“Well, they’re going to have to inject me with enough sedative to knock out a rhino. There’s no way I’ll get in that scanner otherwise.”
“It won’t be any different to the tunnel on that ride in Holland…”
“What? You mean that godawful rollercoaster? There was no tunnel on that!”
“Of course there was! We were in it when the photo was taken!”
“Well, how would I know?! I had my eyes shut!”
Actually, I had my eyes shut for the entire ride. It was, categorically, the most ghastly experience of my life. Apart from that time when, with two small children in my charge, I was suspended above the French Alps in a halted, solitary cable car, screeching ‘Aidez-nous!!’ at the tree canopy… Or that time in the tatty hotel in Ibiza when we got trapped in a tiny lift, with a sizeable German family and a finite oxygen supply… Or, indeed, that time I got vertigo after climbing to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral with my Dad and, having flattened myself like a starfish against the domed roof, had to be coaxed back down the iron spiral staircase to terra firma, sobbing all the way… The mere recollection makes me whimper.
Anyway, before I recount the torment that is the Joris en de Draak rollercoaster at De Efteling, I should give some context. I am not a thrill-seeker. Never have been, never will be. The presence of a kohlrabi in my vegetable delivery box takes me far enough outside my comfort zone to satisfy any yearning for an adrenaline rush. If there’s a two-foot-high wall, I won’t be jumping off it. My palms sweat when I travel on the down escalator. My favourite ride at Alton Towers theme park was the swan pedalos. You get the picture.
Entirely as you might expect, then, I had never ridden a rollercoaster before. I’d never had to – although I am struggling to imagine a scenario in which one might genuinely be obliged to ride a rollercoaster, unless one is conducting a soul-trade with Satan himself and it’s that or submit to a pitchfork up the rear for all eternity.
I was so thrilled to be back at De Efteling in the Netherlands; my previous visit had been in 1975 or thereabouts, and the place cast a delicious enchantment upon me. My son, of course, gravitated immediately towards the smorgasbord of fairground rides, while I was practically tugging on his t-shirt in my haste to get to the Fairytale Forest (Sprookjebos in Dutch), which looked unchanged since it had so beguiled me as a five-year-old. Three years ago, on the occasion of this return visit, Sean was only just acquiring a taste for adventure, and we spent a happy hour orienting ourselves and gasping at the intrepid tourists riding Baron 1898, which blasts out bloodcurdling operatic music while dangling you many, many metres above a smoke-filled, blue-lit abyss before it plunges. That’s how I get my kicks, watching other people submitting to mortal terror. It’s the perfect sport. Pant-pooping by proxy, if you will.
It was while watching Baron do its thing for the umpteenth time that Sean spied my soon-to-be nemesis: Joris en de Draak (George and the Dragon). A creaking contraption made entirely of timber, with a roaring, rearing dragon at its centre. “The king calls upon all brave citizens,” proclaims the blurb. “Slay the dragon that terrorises the kingdom. All warriors are challenged to take one of the tracks to hunt the beast down with water or fire. Only those who succeed will be greatly honoured after a ride on this double-track wooden racer rollercoaster.” We stood and watched for a few moments. It looked pretty tame, as coasters go. Sean was desperate to have a go on it. How could I disappoint him? Surely even I could brave it. Plus, I really like trees a lot, so their heavy involvement in its construction reassured me. Yep, OK, it was all rather stirring and jolly-sounding. So, we joined the queue, laughing and smiling inanely in accordance with the unwritten code of coaster-queuing conduct.
As we advanced towards the docking station, however, I became aware of an odd sensation, as if my stomach were anxiously prodding at my abdominal wall. The thing was a lot faster, noisier, and altogether more intimidating than it had looked from the perimeter. The carriages juddered to a halt on the platform, disgorging the heroic band of dragon slayers who had ridden before us. As I was ushered into my allotted seat, the sense of foreboding was only augmented by the force with which the ride operator slammed the safety bar into my already strained abdomen, effectively cutting my stomach off from its sibling organs and forcing all the air into my chest cavity. Panic began to mount. Why in God’s name did the bar have to be locked so demonically into place? Are we in real, as opposed to fairytale peril here? Surely only astronauts at lift-off pull their seatbelts this tight?
