This story will be in my forthcoming book, THE LONG WAY BACK.

            By now, I thought that we could understand much of the slang down under, but why Sydneysiders call their famous bridge “the old coat hanger” is beyond me. Considered ugly by some, it has always been a popular icon connecting the northern and southern shores. Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge started in 1923, by building two halves of the arch, supported by cranes, out from each shore. After nine years of work, the mating of the two arches  was about to take place: the ends of the arches were only centimeters apart and ready to be bolted together. Unfortunately, a gale blew up and 100 km/hr. (62 mph) winds set them swaying. Dismayed but not defeated, the workers eventually managed to join the two parts. The bridge is the sixth longest spanning-arch bridge in the world and it is the tallest steel arch bridge.

Sydney Harbour Bridge entrance from a print I purchased at the Bridge Climb.

Sydney Harbour Bridge entrance from a print I purchased at the Bridge Climb.

Peter, my travel agent, had proposed the bridge climb as the ideal urban adventure. “The Climb gets booked up fast,” he warned me, so he included tickets for two in our package.

Now I have to persuade Gunter to go with me! “Why not?” I cajole. “You rock-climbed in the Alps as a kid.”

“That was different.  I just don’t like the thought of climbing up to a pedestrian path that sways above the traffic lane.”

“Peter told me they train you first and provide safety harnesses; they must have a good safety record or they wouldn’t be allowed to do it.”

“If I don’t go, would you cancel?”

“Nope. I’d go by myself.”

“Okay, I’ll go with you then. But you owe me.”

We know where to go to begin the climb: down by the Rocks. We saw  the entrance marked Bridge Climb yesterday. While we wait in line at Admissions, I read the sign out loud: “The climb up and down is 1439 steps. Three hours total.”  What the sign doesn’t tell us is that the entire first hour is spent preparing for the ascent:  We sign safety disclaimers; we take a breath test to ensure that our blood-alcohol levels are beneath the legal limit; we change into grey bridge-suits and remove watches, hair clips, loose jewelry, and anything else that might fall onto the traffic, cycling and pedestrian lanes below; and finally, we don safety harnesses. Our group assembles in a training room where attendants provide us with pouches containing disposable rain jackets, scrunchies for ponytails, cords for glasses, and even handkerchiefs with elastic loops sewn in so that they can’t blow away. I’m impressed; they thought of everything! Finally, an attendant hands out radios and earpieces, and introduces our leader. We practice on a stairway. “Any questions?” our leader asks. Total silence. My fellow climbers look like astronauts preparing for a flight from which they may never return. The faces of some look white and peaked.

The start of the climb is the worst. I glance behind me to catch Gunter gritting his teeth, his eyes steely behind his glasses.

What must he be thinking about me right now? I try a tentative smile. He doesn’t return it. I focus on the climber in front of me. So far, so good. I glance down. Uff da! (as my mother would say). Only a metal grille prevents us from plunging to the bridge or the sea below! But I guess that’s what these harnesses are for. Problem is, every time we reach an abutment, we must unfasten the harness clip and afterwards, refasten it again. Like walking the deck of our sailboat. I glance at the white sails of ships luffing below, wishing I were down there instead. Well, at least the wind is light and fickle today—better for us than for them.

We reach the arch, 134 meters (440 feet) above sea level. The bridge levels off and I exhale. Wow! I realize that during the climb, I was alternately panting and holding my breath. Gunter taps me on the shoulder. “Come closer,” he whispers. I notice that the climbers in front of me have stopped.

“Better now?” I ask.

“Perfect. Kiss me.” He pulls me close and plants a long, deep kiss. “Look around. We are on top of the world with a 360-degree view.”

Sydney Harbour sprawls below in all its glory, a dazzling panoply of coves, harbors and peninsulas. Ahead of us, skyscrapers reach toward the clouds. Behind, the familiar Rocks are back dropped by the Kings Cross intersection. I can see the Sydney Opera House now from an entirely different perspective. Glistening in the sun, the concrete roof structures remind me of rows of translucent sea shells skillfully positioned by a master artist so that they brush against each other, yet barely touch.

Being here on top of Sydney is the highest high one can imagine. Awesome. Incredible. Magnificent. Stunning. Breathtaking… I run out of superlatives. If you go to Sydney, you must do the Bridge Climb!

Bridge at night. Photo courtesy of Google images.

Bridge at night. Photo courtesy of Google images.

Going down is anti-climactic but it does give me the opportunity to take a closer look at the bridge structure. I would call this bridge majestic rather than beautiful. The stone blocks in the four towers, the strong latticework of girders and metal plates, and the six million hand-driven rivets all say, “Don’t mess with me; I’m here to stay.”

Back on the pedestrian walk, we pick up our I CLIMBED IT certificates and photos and head directly for the nearest pub. “Time to get that blood-alcohol level up.” Gunter lifts his left eyebrow, a feat which never fails to make me laugh. There’ll be a good time on the old town tonight!

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