Up, down, all around the Harbour Bridge
When I was little the best thing to do on a Sunday afternoon was to drive across the Auckland Harbour Bridge to Takapuna Beach for ice cream. The right to throw the 25 cent bridge toll into the payment bucket was highly coveted by us kids. Driving on the outside lane would freak our heights-fearing Mother out, “For Pete’s sake" she'd gasp, "those side bits are barely glued on."
Sitting in the back, my brother Pete would wind down the Hillman Hunter window and stick his whole body out to suck in the briny sea air. Then Dad would yell at him, "Get back in the car son........NOW!"
For the past 16 years however, there’s been another way to cross the bridge. On foot with Auckland Bridge Climb, run by adventure specialists AJ Hackett. Best known for bringing Bungy to the World and their exemplary safety record, this company also runs the SkyWalk and SkyJump off the Auckland Sky Tower.
When AJ Hackett acquired the Bridge Climb rights, they invested around $3million to safely accommodate climbers. So this Auckland Guide felt it was high time, she took a high rise walk up, down and all over the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
Checking into the Bridge Climb’s Westhaven base, our group of seven felt in safe hands. Dressed in beige boiler suits to blend in with the bridge and not distract the traffic, we clipped into a rope harness and started our gradual ascent sandwiched between guides Anneka and Jess.
We soon appreciated why loose items like cameras and phones are stowed in the base lockers before the Climb. You need both hands to hold on in the wind and to guide your tethered carabina along the safety rail. Plus any falling objects could create a calamity for the bridge traffic below because phones don’t bounce!
The actual walk, rising to 65 metres above sea level is around 1.8 km long and involves over 450 steps, both up and down.
It took 950 men around four years to build the original four lane bridge which opened in 1959. More capacity was added ten years later with the Nippon Clippons, prefabricated lanes imported from Japan and attached to the outside of the existing bridge. Health and safety was very much in the hands of the individual worker and if you fell into the water below, it was considered your own dumb fault!
The most surprising thing about the Bridge Climb however is the all-over access you get with this experience from climbing right down in the pylons to the very top of Auckland’s world! Here are some other favourite points:
Most freaky point : When you pop up from under the bridge onto a staircase between the northern and southern lanes. For about 10 seconds as you climb, you feel mashed between traffic; heavy trucks, buses and speeding cars. For me, it was the most hair-raising and unexpected moment of the Climb.
Puncture Point: The noise at the very top. Two New Zealand flags clacking and flapping. The traffic roaring below our feet punctured by the occasional horn-blast as drivers spotted our beige-brigade high above. Then our guide shouting to be heard over the relentless wind.
High point: Pausing at the Northern end to observe the motion of the bridge and placing your hand on the concrete. It moves up and down as the Clippon extensions are designed to rise and fall up to a metre as they adjust to the load of the 200,000 vehicles which travel across it everyday. It felt like the bridge's heartbeat as it takes a breath or two.
Low point: In the bowls of Pier Two, we learnt that three men died during the construction phase. One of the men is believed to still be on the bridge, entombed where he fell during a weighty concrete pour. It rammed home to all of us, that with a dead man under our feet, bridge-building is risky work.
Best team player: Goes to staff-member Mason who did a bungy jump just for the bridge climbers’ benefit. Although he didn’t get his hair wet, Mason did display the more difficult feet-first technique (used by experienced jumpers) rather than the default-dive tethered at the ankles. (This Guide will never do either).
Best Special Effects: Arriving soon is Vector’s “Light up the Bridge” project. Contractors are currently attaching loads of light pixels all over the bridge which will be in place for ten years to create a night-time necklace of light across the harbour.
Reality Point: This is a working bridge and the sight of maintenance crew suspended on ropes in hi-vis jackets painting its undercarriage reminded us of what it takes to keep Auckland moving. The workers’ lunch room, a drab tiny prefab is bolted underneath. There is one toilet. It’s windy, noisy and invisible work keeping New Zealand’s busiest gateway functioning.
The whole Auckland Bridge Climb experience took two hours from check-in to disrobing the beige suits and I didn’t want it to end. Would I recommend it? Absolutely!
For visitors it’s a great way to stretch the legs after a long flight, get your bearings from above and experience an ‘off-limits’ local treasure with friendly guides. (Bit like our city walking tours.)
For Aucklanders, it’s an iconic part of our city’s history, a chance to get behind the scenes and another example of how we can deliver top-quality engineering and tourism projects with flair. Do it this summer!
Aucky Walky Tours Guide Liz paid to do the Auckland Bridge Climb. This is her independent opinion.
Visit the Auckland Bridge Climb website