If only I could stop picturing myself dangling by my safety harness 115 feet above the pavement, I’m sure the view from the narrow catwalk that runs under the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge would be incredible. But I haven’t been able to look past my fists clenched tightly around the thin wire handrails.
Sensing my anxiety, new friend and fellow acrophobe Leah Harries, 28, turns around to reassure me. “Looking down is actually not too bad,” she says.
When I dare to focus my eyes, I discover that she’s right. Tiny couples stroll along the waterfront, enjoying the brilliant violet sunset that plays against the sails of the city’s iconic opera house. Lights twinkle across the harbor. Then our guide quips that the grated walkway wasn’t made to support us all. My knuckles go whiter; knees, gelatinous.
How did someone who once had a panic attack on a municipal diving board get roped into climbing the 440-foot-high Sydney Harbour Bridge? I signed up for a tour with Contiki.
Contiki motor coaches have crisscrossed New Zealand, Europe, Asia, and other continents to serve young travelers since 1962, but I’d never tried them until a friend recommended the company. I thank my stars I still met the 18-to-35 age requirement and jump at the chance to see a bucket list destination.
The 13-night Beaches and Reefs With Sailing tour of Oz’s east coast promises to explore a lot of the Land Down Under, making a dozen stops in the 1,600 miles between Cairns and Sydney. Our itinerary packs in as many quintessentially Aussie experiences as possible, including koala cuddling, beach bumming, cattle ranching, snorkeling, optional bungee jumping, and—lucky for us—celebrating Australia Day in Sydney.
The Contiki mantra, after all, is “No Regrets.”
Meeting the Mates
Our first group meeting has all the nervous anticipation I remember from freshman year orientation. As we circle up in the lobby, I scope out my next two weeks’ travel companions, who hail from Brazil to the British Isles: teens on gap year, newlyweds, nurses, engineers, au pairs, and social workers. Most of us travel solo.
Tour manager Adam Zammit sparks a round of chuckles as he promises us “wowgasms”—moments so intensely exciting and surreal that you can’t help but say “woooooow.”
“Think of this as your chance to try something new and amazing,” says Adam, who has the charming habit of addressing the group as “Legends.” “Ultimately, the outcome of this adventure is up to how much you put in.”
Considerably more than half of the 40-plus people on the tour have taken his advice and added skydiving, bungee jumping, jungle swinging, or white-water rafting options to their next day’s itineraries. I’m just not there yet.
The stars of a new hemisphere blaze overhead as we play a raucous round of the card game Higher or Lower in the cockpit of the 76-foot sailing vessel Broomstick. Tomorrow, the yacht will sail us through Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands to the sprawling white sands and aqua water of world-famous Whitehaven Beach.
A sudden squeal of excitement from the aft of the boat pierces the game’s din. Someone has spotted two dolphins chasing squid, nearly close enough to touch. One by one, the card players join the impromptu viewing party, straining for a glimpse. When a third, smaller dolphin—a baby—swims into view, I gasp. “Guys,” I say, without a hint of sarcasm, “I think I’m having a ‘wowgasm.’ ”
What the semi-inclusive Contiki tour at times lacks in luxury—we stay in hostels, farm bunkhouses, tiny sailboat berths, and hotels—it makes up for in opportunities like this one to bond with new friends. We experience incredible views, fun nights out, and long rides on the fully equipped motor coach, nicknamed Nemo for its orange-and-white paint job. With all this getting-to-know-you time, it quickly becomes apparent that jumping out of airplanes and careening down rapids are far from the bravest things my compatriots are up to.
New Zealander Claudia McVey, 19, has ventured away from home solo for the first time. Londoner Grace Edwards, 26, ditched a great-paying corporate job because she didn’t want to miss her chance to see the world. Australian schoolteacher Adam Keith, 34, went on his first Contiki trip when he turned 21 as a way to overcome painful shyness, he confides at one point—just before the lot of us dances together on a bar table. Now, Adam is touring again with his younger brother, who just turned 21.
“I was free to be myself for what felt like the first time ever,” Adam says of his first go-round. “There is something about being with new people who are all experiencing something new that makes you feel more comfortable about being yourself.”
And, I would add, more comfortable trying something you’re pretty sure you’ll fail at, as I learn a few days later.
Wearing bright-blue rash guards and slathered with SPF 70, about two dozen of us lie belly down at the center of surfboard-shaped outlines carved into the sand. Our instructor at Mojo Surf Camp, off Arrawarra Headland in New South Wales, runs through the basic steps to standing on a board: lie down; line up your toes with the back of the board; check for the wave; paddle, paddle, paddle; back foot; front foot.
“Once you’re up, you have to throw that shaka,” he advises with a grin, demonstrating the final step, the pinkies-and-thumbs-out hand waggle common to surfers worldwide. “It helps with balance.”
Even the least coordinated among us will stand up, we’re promised. Both Gemma Clarke, 29, of Liverpool, England, and I have our doubts.
Neither of us has great balance, but you can’t not surf in Australia, right?
The waves push back on our massive, bobbing boards as we push out farther and farther from shore. It’s a struggle to get the timing just right to take advantage of the ocean’s momentum. In fact, the only step I’m nailing is the shaka, when I see Gemma in the distance, riding gracefully into shore for the first of what turns out to be many times.
“Yes! I’m doing it!” she recalls thinking. “Then it was like, Oh no! I have to fall off this thing without smashing my face into the sand. I didn’t think I’d do very well, to be honest. I was nervous.”
Eventually, even I get in one good, long, and totally satisfying ride just as the lesson ends
Up High Down Under
If I need anything else to tempt me out of my comfort zone, it comes shortly afterward when I discover that one of my closest friends on the trip has signed up to jump out of an airplane thousands of feet above Byron Bay. Less than two weeks earlier, we’d bonded over how terrifying bungee jumping seemed.
“I decided that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do it in Australia,” says Jennifer Lembke, a 29-year-old nurse from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. “Plus, I told one of my brothers that I was going to do it, and he thought I would chicken out.”
Although I still haven’t signed up for bungee jumping, some might say I ended up climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge because of peer pressure. I’d say it was more like “peer inspiration.”
As if subconsciously willing the experience to be over as quickly as possible, I move toward the front of the line that’s running through a short, indoor training session on how to climb the four shockingly vertical ladders we’ll encounter on the bridge.
Suddenly, it’s time, and there’s nothing left between my fears and me. Wearing blue uniforms and headsets—so we can hear our wisecracking leader—the 14 of us clip our harnesses onto the guide wires and cross the catwalk single file.
As we ascend hand-over-hand, the rumble and shake of rush hour traffic through eight bustling lanes pound overhead, then all around us, before finally settling into background noise far beneath our feet. When we reach the shallow steps up the arch itself, we’re in a wonderland of hulking iron beams and rivets crafted by hand in the 1930s and we have a nighttime panorama of one of the world’s most picturesque harbors. I feel my nerves quiet. For a souvenir video, I even pretend to fall off the edge—though my heart races a little.
As our group descends single file, relief and a sense of accomplishment course through me. Just as I start to joke that the climb was “no big deal,” a commuter train shudders by directly overhead and shakes the platform. Flinching, I grab for the handrail and laugh.
Sure, I’m still scared of heights. But at least I have no regrets.
Jessica Fender is a frequent contributor to Westways.
Top photo: Koalas at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary (left); Nico Eastman takes in the view on a Whitsunday Islands beach (center); and the author, Jessica Fender, peers out over a seascape | Photos by Jessica Fender