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Philippe Petit's Sydney Harbour Bridge highwire walk halted when police started 'cutting the ropes'

Jun 23, 2023Jun 23, 2023

Fifty years ago, Sydney was treated to one of its most strange and inspiring sights when a highwire artist walked across a cable above the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Philippe Petit is most famous for his 1973 walk between the Twin Towers in New York — the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.

But before the Frenchman attempted his US feat, he stunned Sydney motorists and passers-by when he stepped out onto a cable strung between the northern pylons of the Harbour Bridge.

That May morning, Petit completed the daring crossing five times, bringing traffic to a standstill for more than an hour.

Speaking to Drive presenter Richard Glover on ABC Radio Sydney, Petit said police put an end to his performance.

"I don't think they came to rescue me. I was not in danger," he said.

"They came to stop the performance because I was creating a giant … traffic jam."

But Petit said actions from police officers almost cost him his life.

"They start cutting the ropes that guideline the cable," he said.

"I saw that from the corner of my eyes, and that's what saved me. I instantly stopped performing.

"I ran back, almost killed myself on the masonry of the pylon, and that was the end of the morning.

"That was more than stupid. They could have taken my life."

Petit doesn't hold a grudge, though.

"I am not pointing at a specific human being," he said.

"Maybe they had orders to immediately stop the performance."

He was arrested and fined $200.

The French performer repaid them by stealing a police officer's wristwatch.

"But I gave it back," he laughed.

Petit honed his pickpocket tricks on the streets of Paris, where he worked as a silent comic.

"At the beginning, I was just juggling and passing my hat," he said.

"And then I built a character playing with people.

"Juggling was just an excuse to have them surround me."

It was Petit's theatrical skills that earned him an invitation to Australia in the first place, where he performed at the inaugural Nimbin Aquarius Festival.

And 50 years on, it is again the festival (rather than his bridge walk anniversary) that has drawn him back to the country.

Petit has not done street juggling for 14 years, but he has reprised his act for the hippie gathering.

"I love being a performer a few feet away from my front row," he said.

"I had not done it in so many years. It was a wonderful gift to do it again in Nimbin."

Petit has enjoyed the experience so much that he's planning to hit the streets of Sydney while he's visiting — even if it means another run-in with the city's police.

"I cannot tell you where and when [because] it's illegal, you know, you have to have a permit, but I'm not interested in that," he said.

At 73, Petit is still delighting audiences with highwire performances, most recently at the National Building Museum in the US in March.

But it seems unlikely he will attempt anything like that in Australia this time.

Petit dreamed of doing an inclined highwire walk from the Sydney Opera House to the southern pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and visited the city several times to plan it.

But he has acknowledged he has run out of time for such grand plans.

"It would take millions and millions of dollars," Petit told the Washington Post in March.

"I think it's a dream that will remain a dream."

During this visit, Petit is content to reminisce.

"I love to relive the past, and I love to see people carrying performances as inspiring moments in their life."

Petit said his 1973 highwire performance in Sydney was a hastily put-together scheme on a shoestring budget, helped by new Australian friends, including filmmaker James Ricketson.

"Sydney was a special story because it was improvised," he said.

"We did it in three or four days.

"And, you know, friends came from nowhere. It was a bit of a miracle."

After a delay caused by a last-minute search for more rope, Petit and his crew broke into one of the bridge pylons and left their equipment.

They returned the next day, and Petit ventured out on his now-famous walk.

Petit says he sees nothing scary about being on the highwire.

"If I thought I could fall, I will never set foot on a cable and that's the secret of my focus," he said.

"I create a certainty in my body and in my mind.

"I create a net that is much stronger than all the webbing of nylon."

The performer says he is happiest when he is on the wire.

"Up there, for me, is half man, half bird. It is the real life — the beauty of life," Petit said.