A hundred kilometres west of Sydney sits a roller coaster patiently waiting for its final verdict.
Designed and built in Australia during the 1980s, this 840-metre steel coaster is a first of its kind. Its carriages act like an old mine cart as it reaches a top speed of 45 kilometres an hour through the dense forest above the valley. Its bone-white track slices through the brush, swooping through tunnels and under bridges, with a heavily banked curve mere metres away from a 200-metre drop to the valley floor. And for 33 years the Orphan Rocker has sat at Scenic World in Katoomba – almost finished, almost ready for its first passengers, with little hope to hold onto.
But as the paint continues to erode, as track pieces silently vanish, one thing remains a mystery – why has it never opened?
“The roller coaster has never publicly opened due to demands for redevelopment elsewhere on site,” said a spokesperson for Scenic World.
“The attraction was completed in the 1980’s but would require additional investment to open.”
Another answer to this question came from Anthea Hammon, grand-daughter of the man who designed and built the Orphan Rocker, Harry Hammon.
In a 2006 article published by the Sydney Morning Herald, Anthea said while she wants to get the roller coaster opened for the public, hooking into and devoting time to it is a big challenge.
“It’s not that there is a lot of work to be done on the Orphan Rocker,” Anthea said. “It is more a time issue, and other projects simply have more priority.”
But you don’t build something without a plan to open it, we hear you say. Well, the Orphan Rocker seen today was first intentioned as a monorail, not a roller coaster. However, it was still planned. Throughout its 32 years, the Orphan Rocker has seen numerous upgrades. According to Roller Coaster Database (RCDB), an online collection of the world’s roller coasters, several track pieces were replaced during the 1990s and hub wheels were replaced in 2002. It also saw a repainting in mid-2001.
And it is true there were rumours about the prolonged wait, with some saying tests of the roller coaster were a failure with cars dislodging from the track or that sandbags used to replicate riders were going missing during test-runs. But these have been rebuked by Scenic World, and even by Anthea herself who says she rode it “hundreds of times”.
If there’s one thing a journalist learns, it’s to never give up. Another thing they learn is that the local council knows all. This led me to uncover brief minutes for an ordinary meeting over a development application by Scenic World, proposing extensions to their hours of operation. And in the 122-page document, it is found some locals are concerned about noise disturbances.
On that note, I decided it was time to take the 2-hour journey inland and talk to the locals.
While some were surprised to hear a roller coaster existed at all, many repainted the rumours of mechanical faults and testing failures. But then there was Lorraine – known by her first name only – who has resided next to Scenic World for over a decade.
Lorraine first told the story of the Steam Clock, a gift to Scenic World by former Managing Director of the family attraction, Philip Hammon.
“It goes off every hour, and you can hear it right across the valley,” she said. “It hoots out the time. And it starts at 9 and it finishes at 5, and one hoot at every quarter of an hour.”
“A number of the residents complained, and one of the residents got up a petition against the clock,” she said.
The Steam Clock was approved by council on the condition it adheres to the 9am-5pm curfew, according to the previously-mentioned 122-page document.
The document also discusses a noise survey conducted in July 2014, two months after the installation of the Steam Clock.
“This survey includes noise reading associated with the steam clock as well as other operational factors such as idling buses, motor room noises, patrons and the car park area,” the document reads.
“The approach taken in setting the noise parameters is considered acceptable in this regard.”
Lorraine’s second story was on the proposed changes to Scenic World’s hours of operation. Originally their trading hours were 9am-5pm, but the new changes proposed for 8am-9pm. Lorraine objected.
“Anthea was lovely when she came over after I objected to the noise of them staying open later,” she said. “I explained to the council in my letter [that] the buses just fly past here,”
“And there’s so many during the day. If that went on and on and on, til 9’clock at night…”
Lorraine paused to reflect.
“We [the residents of Katoomba] like our peace.”
According to Lorraine, Anthea compromised by adding soundproof windows to her house, which she accepted.
But as for the Orphan Rocker, Lorraine’s opinion is settled.
“Just the thing trundling along [the track] is bad enough,” Lorraine said. “But people yelling, screaming, yahooing–”
She shook her head. “No, No.”
Lorraine believes it doesn’t fit with the other attractions at Scenic World – the Railway, Skyway and Cableway.
“They’re attractions to show you the view, to show you the glorious mountain views, and take you down to the valley floor so you can get out and have a walk, or you can go across [the Skyway] and see the canopy from one station to the other,” Lorraine said.
“[The Orphan Rocker] is just a joyride.”
While many thrillseekers might disagree, you can’t help but consider the convictions of a country town. You don’t move one hundred kilometres out of the city to be bombarded by noise, after all. As well as that, a rollercoaster doesn’t really fit with scenic rides that provide nature-based experiences. These must be the main reasons why the rollercoaster never opened.
As the Orphan Rocker continues to be dismantled, it appears certain that the plans for opening this thrill ride are non-existent. But with Scenic World’s continued achievements in the realm of tourism, including ongoing improvements to their existing rides, it’s a resolution left in experienced hands.