The chips were certainly down, I‘d put them all on red. Wait, I’m getting confused – that was last night at the casino. Right now I am banking everything on a bright red 1930s biplane which looks disturbingly like it is made out of tin.

The pilot turns to me and says, “I know this doesn’t make sense but I’m afraid of heights.” Comforting words I think as I hop into the plane. I zip up my brown leather flying jacket, leather helmet and “Biggles” goggles, looking like a WWI fighter pilot.  There’s nothing like a fancy dress costume to get you in the mood. It distracts from the fact that my hero pilot is packing it.

Thought of flying upside down and loop-to-loop is already frightening enough, but a driver with vertigo is a kick to the stomach. Speaking of, my stomach was already feeling pretty fragile. A hangover-induced feast at the hotel buffet probably wasn’t the brightest idea. I’m meant to be feeling like Nelly Furtado, flying like a bird, but all I can concentrate on is the sick bag to my right and whether this bird’s upside-down vom will withstand gravity.  

The red and silver Tiger Moth plane is iconic to the Gold Coast, it features in the Tourism Australia commercials and is part of the Gold Coast mise-en-place as much as chiselled surfers and drunk teenagers. In fact, I see it several times on my trip to the Queensland party capital.

The pilot tells me the plane must be started by hand – like a lawnmower, I think. I sit shotgun and focus on the dials, which is pointless because they mean nothing to me. It’s not long before we’re off, gaining momentum in a glorified lawnmower driven by a pilot with vertigo. The smaller the plane, the more nervous I feel. I think of Orville Wright who kept it simple, “the airplane stays up because it doesn’t have the time to fall.” He also said that no plane would ever fly from New York to Paris, but that’s beside the point.

I look around to see my travel buddy taking off behind me in a second plane. His pilot is about 80 years old but is the embodiment of experience. My buddy refers to him as a “salty dog” and he appears as if he’s spent his whole life honing his craft. The only concern I have for them is that my buddy, who is also riding shotgun, is 6”4 and blocking his view. With his huge SLR camera poking outside, I wonder if the pilot can see at all. They glide behind us and we wave to each other as we bob up and down. It feels like we’re in one of those dodgy movies from the Fifties where the planes are flying with strings attached.

Within minutes we’ve hit the coast and have magnificent views of Surfers Paradise. It’s a stunning day and with the open cockpit I have the sun on my face, heating my leather-bound head like a pie in the oven. Did I mention I was starting to feel ill? I block out the fear of illness, just like my pilot must be blocking out the fact that we’re at 4,000ft. He speaks to me through the microphone attached to my head. “We’re about to make our first loop, are you ready?” Ready as I’ll ever be. The plane then tips back and we’re flying vertically towards the clouds. I take a deep breath and soon enough all I can see it the ocean below me. Then we go plummeting down. I scream and hold onto the seat. All I am wearing is a flimsy seatbelt, I can’t understand why I’m not falling through the open cockpit. “Again?” my pilot asks. “I feel like I’m going to fall out,” I scream. “You won’t it’s the 3G forces,” he assures me.

As I struggle to figure out why the internet is keeping me safe, the second loop begins. This time it feels like we’re going in slow motion. I see Surfers Paradise’s skyline, and then I see clouds. Like being on a rollercoaster, my stomach is ripped out and dropped. I’m screaming with delight and I want to go again and again.

I still can’t understand the physics of flying, so I can’t get my head around the idea that I am still in the same position. All I can get my head around is the plastic sick bag to my right.

Ab-zorb it all in

If flying upside down over the ocean isn’t mind-warping and stomach twisting enough, how about strapping yourself up inside a big bouncy ball and rolling down a hill? This phenomena is known as Zorbing. Invented by the slightly unhinged Kiwis, it’s a must-do on your Gold Coast thrill seeking itinerary. The Zorb course is quite surreal, it’s beautifully manicured and green, but at a distance with the giant white ball, it looks like you’re in a golf course and have shrunk to the size of an ant. Maybe I’ve read Alice in Wonderland too many times. Or maybe I am just mentally and physically drained.

The three metre PVC ball has an opening on one side, big enough for a person to squeeze through and be harnessed up. There is more protection in the Zorb than the Tiger Moth plane I think to myself. My buddy and I do the “double,” which means I get to witness his face go bright red every time he goes upside down and hear his bloodcurdling screams every time we go back around. It is like a mirror of screams, he screams then I scream. You could call it a harmony, apart from the occasional “shut the fuck up” dropped in by me. You see, while he is going red, I am turning green.

