RIDING THE SEA CLIFF BRIDGE
You’ve seen it on a hundred adds, on TV and in newspapers, magazines; and even in road-tests. Most recently (as I write this, late 2008) it was the backdrop to the launch of the new Ducati 696. And now (for residents of NSW) it’s even on your NRMA card! It’s the Sea Cliff bridge. Now, I haven’t written too much about particular roads and travel, because I realise it is of limited value to people living in parts of Australia other than those specific areas. But some things are worth writing about, and due to the afore-mentioned proliferation of it’s use, the Sea Cliff bridge is one of them. So, where is it? It’s about 50km south of Sydney; about half way between there and Wollongong. Not on the main road though; you’ve got to turn off and go to the coast. It’s part of what is known as Lawrence Hargrave Drive, and links the towns of Clifton and Coalcliff. Today it’s a part of an even bigger tourist-route called the Grand Pacific Drive. I’ll mention a couple of the attractions, but for a full list of what to see, what to do, and where to go, visit the web-site. (Just click the link above). There’s enough along that route to keep you busy for many days! The history is interesting. Lawrence Hargrave Drive runs from Bulli to Stanwell Tops, and was built in the 1860s. Up until about 1950 it was known simply as “The Lower Coast Road”. Most of the road winds along the coast through little towns that blend into each other. The road was always narrow and winding, and still is. When they originally made the road, the section between Clifton and Coalcliff presented a problem; there was no flat ground to build a road on, just rugged cliffs running right up to the water. But the road-builders weren’t going to let that stop them, so they cut into the cliffs and built a road right along the edge of them. It was an interesting piece of road! Narrow and very winding, there was the sea on one side and a towering rocky cliff on the other. It must’ve been fun in the old days when it was not much more than a dirt track with a flimsy wooden fence! The photo above was taken from the north, just before the road gets to the section now replaced by the Sea Cliff Bridge. The one on the left was taken from the south and shows an old car negotiating the section now replaced by the bridge. My earliest memories of it were of a sealed road with a good surface and armco railing to keep you from falling into the sea. It was considered a dangerous road; but the main danger wasn’t motorists doing a kamikaze plunge into the Pacific, it was bits of the rocky cliff falling on top them. That was the real threat. All along this relatively short section were signs warning you not to stop (it’s better to present the rocks with a moving target!), and “Beware Of Falling Rocks.” That sign used to intrigue me. What were you supposed to do? Were you supposed to drive or ride along constantly looking up at the cliffs? Or, if you were watching the road (which I always thought was a better option!), I figured that by the time you actually saw rocks falling on you it’d be too late to do anything anyway. Except duck. Which probably wouldn’t do much good; especially if you were on a bike! There was a big mesh fence along the edge of the cliff to catch the bits of rock that fell off and hopefully stop them before they bounced onto your roof (or onto your helmet if you were on a bike). The accumulation of rubble behind the fence was a constant reminder that the danger of copping a bit of sandstone on your noggin was a real one! Despite that though, it was always a favourite biker’s road. From time to time, especially after a lot of rain, larger-than-normal bits of the cliff would fall away and block the road. That caused a lot of inconvenience to travelers; especially if they happened to be hit by some particularly large bits of cliff! Fortunately not many were. Some, but not many. In August 2003, there was a major land-slip resulting in the road being closed indefinitely. Local communities were out-raged. They wanted the road opened. Authorities tried to explain the dangers, reminding them that the signs said “Beware Rock Falls”, not “Be Where Rock Falls!” Residents demanded a permanent fix from the NSW Government. Several ideas were discussed, but eventually it was decided to build a road out in the sea. Well, not exactly in the sea, but far enough away from the cliffs for falling rocks not to be a problem. That meant building a bridge. A fancy, very cleverly-designed bridge. Construction began, and by the end of 2005 it was completed, at a total cost of around $50 million. The official opening took place on 11th December 2005. When it came to naming the project, the task was given to the community, and a competition was held. Makenzie Russell, a year 6 student from a local primary school, came up with the name “Sea Cliff.” She was given the honour of officially opening the new bridge. The bridge attracted crowds of tourists; especially on weekends. It was billed as NSW's answer to Victoria's Great Ocean Road, and was used each weekend by an estimated 11,000 cars and bikes. Businesses, which had suffered while the road had been closed, now had a booming trade. But not everyone was happy. The residents, who had complained about the inconvenience of the road being closed, were now complaining about the tourist traffic the re-opened road was attracting. They said that the road was so clogged that they couldn’t get out of their driveways. I suppose you have to sympathise with them, although it was mainly only on weekends. Some complaints went a bit far though. One resident wrote to the local paper complaining about noisy motorbikes (yes, the bikes were back too, big time!). He suggested that residents hold a “hose-a-biker day,” and hose down every noisy bike that came past! I assumed he wasn't really serious, until another resident wrote in supporting the idea. That was too much! I wrote a letter to the paper in response; pointing out the stupidity of this potentially life-threatening action! But back to the bridge. It is quite spectacular, and very picturesque; as evidenced by the number of times it’s used in adds and articles etc. As you can see from the photos, it’s all curves; smoothly flowing curves that kind