The Sydney Harbour Bridge is synonymous with Australia and New Year. A symbol of some stature, it is a charismatic icon in Australia and of course there were so many here we had been fortunate to see; the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru among them. Sydney was the last tourist destination of our Very Best of Australia trip and one Distant Journeys recognised in their planning. Our Hotel for this part of the visit affording a stunning panoramic view of the harbour and Bridge from every single room.
In 1932 the Bridge was completed, the vision of John Bradfield, Chief Engineer with the Department of Public Works. There is little doubt Bradfield was a genius, completing first a Bachelor Degree and later a first class Masters Degree, he achieved the University Medal on both sittings. He first conceived of the idea some 17 years earlier proposing 3 significant projects for the City; the North and South shores might be linked by a bridge, electrifying the railways and improving the underground service. WW 1 put these grand but visionary schemes on hold. His thesis on the Sydney Harbour Bridge earned him a Doctorate of Science in 1924 and so it was the proposal became a reality.
The Bridge was completed at a time when there were very few cars on the road but his vision of a 6 vehicular lane, 2 tram lanes, 2 railway lines and pedestrian and cycle paths still remains sufficient to deal with the 56 million vehicles a year that cross it. For whatever reason the tram lanes did not materialise but the space was assigned to the vehicular lanes providing 4 lanes in either direction when crossing the Bridge. A toll still exists despite the Bridge being paid off in 1988, but upkeep costs are high given this is a steel structure and maintenance is an ongoing matter.
The Bridge is the sixth longest Arch Bridge in the world with a span of 504m. Constructed in steel manufactured in Middlesborough, England by Dorman Long, who leveraged some of the Tyne Bridge design into their contract. During hot weather the Bridge expands about 18 centimetres but this was appreciated in the design and hinges afford the expansion with little interference in the function it performs for the traffic that traverse it daily. At its pinnacle the Bridge is 134m above water level. And we were going to experience this directly during our trip to Sydney with the Bridge climb.
Many years ago the Lion’s youngest sister visited Australia and was proposed to under Bridge. For our visit, this wasn’t an option so we were planning to climb this famous icon instead, and paid nearly $650 dollars AUD to do so. It is not cheap but if you can save the money, or earn a bit extra as you travel, it is a very worthwhile experience if heights do not scare the shit out of you. 6 of our trip colleagues were taking part in the climb with us making the trip even more significant since we were doing it with friends. The Horse Whisperer and Hyena, having missed out on the Scuba Dive, signed up, the Swan and the Peacock from the south coast of England, the Rabbit and Sea Lion from Barnsley, all joined us adding a celebratory and camaraderie feeling to the event.
You need around 3 and a half hours for this trip, we were booked onto the 4pm climb and didn’t actually get anywhere near the Bridge until 5pm. Our first task was to complete a health and fitness questionnaire, sitting in a circular room we completed the forms in a silent, industrious little circle scribbling away and hoping we made it through the first hurdle without too many drop outs. There were another 4 younger people on our climb and they must have wondered how they ended up with the Saga Tourers on this particular climb or whether some of us would even make it. Ha! not so not this group of oldies, we passed the first test with flying colours. Ben led us collectively into our second circle of the day, standing this time, we were asked to say where we were from and why we were climbing the Bridge. Our youngsters were from Peru, Denmark and England but whether we were young or old, every male in the group admitted they were only doing it because the women in their lives wanted to do it. How interesting that the women, universally, were the drivers for this particular climb. Having introduced ourselves to the team, and passed the second test, we were now handed our suits, the first part of the equipment we needed for the climb.
The suit itself has gone through several iterations before reaching its current design, a grey onesie with blue flashes on the arms and legs that zips up the back. You are assigned a locker and asked to leave everything that might fall from your person in the locker before you begin your ascent. Such is the importance of this request you will also undergo a metal detector frisk once you have gotten the suit on. There can be no chance of causing a major incident from a falling phone or watch once up that high. The suit equalises everyone, now all the same, aside from age, the first demonstrable sign of becoming a team has been delivered. Once suitably attired we moved into a much wider room which was kitted out with individual stations with belts and braces, a radio room and two sets of stairs linked by a platform. Our leader now emerged taking over from the delectable Ben, clearly on a higher pay grade and not to be troubled by menial but important tasks, such as allocating the right size suit to the assembled party.
