Sydney bushwalkers are blessed. Not only do we have the Royal National Park at the bottom of the garden and the Blue Mountains just up the hill, but we also have a respectable bush trek right at our front door. The Great North Walk (GNW to its friends) officially starts at Circular Quay.
It is beautiful and challenging enough to satisfy most of us. There are creeks to ford and rocky sandstone outcrops to scale. There’s the chance of glimpsing a rare bird or being bitten by a dangerous reptile, and if you want a serious adventure you can keep walking the track till you reach Newcastle, 250km away. A couple of days will be enough for me this time, maybe 40km worth.
On one of those perfect, bright, clear winter mornings I board the ferry Supply heading to Woolwich. I snap off the compulsory shots of the Opera House and the underside of the Harbour Bridge and just off Balmain I meet the first surprise of the day, four penguins bobbing in the water.
At Valencia St wharf I disembark and start walking. Okay, I’m quite not in the wild yet, I’m in Hunters Hill, but they could put a sign by the roadside, ‘Last latte before Hornsby’. At regular intervals I find tasteful little Great North Walk signposts, in heritage colours of course. The walking man symbol and arrows point me in the right direction, through leafy streets with Federation houses and water glimpses the owners pay big bucks for. I get to glimpse for free.
After an hour I’ve had enough of suburbia, but behind Boronia Park the route dives into the bushland along the Lane Cove River. Then things get very pleasant indeed. To my left are towering Sydney red gums and yellow wattles in full bloom; to my right I can see through the casuarinas to the mangroves lining the river.
Currawongs carol, wattlebirds bark and kookaburras clear their throats. Honeyeaters and silvereyes flit about feeding on the old man banksias. The sun sparkles on the water, a gentle breeze ripples the reflections of the smooth tree trunks on the far bank, and fluffy cumulous clouds float across the azure sky above. It’s enough to make a man wax lyrical.
The track undulates gently, occasionally testing my legs with a big heave up and over a clump of rocks. Sure, if I listen for it I can hear a distant hum of traffic on Pittwater Rd, but otherwise there’s little to dispel the impression that I’m in the wild.
I briefly emerge from the bush to cross Epping Rd, where four lanes of snarling traffic race down the hill and disappear up into Ryde. It’s no place of pedestrians, and indeed I’m the only one around when I duck under the bridge and onto the Fairyland Trail through Lane Cove National Park.
So far I haven’t met anyone else, so it’s jolt when a wiry old codger comes striding towards me. I step aside to let him pass. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he says, ‘there are 32 others behind me.’ And so there are. They’re a group of GNW regulars. ‘This is our playground,’ a wizened walker stops to tell me proudly, ‘No-one else ever uses it.’ That isn’t quite true. The Department of Lands estimates that 40,000 people a year walk at least a section of the track between Sydney and Newcastle. However, if you average this out over 365 days and 250km, clump them together in groups of say, three or four, it means you’ll only meet another group only once every hour or so.
I pass through Lane Cove National Park, surely one of Sydney’s treasures. Here local volunteers are doing battle with the noxious weeds. Wandering jew and privet are threatening to clog the riverbanks.
A Canadian couple is sitting by the track, taping their blisters. They started on the GNW a few days ago, heading south from the Brooklyn Bridge. Is it impressive enough for people who’ve hiked the mighty Rockies? I ask. ‘It’s just amazing!’ they gush. ‘This forest is so beautiful! We never expected so many wildflowers in winter. And what’s that bird we hear, sounding like a whip?’
‘Ah, that would be a whipbird,’ I reply knowledgeably.
A group of American scouts passes, with Australian scouts as their guides. An earnest young fellow pulls out a notebook. ‘Sir, I need to interview someone to earn a scout badge.’
‘Fire away,’ I say.
‘How old is the Great North Walk?’
‘Signposting the route was a bicentennial project in 1988.’
‘1988. Thanks. Can you tell me a little about the history of Pennant Hills?’
He writes this down. ‘Thanks for your time, Sir.’
‘No worries. Hope you get that interviewer’s badge.’
Hiking’s not just about scenery – it’s the people you meet.
I’ve walked over 20km, so that will do me for today. At Brown’s Waterhole I leave the GNW proper and cut along the Terrys Creek track, following signs towards Eastwood. Half an hour later I’m on the bus, heading home for dinner. Then I’ll sleep in five-star luxury…in my own bed.
Tomorrow, should I feel up to it, I can take the train back to Thornleigh and walk another 23km of the GNW. I know it gets wilder still up past Galston Gorge and along Berowra Creek, but I’ll still be able to catch a train home from Berowra station. What an asset to have on the doorstep!
Getting there: The sign-posted route begins at Valencia St Wharf, Woolwich, reached by ferry from Circular Quay ($5.20 one way).
The Sydney section of the route has numerous other points accessible by public transport, including Bus 290 along Epping Rd and trains to Eastwood, Pennant Hills, Thornleigh, Hornsby and Berowra stations.
Further information: NSW Department of Lands provides Great North Walk maps and information booklets for $11 plus postage and handling.
Phone 02 9236 7720 or order on-line: http://www.lands.nsw.gov.au/crown_land/walking_tracks/great_north_walk