IT’S a situation that’s rather familiar among many Sydneysiders: we may have lived in the Emerald City our whole lives, yet for some reason, we have never climbed the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.
We tell ourselves we will do it one day, yet there’s a better chance we would give Christmas gift certificates to friends and family to take part in the BridgeClimb experience instead — confident in the knowledge they will love it.
So, when I was offered the chance to finally take part in BridgeClimb experience last week, I didn’t hesitate.
My guest on the climb was openly gay singer/songwriter Brendan Maclean. You would’ve heard of him: he was a recent Star Observer cover boy, he is Marcia Hines’ co-star in the stage musical Velvet, and he has released a few songs that have done the rounds on social media and Triple J — the most recent being Tectonic.
The day we chose to do BridgeClimb was a few days after Sydney’s stinking hot Friday in November that saw temperatures reach 43C. Luckily, the temperature on this Tuesday afternoon had all the hallmarks of a gorgeous spring day: dry, sunny and with a pleasant southerly breeze.
Not long after Brendan and I meet in the foyer of the BridgeClimb centre, we head to the pre-climb area. There, we get acquainted with our tour leader Tev and fellow group members, all of whom come from different parts of Australia and the UK, US and even Russia. Before we know it, we’re all in our grey overalls with a safety harness belt attached and headphones on, ready to roll.
As we walk towards the main entry point of the climb, the excitement in the air is palpitating. Brendan can hardly keep it in — he’s fidgety like a school kid on an excursion. I don’t blame him, though. I could barely keep it in, either: I had a big, cheesy grin plastered on my face.
As we walk towards the base of the arch, Tev tells us a little bit about the history of the bridge: it took nine years to build, scores of construction builders risked their lives without safety gear, and it costs millions of dollars to maintain each year.
But it was the story of Lennie Gwyther — a boy from small town in south eastern Victoria with a keen interest in civil engineering who dreamed of seeing the Sydney Harbour Bridge — that appealed the most.
With his parents’ blessing, he and his horse Ginger Mick spent four months riding 1000km to Sydney (via Canberra) to attend the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932.
“When Lennie entered Martin Place, a huge crowd was there waiting for him, welcoming him,” Tev says.
“Because his story has captured the nation since he and his horse left his town, he was part of the official parade during the opening ceremony of the bridge.
“His father had bought him a ticket back home in a ship, but Lennie was like, ‘yeah, nah’, and rode his horse all the way back instead. Both Lennie and his horse made it back home safely, too.”
Brendan and I looked at each other, astonished. What an incredible story.
By now, our group had arrived at the base of the stairs leading up to the arch. It was time to climb to the top and I was pumped. Once we’re up, there’s one thing we notice before anything else.
“Oh my god, the view’s amazing,” Brendan says.
Tev is telling us about the views and something about the off-white colour of Sydney Opera House’s sails — but I don’t think anyone is paying attention. The group seemed to be awestruck by the views of Sydney Harbour shimmering in the afternoon sun in front of us. And we weren’t even at the summit of the bridge yet.
After a few happy snaps, we’re off again, onwards and upwards. I notice Brendan excitedly waving to people on the decks of ferries, yachts and big holiday cruise ships sailing by, and instantly thought of the countless times I was one of those people down below, looking up at the tiny, grey-clad figures climbing the bridge.
When we do finally get to the top, I felt dwarfed by the size of the Australian and NSW flags flapping away at the winds. Tev takes a few more happy snaps for us, and lets us hang around to soak it all in.
After a few solid minutes, Tev says it’s time for us to move on, so we walk over to the western side of the bridge. Tev tells us if we climbed bit earlier that day we may have been able to see the Blue Mountains from the bridge, but that didn’t bother any of us at all — the afternoon haze as the sun set over Parramatta River and the Sydney’s western suburban sprawl was breathtaking and totally unexpected.
Just as we start to make our down back to the bottom, a pleasant surprise: one of the guys in our group bends down on his knee to propose to his girlfriend.
She says yes, and everyone is cheering and congratulating them. This couple will now be one of the select few in the world who can boast that they got engaged at the summit of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
“You can have whole wedding ceremony up here, you know,” Tev tells them, a cheeky grin on her face.
Continuing our way back down, Tev tells the story of the opening ceremony of the bridge and how the then-Premier Jack Lang was famously upstaged by Francis De Groot, who had stormed the crowd on his horse to slash the ribbon before Lang could.
“When he slashed the ribbon with his sword, Francis de Groot said, ‘I declare this bridge open in the name of the decent and respectable citizens of NSW’,” Tev says.
“After the commotion, they had to sort of tie the slashed ribbon back together because they didn’t have a back-up just so Lang could finally ‘officially’ open the bridge.”
There are chuckles among our group. To me, it was a familiar story, but I was really impressed by how well Tev recounted it.
Before we know it, the group is back in the preparation area of BridgeClimb. We’re all knackered, but on a high. The tedious task of taking off our grey overalls was outweighed by general discussion among ourselves on how incredible that climb was.
For me the experience of the climb, and the views that came with it were both just as unforgettable stories behind the history of the bridge.
“I would definitely do that again,” Brendan says.
I couldn’t agree more, and I would totally pay it forward by buying a gift certificate for friends and family to take part, too.
For details on purchasing BridgeClimb Christmas gift certificates click here.
For general details and bookings on BridgeClimb, click here.
Elias Jahshan and Brendan Maclean were guests of BridgeClimb.