…a coaster whose creditworthiness is clear-cut, uncomplicated…
…and utterly impossible to tick.
Hey, I never said it was a coaster that was open.
Or that has ever been open.
Or that ever will be open.
I mean, just because it’s a cat’s cradle of peeling paint and rust that’s seen greater patronage from the surrounding underbrush than it ever has from riders, and just because that’s been the case for over thirty years, doesn’t mean it’s not a “real” credit.
Yet the word “real” is problematic. I mean, it is real. It’s physically there. It was the first thing I saw when we arrived. The pictures don’t lie. But it could be argued that it’s only real insofar as it’s corporeal. For this coaster, “reality” is far more complicated. In a way, its material form doesn’t exist at all—or at least it’s valiantly ignored. It’s there, but it’s not there. It is not something that is, but rather something that will be. It is a coaster whose true essence remains (or is supposed to remain) intangible: it’s ethereal.
And that’s because this coaster is Orphan Rocker, quite possibly the most notorious SBNO coaster in history.
Therein, of course, lies its appeal to enthusiasts. There is something so wretchedly beautiful about a roller coaster standing dormant, rotting and rusting and relenting to Mother Nature’s creeping yet merciless invasion. Boscage does not discriminate and cares not for sentimentality; it swallows structure and confiscates track without remorse, leaving us only a pathetic shell of what used to stand burnished and proud. I think it’s that connection between observable decrepitude and dreamlike nostalgia that makes SBNO coasters so alluring. There’s this sense of pity because it feels like you’re looking at something that almost seems sentient, something that seems painfully aware of its fate yet gracefully accepting it nonetheless. The only soul it has left is what your reminiscing mind can infuse into it. But no matter what you imagine, it always seems like there’s so much more—more stories, more secrets, more memories—that will be forever locked away in that silent, decaying track, especially if you’ve never ridden it.
So you keep staring at it, transfixed, unable to stop humanizing it, unable to stop wondering what once was.
Except in the case of Orphan Rocker, it’s more like what never was.
Orphan Rocker is a thirty year old mess of rumors, dodgy reports, fishy promises and skepticism. Construction began in the early to mid 1980s (though no one can seem to pin whether it was 1982 or 1983). It was the creation of Harry Hammon and his son Philip, who originally conceived of it as a monorail before developing it into a roller coaster. Its initial claim to fame was that it was the first coaster designed and built entirely by Australian companies. Now, its fame derives from a far less boastful attribute: it is, without question, Australia’s most legendary roller coaster failure.
Orphan Rocker never made it past the testing stage. The word is that it outright flunked its exams, running into some major problems that precluded its opening to the public. The nature of those problems, however, has never been clear. As nearly always happens in cases of missing information, outrageous yet enduring rumors have come to stand in for the facts: cars derailed and went careening down the mountain, cars returned to the station minus a few of the sandbag dummies they’d started with, one morning the testers noticed a spider in one of the cars and decided they’d stop testing to give the spider a year or two or thirty to move on…okay, so I may have made that last one up.
Outrageous or not, though, it’s impossible not to harbor skepticism on the safety of a coaster that has remained SBNO since failing its tests in the 1980s. Minor mechanical flaws don’t require years, let alone decades, to fix. Neither do adjustments to improve rider comfort. Anthea Hammon, one of the park’s managing directors, said in a 2006 article that the ride’s safety has never been in question; rather, its postponed opening was at least partially due to modifications meant to raise its comfort factor. Normally, I’m the first to jump to a park’s defense when the general public parrots the hysteria the media loves to conjure in unremarkable events like a run-of-the-mill lift hill evacuation, but even I can’t help but wonder if Hammon’s claim is some crafty, PR-friendly cover-up of something. Then again, rcdb does list various tweaks made to the ride over the years, one of which was the replacement of the wheel hubs in 2002. That begs an even more incredulous question. Is it possible—is it actually possible—that we’re dealing with another Flying Turns?
There are, of course, more realistic (though far less interesting) explanations for the ride’s SBNO state: overly bureaucratic certification procedures, insurance approval hurdles, time consuming revisions in the name of updated safety codes, limited budget, yadda yadda.
And then there’s the one answer that seems to be, and has long been, the overriding party line: that other projects and site redevelopment have taken precedence over Orphan Rocker for now but it will open.
For now. It will open, they always say, as if the whole site redevelopment thing were only temporary. As if the coaster hasn’t been an idle, rusting, derelict elephant in the room for the past three decades. Sometimes there’s a time frame in the answer—usually an ambiguous “in a few years” though I did once hear of an employee quoting a more exact “in four years”—but each time, the allotted time frame passes with no visible change. It’s as though Orphan Rocker is a sick person whose illness is downplayed and whose relatives live in denial about the true extent of its deterioration, placating themselves with false hopes that a cure is coming and things will be better someday.
