Sydney Harbour Bridge

When I lived in London, I never did anything touristy unless one of my American friends came to town – and then I would gird up my loins for the trip to Greenwich or Buckingham Palace, or Hyde Park Corner.  I never did make it to the Tower of London in ten years of living there.

My genial Australian seminar organizers and mates for these two weeks Brad (sharp-eyed, athletic, shaven-headed) and Geoff (gentle -eyed, but observant, with the resigned, tolerant, and self-aware air common to fathers of three girls), had never climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, but they bought tickets for my visit.








When I was here before at the end of ‘87, you couldn’t climb on the bridge, though I did see the bicentennial fireworks, sitting with my one-year-old daughter who learned to walk on a Sydney porch.  They have continued the fireworks tradition, trying each year to outdo the last.

I don’t know what I was thinking  – that we were just going to walk up the bridge, and these guys are athletes, like most Australians, so I imagined being humiliated as they sprinted to the top.  I didn’t bring any trainers – was going to buy them on the way to the airport, forgot, they are mightily expensive here – so here I am in boat shoes.

But the Bridge Climb was a good choice, and a totally unexpected variation on a carnival ride.  I thought it was a lot of overplayed palaver at first – the T-shirts and Sno-Globes for sale in the lobby, the photos of celebrities who have made the walk (the most recent and most famous being Oprah the previous month). The orientation in a series of locker rooms, medical forms and taking a breathalyzer test (two people were eliminated on that one), getting into a jump suit like an astronaut, going through a metal detector, strapping on a hankie, clipping on a cap and lanyarding your sunglasses (nothing, but nothing, must drop), a raincoat, and a radio with a headset – seemed totally over the top just to walk up a bridge.

There were about 12 in the group, all pleasant enough.  Most were from overseas, including a couple from Carolina and a fellow from Toronto (with one ‘Stry-an with a thickened accent of flat vowels presumed to lecture us Americans and Canadians on the Queen’s English).  The oldest in the party, Maureen, was going up for her 70th birthday with her daughter.  I wasn’t very hopeful be the time we set out 45 minutes later – seemed like a tourist trap and a doddle.

Finally, you drew yourself into a belt system with a webbing strap – just like the one I clip myself into my boat with when the going gets rough.  The end of the strap was a unique and clever little yo-yo-shaped metal doohickey that we threaded onto a steel wire as we stepped out of the staging area and onto the bridge-work.  We all went single-file in the same order all the way, as were always strung to the wire.

At this point, I was glad of all the prep and safety gear.  Five stories above the street on a tiny catwalk with a metal mesh floor, I tried to hide my fear from my compadres (morbid fear of heights didn’t enter our conversations about organizing workshops), but I was alternately gripping my strap or a handrail, as we traversed metal ladders up past the road and railways, and up onto the bridge itself.

Once onto the span (still the longest single-arch metal bridge in the world – go somewhere else for the factoids of how much metal was used, and why it is the record-holder still – the only ones I remember are an estimated 10,000 rivets dropped into Sydney Harbor and that 16 people were killed in the making, and one Irishman who fell survived by hitting the water just right – straight as an arrow and toes pointed – and came up with only three broken ribs) the fear was over.  The arches on each side are wide, the climb easy, and the power of the wind abated by being strapped in.

One sits astride the city, stretching out in all directions from the sea to the Blue Mountains.  The view from the top is magnificent; looking down at the Sydney Opera House, of course, the most recognizable building in the world, and the complex waterways of this vibrant cities that combines the best of LA, Seattle, and New Orleans.  Out away lay Manley Head, the last land before the endless Pacific.  Sailing yachts, tugboats, ferries, tankers, and luxury motor yachts passed under us while we were up there.  We could see schools of fish jumping in the green waters of the bay.  Our guide Darren pointed out the sites and pumped a steady stream of cheerful information to us through the headsets of the radio.

The whole thing was exhilarating and very worthwhile.  By the trip down I was very nonchalant, pulling my yo-yo along the wire with aplomb.  I found the business aspects most interesting.  Many governmental obstacles had to be overcome, and the thing took nine years to put together (the Bridge Climb, not the ridge itself – that took less).  It used up the fortune of the man who pioneered it.

Over 200 employees work this gig, taking up to 1800 people safely up and down the bridge in a day.  Now they are raking it in, and it is very well-run.  Of course they take photos and get you for that on your way out.

Most intriguing to me was the security system that they had to perfect to get governmental permission to do this business: You were never off the steel wire from the moment you stepped into the catwalk until the moment you stepped back in.  There was no way that you could remove the yo-yo from the wire, even if you wanted to.

Even your hip belt was cleverly constructed so that you could not remove it from yourself if you chose this way to end your life spectacularly.  Even if you managed to get a ceramic box cutter onto the bridge like some terrorist, it would take you so long to get through the webbing that Darren & Co would have been on you like white on rice.  I find my fear is less of falling than of jumping – that the devil in me will urge me over the edge against my other will and better judgment.  But even here they are protective and protected – you couldn’t commit suicide on this ‘ride’ even if you wanted.

Down the bins with the jump suits and recover your goods from the locker, and back through the lobby to the street.  Touristy it may be, and expensive it is, but it is a unique opportunity to see a unique bit of engineering in two forms: the bridge itself, and the operation to take people up and down it with absolute safety.

Though I wonder how we would all feel if an earthquake such as happened at Christchurch, New Zealand last week had occurred when we were on the bridge.


One Response to “Sydney Harbour Bridge”

  1. Quan Says:

    I can’t believe you climbed that bridge in your boat shoes!

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