Whatever, it was too late now. We had already begun the clunking ascent to the launch point. My brain conducted a frantic risk assessment, and the conclusion was not reassuring. The ominous clacking of the wheels was accompanied by a sound horribly reminiscent of nails popping loose at every join in the track and, from this vantage point, it became apparent that the entire, rickety structure had been hastily bashed together by a kindergarten class. We were also really QUITE high up now and those supports looked awfully spindly and – did the track really have to be THIS narrow? That dragon has a nasty glint in its eye, this is all feeling rather aggressive… Oh god, oh god, don’t look down… too late… oh sh*t… The ground is a very, very long way away… I don’t like this, this is really not fun, oh please let it just be over, I really can’t –
Then, all at once, we crested the corner and, with an almighty groan and a jaw-dislocating lurch forward, the coaster hurtled down the first drop. My stomach somehow slipped the confines of the safety bar and careened into my thorax. Terror sucked the bones clean out of my body. My mouth froze in a scream. I was choking on great fists of cold air. My only defence was to screw my eyes tight shut – which, in hindsight, was ill-advised, as it meant surrendering to a black hell of twists, turns, drops, roars, G-force and screeches, never knowing what gut-wrenching, bladder-emptying sensation was coming next…
(They say a picture speaks a thousand words. Well, here you go: me, riding the rollercoaster. Look at us all, having a super-fun time!)
When at last we juddered to a halt, I heaved myself from the car, ashen-faced and cement-limbed, and staggered onto the exit platform. I heard the laughter and excited chatter of my fellow riders as if through a thick sheet of plexiglass. Every solid object appeared fluid, my feet felt emptied of blood and tendons, my tongue lolled thickly in my mouth. I was, in short, in a state of insensible stupefaction.
As I recall, the first words I managed to utter were: “I am not doing that again.”
Treading gingerly, I wended my way back to my natural habitat: the boating lake, and thence to the Fairytale Forest…
In the photo, I’m peering into the very same tree house that I recalled from over four decades ago, feeling a little overwhelmed. The yearning for it all to be real was too strong. Which leads me to wonder: do thrill rides owe some of their appeal to their visceral ‘real-ness’?
Fairytales are, of course, not real. Magical though the Sprookjebos is, in adulthood I felt a sense of frustration at being unable to curl up in the interiors of the crooked little cottages and mushroom-houses, at the impossibility of idling away the day fishing with the elves. Squatting beside the tree house, I was discomfited by my adult mind’s refusal to dissolve into the imaginary realm. It was like gazing at the past through the wrong end of a telescope. The girl whose excitement made those stories believable was too far away.
Riding Joris en de Draak was real alright and, once I stopped feeling as wobbly as a blancmange on a potter’s wheel, I had a delicious endorphin hit. I felt exhilarated. Revisiting the forest, however, left me feeling oddly melancholy and static. As a child, my happiness hadn’t been tainted by logic. I had knelt beside each little house, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as the spellbinding characters within welcomed me into their world. My hands and knees were grubby, my head fizzing with delight. In childhood, the veil between imagination and reality is gossamer-thin; in adulthood, it is not so much a veil as an iron curtain.
Despite those mixed feelings, I would like to return again to De Efteling. It’s a fabulous, fantastical place, a blend of charm and thrills that never tips into exploitative and tacky. And… the bobsleigh ride was shut for maintenance the day we visited. I reckon I could cope with it, you know. I mean, how fast can it be? And you’re enclosed, right, so no risk of falling out, and… erm…
On second thoughts, maybe I’ll just be waiting in the forest, over by the Storytelling Tree…