Standing on a steel platform at the top of the arch of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, suspended 430 feet above the water, palms sweating, knees unsteady and feeling lightheaded, I turn to my daughter and, weakly, try to smile.
The Sydney Harbor Bridge is the tallest steel arch bridge in the world. I am afraid of heights. Far, far below, the famed Sydney Opera House looks just like the clump of artful orange peels - tangerine peels maybe from this height - that the architect originally envisioned, and a huge cruise ship docked in Darling Harbor below looks like a tiny toy. In the distance, I can see the hazy Blue Mountains and follow the equally blue harbor as it winds its way out to sea. But while I feel nauseated and shaky, my daughter, the wind whipping her ponytail, looks utterly exhilarated. That alone - seeing her so alive in the real world rather than lost in a virtual one shut up in her bedroom - is worth all the vertigo in the world.
She's the one who got me up here. She's the one who said, "Let's do the Sydney Bridge Climb." And I gamely answered, "Sure," thinking that would entail a mere stroll across the bridge on the sidewalk beside the traffic lanes. At pedestrian level. I didn't realize climbing the bridge meant exactly that: removing jewelry, putting glasses on a lanyard, latching onto a tether and donning a protective suit to prevent button and zipper snags on any one of the 6 million hand-driven rivets and to make sure no falling objects - ourselves included - became projectiles that could damage anyone or anything below.
Only in no-holds-barred Australia could someone have turned the harrowing notion of climbing to the top of a bridge span into a not-to-be-missed experience. Travelers have been coming from around the globe since the climbs began in 1998. We had a honeymooning couple from China in our climbing group, as well as Britons, Aussies and several Europeans. Every detail of these well-executed climbs is carefully planned to ensure safety - including the practice with the tethers before taking off, and the radio and headphones for communication and to hear our guide tell the fascinating stories of how the bridge was built and what it has come to mean to the country. (Paul Hogan was a riveter before he became famous as Crocodile Dundee. High-wire artist Phillipe Petit has, of course, tottered across the northern pylons. And the flags flying atop the span tell the story of the times - the Aboriginal Flag for the Sydney Festival "ferrython" of scads of racing ferries below, the maroon flag of a beloved local rugby team after a big win and the French flag after the terrorist attacks in Paris.)
Before I knew what I'd gotten myself into, I'd been thinking: "This will be important. My teenage daughter actually wants to do something with me." There was a time not that long ago when she couldn't go to sleep without me reading with her, telling stories, gazing at the stars out her bedroom window, rubbing her back or just talking softly until she drifted off. As she has grown older, she can barely stand it when I poke my head into the airspace of her room to say good night. As much as I know how important these years are for her to develop her own sense of independence, it doesn't change how much I miss spending time with her.
I also thought, "My daughter will get to see me as someone who doesn't just nag her to pick up her room or get her homework done, or who stays up late folding laundry, paying bills, catching up on work or busily tidying up after a long day at work." She tells me, "You get so tired and cranky." She thinks I don't enjoy life, that I don't have any fun.
And maybe she's right. I brought Tessa along with me to a conference and, as much as I've worried about her being lost in the virtual world, it took her natural curiosity and sense of fun to get me to take a break from work and zip over to the Taronga Zoo on the ferry to marvel at the kangaroos, koalas and the amazingly choreographed bird show. She also got me out on the double-decker bus to carom around town just for the heck of it.
I worry. Girls learn whether they can expect time for themselves by the examples their mothers set. So I want to show her that I remember how to have fun. If for no other reason than I want to make sure that when she's my age, she won't have to remember. She will never have forgotten.
On the bridge climb, what kept me going every weak and shaky step - up four terrifyingly vertical ladders as my breathing got increasingly shallower and my head lighter - was the feeling that we were in this together. Since she's become a teenager, I feel like there's so much about her - what she thinks, how she feels - that I don't know anymore. And that's why I asked her to tell her side of the story.
"When my mom asked if I would come with her on a trip to Australia, I would've been insane to say no. Despite my usual teen angst and stubborn unwillingness to do any activity with my parents, traveling has always been something that brought the family together.
"I was excited to see the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, a kangaroo. Downtown Sydney reminded me of Washington, except with Australian accents and a striking ocean view.
