The Long Tale of the Long Drops

Eureka Tower, Melbourne

Eureka Tower, Melbourne

A quiz question on TV yesterday was, “Which was the tallest  structure in the world until 1311?”   The answer is obviously the Great Pyramid at Giza (139m) but what happened in 1311?

That was the completion of Lincoln Cathedral , though some people dispute its supposed height of almost 160 m.  We cannot measure it ourselves, since the tower fell down in a storm in 1548.  First point to the Egyptians, since the pyramid is still standing after more than 4000 years.

Of the list of the world’s tallest churches, number 4 is one I recognised and had visited: Cologne Cathedral, or Kölner Dom.  It’s just topped by a church in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire…which I find hard to believe, but impressive if true.  (By the look of the one in Africa, I’m guessing it would hold all the country’s churchgoers in one go, plus a few atheists.)

The Cologne Dom was begun in 1248 and rose to 157.4m by 1880, to become the tallest building in the world for four years.  And then the pesky Ulm Minster fudged its plans so that its short spires went above the Cologne spires.

The Dom was not too badly damaged during the bombing of Cologne in World War II.  Do the Catholics get a point here for indestructible holiness?   Well, maybe, but apparently it was such a useful landmark to the British planes that they left it standing on purpose, or so they say now.  So perhaps the point should be shared with the bombers.

In 1986, I climbed to the Cologne  Dom viewing place, 98 m above ground, up a small winding staircase.  No elevators for the tourists; I guess the good Catholics are raised by the Holy Spirit.  It provided a great view over Cologne and the Rhine.

We enjoyed another great view of Cologne at the same time by going up a then-modern skyscraper to an official viewing platform.  I can’t remember the name, nor find it via Google as many other taller buildings do a better job these days in Cologne, and our tower is no longer part of the records.  However it was not that much higher, if I recall, than the Dom – which is stunning to realise, since the church was started in the 13th century.  In fact, when the plans were drawn up, the builders had no idea of how they could possibly complete the building, so 1 point goes to the architects.  Wikipedia tells me that the church was completed in 1880, but I distinctly remember the priest with the donations box telling us in 1986 that it was not completed yet (perhaps they are raising funds for a 4 m extension on their spire to overtake Ulm Minster).

Right, what does this all have to do with being in Australia?   This week I went up the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, and it was a great deal taller than 98 m of the Dom viewing platform.  The Sky Tower in Auckland, where I went in 2012, is for the time being the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere at 328 m (1 point to New Zealand), but the lower viewing deck is 186 m and the upper deck is 194 m high.  The Eureka tower has its viewing deck at 285 m, the tallest viewing level, though the building’s height is “only” 297.3 m.  The Eureka Tower probably wins that round.

For now.  Shortly Australia 108 will rise 22 m higher than the Eureka Tower, also in Melbourne but by 2018, an even taller tower will be completed in South Africa… in Centurion,  of all places!  (Paarl was second choice, just kidding).   Otherwise the list of tall buildings is remarkably heavily weighted in favour of the northern hemisphere.

It was Trevor’s 50th birthday, so this was a special trip.  We went up 88 floors (in 38 seconds) and took pictures all round Melbourne through the thick glass, and even walked on to the outdoor balcony – rather windswept, but behind thick mesh.  Here are a few shots of the landmarks I know by name –

  • the MCG;
  • Flinders St Station, ie the terminus if we come into town by train, opposite Federation Square and ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image that takes up most of Fed Square);
  • Melbourne Opera and the Arts Centre with its strange fish netting and the tower that was set alight by fireworks on New Year’s Even 2011;
  • and finally the lovely flower clock (which is actually microscopically present in the Art Centre picture, if you know where to look.  Yay for my wonderful zoom lens)
Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)

Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)

eureka 5a

eureka 4

Arts Centre and Opera House.  (Sydney wins!)