What I see is moss-covered rust that hasn’t a bloody hope of ever operating.
Yet what its owners seem to see is an undying dream that will materialize someday.
However it’s interpreted, though, one thing is certain: for a coaster enthusiast, Orphan Rocker is one hell of a sight. It’s an arresting, cadaverous spectacle. Dramatic. Striking. Beautiful, even, in a poignant and severe kind of way.
In fact, you might say it was…scenic.
How felicitous that it’s located here, then!
Strung across a tiny scrap of the Blue Mountains are the cables, tracks and trails that make up Scenic World, a nature park that, as you might have guessed, is pretty scenic.
The park is located in the town of Katoomba, a name that derives from an Aboriginal term meaning “shining, falling waters.” It is also a superb word to irritate the hell out of Richard when bellowed Yahtzee style multiple times throughout the two hour drive from Sydney (and with Karen still mwy-ing us down the highway, we made the sort of backseat juvenile duet—mwy. Ka-TOOOOOM-ba! mwy. Ka-TOOOOOM-ba! mwy. Ka-TOOOOOM-ba!—that may have bought me a few more years before having to worry about things like morning sickness and episiotomies).
Originally a coal mine dating from the 1870s, the area evolved into Scenic World after Harry Hammon and his sister Isobel Fahey took over the lease for the land when the mine closed in 1945, seeing in it an opportunity to promote tourism in the Blue Mountains. Their first move was repurposing the mine’s incline railway, which had been used to transport coal up the mountainside, into a passenger train. As attendance rose, other modes of transport capitalizing on the breathtaking topography and magnificent views followed.
Today, Scenic World provides three scenic ways for acrophobes to keep the underwear industry humming:
The aforementioned incline railway, known as the Scenic Railway…
…the Scenic Cableway, which transports you up and down the mountain via cables that you’ll pray aren’t of Intamin quality even though no deity will hear you if the car is loaded with Chinese tourists…
…and the Scenic Skyway, which will make you question if that last McNugget you had at lunch was really worth it once you’re standing on a glass floor dangling 885 feet above the Jamison Valley.
There’s also a nature walkway.
Want to guess what it’s called?
Orphan Rocker‘s part in all of this, besides leaving me to wonder what happened to the guy responsible for coming up with creative names, was to add some thrills to the roster. It did so by outdoing everything in the terrain coaster category in addition to tinkering with some tricks that have only been perfected in the last few years.
Remember all those four letter words you uttered when Glenwood Caverns unveiled this S&S Screamin’ Swing that goes flying out over the edge a 1,300 foot canyon?
Orphan Rocker‘s signature move was a swooping turn on the rim of a cliff 700 feet above the valley floor.
And you know how WDW’s Seven Dwarfs Mine Train features rocking cars? And you know how it only just opened in 2014? Turns out Orphan Rocker—which, remember, was designed thirty years before that—was also supposed to do just that: rock.
Which brings us to the name Orphan Rocker.
My initial thought when I first heard of Orphan Rocker was: What a badass name. I also thought it sounded a little morbid (please tell me I’m not the only one who pictured small, parentless children and babies being shaken to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”). Viewed in the proper context, however, the name is downright fucking ingenious:
This sandstone tower is known as Orphan Rock, so called because millions of years of erosion have left it standing by itself. You used to be able to climb it until the 1970s when someone finally came to their senses and realized that clambering about an unstable boulder 700 feet off the ground carried a rather high likelihood of increasing the orphan population. Nowadays, you climb it only if you’re looking to win a Darwin Award.
Orphan Rock is one of the most famous landmarks in the Blue Mountains, so what do you do with a roller coaster rocking in its shadow that nearly throws itself off a cliff? Well, you don’t call it “Scenic Roller Coaster,” that’s for sure, though I can’t help but note the irony in how the only thing Orphan Rocker has ever been is a part of the scenery.
We did not drive two hours, however, just to gaze at scenic roller coaster porn.
Sure, these panoramic vistas may not be able to compete with a rusting, decomposing coaster carcass.
But hey, we were there and you, dear reader, have made it here, so let’s follow Monty to Scenic World’s operational things.
