“Are you ready for the ride of your life!?”
“Yeah,” I sulked. “I s’pose so.”
Gareth grinned. “Then brace yourself, lassie!”
We were briefly in Sydney last year to visit my little brother and sister. Our schedule was crazy, but we squeezed in a detour to the Blue Mountains. After all, no introductory trip to Oz would be complete without a peep at the Three Sisters through the famous eucalyptus haze.
We were sitting in a carriage on the Scenic Railway, beneath the gum trees and cockatoos, about to take a terrifying plunge into the valley below. Or so I had mistakenly believed, for approximately twenty years prior to that day.
According to the Guinness Book, the Scenic Railway is the steepest railway in the world. It was originally part of the Katoomba mining tramways constructed in the 1800s. The funicular line descends through sandstone cliffs, ferrying tourists past spectacular views and lush rainforest. All this happens at a gentle 4 metres per second.
But somehow, for the past two decades I had got it into my head that the Scenic Railway was not a harmless trundle suitable for the most feeble-hearted pensioner, but in fact a hair-raising hell ride.
My first visit to the Scenic Railway was when I was about ten years old. We’d been learning about the famous explorers in Social Studies class, and how we owed our cosy rural central-west New South Welshman lives to the poor convicts who’d slashed the perilous path across the Blue Mountains from Sydney. But I had my own perilous path to worry about. Our teacher had bought tickets for the Scenic Railway. He explained about the rainforest and the miners, but all I heard was “415 metres” and “descent”.
My stomach churned with panic as we queued up. I pictured the flesh of my face being flung backward by the G-forces as the carriage plunged down. My internal organs would combust. My eyeballs would pop out and ping onto the rainforest floor, where they would be devoured by carnivorous possums. I wanted to cry.
Oh yes, I was a big baby. But The Mothership happened to teach at my school back then, so there was no way I could let anyone see me being a big baby. I had no credibility as it was! But it was The Mothership who saved my bacon in the end. She was taking a bunch of students on the Scenic Skyway, so I just scooted over to her queue. Instead of going south, this ride was a cable car suspended 270 metres above ravines and waterfalls. Strangely, I had no problem with horizontal heights.
About six years later I returned to the Mountains on a high school excursion. Time had not diminished my fears. But I managed to worm out of it again. When my friends lined up for the ride, I elected to stay in the souvenir shop. “You guys go ahead,” I said breezily. “I’ll just stay here. Oh look, kangaroo teaspoons! And five dollars for a dozen clip-on koalas in a tube, what a bargain!”
Fast forward to last October. We were back in Australia and having morning tea at Chez Grandmothership. She was endearing herself to her new grandson-in-law by plying him with Tim Tams and lamingtons and generally being very charming.
“So what’s next on the newlyweds itinerary?” she asked.
Gareth looked confused, as he’d done for much of the trip. “Ummm…”
“Sydney next,” I piped up, in my capacity as Tour Manager. “With a brief stop in the Blue Mountains.”
“Oh, so will you be going on the Scenic Railway?”
“I think so,” said Gareth.
“I’m not going on that thing,” I snapped. “No way in hell.”
“Because it’s a rickety old death trap, that’s why!”
There was a long, baffled pause. Then the Mothership started to laugh. Then the Grandmothership joined in. And she laughed quite bloody heartily too.
I was miffed. Grandmothers are not supposed to laugh at their grandchildren! Their role is to smother you with kindness and cake, and then produce a large Nescafe tin full of spare change that they’ve been saving up for years and insist that you have it.
“What’s so funny?” I demanded.
“You’re not afraid of the Scenic Railway are you?”
“You are! Why!?”
“Because! I don’t fancy a high-speed ninety-degree dive on some rusty old cart, that’s why!”
“What are you talking about? It’s not scary! It’s just a little choo-choo train ride down a hill!”
“What? It’s the Steepest Incline Railway In The World!”
“Well it is quite steep, but it’s a very gentle pace,” said the Mothership.
“It’s not fast?”
“No!” my grandmother chortled, “It’s scenic!”
“And it doesn’t just go straight down?”
“No! What kind of a railway goes down at ninety degrees?”
“I don’t know!” I huffed, “But I was positive that’s what it did!”
The laughs changed into all-out guffaws. My grandmother dabbed at tears with a tissue. Gareth almost choked on his lamington. Bastards.
I only recently figured out the reason for this ridiculous fear. The confusion arose from a trip to SeaWorld on Australia’s Gold Coast in 1986. I’m not sure if The Mothership will verify this version of events, but my evil parents forced me go on a ride called The Viking’s Revenge. The SeaWorld website describes it as, “a favourite for all ages… a 460-metre floating ride before a conveyor takes the Viking’s boats to the battlements of the Castle for a fun-filled splash down.”
To the wee wimpy Shauna standing there in the queue for an hour, the “fun-filled splash down” looked like an Extreme Suicide Plunge Into Darkest Hell. I knew nothing about geometry back then but it was a ninety-degree drop, I tell you.
I watched boat after boat of screaming patrons, convinced their glee was actually terror. I wasn’t a religious child, but I prayed for the ride to break down, or for the Queensland sun to overcome me with a fainting spell, or some projectile vomiting. Anything to get out of that ride. But no amount of whining convinced my parents to leave me behind. The Mothership probably told me it was character building.
I remember sitting in that stupid faux Viking boat, my heart thumping as it rattled past the stupid faux rainforest scenery. But most of all I remember that horrible pause right at the end, the mocking hiss of the artificial waterfalls; then my stomach flying into my throat as the boat plummeted down.
When I was in pre-school, sometimes my grandfather would drive by on his way into town. He’d stop if he saw me in the playground and come up to the fence to say hello. I’d peer up at him through the wire mesh, thinking that the barrier was as tall and impenetrable as the Berlin Wall. But when I saw the fence again decades later, I laughed at how low and tiny it really was. I’m sure I’d feel the same if I saw the Vikings Revenge today.
But your old childhood perceptions can linger if they’re never challenged. I’m convinced that the Viking Ride trauma got muddled in my head and transferred itself to that bloody Scenic Railway, the fear multiplying and mutating as the years went by. Either that, or I am simply chicken shit.
The only way to overcome old fears is to boldly confront them. So I got into that railway carriage, the cockatoos cackling above my head. As the descent began, Gareth valiantly threw his arm across my chest.
“Whoa! WHOA!” he cried as we inched past ferns and trees, “OH MY GOD! HOLD ON TIGHT BABY!”
Somehow I survived to tell you this tale, but Gareth is pretty lucky that he did!