On every BridgeClimb, there comes a moment when you’re standing on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge with nothing more than a steel girder between you and the water many metres below. It’s exhilarating.
“Take a look at the Hyatt,” says Tigs, our guide, pointing to the roof of the swanky hotel below. “Sometimes there are celebrities in the spa.”
It’s a Friday evening after a hard week’s work, and a group of us are doing The Discovery Climb at twilight. This means that instead of simply climbing over the iconic steel girder Bridge, we’re clambering around and through the famous ‘coathanger’ arches. Twilight is the perfect time to do it, because in one evening you see all phases of the city, from daylight adrenaline to night glamour.
No chances taken
For nearly all of its history, this extraordinary view was only available to people doing maintenance. That all changed in 1998, when entrepreneur Paul Cave finally opened his business, BridgeClimb, offering guided walks to the summit. Since then, on any given day, Sydneysiders have been able to look up and see little chains of people standing against the sky, making their way across the Bridge.
BridgeClimb, which takes about three and a half hours, is run like a military operation. First of all, you have to do a breath test, to ensure you haven’t been drinking. Then you change into special overalls.
“They’re blue and grey so you blend in with the Bridge,” explains Tigs.
The idea is not to have people in bright clothes distracting motorists. Next, you divest yourself of chains, phones, cameras and anything else you might be carrying. This is because even small items can do massive damage to cars and pedestrians below, if dropped. And then you start adding things to the overalls. A radio and headset, so you can always hear the guide. A headlamp. And a latch and slider, to attach you to the Bridge.
The guides, who mill about the preparation area, are all energetic and highly enthusiastic, as though hanging around at such high altitudes every day has boosted their personalities. They’ve each had six weeks of intensive training, including learning how to take photographs, how to tell an entertaining story about each section of the bridge, and how to handle any height phobias people might have.
“Call me Tigs,” our guide says, though her real name is Antigone Garner.
And then she takes us through a special entrance and on to the great girders of steel. Tigs explains that the massive granite pylons on each corner of the bridge are there purely for aesthetic reasons, because the bridge is bolted onto supports. Underneath us is the Rocks, whose Victorian homes look very desirable and comfortable. Yet they were once plague-infested slums; more than 800 of them were demolished to make way for the Bridge.
Although a harbour bridge was first proposed in 1815, it wasn’t until 1912 that the proposal was granted approval. But thanks to World War I, work didn’t begin until 1924. Engineer John Bradfield, who had kept up the pressure, had thought a suspension bridge would be best, until a visit to the steel-arched Hell Gate Bridge in New York changed his mind. The firm of Dorman Long and Co of Middlesborough England won the tender to build the Bridge, and their consulting engineer, Sir Ralph Freeman, then created the detailed design.
Tigs points out a steel beam with the Dorman Long name etched into it.
“Typical,” grumbles the English engineer in the group. “You do all that work and then they hang the beam upside down.”
Tigs says many people who are scared of heights make themselves go on a BridgeClimb as a way of overcoming their fear, only to be reassured by the solidity of the structure. In any case, BridgeClimb have built an extraordinary level of safety into the Bridge Climb. The guides have to call in to base every ten minutes, so someone knows exactly where we are on the bridge, at all times. We’re also all connected to the walkways by the clip-on sliders, which Tigs assures us can bear many times our weight.
“We call this the Cathedral of Steel,” says Tigs, as we stand at a nodal point between different layers of steel, looking at vast girders above and below us. Far below us, or so it seems, is that other engineering masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House. Bright flashes spark from the forecourt of the Opera House, as the people below take souvenir snaps of the harbour.
Above us, another group has clambered to the summit of the bridge, and we wave to each other. At the other end of the bridge is Luna Park, now brightly lit. This old-style amusement park was built on the site once occupied the bridge workers who cut the steel for the bridge. Luna Park was placed there as a ‘thank you’ to Sydney.
As we go on, it’s a relief that climbing the bridge is easier than it looks. The inclines are gentle and there are stops along the way for photographs and information. It’s definitely worth doing for the panoramic view alone, because you get a 360 degree view from the city to North Sydney. The view from the bridge puts a new twist on familiar landmarks: The cars that drive down Pitt Street, for example, suddenly become a waterfall of light that shimmers in the night.
And, finally, nothing beats the feeling of accomplishment when you finally reach Blinky Bill, the red light at the summit. Below, thousands of cars pass across the Bridge, oblivious to you and your group, standing right on top of them. By this time, night has fallen and it’s time to walk down on the other side, taking in the view of Sydney’s first high-rise apartment block, Blues Point Tower, and the wharves, and the people below rushing to get places.
“It changes every time,” says Tigs. “You never know what you’ll see.
And then we’re off taking the final steps off the Bridge again onto solid ground, getting back into normal clothes and deciding where to go for a drink. On the way out, I take another look at the Bridge: it doesn’t seem like a coathanger any more, but like the great, interlocking steel marvel that it is. The last flourish of the great industrial age, that’s definitely worth a closer look.
This article first appeared in Where magazine.