The first thing that we learned was operational at Scenic World was its marker collection. After paying admission (AUD$35 for an unlimited wristband), the girl behind the counter pulled out a map and asked if we’d ever visited before. Obviously I hadn’t; Richard had in 2008. “Okay, so I’ll just refresh you on where everything is,” she said, unfolding the map on the counter and reaching for a black marker. She twisted off the cap with a businesslike thwick and poised the marker’s thick, chiseled tip above the glossy paper: an artist before an easel. “So this is where you are now,” she instructed, drawing a pudgy circle around a building neatly marked as the Scenic World Top Station. She pointed over her left shoulder. “Through there is where you board the Scenic Railway, which takes you down to here.” She swiped the marker down the red line that marked the railway’s course and finished it with a scribbled in dot. The ink glistened. “The Scenic Skyway also starts up here and that takes you across the valley to here.” Another broad streak of shining black ink now overlaid the thin yellow line already printed on the map to mark the route. She went on to mark Katoomba Falls (a stubby letter X whose ends bled together), the route for the Scenic Cableway (another chunky scrawl terminating at an inky stump that I think was supposed to be an arrow) and various points of interest along the walking trails as well as how much time to allot for them (murky dots and dashes slung across the depicted greenery like a demented Morse code message). When she finally sheathed her felt-tipped bludgeon, the map looked about as comprehensible as a Jackson Pollock piece. There were blotches of heavy ink slopped over labels, while zealously daubed black stripes had pretty much nullified the point of its color coding.
We thanked her politely and moved on as she set up her next canvas.
Mauled guide in hand, we decided to start where Scenic World had started: the Scenic Railway.
Actually, the incline railway began carrying paying customers long before Scenic World became Scenic World.
Although its intended purpose was to haul coal up the escarpment, the railway eventually took on a second use when hikers proved willing to pay for a ride to avoid the arduous climb, these being the days before it was fashionable to be a pretentious douche who humblebrags about their workouts on Facebook. At first the passengers just perched on a plank in a coal skip, which doesn’t sound dangerous at all, but soon a train made exclusively for passenger travel was put into operation on weekends and holidays.
Called the “Mountain Devil,” it was basically a handful of 2x4s trundling up and down a 675 foot vertical cliff face at a 52 degree angle, all while being held in place by a single wire, which also doesn’t sound dangerous at all.
The sides were completely exposed, but sure look, that was okay because if the conductor felt the need to brush up on his theology when all the seats were occupied, hanging off the side would have afforded him a great opportunity to recite some Hail Marys.
Before Harry and Isobel took over the land lease, they ran a transportation business that supplied coal to local companies and the power station. The story goes that one day Harry was loading up coal when a group of American soldiers drove up and inquired about the railway. Unfortunately for them, they’d come on a weekday. Their disappointment no doubt strikes a familiar chord with many an enthusiast—“Goldarn it,” they reportedly lamented. (Goldarn? Goldarn?) “We drove all the way up from Sydney for a ride on that thing and it’s closed.”
In a manner sure to confound any poor soul who’s worked a long time in customer service, Harry genuinely felt sorry for having to turn them away. In fact, it was the cue for his entrepreneurial wheels to get spinning. By the time he took over the lease, he’d resolved to turn the railway into a full time commercial enterprise. Add to it some food kiosks and souvenir stalls, and you have the birth of Scenic World.
And it’s no wonder this brought the crowds in.
I knew about funiculars but holy crap, I never realized just what a superhuman feat of engineering they were until this thing started down the mountain.
With a 52 degree slope, Scenic World has the distinction of operating the steepest incline railway in the world. They are immensely proud of it, as well they should be, because let me tell you, you will feel every one of those 52 degrees and then some.
Already uncertain what to expect, I grew more intrigued when I boarded the train and found myself sitting on a bench tilted at a curious angle. I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to sit or where to put my feet, much less why the Star Wars theme suddenly started piping through the cabin, but it quickly became clear (the seat thing, that is. Well, I suppose the Star Wars theme needs no justification because it’s just that awesome, especially now when we’re all sighing with relief that J.J. managed to awaken the Force without lens-flaring it into an unmitigated disaster). As soon as we rolled away from the station, the train bent down to follow the contour of the terrain and I was pushed back as though the bench were a rocking chair.
The Scenic Railway underwent an extensive rehabilitation in 2013 that saw the addition of new trains equipped with individually controlled benches that allow passengers to adjust the thrill factor of their ride. There are three settings: Original, which keeps the bench true to the track’s 52 degree slope; Laid Back, which keeps vertigo sufferers happy, or at least less likely to entertain their companions with colorful language; and Cliffhanger, which is just as it sounds—because why wimp out at 52 degrees when you could amp it up to 64?
At the time, I didn’t know this feature existed. I have no idea what bench setting we had, but it didn’t matter. Whatever it was made for a ride that was surprising, if a tad frightening, and one that left me awestruck at this incredible union of staggering topography and human ingenuity. For that, the Scenic Railway wound up being my favorite of Scenic World’s (operational) attractions.
