The account of my epic trek around Sydney’s greatest tourist attraction has now appeared in print.
Yes, I know yesterday’s news is today’s fish and chip wrapper, but for those who were unfortunate enough to miss the relevant edition of the Sunday Sun-Herald, here’s what I wrote…
I like the quotes on the Writers’ Walk plaques at Sydney’s Circular Quay.
‘One of finest, most beautiful, vast and safe bays the sun had ever shone upon,’ enthused Joseph Conrad.
David Williamson compared Melbourne, where ‘all views are equally depressing’, to Sydney’s dream real estate. ‘No-one in Sydney ever wastes time debating the meaning of life – it’s getting yourself a water frontage. People devote a lifetime to the quest.’
I’ve saved myself a lifetime of hard graft by never aspiring to own my own foreshore, and during the thirty years I’ve lived south-west of Sydney’s major tourist attraction, I’ve often gone months without even seeing it.
As I read the rave reviews by famous scribes, and watched visitors under the Harbour Bridge photographing each other on their iPhones and sending images of the Opera House whirling through cyberspace to Beijing, Barcelona and Boston, it occurred to me that I was wasting an opportunity. Everybody loves Sydney Harbour.
A little googling told me there are 317 kilometres of water frontage on the estuary between the heads. I decided to walk as many of them as I could. It would be a cheap holiday, just a few train and ferry fares, and I’d be able to sleep in my own five-star bed for free.
So I hopped on a ferry to Watson’s Bay, peered over the Gap, fortified myself with a double shot cappuccino by the water, then started up the road to South Head.
It was virgin territory for me. I’d never noticed the Hornby Light, Australia’s second oldest lighthouse, or heard the story of James Johnson, the sole survivor of the Dunbar, wrecked south of the Gap in 1857, who appropriately became its first lighthouse keeper.
‘Australian history…does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies,’ according to Mark Twain’s plaque. I was going to learn a lot of history on this walk.
On the path down to Camp Cove, Captain Arthur Phillip’s first landing place in Australia, I made up a few rules for myself. I’d walk as close to the water’s edge as possible, avoid trespassing on military installations protected by razor wire, and I’d always beware of the dog.
South of Watson’s Bay I hit my first snag. Some of David Williamson’s friends who’d succeeded in their lifetime quests had erected fences to stop the hoi polloi trampling on their water frontages.
So I trudged up into blazing hot suburban streets, then past historic Vaucluse House and Nielsen Park to emerge on New South Head Rd. By the time I reached Point Piper my insteps were aching in my new boots and my water bottle was empty. I invented two new rules – I’d listen to my body and watch out for dehydration.
By Sydney Harbour, coffee, cool drinks, ice-cream and beer are never far away. Neither are buses. I flagged one down and went home. My GPS computer told me I’d covered 12.4 kilometres, a creditable start, and I was ready for more.
Each day’s walking had its own special character. My Day Two route took me through the streets of Point Piper and Darling Point, round Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the Botanic Gardens to the Opera House and Circular Quay. Next was Barangaroo’s construction zone and the entertainment district – the Wharf Theatre, Darling Harbour and Sydney Fish Market. Then I explored the village charm of Glebe and Balmain and passed under the Iron Cove Bridge en route to Birkenhead Point.
I was making reasonable time, but I made one more sub-rule. Cycling was allowed along dull sections on ordinary suburban streets. The following day I returned to tackle the task on my bike. The smart apartment developments at Canada Bay and Cabarita rolled past and I paused at Rhodes to admire the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway.
I bet it’s nothing like the real Kokoda Track, particularly in wartime, but it’s a worthy enterprise, with lantana and palms recreating New Guinea jungle, an impressive monument honouring the sacrifice of the diggers and fuzzy wuzzy angels, and a detailed audio description of the campaign at stations along the path.
Putney and Gladesville slipped behind me, and in Woolwich I started walking again. Hunters Hill must have more attractive heritage houses than any other Sydney suburb, with a marked walking trail through the area and discs in the pavement giving information about places worth peering at through the iron gates.
I crossed the Lane Cove River on the Fig Tree Bridge, and on the lower North Shore patches of bushland started appearing. ‘The strange obdurate eucalyptus trees, of a type that occurred nowhere else in all creation,’ Thomas Keneally called them. I’m guessing he meant angophora, Sydney Red Gums, which are strictly speaking myrtles (thanks,Wikipedia). Roses by any name, they looked terrific, twisting their bright orange branches to frame my shots of the water beyond.
