The Burrawa Bridge Climb isn’t your usual Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. On the Burrawa Bridge Climb, an indigenous guide takes guests through pre-colonial history to the present day. In my mind it’s “two for one”- a Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb and an Aboriginal experience combined.
Preparing for the Burrawa Bridge Climb
Arriving early for my 9:15 climb, I browse the foyer and gift shop. A photographic display boasts which rich and famous people have climbed the bridge. They include Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Swank, Jamie Oliver, Richard Branson and of course, Nicole Kidman.
Preparing for a Bridge Climb is serious business. First there’s the pre-climb orientation and safety video. While we introduce ourselves, a staff member walks around with a breathalyzer. Everyone passes that test. Our reasons for being here vary. One man wants to conquer his fear of heights. A couple from Tamworth are celebrating their wedding anniversary. Others are here “because my partner wanted me to come”.
We’re given regulation issue grey and blue jumpsuits, and handed a blue handkerchief with an elastic wrist strap. We can’t have anything loose on our person when we climb. I tuck mine into my sleeve.
Next, we step into our harnesses. Someone hooks a little bag containing a rain jacket onto my waistband. Then, one by one we do a practice climb up and down dummy ladders, making sure we don’t tangle the slider lanyards which attach us to a static metal line.
One More Thing
There’s one more thing to do before the Burrawa Climb.
“Jingi wallah” smiles Kyle, a Bundjulung man, welcoming us in his language. Then, using the language of the local Gadigal people, he adds “Warami burrawalgal” meaning “Welcome, people from faraway lands”.
Kyle, hands us each a pot of creamy coloured ochre. He encourages us to paint our faces or arms as a way of uniting us as a group. I dot my cheeks and add a stripe across my forehead. The ochre is damp and cool. The group finds this step difficult. One man decorates his forearms. No one else puts ochre on their face. I feel self-conscious and conflicted. Aware that I shouldn’t, I rub mine off.
A Journey Through Aboriginal History
We walk in single file along a raised walkway into a narrow tunnel. The haunting sounds of men singing accompanied by the rhythmic beat of clapsticks surrounds us. We’re hearing the recording of a song that Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne sang in London in 1793.
Following Kyle I crouch down and step through a tight space bounded by a metal framework to a narrow walkway. We’re wearing headsets and as we walk along a narrow walkway, Kyle takes us through early Aboriginal history. He points out the site of William Dawes’ campsite where Dawes learnt the Aboriginal Language of Sydney from Patyegarang.
Some of the names he mentions I know, a couple I don’t. He talks about Colebee, Arabanoo and the freedom fighter Pemulwuy. Then the climb begins. I step onto and an almost vertical ladder.
The Weather Closes In
Soon I’m walking over the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Stopping for a breather I take in the view, which today is limited by heavy grey clouds. The weather is closing in and we’re about to get wet.
Our raincoats offer some protection, but there’s nothing preventing our legs from getting drenched.
A stream of water glistens as it runs down the arch of the bridge under our feet, forming ripples around domed rivets. At least the Opera House and Bara, the fish hook sculpture on a lawn in the Botanic Gardens are clearly visible.
As we reach the summit, the rain becomes heavier. A huge Australian and Aboriginal flag snap and flap above our heads. flags. Kyle explains the colours of the Aboriginal Flag. Black represents the back skin of Aboriginal people – but not all he says showing his fair skin. The red, he jokes, represents the sunburnt white skin and then qualifies that it’s the red earth and yellow represents the sun.
Crossing to the other side of the bridge to begin our descent, I look down to the road below. Red brake lights stand out brightly against the wet black bitumen of the road.
Kyle punctuates his stories with Aboriginal words. He describes the lives of the people who lived here before colonization. How they initially welcomed the British and how the women would fish from canoes with small fires in the bow.
Aboriginal history is a sad and difficult story. Kyle describes how with colonization people were killed by disease and a cultural genocide. He talks about the stolen generation and how his people finally got citizenship and the vote.
But he says, as non-indigenous people became more aware, there is hope that things will improve. First there was the reconciliation walk across the bridge. Then there was Mabo, the Uluru Statement and now with the upcoming referendum on The Voice.
Below me, the jade-coloured water of the harbour ripples with dark and light patches reflecting the cloudy grey sky. The bridge shudders as a train rumbles past. I climb down below road level. Apart from the drip drip drip of the rain water, it’s quiet now.
Kyle moves onto less emotive subjects, talking about bush tucker. He describes how finger limes are “a burst of flavour in your mouth”. He shares that his father, who had difficulty putting food on the table, became adept at finding bush tucker and water, adding that “my dad taught me”.
The Burrawa Bridge Climb: An Unforgettable Experience
We end this Burrawa Bridge Climb drenched and cold but nevertheless invigorated by climbing to the summit of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I have increased my knowledge of Aboriginal history and culture. While the views weren’t as good as on a clear day, one thing’s for sure I won’t forget this experience.
- The Burrawa Climbs run weekly, every Wednesday and Saturday at 9:15 and 13:45.
- For more information, follow this link.
For another Aboriginal Tour take at look at this post on a tour of the Botanic Gardens with an Indigenous focus.