It was impossible to ignore the kaleidoscope of butterflies that were sent a flutterin’ when the train dove off the cliff edge immediately out of the station. I’d dashed onto the train just before the doors closed and hadn’t noticed my surroundings. Thus, there was no warning, no gradual descent, nothing to prepare me for the abrupt pitch downward that had us running perpendicular (or so it seemed) to the station platform we’d been on just seconds ago. It reminded me of a snake slithering over and down a low brick wall. The dual sensations of the drop and the bench’s reclining response were startling enough on their own, but the other surprise element of those first seconds was how quickly the train gained velocity.
Yessir, I can’t say I disapproved of the fully enclosed trains that came onto the scene after that 2013 renovation.
(I’m told that prior to that, the only thing separating you from the Mountain Devil conductors of yesteryear was a confidence-inspiring plastic chain as highlighted in this 2008 photo.)
And those new overhead bars were a definite thumbs up. I put my thumbs up pretty high for them. Actually, I liked them so much that I gave them a high five, too. Two high fives simultaneously, in fact.
And only once I realized that I was using the roof window to look ahead, and only once I realized I was moving far too fast to take a decent photograph (at least that’s the excuse I’ll use this time), and only once I realized that we’d been carrying on in this alarmingly vertical fashion for a rather long time, did I come to appreciate just how viciously steep and high this terrain was.
Oh, and it was also really scenic. Full of surprises, this ride.
But with that awareness came a sense of wonder that this incline railway had been built at all. I mean, we’re talking a railway built down the fucking side of a fucking cliff. It was impossible not to respect this work of man versus nature. This is dangerous, unforgiving terrain no matter how—or when—you tackle it. Even when the ride was renovated in 2013, all the modern safety and construction equipment in the world didn’t negate the fact that this was a fifty to sixty degree slope where one misstep risked more than just momentary embarrassment (or long lasting embarrassment if your coworkers happened to be particularly creative in coming up with humorous and pejorative nicknames like Blundering Bill or Dirt Kisser).
And that’s just the building of it. The fact that someone actually imagined cutting a railway down that sheer precipice (yes, the one pictured above. Yes, really) and thought, Hmmmm, that sounds like a good idea! seems almost unfathomable. Or maybe it just seems that way because my response in that situation would have been to say fuck it and then sit in the shade with an iced tea. Regardless, I reached the bottom of the track contemplative and reverent.
And then I was engulfed in a cacophonous blast of squawking and yapping and shouting.
Or, to put it another way, I exited onto the station platform where Chinese tourists were engaged in polite and civil discussion, presumably about things that were scenic. It dawned on us then that we’d timed our vacation close to the Chinese New Year holidays. In our collective experience, it seems that Chinese volume control circuitry is configured, shall we say, somewhat differently from standard Western settings (Americans notwithstanding). Realizing that decibel awareness would likely be a theme in the days to come, we gave them a generous head start before we started our trek along the Scenic Walkway.
Oh good, I feel much more welcome now that my potential as a cold-hearted plant murderer has been kindly pointed out.
TL;DR: “This walk might kill or horribly maim you. Have fun!”
Heartened by such optimistic prospects, we took to the trail.
Overall, I think I’d describe it as pretty scenic.
Seriously, though, if there was one part of Scenic World where I could have done with more time, it was the walkway. In the interest of leaving enough time for the evening’s activities, we covered only the distance between the Scenic Railway and Scenic Cableway stations, which was but a tiny branch of a hefty trail network. Nonetheless, our brief amble was worthwhile and as educational as it was scenic. All along the boardwalk were guideposts marking points of interest along with informational tidbits about each one.
Like this, for example. This was a tree fern that continued growing even after it had fallen, resulting in this L shape that was undoubtedly the most scenic L shape I’d ever seen.
The highlighted features weren’t just restricted to vegetation, though. Some of them recalled the area’s mining past. The most interesting of these encouraged us to look closely for buckets that have been on the forest floor since 1890 when the cable for an early coal and shale transportation system performed the famous Intamin maneuver.
It was pretty, serene, and oh so green. Oh, and scenic, if I hadn’t already mentioned that.
That is, until I saw the carnage.
So much carnage. So much devastation. So much wanton destruction and such outright heedless desecration…
…of the fundamental principles of apostrophe use.
Oh! Oh! To recall that semantic nightmare—it’s almost too much to bear!
Folks, that’s “it’s,” as in “it is.”
Oh! My eyes, my eyes! See that illicit apostrophe, its placement the barbarous doing of punctuational philistines!
Folks, that’s “its,” the possessive of the pronoun “it,” which, in this case, refers to that apostrophe. Would you say “up in it is branches” or “in it is lifetime”? No, you would not, unless you’re a moron.
