Unlike the fabled New Yorker who has never been to the Statue of Liberty I consciously try to enjoy the sights available to me in my own “backyard”. For this reason I’ve scaled Australia’s highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko, several times over the years. This remarkable feat has consisted of undertaking a 3 hour drive before hoisting myself onto a chairlift and then determinedly sauntering the last few kilometres towards the roof of Australia.
Ok compared to Everest, Kosciuszko is a walk in the park. Literally so because it does reside in a national park. Nevertheless, I still have bragging rights to having conquered the highest summit in my home country.
Anyway it was with this type of philosophy in mind that my wife, Agnes, and I were keen to do the 94 km Sydney Great Coastal Walk. (I am not going to say it was on our “bucket list” because I’m so tired of that overused term, aren’t you?)
After several years of dreaming, we decided it was time to make the dream a reality and scheduled the hike for late April 2013. To help us in our planning we consulted a few websites, including:
Which brings me to my first point for anyone interested in tackling the Walk. Do your research. Our research of the Sydney Great Coastal Walk website and others led to three modifications to our plan.
- We found that the Coastal Walk website was a bit ahead of itself. The most southerly section (Kurnell to Cronulla) was still under construction. Traversing this part of the Walk would require significant urban detours, including a long diversion around Sydney Airport. As a result we decided to lop off this part of the trek. The less charitable reader may accuse us of squibbing because the hardy hiker would no doubt look on this as a challenge to be overcome. Yeah alright, guilty. Call me Mr Squib.
- We also decided to begin our hike from the south instead of the website’s north to south direction. By starting our trek in the south we could leave our car at Sydney Airport’s long term car park and then recuperate at trail’s end at luxurious Palm Beach before embarking on relaxing ferry/bus/train rides back to the car.
- Intriguingly, the website expects walkers to swim between South and North Heads. How else to explain the website’s suggestion that Day 4 terminate at North Head before picking up Day 5 at South Head? Sydney Harbour is full of sharks so “No, thanks”. Instead we modified the route by adding an extra day’s journey around the Harbour from South to North Head. This would then make up for the Kurnell/Cronulla deletion. That then also cancels out the Mr Squib monicker.
At the start of our trek we would have to make our way from Sydney Airport to where the Great Coastal Walk trail picks up at La Perouse. Judging by the map it didn’t seem like a long hike so we were determined to ankle it.
Aided by our GPS we set off with much enthusiasm from Sydney Airport on a blowing, raining April morning. Our enthusiasm remained undiminished through the gale conditions for a full kilometre when we came face to face with a chain link security fence. The GPS remained unperturbed by this development, encouraging us to jump the fence and dodge the planes taxiing along the runway. After blankly staring at the fence for a while we declined further assistance from the GPS and instead developed our own alternate plan.
This alternate plan consisted of crossing the M5 Freeway in a real-life version of the old arcade game Frogger. Intensely we studied the traffic flow looking for a convenient break through which we could maniacally tear across the road. This leads to my next point: Know when to swallow your pride. After 10 minutes without a break in traffic we presumed the alternate plan was likely to result in us becoming smears on the bitumen. This caused us to swallow our pride, abandon the alternate plan and return to the airport from where we would catch a cab to the La Perouse trail.
A most inauspicious start.
In retrospect, the cab ride was a wise decision and not just because it saved us from being bounced like a pinball among the cars careering down the M5. Our research was a bit flawed. The trail was significantly further from the airport than the casual walk we had estimated. A $30 cab ride further. The benefit of the long ride was it did allow us to warm up and dry out a bit. The weather was also starting to look up as we exited the cab as the sun began showing signs of trying to break through the rain clouds. Perhaps the fates had just been testing us to ensure we could handle whatever the Coastal Walk threw our way.
As conditions were temporarily dry enough to bring out the camera we took a quick pic and started off on our long distance hike.
For the next few hours the elements continued to toy with us. They held out the promise of sunshine, only to dash it with lashing rain before again holding out the prospect of sunshine, only to dash, etc. But we adapted and ignored this meteorological tease.
We also quickly discovered that the Great Coastal Walk was not one well-marked route straight up to Palm Beach. It variously consisted of a well-kept dirt track which could suddenly dissolve into an overgrown path:
then occasionally divert into the suburbs:
pass by cemeteries:
and cut through golf courses where the fear of being beaned by an errant golf ball was ever present.
The views of the coast were never less than spectacular though. In fact, the golf courses and cemeteries in particular made me wonder if the best Sydney views are reserved for golfers and corpses.
As the day wore on the clouds wore off and by 4.00 pm and some 20 km later we were already at Bondi checking out accommodation for the night. A cool but clear dusk promised good weather for our early start the next day.
The promise held. The morning was beautiful.
As we started out we felt the effects of the prior day’s walk on our calves but nevertheless had a spring in our step as we set out on Day 2. We had no inkling that by the end of the day things would be threatening to fall apart.
We set off from Bondi on a route that was both familiar and not familiar. Our participation in past City2Surf Marathons has taken us to within a city block of Sydney’s coastal bluffs but housing blocked our view of the coast and kept us ignorant of the spectacular coastline and trail lying just east of the City2Surf route.
So our morning walk was a discovery of a part of Sydney that we naively thought we already knew.
This glorious orgy of bluffs, boulders and heights reached its climax at South Head.
