The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
20. SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE CLIMB
Time: 2 hours
If you should ever find yourself in Sydney, Australia, and you either need or would like to cross Sydney Harbour from north to south, or vice-versa, several choices confront you. You can take a water taxi, catch a ferry, or even hop on a train. If you have a car you can either drive under the harbour via the harbour tunnel - a claustrophobic experience at best - or you can do what I always choose to do: you can drive across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. After all why suffer a tunnel when you can immerse yourself in a sculpture?
Like hundreds of thousands of fellow Sydney-siders and throngs of gaping tourists every year, I never tire of looking at this bridge Australians affectionately call ‘the Coathanger’ and never cease to be impressed by its scale, by its sheer audacity. Completed in 1932 it took 1,400 men eight years to build, a significantly ‘over-engineered’ triumph that was at the time as advanced as any bridge anywhere in the world. Before it opened, the government shunted 96 steam locomotives on to it for one final check of its load-bearing capacity, and in its first year 11,000 cars a day crossed between its granite pylons. Now that figure is closing in on 200,000 cars a day. At times the bridge with its graceful arch-to-arch span of 503 m - after 84 years still the sixth-longest-spanning arch bridge in the world - seems to groan under its eight lanes of traffic and two rail lines and all the weight of expectations we place upon it. It can be a noisy old bridge, and like bustling urban environments everywhere, it’s always good to get above it. If you can.
SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE CLIMB
Photo: JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD
In 1998, after years of struggling with government red tape and overcoming every conceivable objection, Bridge Climb was born. At last, one would be able to do more than just cross the bridge along its pedestrian pathways, suffering a stiff neck from all that looking ‘up’. Now Bridge Climb - the city’s only licensed bridge climb operator - can take you on a meandering journey up through this intricate steel skeleton, walking over perforated steel grilles and climbing up four near-vertical steel ladders that look as though they’d be more at home on a navy destroyer than on a piece of urban architecture, while being tethered every step of the way by means of a stainless steel cable that runs from the harness strapped over the blue Bridge Suit that you’ve crawled into in the preparation area to a cable runner attached to the bridge itself.
Bridge Climb is typical of how existing pieces of urban infrastructure the world over - from bridges to canal towpaths to disused rail lines - are being re-imagined and adapted to provide us with ever-increasing access to our built environments. After suiting up in the cavernous preparation area you leave accessories like mobile phones and (reluctantly for this camera-addicted traveller) my Canon 6D in your locker, complete a safety check and from there you walk through a purpose-built tunnel before emerging into the bridge’s superstructure and starting your approach to the summit along the bridge’s upper arch.
Making your way towards your goal - the arch’s 134-m summit above the calm waters of the world’s most beautiful harbour - you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole thing is more a climb than a walk. But the exercise is an exhilarating one. On the final approach to the centre of the bridge’s great steel arc the harbour city opens up before you in all of its 360-degree splendour, and you see it for the very first time from a perspective you never thought you would. If you live here it’s like being introduced for the first time to a distant relative you always knew you’d had, but had never met. Yet the sense of familiarity once on it is overwhelming. The Sydney Opera House and Circular Quay are below you to your right, with the CBD (Central Business District) and the Botanic Gardens behind them. Looking east you can see all the way to Watson’s Bay and beyond towards South Head, west past Goat Island to where the harbour begins to narrow to form the Parramatta River, and north over the sprawling cluster of apartment blocks that cover the hills of North Sydney that was once a gorgeous sea of Federation and Victorian residences, long since gone.
It is not something everyone can do. If you’re 24 weeks pregnant or more you’ll need a certificate of fitness from your doctor, and if you’re under ten years of age or not quite 1.2 m high then unfortunately you’ll have to bide your time. And you can’t take cameras or cell phones, either. But if you’re going to be concerned about anything, why not consider the 1,332 steps you’ll have to negotiate, and before long you’ll be grateful you left all your accessories - with the exception of sunglasses - behind.
What the walk lacks in distance (from the preparation area to the summit wouldn’t be more than 400 m when all the early twists and turns are ironed out) it makes up for in a vertigo-inducing final approach to the top. After a group photograph and a few minutes where you’re left to yourself to contemplate life, the universe and everything, you then cross to the other side of the bridge across its ‘spine’ where you can pause to look down to the eight lanes of traffic that is the Bradfield Highway before descending along the bridge’s western arch back towards its twin southern pylons, and the end of one memorable urban walk.