Episode 1 – Lane Cove to Sydney
Thirty odd years after James Cook claimed Australia for England some ambitious chap determined there must be a land based alternative to the coastal shipping trade between Sydney and the Hunter River, and thus the Old Northern Road wound a circuitous course through Wisemans Ferry and Cessnock to Newcastle. It was one hundred years before the two cities were linked by the first Hawkesbury River railway bridge. But it was two hundred years, and part of Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations, that saw a reversal of the speed race and the inauguration of The Great North Walk.
While nothing like the pilgrimage trails of Europe, it certainly covers some ground, in fact around 260 kilometres from Sydney Harbour to Newcastle Harbour, through some of coastal New South Wales’ most inspiring landscapes. Needless to say, it’s not a weekend affair! But that’s the beauty of it. If you want to load up your supplies and hit the track for one epic trek, by all means – go right ahead! I however collected a car load of moderately able bodied 40 to 60 year olds and determined to do just a small section from Lane Cove into the city of Sydney – bite sized, achievable and accessible.
A smokey but mild November Saturday found us limbering up, with water and snacks on board, at Fullers Bridge. It’s easy enough to get to by bus from Chatswood or Macquarie if that’s your thing, but plenty of parking around the area too. While strictly suburban for the first few hundred metres, the locals were quick to encourage expedition and assure us that before too long we’d be in the bush.
The proximity of the bush to the centre of Sydney really is a blessing, but in some ways a curse. As I mentioned, the air was smokey, with significant bushfires burning on the metropolitan fringe, and some of the leafy suburbs of the North Shore are highly vulnerable. Today we were far enough away from danger to forge on, with our walk taking us along the broadening curves of the Lane Cove River as it sweeps down to Sydney Harbour.
The sound of the suburbs quickly faded away, with one distinct exception. The days entire trail basically follows the flight path for inbound aircraft approaching Sydney Airport from the North. It wasn’t long before we had it pegged at a roughly 90 second intervals between planes, and while I love planes, the noise must take some adjustment for the locals! Mid-cycle the whine of jet engines was replaced by the ruckus of Wattlebirds, the peeps of Thornbills, and the purposeful caroling of Currawongs. It had been very dry, so the chorus wasn’t attended by the high pitch buzz of mosquitoes, but I’m sure under the right circumstances there’d be plenty.
Evidently Fairyland used to be the place to go for social gatherings and family outings, initially by boat back in the day. Now all that’s left seems to be a few faded information boards and strangely out of place date palms. The unmistakable sounds of children’s laughter and adult’s chatter not ghostly echoes of bygone activity but raucous sound carried on the wind from playing fields across the river. The path is lined with beautiful Blueberry Ash, grass trees and miniature Flannel Flowers, but no amount of looking yielded a hoped for Waratah, despite it being prime habitat.
Keep an eye out for water dragons, goannas, and probably snakes – they’re certainly watching you! And just when you think you’re in the most remote and unspoiled section, be ready for the walls of glass and concrete looming out of the trees – there’s probably a few bored workers gazing out from there too, wishing they were out with you.
Emerging quickly from the bush you’re under then M2 near the entrance to the Lane Cove Tunnel, where the aircraft noise is replaced by the din of traffic and industry. At the Magdala Park sporting fields you might score a sausage sandwich on the right day, or at least take advantage of the public conveniences. Beyond this point is a verdant catalogue of every noxious weed and rampant garden runaway Australia is home to.
Before too long the mangroves creep in, the bush becomes more natural, and a sense of balance returns. There’s a really beautiful and peaceful section running parallel to Pittwater Road where you traverse the mangrove forest on raised boardwalks, under which things plop and wriggle and writhe. I expect it’s inspired a few children’s nightmares in it’s time, and is probably a summer holiday destination for the Jabberwocky. The boardwalks continue and link up with beautiful rock platforms, affording charming views over the river.
Eventually the bush transitions into the leafy back blocks of Hunters Hill. While the trail becomes a footpath, don’t despair and discount the rest of the walk. Although the signage is dubious at times, once you’ve crossed under the Burns Bay Road Bridge all roads eventually lead to Woolwich Point and the Valentia Street wharf. Admire heritage listed houses and their stone walls, beautiful gardens, any number of coffee shops, or a refreshing ale at the Woolwich Pier Hotel (if you feel appropriately attired in your hiking gear!) Finally take a load off your weary soles as you sit back and enjoy the ferry ride past the harbourside suburbs of Birchgrove and Balmain, under the iconic Harbour Bridge and into Circular Quay.
The actual walk was just over 14 kilometres, the ferry approximately 25 minutes, and the Uber XL back to Fullers Bridge just over $50. For the able bodied but moderately unfit the walk was quite manageable. There are a few places with rough hewn steps in the rocks, but only in short bursts. Ryde Council could attempt a little more maintenance on the central part of the trail, but it was never dangerous. Limited facilities in the first half of this section, but an abundance once you reach Hunters Hill. Visit http://www.thegreatnorthwalk.com/ for all the official details of the walk, end to end.
Another stage another day!