When it comes to rollercoasters Downunder, there’s now really only one place to go. In the land that Six Flags forgot, the theme parks of Queensland’s Gold Coast more or less have a monopoly on high-speed thrills, with each new high-tech creation vying for the title of Australia’s scariest rollercoaster.
Yet in 1984, the owners of Scenic World, in the beautiful Blue Mountains west of Sydney, had a unique vision. It would be the most unusual rollercoaster in the country and the scariest. It would also be the first one designed and built entirely in Australia.
Was there really a rollercoaster in the Blue Mountains?
By the 1980s, Scenic World already had two popular rides in operation. The Scenic Railway carried visitors from the escarpment to the floor of the Jameson Valley on the steepest ride of its kind. Meanwhile, the Scenic Skyway carried visitors across the valley via aerial cable car, offering awesome views. Still in operation today, both are slow rides that focus on the scenery while offering hikers a ride to some of the area’s less accessible trails.
So, who had the crazy idea to send visitors hurtling at high speed toward a 200m/656ft drop?
That credit goes to Scenic World founder Harry Hammon. Harry had bought the rights to the abandoned coal railway in 1945 and turned it into a scenic railway. This laid the foundation for what Scenic World is today. His original vision, shared with his son Phillip, was a monorail ride, circumnavigating the park with incredible views of Orphan Rock, a popular landmark for hikers and sightseers in the Blue Mountains.
The duo, both skilled engineers, soon decided to up the excitement by making their ride a rollercoaster, teaming with Melbourne engineers to design the Orphan Rocker. It would be the first-ever sit-down coaster with trains that could tilt from side to side in a ‘rocking’ motion similar to mine carts. The coaster’s biggest thrill came with a sweeping turn just metres from the cliff’s edge. Visitors who weren’t too busy screaming would get an eyeful of the Jameson Valley at its most spectacular for a few magical seconds before being whisked back into the bush.
But the Orphan Rocker never opened, and the reasons why have been the subject of gossip, innuendo, and spooky speculation ever since.
What happened to the Orphan Rocker?
You won’t find mention of the Orphan Rocker on Scenic World’s website, but the mystery immerses you as soon as you enter the park. The thrill ride’s disused track still looms over the entrance, welcoming visitors with its skeletal promise of a screaming good time. Most tour operators have a story at the ready, full of allusions to missing test dummies or sandbags depending on who’s telling the tale. Others go darker still, claiming that entire trains met their fate on the coaster’s infamous turns, plummeting into the Jameson Valley. The Hammons, who still own and run Scenic World today, adamantly dismiss these claims.
So why did the Orphan Rocker never open? Is there any truth to the legends?
Or… was the ride simply cursed?
Harry Hammon cheerfully talked up the Orphan Rocker as the world’s ‘most dangerous’ rollercoaster in anticipation of the ride’s opening. Be warned, the 80s hair and fashion in these TV spots might be scarier than the ride itself. But the Orphan Rocker did make complete, safe circuits—at least 500 according to the Hammons—including some with human passengers, all of whom returned unscathed. In addition, no sandbags or ‘Rocker wreckage’ have ever been found on the valley floor, despite the urban myths.
What kept the Orphan Rocker from opening?
In 1999, Phillip Hammon cited ‘safety issues’ as the reason for what was by then a 15-year delay. This might refer to heavily upgraded Australian safety standards in the 1980s, as increasingly high-tech coasters became popular attractions in Australia’s theme parks. By the time Scenic World completed work to meet those standards, the residents of serene Katoomba had raised their own concerns about a high-speed joy ride raising noise levels in their backyard. Rising visitor numbers had meanwhile forced Scenic World to devote its resources to other park developments including the Scenic Cableway, which to this day offers visitors a steady and comfortable descent to the valley floor.
The simple, not so exciting explanation might be: Who had time to perfect an ambitious rollercoaster with all that going on?
Is there a future for the Orphan Rocker?
As late as 2006, Scenic World’s team remained adamant that the Orphan Rocker would open. Anthea Hammon, Phillip’s daughter, said that she had ridden the coaster ‘hundreds of times.’ She insisted the ride had always met safety standards, and that the continued upgrades were about ensuring rider comfort.
But by 2017, Scenic World had dismantled sections of the now rusting track, 33 years after work on the coaster began. With them went seemingly any hope that the Orphan Rocker would open to the public. Even with a green light from officials and Katoomba residents, the project would almost certainly require a complete replacement and rebuild to open today. For Scenic World, which draws over a million visitors every year as it is, there seems little incentive to get the Rocker up and rolling.
But even if the Orphan Rocker would never run, it has arguably earned its keep by reputation alone. The mysterious ride has attracted rollercoaster fans, mystery seekers, dark tourists, and others in search of a good story since the Hammons offered punters that first look. It stands as one of Australia’s great tourism mysteries, the subject of countless theories, and a testament to the bold ambition of the family behind one of Australia’s most successful tourist attractions.
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