Wednesday, May 26, 2010

This week: Sydney, Australia

Sadly, the Sydney Harbor Bridge climb was not for disabled people. I discovered this when pouring over the bridge climb checklist of health conditions that would disqualify me from the climb, things such as heart ailments and missing limbs – no wheel chairs allowed. Because of the ladders, steps and narrow passageways, the bridge cannot accommodate these things.

I sat in the front desk area with several people; families and couples. A woman came from behind a door that was actually part of the wall, like a secret entrance. She announced her name was Sara and asked the people with 9 a.m. climb tickets to follow her through the door. In a tiny room with a bench on one end, we all sat down while Sara explained the forms we needed to fill out and that we needed a breathalyzer test. The forms had to do with liability and the Bridge Climb would not be liable for anyone or we couldn’t go on the climb. More importantly, we had to print our names as we wanted them to appear on our climb certificates.

After passing the breathalyzer test Sara ushered us through another door and to locker room area where she had us stand in a circle and introduced ourselves while she gathered our outfits for the journey. Starting the introductions were two couples from Canada and their Australian friends from New Castle. One of the Canadian women was afraid of heights. Sara then told us that many Australians did the bridge climb in an attempt to overcome that fear. Next was a family from Canberra with their 12-year-old daughter. Twelve was the youngest age the bridge climb would accept. Last was a couple from the Sydney suburbs. I was the only person from the States. Sara then handed us our lovely gray and blue jumpsuits to wear. Sara asked us to remove everything from our pockets and she gave us lockers to hold our bags including any cameras, wallets or purses. The keys to our lockers were hooked to the zippers of our jumpsuits and then tucked inside. Sara also requested that anyone with prescription drugs for chronic conditions hand them over to her. Two individuals had asthma inhalers. Sara put the inhalers inside separate plastic bags and wrote down the names of the owners before tucking them inside a fanny pack. We were 30 minutes in our bridge climb and we hadn’t even started yet.

From here Sara introduced us to Sasha, our climbing guide. Barely 5 feet tall, brown-haired and smiling, Sasha would take us up the bridge. But first we had to gear up and complete a practice climb. To keep germs away since all gear was reusable, we had to wash our hands in large round wash basin, like they have in sports stadiums. Sasha instructed us on how to put on our belts, which not only held our communications radio, but also permanently attached us to the bridge. In the front of our belts was a heavy wire with an unusual locking mechanism at the end. The mechanism weighed a kilo and looked like a yoyo. Inside the yoyo were metal spinners that allowed us to pass through the metal hooks that attached the tether wire to the bridge. A patented system, Sasha said. After putting on our belts we had to practice moving the latch over the hooks by walking through a small U-shaped line to get to the next prep area. If I didn’t keep the mechanism parallel to the rail, it didn’t go through and I had to use my hand to push it.

Our outfits were still incomplete so we moved to the other side of the room. As we gathered around, Sasha held up a small blue pouch and announced these were our “parachutes” to which one of the women in our group gasped aloud in fear.

“I’m just kidding,” Sasha said. “They’re really your life jackets!” We laughed nervously, but the Canadian woman verged on tears until her husband pointed to a sign above the bin that said Rain Jackets. Relieved, Sasha told us about our accessories. Fall in Sydney was chilly and with rain in the forecast, we attached a fleece pouch for warmth and separate rain jacket pouch for wet. Both jackets were sewn into the pouch. We merely had to unzip and then unfold to wear them. The pouches hooked to each side of our belts. Just what I needed, extra weight on my hips. Then we were given the option of attaching either a ball cap or beanie to our suits to protect our heads from the cold and our faces from UV rays. I chose the cap. These attached to hooks sewn into our jumpsuits behind our necks. If the wind blew the hats off, they wouldn’t fall to the highway below. Those of us who had sunglasses attached them to an eyeglass necklace that was also hooked to our jumpsuits. Finally Sasha gave us a handkerchief attached to a wristband. We put on the wristband and then tucked the handkerchief inside our jumpsuit sleeves. Sasha explained that these were for a runny nose, which can happen on a windy bridge, or for anyone overcome with tears at the beautiful sight of the harbor.

“It can happen!” Sasha laughed. The purpose for all this caution was because nothing, absolutely nothing, went up the bridge without being attached. Too many cars, boats and pedestrians traveled below and falling debris was deadly.

Now for a test run. We took turns climbing up a ladder, one person at a time. Then we walked across a catwalk and finally down a “double” ladder. The double ladder was two sections of a ladder with the second section moved about a foot to one side of the first. To climb the bridge we would have to navigate eight such ladders (four on each side). Everyone in our group passed. Just one more stop before starting our journey, the communications room.

