Perceptive Travel - Acrophobia Down Under

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Acrophobia Down Under
by Gillian Kendall



Gillian Kendall sees Sydney from a different angle, climbing 1,400 steps of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and walking across, trying not to look down.


Alan, the only person in our group who had done the BridgeClimb before, giggled sadistically. "Now that you're all here, let me tell you, this is torture."

We were lying on the front deck of a yacht that had been hired to escort me, along with a dozen gay male travelers, around Sydney Harbor. Alan pointed to the underbelly of the massive Harbor Bridge, looming forty feet above our heads. On top of it, a line of people edged along a parapet. "That was the worst part for me, last time," he mused.

"Are you afraid of heights?" I asked. I had been feeling sorry for two people who had left the party, claiming acrophobia.

"Oh, I just had to get used to it," Alan said. "I'd never realized how far up it was. But once I got past that point there, it was a piece of cake."

We waved at the dot–like figures atop the bridge, but none waved back.

Although the climb is supposed to take three hours, I'd assumed it would take only half that time to walk half–way across and come back. At 3,770 feet, Sydney Harbour Bridge is not all that long. Even when built, in 1932, it was only the second longest steel–arch bridge in the world, and now it's noted mainly for its coat–hanger design and magnificent views.

Our group's guide was a young Greek god. Adonis had dark, lush lashes and improbable cheekbones, and the men in my group were tripping over their backpacks to get him to administer their breathalyzers. After proving ourselves sober, we had to sign our lives away, promising not to sue to BridgeClimb people, even, and especially, if we died.

Then we assembled in the prep area, where Adonis explained that we could not take anything up on the bridge with us. No cameras, no binoculars, no jackets. No, not even little digital cameras even for the photographers. No water bottles, knapsacks, wallets, watches or jewelry. No tripods, which wouldn't be needed anyway since we couldn't take cameras. Not even chapstick, no.

Once we'd stashed our dangerous, loose personal items, we donned the official bridge–climb costume, a snug–fitting jumpsuit. It flattered Adonis, but turned the rest of us into Teletubbies. My friend Brent, from Dallas, cinched the waist to a sleeker design, asking, "Does this make my butt look tight?" When the guide directed us to the tool–belt room, Brent skipped to the front of the line, saying, "This will definitely be better belted."

The people who wore glasses or hair scrunchies had their accessories tied to a ring in their collars. Everything had to be attached, because if anything fell off the bridge, it could fall down onto a windscreen and obstruct the vision of a driver on the bridge, causing car wrecks and possibly an international incident.

We were issued with gloves and hats and even hankies, because people's eyes and noses tend to run up high on the bridge––Sydney has some ferocious winds at 135 meters. Everything was attached to our wrists or collars, so the things wouldn't fall off, blind the drivers below, et cetera. Each of us got a radio, a miner's headlamp, and a bulky bag containing a fleece jacket, all of which dangled from our tool belt. The radio earpieces went through the collar–ring, then over the headband, under the beanie onto our ears.

To the Bridge
Finally, we were prepared, our group as svelte and nimble as a flock of penguins. Each person was tethered to the slender lifeline, we waddled out through an archway, and it was immediately bad.

We were standing in the same place as the people we'd waved at from the boat, about 40 feet above the water. Trucks and cars roared overhead, and the wind was louder than the traffic, but I recalled Alan saying that this had been the worst part for him, so I held my breath and hoped things would improve.

Below, people on boats were smiling and waving at us, but I didn't wave back because I was holding on with both hands. I didn't smile, either.

The huge concrete structures at each end of the bridge are, we were told, entirely ornamental. On the very non–ornamental inside of one of them, we began climbing the first of 1,400 steps we would take on the bridge. We mounted twenty metal ladders, one person at a time on each ladder, in case someone fell. I waited my turn, although privately I thought that if I fell off the bridge, hitting someone else on the way down would be the least of my worries, and might even prove beneficial.

The ladders were vertical, and you could see through the footrests to an endless Escher–maze of more ladders above and below, but we were out of the wind, and I concentrated on moving upwards. We had been told we should always maintain three points of contact––two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand, should be on the bridge at all times. The problem was that at all times I wanted four points of contact, which made it hard to move.


© Gillian Kendall

At the top of the last ladder, we popped up like gophers between the eight lanes of traffic, and clambered out of the manhole. There, treading on solid asphalt, I could appreciate that incredible view. To the right, the Opera House glowed white like a giant temple, and the sunlit city spread out behind us, the green–blue bay in front. While we were on solid pavement, it was fun.

But after five seconds we had to clamber onto the "coat hanger" part, going up petite stairs through which I could see the cars a dreadfully long way below. On the coat hanger, the catwalks holding us up were iron mesh––very thin, fragile–looking mesh. The mesh was framed in rectangles a few feet long, so the whole thing looked like a narrow, broken chain–link fence, only horizontal, and higher than any other chain–link fence in the world. In places, the mesh was rusted.

