Pipeline Bungy, Queenstown
Pipeline Bungy, Queenstown

How Travel Helped Me Overcome My Fear of Heights

Sharing is caring!

by the normally brave Terry McKenna.

We have been travelling full time since February 2016, and we have experienced many wonderful places and experiences.  We have grown as individuals and as a couple, even though we had been married more than 30 years when we set out on this adventure.

What I didn’t expect was how travel helped me overcome my fear of heights.

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Petronas Towers
The imposing Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, that Skybridge looks a little shaky

We stood looking up at the walkway that links the two towers of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was overcome by a terror that I couldn’t control. I could not face walking across open space 41 floors above the ground with only a bit of floorboard beneath my feet.

There was no way I was going up there!

But, I desperately wanted to. I wanted to walk across the walkway between the towers, and then go up to the observation deck on the 86th floor.  Not to do so would leave me feeling inadequate that I had submitted to my fear.

Why I needed to Overcome My Fear of Heights

Looking back, a fear of heights had been there for a while.

I was fine flying in planes as I figured there is nothing I could do if the plane fell out of the sky.  As a young boy, I had jumped off high platforms, climbed trees and abseiled down the side of cliffs without a problem.

I don’t know what had changed.

We were a few weeks into a 4-month trip through Asia on our way to Europe with a four-day stopover in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While there we would do a day trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa is in Dubai.

Oh, how I wanted to have ascended to floor 148 of the tallest building in the world. How could I do that when I could not even go up a measly 41 floors?


Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk, Australia

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Maura and I on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a smile hiding the terror?

I recall doing the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb in 2008 with Maura, all was good until we reached the top and had to cross to the other side.

With nothing but a steel mesh grate beneath my feet and 134m to the sea below. I was close to being frozen, but was making my way slowly across when Maura passed me and grabbed my arm saying, “come on.”

“Don’t touch me, get away from me” I yelled at her while brushing her arm aside.

I feared her assistance would somehow send me flying over the edge and crashing down on the traffic below.

We eventually made it across and patched up marital relations later.

Sky Tower, Auckland, New Zealand

Sky Tower, Auckland
Our boys seem ok looking down through the glass floor at Auckland’s Sky Tower

Maura may have recalled some years ago in 2001 at Auckland’s Sky Tower how hesitant I was to stand on the glass floor 220m above the ground.

Our three young sons were with us, who seemed to have no problem tiptoeing across the glass. So I had to do it – but very quickly, I did not enjoy it at all.


Pipeline Bungy, Skippers Canyon, Queenstown, New Zealand


In 2003 as part of a corporate event in Queenstown, New Zealand, for some reason, I elected a bungy jump instead of playing golf or having a spa massage.

So, with fifteen others, we all decided to leap off the Pipeline Bridge in Skippers Canyon, 102m over the Shotover River.

Sounds easy, but there was a major issue.

The Pipeline bridge is a narrow suspension bridge so as everyone went to the side of the bridge to watch their colleague jump, the bridge would tip slightly.

Having to spend an hour waiting for my turn, shitting myself the whole time especially when someone jumped, as the bridge would tip again.

But finally, when my turn arrived, I donned the bungee cord around my feet and stood at the edge thinking ‘I must be crazy!’

My mate (who shall remain nameless because he will probably read this) had not acquitted himself well, sort of collapsing off the bridge in a feeble duck dive, but at least he made the jump. I wasn’t going to do that or be like Grant who was the only one of the crew to back out.

So, I did what I believe was a glorious swan dive (I have the video as proof, somewhere) thinking “I can’t believe I am doing this!” But I did do it.

More feelings of terror ensued as after the rope stopped bouncing, I was still 20m above the water, just hanging there. “Oh, please get me down” and they eventually lowered me down into a waiting boat.

It was so exhilarating to have done it, I wanted to do it again! But I didn’t want to pay the $80.

Now Back to Petronas Towers

So, there we were in Kuala Lumpur going into the iconic Petronas Towers.  I had begrudgingly said to Maura I would go up (a minor panic induced temper tantrum preceded the decision).

Do you know how relieved I was when we got to the counter to buy our tickets and they told us the skywalk was closed for maintenance for the month?

Ha! No point going up to the 86th floor if you can’t do the skywalk at the 41st.

So, we saved some money and I could relax for the day sightseeing with my feet safely on the ground.

Bitexco Tower, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Bitexco Tower, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietbam
The 68-floor Bitexco Tower, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

A few weeks later we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and as we wandered along Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street we saw the 292m tall, 68-floor Bitexco Tower, the tallest building in the city.

We found out the tower had a great viewing platform on the 49th floor, this was a chance to show Maura I wasn’t a wuss.

So we paid the entrance fee, then went boldly up in the elevator. But not before I had quizzed the attendant to ensure the lift was not a glass view or that any of the floors or walls were see through.

I couldn’t bear the thought of going all that way up in a see-through elevator.

We left the elevator and headed towards the windows to enjoy the view, I was feeling quite comfortable.

Panic at Bitexco Tower

If you have seen a picture of the tower, you will notice there is a disc-shaped platform that protrudes from the building, a helipad.

Suddenly, I had a burst of panic that we were within this disc with nothing but a bit of tin below our feet.

I went straight to the information attendant asking, ‘where are we?’ She obviously thought she had a crazy person to deal with and immediately called security.

By the time they arrived, I had managed to communicate that I was afraid we were unsafe in the disc structure. She reassured me, explaining we were in the main part of the building and there was plenty of structure beneath our feet, and the helipad is on floor 52, above us.

