Stage 1 - Royal NP, Illawarra Escarpment, Wollongong and the Kiama Coast


It’s been 17 years since the fair Nello and I walked from Bundeena to Mallacoota and kicked off the idea of a Great South Coast Walk. The idea has certainly taken root and, recently, I started wondering how you could create slices of the walk that would be attractive to groups of people, e.g. trips run by bushwalking clubs or even tour-operators.

This led to the Great South Coast Walk Stage 1 – a multi-activity adventure involving 85 km of walking, 50 km of cycling and 5 km of kayaking over six days from Bundeena to Gerroa. I have just returned from leading a group of Canberra Bushwalking Club people on this trip to test its feasibility. The logistics were quite challenging, but ultimately worked well. We used public transport to reach the start, had a support vehicle to reduce the time spent carrying full-packs, and stayed in tents, cabins or AirBnBs on different nights.

The easy part was for our group of 10 (including the support driver) to drive down from Canberra to our starting point at Killalea State Park, just south of Shellharbour, where we camped for the first night. Next morning, with just our daypacks, it was an early start to travel by maxi-taxi to the railway station and then catch two trains to Cronulla in time for the 9.30am ferry to Bundeena.

Campsite at Killalea (photo: J. Gatenby)

Boarding the train at Shellharbour Junction .....

..... and finally the ferry to Bundeena (photos: J. Gatenby)

It was a novel way to start a 6-day trip, but we arrived in time to enjoy a coffee at one of the Bundeena’s cafés before setting out. This trip would involve serious effort, but was designed to maximise enjoyment and minimise hard work.

Start of The Great South Coast Walk Stage 1 (photo: J. Gatenby)

Days 1 and 2 - Royal Coast Track (20.5 km -560m ascent -550m descent: 11 km - 405m ascent - 365m descent)

The Royal Coast Track is the introduction to the Great South Coast Walk and, as soon as you wander across the heath to first see the sculpted cliffs and deep blue of the Pacific Ocean, you realise what a wonderful landscape lies ahead. I still got the same frisson, 17 years on, as when I first saw this spectacle – homage to the form and colour of sandstone and the immensity of the ocean.

Heading across the heathlands

Sculpted sandstone

However, as our group wandered along the cliffs and past the isolated beaches, I noticed that something had changed in that time – much of the track was now board-walked with the modern recycled plastic grids. Yes, it made walking easier and faster, but at day’s end, for the first time in my life I had a blister on the sole of my foot. This I put down to continually pounding the same spot on the flat, even surface boardwalk – I confess to craving a little of the old uneven track.

The magnificent sandstone cliffs of Royal NP

A wild shoreline

The beauty of sandstone

Contemplating the big blue

Eagle Rock

Upside down falls at Curracorong

Sony creek in the Curra Moors (photo: J. Gatenby)

Still, this did not detract from the beauty of the cliffs and the wildness of the big seas. Some of our group had a quick dip in the cool freshwater rock pool above Wattamolla, and we were fortunate to watch the upward-flowing waterfall at Curracurrong, as the strong south-easterly airstream blew the falling water back up the cliff-face.

Rock pool above Wattamolla (photo: J. Gatenby)

Even better, after having climbed up and over the dense heathland of Garie Head, was the sight of the fair Nello, walking across the sands of Garie Beach to meet us. Now for some logistics – while we were all walking down the coast, she had driven from Killalea to Garie Beach with our full back-packs and gear for the next 3 days. Here at Garie, we swapped day-packs for back packs and then headed the short-distance on to North Era campground to pitch our tents for a rather fly-flapping night as the wind turned to a fierce southerly.

View south from Garie Head

Old fishing shacks

Pack exchange at Garie Beach

Heading towards North Era

Campsite at North Era (photo: J. Gatenby)

Apart from a few spots, the rain held off, and we packed up dry tents to head south past the 1930s Great Depression shack settlements of South Era and Burning Palms. The solar panels and smart renovations on many indicated those days of subsistence living had long gone. The landscape was also changing quickly – gone the cliffs and heathland as the land rose to form the northern end of the Illawarra Escarpment. We skirted its edge, across grassy lomandra flats and beneath the dark canopy of littoral rain forest, before starting the climb up to the top of the escarpment.

The beach at Burning Palms (photo: J. Gatenby)

Path beneath the palms (photo: J. Gatenby)

Where the escarpment meets the ocean

In the littoral rainforest (photo: D. Leyder)

The vegetation change here is impressive, shifting from rain forest to tall open eucalypt forest on top of the escarpment. There was less board-walk at this southern end, but it is coming – we passed the trackmakers at work.

Looking down into Hell Hole (photo: J. Gatenby)

Eucalypt forest on the escarpment

Further along, we reached Bald Hill, famed for early aviation experiments with box-kites and modern aviation experiments with hang-gliders and paragliders. The winds were too strong today, but the coffee shop was open and the coffee was good. Even better, Pennie was waiting to do a reverse transfer of packs – no point carrying heavy backpacks down the steep and narrow unmarked track that led down from Bald Hill to Stanwell Park (GPS needed to find it).

