Why jump from a plane when you can get an adrenaline rush from hugging a tree?
'No, no, no,' I chant. 'I can't do this.' I gulp at the air and stare straight ahead. My breathing is similar to the Lamaze technique used by women during labour. But I'm not giving birth, I'm climbing a tree. Not just any tree, a 58-metre-high karri tree in the Gloucester National Park of Western Australia's South West.
This mammoth specimen is called the Gloucester Tree and is just one of several karris used as fire lookouts between 1937 and 1952. Legend has it that a brave bloke named Jack Watson took six hours to do the first climb using only a belt and spiked boots. Later, 153 pegs were added to act as a ladder up to a 53-metre-high platform. Now, this mighty karri, along with its nearby cousins, Diamond Tree, which closed in July 2019, and Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree, is one of the main tourist attractions in Pemberton, a small town 323 kilometres south of Perth that’s surrounded by billowing green paddocks and flanked by the forests of the Gloucester and Warren National Parks.
My panic begins within minutes of starting my ascent. My inner monkey is well and truly dead as I carefully place one foot on a peg and then the other. Right hand up, right foot up, left hand up, left foot up. My 13-year-old son is ahead of me, on his second scaling, and my husband is behind. Both are avid and experienced climbers, neither are afraid of heights.
There's a warning sign at the bottom that discourages anyone with a fear of heights from climbing, but I never think of myself as that person. At least, not until I'm 10 metres off the ground. As my heart pounds and my body moves like a sloth, I continue up the giant tree, kicking and screaming (in my mind) and crying (for real).
Only days before, I was atop the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, which is perched on the most south-westerly tip of Australia, near the town of Augusta in the Margaret River region. When tour guide Sean said he once had a man faint at the top, I was shocked that fear could be so overpowering. And when he told us he'd had guests who'd crawled on their hands and knees around the outside balcony of the 39-metre-high lighthouse, the tallest on mainland Australia, I laughed.
Climbing the lighthouse’s 176-step spiral staircase was easy for me, and walking the outer balcony to see the meeting of the Southern and Indian Oceans, incredible. But as I descended, my head began to spin, my legs wobbled, and I felt like one wrong footing could see me slip through the metal steps.
“Put one hand on the wall, one hand on the railing and look at my right shoulder,” said Sean. This method worked a treat; I was even able to stop for a photo. Back on terra firma, I felt chuffed, a little smug and less judgmental of others' fears.
The same day, I traded epic seascapes for deep exploration of the region's underworld when I visited Jewel Cave, 17 kilometres from the lighthouse.
Seventeen of us followed our tour guide Rachel into WA’s largest cave accessible to tourists. As we
entered the massive cavern, my eyes darted around to take in the dark, dank environment. We followed Rachel to the first platform where she gave us a history lesson and then told us we'd delve 40 metres below the surface, down 250 stairs and across narrow passageways and under low ceilings. “If anyone is reconsidering, speak now because once we're down the next set of steps, there's no going back,” she warned.
I considered it. I'm not claustrophobic, but caves freak me out. An elderly lady with a walking stick decided to go back, but I continued. We wandered through drippings of stalactites hanging from the ceiling, formed over thousands of years by acidic water droplets. We passed 'the rasher', a tannin-stained crystal that looks surprisingly like a piece of streaky bacon. There was also the frozen waterfall, the camel, the fairy and the glass slipper, crystal formations aptly named to match their naturally-formed shapes.
When Rachel turned the lights out, we were plunged into complete darkness and for a few seconds, utter silence too. “I bet you can't see your hand in front of your face,” she said. When she turned the lights back on a second later, many of us were still staring at our fingers.
Lighthouses, caves, and mega trees are all part of the South West's appeal. These things took me out of my comfort zone, and for that, I'm thankful. As I hoist myself up onto the final peg to reach the top tier of the Gloucester Tree lookout, I feel relieved and happy with myself for pushing through the fear. Turns out, I can do this.
All photographs are ©Jennifer Morton and may not be used without permission.