Painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge

By Joanna Egan 7 November 2013
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There are some big jobs out there, including the almost 365-day-a-year task of painting the Harbour Bridge.

AG staff writer Joanna Egan gets a head for heights as she accompanies a team of painters to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Read about the never-ending painting task that keeps the iconic structure rust-free and looking good in Australian Geographic #100.

THE WEATHER WAS AGAINST me as I tried to tee up a time to interview Sydney Harbour Bridge painters at work atop those mighty metal arches for which the city is famous. My assignment was to put together a story about the endless task that teams of painters and riggers perform on the bridge – a job they’ve been continuously working at since the ‘coat-hanger’ opened in 1932.

Over the years, thousands of workers have scoured, sanded and painted every centimetre of the 485,000 sq. m (about the size of 60 football fields) of steelwork that comprise the iconic structure. Included amongst them was our own Crocodile Dundee Paul Hogan. Each coat of paint they applied to the ungalvanised steel to protect it from corrosion has become a part of Sydney’s history.

During its eight years of construction around the time of the Great Depression, hundreds of Australians were provided with work, and in the decades that followed, millions of commuters have used it as a the major traffic artery between the CBD and Sydney’s northern suburbs.

It’s a Sydney institution and the embodiment of decades of city living. I associate it with my home city and have done for the better part of my life. As a schoolgirl I used to take the ferry into the harbour every morning and see its familiar, sturdy form float by above me, and I can remember countless New Year’s Eve celebrations spent gazing at colourful fireworks as they exploded from its well-known arch. So when the opportunity arose in July for me to write a story about it for AG’s much-anticipated 100th issue, I eagerly jumped on board. But Sydney’s winter weather wasn’t going to make a trip to the top easy, and this year July boasted the rainiest day it’s had for 50 years.

Finally, on 20 July, the clouds parted. With nerves and excitement pumping through my veins and my notepad and pen safely secured to my person with lanyards, I started the climb up the arch, along with photographer Bill Hatcher, painter Mirko Cerovac and RTA asset manager Peter Mann (the guru in charge of painting and maintenance operations on the bridge).

There are more than 200 steps to the top, and unlike the many bridge climbers who do the south circuit, we weren’t harnessed to the safety rail.

For three hours we clambered across the catwalks, making our way from the main arch down to the inner arch, traversing from west to east, south to north and finally coming to a stop at the ‘arch maintenance unit’ (or crane) on the north western side, where painters were at work, suspended in a basket below the main arch.

Standing at 134 m above Sydney Harbour, looking out over the city nestled below a clear, blue sky, my wonder and amazement at how such an impressive structure could be constructed overcame me. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is the longest steel arch bridge in the world, and throughout my life I’d certainly gazed at it from many of the city’s vantage points. But never before had I gazed at the city from up here. What a view.