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Climbing the Gloucester Tree

There is something very Enid Blyton about the Gloucester Tree in Australia’s deep south-west. Maybe that’s because it has pegs protruding from the trunk that form a spiralling ladder up it on which the public are encouraged to climb. Or perhaps it’s because we’ve seen eight people ascend this tree in the last twenty minutes but, as of yet, none of them descend. This prompts suggestion of a fantasy land in the clouds and possibly -as my imagination takes over- a man with a moon for a face prancing around at the top.

We, a mob of four backpackers, are sat amongst wild parrots and picnicking pensioners at the foot of the tall karri tree waiting our turn. Health and safety doesn’t seem too stringent around these parts, but we did at least take the time to read the sign advising climbers not to wear flip-flops and limiting numbers up the tree to six.

All of a sudden another group arrive and –without consulting either the sign or us- bound straight onto the series of inch thick prongs that corkscrew up the trunk to the lookout at the top. One member of the party is indeed wearing what Australian’s amusingly call thongs on her feet, but she refuses to let this hinder her progress. Another fellow isn’t nearly so sure-footed and five metres up -after much soul searching- retraces his steps back down. “Don’t like that much,” he says with an embarrassed smile as he walks away from the tree. The lookout is 61 metres up and a head for heights is prerequisite if you’re going to make it to the top. According to the local tourist board, only a fifth of all the site’s visitors do.

As we continue to look-on, the group that are climbing the tree meet with others finally coming down. The two foot long protrusions from the trunk are not really made for two-way traffic and the climbers are forced into an aerial game of Twister.

Eventually we give up waiting for the tree to clear totally and embark on the ascent ourselves. The first few steps are easy, but the higher you go, the more unstable the ladder feels. Within just a few steps, the ground seems miles below. Like a rookie rock climber should, I maintain three points of contact with the precarious contraption at all times. With no safety nets or harnesses, I try not to think about the consequences of slipping.

Approaching the security of the double-decker lookout platform at the top, the ladder steepens to negotiate its way through the tree’s limbs. In places the ascent is almost vertical. Once you’ve clambered into the lookout, however, you have such luxuries as a floor, protective fencing and a marvellous 360 degree panorama over the roof of the forest.

Initially the lookout was created to provide a watch for fire. The prim little logging town of Pemberton sits about a mile away and flames in the surrounding eucalyptus trees are a natural occurrence. The tree, like the national park in which it is located, takes its name from the Duke of Gloucester who was Governor General of Australia during the middle of last century. In 1947 the he  had picnicked at the foot of the tree as workers installed the pieces. In this same area, there are several other climbable trees also open to the public. The highest of these is 68m.

The relative comfort of the lookout is somewhat compromised by the wind. Despite it having seemed a calm day at the bottom, the tree sways in dramatic, stomach churning surges at the top. I almost feel seasick. But only as we start to descend, do I realise that the harder part is about to begin; the phrase “don’t look down,” is no longer practical. If only the tree really was a bright and breezy Enid Blyton fantasy, there would a helter-skelter chute dropping down its middle.

Suffolk, March 2006

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