Tourists walk across famous bridges such as the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, and London’s Tower Bridge. But for the over-the-top experience of legally climbing bridges, they must head Down Under.
The Sydney BridgeClimb opened in 1998, and for many tourists, this experience tops their bucket lists. Not to be beaten, New Zealand across the Tasman Sea (so near we call it the Ditch) opened the Auckland Harbour Bridge to climbers in 2001. Brisbane in sunny Queensland has permitted organized climbs on the Story Bridge since 2005, and Perth in Western Australia opened its exciting new Matagarup Zip+Climb in 2021.
Bridge climbs are for anyone with a modicum of fitness and the ability to climb stairs. Lloyd Poulton celebrated his 87th birthday with his 87th climb of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the oldest person to climb was Mrs. Chris Miller at 100. Afraid of heights? If ever there was a place to put lifelong acrophobia to rest, a bridge climb is the answer. You can face your fears in a controlled environment during bridge climbs, as you are safely tethered and cannot fall. Guides are supportive and encouraging and accustomed to people who suddenly discover they don’t like heights or are there to combat their fear.
1. Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney
Affectionately dubbed the Coathanger, the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932 as an Everest of engineering — the largest riveted steel structure in the world. Built during the Great Depression, the bridge was nicknamed the “Iron Lung” for providing 1,400 jobs. Workers had nerves of steel, working 440 feet above sea level without safety harnesses. Actor Paul Hogan was a rigger on the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the 1970s, and even then, he worked untethered.
In stark contrast, BridgeClimb Sydney is proud of its unblemished safety record. In the 23 years since the bridge climb opened, over 4 million people, including celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Robert De Niro, and Pierce Brosnan, have safely completed this iconic climb. Participants wear special suits tethered to safety leads that move with them. The suits are the color of the bridge so their presence doesn’t distract the drivers below. Climbers are breathalyzed (limit under .05).
Climbs range from 2.5 hours to 3.5 hours. While this sounds like a long time, the first hour is spent on safety briefings, suiting up, and simulated practice climbs. Expect between 1,002 and 1,621 graduated steps, depending on the route you choose. Some people find the mesh catwalk high above the traffic the most daunting — a good time to remember you are safer on this bridge than crossing this busy road. There are up to four ladder-style stair climbs with handrails on both sides — this is as hard as it gets. Once on the main arch, the path is wide, gentle, and offers magnificent views. A travel writer in his 60s told me his acrophobia wasn’t an issue because the views are not down but looking across one of the most beautiful harbors in the world.
This 360-degree panorama makes for a world-class experience. The Sydney Opera House glistens in the sun, and Sydney has an impressive skyscape. The ferries depart Circular Quay, their white wakes trailing behind them like comet tails. In years to come, you’ll forget the number of steps you climbed, but you will never forget the sensational views or your sense of achievement.
The safety-conscious Sydney BridgeClimb has set standards for all bridge climbs. So there’s a good reason you can’t take up your cameras or phones — a disappointment for many tourists. They are banned so they don’t fall on drivers below. A group photograph is supplied as part of bridge climb packages, with additional individual photographs available for purchase.
2. Story Bridge, Brisbane
Brisbane’s heritage-listed Story Bridge opened in 1940 and remains the longest cantilever bridge in Australia. The climb offers a bird’s-eye view of the magnificent river city of Brisbane built astride the Brisbane River. Ferries ply the waters, and the banks are lined with fine hotels and impressive architecture. Climbers negotiate 1,136 steps to a height of 262 feet above sea level over three hours. The relaxed pace and regular stops make the climb suitable for anyone with a basic level of fitness, and the climb costs around $100.
If you want to push your limits, you can add extras. Story Bridge Adventure Climb has a new option called Walk the Plank: a daring walk 263 feet above sea level and 164 feet above the road. Trained guides help climbers, suspended by the rope attached to their harness, lean forward over the traffic. If that’s not enough adrenaline, there’s an option to end your climb with an 89-foot rappel down the bridge’s southern pylon. If you like to tick off adventurous feats, this is the only bridge climb and rappel duo in the world.
Pro Tip: From the viewing platform, look for the Glass House Mountains — incredible craggy volcanic peaks that jut out from flat land.
3. Matagarup Bridge, Perth
Thrill-seekers who have done the trifecta of bridge climbs — Sydney, Brisbane, and Auckland are up for a new challenge: the Matagarup Zip+Climb in Perth. The pedestrian bridge is an exciting new landmark over the Swan River linking East Perth to the Burswood Peninsula and the Optus Stadium. The design represents two swans with elegant outstretched necks.
The climb is up the swan’s outstretched neck is only 314 steps, but the steps are at a 45-degree angle. At the top is the SkyView Deck — an open-air viewing platform 236 feet above the Swan River — the perfect place to enjoy the spectacular beauty of a riverside sunset over the stadium, parklands, and cityscape.
Like all bridge climbs, safety is paramount, with handrails, tethering, and ample safety gear for the climbers. There are two ways down: the way you came up or a zip line off the platform. Fly over 1,312 feet across the Swan River, reaching speeds of 47 miles an hour before landing safely on the eastern banks, stopped by the state-of-the-art braking system. The optional zip-line experience is expected to open in June 2021. The present bridge climb starts at around $45.
Pro Tip: The indigenous word Matagarup recognizes the Swan River area’s cultural significance to the Whadjuk community. The bridge is shaped like a swan because Dutch explorers found black swans in 1636 in what is now called the Swan River, and they thought the world was upside down, as European swans were always white. The black swan became the regional symbol of Western Australia.
4. Auckland Harbour Bridge, Auckland, New Zealand
In New Zealand, they don’t say, “would you like chips with that?” Rather, it’s “would you like to bungee with that?” New Zealander AJ Hackett founded AJ Hackett Bungy in 1988, the original and longest-running commercial bungee jumping operation globally. Hackett pioneered an elastic bungee jumping cord in the mid-1980s, and he leapt to global fame bungee jumping off the Eiffel Tower in 1987. These days, tourists can bungee off many landmarks in New Zealand, including the Auckland Harbour Bridge — the largest suspended span bridge in the southern hemisphere.
Most of us haven’t entertained the notion of throwing ourselves off a great height with elastic wrapped around our ankles, but during this climb, it’s an optional extra. The climb takes participants near the jump platform, providing the unique experience of being at the same level as the jumpers. See their fear and hear their screams. Although some bravely do somersaults and war cries.
The climb takes two hours and is along catwalks, so it’s a gentle climb and closer to traffic. Views are over Auckland’s dynamic Waitemata Harbour and the city’s skyline. The climb costs around $75, or around $160 if you want to bungee with that.
Pro Tip: Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and an impressive metropolis from on high.