Above it all in Sydney Harbour

You know you're in Australia, land of diminutive words, when the safety mechanisms for ascending the Sydney Harbour Bridge are called "spinny bits."

The round, palm-sized metal gears connect you to lines along walkway rails, via a short bungee cord on a harness around your hips. It's a simple marvel of engineering, but the more curious the equipment, the greater the aura of adventure.

Go around almost any corner in Sydney, and you can see the arch of the Harbour Bridge - emerging from morning fog, glowing at sunset, warning nighttime fliers with a wink from Blinky Bill, the red light perched at the summit. And the bridge will be mentioned just as frequently if you ask tourists what they've heard is the "must do" attraction in the city.

Sure, there's an elevator to the top of a downtown tower, or a helicopter tour that lays out Sydney's sprawl before your eyes. But the opportunity to climb a bridge while eight lanes of traffic stream along below sweetens the view with a sense of accomplishment. And for anyone fascinated by architecture, the view of the bridge can be as rewarding as the view from it.

The "climb" primarily involves walking up the gradual inclination of the arch - so don't expect, or fear, that you'll be shimmying vertically up steel girders. But to get above the spandrels, you first have to maneuver a set of steep ladders that put you at eye level with passing trains and cars, letting you feel the pulse of an urban thoroughfare.

Since its first official tour in October 1998, BridgeClimb has hosted more than 250,000 people, everyone from celebrities to Valentine's Day sweethearts.

The first unofficial climb came shortly after the bridge opened in 1932. But it didn't become a business plan until Paul Cave arranged to take a group up during an international convention in 1989. Inspired by that trip, he spent nearly a decade cutting through red tape to become the founder and chairman of BridgeClimb. The attraction is so popular that its profits pay for the bridge's entire operation.

Word of mouth has worked in its favor partly because BridgeClimb staff strike a balance between building up the mystique and assuring people they'll be safe. "I like to try to interact with people and have a joke out there, because when everyone shows up, you can bet that probably half of them are really worried about what's going to happen," says Scott Graham, whose faded BridgeClimb baseball cap attests to the 450-plus tours he's conducted.

When he brings me and nine other first-time climbers into a small chamber and tells us to take everything out of our pockets - even tissues - and zip into gray jumpsuits, the consensus comes quickly: We feel like astronauts.

Just as we start to wonder what we'll do if our noses drip in the breeze, the staff supplies us with hankies on wristbands and lanyards for our sunglasses.

Then they take us through a practice run on a full-scale version of a ladder to make sure we can keep our spinny bits gliding along as we climb. Finally, we fasten radio-operated headphones to our harnesses so we'll be able to hear Mr. Graham's witty commentary above the noise of traffic and wind.

Although BridgeClimb rolls out tours every 10 minutes, the pace is relaxed. There is time to gaze at the iconic Sydney Opera House, the downtown skyline, and the white, fish-spine trails that form on the water as the wakes of ferryboats dissipate.

Rather than rattling off a canned script, tour guides weave their own narratives, combining basic information about the bridge and the city with whatever stories and trivia they have come across in their research.

Graham says he has enough information stored up that each tour is a different permutation of stories, but he focuses on history, especially the country's convict roots and the clash of cultures when the British arrived on Aboriginal lands. On our tour, he points out the spot in the harbor where the first ferry service was offered - by a Jamaican convict with a rowboat.

There are moments when the guide simply fades into the background. Moments when birds fly by and we realize we have climbed to their height instead of them sweeping down to ours. When we know that we'll never look at the bridge - and the tiny figures moving along its ridge - in the same way again. When steel becomes truly beautiful.

As we reach the summit, Graham records our triumphant smiles with a digital camera. Each climber gets to take home a group shot free, and can pay extra for individual photos.

On the descent, we pass the spot where, Graham says, a worker fell off while building the bridge. No worries, as they say in Australia: He survived, and went back to work within six weeks.

Once we come back to earth, we lay our suits in a pile like deflated dolls. But the group's enthusiasm lingers. "I was nervous last night, but something that was so frightening beforehand turned out to be so easy - I loved it," American Marsha Sinzheimer says as she browses the gift shop.

"It's a freeing feeling," adds her friend Heather McGuire, who had seen a story about BridgeClimb on television.

"We get fantastic feedback, even if the weather is terrible," Graham says before starting the cycle again with a fresh group.

Tours happen all year, day and night, and are canceled only when there is lightning or wind exceeding 90 kilometers per hour. "If it's pelting down rain, people just feel even more like adventurers."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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