August 2006

The Nation Reviewed

The view from the bridge

By Ashley Hay
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

It’s a cold wet winter day in Sydney and the famous grey of the city’s famous bridge seems to have leached out into everything around it. Walking underneath its deck, the busyness above assaults you; cars on the wet roadway, the round, heavy rattle of trains, and accompanying it all the percussive click of the devices that attach people to steel as they make their way on a bridge climb.

Across the road sits Paul Cave, the man who invented this popular example of “experiential tourism”. At 61, he’s a picture of success: he’d made his first million by 27, with Amber Tiles, years before becoming the progenitor of BridgeClimb, the company that he now chairs. Think profits in the order of $17 million; think more than 1.75 million climbers in almost eight years; and think more than 1800 marriage proposals in situ. What’s more, by creating the BridgeClimb experience, Paul Cave has achieved the Holy Grail of Sydney Harbour Bridge memorabilia. An avid gatherer of such stuff, he has effectively collected the bridge itself, selling access to anyone ($169 a climb), and always able to make his own visits – which, these days, he confesses, doesn’t happen as often as he’d like.

You get a hint of the extent of Paul Cave’s obsession from his office, thought to have been designed by the convict architect Francis Greenway, who made the first suggestion, back in 1815, of a harbour bridge to join Sydney’s two shores. Cave bought the Georgian building last year. There, he shows me a subset of the 5500 other bridge-related pieces he owns – those that are slightly easier to handle than a bridge, or a building, or Francis de Groot’s bridge-opening sword, for which he reputedly outbid the National Museum in Canberra. First-edition copies of CJ Dennis’s poem ‘I Dips Me Lid to the Sydney Harbour Bridge’; a globite Weetbix lunchbox with the bridge’s arch imprinted on the top of the little brown case; a magnetic board-game that answers questions about the edifice.

As he talks about the bridge stories he finds most fascinating – the 16 workers who died, the risks all the workers took – Cave shakes a tiny bronze medallion from a plastic bag. “I don’t know how good your eyes are,” he says, holding it out. To Vincent R. Kelly, to mark his preservation from serious injury on falling from the height of a distance of 182 feet, 23rd of October, 1930, it reads. They tell you Kelly’s story during the bridge climb, and it’s the kind of tale that lodges deep in the imagination: he was the only man to fall from the bridge during its construction and survive. Seeing the medallion is like encountering something sacred, the relic that proves the miraculous story.

“It’s a crazy thing to say, ‘to mark his preservation from serious injury’,” Cave remarks. “Of course he was seriously injured: the soles of his boots ended up halfway up his legs.” It came from Kelly’s relatives, he says, slipping the piece back into its bag. “Sometimes someone dies, and the family thinks, What do I do with this?”

Cave’s own interest must have been ripe for piquing. The story of his first bridge-memento gives him a shorthand way of explaining the structure’s pull on his imagination. At 19, taking a girl home after a date, Cave met her father, who had, as a boy, bought the first rail ticket – number 00001 – sold for the regular service between Wynyard, in the CBD, and Milsons Point, the first stop across the water on the North Shore. He and his brother had convinced their mother to let them sleep at Wynyard to queue for it. Twenty-one years later, when Cave turned 40, the man – who’d become his father-in-law – gave the ticket to him.

“Without this ticket” – Cave cradles the rectangular card, bought at five o’clock one morning almost 75 years ago, and still a bright green – “BridgeClimb wouldn’t be operating. He knew I was going to start collecting then, although he probably wouldn’t have had any idea of the extent of it, or how eccentric and obsessive all the crazy things that subsequently developed might be.”