of follow the cliff face, but sitting out away from it. It’s a two-lane road (one in each direction), and carries a 60kph speed-limit. So it’s something to cruise along admiring the scenery; it’s not a race-track above the ocean! The bridge itself (that's the part with the pylons underneath that you can see in the big photo above), is less than 1km long; so riding it is quite spectacular, but the experience doesn’t last long. Although the road leading up to it is nicely flowing and has a great view out over the ocean too. There’s a walkway along the ocean side, so you can stop and do the bridge on foot. That’s very worthwhile, as you get to experience it for a lot longer and also get more time to appreciate the spectacular coastline to the north of the bridge. And you can also admire the traffic! It doesn’t take long before you’ll see some bikes cruising along it. Riding it is enjoyable, but there’s something quite attractive about seeing other bikes riding along it too. In the case of the Sea Cliff Bridge, getting there – and where you can go afterwards – is definitely half the fun! Actually a lot more than half the fun. I’ll assume you’re coming from the north. Why? Well, if you’re coming from the south you will have already passed through some of the other areas I’ll mention. And you’ll probably already know about them. If you’re coming from a long way south (Victoria?) then you could go direct to Sydney and then do the bridge ride on the way back, which means you’ll still be approaching from the north. And riding it from the north is better because you're on the sea side of the bridge. Just south of Sutherland, as you begin to leave the major metropolis behind, you turn off to the Royal National Park. This is a favourite biker’s road! You’ve probably seen it mentioned in the bike mags. What you’re riding along here is a two-lane road that winds it’s way through the afore-mentioned National Park, emerging from the bush at Stanwell Tops, about 40km later. 40km and more than 100 corners! Along the way it twists and turns, rises and falls, and throws just about every type of corner imaginable at you. As I said, a real favourite with most bikers! But, I have to say that I actually don’t like riding it. I know that sounds wrong. It's a bit like, well, it’s a bit like a surfer saying he doesn’t like the water when it rises up in a wave! But the reason I don’t like it is that it’s very bumpy. It can also have mossy patches in the more permanently shaded areas. If it was a good surface, it’d be great! As it is, you have to endure some pain to get the gain of an interesting ride! At the end of the National Park you emerge onto the coastline again, but high above it. There’s a great spot with a spectacular view. It’s also a favourite meeting-point for bikes. You’ll see plenty of riders standing around their machines, hot exhausts ticking loudly as they cool, describing their adventures of riding the National Park. It’s Stanwell Tops; also called Bald Hill, due to it’s lack of trees. And it gives you your first look at the Sea Cliff Bridge. (You can just see it, snaking along the cliff-face, in the photo on the left). It's a favourite place for hang-gliders too, but if you’re like me, you’ll get more enjoyment out of strolling along looking at the bikes. And perhaps striking up a conversation with some fellow riders. The view of the coast is magnificent; but for locals, or people who’ve been there a lot (as I have), you’ll probably spend more time looking at the bikes and talking to the riders! From there you go down the hill into Stanwell Park. This is a nice spot, and there’s a couple of pleasant cafes to sit and relax with a coffee. I like doing that. I jokingly told one place they should charge for the serenity; it’s that sort of place. The road south (we’re still on Lawrence Hargrave Drive) winds it’s way through little sea-side villages; curving out around headlands and back beside beaches. It’s an interesting ride. (Just watch out for grumpy residents with garden hoses!). When you get to the bottom of Bulli Pass, you have a choice. Of course, Wollongong has a lot to offer, and you can spend a couple of days there; or more. But if you don’t plan on staying in Wollongong, you can do what I do. I’ve usually had enough of traffic by then, so I turn up Bulli Pass and then follow the highway south. If you’re in this area, one ride you’ve got to do is Macquarie Pass! It’s a great favourite with local and even not-so-local riders. Around 8km of constant twists and turns; and a road surface that doesn’t bounce you around like the National Park road does. I’ve written about this elsewhere, as, sadly, it has seen a few deaths occur; mainly riders coming down who have collided with traffic coming up. But treat it as a road and not a race-track and it’s a great ride! Then just a short distance after is another favourite gathering-place for bikers, the Robertson Pie Shop. Personally I think the pies are much over-rated, but I've often stopped in for a coffee or tea. They do a good enough job of that! They distribute Cycle Torque too, so you can sit at a table and have a read while you drink your coffee. Then wander outside and stroll around the bikes. That's always an enjoyable thing to do! At the Pie Shop is a turn-off that will take you to the region’s latest attraction, the Illawarra Fly tree-top walk. This is an elevated walkway constructed through the tree-tops right on the edge of the escarpment. Not a place to go if you’re afraid of heights! The views out over the Illawarra below are great in a couple of spots, but really the main attraction is walking on a narrow metal pathway through the tree-tops. There are other places that provide the same sort of view, without the cost or vertigo-inducing way of seeing it! There’s a gift-shop and cafeteria there, so it’s good for a lunch stop or afternoon-tea stop. You’re in the Southern Highlands now, and there’s lots of great riding to be had! The road down through Kangaroo Valley and out to the coast is a great ride (I mentioned this in my touring article). But we’re a long way from the Sea Cliff bridge – the subject of this story – by now, so I’ll end it here and leave the rest of it up to you.
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