Scaling the bridge

by Catherine Marshall

The best way to see Sydney, its famous Opera House and the harbour is to climb its iconic bridge. Catherine Marshall tests her head for heights.


Sydney looks different from up here, tame and docile in the softening autumn light. Its edges flatten out submissively and its harbour quivers far below, a metallic green skin pulled taut between two shores. Match-box motorcars crisscross the expanse, finding their way home on this languid Friday afternoon. From here, Sydney is a bowl rimmed by a smudge of Pacific Ocean and a wisp of grey: the Blue Mountains, obscured by the late afternoon haze.

Behind me is the Opera House, its ceramic-tiled clam shells facing off against the brick-and-sandstone of Kirribilli on the opposite shore; to the west and east, fingers of land poke at the harbour as though testing the waters; and below me is the city’s heart, the buildings that demarcate its business district standing resolute but stunted from this vantage point, their windows sightless eyes illuminated one-by-one with electric light.

I sweep my own eyes across the city’s broad circumference and exhale deeply. It has taken me ten years to see Sydney with such clarity, to observe it dispassionately as I do now from my perch on the upper arc of its harbour bridge. I am an anonymous observer, securely attached to the girders and dressed in grey overalls so as not to distract the drivers who stream endlessly across this archetypal landmark, north to south, south to north.

Sydney Skyline.

Sydney’s stunning skyline.

From here, Sydney offers up a perspective that is liberated from the constraints of the grassroots purview: down there, with my back to the harbour and the sun-washed coastline, I never can conjure an horizon. As I move into the city’s deep suburban interior, the vanishing point is obliterated by swathes of bushland that form tranquil corridors between one congested suburb and the next. My eyes turn ever upwards when I am on foot: towards the towering eucalyptus trees, towards the apex of suburban streets pitched at vertiginous angles, towards the skyscrapers plotted along Sydney’s higgledy-piggledy city grid.

But the view from the top of the harbour bridge facilitates a more objective assessment of this place, for it settles easily – more purposefully – into its own folds and ruts and watery channels; it is laid out in its honest entirety, and I can see my own tale etched into the landscape that lies open before me now, familiar as a storybook.

If I swivel my head southwards, I can make out the rough location of Newtown, the inner-city suburb where I made my first acquaintance with this place in 1999. I was with my husband and three children – the youngest just four months old – and we had arrived in Sydney by way of the Hume Highway, which runs like a piece of connective tissue from Melbourne to Canberra to Sydney. We’d begun our journey in Adelaide, and had travelled along the moribund Coorong wetland that skirts South Australia’s salt- and windswept south-eastern edges, and then along the Great Ocean Road where we stopped to look at the twelve apostles, rocky monoliths that rise from the sea like warriors.

In Melbourne we found ourselves dodging a tram that barrelled towards us as we sat in our hire car, map unfurled, fists clenched, desperation rising in the face of an intransigent red traffic light. The approaching winter had cast a gloom over this city, but the parks and gardens that sailed past our rain-flecked car windows – delivered from the tram’s wrath by a green light – were richly jewelled and intensely green, so unlike the expired rockeries and wizened lawns of Johannesburg’s winter gardens.

We had taken the children to the Melbourne Gaol, where we saw the death mask of Australia’s most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly, and had walked to the Queen Victoria Market and stared wordlessly at the mountainous globes of fruit and slabs of cured meat and loaves of wholesome bread that spilled from the stalls; food was neither so plentiful nor so beautiful in our own country, we had thought.

From Melbourne the Hume Highway had carried us north-eastwards to the country’s capital, Canberra, a strangely fabricated city which seemed not to have grown organically but to have simply appeared fully formed. The many hours we spent at the Australian War Memorial would prove to be an important investment in the lessons of history, for the structure is the embodiment of white Australian identity. How else would this country’s character have formed, I still often wonder, if not for wartime acts of heroism and sacrifice?

It was the Queen’s Birthday public holiday when we pulled into Sydney, squeezing ourselves onto traffic-clogged King Street in Newtown. Here we were, marooned in a sea of Sydneysiders returning home simultaneously, it seemed, from their long weekend excursions to the south coast and the Southern Highlands and the Blue Mountains and beyond. Trapped in the logjam, I stared up at the two-storey shop-fronts, some brightly painted, others mouldering and in decline; they were misplaced in this country of sunshine and oceans and deserts, I had thought, an architectural style better suited to gloomy English high streets than the brightness of an Antipodean metropolis such as this.

Dawn Climb with a view of the Sydney Opera House.

Dawn breaks over the Opera House.

Our travel agent had booked us into the Gazebo Hotel, a once-trendy icon of a building in Kings Cross that was now faded and drab; these were its dying days, for soon it would be converted into a residential apartment block. I had asked the receptionist if it was safe to walk down Oxford Street – a legitimate query from a crime-wearied South African. She had regarded me for a moment, glanced at the baby in her pram and the little ones hanging off it, and said, “Yeah, it’s safe.” She had paused and then added, in a voice redolent with disbelief, “You do know that this is the Red Light District?”

I cannot see the cylindrical Gazebo building from up here on the harbour bridge, but I can discern the general location of Kings Cross if I use as a guide Harry Seidler’s residential Horizon block, which rises momentously from the streets of nearby Darlinghurst. No: I had not known that Kings Cross was a red light district, but it hardly mattered; the dandelion-like fonts of the El Alamein fountain were a delight, the vibe along the main strip invigorating; the prostitutes and drug dealers and transvestites sank back into the shadows and clouds of cheap perfume and cigarette smoke as our family passed by. We would return here one day: me to work at a centre for refugees, my little ones, now young adults, all dressed up in their party clothes and their new Australian identities.

I cast my eyes skyward now, towards the planes descending slowly over the city, lining up with the airport’s runways out in Botany Bay. This is the gateway through which we entered Sydney for a second time, on New Year’s Day 2002, no longer tourists but immigrants seeking refuge from the turbulence of our homeland. Stripped now of the detachment and insouciance of the casual traveller, we would exist for a time in Sydney’s shadowy corners, weathering unemployment, willing new friendships to sprout, reinventing ourselves in a country where the foreigner has no past worth considering. We would make endless tracks back and forth across the landscape so that we might return to them one day and find evidence of our own place in this country’s history.

All around me now are the landmarks to which we have anchored ourselves these past ten years: the North Shore, with its national parks where wildflowers bloom in the spring; Watsons Bay, best reached by ferry from Circular Quay; Zia Pina, the family-run pizza place at The Rocks where we will eat once we have descended this bridge; the Parramatta River, which forges a course deep into Sydney’s western suburbs; and Newtown, characterised by superlative Asian restaurants and hipster clothing stores and traffic that we know for certain to be diabolical on public holidays.

I can see the roads that spread out from here, penetrating the continent like a venous network, roads that we ourselves have taken to the tropics in the north, across the endless Nullarbor Plain to Western Australia, into the Red Centre, so vast it feels like a world unto itself, across the Barrier Highway from the Northern Territory into barren north-western Queensland and southwards into the lush green bellies of New South Wales and Victoria.

From here I can see the horizon, and the sun sinking beneath it. I sweep my eyes across the gold-flecked silhouette of Sydney and there I finally see it: my own reflection, looking right back at me. TTW

Catherine Marshall won tickets for the BridgeClimb through a Jesuit Refugee Service raffle. Two years in a row. More information: Photos © BridgeClimb.

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