When we reach the bottom of the hill, I frantically undo my harness and make a mad dash for the bathroom. Now I’m really regretting the big breakfast. But there’s no time for regrets because it’s back to the top of the hill for round two.

This time it’s the hydro challenge. Instead of being strapped in, you’re let loose like a hamster in a wheel to tumble down the hill. If that’s not hard enough, the Zorb masters throw 30 litres of water into the ball. If you can run with the ball and not fall over, your ride is free. Of course, for me this is physically impossible, I slip over as soon as the ball makes its first roll. The rest of the ride can only be described as like a hamster in a washing machine. I emerge soaked and defeated. Then I hear another bloodcurdling scream coming from the golf course…

Tower of terror

The Q1 building in Surfers is quite impressive to look at, like a gun with a bayonet piercing the sky. In actual fact it was inspired by the Sydney 2000 Olympic torch. It must be from all the bloodcurdling screams but this torch looks like a weapon.

It was once the tallest residential building in the world but, because everything is bigger in Dubai, the Q1 has since lost this title. It’s still the tallest in the Southern Hemisphere (if you measure it by the spire). Look, we could get into the numbers game, but at the end of the day it’s a bloody big building and we are about to climb it. We take the lift to level 77 which takes an unbelievable 43 seconds. While most people up are there to drink coffee and enjoy the view, we’re dressed in smashing olive green flight suits, looking like Ghostbusters. Everyone knows we’re not there to vacuum ghosts from the air-con vents but to step outside and attach ourselves to a railing for the daring Skypoint Climb.

We’re now 270 metres above sea level and about to experience some sick mind games from our guide, Rikki. She tells us to lean out over the tower and dangle by the rope that is attached to the railing. Every emotion in your brain tells you not to do this, while logic – and Rikki – says it’s fine. While emotions are stronger than logic, we’re convinced that this will be fine. With the camera-ready, we lean out over edge with the city below us and hang back. Our feet are firmly on the stairs and we rest, as if leaning into a deck chair. Although with fear washing over us like a tsunami, it’s hardly relaxing.

Photos are taken and we move on, climbing higher so we can take in the majestic 360 degree view. On one side you have the surf and the other we see the green hinterland. We all know Surfers is crazy down below, but up here it’s peaceful. Rikki relays some facts about the tower and its residents – both human and of the eagle variety. “You can hear them whistling,” she says, pointing to their nest. I look up to see the tower moving. “Oh yeah, it sways a few feet in the wind, but that’s normal.” Nothing feels normal in the Gold Coast.

Coming up trumps

Although I’d been upside down, visited my breakfast on several occasions, dangled precariously over the tallest building in town and bounced down a hill in a giant ball, there’s no place that gets my heart thumping and my palms sweating like the casino.
I’d consumed my body weight in shots, hopped on a party bus complete with stripper pole, danced in a sweaty nightclub in Broadbeach – where else would I end up at 2am than at Jupiter’s Casino, right?

If I couldn’t get any more degenerate that night, I could here. I was losing. In a big way. But for some reason I was high on my buddy’s win. His chips were piling up and this gave me a sense of hope. But even after rubbing his curly mopped head, my luck continued to go down the toilet. I put my last remaining chips on red and thought about my luck so far. I defied gravity, put my life in the hands of a questionable pilot and cheated death on several occasions. I should probably just quit while I’m ahead. Nah, stuff it, I put it all on red. And lose.

There’s an old Chinese proverb that is relevant to the Gold Coast: “The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.”

I walk back to the hotel ashamed, spending my last few dollars on a pie. At least I have my health, I think. Well, just barely.

Alex travelled as a guest of Gold Coast Tourism. Acrobatic tiger moth flights from $345. (tigermothjoyrides.com.au). Zorb with Oz Ball from $55 per roll. (ozball.com.au). Scale the Q1 Tower with Skypoint Climb from $69 (skypoint.com.au). A bed at Coolangatta Sands Hostel will cost you $29/night. (coolangattasandshostel.com.au) Or for something a little more glam, try the QT Hotel in Surfers Paradise. Twin share from $165/night. (qtgoldcoast.com.au). For more see: visitgoldcoast.com