What vile monster would do something like this?!? Why hadn’t the sign out front warned me of such savagery? Who could possibly worry about leeches and falling trees and squishy berries when the greatest danger on this walkway was grammatical ignorance? I cringed my way through this apostrophe apocalypse (which was accompanied by an equally ugly calamity of comma splicing), feeling woeful and frightened for the state of human intelligence, until I looked a little closer. My heart leaped. Could it…could it be? It appeared that some of the miscreants had been captured, stabbed out, scribbled over. Something was coming back to me…the other sign! There had been another warning sign at the trailhead! What did it say, what did it say…oh! That’s right, I could murder things with my bare hands! And that was exactly what previous grammarian passersby had done. They had manually retaliated. Sometimes they wielded pens and sometimes they had only their fingernails, but whatever their means, they’d battled on, their murderous touch avenging these insults to the English language.
I wasn’t alone in this fight. I wasn’t the only one who delighted in being that unsolicited smart ass who corrects other people’s grammar. There was hope!
…if only I’d thought to bring a pen, too.
Okay. Time out. In all seriousness, I’m dismayed that a long established and reputable business like Scenic World would willfully present these grammatical mistakes. I only posted two examples, but there were quite a few more. But it’s just a few apostrophes, you say. Yeah, it’s a few apostrophes that could have been corrected in a matter of seconds, and the fact that they weren’t is lazy and sloppy. Moreover, it’s not like we’re talking difficult grammatical concepts here. The it’s/its distinction is a lesson from primary school, which makes it all the more unprofessional—and embarrassingly so—that it shows up here. Scenic World puts such a commendable amount of effort into their presentation (roller coaster scrapyard notwithstanding). To fall on this final hurdle of dotting Is and crossing Ts is just silly and unfortunate.
C’mon, Scenic World.
Okay. Time in.
Somehow I sense that I’ve just moved from the “no guaranteed answer” list to the “no answer, guaranteed” list.
Better cap the red pen and join the queue for the Scenic Cableway, then.
The cableway joined the Scenic World lineup in 2000. Like the railway, it boasts a “steepest of” superlative; in this case, it is the steepest aerial cable car in the southern hemisphere.
That afternoon, it was also the loudest cable car in the southern hemisphere, if not the world.
Having caught up with the vociferous flock from which we’d distanced ourselves earlier, we wound up at the back of a positively stentorian queue whose volume only intensified once compacted within the cable car’s enclosed space. It was a din not unlike that of a heated quarrel on a talk show, except that it was composed of laughter, jovial chatter, and the shutter sounds of smartphone cameras instead of shrill bickering.
Knowing resistance was futile, we wedged ourselves into an available space on the side of the car facing the valley and watched the trees drop off beneath us.
I should probably mention it was scenic.
Yup. Scenic view. From the Scenic Cableway. At Scenic World.
Holy crap, it really was scenic!
With everyone else admiring the panorama of mountains and nature and other normal people scenic interests, Richard and I fixated on the profusion of weeds, dirt and fractured metal below. The other bits of Orphan Rocker I’d seen, although shedding flakes of paint like dead skin if they weren’t already covered in leprotic lesions of rust, had at least been intact. These broken segments, on the other hand, signified something terminal; something too far beyond curability. The track was mutilated like a set of hands had given it a lethal Indian burn, twisting until the rail snapped; a pathetic brown stub protruded from the rupture like an artery that had bled out long ago; the jagged anti-rollbacks were like the gnarled teeth of a broken jaw. The scene seemed a somber admission of reality, the irreversibly mangled metal quietly shutting down any lingering ambiguity on Orphan Rocker‘s fate. Of course, given its history, its fate was already a foregone conclusion—but somehow, seeing it like that made it seem more real.
It was like that broken track embodied the broken dream.
And yet, oddly, there was so much more of it that still seemed frozen in time, as though it was just waiting to be dusted off and returned to an operating life it never had.
From this view, it didn’t look half bad.
In fact, it looked a hell of a lot more operational than some coasters I’ve been on, like this Togo beauty whose structural integrity is definitely not questionable in the slightest.
The anti-rollbacks even looked fresh.
There was a vehicle of some description on the track, although judging from Richard’s 2008 photos, it hasn’t budged from this spot in years.
If you can ignore the undergrowth seeping beneath it, as well as that stranded vehicle, it’s possible to imagine a car will come rocking up that lift any minute.
But it’s a temporary illusion. At the top of the lift, the footpath crosses close enough to see the rust stains again…
And then you come to this lift mechanism, which has no fucking way written all over it.
Not that it doesn’t make for good coaster porn, though. I am fairly sure this was part of the mechanism in the photo above. I am 100% sure I squealed with delight at the sight of it. I am 200% sure you have been doing the same for the last five photos.
So go get a tissue, because here’s a closeup.
Better make that two.