Looking down to the water and the toy–like yachts below was petrifying, so I tried not to look down, which defeated the purpose of doing the climb. Now and then my earphones crackled, indicating Adonis saying things which I thought probably were vital to my well–being, so I strained to hear, but poor reception and strong winds hindered my understanding. Sometimes the people ahead of me stopped moving, so I stood still, locked my arms over the rails, and peered at the view, but every time I looked out, I was tempted to look down, and then I'd get sick and shaky. The setting sun glared into my eyes.

There was a lot to do, what with straining to hear Adonis, shuffling my feet while clinging to the rail, not putting my foot through the mesh, not looking down, squinting against the sun and trying not to freeze up or fall off. Behind me, jovial Alan and Brent lingered and pointed out distant objects, outdoing each other with adjectives.

"This view is stunning," said Alan.

"It's magnificent," breathed Brent.

"Magical," Alan insisted.

"The ultimate," Brent crowed. "Beyond ultimate!"

We climbed steeply upwards for about a day and a half. By the time we reached the apex, some 300 yards above sea level, I was terrified and freezing and my hands ached from gripping the rail. That was when we stopped for pictures.

Every damn one of us had to be photographed against the backdrop of the Opera House. Adonis turned out to be a fussy photographer, and to get the best angles, he had to un–tether himself and squeeze past us several times. Each time he slithered by, I hunched into a fetal crouch and held my breath.

I was positioned over a gap between sections of catwalk, and we had to edge back and forth to fit in the photos, with me stepping over the crevasse each time. In many of the photos, my face did not have a natural, happy expression, so we had to do them over.

After the photo shoot, we moved on, crossing below a red, flashing light which warns aircraft not to hit the bridge. The legend––created for tourism––is that if you throw a kiss to the light, your wish will be granted. I blew a hands–free peck and made a deeply sincere wish, and then we turned back, towards earth.

Without a Net
Unfortunately we stopped there––at the highest point––for another lecture. On the way up, the guide had cheerfully described the construction of the bridge, but now he shared the horror stories. For the first time in the entire BridgeClimb experience, we heard the f–word.

In the building of the bridge, 16 people died, 8 of them by falling. But miraculously, one person who fell lived. His survival was explained by three things. First, onlookers said that just before he fell, he dropped a hammer, which broke the surface tension of the water. Second, the man was a diver, so he knew how to land in the water. (I doubted this theory: from 300 meters it doesn't matter whether you point your toes or not.) Third, he was from Ireland, and the luck of the Irish saved him.

I, however, offer a fourth explanation. I suspect he survived because he fell after his lunch break, during which he'd had several pints, and he was deeply relaxed.

In the entire history of the bridge's construction, the workers never used safety ropes. In fact, all their health and safety practices were powerfully deficient by modern standards.

For instance, it was deemed expedient for the workers to weld their rivets on the bridge. So the welder would have an open fire and forge rivets up on the scaffolding, working in white–hot metal. When a rivet was done, he couldn't just pass it over to the guys out on the struts who were riveting the bridge together; they were so far away he had to throw it. So the forger would finish a rivet, then pull it from the flame with 3–foot tongs, and then hurl the chunk of hot metal to the "catcher." The catcher––usually an apprentice––would be straddling the strut, 300 meters above the water, and catching hunks of flying steel with no safety rope. There are some 10 million rivets in the bridge, Adonis said, and about 10,000 that fell into the sea–bed below. (And, I wanted to ask, how many apprentices?)

After that riveting story, we headed back down towards the city, which had never looked more beautiful. But by then it had grown dark, and we went down the west side of the bridge, where the footing was worse. The mesh rectangles were spaced further apart, so in places (cheerfully marked with yellow paint) we had to jump across gaps.

The better to make our jumps, we had put our headlamps on. But, looking down, I'd see through the mesh to the black, distant water, broken only by the choppy reflection of lights. The sky was dark and even more windy, and my little attachment tether––that toy upon which my life depended–– kept sticking at the joins of the lifeline. Every few feet, I had to stop and jangle and jerk it free so I could continue onward. Then I had to look down to make sure there was mesh to step on, and every time I saw down, I'd get sick and have to stop walking. I fell a long, long way behind the person ahead of me.

When we got back, I was glad to be back on terra firma, but still shaky, cold, and scared, hours later. Unlike Alan, I won't be going back to repeat the torture.



Gillian Kendall (second from right) is an American writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She works part of the year at the Victorian parliament, reporting, and the rest of the time she writes fiction and essays. She is the author of Mr Ding's Chicken Feet, which the New York Times Review of Books considered one of the "notable" travel books of 2006. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Glamour, Curve, Girlfriends, and many other magazines, and she's won a number of obscure awards.

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Mr Ding's Chicken Feet

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