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Top of the bottom of the world



Sydney, November 2000. Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House

The Harbour Bridge. The Old Coathanger. Call it what you will; alongside the Opera House, the Bridge is one of Sydney’s two most recognisable landmarks. I remember being intensely jealous of Billy Connolly when, in his World Tour Of Australia TV series, he climbed to the top of them both.

5, Cumberland Street When that series was filmed, back in 1995, being allowed to climb the Harbour Bridge was a privilege: a locked door that only Billy’s fame – and perhaps his credentials as a former Glasgow shipyard welder – could open. Five years on, and BridgeClimb is one of Australia’s most successful and money-spinning tourist operations. Parties of up to a dozen eager visitors, led by a trained climb leader, set off from the base under one of the stone arches in Cumberland Street every ten minutes or so, rain or shine, for twelve hours or more of every day of the year.

I couldn’t wait.

It took Paul Cave, the founder of BridgeClimb, years to convince the authorities that it was feasible to take groups of tourists to the top of the bridge; when he’d proved he could satisfy every last one of their safety requirements, they reluctantly gave in. Having seen the popularity of the climb, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars the operation has poured back into the upkeep of the bridge, the naysayers must now be cursing themselves that they resisted it for so long.

Setting off The BridgeClimb experience takes a total of three hours or so, but the first hour is mostly taken up with training. Eventually, after you’ve been kitted out, instructed in how to tackle the bridge’s steep ladders and narrow walkways, and shown how to use all the safety gear, you follow your climb leader outside and down the street to the point where the climb begins.

To ensure that there is no risk of loose objects being dropped from the bridge, climbers wear these very flattering one-piece overalls, to which everything you need for the climb is secured. My specs are tied on, and the baseball cap is attached by a lanyard to a loop at the back of the collar. To allow you to wipe sweat from your face during the climb, they even provide you with a hanky attached to a loop of elastic that fastens around the wrist, so there is no risk of a fluttering square of cotton descending from on high and possibly distracting a driver on the roadway below. Personal cameras are strictly forbidden, and must be left (along with watches etc.) back at base; your climb leader takes photos of you on the bridge, copies of which you can then buy on your return. (Pete and Carol took the picture of me setting off on the journey, and the others taken from ground level.)

On the catwalk The journey proper begins on this catwalk running underneath the roadway. From here on, your harness is attached via safety line to a wire that runs alongside the entire route of the climb. If you’re scared of heights, it’s too late now to ’fess up.

Going up If you don’t like looking down, you can always concentrate on the engineering marvel that is the bridge itself. 52,000 tonnes of steel and more rivets than you can shake a stick at. With a total length of 1,150 metres, including a central span of 504 metres, it should have been the longest single arch bridge in the world when it was opened in 1932 – and would have been, had not the Bayonne Bridge in New York opened a few short months earlier with a suspiciously small advantage over Sydney of just 60 centimetres....

After scrambling along the maze of walkways underneath the bridge, you ascend rapidly via a series of narrow ladders to the main arch. Part of this climb takes you up through the roadway itself – giving you quite a start when your head pops up at road level, with some monster truck screaming by just a few feet away. (On the way down, you pass equally close to the railway, and can give startled commuters a wave through their train window as they rattle into the city from the well-heeled suburbs of North Sydney.)

On the arch This is the exhilarating part of the trip. No longer are you surrounded by criss-crossing girders and pylons obstructing the view; instead, just this steady climb, up a gradient growing ever gentler as you approach the summit, with the whole of the harbour laid out below you. (Andrew, our climb leader, is – as you might surmise – in the lead; I’m straggling along, gawping at the view, second from the back.)

Halfway up the stairs Throughout the climb, you’re in two-way radio contact with the climb leader, who provides a running commentary and answers any questions from the group.

The nun's scrum One of Sydney’s finest landmarks – the Opera House, not my leering mug – viewed from the other. Somewhere just over the horizon is Bondi Beach.

Over the top This, finally, is what it’s all about. Grinning like a ninny at the top of one of Australia’s best known – and best loved – pieces of human endeavour; what Billy Connolly called "the world’s biggest Meccano set".

You can also do night-time climbs of the bridge, with a head light added to your inventory of safety gear and the spectacle of Sydney, the Opera House and the harbour twinkling away by a million artificial lights beneath you. Do it again? I can’t wait.

Done it

This page last updated: 24 August 2009   Home | Performing | Travelling | Quizzing | Living  
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