(Well, this is the entire reason you clicked on this post in the first place, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want to leave you disappointed now, would I?)
What so struck me about this lift mechanism was that it was all still there—gears, cables, anti-rollbacks, everything. It was like one of those photos of an abandoned building’s interior, where everyday items like dishes and books and toys lay amidst crumbling walls, debris-strewn floors and ceilings mottled with mold and peeling paint. The building’s decay betrays the passage of time, yet the items within defy it. So it was here: the rust, the peeling paint, the broken track—they were all casualties of prolonged neglect, but here was the lift mechanism fully intact, a reminder that someone once cared; someone once invested a lot of energy into intricately engineering this ride—and that someone switched it off at some point long ago, where it has remained inert for who knows how long, just like those dishes and toys remain frozen at the spot of their last contact with human hands. Those objects are often the only shred of human presence left in a place, the only pieces that hint at life and activity.
Here, though, there was one big difference: the place was not abandoned. The park was crawling with people. Orphan Rocker isn’t notable for its hinting at former life in an empty wasteland. It’s notable because it’s the only dead thing in an otherwise lively and bustling park. It’s a blemish, if you will. It’s not listed on the park map, but it’s impossible to miss because it sticks out like a Halloween decoration someone forgot to take down.
Which brings me back to my earlier point: why does Scenic World refuse to acknowledge Orphan Rocker for what it is through their decades-long insistence that it will become something someday?
It was a mystery to ponder as we joined the queue for the Scenic Skyway. That and where the Orphan Rocker station was. Richard and I had spent a good portion of our visit poring over an (un-markered) park map trying to figure out where the circuit began. Since the coaster wasn’t listed on the map (not that we’d have seen it anyway thanks to Scenic World’s handmade map lamination service), we’d been doing our best to piece together the layout from what we’d seen, but so far, no dice. It was one thing to see the track, but if I could steal a glimpse at the cars (I’d seen them in other trip reports), well, let’s just say you’d do well to get another box of tissues ready. I resolved to find out after our skyway ride.
One of the first things you see upon entering Scenic World is one of the skyway’s old vehicles. The Scenic Skyway opened in 1958 and underwent a major renovation in 2004 to increase its capacity. Indeed, if its lengthy queue was any indication, it is the most popular attraction on the roster. It comprises the bulk of the park’s publicity and promotional photographs, and rightly so: there is hardly a better way to advertise a place called Scenic World than with a shot of a skyway cable car amid a vista of mighty boulders, stately waterfalls and verdant valleys.
The photographs usually depict the bright yellow vehicle against a deep blue sky, but today, the latter was not to be. It had been cloudy and gloomy all afternoon with a few spits of rain, but the weather had really begun to deteriorate by the time we boarded.
The low lying clouds, however, did not greatly detract from the overall ride experience. In fact, they were rather…hmmm…let’s say…let’s say they were scenic. That’s a good word choice. Scenic. The clouds were scenic. The clouds were scenic in their own right.
And with their level of supreme scenic-isity, they lent an air of mystery to the ride. Not to be left out from its siblings, this attraction is also a superlative: it is the highest cable car in Australia, riding a whopping 885 feet above the Jamison Valley floor. For comparison’s sake, the Stratosphere SkyJump in Las Vegas—the largest attraction of its type in the world (think of it as a vertical zip line)—is thirty feet shorter. For the non-enthusiast audience still reading this for some reason, that’s just shy of three Statues of Liberty (or six, if we’re not including the base and pedestal). Also, let me just take this opportunity to point out that the original gondola from 1958 was made of marine plywood. PLYWOOD. Now, as far as I can tell, the only upshot to crossing an 885 foot deep chasm in that crate would have been knowing that if it became your casket, you’d at least go out in style—it was painted bright pink.
It’s one thing to look at the treetops directly beneath you (which you can do because down the middle of the gondola is an electrostatic glass floor, which is a fancy way of saying the floor transforms from opaque to transparent during the crossing. It’s the only such floor in the world, which means that if nothing else, you can stagger away knowing you’ve experienced a truly unique form of vertigo. That’s worth a souvenir t-shirt in the gift shop, I’m sure).
But there was something about passing directly through the clouds that amplified that perception of height. The gondola had both solid and exposed sides. We opted for the latter, my arms prickling with goosebumps each time a thick whiteout enshrouded the gondola in damp and dewy mist. The clouds moved swiftly, the way they do when a front moves out (or, to illustrate it even better while simultaneously brightening your day, the way they do in the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and being a part of it made the journey well deserving of the name Scenic Skyway (even if—regrettably, it must be said—that sky was not as scenic as it might have been had it offered views of African or European swallows carrying coconuts).