Cave’s first ascent of the arch was a far cry from the BridgeClimb experience. While involved in the 1989 Young Presidents’ Organization world congress, he considered arranging a climb for its delegates. “I went down to the bridge and met the foreman,” he recalls, “and I took some of my collection with me. We probably spent three-quarters of an hour talking, and then I said, ‘I’m wondering if it might be possible to have this group of people climb your bridge.’ And he said, ‘You know, bossfellas are often wimps.’ I said, ‘Look, I’m not sure you’re right about that,’ and he said, ‘People freak out up there – often – and we’ve got to take them off, and that disrupts my workers …’”

Finally the foreman stood up, curling his index finger. “You come with me now,” he said. Cave pauses. “I’ll never forget that little crooked finger,” he says, crooking his own.

The foreman was wearing a grey boilersuit and workboots. “I realised what he was saying,” says Cave. “I had leather shoes on, and a suit, and I thought, Well, I guess he’ll give me one of those boilersuits to wear … but we just started to walk.”

The dare wasn’t without precedent. A judge appointed to decide if bridge-builders should receive height-money was asked to climb onto the slowly stretching arch to see where and how they worked. He didn’t get far, in his suit and shoes; ”Give them what they ask for,” he said.

Paul Cave followed his guide to the kingpost ladder, “watching his boots, and thinking, This is just crazy, don’t do this. So many things were playing out in my head and my stomach – and my heart. I started to climb but I was really shaking and my knuckles were white. My shoes were slipping on the rungs. You know,” he leans forward, “I wet my pants on the way up that ladder.

“We got to the top and a couple of the bridge-workers ran across the cross-laterals in front of me. They’re only eight inches wide. And my jaw dropped and the wet patch …” He makes an expanding circle with his hands.

It took nine months of organisation to get the YPO delegates up the bridge; it took more than nine years to realise BridgeClimb. “If I’d known it was going to take so long,” says Cave, “I wouldn’t have started. Or if I’d been married at the time, I wouldn’t have started – I knew my life savings would have to go into it.” It was helpful, he says, to be “an obsessive-compulsive sort of person – and a workaholic”, and to reach a point of no return. “At a certain point I knew I was so far along that if I turned back I was dead and buried; I’d borrowed such a lot of money that I couldn’t have paid it back.”

He countered psychologists who told him people would need to carry sick bags: no one has been bilious on a climb. He countered psychologists who told him people wouldn’t go three or four hours without a toilet break: “Well,” he says, “of course, I could relate to that.” He undertook a lot of research into suicide: no one has jumped from the arch since the company started. He found inventors for the clips that keep climbers attached to the bridge from start to finish, and dealt with State Rail regulations that required people to wear fluorescent vests as they descended past the train tracks. “That took two years,” he says.

He kept the project secret, too – for seven years, only a few people knew what he was doing. “My mother, who only recently died, would say things like, ‘But what if it rains, Paul? What will you do?’” He tips his head towards the rain that’s sheeting down outside. “Actually, our ratings are higher on wet days, and days with high wind – it’s the adrenalin rush.”

Paul Cave understands that rush; to him, the bridge is beyond utilitarian. “It’s alive, it’s organic,” he says of the structure. And when it turns 75, next March, he’ll be on hand to celebrate. “It’s very special … and it’s a privilege to be able to share it and show it off.”

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

From the front page

Image of the Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales

The edge of their seats

Lessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Image of Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley

The future of the Liberal Party

Peter Dutton doesn’t just have a talent problem on his hands

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Situation ethics

God save his soul

The Sleepy Jackson’s ‘Personality: One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird’
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A word from Deakin

Rembrandt 1606–1669: From the Prints and Drawings Collection

NGV International, to 24 September

More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

What the oil and gas industry tells itself

A week after the devastating floods, the fossil-fuel industry described the scarcity of new projects today as “frightening”

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Alien nation

Recent High Court decisions are testing who can be considered citizens, and who the federal government can exclude from Australia

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Red rover

The Australian astrobiologist leading NASA’s search for life on Mars

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Where did all the bogongs go?

The drastic decline of the bogong moth could have disastrous ecological consequences

Online exclusives

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime