The thing about a landmark is precisely that: it marks the land on which it stands. Whether tower, monument, or Wonder of the World, it steals the attention of the casual visitor, and serves as a reassuring point of reference for all who wander in its orbit. Eiffel, Liberty, Big Ben, Sugarloaf.
First they hold us in awe; then they possess us; then, slowly, they blend into the landscape, and we only pay them any notice when they’re under threat or lit up by fireworks. But then, one day, our mind on other things, we calmly follow the sweep of the familiar panorama, and the landmark suddenly reclaims its place of novelty in our imagination.
Look! Up there! People! Workmen? No. In telephoto close-up, their gait is too unsure, too slow and shuffling. And they seem far too impressed with the view. Click.
Next thing we know, we’re standing in line at 5 Cumberland Street, The Rocks, waiting to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The harbour, of course, is one of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful in the world.
It doesn’t have a mountain as its backdrop, but it does have two icons of modern architecture, conveniently across from each other, that vie for your eye as your ferry eases into Circular Quay.
On your left: the bone-white, fanned-out scallops of the Sydney Opera House, an opus in itself, a gloriously baroque riposte to the popular myth that Australia has no aesthetic tradition. (The building was designed by a Dane, but we’ll overlook that, because it was funded by Australians playing the lottery.)
And on your right: the graceful rainbow arc, latticed like French stocking, of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Yes, it is a poem in steel, suspended between pylons of solid rock. But its form is its function. It is a bridge, and every day, thousands travels across it, by car and bus and train, making their way to and from the city and its suburbs.
Why would anybody want to climb the thing? Well, firstly, because it is there. And secondly, because you can. In 1998, an entrepreneur named Paul Cave secured from the Australian Government a 20-year-lease, allowing his company to take tourists to the top of the bridge, and back down again.
That concession has become an industry, and millions who would once have been content to pose with the bridge in the background, will now not leave Sydney until they have planted their feet on top of its second-most famous landmark.
One hundred and thirty-four metres. Funny, that doesn’t seem so high, until you’re sitting in the waiting-room at the Base Station in Cumberland Street, with your ballpoint hovering over the small print on the indemnity form. Fear of heights. Vertigo. Dizziness or loss of balance. Angina or any other heart condition. Any limb injury, back injury, or other physical impairment which could affect your ability to walk and/or climb ladders.
You shrug. And then you sign, pushed over the edge of indecision by the picture of Mrs Chris Muller on the wall. She climbed the bridge on July 6, 1999, two days after her 100th birthday. There are other pictures, of other people. Chelsea Clinton, Sarah Ferguson, Matt Damon, Kylie Minogue, a whole galaxy of TV hosts and sportspeople and Big Brother contestants.
If they have anything at all in common, it is the Pose: eyes wide and alive, hair windswept, arms outstretched in embrace of the intoxicating view. Important point: that’s as intoxicated as you’re allowed to get. Before you even sign your declaration, you are asked to blow into a breathalyser, and if your blood alcohol level is above 0.05 percent, you are not allowed to climb.
You pass your first Big Test. Then, in the company of nine other people of sober mind and body, you take off your clothes and prepare to climb to the summit of a structure that was never designed to be climbed by anyone other than a workman or a stuntman. No matter.
You are now zipped, locked, Velcroed into a battleship-grey jumpsuit, and around your waist is a thick belt which is attached to a safety harness that is in turn tethered to a slender metal guide-rail. For the next three-and-a-half hours, in effect, you will be a living, breathing part of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
There is no way you can escape from your suit, no way you can fall from the catwalk or girders. (The worst that could happen is that you might dangle for a bit, but your guide would quickly reel you back in.) You are not allowed to take anything with you on the climb: no camera, no bag, no wristwatch, no cellphone, no money, no snack. Even a pin, dropped from 134m up, could shatter the windshield of a car passing below.
A brief practise-run on a replica section of bridge, a quick test of your two-way communication headset, and you’re off, in batches of 10, 10 minutes apart, with your guide leading the way and the slowest member of your party setting the pace.
Every few minutes, you will pause to admire the view, “admire the view” being the accepted euphemism for steady your knees and remember to breathe. In truth, this is not Everest. It’s not even Uluru, the big red rock in the middle of the vast Australian outback.
Aside from the narrow ladder that links the catwalk to the foot of the Eastern Arch, it can’t in all reality be considered a climb at all; it’s just a slow stroll up the arc of a metal rainbow, and all the way back down again. You keep telling yourself that. You keep thinking, it’s a just a bridge, just a stretch of steel that connects one piece of land to another, with the ocean in between.
Then you notice the land. The cluster of spires and towers that burst from the heart of the city, the sweep of the suburbs that stretch to the far horison, the slippery, glistening scales of the Opera House as it basks beneath a clear blue sky. Then you notice the ocean.
Churning green and white below your feet, heaving with the swell of harbour traffic, the waves stirred by the same angry wind that tears at your jumpsuit as you take another step forward. Then you notice the bridge.
Every rivet, every beam, every panel, every X, pops into clear and sudden relief, and you begin to realise that a bridge doesn’t just lie there, spanning tracts of earth; it moves and it sways and it groans and it sighs, as the parade of people and machines passes across it.
There is something a little unsettling, something that trips and quickens your pulsebeat, about the sight of the tops of cars and trucks and trains as they judder and rumble and whoosh way below you. So stop looking at them. They’re not the view.
Carry on walking, gripping the guide-rail, putting one foot in front of the other, surreptitiously checking that you’re still attached to your harness, and then: stretch out your arms, look windswept and dazzled and alive, as your guide says “cheese!” and snaps your group portrait with his digital camera.
Now stop to admire the view, this time for real, from the red aircraft-warning light to the fluttering flags to the city of Sydney and surrounds, at your feet and at your command, for 360 degrees in every direction. It is only after a while that you will begin to get the curious feeling that something is missing. A famous landmark, conspicuous by its absence from the enveloping panorama.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge. Where on earth is it? Oh. Right. You’re on it. Right on top of it, in fact. And for a swirling, crazy moment, oblivious to the crosswinds, oblivious to rain or shine or sleet or snow (you can climb in any weather, except for an electrical storm) the only thing you can think about is turning around and getting back down, because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to get back up.