So, to the adventure I had at the end of the last century. I was taking the much-worn route on a gap year, taking in Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Australia and eventually Japan. My journey was interrupted by news of my father’s lung cancer diagnosis, and I obviously returned home. My father insisted I continue my travels, and a few days after arriving in Australia, I was given the call to come back once more, the situation was final. Happily I got back in time to see him before he died. Before long I took another full day in the air, and landed in Sydney. After a month or so with a good friend with whom I had started travelling, I found myself back in Sydney, employed by Telstra and living in a hostel on the coast at Coogee Bay. I must say that it was a fairly dark time, sharing communal space with people that held little appeal – a priapic Michael Bolton lookalike for example, or the Scottish alcoholic who, when he wasn’t smoking in the bunk below me at 5 a.m., once accused me of shitting in his sleeping bag whilst he slept in it, after one of his box of port binges. Luckily for me two friends from university were on the way over from America as part of a much larger world tour. Tony and Kris arrived in a thunder storm that had apparently sent some cabin crew into hysterics, telling stories of getting the thumbs up from Boris Yeltsin at the G7 summit in Denver and thankfully providing me with a new perspective. We moved from the beach into town, and dropped our backpacks in a room at The Funk House in King’s Cross.
On our second night there we sat on the stairs near reception, making conversation and friends, rolling joints and cracking tinnies. My mood was elevated and I was as happy as one can only be after being rescued and plunged into good, good times. I sat with another Tony, who would soon become known as High Tone with my short mate inevitably taking the moniker Low Tone, enjoying the happy, welcoming atmosphere; so when an older Australian man came in and asked at reception if there was anyone staying at the hostel who might enjoy an adventure later that evening, interest was piqued. We pumped this strange man, let’s call him Bruce, for more information, and he would give us none more than be ready to do something illegal at midnight and be sober. An offer like that was too much to resist, and we retired upstairs to contemplate what madness may be awaiting us. We sat on sofas, and rolled no more joints. If we were to be doing something that required sobriety, we were at least sensible enough to take the advice. At least we were when someone mentioned it might be climbing the Harbour Bridge. I suffer from crippling vertigo, literally. At height I paralyse. However, the excitement that had been generated had bought others into our circle, and at midnight our line up now included Mike the engineer Rachel the scientist. Quite the gang.
We waited downstairs, wondering which of the two shortlisted adventures we would be having – a tour of the sewers had been mooted, and despite the grimness of such a tour, it was preferable to me than getting high in the other way. He arrived, and Bruce was a strange man. We were indeed going to scale the bridge. It would be his 32nd time, and that night was his 41st birthday. He wanted no financial recompense beyond $10 for fuel for his station wagon, into which we all piled. The journey was quiet, Bruce briefly explaining that we had to move fast once we’d climbed the fence at the bottom, so as to avoid raising the alarm.
So, we parked a distance away from the base of the bridge. We were on the north shore, near the financial district rather than the side where the opera house sits. We took the chance to take a photo, grinning idiots – even at this early part of the evening, the photo clearly shows my smile is rictus, insane, terrified. We turned on our heels after Bruce had finished clicking and moved towards the base. Twice we had to walk in the opposite direction as the police were patrolling. I remember distinctly wishing they would send us on our way. Especially after we learnt that the penalty for our proposed transgression was deportation and AUS$1,000 fine. I wanted neither.
However, naturally we did get to our destination. We started breaking the law – what follows is not only the naughtiest, but possibly the most dangerous thing I have ever done. (I say “possibly” as there was an incident off Frazier Island some months before – we’ll save that for another time). We climbed a chain link fence and dropped 2 metres or more onto the concrete the other side. We rounded the foot of one of the paired stone towers that support the road either side of Port Jackson, as the harbour is correctly known, but almost never referred to as. And there, astonishingly, was the way in – a hole in the side of the bottom arch of steel. We climbed in and once we had all crawled, with hushed guidance from Bruce, through a strange oval hole, we were permitted to turn our torches on. It became clear; we were inside the bottom arch, and the space was approximately 4 feet high, by 2 across. Every 2 or 3 yards was a steel wall with a small aperture through which we pulled ourselves, potholing style. For lithe Rachel and Low Tone, this presented little trouble. Even for me (remember this is many years ago, I was svelte and about 10 stone dripping wet), these holes were a navigable problem – but pity poor High Tone and broad Mike. As the arch rises, the height inside reduces until as it plateaus, it is merely 2 feet high. All of this was fine. We were inside, protected from the rain outside and shielded me from the view, more importantly.
Once we had finished this fairly gruelling first leg, I thought we might be at the top; my mind had completely forgotten that we were only in the lower of the two iconic arches. That misunderstanding was blown from my mind as we climbed out into the very wet, windy Sydney night. Exposed and by now completely horrified by what we were doing (in stark contrast to everyone else who thought this was great), I turned to Bruce and said it was a great experience and do we now just turn around?
Of course not. We had to cross the centre of the bridge to get to the ladder on the other side, that would take us to the apex of the top arch, and then on to the crow’s nest where the red air traffic light bellows its warning to all and sundry. This journey across was taken on hands and knees, about 160 feet above the road below. The bridge across the bridge was about 2 feet wide, steel and devoid of handrails or any enclosure. Just a sheet of metal, with a helpful slippery sheen of rain. My heart beat like some dreadful drum and bass, my breathing was shallow and fast. I inched across, trying not to look at the toy cars going about their business below. My focus was purely on the other side, and time swam elastically. It may have taken 10 minutes, I may have been across in 20 seconds. Surely it could get no worse?
As I recall, it did. The ladder rising to the next arch was a series of ambitiously spaced rungs, rising at 45 degrees. This, therefore, gave me an unavoidable view of the tarmac below. I simply can’t describe the fear I felt. As close to being dead as I’ve ever been. In fairness, I think I blanked a lot of it out. What I do remember is once at the top, a mere 10 metres from the red light, I had no idea what to do next. I couldn’t go back down, and I certainly couldn’t, as was being said, walk the last few metres to the crow’s nest. Again, no safety equipment. But walk it I did. And once there I clung to the light as though it would save me, should the bridge collapse.
The return journey to earth was a quick doubling of the terror, and outside once more, we scaled the fence. As the last set of feet hit the deck, we saw a police car. We scattered and regrouped at Bruce’s car. He dropped us back in the salubrious surroundings of King’s Cross, at around 4am. We went and drank coffee and I was as high as I have ever been, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to do that again.
At 9am I called the Telstra office in Bondi Junction and quietly informed them that I hadn’t been able to sleep. I needed the day off.