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On top of the world down under


SYDNEY -- So this is the view.

Stomach churning, you are standing on what amounts to a gigantic coat hanger that is shaking and swaying in the wind any way it pleases because it's part of a bridge, and that is what bridges do.

From this perch atop one of the bridge's two arches, you gaze down 440 feet from the bottom of your rubber-soled shoes to the deceptively calm-looking water. You see power boats, sailboats, tugs and ferries, a rush hour of pleasure-going, hard-working vessels cruising through the world's loveliest harbor.

You look out, past the seagull that is flapping in the wind and the helicopter that is dive-bombing over the city. You see tall buildings, small buildings (Los Angeles-like here, New York-like there), clock towers (could be Baltimore), big streets, small streets and in-between streets that dead-end at shopping malls.

You see the Opera House, which looks like mating turtles or a stack of seashells. Look hard enough and you can see the cluster of new Olympic stadiums on a site of an old slaughterhouse.

Then you look toward the horizon, in one direction a mountain range; in another, at continent's edge, a blue sliver, the Pacific Ocean.

It's worth it, this view from the top of a city, from the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

The world is going to be seeing a lot of the bridge over the next few weeks as the Summer Olympics descend upon Sydney.

There are many great things crammed into Australia's biggest city: restaurants that rate with the world's best, office buildings that soar to the heavens, a wondrous zoo, beaches and bays, people who will invite you home to dinner 10 minutes after they meet you.

But the Sydney Harbor Bridge is the city's symbol, a steel icon built during the Depression and wide enough to hold eight lanes of traffic, two rail lines, a bike path and a pedestrian walkway.

For the record: the bridge stretches 1,149 meters, has 6 million rivets and is coated with 80,000 liters of steel-gray paint.

Perhaps the best thing about it for people unaffected by vertigo is the chance -- for $66 -- to climb it, step by unsettling step, across wooden planks, up ladders, over metal grates, from the base of the bridge to the top of its arch and back.

A private company, BridgeClimb Sydney, spent about seven years installing safety measures and securing government approval for the right to run the tours. The first climbs took place Oct. 1, 1998, and more than 340,000 people have made the trek.'There was no template for this anywhere in the world," says the firm's founder, Paul Cave. "We had to figure a way to use the bridge and not affect its fundamental purpose."

Only those patrons 12 and older can climb. So far, the oldest person to make the trip is Chris Mueller, who celebrated her 100th birthday atop the bridge July 4, 1999.

According to Cave, at least two dozen people have used the climb as the occasion to propose marriage.

BridgeClimb escorts customers day and night, in sunshine and rain. Only high winds, lightning and national celebrations prevent climbers from making the ascent.

"We haven't had a climber on the bridge fall," Cave says.

Visitors are outfitted in gray overalls that match the bridge to prevent any distractions for the drivers below. They are given a walkie-talkie and a safety belt attached to a guy wire that runs the length of the trek.

There is a one-hour safety course, including a video, breath test for alcohol and a demonstration climb over a ladder.

And then, you're off, with 11 others, guided by the likes of 26-year-old Sarah Reardon, an ex-school teacher with a quick sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of Sydney's most famous landmark.

Almost anyone here can tell you that Paul Hogan worked as a bridge rigger before he became famous as movie creation Crocodile Dundee. Reardon slips in the detail that the English firm that designed and built the bridge provided only a six-month guarantee.

"It's a real laugh up there when the wind is howling," she says. "It's better than a Step Master."

The bridge is one of those wondrous artifacts of the 1920s and 1930s, built at a time when engineers dreamed big and workers hungry for jobs displayed raw nerve, brute strength and cat-like agility. Everything about the bridge seems larger than life, from the granite pylons to the elegant arches that were joined in the middle.

Construction was started in 1924 and finished in 1932. Sixteen workers lost their lives.

At the opening, royalist Capt. Francis de Groot stepped in front of the New South Wales premier and cut the ribbon. The captain was arrested, the ribbon was tied together, and the ceremony went ahead.

From a practical standpoint, the bridge merely linked Sydney's north and south shores. But from a psychological point, it gave the city a lift during difficult economic times.

"It took enormous foresight to build a bridge like this," Cave says.

Sydneysiders can barely image civic life without the bridge.

It's a vital traffic link, a vivid symbol, and a place to congregate.

It was at harbor side on New Year's Eve where millions gathered to watch fireworks launched over the bridge to bring in 2000.

And the people here will return to the harbor during the close of the Olympics, to see fireworks and the lighting of giant Olympic rings attached to the bridge.

By then, billions around the world will have an idea what a bridge made of steel and dreams means to Sydney.

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