The Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of the great travel icons of the world, as well as being the key traffic link between the main and business centre and at the suburbs and beaches to the north.
The 1149-metre-long bridge carries 50 million vehicles a year. But it also carries something else. At any time between just before sunrise and just after sunset on any day of the year a careful observer can see what appears at first to be some bubbles on the edges of the southern side of the span. A closer look at the bubbles reveals that they are moving. And that they are in fact human beings. They are all dressed in similar camouflaging grey jumpsuits and most are wearing baseball hats. Are they a maintenance crew? Are they a painting crew? Or are they engineers? No; they are simple tourists like you and I.
Every day about 500 of these tourists emerge from a tower on the eastern side of the southern end of the bridge and crawl like ants up the span. It is, of course, a cliche to say that little creatures or little humans are like ants when seen from a distance in the context of a very large structure. However, in this instance the cliche is apt. This is because each person is shackled to a steel wire that goes up the eastern side of the southern end of the coat hanger arc, across the top, and down the western side of the southern end. They cannot change their path nor change their order on it. They move like ants in a defined route.
How often do you see people in a remote or difficult spot and say to yourself, “Wow, I would love to do in that.”
Well, this one is easy. More than 900,000 people have climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge since BridgeClimb began in 1998.
I have visited Sydney dozens of times and crossed the bridge at least once or twice on every journey. I always get a sense of exhilaration when ever I cross a famous bridge – - Sydney Harbour, Brooklyn, the Golden Gate, Tower Bridge, the bridge across the Frith of Forth and so on. However, there is as nothing quite like walking up to the very top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge – - 134 metres above the sea and 85 metres above the traffic with its extraordinary view of the Opera House and the harbour beneath.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge is exceptional. It is the longest single-span steel-rivet bridge in the world. And it has been that way since it was completed in 1932. It is never going to be equalled because of a combination of engineering and economics. When it was built it was leading-edge design, but that design by today’s standards requires an enormous amount of labour to construct. More than 1400 men worked for nine years and punched in six million rivets using 53,000 tonnes of steel to construct the bridge. The ant analogy comes to mind again.
These days, materials technology has moved on. Pre-cast reinforced concrete is much stronger and steel cables can support much larger spans. Moreover, the maintenance for the Sydney Harbour Bridge is perhaps 10 times that of a modern bridge. Painting alone is an endless task – it takes 275,000 litres to give it the requisite three coats. And sections of steel are forever being replaced after stresses and strains caused by the expansion and contraction of metal in the changing temperatures or by the traffic burden beneath. The span rises 18 centimetres through expansion of the steel in the heat.
And so to the climb. Sure, and you can walk across the bridge at the same level as the traffic, but the climb to the top of the steel span offers so much more. Climbs leave every 10 minutes. You can book at bridgeclimb.com.au. You might get in with a couple of hours’ notice, but it is better to book well in advance to secure the best time of the day for the season of the year. That means early morning or evening in the summer and the middle of the day in winter.
The adventure begins in rooms in 5 Cumberland Street on the same level as the road that crosses the bridge, but at least five or 600 metres back from where the water laps the edge.
Bridge climb is meticulous about safety. Everyone must take a breathalyser test to prove their blood alcohol level is below 0.05. Apparently some idiots have failed these tests. Why anyone would want to climb 134 metres above the sea level and peer down while having had a skinful of alcohol in their belly is beyond me. Moreover, there are a lot of ladders and narrow paths to be climbed.
However, for any sober person who is capable of climbing up two flights of stairs and capable of walking several kilometres on a pavement, the bridge climb is a fairly straightforward and enjoyable t
Next we remove all objects of which could possibly fall off your person – - watches, jewellery, hats, cameras, tape-recorders, notebooks the works. You are then issued with a jumpsuit. Spectacles, sunglasses and hats are tied to special tags on the jumpsuit.
Anything which fell to the traffic below could cause catastrophe.
Then the group of about a dozen is shepherded into a room which contains a steel structure about the size of a soccer goal with stairs up one side, a walkway on top and stairs down the other side – - a practice run for the real thing. The structure – - like the walkway on the bridge itself – - has a steel rod, about a centimetre thick, that runs along the handrail. To this one attaches a mountain climber’s fastener which in turn is attached to a strap around your waist. You are free only to go forward in order with your fellow climbers.
It is not only objects that must be prevented from falling to the traffic below.
So to the bridge itself. Our guide – one of 160 — displayed wonderful enthusiasm, and though she does the three-and-a-half hour trip twice or three times a day it seemed as if she was doing it – - like us – - for the first time. She did not make it seem as if it was passe, but that she was taking part in our adventure.
Everyone is issued with a radio receiver so that the leader can give you commentary, and for obvious safety reasons. There are a couple of photo stops on the way but only the leader has a camera and you must pick up the shots when you return. (I took my photos with a telephoto lens from the pylon lookout and on the ground later on.)
Soon you are at the very top. What a “wow” place to be – - 134 metres above the water and with an excellent perspective down to the Opera House below.
In the three or four days that I was in Sydney, I took the chance to ask friends, acquaintances and virtually anyone I met whether they had climbed the bridge. Not one. Some thought it too scary; some thought it would be too arduous; others thought they would do it when they had time. Some, surprisingly, did not even know you could do it.
But you haven’t always been able to do it too. It took Paul Cave, the founder of BridgeClimb, nine years of fighting various bureaucracies to bring the bridge to the people. He was inspired after he organised a business group to do the climb using maintenance steps and without the special rail.
Now, more than 200,000 people climb every year. At $100 to $175 a head that is a huge money-spinner (say, $60 million a year). And for the ants that climb it, it is worth every cent.