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Climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge

Published 28 November 2016

Round the World Experts

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is not only one of the most iconic sights in Sydney, but the whole of Australia. It is an awe-inspiring piece of architecture and synonymous with the land Down Under. In this post Shannon McKenzie tell us about her experience climbing over it and shares some spectacular photos.

A catamaran sailing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge

It is a clear autumn afternoon, and I am gazing out over Sydney, taking in a stunning panoramic view of the city. I cast my eye over the curving blue waters of the harbour, the skyscrapers of the CBD and the white arcs of the Sydney Opera House.

But something is…missing.

That something is the Sydney Harbour Bridge and it doesn’t feature in this panorama because I am standing on top of it. And it is marvellous.

For thousands of Sydney residents the bridge – known locally as the Coathanger – has long blended into the background of daily life. I have personally crossed and recrossed it hundreds of time by train, by car and occasionally by foot. I have motored under it on ferries, glanced at it from various points around the city, and spied it on any number of tourist postcards. It has become an entirely ubiquitous sight.

However standing atop the bridge, nearly 100m above the rushing traffic, I realise there is nothing remotely common about this Australian icon.

The view from the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

I booked my climb with BridgeClimb Sydney, the first and only tour operator to offer this unique excursion. For $228 I take the standard weekend Bridge Climb, a three and a half hour tour that caters for all levels. There are other climb options available; the Discovery Climb, for those feeling a bit more adventurous, and the Express Climb, for those who want to skip the preamble and just get to the top.

Today it is still the largest (but not the longest) steel arch bridge in the world.

But before we can even think about setting foot on the bridge, myself and the other group members are led through an extensive safety process at the BridgeClimb Sydney headquarters. We are kitted out in special bridge climbing jumpsuits, hats, headphones and harnesses and relieved of all jewellery and accessories. Even something as innocuous as a hairpin has to be removed. We are, after all, climbing above a busy highway and staff take no chances when it comes to falling objects.

Our guide Billy introduces himself and in a laconic Australian drawl begins to tell us the story of the bridge. As we begin our approach to the bridge proper we learn the basics; construction started in 1924 and it took eight years, 52,800 tonnes of steel and six million hand driven rivets to build. Today it is still the largest (but not the longest) steel arch bridge in the world.

As we near the first few steps of the actual bridge climb my excitement builds and builds. Soon enough I am hooked onto the safety cable that runs the entire length of the BridgeClimb route and I am stepping out on to the steel framework of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

As we make our way single-file along the narrow gangways I start to really take in my surroundings. Up close, the giant steel beams are dull, black, and dotted with rivets. Together, they criss-cross all around me, giving me a patchwork view of the city and the sky.

I turn a full 360 degrees, picking out the landmarks, watching the boats weave across the harbour, and smiling at the gulls who swoop over, under and through the bridge.

We move sedately up steps, up ladders, all the while listening to the stories behind the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We learn about the vision of the “father” of the bridge JJC Bradfield who devoted more than a decade of his life to see the bridge come to fruition. We laugh at the audacity of Captain de Groot who, during the 1932 opening ceremony of the bridge, charged in on horseback and slashed the official opening ribbon ahead of the State Premier. And we are won over by the story of Len Gwyther, a nine-year-old boy who rode 1400 kilometres on horseback to witness the official opening. It is through stories such as these that the bridge comes alive, and I realise it is far more than a functional structure linking the two sides of the city.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset

Eventually we come to the top side of the bridge and we make our way to the apex, where two Australian flags are fluttering wildly in the wind. The view is spectacular. All of Sydney is laid out before me. I turn a full 360 degrees, picking out the landmarks, watching the boats weave across the harbour, and smiling at the gulls who swoop over, under and through the bridge. Looking out is best – looking down invokes a queasy feeling. Not that I can fall, but it is a very long way down.

Before we begin our descent, out group pauses to sing Happy Birthday to a woman celebrating her 60th birthday. She is a little embarrassed, but delighted all the same, saying it has been a remarkable way to celebrate her milestone.

As we near the end of the tour, I find myself dragging my feet. I don’t want it to end – I want to hear more stories about this wonderful icon. But end it must.

It is true that the BridgeClimb Sydney tour is on the expensive side. But then with the amount of equipment and safety precautions involved – not to mention the calibre of the guides – the cost is probably unavoidable. For those willing to find the money, they will be rewarded with a singular experience of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and of Sydney itself.

For me, the climb has given me a lasting fondness for the Coathanger. Each time I see it, I unconsciously raise my eyes to the apex, and smile.

 

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