It’s the latest fix satisfying the cravings of the most hardened adrenalin junkies. You climb to the highest point at the edge of the deepest crevasse you can find and keep walking into the sky until the ground disappears beneath your feet. As you step into the void, you look down.
Fortunately, you are standing on several layers of reinforced glass so you don’t fall into the abyss although you can see it clearly, between your knocking knees.
You are over the edge, ‘walking on air’ and on a high as every muscle in your body slams on the brakes while your brain struggles to figure it all out. That is, if you haven’t fainted.
Just thinking about it sends shivers up the spine and there’s a scientific word for the sensation – kinaesthesia – the famous sixth sense discovered by 19th century psychologists who realised muscles are capable of receiving sensations from the spinal cord and should therefore be considered sentient.
And while some of us are squeamish about heights, others get a massive kick from the risk associated with dizzying altitudes, and the perception of ‘walking in the sky’ only increases the buzz.
Hence, the trend for glass-bottomed high-altitude platforms is sweeping the world, tapping into our thirst for new sensations through the ‘thrill of transparency’. Today no city or resort calling itself a tourist destination is without its see-through aerial attraction. Toronto’s CN Tower was the forerunner with its 342-metre high transparent-floored observation deck.
Now they are everywhere from Asia to the Alps, built into suspension bridges and rickety mountain paths, jutting from rooftops and hovering over gorges in some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. China is the world leader in extreme glass walkways. They grace many of its 225 national parks and wherever there are mountains high enough, the Middle Kingdom is building them.
Even historic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and London’s Tower Bridge have had glass viewing platforms retrofitted to cash in on the lucrative trend for frightening the pants off tourists. Belinda Beckett set off on a vicarious search of the world’s scariest skywalks. Two of them are in our very own backyard.
The newest kid on the Skywalk block, Gibraltar’s classy glass viewing platform is perched like a gull at the Rock’s pinnacle, providing jaw-dropping views of two continents from a vertiginous 340 metres above sea level.
At this dizzying height – taller than the London Shard – it puts visitors on eye level with migrating birds and the Rock’s famous Barbary macaques whose territory extends to the summit.
The 6.7 metre glass overhang appears to float in the sky, permitting spectators to gaze down Gibraltar’s sheer east face over a miniaturised landscape where monster container ships in the bay are reduced to dinky toy proportions.
Built on the foundations of a WWII gun base, the attraction was opened this spring by none other than Mr Luke Skywalker himself. Mark Hamill, unrecognisable as the Jedi knight in a smooth cashmere coat, cut the red ribbon with his lightsaber. “You see Africa, you see Spain, it is breath-taking really,”said the 66-year-old Star Wars hero.
Accessed by lift or on foot from the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, the Skywalk’s quadruple layers of laminated glass can support the weight of 5 Asian elephants or 340 humans, although visitor numbers will be limited to 50 at any one time.
The high level project was created by Gibraltar construction company Bovis-Koala JV which also designed Gibraltar’s other new aerial attraction, the Windsor Suspension Bridge.
Words Belinda Beckett / Photography © Stephen Ball for Bovis Koala JV