Sunday, October 27, 2013

Convicts, pubs and fear of heights - Part one - By Phil Baker

    Phil Baker of Windham took advantage of an opportunity to spend six days in Sydney, Australia in September of this year. The following is the first of a three part article based on his observations of Sydney.

A brush stroke of green swept from the eucalyptus canopy above the Rocks toward us. A gull-size bird the color of Mountain Dew with a scarlet chest flapped onto her finger. The parrot self-consciously folded its wings as if straightening its jacket and tie then pecked gently at the sugar in her palm. She told me the knurled claws grasped her finger gently and its beak scuffled lightly in her palm. When the sugar was gone the bird left atmospherically as it had arrived.

“Hold your hand like this,” a waiter had prompted Angela, posing as if inviting her to dance. We’d been passing an outdoor café on George Street in the Rocks; the quaint and fashionable neighborhood of Sydney is home to galleries, hotels and pubs. She took the pose and he snapped a tube of sugar into her palm. If she hadn’t been charmed by Sydney, Australia before, the parrot certainly had done it.

If Sydney was any farther from Portland, Maine it would be closer to Portland, Maine. We were urged to stay awake through the day and acclimate to the fourteen hour time difference. A stroll in the banyan filled Royal Botanic Gardens seemed just the thing. I joined Angela and Rey, new friends from California, for the walk. We left the main entrance of the Four Seasons in Sydney and crossed George Street when the signal sounded, an electronic faucet drip followed by a synthesized kookaburra call, and met Angela’s parrot. To the left loomed a dark structure, the arched Sydney Harbor Bridge. The world feels small when standing in the shadow of the iconic bridge. The green-gray steel looked black in the morning light. Suspension cables sliced the overcast sky into translucent white slivers below a giant arch of Ws. It seemed an unlikely thing to climb, but I was scheduled to do just that the next day.

At 8:15 the following morning a group of 30 met in the wood-paneled, library-like lobby of the hotel. We walked onto Harrington Street into a hot, blowy spring day. A short walk brought us to the headquarters of the Bridge Climb, a private company that guides an ascent of the arched bridge, known to the locals as the “coat hanger.”

The Bridge Climb staff split us into two groups of their standard fourteen and a third group of two, Meghan and me. I had promised to climb with her when she confessed to a fear of heights. Meghan was the travel agent’s representative and the coordinator of the outing and I was alone, unable to bring my family to Sydney. Six other new climbers joined us while we waited for the larger groups to change into climbing gear. We watched a slideshow of breath-taking views and couples smooching at jaw-dropping heights. I asked Meghan why she had volunteered for this assignment.

“Why not sailing in the harbor?” I asked. The Bridge Climb was only one of three activities offered by the travel agency. “You’re afraid of heights. Why didn’t you go on the koala cuddle?” She could only wonder the same thing.

We wrapped up in light gray jumpsuits of breathable material and stepped into woven nylon harnesses. Our guide, Celine, walked us through the regimen. We counted to five into the breathalyzer testing for sobriety. We clipped a hat and a handkerchief to our climbing suits and secured our glasses with “croakies.” Walkie-talkies and headsets were securely fastened, nothing must fall from 450 feet. Then we climbed simulated ladders and catwalks, a thorough assessment of our fitness for the climb.

“Okay, we’re ready. Is anybody afraid of heights?” Celine asked.

Meghan’s hand shot up and Celine asked the two of us to climb at the front of the single file line, just behind her. We clipped carabineers onto a continuous cable that would be with us the entire way and stepped through a door like astronauts onto an open-grid catwalk, a third of a mile from the arched bridge and twelve feet above the roads of the Rocks. A motorcycle navigated traffic below, pedestrians shared the sidewalks with bicyclists. Joggers with pedometers strapped to their biceps ran with purpose.

The first European building in Australia was a jail in this brick and stone neighborhood. The continent was initially a penal colony for the British. When America achieved independence the colonies no longer accepted England’s condemned. Australia became the new destination for those who contravened the peace in the British Isles. The prisoners found themselves on an eight month voyage to Sydney. Aussies are proud of this heritage. An elaborate archaeological dig is a featured attraction just a few blocks from the Bridge Climb.
“You okay?” I asked Meghan around the headset we used to speak to Celine.

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