Whipbirds and honey-eaters called in gullies cut by trickling creeks, and water dragons scuttled off the track with their awkward diagonally alternating leg movements.
History and prehistory was literally etched into the stones. Aboriginal rock carvings of kangaroos and sunfish were clearly visible (and well interpreted on information panels) at Grotto Point. Hidden below the path by Taronga Zoo the word Curlew was engraved in a rock. This was the site of the camp where a group of artists including Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Charles Condor made a temporary working studio in the 1890s.
At the former quarantine station on North Head, 1500 early graffiti works had been preserved on the cliffs, a testament to the thousands of unfortunate migrants whose new life in Australia began, and all too often ended, with a period of isolation due to outbreaks of smallpox, bubonic plague or cholera.
The walk logistics were simple. To get to the start and finish of each stage, I used the public transport system, usually a train to the CBD, then bus or ferry to the walking route. The frequency of the service was sometimes limited outside peak hours, but NSW Transport generally turned up when they said they would.
I became very fond of Sydney ferries. There’s an old-fashioned charm about their yellow and green paint jobs and orange lifebuoys, their names like Borrowdale, Lady Herron and Collaroy, and the friendly staff who flipped thick ropes over bollards and clanked out a gangway at a tiny jetty in Birchgrove or Greenwich, where I was sometimes the only passenger boarding.
Could there be any better way to start a day than at Circular Quay, surrounded by excited tourists gushing about the Harbour Bridge or Pinchgut, with the reassuring throb of the engines below us and the sun above?
Friends I told about my walking project always had the same question, ‘What’s been the best bit?’
I always had the same answer, ‘It depends what you’re looking for.’
For natural bushland, the short section from Taronga Zoo round Bradley’s Head to Clifton Gardens is very popular, and even better is the 10 kilometre stretch west of Manly, passing through lovely heath and forest, with picnic spots at Clontarf and stunning views out to the Pacific Ocean from Dobroyd Head.
For those who want a short, sharp cycle or jog by the water, go to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair or the Bay Run past Callan Park in Rozelle.
And of course, if you prefer to walk where there’s enough going on to take your mind off the physical exertion, the stretch round Darling Harbour and the Sydney Fish Market is hard to beat.
Picking favourites was a futile exercise. It was the sheer variety of bush, beach, history, museums and architecture old and new that made this walk enjoyable. It was discovering hidden coves and little bush reserves, doubtless well known to locals, though completely new to me. Inevitably there were tedious sections I just wanted to get over and done with, though they were relatively few and short.
I crossed the Spit Bridge at Mosman, which saved me walking many of those 317 kilometres around Middle Harbour. Northbridge, Castlecrag, Killarney Heights and Seaforth could wait for another expedition.
Two days later I arrived at North Head, from which vantage point I could join the tourists looking back to the Hornby Light, with the city skyline behind it. The Pacific Ocean sloshed against the rocks of North Bondi, and the Manly ferry chugged across the water below, crossing wakes with a three-masted tall ship under full sail.
‘A month would not be long enough to imbibe such beauty’, wrote Miles Franklin.
Actually, a month had been just about right, allowing me to take days off when the weather was threatening, my knees were playing up or the cricket on TV was interesting.
As I asked an Italian tourist to take my photo I couldn’t resist bragging, ‘You see that point over there? That’s South Head. I’ve just walked from there into the city, then all around that bit you can’t see, and finally…’
A young boy overheard our conversation. ‘Aren’t you tired?’
THE TOUR IN NUMBERS:
Total distance travelled – 184 kilometres.
Days required – 13 (including two cycling days).
Average walking speed – 4.6 kilometres per hour.
Kilograms shed – none that I noticed.
Getting there: Sydney ferries run regularly from Circular Quay to Watsons’ Bay, Rose Bay, Balmain, Woolwich, Greenwich, Cremorne, Mosman, Taronga, and Manly. See sydneyferries.info for timetables. Sydney light rail runs to the Sydney Fish Market. Trains run to Rhodes and Milson’s Point stations. For bus routes and timetables, see sydneybuses.info
Further information: Maps of Sydney Harbour walks, together with a detailed notes by Graham Spindler, are on walkingcoastalsydney.com.au
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney