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A Day in the Life: Melissa Duane

By David Challenger
CNN
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CNN's "Day in the Life" special examines people earning a living doing what many others dream of doing.

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- If you think you've ever gone the extra distance for your job, try walking a mile in Melissa Duane's shoes -- or 1,439 steps, to be precise.

That's the number of times she steps up or down through ascending and descending ladders and walkways when she guides a group on a walking tour of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in New South Wales, Australia.

Duane, 35, works for BridgeClimb, a company that has allowed people the chance to walk to the top of the 134-meter high structure, both day and night and in all weather (excluding electrical storms), since 1998.

Undisputedly one of Australia's most celebrated and recognized man-made symbols, the bridge was officially opened in March, 1932, connecting Sydney's southern and northern districts by road and rail over Sydney Harbor.

And it's partly this history that hooked Duane into becoming a bridge climb guide in the first place.

"Being sixth generation Australian, I've always been interested in my country's past," she says.

"My grandmother took the Manly (a northern beach-side suburb of Sydney) ferry into town and took photos of the bridge as it was completed ... I've always known the bridge was special, so when the chance came to work on it, I jumped at it."

Duane, a six-year employee, is one of about 120 bridge guides employed by BridgeClimb.

The qualifications for a guide aren't particularly rigorous, though a First-aid certificate is mandatory. "It's more about personality, rather than educational qualifications," Duane says, "though a background in tourism could be advantageous."

Once selected, training is on-going, but usually heaviest during the first six weeks, when time is spent in the theory room learning about safety procedures, safety equipment, anxiety management, and the history of the bridge.

"The rest of the time is spent taking climbs with experienced leaders, and learning about work devices such as cameras and radios, which are always being upgraded," Duane says.

She does two shifts per day, which normally take about 3.5 hours each. But before the actual walk even starts, Duane meets the group she's guiding and equips them with appropriate clothing and safety gear such as radios and harnesses.

Climbers (who must be at least 12 years of age) need to meet basic fitness requirements, while a blood-alcohol reading also is taken.

Duane has the chance to work one of three time periods, but can't manage to choose one particular favorite.

"There's the dawn shift, which starts at 3:30 a.m. Despite the very early start, it's worth it as it's beautiful seeing the sun come up over the city," she says.

"Daytime is great as you see the city, harbor and Sydney Opera House in all its clarity, while the twilight shift is also worthwhile as you can watch the lights envelope the city. I love it all."

As does, it seems, the general public.

According to BridgeClimb, 1.5 million people have scaled the bridge as of up to June, 2005, including celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, Kylie Minogue, Pierce Brosnan and Matt Damon.

An Aussie experience

As the walkers meander over walkways and up ladders, Duane gives historical and relevant facts of the bridge along the way.

"Once on the bridge, all instructions and talking are given in English. People are here to experience a quintessential Australian product," she says, citing that 55 percent of participants originate from overseas.

"Though once a month, we have a guide who translates visually for those impaired by hearing disabilities," she adds.

The walk to the bridge's summit is exhilarating. The open vistas of this Australian city are stunning -- all of which are nicely complemented by Duane's insightful and witty commentary.

But the experience necessitates a certain degree of courage, and some walkers can suffer from nerves and anxiety along the way.

"The people that do suffer nervousness usually get anxious before we reach the top," Duane explains.

"We have bridge crew along the way who will take them back to base if needed, or we can call for medical staff to come up and get them. But we keep groups small (maximum of 12 people), which makes it easy to read any fears someone may be having."

But surely even the most experienced bridge guide can get scared, right?

"Not really," she counters. "Our training is comprehensive and we have a procedure for every possibility. If a storm hits, we have hideaway spots along the bridge route we can shelter in.

"We also get excellent and continuous weather reports, which almost always gives us a minimum of one hour for a storm warning," she says.

Duane says that if her days weren't spent overlooking arguably the world's most beautiful harbor, she'd most likely consider photography as an alternative vocation.

But for now, she's more than happy to keep tackling those 1,439 steps.

"The pay's not particularly high," she says, "but it's not about money. We do it because we all want to be out on that bridge, showing it off."


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Duane's ready to go after kitting up in her gear.