Ribbons of pink, orange and yellow color the western sky. The shadowy silhouette of the distant Blue Mountains is visible to my left. Directly in front of me flies the red, white and blue flag of the state of New South Wales, tattered by the wind. To the east, I watch as the white shells of Australia’s famous landmark, the Sydney Opera House, fade into dusk.
From my vantage point 440 feet (134 meters) above the harbor, I take in the panoramic twilight view of one of the world’s great cities: Sydney. Together with my husband Tim, eight other tourists, one native Syndeysider and our Australian guide Baxter, I’m participating in the Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb. This 3½-hour experience over a distance of about one mile (1.74 km) on the Sydney Harbour Bridge combines the thrill of ascending Australia’s colossal monument with dramatic views and a fascinating history lesson.
Or should I say “riveting.” According to Baxter, six million hand-driven rivets hold together the massive steel span. Each was first heated by one worker, then flung to another to catch in an iron bucket for installation.
Of course, a bad throw resulted in scalding and a slip meant that the unlucky worker would almost certainly die hitting the water’s surface. Construction of the bridge which is locally nicknamed the “Coathanger” because of its arch-based design, began in the late 1920s. It officially opened on March 19, 1932.
Although we’re standing in the exact place these brave men once toiled, our experience is completely different. We’re following a well-established set of procedures that began two hours ago inside BridgeClimb’s headquarters, just a few minutes’ walk from the start of our adventure.
After passing an alcohol breath test, we’d traded in our street clothes for identical two-toned gray jumpsuits, their colors chosen to blend in with the bridge and minimize distraction to the drivers below. Of ingenious design, the jumpsuits sport hooks for everything one could possibly need during the experience, including a hankie and a cold-weather fleece, both provided by BridgeClimb.
The most important hook on the suit is the one that alleviates the weight of a metal chain housed in a pack worn around our waists. At the end of the chain is a cog-like head that hooks onto a metal rail running the length of the climb — making free-falling all but impossible.
After a short practice climb on a model portion of the bridge inside the BridgeClimb headquarters, we set off, with Baxter narrating our journey via radio headset that curiously carries his voice via cheekbone vibration converted into sound. The headphones seem ordinary, except that they wrap around the front of my ear and sit on my cheek, rather than covering my ear.
In single file, our group walks through a concrete tunnel, under the dark gray latticework of the bridge and across steel catwalks. Then, we’re ready to ascend up a series of four ladders, one by one, maintaining “three points of contact,” meaning that only one foot or hand can be off a ladder at a time.
Now it’s my turn. At this twilight hour it’s dark inside the inner workings of the structure. My foot finds the first round metal rung. Gingerly at first, then gaining speed, I move upward, metal rung by metal rung. Periodically, as we’ve been forewarned, the cog connecting me to the bridge seems to stick and I have to swing the chain slightly in order to move again.
Somewhere on the second ladder, I hear a yell from below. I spot flashes of color, which come into focus as pedestrians. They’ve spotted us as they stroll across the bridge on the walkway that parallels the traffic lanes. I smile, feeling slightly superior. I’m climbing toward the summit of the one of the world’s highest steel arch bridges; they’re merely traversing it.
Going from one ladder to the next is a little tricky; there’s a slight gap in the handrail and I feel like I need to take an extra-large step to regain my footing. We’ve been instructed to wait until the person ahead of us is off each ladder before setting off. So, although I’m part of a group, I feel like I’m climbing solo. Suddenly, I’m out in the open, walking on the metal platform that forms the arch of the bridge.
I’m not merely marching across; I’m walking on top of one of the world’s most famous spans! Baxter and the first member of our group await just a few feet from the bridge’s highest peak. My husband Tim and I pose with the city as our backdrop as the sun sinks lower into the sky.
In all directions, I see water. To my right, the peninsula housing the famous Sydney Opera House juts out into the harbor. Behind it lies another finger of land extending into the water. I see the treetops of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, their greenness in contrast to the metal skyscrapers surrounding the park.
The city lights are just beginning to twinkle, and Baxter points out the first light seen every evening in the sky: that of the Star City Casino. Farther in the distance, I see the faint outline of the building where Russell Crowe lives, a fact seemingly known by all of Sydney.
Ahead of me, the distant lamps of an amusement park’s Ferris wheel sparkle in the darkening night sky. A seaplane flies overhead. Then, another shadow moves into the space above us, this one smaller and blacker.
It’s a fruit bat, the first of many that will eventually fill the evening sky on their search for food. The black, scalloped wings of the bats stand out against the shades of rose, orange and gold filling the sky as Mother Nature turns off the lights for the evening.
After a gentle upward walk of approximately 827 feet (252 meters) along the bridge’s arch, we reach its apex, which is marked by the flag of New South Wales on one side of the bridge and the Australian flag on the other. Baxter leads us in a conqueror’s cheer. We are at the peak of one of Australia’s icons with an incomparable view of Sydney. We’re on top of the world — or at least on top of Down Under.
If You Go
Lynn Baldwin is an avid traveler, writer and entrepreneur who lives in Michigan. When not exploring the world and sharing her experiences through travel essays, she enjoys hiking, practicing her Spanish and Italian, doing yoga and eating dark chocolate…usually not all at the same time.