This is a surprise. Climbing the Sydney Harbour bridge. You’re living the high life, I see.
This was the whatsapp message I received from a relative. What was she surprised about? That I was in Sydney? That I didn’t tell her I was on holiday? Or that I was on holiday at all. It had to be the last one.
That tinge of envy in the message aside, I admit that I told very few people about this desire to climb the bridge. The only ones who knew were my friends in Sydney, my mother and some very close friends. Also, I got the feeling that some didn’t think I was serious about it. In fact, my editor wasn’t interested in a story because she felt that there was nothing unique about climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The first time I thought about climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it wasn’t even possible to do so. This must have been in the early 1990s. I stood on the balcony of one of our friend’s homes looking at the view of a city drenched in sunlight. While everyone else commented on the warm weather and fussed over the barbecue, I looked at the magnificent steel contraption in the distance and wondered what it would be like to climb.
In the many years since that day, I’ve often thought about that view. On miserably grey days in the UK, I tried to explain to friends that in Sydney, it could be freezing cold, but with that cloudless sky, your spirits were bound to be lifted. I wondered if I would ever fulfil this desire to climb the bridge and mulled over all the expenses involved. In short, I made no concerted effort and it remained something I talked about, but never did.
All this changed in January this year when a friend from Sydney visited Kuala Lumpur. On the off chance, I asked if she was interested in something like this fully expecting her to say no. She surprised me when she was keen to join me in this adventure. We agreed to meet up in about two months and take it from there.
It’s only when I started looking for hotels to stay in that I realised just how much of this city I’d forgotten. I couldn’t recognise many of the names of the suburbs I used to visit. Wondering why this was so, I searched my memory and it then occurred to me that it was some 19 years since I was last in Sydney. Yes, I have visited Australia a few times in the last two decades, but always skipped Sydney.
Anyway, the hotel, bridge climb and flights were booked and paid for. My hotel was located in Potts Point which is described as a ‘small, densely populated suburb of inner-city Sydney.’ The only firm plan I made for this five-day stay was to climb the bridge on Wednesday. Other than that, I was prepared to take what came my way.
The next day, I joined a free walking tour of the city. I expected there to be about 10 people at most. There were close to 100 and we were split into two groups. At the end of the tour, I took a photo of the bridge from the Sydney Opera House. I wanted a record of the kind of weather I was probably going to have to deal with during the bridge climb the next day.
Throughout that walking tour, I enjoyed the rain and was deeply amused by my fellow tourists. Two girls, one from Germany and the other from the UK, were disappointed by all this rain and insisted that they should have spent more time in Melbourne. Here I was, the Malaysian, desperately trying to convince them with, “No! Don’t think that. Sydney is really very beautiful. You must come again and see it when it’s bathed in sunlight.”
And my friends in Sydney made me laugh. Wearing Wellington boots and armed with umbrellas, I’d never had city dwellers apologise so much for awful weather. I assured them that the weather wasn’t going to make or break my trip. Sydney was damp, but it was still beautiful.
Anyway, the evening before the climb, I refreshed some of my knowledge about this bridge and trawled through the many websites and learned this: the Sydney Harbour Bridge is affectionately called the ‘Coathanger’. It was opened in 1932 after six years of construction. The 800 families that lived in the path of the Bridge were relocated and their homes demolished without compensation. 16 people died during its construction. The official Bridge Climb started in 1998.
Before bed, some apprehension set in and I remembered the ‘advice’ and ‘objections’ I’d received so far. The first was that I’ll have to train hard for this bridge climb. Not really. It’s just over 500 steps to the summit of the bridge. If you sit all day in front of a computer, then this may be a problem. But if you’re active, it’s a breeze. Here’s a comparison: if you’re Malaysian and can climb the steps up Batu Caves twice, you can certainly climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Except for one part where there are four sets of stairs that are almost vertical, the tread depth is wide and the riser is no more than 6 inches high.
‘Careful. You’ll fall off the bridge.’ This is the second comment someone close made and it still makes me laugh. One of the first things you’ll know when booking this bridge climb is the obsession, almost, to maintain safety during the climb. You have to have a breathalyser test. If you’re above the alcohol limit, you’re not allowed to proceed for the climb. It makes perfect sense. Can you imagine wobbling on the route? Other than being tethered to the railings at all times, we’re also not allowed to carry a single thing with us – not even a bobby pin to keep our hair in place. It’s logical because if something falls from that height, it’s bound to cause an injury to those below.
And here’s the last comment made: Why spend so much money to do this? True. The cost of this bridge climb together with photos costs more than AUD$400.00. But it’s like saying, “I’m going to Agra, but I won’t see the Taj Mahal because there’s so much else to see.” I mean, it’s been my dream to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge and if I listened to everyone who told me not to follow my dreams, I wouldn’t have this website and platform to tell you this story.
The next day, we chose to climb the bridge at twilight. It rained in the morning and it rained in the afternoon. By 5 pm, though, it stopped raining, just as we took our first steps onto the bridge. The twilight walk proved to be the right choice because as we ascended, we got to see Sydney in daylight (albeit a cloudy one) and as we descended, we saw Sydney at night. It was the best of both times.
What was the whole experience like? I have struggled since 15 March 2017 (the day we climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge) day to put to words it feels like. Exhilarating seems too mild. Courageous is being facetious. Lucky doesn’t fit the bill as I wanted to do this for a long while. I suppose the best description for this unique trip comes from a friend who saw the photo taken by our guide during the climb. She says, “Your smile says it all. It’s been a long time since anyone has seen you this happy.”
The next day, my friends asked, “Now that that’s off your bucket list, what’s next?”
I smiled and replied, “Ah… that would be telling.”
If you have climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and can share your story, I’d love to hear from you. Please enter your comments in the box below.
(21 June 2017)
Aneeta Sundararaj has travelled all her life. It’s only now she’s started to write stories about her unique adventures. Read mores stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).