For all its rocky beauty, however, South Head is also a place of sober reflection. The HELPLINE signs dotting its cliffs give a not too subtle hint of its reputation as a suicide drop for Sydney’s desperates.
We lunched at nearby Watson’s Bay then turned westward, headed for the Harbour Bridge. The numerous secretive inner harbour beaches we passed raised a frustrated realisation in me that although I have been a regular Sydney visitor for close to 30 years I haven’t swum at more than a handful of its more than 100 beaches. Mind you, the few that I have swum at are world class ones like Bondi and Manly. But still…
As the afternoon of Day 2 wore on our strength and enthusiasm flagged and seeds of doubt began to creep into our minds. We individually began to doubt that we had the stamina for another 4 or 5 days of long distance walking. This was something we kept from the other so neither would think they were married to such a ready quitter.
We reached our Double Bay hotel around 5.30 pm with our feet scraping the ground. There was just enough energy to slide off our packs, pry off our shoes and slip under the covers. We had covered about 15 km and fell asleep wondering how we were going to face the morning and the resumption of our journey. I was still wondering that when I woke up at 6.00 a.m. stiff and aching before falling back asleep for another couple of hours.
I re-awoke at 8.00 a.m. still stiff and aching but much less so. The extra 2 hours of sleep also brought about an improvement in my temperament. I began to think that maybe after a good breakfast and some tolerable coffee I could continue on, albeit at a gentler pace.
After we both confessed our long night of dark doubt we speculated that our mindset may be somewhat akin to long distance runners who have to break through psychological and pain barriers if they are to complete their race. We had come up against our own psychological and pain barriers and, while we didn’t burst through them, we did amble through them on the back of a good night’s sleep.
So our third day was a relaxed, almost joyful walk through Sydney’s Central Business District as we savoured the best of what was on offer: glorious views of the Opera House and our first ever walks along the Cahill Expressway and across the Harbour Bridge. Not only had we broke through our personal barriers we had developed our own relaxed mindset which was to accompany us for the remainder of the Walk.
That third day saw us plough through some 20 km and reach Manly before nightfall. Our longest day of walking. It wasn’t so much our choice to make it that far as the on-route lack of accommodation forcing us to make it to Manly. We didn’t mind though because even when we were nearing our hotel at 6.00 pm we were still a lot more enthusiastic and energised than we had been at any other time during the previous 2 days.
In fact, it would be disingenuous of me to claim there were any more dramas on our trek. We had proven ourselves over the past few days and were now confident we had the stamina to complete the Coastal Walk. Sydney did its part too by preserving for the remainder of our odyssey its envious spectrum of cobalt skies, royal blue water, verdant foliage and blindingly golden sunshine.
As we left Manly behind on Day 4 and continued northward Sydney’s hustle and pace became increasingly muted. It was instead replaced by a calm gentleness that gave the Coastal Walk through North Sydney the characteristics of a leisurely beach stroll.
We kept up a moderate pace but it nevertheless felt languid. There was a comfortableness and appropriateness to the long stretches of silence as Agnes and I were reluctant to disturb the mood of tranquility.
We each became enveloped in our own thoughts. This was a prime opportunity for thinking and over-analysing as I am prone to do. I began to mull over the various areas we had covered over the past 3½ days and concluded that the Great Coastal Walk hiker encounters 3 different Sydneys.
The southern part of the trek is through Residential Sydney. While this area may knock up against a beautiful coastline it is still essentially a residential suburban area built to accommodate people who work in the city with the usual atmosphere that attends those types of places.
Then there is the Sydney Central Business District. Like all major city business districts it leans toward the frenetic with people darting in and out of buildings, horns blaring and pedestrians impatiently waiting at traffic lights.
The city’s north is wealthy Beachhouse Sydney. Beachhouse Sydney has a very relaxed atmosphere comprised of airy residences architecturally designed to capture ocean views and the sunrise. It is a whole world away from the other 2 Sydneys.
Beachhouse Sydney is my favourite.
With distracting thoughts like these running through my head we easily covered the 14 km from Manly to Narabeen by early afternoon on Day 4. The final 15 km push for Palm Beach would be held over for Day 5.
The Day 5 trek was completed by mid-afternoon and we settled into our Bed & Breakfast accommodation above Palm Beach’s commercial district. We were content on Day 5 to sit on our balcony, peering through the trees to the ocean and contemplating our achievement.
But the pilgrimage was not yet officially complete; not as long as the summit of Barrenjoey Lighthouse remained unconquered, but that could wait until Day 6.
Day 6’s moment of triumph!
We spent a couple of days at Palm Beach relaxing, exploring and celebrity spotting. Agnes swears that was Meghan Gale that passed by us one evening.
Too soon, it was time to pack up and take the bus/ferry/train back to southern Sydney and our car. We left Palm Beach with a great sense of satisfaction but with no desire to repeat our feat. Why not do it again? Because it has been done. We have shown that we can conquer Sydney’s Great Coastal Walk.
That was then. A year has now passed since our trek and nostalgia has wormed its way into our heads and won’t let us be. Ergo, we are going to do it all over again and revisit Sydney’s Great Coastal Walk later this year. Not because of the challenge. If you have already done it, there is no challenge. No, we want to do it again because of the sheer pleasure of witnessing Sydney’s coastal beauty.