Flower Clock

Flower Clock

Then we started egging each other on to go on the Edge with Carly.   The Edge is a frosted cube that moves slowly outside the building at 285 m and then suddenly clears, leaving one with an unimpeded view of the city (see here for a wobbling video taken from the outdoor balcony and here for a better  one of the whole experience.)  You are not supposed to go on the Edge if you have claustrophobia, fear of heights, heart ailments or are startled by unexpected noises.

The cube at The Edge, taken from the outdoor balcony at 285m

The cube at The Edge, taken from the outdoor balcony at 285m

It was something I’d had no intention of ever doing, but out of the goodness of my heart (to make Trevor feel he’d really achieved something on his birthday) I forced him not to back out and said I’d go with him.   I told him how illogical it was that anything bad would happen, that it was just our ancient biology that told us being up in the air was a bad plan, and that in the history of the world, no one had ever died falling from a viewing platform.

I even offered to pay (do I get a bonus point?) and stood in line to do that.  That’s when the great arm of Eskom reached over to Melbourne and turned off the power.   Funny enough, the issue on my mind was not that the Edge cube wouldn’t move out (or in!) during a power cut, but that they couldn’t sell me the tickets with the computers off.  Nor a cup of coffee during the long wait.

Some instinct of self preservation inspired me to ask if the lifts were still working.  Yes, they were on a different electrical system, and at the moment, another bunch of tourists was disgorged to the viewing platform.   Knowing that we could still exit the tower, we sat patiently waiting for the computer power to come back on.  And then the great god Eskom took another look and turned the lifts off too, and we had an announcement that the whole of Melbourne’s South Bank was powerless.

It’s an uncanny feeling being up in the clouds with no power, above the cellphone towers where you can’t even get a help message out.  The stairs were cordoned off, but we imagined we would be trudging down there eventually when everyone came to their senses.   Apparently some people do it for fun anyway.

Eureka stairs

Eureka stairs.  We reckoned down would be faster, even for us

We walked round the viewing platform again while waiting.  Here’s a picture of the Westgate Bridge at the back of the building – leading to Geelong and the west, and the back road to the airport for those who refuse to pay the Tullamarine e-toll.

Westgate Bridge

Westgate Bridge

There was also the southbound ferry for Tasmania – many ways to escape Melbourne if one was only on the ground.

Spirit of Tasmania

Spirit of Tasmania

Independently, Trevor and I both started thinking about 9/11 and people jumping off the Twin Towers.   How uncanny is that.  And there is nothing like testing your ability to go into a tiny space alone than going into a totally dark toilet in a strange place.

The staff worked hard to detach the airlock doors so that the people on the balcony could get back inside….

Electric door problem

Electric door problem

…while one passed the time by cleaning windows on the inside. Oh, for the real thing, look at

Window cleaner

Window cleaner

After about an hour, the power came back on, and like idiots, we bought those Edge tickets.  We just pressed forward with the plan, and it was only when we were actually inside the cube, no escape, that the bad thoughts finally set in.  If there is one power cut when previously it was thought impossible, why not two?

The cube edged out, screeching greatly (uh oh).  It stopped and I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans.  And then the frosted glass cleared and flippin’ hell, we were suspended in space without a parachute.  No thought any more of the thickness of the glass and the up-till-now clean safety record.  All I could think of was the unreliability of the South Bank power and how I could not possibly spend even an extra second in this box after the 5 minutes I’d paid for.   And then the sound effects started – thunder and lightning and shaking (perhaps an earthquake simulation, we couldn’t decide).

Adrenalin is a wonderful hormone when running from lions, but not 285 m up, stuck inside a small clear box.    I was still shaky the next day.  I think this experience has shortened my life by at least a month.

I was proud of myself for surviving it without banging on the door begging to be let out (the precedent was already set at Ratanga Junction, when they stopped the ride to let me off, back in 2000).     All remaining points to me!

Hold on, the next morning a friend posted pictures of herself up in the Sky Tree in Tokyo at 451.2 m.  Game, set and match to her – she is out of my league.  I’ve reached my ceiling.






About jaqinoz

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