"I was most proud of persuading my mom to do the Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb - the very thing she promised me she would and could never do. I could practically see the pain in her eyes as she reluctantly agreed. Our bridge-climbing group was enthralled with adrenaline and excitement as we staggered up the bridge, while my mom kept her eyes on her feet and her hands glued to the rail. The view at the top was a beautiful, sweeping view of Sydney Harbor. The ocean was blue and in the distance you could see a Ferris wheel of an old amusement park. Our guide chose this time to tell the story of a person falling from the top. I brushed it off. My mom was wide-eyed and somehow even more cautious the rest of the way down. After the climb, I met a new version of my mom. She was hopped up on adrenaline and seemed ready to face the world."
With a heavy workload still awaiting me at home, and the consequences of missed school for my daughter, I was tempted to immediately return to Washington after the conference. Instead, I took a deep breath and a leap of faith: We flew to Cairns on the North Shore to see one of the seven natural wonders of the world - the Great Barrier Reef - before climate change and warming waters forever alter it, as several scientific studies predict. (Two mass bleachings in 2016 and earlier in 2017 wiped out an estimated half of the coral cover off the Queensland coast, although a field survey in September by the Australian Institute of Marine Science found hopeful signs of recovery.)
We stayed just outside of Port Douglas at the Thala Beach Nature Reserve, an ecotourist lodge and magical place on 145 acres of rain forest on an undisturbed peninsula just south of town. We woke every morning in our Jungle Walk bungalow to the boisterous calls of a laughing kookaburra just outside our window. And on a nature walk through the property, we watched an agile wallaby hop lazily through the underbrush.
Everything at Thala Beach is open to the elements and pulls you into the present moment. It was restful, quiet and contemplative. And as a hurricane threatened one day, we sat on comfy rattan couches, drinking coconut juice out of a straw directly from fresh coconuts, and watched the warm rain pelt the palm trees of the Great Dividing Range and beyond, the Coral Sea. Another evening, at the Osprey, the open-air restaurant with a treehouse feel, we watched reverently as the sun gracefully set, then giggled wildly when we saw slow-cooked saltwater crocodile in massaman style curry on the menu. I opted for steamed barramundi, a type of sea bass native to Australia. Tessa ordered pasta.
When it came time to explore the outer reef, we chose to go with Wavelength Reef Cruises, one of the longest-running reef operators and a pioneer in eco-tourism. They take only small groups. And a marine biologist accompanies every outing, so we not only saw amazing underwater sea life and whole worlds of coral, but we learned about them, and about how, with climate change and sea warming, the whole ecosystem is under threat.
After a 90-minute boat ride, we donned our snorkel gear, which, because it was jellyfish season, included Lycra suits. Then, Tessa and I plunged in. For hours, we swam side by side, marveling at the strange and wondrous exotic fish, brightly colored coral, giant clams and even a lumbering sea turtle.
I couldn't stop smiling, even as I breathed through a snorkel. I was not only lost in a timeless world, feeling vibrantly alive and in awe, I was sharing it all with my daughter.
"Going to the Great Barrier Reef was amazing, not only because I was missing school or it was a great bragging opportunity to my friends, but because it's one of the seven wonders of the natural world. With the browning coral, I'd be lying if the reef was what I thought it would be. There was still beauty to it. Exotic, vibrant fish that darted at the sight of two Americans looking idiotic and woefully out of place with neon flippers and pool noodles. As a person with a very basic fear of sharks, I admit every few minutes I'd glance back just to make sure a Great White wasn't following. We'd swim, head to the boat and then jump back in a few more times, taking breaks to eat the cheesecake and berries they had on board. As the boat raced back to shore, I was grateful I got to see the reef before it's gone.
"Our family is fortunate to have been able to travel to insane, foreign places. But for one of the first times, it was just me and my mom. In the entire continent, the only person we knew was each other, so we had no choice but to spend time together. I had always considered myself a person who looked like her mom, but acted like her dad. I had always gotten along with my mom, but I feel like over this trip we connected in a way we never could back home. Without school or work pressure, homework or chore-nagging, we got to enjoy each other's company without the usual everyday baggage. Every day that week was a new adventure and we got to spend it with each other."
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Schulte is a writer based in Washington. Her website is brigidschulte.com; find her on Twitter at @BrigidSchulte. Bowman is a junior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.
