I could never tire of Sydney Harbour. I’m mesmerised by the sail-shaped Opera House; curvaceous Harbour Bridge; Luna Park’s gaping grin; the tropical lushness of the Botanical Gardens and the ferries criss-crossing their way busily to my favourite ports, Manly and Mosman.
My daily commute sailing between the northern shores and Circular Quay was one of the things that made living here such a pleasure 20 years ago.
So, while I have been enthralled by new destinations like Brazil and Argentina on my 50 at 50 journey, it felt just as good to be returning to the familiarity of what I regard as my second home. I was looking forward to catching up with old friends, too, one of who had also just celebrated turning 50.
I didn’t need to look far from my hotel room’s panoramic Sydney Harbour view to find fresh adventures in a city I knew so well. For some reason – probably because the opportunity didn’t exist more than 15 years ago – I hadn’t ever climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge. Now was my chance to scale the 134m-high pinnacle.
Opened in 1932, this is the world’s largest (but not longest) steel-arch bridge. An adored Aussie symbol, it is the centrepiece for celebrations such as those on New Year’s Eve, when even the chimpanzees at Taronga Zoo refuse to go to bed in order to catch the spectacular fireworks that explode from its gregarious girders.
I’d certainly joined in the festivities with a glass of champagne and a harbour-side vantage point when I lived here. For safety reasons, you can’t drink and climb the bridge – so no Dutch courage is allowed for anyone with a fear of heights. As well as signing a form verifying that you’re in reasonable health, you are breathalysed before ever setting foot on the first rung of a very long ladder.
Surprisingly, perhaps, after my visit to Shangri-La’s Blu cocktail bar the night before, I passed with flying colours. A beginner’s surfing lesson at Bondi Beach had been cancelled due to a dangerous swell earlier, but there was no getting out of this one. Nervously I clambered into my “bridge suit” – which was as unflattering as a Teletubby outfit – while a cap, fleece and harness were attached.
Before stepping out onto the bridge, I was hooked to a ‘slider’ – a wired contraption that prevents you from falling off. The device may reassure vertigo sufferers whose worst nightmares quite possibly feature peering through steel mesh steps to the tiny dots of people, cars, yachts and even cruise ships far below.
Our guide explained that those who freeze with fear during their climb tend to do so when they initially step out from the shelter of the sturdy granite pylons onto the first open platform. Yet only around 10 people per week from the three million who have successfully ascended ever turn back.
In groups of 12, you walk slowly in single file behind your team leader, sliding your tethered hook along like a dog on a short leash. At first you need to duck under some low-hanging beams, although there is plenty of padded protection for anyone who may have their gaze averted by the 360 degree views of Circular Quay, the Opera House, Darling Harbour and out into the open ocean at Bondi and Manly.
“The eldest person ever to reach the peak was apparently 100″
Once I recovered from an initial queasy feeling of being so high up, I found the climb exhilarating. Yes, it was steep in parts, but I felt perfectly safe and we stopped often enough to ask questions and catch our breath.
Our “express” climb meant that we reached the summit and made it back in a break-neck – or should I say – double-quick speed of around two hours. There is a more leisurely three-and-a-half hour version on offer too and even night or dawn raids for anyone brave enough.
I had been worried that the high winds that blew my chances of taking a seaplane to Home and Away’s Palm Beach might scupper my climb here too. But either lightning needs to strike or gale-force gusts occur before Bridge Climb, the company behind the ascent, will refuse to take your £118 – £177 entrance fee.
In my victory video at the top, I proudly declared that while the Opera House had just reached the tender age of 40; 50 at 50 was having the climb of her life scaling the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The eldest person ever to reach the peak was apparently 100. See – half a century is nothing.
Where to next?