A Backpacker’s Tale of Three Towers

There is something timeless about a tower. Historians believe man have been building them from at least as far back as 8000BC. Although towers have many practical purposes, often used in the past for military defence, they are frequently emblematic of something greater.

The Bible contains the famous story of the Tower of Babel, where a united people drunk with ambition attempted to build a massive tower up into the heavens, only for God to confound their language and put a massive spanner in the works.

Interestingly, men today seem to build vast towers and other tall buildings for similar reasons – to demonstrate their engineering prowess, and to show others the ‘heights’ they can achieve. Extremely tall buildings like Malaysia’s Petronas Towers and, more recently, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, are rarely practical or cost effective. The price of such projects are far in excess of what it would be to build a series of smaller structures with the same floor space. But that’s hardly the point. The tower acts as a massive phallic symbol, demonstrating to the world: mine is bigger than yours.

IMG_1466Glass panels installed in the Sky Tower, Auckland

I have been fortunate enough to observe some of these huge structures on my travels, most recently the Sky Tower in Auckland, currently the tallest man-made structure in the southern hemisphere.

From a distance, the Sky Tower looks like a giant hypodermic needle piercing the sky, and since its completion in 1997 it has injected some much needed diversity into an otherwise unremarkable Auckland skyline. There are two viewing levels and a bar/restaurant all offering spectacular panoramic views of the city. But apart from the view, you don’t get much else for your buck, or 28 kiwi bucks, which I thought a bit pricey. If you’re brave enough, and you have the funds (I was not, and don’t), you can do a ‘skywalk’ on a metal grid floor around the perimeter, or a ‘sky jump’ off the edge using a cable to descend some 190 metres.

Petronas Sears sky tower

We went in the evening, which is a good time to go as you have an opportunity to watch the sunset and take pictures of the spectacle. Alternatively, you can head to the restaurant for a cocktail and observe it from there. We chose the latter, and the cocktails were reasonably priced by kiwi standards (which is extortion on a grand scale), but I’m pretty sure they only gave us one double shot of alcohol (30mls in New Zealand, 15mls being a single – I know, right!?).

A casino is housed in same complex, which I would tell you about, but I was refused entry one night for having the wrong ID (passport required), even though I’m thirty-four, was sporting a beard, possessed a British driving licence, and was relatively sober. Unfortunately, this is a common theme in New Zealand where New World, a kiwi supermarket, is among the worst offenders. My passport is not something I wish to carry around, especially while out drinking. As a result, overzealous establishments must do without my paltry custom.

IMG_1460Photo taken from the lower viewing deck of the Sky Tower in Auckland

For six years between 1998 and 2004, Petronas Twin Towers were the tallest buildings in the world. Although I had seen them from afar in 2003, it wasn’t until 2010, on a transitory stop in Kuala Lumpur between Bangkok and Sydney, that I got an opportunity to study them up close. I had booked into a cheap hotel, had a sleep, and had several hours to kill before my flight that evening. The towers dominate the cityscape and I could see them clearly from my hotel balcony (who am I kidding, it was a merely a window), so I decided to dander over and have a look.

The dander turned into a hot, sweaty hike as the towers were much further away than they first appeared. By the time I found them, I was parched and hungry. I immediately noticed a Kentucky Fried Chicken in an adjacent complex. I touched the side of a tower, squinted up at its hulk to get an idea of its height, couldn’t, and went for a Colonel Meal with a large coke. Rice replaced the fries though, which was disappointing.

Petronas TowersPetronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur,  Malaysia, replaced Sears Tower as world’s tallest buildings

I later discovered that I could have gone up to the sky bridge and then on to the 86th floor free of charge at the time, provided I was among the first one thousand visitors that day, which I might well have been. It just goes to show, a little bit of prior research can go a long way.

Sears Tower, now called Willis Tower, held the title of tallest building in the world for twenty-five years, following its completion in 1973. I was in Chicago in the summer of 2012, and thought I may as well do the tourist thing and take a ride to the top. Like Auckland’s Sky Tower, it has glass floor panels that you can stand on if you’re brave enough. In Willis Tower, these are in the form of glass balconies, which are incredibly unnerving to step onto, especially if, like me, you are terrified of heights.

My palms are sweating now at the mere thought of it, but at the time I managed to ease myself out onto one of these transparent terraces on my back, fix a smile on my face, and take a quick selfie. I might have taken some more, but a young girl decided to practice the River Dance beside my head, or something similar, and I was forced to beat a hasty retreat.

Sears/Willis TowerSears Tower, now called Willis Tower, was inspired by a cigarette advert

At $19.50 USD entry, it’s only slightly cheaper than entry to Auckland’s Sky Tower, but you get a little bit more for your money in the shape of video footage and oral commentary: these offer interesting stats and historical information on the building. Plus, it’s taller.