Last week a friend and I walked the Coast Track in the Royal National Park from Otford to Bundeena. It’s only an hour or so south of Sydney on the train and an absolutely spectacular walk. I recommend doing it, recommending it, aspiring to it, training for it or even driving in part way and doing part of it. I just recommend getting out there, it’s seriously beautiful.
Track Notes / Fast Facts:
Getting there: This is one of the things that makes this walk so easy to organise – it’s a through hike with public transport at either end. Trains run from Central Station to Otford, and ferries depart regularly from Bundeena to Cronulla. You can also do a car shuffle or drive in to Garie and Wattamolla if you want to see just part of it.
Distance: ~27.5km (although different resources give different figures).
How long: You can do the whole walk in one day (I’ve heard of people doing it more than once in a day!), but most people choose to break it up and enjoy the beautiful landscape by camping one or two nights.
Camping: Yes, there’s a large grass clearing with drop toilets at North Era. There are also other spots scattered throughout where you could probably camp if you’re experienced with keeping your camping footprint small.
Water: No, none on the track. You need to bring your own and I would recommend allowing at least 3L a day.
Facilities: Aside from what you find at North Era, there are public toilets at Garie Beach and Wattamolla Beach. There is also paved road access to the beach at these points.
Route: There are many routes into, out of and through the Royal National Park. The one we followed was the standard Coast Track from Otford to Bundeena. This route has recently been marked with regular National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) posts and interpretive signs, so it’s quite easy to find your way.
The Trail: The track is extremely varied across the length of the trail. The NPWS is actively maintaining and developing the track, with sheets of boardwalk and bags of sand stashed along the route. Here are some of the things you will probably encounter as you walk:
- Hard-packed dirt track
- Rough wooden steps
- Metal or plastic boardwalk
- Beautifully crafted sandstone steps
- Sections of trail across uneven sandstone slabs
- Stepping stones across streams
And if there has been rain recently:
- Wet swamp
- Thick or deep mud
- Deep puddles
Sunny day in Otford. Oh my lordy. So much shimmering beauty and goodness. Away from the city, away from the cold mountains, to the sea we go! Looking south we can see down past Wollongong. North, immense sea cliffs jut out like prows into the ocean.
We started walking through the jungly foliage, bright green along the winding trail. For the first few ks the trail takes you through dry bush with pink-skinned angophora, waxy leaves and bold green gymea. Then down into the dank dusky rainforest-inspired vegetation where it’s cooler and wetter. It’s easy to forget you’re on the coast through this section, ambling through the forest.
Eventually the trail meets the coast, in its glittering deep blue splendour. We decide not to visit the Figure 8 pools, despite their unearthly diamond cut 8-shaped rockpoolness. Today they are concealed beneath a frothing, seething sea, so we continue along the trail through open coastal heathland, the winter warmth penetrating hats, shirts. Sunnies on. Ok.
A few ks from the trailhead we arrive at Burning Palms, one of several isolated coastal communities along this stretch of coast. Burning Palms is a remote beach with no road access and green slopes littered with little beach shacks. Some are sagging, with rippled roofs of rusted corrugated iron and concrete water tanks with slabs of plywood thrown haphazardly over the top. They mew and yaw like living things, rugged in the way so many coastal things are: salt encrusted, sand polished and rocking with the years. Other shacks look new, keeping to the same style but made with modern, robust materials like Colorbond.
These communities popped up during the Depression in the 1920s and 30s. Struggling families fled the city and set up home in the national park, which was private property at the time. They built their homes from local materials carried in from the roadhead some kilometres away. They fished and hunted to feed their families. Since then the land has been turned over the the Government and become part of the Royal National Park. The owners of the properties have been allowed to keep them though, and now they pay rates to NPWS. I heard that some of them are being converted into (very cool) AirBnBs.
Walking down into Burning Palms I was surprised to see the bay was hopping. The bang and whir of construction was doing battle with the surf. A group of shirtless guys were drilling something into the beach, some kind of large structure. Looking around unabashedly at the beautiful old shacks, I found myself accidentally locking eyes with someone kicking back on a folding chair, ankle crossed over knee, soaking in the sun on the balcony. This happened more than once. Suddenly aware of myself as a gawking tourist, it started to get awkward.
Last time I was here these places felt abandoned, like historical relics to be revered and appreciated. Now I feel a bit like I’m walking through someone’s living room.
We had planned to have lunch at Burning Palms, but instead we pushed on to the top of the next escarpment and stopped at the highest point, in a grassy clearing surrounded by tiny female wrens and a small-faced, portly wallaby.
Today’s walk is short (less than 10km) and once we finish lunch we’re not far from camp. The trail hugs the coast and the ocean froths and boils and thumps as the sun takes its journey into the afternoon.
