Digging deep in Vegas
THE engine roared and I could feel the power at my fingertips as the digger's bucket ripped through the earth. I could hear Jerry the instructor's voice in my headphones, encouraging me to gently nudge the lever to dig the bucket in. Cautiously, I did so - until the 20-tonne metal beast I was sitting in rocked back slightly.
Satisfied that I had a good load, I lifted the digger's arm and tucked the bucket in. As I glanced up nervously to check if it was safe to swing the arm, my eyes rested briefly on the Las Vegas skyline.
The Las Vegas? Yes, the city of gambling, clubs, singers ... and diggers.
There I was, inside the air-conditioned cab of a real digger. Outside was dirt, dust, 45C heat and Vegas.
When my three-year-old tomboy daughter, Greer, heard I was going to Las Vegas, all she wanted was a digger.
"Please Daddy, I want a digger. Bring me a digger from 'merica, 'egas," she begged.
On the outskirts of the gambling capital of the world, in a dusty paddock, is the most unusual theme park you will ever find. Dig This is the ultimate boys' zone, where you can have some fun with the digger or bulldozer of your choice.Fortunately getting a digger, and driving one, is a fairly easy task in Vegas.
At the end of it all, you get a certificate that says: "It is also hereby recognised that this person, in addition to Digging it, totally Dug it at Dig This."
Quite corny, but it sums up the outing quite well.
As we arrived at the industrial site a short motorway drive from The Strip, a stocky, friendly looking man strode towards us.
"How's it going?" he said with an all-too-familiar twang. "I'm Ed."
Ed, it turned out, is 45-year-old Ed Mumm, the owner and founder of Dig This and, as the twang announced, he's from Dunedin.
A playground full of diggers for people to drive in Vegas - only a Kiwi could come up with a concept like that.
Ed, who lives in Denver, Colorado, and commutes regularly, started Dig This six months ago. He blames it on a midlife crisis, but says he wishes he had thought of it earlier.
His theme park is aimed at tourists and companies wanting to take their staff on a team-building exercise, but is open to anyone who wants to jump on a digger and rip some earth ... and is prepared to pay for the experience.
A three-hour session, including three activities on the digger, transfers to and from Vegas and the safety lesson, costs US$400 (about $480), while a mini-dig for an hour and a half, like I did, is US$210. It may seem a bit, but it is worth every penny.
I must admit to having a few butterflies as we were taken through our training course. It all sounded so simple. Push this lever to lift the arm up, push that one down to open the bucket.
Theory exam passed, we headed out to the lot where two big diggers and two bulldozers sat - quite far apart from each other, I was relieved to see. Phew, that meant there was less chance of me causing major damage - or any damage, for that matter.
Jerry Wheeler, the instructor, was a laid-back character, and it turned out this was a quality he would require in bucketloads when trying to guide me through a simple set of tasks. Put it this way, there were ebbs and flows in my learning curve. Positioned a safe distance away from me, Jerry was patience personified.
Once I got the hang of things, it got easier. This is not a game for cowboys, though, and quick actions and extravagant manoeuvres are discouraged, as is dumping bucketloads of sand from great heights.
"Keep the bucket low," says Jerry. "You don't want the dust flying everywhere."
Ahh, the dust. It is everywhere and not conducive to throwing tonnes of dirt around. Also sneakily positioned right next door to Dig This is Vegas' version of the Dust Police. The organisation that monitors air quality in Vegas keeps a close eye on proceedings at the United State's number-one heavy equipment playground.
So much so, that the paddock where we were having such fun is watered several times a day.
Feeling confident now, I moved on to the next task - picking up tractor tyres and placing them somewhere else. This proved to be a bit beyond my capabilities, so I satisfied my childish urge by giving the top tyre on a pile a whack.
"Harder than that," said Jerry in my ear. I needed no further encouragement - one swift nudge and the massive tyre tumbled down like it was a toy.
With that, my experience came to an end, with not enough time to enjoy a game of digger basketball.
As I walked in the heat back to Dig This' air-conditioned offices, I had one unfinished task - getting a digger for Greer.
That evening I phoned to tell her I had a model digger in my hands.
"Is it a red one?" she asked.
"No, a yellow one, but I did drive a digger," I replied.
"All by yourself?" she replied incredulously.
Yes, all by myself - with Jerry in my ear.