TRAVEL: On top of the world down under

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IT’S a long way to Australia, and it’s a long way to the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

But I’m glad to report that it didn’t prove to be a bridge too far for me. I climbed all the way to the crest of the sweeping arches of this iconic structure.

It was a wonderful feeling, standing 135 metres above the waters of Sydney’s vast and impressive harbour.

That’s about 400 feet in old money, and with nothing but a handrail between you and infinity, it’s certainly in the ‘exciting’ category.

Far below you are the tips of the shell-like structure of the world-famous Sydney Opera House, another landmark emblem of this vibrant city.

Behind you, at eye-sight level, are the skyscrapers of Sydney’s Central Business District. Buzzing about in the bay far below are the green-and-white harbour ferries, yet another trademark of this wonderful place.

Now, I freely admit to being apprehensive the day before the ‘Big Climb’ to the top of the ‘Coat Hanger,’ as local folk call their double-arch connection between north and south Sydney.

But when one member of our 12-strong team of bridge climbers admitted she suffered from vertigo but was still having a go, it made the rest of our anxieties seem like small beer.

So onward, inward and upward we went, linked permanently to the structure with a solid-steel loop.

The ‘catwalk’ out to the major retaining piers made me feel like a model pupil, garbed in my rather-fetching, all-in-one blue suit to protect one from the rain and wind, and a jaunty ‘Bridge Climb’ cap. The drop below the open-meshed grid that you walk on was just a taster.

But all the kitting out and safety talk for the group had made us feel like a small specialist team. It’s all part of the camaraderie and esprit de corps that the experienced guide wants to engender – and it works.

After the catwalk, the ‘Crazy Cottage’ system of higgledy-piggledy stairwells take you on to the bridge proper. Then you’re on your way to a mile-long trek up and down one of the architectural wonders of the world.

You actually feel quite privileged, even if it sets you back around £140 for the ‘pleasure’ of doing it. All the time, the guide is communicating with you on a head-set, and you can stop to take in the views or a breather.

It was just one of three ‘firsts’ that my wife and I chalked up on what was, let’s face it, a trip of a lifetime. First time we had flown halfway round the world Down Under, a near 24-hour trip made all the easier by a smooth passage out with British Airways, via Singapore.

It’s a long haul, all right. But the excellent staff really did make you proud to be flying the British flag, a feeling reinforced when the Sydneysiders were full of enthusiasm for the success of the British Olympics. After their Millennium Olympics extravaganza, it was praise indeed, and well received by us.

To be honest, the openness and friendliness of the Aussies blew me away. They really do say ‘G’day’ and ‘All right mate?’ at the drop of an Outback hat.

The other ‘first’ for us was travelling the 1,000-mile journey up the New South Wales coast in a campervan, which was hired from the suitably-named ‘Britz’ firm that looks after visitors from the old country and beyond.

It took a bit of getting used to at first, but once you’re out of hotel mode, into the spirit of adventure on the road, and also into the routine, it’s great fun.

First night was just a couple of hours’ drive north to the Stockton area of Newcastle. This little bit of old North East England – on the banks of the Hunter River - still exports vast amounts of coal, unlike the Tyneside original. But away from the working docks, there is much to charm the visitor. The surfing beaches for starters. Stockton itself is just a quick ferry ride from the city and has its own massive dune-backed coastline, just one dune crest away from Stockton Beach Campsite, run by a charming couple.

Next stop was the wonderful Nambucca Heads Campsite, a four-hour drive up the Pacific Highway. It really is an enchanting place, right at the mouth of a vast estuary, with huge sweeps of sand and rhythmic, rolling waves that lull you into a deep sleep at night.

Adjacant to it is a sea wall that is exoctically covered with bright public art and messages painted on by visitors. Sounds dreadful, but it’s fascinating.

Another few hours north is Suffolk Beach and another idyllic campsite, with all mod cons. Showers, communal barbecue facilities, washeteria and the rest.

It’s all a far cry from bustling Sydney, but the charms of this emblematic Aussie city are a great attraction. Beneath the bridge is the Rocks area, where the original European settlers set up shop. Some of the original houses, pubs and shops are there still there, hugging the small streets and alleyways, and serving as great places to discover and dine in.

In contrast, the state-of-the-art shopping malls cling to nearby George and Pitt Street, with the jewel in the historic crown being the Queen Victoria Building, or QVB, which houses four storeys of shops in a paradise of cast-iron, tiles and glass.

To get away, stroll round the sea-front Botanic Gardens, or take the 30-minute ferry to Manly, home of the surfing craze that swept round the world.

While I commuted back for the bridge climb, Mrs Sutton strolled the beaches, headlands, cafes and art galleries that laid-back Manly offers to visitors and those who choose to live there. Very healthy, very wholesome.

It may help to know that we found our hotel accommodation through the world-wide Accor Group, who offer high, middle and lower-price hotels from five-star Sofitel, to four-star Sebel, to three-star Ibis, and more. The full range that we experienced served us well.

Be warned that Australia is not cheap any more. Basics are pretty expensive with the strong Aussie dollar – but that could change. Whatever, it was a cost worth paying for a priceless experience.

1 Catch a ferry to Manly for just A$14 return (that’s less than a tenner). You see Sydney Harbour Bridge in all its glory – and it’s a great destination too.

2Wander the Rocks area of the original Sydney settlement. Lanes, alleys, old pubs and eating places. 
This is a great way to get a taste of the real Sydney.

3 Shop till you drop in George Street and Pitt Street area and visit the QVB (Queen Victoria Building), a four-storey palace of cast-iron, glass and tiles.

Travel facts:

* Lindsay Sutton flew with British Airways from Manchester to London, then Heathrow to Sydney, with an airport break in Singapore. BA flies daily flights to Sydney, from £866 return – www.ba.com

Britz campervan was a two-berth Mercedes Sprinter, costing around £916 for eight days – Britz

* Campsites: Newcastle - www.stocktonbeach.com; Nambucca Head – www.whitealbatross.com.au; Byron Bay – www.suffolkbeachfront.com.au. Between £26 and £40 for an overnight powered site.

* Sydney Harbour Bridge climb – www.bridgeclimb.com

* Hotel Sebel, Sydney (www.sebelsurryhills.com) and Hotel Sebel Manly in Manly Beach (www.accorhotels.com) from £224 per night for two.

* Ibis Darling Bay from around £100 per night for two – www.ibis.com/sydney

* For further tourist info, visit Sydney or Tourism-Australia