Our radios were specially designed headsets based on ones army snipers used. Sasha explained that snipers not only need to hear the commands of their officers, but also the sounds around them so the military developed “inner ear bone” headsets. They rested on our temples and touched our upper cheek bone. The vibration of this bone carried sound to the inner ear, so we would be able to hear Sasha as she talked on the windy bridge as well as hear the sounds of the harbor. The headsets attached to a pack on our belts and made us look like we had black Elvis side burns. Armed with latest in technology, we were ready to climb.

To get to the inner workings of the bridge, we had to exit the training area and walk out in public to another door. Two gentlemen out walking their dogs watched us go by. Sasha swiped a magnetic strip card through a security box to open the door to the inside of the first bridge pylon. Steps and a passage way were carved from the cement of the pylon that brought us to the start of the tether line. Once tethered, we would not be able to change positions for the rest of the journey. The group with the woman who was afraid of heights went first, then the family of three, then me, then the young urban couple and finally the other couple from Canada.

The walk began about six stories high with a straight, narrow passageway from the small pylon to the larger Southeast Pylon. A garden path to the Rocks district was below. This area was blocked off by a construction site. Silver tarp draped down from the bottom of the bridge all the way to the ground and we could see workers with face masks going in and out of the tarp below. Sasha explained that Sydney was in the middle of a 13-year Bridge Painting Project. The Harbor Bridge was being completely stripped of 70 years of toxic paint so it could receive a fresh earth-friendly coat. The brief section of catwalk we had just passed was already done. Sasha said this project was difficult because so many of the earlier paints used on the bridge contained lead and had to be sandblasted down to bare metal before new paint could be added. Sasha pointed from our entrance to the tarp curtain and said that was the distance covered in three years. It was about half a football field and they weren’t even to the water yet. As we passed two workers waved at us and we could hear the sandblaster buzzing behind the tarp. On the other side Sasha pointed out the Park Hyatt Hotel, the most exclusive hotel in all of Sydney. The penthouse suite rents for $6000 AUS a night, she told us. They also boasted the most secluded pool in downtown Sidney, however, the rooftop pool was in full view of us bridge climbers who passed by every 10 minutes of everyday.

“Not so exclusive after all,” she joked.

Once we reached the Southeast Pylon, we had to maneuver through a tight space to get around the corner. Now we were at the base of the first of four ladders. These would take us straight up to the top of the bridge’s arch. What Sasha didn’t tell us, until just now, was that we would climb between two lanes of traffic. I could hear the cars above as the first people in our group began. At the base of the ladder were two other guides whose only job was to stand there and assist those who needed it on the ladders. When it was my turn, I was so busy concentrating on my feet that I barely noticed the cars buzzing by. The steps were narrow and if I clung too close, I banged my knees on the steps. Remembering to keep three points of contact, as Sasha instructed us, I made my way up the first section, slid right to begin the second section, then slid to the right again to the third section and one more time for the fourth. Sasha was waiting for me when I finished.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Like I’ve had a work out on a Stairmaster!” From here I could see the entire harbor unobstructed. It was chilly and windy, but not unbearable. The opera house was below and the ferry terminal nearby with boats of all sizes moving everywhere. We were on a set of gradually ascending stairs and could easily walk up the arch. As we moved, Sasha pointed out land marks, such as Fort Douglas, a former prison, and the opera house. I could see another group of climbers ahead of us just as another group quickly appeared behind.

About half way up, Sasha stopped for our first photo op. She called us forward in our small groups and took a digital photo with the city as a backdrop. Then Sasha moved to the other side of the stairway and we each took another photo with the opera house behind. Her digital camera was hooked to her suit as well. From here was just a short distance to the top. The summit was 134 meters above the harbor. Sasha had us pose for a group photo while we applauded.

At the top we made our way across a wide catwalk to the west side of the arch, stopping in the middle for more photos. I attempted to strike the “Captain Morgan” pose by holding up one foot and putting my arm in front of me. Sasha said no, I had to keep both feet on the ground, three points of contact always. Oops, that was embarrassing.

On the west side of the bridge a light rain began as we descended and Sasha told us how the bridge was built. The workers on the bridge back in the 1920’s did not have the extensive protection that we had. Without any support they would run across the girders from side to side. Attaching the odd million rivets that held the girders together took even more skill. Blow torches didn’t exist in 1923 so a worker was on the top of the arch with a kiln that would heat the metal rivets white hot. That person, using tongs, would toss the rivets, one by one, to another worker in the middle of the cross girder where he would catch the rivet in a bucket. Using a gloved hand he would retrieve the rivet and place it in the hole. Sasha said not every rivet tossed found the bucket. No one knew the exact number of rivets that fell into the harbor below, but people still found them washed up on shore today.

Responding to a question, Sasha told us that only 16 people, of all the thousands who worked over nine years, lost their lives on the bridge. She also mentioned this number was misleading because the death toll included workers who were killed in the prep area on the ground while making parts for the bridge. One of those deaths was a man who hammered sheets of steel and accidentally split his thumb open with his own hammer. Rather than go the doctor’s tent and miss a day’s wages, he put his glove back on and continued to work. He died of tetanus three days later. Sasha also mentioned Paul Hogan, star of Crocodile Dundee, was a bridge painter.

Sasha pointed out Luna Park across the harbor from us. Even during the day it was lit like a Christmas tree. The tiny amusement park was a gift to the city by the bridge’s construction company for putting up with the noise and mess of such a major construction. However, nearby residents soon complained about the noise the roller coaster made and had it removed. Now the only ride visible from the top of the bridge was the giant Ferris wheel.

We approached the Southwest Pylon to descend the remaining four ladders. This time we would be climbing between two train tracks, which sped by every 15 minutes. Just as our youngest group member, the 12-year-old, began her descent, a train zoomed by. Those of us still above commented how she wasn’t fazed at all. I wasn’t sure I would be so even keeled if a train buzzed within a few feet of me. My descent was train free. Greeting me at the bottom were the same two guides who watched us go up. I had no clue how they got there.

This was the home stretch as we walked across the west catwalk. Sasha told us that to build the bridge, the government had to seize homes and businesses to make way. One of those buildings was the Harbourview Pub. While residents were quite alright with the demolishing of their homes and businesses to make way for progress, they were not so willing to part with their beloved pub. They only agreed to the seizure if the pub was moved, so brick by brick, it was torn down and rebuilt 150 meters away from its original location. Because of the move, the pub no longer had its namesake harbor view. As we passed we could clearly see the third story balcony bar where people sipped pints and ate lunch.

After squeezing through another tight space, Sasha declared us finished. Another group waiting to start watched us as we unhooked our belts from the tether to freedom. Of course, we weren’t completely done, we had to return to the prep area, but I could hear each person sigh in relief as they unhooked themselves. The climb was exhilarating, but with the weather changing from drizzle to rain, it was good to be done.

Back in the main building we still had several tasks to complete. First we had to wipe down our headsets with a disinfecting cloth before turning them in. Next we put our caps, hankies, fleece and rain jacket pouches into another bin. Sasha said these would be washed before being put back out for use by other climbers. We had to march back up to the starting room where we removed our belts. Finally we removed our attractive jumpsuits and put them in a wash bin and washed our hands again in the large sink.

After retrieving our bags from the lockers we entered a different door to the Bridge Climb gift shop. Sara, from the breathalyzer test, passed out envelopes as we entered. Inside were our certificates complete with our name and a 5x7 group photo. To get the solo photos of myself, I had to purchase them from the gift shop photo center. I just showed them my certificate and they pulled up my photos. Within minutes I had three 5x7’s and a CD I could use to show everyone the three hours I spent conquering the Sydney Harbor Bridge. What a morning, mate!

To learn more visit: Bridge Climb
Harbourview Hotel & Pub
Luna Park

Sunday, May 2, 2010

This week: Sounds

Do you hear what I hear?

When people talk about their travels, they tend to do so in one way: Visually. And that’s perfectly acceptable in such a beautiful world. However, I’d like to offer another way: Audibly. Some of my most memorable travel experiences have been through the ear canals.


I was enjoying the view while walking on a trail above White Bay on Jost van Dyke, British Virgin Islands. The trail separated the more family-friendly beach of the Sandcastle Hotel and the Soggy Dollar Bar from the more clothing optional beach of Ivan’s Campgrounds and Stress-free bar. The view was stunning…water every color of blue from teal to sapphire, shiny white boats of all sizes snuggled within a perfect half-moon bay reaching out on both sides. It was while taking in this view that I heard a funny noise: ploop, plop, ploop, plop followed by chink, chank, chink, chank. The sound followed the crash of a wave so it had to be below me. I peered over the edge (I was about a story-and-a-half above the water). I saw only sand so I was perplexed. I watched the next few waves come in and didn’t hear the sound again. Then finally, my ears caught it: ploop, chink, plop, chank. It was off to my right. I moved over a bit and saw the thousands of hand-sized black rocks, polished perfectly round by ions of sea waves. The rocks were only in a small part of the beach that jutted out from the middle of the bay. If I had to guess, I’d say it was less then 10 yards wide. The wet rocks looked like giant beads of onyx. The rocks were quiet, except for the crash of several waves. Then a wave came in from one side of the bay. The water swept across the rocks and suddenly, the rocks sitting on top were in motion, ploop, chink, plop, chank as they rolled down the rocks below them. It was like watching a giant Japanese pachinko machine as the black rocks zig-zagged following the trail of receding water as the wave pulled away. I waited for the sound again as a wave approached straight on and hit the rocks with force. However, no pachinko sound followed. I then realized it was only the waves that came in from an angle that pulled the rocks from the beach into the water, which meant I only heard the sound every few waves. I wished I’d had a recorder to trap the sound. It was oddly soothing and slightly silly and I wanted to hear it over and over again. Such an unusual sound, I wanted to remember it long after I was gone. Turned out I didn’t need a recorder. I can still hear those rocks.

