If there’s one thing that’s not helpful right now, it’s brain and body joining forces to turn my legs into quivering hunks of jelly. I’m only about a quarter of the way up, and it’s only going to get more frightening from here.
As tests of nerve go, the climbing trees around Pemberton in south-western Australia are distinctively callous. There are three of them – the Diamond Tree, Gloucester Tree and, tallest of them all, the 75m Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree. They hark back to an era when such trees were used as fire lookouts. A series of pegs were hammered into the sides in an ascending spiral, allowing people to get up to the top and look above the canopy for any fire threat on the horizon.
These days there are helicopters and satellites for that sort of thing, so the trees are now used to scare the wits out of people who think they’re being awfully brave and adventurous.
The terror comes from knowing it’s all down to you. There’s no harness, no expert strapped to you, no instruction, no safety ropes. It’s entirely about trusting yourself to be sure-footed.
The first platform is 25m up. By this stage, I’m feeling vertigo-woozy, my heart’s pounding and it looks an awfully long way down.
From here, it gets steeper, each step a tentative stretch of faith. All the things that could go wrong are disturbingly easy to envisage. A loss of balance, a fumbled footing or a slip on a wet peg could mean either serious hospitalisation or death. The challenge is to keep going, in spite of this.
Finally, at the top, there’s a bit more protection. It’s a multi-level, cabin-like treehouse, with proper wooden steps rather than possibly wobbly greasy pegs. And the views? Well, they’re quite marvellous. There’s something magical about being able to see above the forest, and watch birds fly underneath you. Wonder has temporarily driven out the fear.
Not for long, though. As it happens, by far the worst part of this whole experience is getting back down again. On the way up, I could get away with using my feet to feel for the next peg. I didn’t have to look down through the gap.
On the way down, this doesn’t work. Each step has to be tackled looking directly downwards at the doom between two pegs. And if this isn’t bad enough, there’s also the added ordeal of having to negotiate someone coming the other way. When turned sideways and breathing in, there’s just about enough space for two people to pass each other on a single peg. But you sure as hell don’t want to be the one standing on the outside.
Against all odds — and my thoroughly deserved reputation for clumsiness — I finally make it down to the bottom again. It’s a sign of how bad it’s been that the first feeling that pulses through is one of overwhelming relief rather than triumph. Next time, I’m taking the helicopter.