“I just don’t know that I could do it. I think I’d get up there and freeze.”
These soon to be all too mortal words were spoken by my partner moments after rounding Mrs Macquarie’s Point and taking in a view of Sydney that never gets old. The path along the city’s shoreline from Woolloomooloo to Circular Quay is one of its most rewarding for views, Sydney history, and even a little contemporary culture. But it’s the view of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge from Mrs Macquarie’s Point that reminds me, every time I’m here, of the special place this city holds in my heart, and the hearts of countless Globetrotters. The bridge is in fact our destination. The top of it, to be more precise. My partner watches a small group of climbers on the upper arch with interest and…
Oh, dear. I think in my excitement I may have forgotten he has a deathly fear of heights.
Before I sound like the worst partner in the known universe, I need to point out he has been asking questions about doing a Sydney BridgeClimb, gently prodding me for details since our last visit. So, of course I’m left to assume that curiosity has won the day over nerves.
It will have to, because see those flags at the very top of the arch? That’s where we’re going!
The day gets off to a more cultural start at Artspace, located a little off the beaten path on the waterfront at Woolloomooloo. This small but fascinating space hosts rotating exhibitions such as That’s Not Australian, a provocative and sometimes brutal takedown of Australia’s colonial legacy. It’s located across the road from the Otolo Hotel, a beautiful reworking of the dock’s former woolstores, and Harry’s Pie de Wheels, which, while not as famous as the Opera House or Harbour Bridge, remains a Sydney icon in its own right, having served up variations of the humble Aussie meat pie since 1938. Order their signature “Tiger” (gravy spooned into a well of mushy peas atop mashed potato and your meat pie) for the definitive “Harry’s” experience.
The path toward Circular Quay is a sampler of Sydney icons, passing by the Andrew “Boy” Charlton Pool, and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, the former governor’s wife’s favourite vantage point for watching ships sail in and out of Sydney Harbour. It also brings you the closest you can get to Fort Denison while staying on the mainland, and follows Farm Cove around the Sydney Botanical Gardens before finally reaching the Sydney Opera House. This would be an ideal time for an hour-long Sydney Opera House tour, but having done one already on a previous trip to Australia, we head for the Museum of Contemporary Art instead.
All of this comes before a twilight walking tour of the historic Rocks district – at least, that’s my cover story and I’m sticking to it. See, I haven’t actually told my partner about my plans for our evening, an illusion I manage to keep alive right up until we’re at the check-in desk for BridgeClimb Sydney – at which point he thanks me for not telling him what was in store, since it would have petrified him for the day and probably ended in a last-minute cancellation.
With no time for fear, we’re soon sliding into our oh-so-fetching safety suits (no, really, just try to resist the urge to strut the opening gangway like it’s a catwalk) and going through the safety briefing. Each participant is breathalyzed, given a locker for all their belongings – only eye glasses are permitted on the bridge and are attached to the suits with cables – and given a practice run for handling the structure’s staircases. These are few, but do require some extra precautions such as a maximum one climber at a time. All climbers are clipped to the bridge via a safety cord from the moment they step out onto the structure to the moment they return. This doesn’t much ease my partner’s grip around my wrist as our radio headsets are fitted and connected, but what are you going to do, particularly now?
The radios are one way, designed to receive instructions and commentary from our guide, Scott, who’s been guiding Bridge climbs for about sixteen years. All jokes aside, it’s possible for just about anyone to make the climb in one form or another, since the route isn’t particularly steep or demanding. We’re told we burn about 600 calories on the climb, for anyone who’s counting! People with a fear of heights are actively encouraged to climb, and my partner certainly isn’t the first. Of the three climbs offered, the longest and most popular option – up and over the top arch of the bridge, is actually the friendliest to those with a fear of heights, since the walkways up top are nice and wide.
Unfortunately, not so for the walkways beneath the bridge, which provide access to the main structure. Still, this is where many of the Sydney Harbour Bridge’s most interesting stories lie. BridgeClimb’s guides have an insight into the bridge’s construction, upkeep, and history that others in Sydney can’t match. It can be a little unnerving, listening to peak hour traffic – including speeding trains, just for that extra thrill – thundering along overhead. But the symmetry and intricacy of the bridge’s construction is on full display, a testament to the precision and workmanship of what is still the world’s largest steel arch bridge. The task today, without modern technology, seems incalculably vast, especially when you consider each of the bridge’s six million rivets was driven home by hand.
Scott saves the accident stories for our descent, and before you ask, none of these happened on BridgeClimb.
At 134 metres, the top of the bridge isn’t Sydney’s highest view, but overlooking both the harbour, in close proximity to the Sydney Opera House with the city skyline behind us, it’s arguably the most spectacular. We’re also lucky enough to see the enormous Ovation of the Seas pull out of Circular Quay, a reminder of the depth and vastness of Sydney Harbour. One tip for climbers? Have a little something prepared to say in a short video at the top of the bridge. Like many writers, I’m terrible at on-the-spot improv, so we umm… waved.
BridgeClimb departs almost every day with daylight, twilight, and night climbing options. Two shorter options are available, which take guests up the lower arch of the bridge. Some of these still reach the summit via an alternate route, but keep in mind, they might be even less kind to those with a fear of heights, as the walkways are often not as wide, and climbers may have to navigate around some pylons.
While my favourite acrophobe was pleased to put both feet back on the ground, he would later admit to me that this was his favourite experience from our trips to Australia. A pretty solid endorsement for anyone feeling nervous about the ascent! He did however veto the famous Coat of Arms pizza at the nearby Australian Hotel – a somewhat traitorous house specialty that features kangaroo meat on one side and emu meat on the other. Looks like these two Aussie icons will have to wait!