[words and photograph Mark Eveleigh]
It is one of the fundamental rules of abseiling that your harness should be a good snug fit. There is a strange sense of reassurance in a really tight harness. It’s not the done thing in the macho world of extreme abseiling to ask for a hug before you go over the edge… but as I swung one leg over the abyss of Gordon Dam that was exactly what I needed.
This 140-metre concrete wall in Tasmania’s wild Southwest National Park is the site of the world’s highest commercial abseil. To put it in perspective, the experience is like climbing out of a window halfway up the Empire State Building.
The scale of this immense concrete cliff is so huge that bystanders watching from the observation point struggle not to lose sight of abseilers. As I peel my white-knuckled fingers from the barrier Phil Harris, who has been leading tours here for several years now, reassures me that he is yet to “lose anyone” on a more permanent basis.
I force myself to think of anything but that awesome drop and focus instead on the concrete that begins to slide past as I feed the rope through the descending device. The face of the dam is scooped into a concave to withstand the pressure of about 12.5 billion tonnes (27 times more than all the water in Sydney Harbour). This shape is great for dam design but it holds distinct disadvantages for the abseiler; within just a few metres I am already hanging free, and by the time I reached the halfway mark I am swinging about 10 metres away from the wall. A gentle breeze wafts up from the Gordon River to twirl me playfully around, as if some sadistic spirit of the gorge wants to show me the view.
It is a humbling experience to be such a tiny “fly” on one of the world’s largest walls.
Even today, the 2,300 square miles of wilderness around the Gordon River is home only to a few hardy pioneers. The whole region was designated a World Heritage site in 1981 and there are vast areas here, the size of English counties, in which the human population barely reaches double-figures. The chirp of a mobile phone is yet to be heard in these parts and, under sultry cloud-heavy skies, you are frequently beyond reach even of a satellite signal.
Despite its inaccessibility,Tasmania’s wild southwest has become a real adventure Mecca for hardcore wilderness lovers, from rafters and kayakers to trekkers, mountain-bikers and climbers.
This is not the place to be seen asking for a hug!