When we weren’t playing cloud peekaboo, though, we did catch some pretty rad views:
We were able to see Katoomba Falls without black marker bleeding through it.
Fun fact: The water from the falls takes six days to reach the Sydney water supply.
We got a closer look at this zigzag rock formation, known as the Three Sisters. Their names are Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo. The Aboriginal legend—or at least one of them—goes that the three sisters fell in love with some dudes from a neighboring tribe, but their overly xenophobic tribal laws forbade intertribal marriage. Instead of thinking outside the box, the tribes decided that warfare over this matter was a better use of everyone’s time. (Basically, it was a different form of the marriage equality issues today, where people whose personal wellbeing is in no way affected by the marriages in question for some reason become desperate to feel persecuted, and so they proceed to waste their time blindly quoting some ambiguous religious dogma in a pathetic attempt to justify their myopic beliefs. It was that sort of thing.) As the fighting intensified, the sisters were turned to stone in an effort to protect them. Unfortunately for them—or fortunately, considering they were stuck in such a draconian society—the only guy who could turn them back into humans died in battle, leaving them to stand forever on Mother Nature’s red carpet, posing for eager shutterbugs and #blessed assholes the world over.
Fun fact: Supposedly this legend is complete bollocks. I don’t just mean the *slightly* improbable lithic sorcery business. I mean the entire premise of it being an Aboriginal legend to begin with. Dr. Martin Thomas, a historian at the Australian National University, argues in his book The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains that it’s possible “the story is the creation of a white man, intended to bestow upon the landmark some added ‘colour’.” Apparently the guy who originally published it didn’t acknowledge any Aboriginal informants, suggesting rather strongly that he made the whole thing up. Yup. Those stunning megaliths may be yet another symbol of a white person appropriating minority culture for his own glory. Doesn’t that just feel warm against your cheek?
Scenic as waterfalls and passive aggressive ethnocentrism may be, however, they couldn’t compete with this. I was impatient to embark on my Orphan Rocker station quest. When we docked back at the skyway’s station platform, I asked the guide what he knew.
Fun fact: You can put your tissues away.
“I don’t know,” the guide answered. “But I can find out for you…”
I leaned in.
“…after my shift.”
“But you can go downstairs,” he continued. “There’s a guy wearing a big hat. If you ask him, he would know.”
Alrighty then. It was time to kick this mission into high gear.
We headed inside and almost immediately, I noticed a man wearing one of those wide brimmed Outback hats and a shirt the same shade of red the other employees were wearing. I watched as he stepped outside to one of the viewing platforms with another staff member. They were the only people out there, as the rain had now become a steady shower, but I figured the answer I sought was worth getting a little wet. Richard disagreed. I was not exactly thrilled at sailing solo on the S.S. Let’s Expose Your Embarrassing Levels of Coaster Nerdism, but needs must. Just as I was about to approach, however, I noticed the man with the hat was wearing the same wristband I was. He wasn’t a staff member.
Needless to say, I jumped ship pretty quickly.
Unable to locate the hat guy, Richard and I had one more go at the map along with a few forays out in the rain, but we just could not piece it together. With our time running out, I made one more attempt with the three guys at the ticket counter.
“I thought it was right out there,” said one, gesturing toward the entrance doorway where it most definitely was not. No one in the trio knew where this loading platform was (although one did say the carriages are no longer on the track anyway), so instead I asked the fundamental question: what’s the real deal with Orphan Rocker, anyway? “Believe it or not,” another of them replied, “it’s in the long term plans to rebuild it.” Okay, the usual party line. Nothing I hadn’t heard before, but then he continued and things got interesting. They’re still working on paying off the Scenic Skyway, he said. After that, a complete rebuild of Orphan Rocker is in the plans. The reason they haven’t torn it down is because a coaster built from scratch would necessitate filing a new ride permit, a step they could bypass if they replace the track sections individually. I thanked him for the information and we mulled it over as we climbed to the top of the parking garage for one last attempt at finding the station platform.
(We never found it. Only when I was researching for this post did I find the answer (this is an excellent set of photos, by the way. Well worth browsing through). It was located beside the Scenic Railway station, presumably the one on top of the escarpment. This is a shot looking down the track toward that station. I’m guessing that it’s somewhere down there, but unfortunately I missed my opportunity to take a closer look.)
Back in the car, Richard was the first to speak. “I don’t see how they could still be paying off the skyway, considering what they charge for admission and how many people are here.” It confused me, too. I’d seen a sign saying the attraction had reopened in 2005 after a lengthy refurbishment. It seemed odd that they would still be paying for that ten years later. Maybe the staff member meant the more recently renovated railway? Then again, he was really young. His voice was thick with that nasally pubescent tone typical of the hormonal swell of trouser awkwardness and bad haircuts that is every middle school corridor in the world. It’s possible he was just incorrectly repeating things he thought he’d heard.
