Walking, Sailing, Climbing and Whining
06.12.2007 - 07.12.2007 24 °C
Our second and last full day here was inevitably packed as we tried to cram our senses with as much Sydney as we could possibly squeeze in with so little time. We’ve walked so much in the city that our feet are complaining but, once again, we started the morning with our now daily stroll through the Botanic Gardens. Even though it was our third time through, we still found fresh distractions in the park – and trust me I’m not normally that interested in birds and flowers, but they’re really a LOT more interesting here – so much so, in fact, that we missed our preferred tour time at the Opera House!
I wish we’d been more organized and made time to see a concert in the Opera House (tickets are not as expensive as you think, and there's a variety of genres, from ballet and opera to rap and fringe drama), but we had to make-do with the ‘Essential Tour’ which offered a walk through some of the key venues in addition to a well done audio-visual presentation that charted the history of the Opera House. We learned that Jorn Utson’s winning design was initially discarded for flouting competition rules, but was retrieved by chance only to cause engineering firm Ove Arup so much difficulty that they finally quit the commission.
Utson's original designs were "simple to the point of being diagrammatic" which perhaps inevitably caused tension between architect, engineers and the government. What was intended as a three year project ended up taking seventeen years, and designer Utson quit in 1966, seemingly unwilling to compromise in the face of challenges from the engineers and contractors.
Close up of the panels that cover the roof of the Opera House
Happily, Utson reconciled with the project just before the Millennium and has been advising on refurbishments since.
During our Opera House tour, the low cloud cleared allowing us to see Sydney Harbour in sunny splendor for the first time. Learning from our Milford Sound experience, we immediately seized the opportunity and enjoyed a quick harbour cruise which took us out almost as far as Manly. We were surprised by the size of Sydney, which seems to extend on and on as far as the eye can see, encompassing every one of the bays that we sailed past. Heading back to Bennelong Precinct, we were able of course to enjoy a magnificent view of the Opera House and sailing under the Harbour Bridge gave us an interesting perspective as we contemplated walking over the span later the same day.
Annoyingly, we had to take a chunk out of our day to check in online for our flight back to London. Online check in opens exactly 24 hours prior to scheduled departure time, and - for the longest flight of our lives - we wanted to have a decent selection of seats. We simply detest British Airways for not permitting seat selection at the time of booking unless you're prepared to pay $$$ more for the privilege. Our British Airways tickets alone for this trip are easily in excess of $10,000 but you'll be pleased to know that we still haven't managed to qualify for British Airways' loyalty scheme. But of course they don't tell you that your flights won't qualify for membership in their elite club until AFTER you've paid for them.
But I digress. Having secured the best seats we could hope for in cattle class, we strolled around the Rocks area for a few hours and before delivering ourselves to the Sydney Harbour Bridge offices at about 6pm on Thursday. More of a walk than a ‘climb’, this attraction has been open since 1998 after many years of persistence by its visionary creator who had to convince the authorities that it was possible to take complete novices over the span of the bridge without harm to participants, bridge users or indeed the bridge itself. The result is an impressively well thought out system that ensures ‘climbers’ are securely attached to the bridge at all times.
You can see some 'climbers' on the top of the span, on the left hand side
The preparation for the bridge ‘climb’ takes close to an hour. First, you predictably sign responsibility for your life away while simultaneously being breathalized to ensure sobriety. Once dressed in the official jumpsuit uniform, every participant is searched (with a metal detector) to ensure that no unauthorized items are taken onto the bridge. Then, every conceivable item you could possibly need during the ‘climb’ is issued and physically attached to your uniform jumpsuit. For example, attached to my devilishly stylish grey and blue jumpsuit was: hair bungy, baseball cap, fleece cap, glasses cable, hanky, and head lamp. We felt like we were preparing for a week-long mountaineering expedition!
Finally, we had brief training on use of the ball and chain that would ensure we were attached to the bridge at all times. It’s based on a system designed for a blind solo yachtsman and consists of a four inch diameter ball that slides onto a waist-height cable allowing movement in any direction (where there is a cable walkway). For the bridge ‘climb’, cables have been installed over the full length of the bridge route, so once you slide onto the cable at the very start, you are attached for every moment. I suspect the systems greatest advantage is the psychological security it gives to participants. And it does make you feel very comfortable. But I couldn’t help wondering (especially as we trekked over the walkway at the very top of the bridge that connects the two spans) if the system would indeed support the weight of ten adults if in some freak accident we were knocked out of the walkways.
Finally, it was time to get going! Compared to bungy jumping and paragliding, we were expecting the Bridge ‘Climb’ to be a fairly relaxing experience, and for the most part this was true. Once you are actually on top of the span, you feel very safe: the walkway is right in the middle of the span roof which is about ten feet wide, so you can’t look over the edge with any ease. You do, however, have stunning views of the Opera House and Harbour, and indeed the city of Sydney in all directions. Having booked the twilight ‘climb’, we were soaked in the sun’s last golden rays on one side of the bridge, and slowly embraced in darkness as we came down the other side. Simply awesome!
Obviously, it wasn't THAT bad! The Harbour Bridge Climb staff thought our picture would be a strong candidate for their 'Best Picture of the Year' competition...
The only moments of suspense were getting up on top of the bridge span, and then getting off it. That required walking on two-plank wide, narrow walkways where you had a very clear and immediate view of the distance between you and the ground below you. Even worse, we had to climb multiple sets of steep and narrow stairs originally designed only for maintenance crew to get up onto the span. So – interestingly – the time spent on top of the bridge was actually the most relaxing. The rest of the time I could move only by looking straight ahead and feeling out my next step with my toes. Lloyd, as always, did a great job of supporting me through my tall, mechanical object phobia, but was himself startled when – during the later stages of our ‘climb’ – a train passed beneath us, shaking the bridge enough to stop us both in our tracks.
Anyway, if you’re planning a visit to Sydney, you should plan on ‘climbing’ the bridge. It was a great experience, with fantastic views and just enough adrenaline-fueled moments to keep it lively. Don’t miss it.