I knew we were in for something unusual when we received our park map at the entrance to Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. I unfolded it to find our way to the camp grounds. In the lower left corner, a large white outline of an arrow with the word “wind” in white capital letters. It pointed northeast. On the right side of the map was another white arrow also with the word “wind.” It pointed southwest and was right next to the line marking Medano Pass Primitive Road, the road we would be camping on. That wind must make quite a presence in these mountains if the National Park Service felt the need to put it on the park map. The wind was a nasty physical presence when on the dunes; blowing sand up my nose and pelting me with tiny darts. However, up at the campsite, the wind turned into something else. Our campsite was in a small valley below the road and next to Medano Creek. It provided protection from the wind, but every now and then it was still able to penetrate the towering aspen trees to our campfire and bring up the flames just to remind us of how nasty it could be. The sound of it, however, was nothing like the powerful gusts we felt. Its whoosh ebbed and flowed with a smoothness, like a rocking chair. When you looked up you could see the tops of the aspens swaying back and forth, which made you want to rock with it. The sound was guttural, not overbearing, but we did have to raise our voices when talking. Sometimes the dog would not come when we called her. We didn’t know if she was pretending not to hear us or if she really couldn’t hear us. After the sun set and the stars popped out, the wind was still the dominant sound, one minute behind us, the next minute in front of us, then a gust from the side. We never knew where it was going to come from. I made the comment that it might be hard to sleep with all that racket, but not so. Upon zipping myself up in my warm sleeping bag, I fell peacefully asleep in record time thanks to that soothing whoosh outside the tent. The wind blocked out all the other nocturnal noises that would have kept me awake; leaves, nuts and pine cones falling from trees; critters scavenging around; crickets, flies and mosquitoes; the bubbling of the creek that would have made me have to pee every hour. What a sweet blissful sleep! Too bad it abruptly ended at dawn when I awoke to the sound of……..nothing. Silence. Calm, Quiet. It made me nervous. How did this crazy wind go from full force to nothing? Outside the tent, it was chilly, but the sun was slowly warming the air around me. I heard birds for the first time. It didn’t last long. Within the hour, the wind slowly picked up and by the time we had breakfast, it was back to its whisping ways. Funny, our alarm clock was the when the noise stopped. I didn’t know which sound was more intriguing: the whoosh of the wind or the silence when it stopped.

Amazing things happened where land and water meet. Off the coast of Belize, Ambergris Caye paralleled the second largest barrier reef in the world. This alone made for an attractive place, where rock met air surrounded by water, full of Technicolor fish and marine animals. This reef protected the island from the harsh Caribbean Sea. From the beaches of Ambergris Caye, the reef was on the horizon, about a ½ mile out, which made it difficult to see. The white caps formed a line that followed the horizon. The reef was the reason the waters surrounding the island were calm, the reason boats traveled easily from Mexico to Costa Rica, the reason small children played in the shallow waters without their parents worrying about them getting swept out to sea, the reason windsurfers from around the world came here to skim the surface of Chetumal Bay. All because of the calm in the lagoon that formed behind the barrier reef. About a mile away from shore, that white stripe protected us from those waves. During the busy day’s activities, I didn’t give the reef much thought, however, as we walked the beach at night, my husband heard a strange sound.

“Can you hear that?” We paused and listened. Was it thunder? No because the sound never stopped or started.

“It sounds like…traffic.” I proposed.

“Wait, that’s the reef!” my husband exclaimed.

If we could hear that sound from 1/2 mile away, just imagine what it sounded like up close. I would find out later that week on a snorkel trip. It’s loud! And violent! The reef was all chaos with wave after wave crashing into it from all directions. Yet, tucked under the western side, fish lived without being disturbed and eels floated above the coral, oblivious to the noise above. Every night before retiring to sleep, we would stand on the beach or out on the pier listening. We could just barely hear it. It was a dull roar, a white noise, a rush of air. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The sound didn’t grow loud or soft. It stayed the same frequency, the same tone, the same decibel and it didn’t stop. It was the sound of eternity.