 192m to the ground. Walking on floor like that nonchalantly is quite an art – quite often people tread gingerly and exaggeratedly start trying to balance even though they wouldn’t do that on a floor you couldn’t see through! Whilst we were there, a couple of people were waiting to jump off the building in the sport known as Skyjump, so we got to observe that up close and personal – they get attached to a wire and just jump off. That made me feel queasy just looking!

Once they were out of the way, we were rigged to our safety lines. A short static line is connected to the harness at your chest and a longer line is clipped to your back. This second line has more leeway, a bit like a car seat belt – if you move slowly, it has give, but if you fall suddenly, it locks tight. Both of these lines will hold your weight, so if one snaps, you’ll be OK.

These two lines were attached to a wire that ran a few metres above our heads all the way around the building. In theory, you could swing around on these to your heart’s content, but the guides won’t let you do that! They, on the other hand, swing wildly and lean out every which way well over the edge in order to get the best (read: most incriminating) shots of you. A camera attached to their head means that you are constantly being recorded and any shameful behaviour will be recorded for posterity.

The path that you follow is a narrow horizontal ledge that winds all the way around the outside of the Skytower. Fortunately, this path is very sturdy – although there is the same mesh flooring, it is on a base a foot or so thick, so you don’t see through the floor below your feet. The ledge is about 20 feet or so from the main tower, so you really have a sense that you are on a tiny ledge above a gaping chasm. Although there is no handrail, you can still get some sense of security by clutching onto the front rope with both hands like a safely blanket. In foolish moments of bravado, I did occasionally try walking around without holding on, but all that happened was the front rope hit me in the nose! So, if you want to look cool, just loosely hold the front rope away from you a bit as you walk around. Or, just don’t do Skywalk in the first place if you care overly much about looking silly.

Once we were all rigged up, the torture began. Torture in this case was being put into a situation that you really really want to be over and dragging it out – in this case, via a guided tour pointing out all the sights and history and smalltalk; all the time I was thinking “Please get going, please get going, I just want this to be over!”. By this point, I was regretting the two cakes I’d eaten just beforehand – a sugar high and adrenaline don’t mix very well!

After being rigged up, we had a little sit down into our harnesses so we could get used to the feel of them and become a bit more confident. Then we set out on our walk. If we had been walking at our normal pace, we’d have been around in about a minute. But, no, that would be too easy. This walk was slow and lasted the better part of an hour and for every single second of that hour I wanted to feel the real solid ground beneath my feet again.

For the first few tens of metres, we just walked around getting used to it. After a while, we picked up the wind and boy does that feel strong up there! It really makes you lose your balance. But don’t worry, even if you fall, you won’t fall off. We also got to have a go without using our hands to hold on – arms out sideways, look vertically up, walking forwards and backwards. Result: dizzy people looking like penguins who fall over lots and get their nose bashed by the ropes. A nice bit of ritual humiliation for the video!

But then there’s the hard part: the dangling stunts. They work you up to this in several stages. Stage one: we turned to the tower, and then one at a time, we had to walk up to the edge and lean over, let go with our hands and look down to the ground and up to the top.

I’m pretty used to adrenaline sports. I know how to fake it for the camera. But sometimes, the anxiety is so great that looking cool isn’t an option. So there’s a nice shot of me in the video reacting to this news with vigorous head shakes indicating clearly “No way! I’m not going to do that!”. Of course, I immediately relented when it was my turn to do it. All you have to do is stand at the edge. Sounds like it must be simple? So why do my feet not want to obey me? If you are short like I am, the line has to stretch a bit further, which means that if you get to the edge, it is tugging you quite hard backwards at this point, which makes it hard to balance and you can’t hang on with your hand on because you’d fall backwards. So you have to do a graceless little shuffle one foot at a time until both feet are over the edge.

Looking down, the people look like ants. For that matter, the cars look like ants too, they’re that small. 53 storeys up is a long way. But when you look up, you see that a huge portion of the tower is above you too and it presents a nice solid presence to help you feel reassured that you are attached to a nice sturdy building and you aren’t going to die.

That turned out to be the easy part. Next, we repeated the process, but on the far edge of the ledge, looking out away from the tower. From here, it feels like you are flying when you stand on the edge – the tower we are on is the highest point around, so everything else is well below you and you can see out over the vast harbour. Exhilerating, but terrifying at the same time.

