The spikes are about a foot long and about as thick as my thumb. They’ve been driven more-or-less horizontally into the side of the tree. They spiral up into the canopy. And they’re a bloody long way apart. I’m 6 foot tall, it’s all in the arms and legs, and I’m having to stretch from each one to the next. I’m trying not to think too hard about what I’m doing. Because what I’m doing is climbing up a very tall, very thin tree. To see if I can.
This is my second attempt. I set out this morning, from Augusta to Pemberton, with one goal – to climb the Gloucester Tree. It’s an old fire lookout, now a tourist attraction in the karri forest. Jack Kerouac spent some time as a fire watcher, so tree-climbing has a fine literary pedigree. I also want to do it because I’m afraid of it. My sister-in-law’s first comment was “You won’t be able to do that.” She’d got five rungs up and come back down again. Would I do any better?
I took advice. “If other people can do it we can do it,” he said.
It rained on the way into Pemberton so I arrived very wet and rather low. I have come to Australia to be Bloody Hot and ride in sunshine, not be hammered in a downpour. That’s what happens at home. What doesn’t happen at home is the way the roads steam gently after the sun comes back out. The Gloucester Tree was well signposted and – after handing over my 5 dollars to ride in the National Park – I was soon at the bottom of it.
As was a very loud park ranger.
“There is no safety net’!
“You climb at your own risk!”
“There is no safety harness!”
“If you fall off you will be hurt.”
Cheers, love. I hadn’t thought of that.
Children pour up the tree like ants. If you are going up and someone wants to come down, you have to plaster yourself against the trunk while they teeter on the edge of the spikes. This does not look like fun.
I join the queue of Australian tourists and step up. First rung. Second rung. Third rung, and the voice in my head starts to tell me that I am insane. Fourth rung, and I don’t want to go any higher. Fifth rung, I give up and climb back down. No-one knows I’ve given up, because you’re encouraged to do those first few steps as a photo opportunity. Except no-one took my photo.
It starts to rain again so I stand in a hut and read about the first loggers who climbed these trees without spikes, just ingenuity and bravery. Some of the trees can be a thousand years old.
I have lost. My fearful nature has got the better of me. I go and eat potato wedges in the Millhouse Cafe, which is excellent. I smile in what I hope is a friendly way to a guy riding solo on a GS just like the one I’m not riding, but he goes and sits outside with his dinner. I ride on the Pemberton to Northcliffe tram, which doesn’t go all the way to Northclifffe. A bit like me and climbing trees.
And then I head home.
But as I headed north out of town, under the blue skies which have returned, I pass another climbing tree. The Diamond Tree is just sitting there, down a short length of unsealed road, minding its own business and waiting for me.
No-one is standing at the bottom enumerating the many ways in which tree climbing can be bad for you. In fact, no-one is here at all. I lock my gear in the top box and say hello to the tree. This time I have a plan. I will count. That’s all I will let my brain do. Ten rungs at a time – not too scary. There are no big dents in the forest floor so people be can’t falling off that often.
The first ten are the hardest. Maybe it’s a caveman thing – the reality of climbing is underlined by how clearly you see the ground that you are rising away from.
The second ten are easier.
The third ten sail by. I look down. It’s interesting and a little bit exciting. The tree sways gently with its friends. I keep going.
Halfway up there’s a rest platform with a railing. You can’t see it in the photo – it is a long way up. There’s a helpful sign there: “you’ve just finished the easy bit”
I decide that halfway up is enough of a win. It feels like an incredible privilege, to be up so high and to be here alone. The other tree was more of a party tree – families and shouting and lots of fun. Here I can be a bit reflective. I sat at the bottom of the Gloucester Tree for a while watching the people come down. A very round girl staggered away on legs so wobbly she looked like she’d been playing the old Girl Guide game which involves putting your forehead on a hockey stick, spinning round 5 times and trying to run. “I’m over my fear of heights! I’ve done it!” she kept saying, jubilant.
I don’t think I actually am afraid of heights. I like it up here. I like looking out at the other trees and seeing them from a new angle. It’s just that I’ve been afraid for so long that I got stuck there.
I’m not afraid but I am being careful – I’m standing away from the edge and with one hand on the tree. Because I don’t want to die. This may sound obvious to you but 12 months ago for me, the jury was out, sufficiently so that my GP sent me for psychiatric evaluation. I am not afraid, and I want to live. I feel it’s much better to learn this halfway up a tall tree than halfway down a tall building.