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Travel: Over the top in Sydney; Walking over the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge is the latest stunt for daredevils, so Cathy Smith took up the challenge.

WALK across Sydney Harbour Bridge and you have a view of one of the loveliest harbours in the world.

Walk over the top of the bridge and you might be too petrified to take your eyes off your feet. It all depends on whether or not you have a head for heights - if you are into bungee jumping or parachuting you should be just fine.

However, it seems that even cowardy custards like me are doing it - as long as you are over 12 years of age you can have a go.

From 1932, when the bridge was built, until October, 1998, the only people to scramble over its enormous span were drunken teenagers.

It used to be the ultimate dare but in those days it was illegal, and it was expensive. Anyone caught was liable for a fine of pounds 382.

Nowadays you pay just pounds 37 for the experience of climbing the 134 metres to the top. This includes a safety harness and a photograph capturing your moment of glory. You'll also have something in common with Paul Hogan who worked on the bridge from 1963 to 1972 before going on to Crocodile Dundee fame.

Sydney Harbour Bridge is the world's largest (but not longest) steel arch bridge and was built by the English firm of Dorman Long and Co of Middlesborough for the sum of 4,217,721 Australian pounds 11 shillings and 10 pence - a price as precise as the workmanship that went into the building of the bridge itself.

Up to one million people are estimated to have crowded around the harbour for the official opening on Saturday, March 19, 1932. There were decorated floats, brass bands and gun salutes and a few enthusiasts extended the celebrations by unofficially climbing up the arch - a preview of the official bridge climb to be inaugurated 66 years later.

Work on the bridge started in 1923 when Sydney was booming, but in 1932 Australia was, like most of the world, in the middle of the Depression and the outlook was not good.

Out of this gloom and doom the bridge still managed to be built and it provided jobs and hope for the economy.

It was ex-convict Sir Frances Greenway who first came up with the idea of building a bridge across the harbour in 1815. More than 100 years later his dream came true, but too late for him to see it.

No matter what time of year you find yourself on the bridge you will always see maintenance workers balancing on scaffolding above or below you.

The bridge takes 15 to 20 years to paint, so as soon as one end is finished, they start again at the other side. Just like the Forth Road Bridge.

The climb takes three hours or so and you begin your journey in a converted workshop in Cumberland Street, at The Rocks - a kitschy, touristy but still attractive area of Sydney Cove.

The experience begins with a rather unnerving request to sign a disclaimer, which makes you feel like you are making out your will. Then you don grey overalls which are the same colour as the bridge so as not to distract motorists below who might just be dazzled enough by gold chains and multi-coloured T-shirts to take their eyes off the road.

From the top of the Coathanger, as the bridge is known, the splendour of Sydney Harbour is laid out in all its sparkling beauty.

The smooth, curved shells of the Opera House on Bennelong Point stick out into the blue water.

The locals call it Nuns in a Scrum. (They do have a way with words, these Ozzies.)

On the north side you can see Admiralty House at Kirribilli Point and slightly west is Luna Park on the edge of Lavender Bay.

The amusement park was at its peak when the bridge was opened. The Art Deco pillars at the entrance echo the shape of the skyscrapers across the harbour.

Unfortunately it is currently closed. The big wheel is still, its empty chairs swinging in the breeze. There's something melancholy about an amusement park which no longer amuses. The grin on the face of the huge sun at the entrance may be turning down soon as there's talk of demolishing Luna Park, which would be a pity. It's a classic and Sydney's answer to America's Coney Island.

Looking west is the Sydney 2000 Olympic Stadium, backed in the distance by the Blue Mountains. It's hard to believe that the British sent people to this country as a punishment, but in those days Sydney was a harsh penal settlement struggling to survive in the heat and the empty landscape.

Fabulous as the views are from the top you are not allowed to carry a camera or anything else which might fall off you onto some unsuspecting driver or pedestrian below.

You are fitted with a safety harness which connects you to a cable running alongside the steps and you're on your way, along with the rest of the gang of Bravehearts.

BridgeClimb, the company which organises the ascent, led its first group of climbers to the top on October 1, 1998. Now an average of 500 people a day make the climb, and at least 100 marriage proposals have been made on the summit. One wag was heard to say: "It's all downhill from here."

Since BridgeClimb operates in all weather conditions except electrical storms, climbers are offered extra layers of protective clothing, like rain jackets and fleeces, which are attached to small sacks which clip around the waist.

If the thought of scrambling up 134 metres of metal girders is too much for you the next best thing is to climb up the bridge pylon.There are 195 steps to the top and the view is similar to that from the top of the bridge, only nearer. There's also a permanent exhibition on the history of the bridge.

For reservations contact BridgeClimb, tel 00 6112 9252 0077. E-mail: admin@bridgeclimb.com; on the web at bridgeclimb.com

Budget flights to Sydney, with Gulf Air, commence early in the New Year. Flying Glasgow-Heathrow-Bahrain-Sydney, from pounds 665 including tax. Oz Travel have 21 nights at the three-star Furama Hotel in Darling Harbour, costing pounds 1,286. For details call 0207 734 7755.

Best time to go is during the summer months Down Under, from November to March when the weather is warm and sunny.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Dec 16, 2000
Words:1076
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