But the whole thing just reeked of weirdness. Keeping a useless pile of metal just to avoid reapplying for a permit? Cheerfully reciting the long term development line, as though failing to notice that thirty years have passed since the first time it was used? It’s just weird.
In the park’s defense, it’s clear that “long term development” isn’t an empty phrase. The Scenic Skyway went under the knife ten years ago; the Scenic Railway had its turn in 2013. Both of these were undertakings requiring an enormous investment of time, money and manpower that necessarily overshadowed everything else. Moreover, both renovations addressed capacity concerns; each attraction reopened with larger vehicles to increase throughput. Orphan Rocker, on the other hand, only ever had a handful of two to four seater cars. Even with the most advanced blocking system in the world, it never stood a chance of matching the other attractions’ capacities. Hypothetically, if Scenic World were to get the coaster operational in its original form, they’d need to assess the terrain; replace the track; replace the cars; upgrade its blocking and other safety systems; assemble queues, footpaths and other infrastructure; test it and tweak it as needed; and then finally deal with the paperwork of certification, insurance and the like, not to mention the inevitable unforeseen hurdle or two. That’s a hell of a lot of energy to expend on a ride whose throughput would be a mere sliver of what the park’s other attractions can handle.
In other words, shelving Orphan Rocker was a wise decision. I’m not about to fault Scenic World for doing what’s best for their business in the long term.
The part that puzzles me is why, when Orphan Rocker is so obviously beyond the point of saving, it continues to stand dormant, rusting, peeling and rotting in plain sight. Even more astonishing is that the track runs right above the car park entrance. Surely if we’re talking sound business decisions, there’s something a bit mad in letting this decrepit metal carcass be the first thing your guests see. Sure, on a personal level, I think the sight is hauntingly beautiful. It is the reason we came to Scenic World, after all, and I don’t regret for a minute that we cut out time in Sydney to see it. However, I’m a coaster enthusiast. I’m a minority. My going squeeee over an SBNO coaster is meaningless.
Of course, the same could be said for my analysis in this post. And hey, maybe the average park guest barely registers the coaster’s existence. That in itself, though, makes my point all the more relevant. If no one is even noticing it anymore, if no one is interested in it, if spending the money to fix it is only going to result in a capacity nightmare—then seriously, what possible incentive is there to keep it? I can’t deny that I would feel a twinge of pity were it demolished, but from a business perspective, Orphan Rocker seems an enigma. A disconcerting enigma.
In never elaborating on their rote party line, in never revealing exactly why Orphan Rocker failed to open in the first place, in pretending the ride is still under construction, in remaining seemingly oblivious to the corroding heap of scrap metal on their property, Scenic World comes across as incapable of accepting reality. It’s like they can’t admit that it’s over, that it has been over for a long time. Orphan Rocker is Miss Havisham’s mouldering wedding cake: an unrealized dream that’s become an avatar of delusion. The longer the clocks stay stopped, the more blatant the denial seems. Its overall failure doesn’t so much stem from its missteps three decades ago as it does from its present day identity crisis. It’s the corporeal versus the ethereal, the physical reality versus the contrived illusion.
It’s supposed to be something it’s not, but what it actually is seems fastidiously ignored.
Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. After all, back in May this photo emerged from the Australian Amusement, Leisure and Recreation Association’s National Trade Exhibition and Conference showing Anthea Hammon with Premier’s Jim Seay. Naturally, the enthusiast community was abuzz with speculation. Was this a sign that the project was finally moving forward? If Premier was called in, would they do a complete rebuild? How would they maximize capacity? Can we have some LSMs, please? Not a peep has been heard since then, though that’s hardly a surprise given Scenic World’s notoriously tight lipped approach to the Orphan Rocker question. I can only base my interpretation on what I observed at the park and researched in writing this post, and one photo after thirty years of inactivity isn’t convincing enough to alter my admittedly bleak and critical perceptions.
But I so very, very much hope I’m proven wrong. If this turned out to be an Australian Flying Turns, then, well, holy shit. That may be worthy of letting a few renegade apostrophes evade my wrath…well, temporarily, at least.
Besides, some LSMs perched on the cliff edge would be awfully scenic, don’t you think?
But for now, things continue unchanged. The Orphan Rocker legend of ultimate roller coaster failure endures. And enveloped in its lore of rumors, secrecy, skepticism and rust; withering beneath the weight of underbrush and conflicting identities, it remains broken, silent, lifeless…
…and forever elusive.
* * *
Okay, okay, okay: who’s ready for a coaster that is actually, seriously, for real a credit and actually, seriously, for real obtainable?