Then finally the really hard test. I’ve mentioned before that the line to your back is longer than the one to your front. Astute people will realise that this means that if you lean out backwards, you get much further over the edge than if you lean out forwards. So, the final challenge is where they get you dangling backwards over the edge with the tips of your feet pushing you out from the walkway. To achieve this, you turn to the tower, sit in your harness, plant your feet on the ground and walk backwards over the edge. Once your feet are as far as you can go, you straighten your legs, let go with your hands and lean back as much as you can and you are suspended above the void with just two thin lines stopping you from plunging into oblivion! They make you do this three times during the trip – once in pairs just to get used to it, once for an individual shot in a carefully located position offering the most scenic shot and once with a group picture of all of you.

Then it’s some more history of the area as you wander around agonisingly slowly to the end. It was very hard to take any of it in, but I have vague recollections that they told me about the harbour bridge, One Tree Hill, Rangitoto Island and all the other volcanoes in the area and a few bits and pieces of history. Then, finally, we had circumnavigated the tower and we could get unhooked and go back down. I think I have never been so relieved to be out of a situation in my entire life. Once safely at the base of the tower, we could divest ourselves of our charming orange garb and then reclaim our valuables and buy the evidence that we’d taken part: a video from the guide’s head camera and some charming pictures.

And then we decided that we’d never ever ever leave the ground again. That lasted all of, oooh, a few hours. I’ve already made up my mind that I want another go. Will I never learn?

If it’s so scary, how do you calm yourself down when you do this sort of thing?
Keep telling yourself that you’ll be fine: these activities are perfectly safe. Get a nice little mantra going “It’s just walking. I can walk. It’s perfectly safe. I just need to do what they say and it will be fine. I won’t die. Try to look cool for the camera.”

How do I look cool for the camera?
Think about how you look when you are afraid or anxious. Hunched shoulders, tense attitude, wide eyes, frantic shaking of head, looking like a small child on their first day at school? Concentrate on not doing those; relax and smile a bit. Don’t grin and giggle too much if you don’t want to look hyperactive. Sometimes you won’t be able to manage, but if you can get enough footage of you looking cool, you can edit the uncool bits of the video out. Or leave them in for a laugh like I did. Perfect your adrenaline sports pose: big grin, two thumbs up. Practice a few choice phrases: Sweet as! Awesome! Fantastic!

Above all else, lie through your teeth and pretend to be fine. Never admit to fear. They know a lot of people will be afraid and they know how to coach people through it. One of the girls on the trip managed a nice girly scream and cries of “I’m going to die” when dangling backwards over the edge. If you want a comedy video where everyone in the world laughs at you, that’s the line to go for. If not, try to avoid phrases like “Argh” or “Let me off” or “I’m going to die”.

Several of my friends couldn’t even watch the video they found it that scary!

Would you recommend it?
Yes, absolutely!

So what’s this about jumping off?
Yes, you can jump off, there’s another sport there called Skyjump. That starts from the same place as Skywalk, but instead of going around the building, it goes straight down attached to a fan descender – a wire is attached to a fan that brakes your fall before you go splat.

So, Becky, what would induce you to do Skyjump?
Nothing in this world!

What, not even if someone held a gun to your head and threatened to kill small cuddly puppies until you did? And gave you a million pounds?!
That’s a bit contrived isn’t it? Well, maybe, OK, in those circumstances I might consider it.

Aha! I knew it! So really you’re just haggling over the price?
Er… I’m fairly sure I won’t ever be put in that situation, but OK, sure, any evil multimillionaires out there who want to see me make a fool of myself in exchange for dire threats and lots of money should feel free to contact me. I won’t hold my breath.

So, summarise quickly once again why I should do this?
See the sights of Auckland! Get dressed in Guantanamo bay chic! Amaze your friends and confound your enemies! Try to overcome that fear of heights in a safe environment. Go do the Skywalk. It’s completely crazy, massively expensive, but fun. Sort of. A little bit. Once you’ve overcome the anguish and are looking back at the pictures several weeks later anyway. 

If you have your own hair-raising terrifying tales to tell, why not join bukisa now and write about it?


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