G, as our guide liked to be called, was an experienced operator. He provided you with a confidence from the outset and took time to recall every single one of our names as he talked us through our paces. Our first task was to be shown to an individual station, direct leadership required here, as we were tasked to stand with our hands on the bars and await further instruction. Once everyone was in place we were instructed to step into the braces and secure the belted clips. Collectively we put our legs into the braces, silently following the instructions that were designed to eliminate confusion as each of us got into the gear. Having checked everyone’s clips were properly in place we were now directed to the front of the steps and platforms where we would now learn techniques on how to climb the steep steps of the Bridge in a practice run. G demonstrated how a cord with an open ended clip could attach us safely during the climb to the fixed structures of the Bridge. It slid on at the start of the Climb gliding along a continuous linear steel rail that sat just below the handrail. There were intermittent break points in this rail, but they could only be opened with a key by Guides to allow them to navigate up and down the group as we progressed. The clip afforded you a continuous link to safety throughout the Climb.
Once the entire group had learned to navigate the steep steps up and down, recognising the importance of keeping the clip on the right side of the body as you turned to descend backwards and not getting into a fankle. We watched and listened attentively, such was the importance of the information we needed to keep safe on the Climb. At this point a group returning from their Climb entered the room, buzzing with excitement. One of the youngsters on the group wished we could get started, almost 40 minutes of preparation having taken place so far. Once we had all mastered the trial climb, we were moved out to the comms room. We lined up facing each other as a radio was clipped to our suit braces with a set of headphones linking us with the instructor as we navigated the Bridge. One or two had to change headsets as a full and comprehensive check whether we could hear the guide took place. Once all were connected, and spectacles and hats were attached by strings to loops on the braces, we had a final brief from G before we headed off along the grey painted corridors toward a door that would lead us onto the Bridge.
We waited anticipating what lay ahead in a holding bay, the heat building in the suits, I was glad to have shorts and tee-shirt only underneath. We were offered a hat, but opted to leave this for collection once we had completed the Climb. After all I couldn’t have the hair messed for the photographs could I? Once outside we were immediately clipped to the rail, walking along the narrow mesh walkways giving you a waffle eye view of the ground below. Looking down is essential just to see the progress you are making in height terms, looking out just as important as the panoramic views alter as you ascend, and looking up just gives you time to pray to God you don’t fall. Once clipped we quickly began moving along the grid at pace, the guide constantly checking we were maintaining it. It was clear the Climb was not considered by Bradfield during the design, most of the steps and the rail were added by the climbing company, but the walkways with low pipes and occasional platforms leading to electric stations, reminded you these conditions were what workers had to endure every day just to ensure the safety and efficiency of the bridge.
Our first photograph enabled the other iconic site of Sydney to take centre stage, the Sydney Opera House was slid into the background. Just before we stopped for our picture two pipes either side of your head sprayed water in a mist to cool you down, a thoughtful addition this beautiful Autumn day. The sky was without cloud, the temperature not too hot, and the views spectacular to the east, west, north and south of the City. We had time to peruse these at leisure as we were each allowed two poses for the first picture stop. Once taken G led us up toward the summit, the pace continued as we made the Climb trying to remember to look down, up and out as we also tried to keep our balance on the slim but adequate steps. As we reached the pinnacle our panoramic view now included new bays, previously concealed behind hills as our ascent took us higher. We were directed by G to count how many cars passed between Red Cars on the Bridge below. Suitably tasked we all watched the cars, now the height of rush hour, criss cross the 4 lanes assigned from the South to North side with some purpose. It was noisy, bikes, buses, trucks and cars whizzing along as we tried to count past the best target of 30 before the occasional red car brought us back to zero and we started to count again. This delay allowed each pair to make a short video as we stood on top of the Bridge. The Lion was not a fan of this so we opted for pictures only and once we were all through the photo station at the summit it was time for the descent.
The descent was aided by individual guides waiting at the steep steps to ensure you managed the turn without a fankle and to let the individual before you clear the stairs before you began. These guides engaged you in small talk taking your mind off the task and cleverly relaxing you into this trickier aspect of the Climb. We arrived back in the holding Bay, exhilarated. I’m sure if you have read any theories of wellbeing, I would place this experience as Maslow described it; a “Peak Experience” one that brought you deep satisfaction in your wellbeing, one you were likely never to forget. The final team talk, led by G, afforded us a congratulatory talk keeping you on a high sufficiently long enough to complete the questionnaire for favourable feedback. Our final task was to collect our photographs and we were advised to buy them in a group of 4, which allowed a cheaper price to be achieved. Around $32 dollars allowed us to download all the photographs and videos (if you did one) to our phones. These we could share instantly with our families, waiting anxiously for word that we had completed safely the Climb of a lifetime. We did it…… go us❤️