Sydney's ultimate high

Rachelle Thackray clambers above Australia's famous harbour on a bridge that claimed 16 lives

Australia, home of whitewater-rafting, awesome surf and some of the world's best scuba-diving, has a new experience to offer: bridge- climbing.

More than 50,000 tickets for a three-hour climb of Sydney Harbour Bridge have been sold since October to tourists and locals who are eager to participate in what once constituted the city's ultimate dare. But there is one essential difference. Previously, it was illegal to climb the structure, and anyone caught - mainly drunken teenagers who inched their way up, swaying precariously, late at night - was liable for a fine of A$1,000 (pounds 400). But since the tours began three months ago, the cost to climb has fallen to just A$98, which includes a safety harness, an anecdotal tour, and even a free photograph capturing the moment the summit is conquered.

Some might argue that the fun has disappeared from the challenge, but others are keen to capitalise on the potential of what promises to be the first in a new genre of lucrative tourist attractions. The Australian government, which has leased the bridge for 20 years to the private company BridgeClimb, will certainly not lose out: the entire maintenance bill of A$150m is to be taken from climb coffers. BridgeClimb's founder, Paul Cave, who established himself in the 1970s with his own chain of tile shops and whose father-in-law was one of the first to cross the newly finished bridge in 1932, decided nine years ago "to give as many people as possible a chance to experience the thrill" of climbing it. He also knew a good business opportunity when he saw one.

But it was something of an uphill struggle to overturn the dozens of objections raised by four different government departments. "It was a pretty gutsy thing for the government to lease the bridge to a private individual," he admits. "[The bridge is] an icon which has a permanent conservation order on it meant that we had to work in with that. We had to regard the fact that the bridge has 130 maintenance workers who belong to 13 or 14 unions. We also had to not affect the bridge's fundamental job of moving the traffic. We had to do it without leaving a footprint," he says.

The considerable time and effort Mr Cave has invested has paid off, and praise, as well as revenue, is pouring in for the venture. This, however, is just the beginning. There are plenty of further possibilities: tours of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, say, or the new Lantau Island bridge in Hong Kong. But while the world is his oyster it would be "premature" to reveal plans just yet. "I think there is potential, but it was a nine- year exercise here in Sydney so in terms of doing it again, one's got to think fairly carefully," is all he will say.

Meanwhile, thousands of tourists have been up and down the bridge on the tour promoted as "the climb of your life". The company has just taken on another 17 climb leaders, and groups leave several times each day, with more than 100 weekend tours. Climbers must be aged over 12, and - as stipulated by any good fairground ride - in possession of a robust disposition. The presenter of a safety video playing in the waiting area of the space-age headquarters coos: "You may feel a little uneasy; don't worry, it's completely normal. Look up and ahead, take a few deep breaths and enjoy the sense of excitement."

Mick, our affable leader and a part-time didgeridoo player who admits he did, as a teenager, climb the bridge in a drunken haze, prides himself on helping nervous climbers past that moment of frozen terror. But even he admits it can be scary up there when lightning strikes, as it did the day before our climb (causing BridgeClimb to evacuate everyone, pronto).

Climbers are breathalysed, asked to sign a disclaimer, and fitted with drab grey jumpsuits, a colour chosen to blend with the bridge and protect the 180,000 motorists who cross it daily. "We can't have them looking up and going `Oh wow, look at that'," said Mick. No jewellery, watches or cameras are allowed, but climbers are given a hair scrunchie, baseball cap and elasticated hankie, plus a black raincoat and fleece jumper which attach to the harness in bags. Then there's a dry run on an artificial bridge section to practise using the roller device, originally designed for lone yachtsmen, which connects climbers securely to the cable running alongside the steps. Climb leaders also attach a plastic "fixer" to the harness to stop any would-be suicides from unhooking themselves.

The bridge itself has dominated the harbour since its completion, but - remarkably, considering the lack of safety equipment during the Depression - claimed just 16 builders' lives during the eight years of construction. Six deaths were caused by direct falls, and one man, Vince Kelly, even survived an 182ft drop after losing his balance on a girder. Keeping an admirable presence of mind as he tumbled, he entered the water feet first, hands over ears, and swam to a nearby boat with just three broken ribs and later received a medal. Another 1920s worker, remembered only as George, was not so lucky: he fell into fast-setting cement and nobody could get him out, so he has literally become part of the bridge. Some climb leaders suggest his ghost haunts the pillar by night.

The experience of climbing the bridge was less daunting than it first appeared, and we went according to the pace of the slowest member. As our group of six sauntered along the narrow metal strip which separated us from the drop to the water nearly 50ft below, Mick pointed out an amusing anachronism fixed to one of the pillars: "Climbing forbidden; $1,000 fine", a sign Paul Cave hopes to add to his personal memorabilia collection. Then it was up the steep kingpin ladder and on to the shallow uppermost curve of the bridge.

Walking about unharnessed on the bridge below, apparently unconcerned about the height, were the painters who apply 90,000 litres of paint to the bridge annually. The most well-known was Paul Hogan, who worked on it from 1963 to 1972 before making his name as Crocodile Dundee.

The climb down afforded a good view of the shipping headquarters nicknamed The Pill "because it has control of berthing all the ships". There was a pause at road deck level to wait for a train - "the voice of the bridge" - to pass just inches from our noses. We're told we're the only people in the country allowed to get so close without having to wear reflective red jackets. We're also told to look out for the "golden" rivet, the last of 6 million holding the bridge together. Mick finally let on that it's all a hoax, based on an old shipwright tradition, a revelation which didn't stop us keeping our eyes peeled.

Coming down is something of an anti-climax, relieved by the excitement of collecting the photographs we'd posed for at the top - a more mouth- watering souvenir than the ubiquitous surf, scuba or rafting alternatives. Britons, Paul Cave says, are the most enthusiastic climbers, contributing the largest percentage of foreign revenue. Among others who have climbed was the most elderly conqueror, a venerable 89.

Future plans for the Sydney bridge include a three-stage museum. In February there was a Valentine's Day package. So far, 50 lovers have made marriage proposals on the bridge and none, apparently, has been refused.

It's all because the tour creates such a memorable experience, says Mr Cave. "You're climbing it, marvelling at the technical feats and dealing with your own concerns about heights. It's not a bungee jump or a parachute jump, but it's not like going up a lift in the Eiffel Tower either."

SYDNEY

GETTING THERE

Austravel (tel: 0171-734 7755) can book direct flights on British Airways (23 hours with only one refuelling stop) for pounds 605. Book before end of March, the ticket is valid until the end of May. Austravel can also book flights with JAL, including a one-night stopover in Tokyo with hotel, for pounds 593, valid to end of July. They can provide accommodation vouchers for hotels ranging from pounds 18 to pounds 54 per person, based on two sharing. Other Australia specialists include Quest Worldwide (tel: 0181-547 3111) and Bridge the World (tel: 0171-911 0900).

FURTHER INFORMATION

For reservations contact BridgeClimb (tel: 00 612 9252 0077). E-mail admin@bridgeclimb.com; on the wold-wide web at http://www.bridgeclimb. com

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