At some point we come across a group of deer hanging out languidly in a shimmering, sunny oasis. Deer! I love deer. Despite myself really, because I know they are introduced and threaten local wildlife.
This area is known for its pestilent deer, so I’m always hoping I might stumble across them. There is a buck with his antlers, some kindly others, and young too, moving lightly through the grass, sipping on puddles. The wind is behind us and it’s obvious that they smell us, even though we’re well over 50m away. Their bodies harden and their heads cock, looking solemnly in our direction. Then they go back to the puddles.
The North Era campsite is bigger than I remember. It’s a large, lush clearing separated from the beach by a low sand dune. We walk around the dune, which is an indigenous midden exposed by years of erosion. Walking around here it’s easy to feel how welcoming and nourishing a place this would have been for the Dharawal to live. I try not to think for too long about what they’ve lost.
At the campsite there are three drop toilets up towards the shelter of the escarpment, surrounded by a moat of swampy mud. I head out there and find a bogan midden of plastic cutlery, water bottles, chicken packaging, tampons and chemical hand warmers.
I wonder what kind of campaign would work to stop people from leaving huge amounts of rubbish lying around in a National Park. Signage at the campsite would probably be a good start. Something positive and inclusive like ‘Summer 2016/7: Zero Trash. We Can Do It.’ They could do bumper stickers. And stubbie holders.
Seriously though, I was pretty flabbergasted to find so much rubbish strewn about on that beautiful green grass in a national park. And so close to the ocean, where it can do so much harm. It only took about 15 minutes to get rid of most of it, and I’d like to think that coming across a clean campground, others will keep it that way. It’s such a rare privilege to visit a wilderness area where we are invited to be free, away from cement, council services and cops. In return we are asked to take responsibility for ourselves. To me, respecting the natural environment by taking rubbish out is an important part of that. Rant over.
Tonight there are eight of us camped in the clearing. There’s Paddy and Scotty, two older Scottish men who arrived shortly after we did (names respectfully changed to cultural stereotypes to protect identities). I know they’re Scottish straight away, because Paddy is wearing a ‘Scotland’ sweater and wrist band, and has two Scottish flags on his backpack. Naturally I ask him where he’s from in England. I think it took him a moment to realize I was kidding. They set up their tent and speakers, blasting their (quite cultured) hiking soundtrack of classical music interspersed with epic film theme songs – I’m pretty sure Braveheart was in there – into the quiet evening. I wasn’t a huge fan, but they were so jovial I couldn’t bring myself to complain.
That night Paddy walked over and offered us little fingers of home made shortbread. It was buttery and sweet and delicious. The next morning he reappeared with a loaf of dense, dark fruitcake. My goodness. So glad I didn’t complain. Thank you Paddy.
Around dark Guillaume and Olivier arrived and pitched their tent a few metres from our bivies (names also changed). As they chattered excitedly we listened hard to their accents, trying to pick them. Something Scandinavian? Icelandic? But . . . French? At one point they went really quiet and then started coughing and laughing. The next morning we found out they were from Quebec.
We eat dinner and sleep under the flight path, sea eagles and flashing jets banking overhead in the moonlight. It’s an odd juxtaposition, and pleasant in its way.
The next morning we wake to the sea. What a lovely way to wake! But the sea is still – as James Reeves put it – a hungry dog. Growling at the sand. We wait for the sun to swing around on its northerly line and shine some light into the gully.
It’s time for tea and fruitcake.
The second day of walking is longer than the first. A fact we heartily ignored, having a very languid breakfast and a late start. By the time we were all packed up and saying out farewells to Paddy and Scotty (they were staying another night), it was close to 11am.
The trail is a series of deep puddles contained by eroded steps that lead up a slope, then down towards Garie Beach. Then along a narrow path through rockfall debris, and along the beach.
This is where we come across a big sign saying ‘WARNING! National Park CLOSED between 530pm and 830am for deer hunting’. Or similar. Hm.
The day continues like this, and works better in photographs:
North of Wattamolla we headed back into the forest, this time a beautiful, exposed heathland on sandy soils. Stunted gums, gymea and so many beautiful heath flowers:
The trail from here is mainly boardwalk, quality stonework and smooth sandstone slabs. Every now and then the trail crosses a river flowing into the sea. It’s hard to believe this wild beauty is only a few kilometres from Sydney.
There are also a couple more beaches, including Marley Beach, a spectacularly exposed, south-facing beach.
And then, eventually, Sydney:
I know NPWS doesn’t read this blog, but I just want to give a shout out to NPWS for the great job they’re doing maintaining and upgrading this trail. I have really mixed feelings about trails as developed as this one, which I won’t go into here, but in this case I feel it’s absolutely the right thing. Good onya.