Panic over, I went about enjoying the views, but when Maura leaned her head against the window that slanted outwards, I couldn’t do the same.

Maura leaning back
Maura showing off by leaning back against the glass, I just couldn’t do it

Vue Bar, Hyatt on the Bund, Shanghai, China

How I overcame my fear of heights through Travel
Feeling relaxed at the Vue Bar, Shanghai, was I over my fear of heights, or was it the alcohol?

The next tall building we came across was when we visited our friend Jane in Shanghai, a couple of weeks later.

Jane and Brett took us out on the town, and the highlight was going up to the Vue Bar on the 33rd floor of the Hyatt on the Bund building.

The bar is, in fact, open air all that way up. You would think this would have been a recipe for disaster. But for whatever reason, maybe the alcohol, fear did not rear its ugly head and we had a wonderful night enjoying the views and the sunset.

Was my fear a thing of the past? Not quite.


Heaven’s Ladder, Great Wall of China

Heavens' Ladder, more like Hell's Staircase!
Heavens’ Ladder, more like Hell’s Staircase!

We spent a month travelling in China, and of course, the Great Wall of China was a must see. We spent two days on this magnificent structure.

Day one was on the Mutianyu section, wonderfully restored and is a major tourist destination. It was a superb day and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  Day two was a different story.

We had stayed with a Chinese family in a homestay. The owner Mr Chow took us to an unrestored section at the Jiankou Great Wall. We walked passed signs saying ‘No entry for tourists’ as we clambered on to broken parts of the wall. Finally, after an hour we came in sight of one section called  ‘Heaven’s Ladder’.

Heavens’ Ladder, more like Hell’s Staircase!

This was a staircase that had collapsed, and we were to climb it.

I don’t think this experience necessarily counts as a fear of heights, more a real fear of death, as one slip would see you plummet on to stone blocks below.

Heaven’s Ladder comprises a structure of stone steps and is around 80 metres (262 feet) high. The staircase was built between 1551-1555 on an impassable near-vertical cliff. And it is one of the most dangerous sections of the Great Wall.

We didn’t know that at the time.

The first part of the climb is relatively mild, and I had no concerns.  That changed when I was about halfway up.

The incline had sharpened to about 70 degrees, and when I made the mistake of looking down I suddenly froze. Shit, how embarrassing!

Fortunately, one of the guys started chatting with me and I continued up to the top. But I was in a state of near-terror the rest of the climb. I was so relieved to get to the top.

Chinese blogger Guo Shi said climbing the Jiankou Great Wall is a process of showing respect. ‘You don’t conquer it, instead, it accepts you’. 

The excitement of getting to the top is only temporary, you still have the climb back down.  This was even more difficult, but I managed it without any of the dramas on the way up.

Travel Blog Two Days on the Great Wall of China

Maura descending Heaven’s Ladder.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Burj Khalifa, Dubai
The view from the observation platform of the Burj Khalifa

And so, we arrived in Abu Dhabi for four days in the UAE. One of those days we would visit Dubai and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

Would we go up?

Or would there be another hissy fit from yours truly?

Yes, let’s do it!

So, we bought the ticket and ascended the fast elevator to the top. Guess what, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, with no feelings of fear or panic what so ever.

Travel Blog Abu Dhabi and Dubai

Am I a Recovered Acrophobic?

Belfry, Bruges
Looking down into the Market Square from the Belfry

We have now spent two and a half years travelling, much of it in Europe.  We have been up so many towers and tall buildings that it’s hard to count.

So how did I go from being a whimpering mess to actually looking forward to clambering up staircases to the viewing platform?

Mark Twain said, “Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.”

Never have truer words been spoken.

While it is easier said than done and you will have moments when you wish you were anywhere else. The feeling of overcoming a fear is euphoric.

It makes travel so much more enjoyable when you arrive in a beautiful town like Bruges, Belgium. And even better when you can climb the 366 steps of the Belfry to see the wonderful views. And enjoy every minute of it.

There are still one or two ‘moments’ that cause concern.

Like when we were crossing a narrow ledge beneath the amazing Puente Nuevo, in Ronda, Spain. I had some butterflies that decided to fly out of formation in my stomach. I dropped to my knees and crawled very unmanfully to the other side.

But in general, I feel I am over the Acrophobia that had plagued me.

Go travelling, it will cure many phobias.

Oh, did I tell you about how I had a fear of eating bugs before we started travelling?

Terry enjoying fried grasshoppers in Bangkok

But as they say, that’s another story!


  1. Kevin says:

    Well done Terry. Made me smile. I probably would have had some of those scary sensations. My brother used to freak me out with some of his antics on the eroded edges of the Patea cliffs.

    • TravelKiwis says:

      It is a little bizarre, some places I have no problems at all, others send me weak at the knees. Still, I am glad to have worked on it as I love looking over the tops of cities from towers, the views are great and it gives a new perspective on the layout of a town.

  2. Jo says:

    Awesome work Terry, you’ve certainly done some high spots of the world. I’ll never overcome being given crispy little grasshopper bugs dipped in hot chilli to eat in Mexico though.

    • TravelKiwis says:

      Thanks Jo, there have certainly been some moments along the way that I wished I was anywhere else but up high. Bugs are another story – I was horrendously sick a few hours after eating those bugs in Bangkok, lol. I do like to try differnet foods, but maybe next time I’ll skip the bugs.

Comments are closed.