Chapter 3 – Traversing the worlds - Wonders of bridge building

Movement is ubiquitous. It is so obvious that it took me over 6 decades to discover.

That there are forces built into the universe (where we exist for a nanoscopic period) which makes movement mandatory – was a defining moment in my learning. Whenever I think I know everything, the realisation that I don’t even see the obvious, jolts me back from my default state of self-delusion.

I should have seen it a long time ago. When something is dead, it ceases movement.

I came across my first bridge after what seemed like hours bouncing around in the open back of the hired truck that took our family to visit the new farm in Waibau for the first time. Pa promised me a waterfall landmark for my next home. And there it was, a cascade of water falling down the sheer side of the roadside mountain.

Then suddenly we stopped. A new world was about to reveal itself.

Our truck driver refused to drive down the overgrown track that was meant to be the driveway to the farm. So, we have to get off and push our way through the tall grass to get to the spot where Pa could show us our new home.
When we got there, two things became apparent. There was no house and we had to cross a river.

*

“When was your first time?”
We should be able to remember our first time. But sometimes, the first time is strictly not the first time. That is my excuse for my first bridge.

Halfway through our drive that day, I was in awe as a spied a huge river down the side of the mountain we were descending. When we got to the base of the mountain, I saw the bridge we had to cross. Our driver engaged low gear to climb onto the single laned bridge and lumbered across the multiple spans. But I was mesmerised by the width and depth of the river flowing below us – and promptly forgot that we had crossed a bridge. So, that bridge did not count

“We have to get down the bank a bit first” Pa said to us. “Then we can cross over.”

That was when I saw my first real bridge. It was a few long planks thrown across the mini river that was to be my playground for the next 5 years. The fear of falling in and drowning as I balanced myself on the bouncing planks to get to the other side, suddenly made this bridge real. None of the other bridges that I had travelled over before this, counted.

For me, this was my first bridge.

*

“When was your second time?”
When we do things over and over again, the last time is foremost, and the second time remains hidden in the depths of our memories.

But I have fond memories of my second time.

Pa was not lying. There was a house on the other side – if you call a few sheets of roofing iron nailed onto a wobbly timber frame, a house. We certainly could not move in.

It took him months. He left in the morning and sometimes he spent days away. The farm that we were to abandon still made some cash flow and Ma kept it going while Pa went away to build us our new home.

If there is a word to describe Pa, it is ‘Self-taught”. It has taken me 60 years to appreciate this thing called ‘learning’. I have watched Olie as she morphed from a baby grand daughter into a magical 5-year-old grown-up. And I still can’t figure out how she learns things.

Pa built us a new farmhouse. And we MOVED in. I didn’t think that it was a big deal. Of course, Pa should know how to build a house. Like he should know how to plant vegetables that was the only source of our survival.

The fact that he had barely spent any time in school was no excuse.

Pa saw our first bridge float away when it rained enough to raise the water level above the planks. He got used to rebuilding bridges – but he knew that he had to move his imagination away from just re-building the things that did not work. So, when he declared that he was going to build a proper bridge, it seemed like a natural progression of his learning prowess.

My second bridge was an engineering marvel.

 

*

First, Pa had to decide the height of the bridge. As height increases, construction difficulty compounds. Decrease the height and it becomes unusable as the river level rises during a flood. Also, the superstructure becomes vulnerable as floodwaters carrying large trees, overtop it.

Pa designed for a one in 2-year storm event. It took me 4 years of an engineering degree to work this out. It took Pa just a minute of looking at the vegetation on the banks of the river to figure this out.

Then he had to work out the number of spans.

Almost 30 years later, when it was my turn to build bridges to service the highways in Sydney, it was a pale imitation of the bridge that Pa built. I had at my disposal, 5 years of university education, a multi-million-dollar mature construction company’s resources and engineering drawings. Pa barely started school before he dropped out to help feed his family, had zero construction experience or resources and could not read a construction drawing – even if he even knew what it looked like.

Yet, Pa build this well engineered bridge (what I now estimate to have a 2 tonne capacity) that was guaranteed to offer us the means to move thousands of tonnes of market produce across the river. The only time it failed to provide this was during the biennial floods – which would overtop the deck with about a metre of brown swift flowing water. During these occasions, floating trees and grass would snag against the bridge and the disturbed water would mark where it stood its ground.

We worried about our bridge every time it had to fight the raging flood waters. When the waters settled, our bridge would always re-appear with a tangle of debris against one side and perhaps a few planks missing.
Pa invested heavily in our bridge that he almost built single handily. It had steel I beams forming the 3 spans, piled reinforced concrete piers and heavy hardwood decking. It paid off big time.
To this day, the scale of what he did with our bridge is cemented in my mind as an engineering marvel.

 

*

In 2016, my appreciation of bridges took a quantum leap in revealing a new subset of human movement modalities.
Human beings are nomads. We spread across our planet like ivy across a barren wall. We moved along the land, then learnt how to build vessels to move across the seas. And as we progressed, we invented flight to move through the air. Through this progression, one subset of human travel evolved to incorporate all these forms of movement – but is largely unnoticed and underappreciated.

“We must go to Macau” Shirley said. I couldn’t find a decent counter argument against this. It would be my first trip to Beijing’s great wall and Shirley reckoned that Macau was a better prologue than Hong Kong. I was rather tired from the flight from Sydney and spent the bulk of the 2.5-hour ferry ride from Chek Lap Kok Airport to Macau in snooze mode.

But I was awake on the return ferry trip. Initially, I thought I was in a mental fog.

Far into the distance, I glimpsed what looked like a bridge in the middle of the ocean with an abrupt ending. As we motored away from it, I saw what looked like bridge piers in a neat line protruding out of the surface of the water.

“Surely NOT…” I said to myself.

Opening almost 3 years later, the ‘Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (HZMB)’ shortens the punter’s trip time from a 2.5hr ferry ride to a 41-minute drive. The pinnacle of bridge building, it allows a traveller integrated movement over land, sea and air.
This is what a bridge provides. A permanent integrated travel shortcut through space and time. Ultimately, we build them (at great cost) just to facilitate movement.

 

*

I spent a lot of time on our bridge. It doubled up as a washing platform during the period when our farm switched to growing ginger – and we had ‘washing days’. Pa (in another of his engineering feats) rigged up a multi hosed high pressure water pump system that we used to wash the soil off the ginger bulbs prior to packing into cases. We were crowded on the deck of the bridge with huge piles of ginger bulbs during these wash days and the raincoats that we wore did not keep the water from soaking into our clothes. I shivered through these sessions – even in the 30-degree heat.

Our bridge did its best work during the quiet times. I would just sit on the edge and dangle a fishing line down into the river. The water was usually so crystal clear that I could see the fish sniffing at the baited hook. They would sniff and nibble tiny pieces out of the bait – but would not bite.

It was during those times that I started building my bridges that would eventually allow me to traverse the worlds. It started a line of questioning that gradually cracked open the portals.

I was wondering if the fish could see me above the water. Can fish glimpse the foreign world beyond the surface of the water and make sense of it? Do fish even know about water? Do fish feel gravity like humans?

Not only do bridges facilitate movement, they elevate the view. I could start to see the two different worlds – and the common themes. Fish don’t often notice the water they swim in – just as we humans have no regard for the air that we live in.

 

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