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IF YOU GO
Where to stay
117 Macquarie St., Sydney
The hotel is conveniently located just a few blocks from the Circular Quay wharf, where you can jump on a ferry to Taronga Zoo, the Luna Park amusement park or to local beaches such as Manly Beach. The hotel is also steps away from the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Botanic Gardens and Sydney Harbor Bridge. We loved drinking coffee and reading in the atrium in the lobby, housed in the city's old Treasury Building, having breakfast at the Cafe Opera and working out in the gym followed by a dip in the rooftop swimming pool. Rates vary for a standard, city-view king room from about $200 a night to about $500 a night, depending on the season and demand.
Thala Beach Nature Reserve Resort
5078 Captain Cook Hwy., Oak Beach
The eco-resort sits on 145 acres, on a private headland beach, with coconut trees, two rock-rimmed outdoor swimming pools and nature trails. (Beach swimming isn't recommended for stays between November and May because of marine stingers.) The resort also offers stargazing, coconut tours and talks with the local aboriginal community, the Kuku Yalanji people. The 83 bungalows have either ocean, jungle or forest views. Prices are about $270 a night for a Jungle Walk bungalow, $380 for a Eucalypt bungalow and $560 for a Coral Sea bungalow. Prices drop for longer stays of four-to-five nights.
Where to eat
Sydney Customs House, 31 Alfred St., Fifth Floor
The cafe has a hip vibe, is known for its creative cocktails and sweeping views of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and offers what it bills as modern Australian cuisine. The menu is heavy on the seafood, like slow-cooked octopus, freshly shucked oysters in pinot grigio vinegar, cured salmon belly tartare and Queensland prawns. Cornfed chicken breast, loin of lamb and Dutch cream potato gnocchi are also on the menu. Main courses run around $30.
229-231 Macquarie St., Sydney
02 9259 5672
A steep set of stairs leads down to the cozy restaurant, with exposed brick walls. The antipasti, pizzas and pastas are all fresh and delicious. The pea, mint and goat cheese ravioli, as well as other pasta dishes, run between about $16 and $25. Pizzas, like the fennel sausage with red sauce and shaved garlic, run about $20. Located in the Central Business District, the restaurant caters to the after-work crowd and boasts a wide variety of cocktails, Italian wines and imported Italian beers.
Thala Beach Nature Reserve Resort
5078 Captain Cook Hwy., Oak Beach
The open-air restaurant sits under a thatched roof inside the pavilion-style main lodge with commanding views of the Coral Sea. For dinner, the crispy Daintree barramundi in red curry broth, with a coconut rice cake, goes for about $30, and the mushroom risotto runs about $26. For dessert, the Mareeba mango cheesecake with coconut sorbet and chocolate soil (all chocolate, no dirt) runs about $13.
What to do
3 Cumberland St., The Rocks
There are three different climbs to choose from. The 1.5-hour Bridge Climb sampler takes groups of 12 to a halfway point and runs between $100 for kids and $120 for adults. Both the 3.5-hour Bridge Climb and shorter, 2.25-hour Bridge Climb Express get groups of 12 climbers to the top and cost about $132 for kids and $193 for adults during the day. BridgeClimb also offers twilight, night and dawn climbs for a higher price. Tickets to the top include a photograph, BridgeClimb cap, certificate of achievement and a pass to the Pylon Lookout Museum.
Wavelength Reef Cruises
Shop 12, the Reef Marina, Wharf Street, Port Douglas
Wavelength is one of the longest-running and smallest eco-tourism reef operators in Port Douglas. It specializes in small snorkeling tours on boats that take no more than 48 passengers, which include a reef lecture with a marine biologist in between visits to three different sites: Opal Reef, St. Crispin Reef and Tongue Reef. The trip lasts from about 8 a.m.- to 4:30 p.m. and includes a 90-minute boat ride one way to and from the reefs. Prices range from about $150 - for children ages 8 to 12 - to $185 for adults. The fee includes snorkeling equipment, a wet suit or Lycra suit, local bus transportation, tea and lunch. Photos of the day, canned drinks and seasickness medication cost extra.
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For the author's full list of recommendations for Australia, visit washingtonpost.com/travel