Where I Got My Fear of Heights – The Old Scamander Bridge

By guest blogger, Rohan Wade.

One of my earliest memories from family holidays was being terrified of crossing the old Scamander Bridge.

Back then it wasn’t the ‘old’ bridge, it was the only bridge – three sets of sturdy, steel truss assemblies slinging a single lane strip of concrete across the river since the mid-1930s.

Being single-lane was hardly ideal, since the highway either end was not. Regardless of which end a motorist arrived at, they had to look the distance of the river and judge whether any oncoming traffic would beat them onto the bridge. Your wait only got longer when another car would turn up just as the one you were already waiting for was still ambling its way across the bridge. For a time, traffic lights were put in place, presumably to avoid the guesswork, but they were later removed; forcing this crucial little part of the Tasman Highway to stay as a guess ‘n go thoroughfare right up until it was bypassed in 1991 by a sleeker two-lane bridge.

The ‘new’ bridge is much less interesting than its forbear. As you look over from the modern bridge, you can’t help but notice its steel-reinforced predecessor just slightly up river stretching between the north and south banks of the Scamander River with purpose and a bit of pre-WWII engineering character.

While some may want a bit of character in their bridges, others may crave a higher level of functionality for all road-users than the old bridge offered. It was the seventh structure to span the river, with all six previous efforts either washing away in floods or simply collapsing into the river. Perhaps the brief to its designer, prominent Tasmanian engineer Sir Allan Knight, was simply to get the thing to stay out of the water. Not only did Sir Al not waste too much effort worrying about cars wanting to head in opposite directions at the same time, he wasn’t too fussed about pedestrians sharing the same patch of concrete as vehicles either. I can clearly remember walking the bridge as close to the edge of the ‘road’ as possible, Mum awkwardly gripping my hand while she walked behind me for fear I’d toddle off into the path of oncoming cars.

But while these crossings no doubt gave my mother a near heart attack, they weren’t the source of my discontent. Ironically, it was an effort to improve pedestrian safety that caused me to fear for my life.

At some point, someone must’ve worked out that cars and people not in cars on a single lane bridge was going to cause a problem. They set out to fix this by hanging a narrow pedestrian walkway outside the bridge’s truss structures on the western side of the bridge. The fact that it was OUTSIDE the bridge’s impressively strong-looking steel girders is relevant, because while you walked inside of these on the roadway, you never really felt you could fall off the bridge. Mown down by a car? Sure. But fall off, no way. To have to contend with a narrow, little walkway, with nothing to stop a death-plunge into the raging Scamander River apart from flimsy, itsy-bitsy gauge, chicken wire was of a significant concern to me. To be fair, I’ve never seen the Scamander River ‘rage’ but the fact that it wiped out the six previous bridges means it must get a little worked up from time to time. But it wasn’t even the plastic-coated chicken wire and a dubious galvanised handrail that was my greatest concern. It was what was lay beneath.

Concrete has some commendable qualities. It is nice and solid when used as a bridge platform to support cars and trucks. Another is that you can’t see through it. The fact that we went from walking on good wholesome, solid, non-see-through concrete to a walkway made of mere timber planks with gaps between them was all too much for this 6-year-old. You could see the water THROUGH THE BLASTED PLANK GAPS and it was WAAAAYYYY down there. Thinking back, the gaps were probably 10mm at most between 100mm planks, but to me, it was like walking on a single matchstick every foot or so. Every pore of my body and soul knew – it just KNEW, dammit – that I was going to somehow fall through those gaping monstrosities into the waters far, far below (a few metres, but when you’re little everything is relatively bigger, okay?).

So, my early memory of Scamander was a late afternoon walk culminating in my hysteria at having to cross this death trap. My Mum and Dad’s urgings to ‘not look down’ were useless. How could I be certain that my widdle footsies would not find more air than wood and disappear into the abyss if I didn’t look? I’m pretty sure I sobbed all the way across. On the way back, Dad offered to give me a piggy-back ride – oh, sure, great. Lift me ABOVE the stupid handrail and make it look even higher. Jesus wept!

Standing on that old bridge was my first experience of a fear of heights and the first time I felt that particular phobic horror. Forty years on, I still hate heights. These days, luckily, neither the old Scamander Bridge, or the new one for that matter, induce such fear. However, there’ s a reason I’ve never been to the top of Mt Wellington.

The old Scamander Bridge is likely to be pulled down. It’s going to cost too much to keep it safe. At more than 80 years old, it has probably done its duty. I took my sons across it a couple of weekends ago on their bikes. Now devoid of cars and trucks, the bridge makes an excellent pedestrian and cyclist crossing. The timber walkway of doom no longer exists. I can only assume it was dismantled when the entire structure essentially became a footpath. My sons aren’t scared of heights and think it’s hilarious that I am. We stopped for a photo, because it might be the last time they get to ride across it. Hopefully, the memory of this bridge, and why their Dad reckons it’s a pretty cool thing, will stay with them for another few decades, even if the bridge itself disappears.

I should add that my brother, an architect, based his major project for his degree on the old Scamander Bridge, designing a development that would see it transformed into a string of retail and accommodation premises, but keeping the structure as a community asset so that people could still walk it and fish from it. He got good marks. The bridge gave me the mother of all flight responses, but helped him graduate. Either way, we’ll never forget the bridge – it has made a bigger impact on our lives than you’d ever think an old bridge could.

About our guest blogger

At age 42, Rohan began playing gridiron and won a premiership as starting left tackle with his team, the Knights, as well as breaking a little finger, which fortunately doesn’t stop him from typing. He used to be a journo, but now works as a spin doctor for a government agency. He has two awesome boys and an amazing partner, who doesn’t seem to mind that he talks ALL the time, but is slightly less tolerant of his enjoyment of (really) heavy metal. Strangely, he collects antique silver spoons.


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