Descent to Stanwell Park (photo: J. Gatenby)

After a short detour to check out the entrance to the long-abandoned Otway Railway Tunnel, we quickly headed to our overnight accommodation, an AirBnB in the higher part of Stanwell Park. There is no campground here, nor hostel type accommodation, and I was lucky to find an AirBnB that could sleep 10 people – a bonus its big deck and lovely views out to the ocean. Camping is enjoyable, but more enjoyable was sleeping on a comfortable mattress in a roomy house, as the heavy overnight rain drummed on the roof above.

Abandoned Otford rail tunnel

Our AirBnB at Stanwell Park (photo: J. Gatenby)

Enjoying dinner at the AirBnB ...... (photo: J. Gatenby)

..... watched by the locals (photo: J. Gatenby)


Day 3 - Illawarra Escarpment (22 km - 520m ascent - 560m descent)

There are two ways to head south from Stanwell Park – either on the paved Grand Pacific Walkway along the coast, or on the Illawarra Escarpment Track, high above it. The Great South Coast Walk takes the latter route, as it gives a chance to explore the coastal hinterland, albeit at 22 km creating the longest day of the trip.

On the Wodi Wodi Track (photo: D. Leyder)

Railway viaduct

Wet sclerophyll forest (photo: J. Gatenby)

Our group first headed up the narrow Wodi Wodi Track, which takes you, steeply at times, through a deep creek system covered in dense littoral rain forest. Again, the change in vegetation as you climb back out of the valley and up to the escarpment was fascinating. The only downside was the leaches, out in force after the overnight rain – don’t sit down and keep walking!

Rainforest Creek on the Wodi Wodi (photo: J. Gatenby)

View north over Stanwell Park (photo: J. Gatenby)

A curious tree at the rock shelter (photo: J. Gatenby)

View south over Coalcliff

On the climb out, there is a superb rock overhang, which would make a good place for morning tea, before emerging on to the top of escarpment, where the humidity of the rainforest was replaced by the fresh breezes of open woodland. The Escarpment Track passes through a variety of vegetation types; tall, open smooth-trunked eucalypts, patches of ferns and giant gymea lilies and scrubby brush as you undulate and meander along the path, crossing several bush streams ……. and, at several places, there are magnificent views up and down the coastline.

The escarpment walls

Dense escarpment forest

On the Forest Track

Big trees and gymea lilies

Crossing a ferny glade (photo: D. Leyder)

Crossing an ochre-tinted creek

At the end of the track is Sublime Point Lookout not only with superb views over Wollongong, but a coffee shop and café. We stopped for a late lunch and caught up with Graham and Jenny from Illawarra NPA. Graham has done a lot of work promoting the Great South Coast Walk and the Illawarra NPA was also involved in recent years in creating this track along the escarpment edge – far better than having to walk part way along the edge of the Princes Highway, as we did 17 years ago. One day, they plan for it to go from Royal National Park to Morton National Park – that would be an epic walk. It was good to catch up with them.

Fungi of the escarpment
(photos: D. Leyder)

Descending the Sublime Point ladders

The other change is that the condemned set of rusty railing ladders that led us rapidly and wobbily down the 300m escarpment edge 17 years ago have now been replaced by sturdy steel stepped ladders and long sets of steps. It was a quick way to get from the top of the escarpment to the coast (and some of the fitter locals even run up it!).

Rounding a rocky point at Thirroul (photo: D. Leyder)

On the Grand Pacific Walkway (photo: J. Gatenby)

Here we entered the northern suburbs of Wollongong and picked up the Grand Pacific Walkway, though in parts the beach and rock shelves made for more interesting walking as we headed to Bulli Beach Tourist Park, where our support vehicle and gear were waiting.

We had avoided the rain, which arrived during the night, making the cabins here a very pleasant place to stay.

Time for a drink at Bulli Beach (photo: J. Gatenby)

Day 4 - Cycling the Grand Pacific Walkway (50 km)

The Grand Pacific Walkway is a dual purpose path that runs the length of Wollongong. For much of its route it parallels the coastline with the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean on view. Towards the south, however, it turns inland to skirt the industrial complex and big shipping terminal of Port Kembla – not the prettiest part of the world, but interesting, as coal and steel were the foundations upon which the ‘Gong was built.

It would take three days to walk to southern edge of the city, a classic urban-fringe walk, and 17 years ago we did that. It only takes 4 hours to ride it (or 7 if you include coffee and lunch stops). This time we opted for the latter.

The cyclists ready to go

Thus, a bit after 8 am, Jeff from Wollongong Mountain Bike Hire arrived to deliver 9 bikes and helmets for our ride (in excellent condition, as well). A bit later, we set off on the cycleway, just next to our Bulli Beach cabin, and headed south. In the meanwhile, Pennie headed off with the support vehicle in the direction of the Killalea campground. The cycle path made for easy riding – good for enjoying the ocean views and watching the passing parade of locals out for their morning constitutionals.

On the Grand Pacific Cycleway

Alittle off-track adventure (photo: D. Leyder)

Light Houses at Wollongong Harbour

Nonetheless, these were mountain bikes, so we took the opportunity to make a detour along Puckey’s Lagoon and cross it at its sandy mouth. The coffee shop on the harbour was also an excellent spot for morning tea break.

While we had set out in sunshine, the sky was quickly darkening and halfway past Port Kembla, an almighty thunderstorm hit us – some time spent sheltering under an underpass before a quick dash to the Five Islands pub and a counter lunch, as the storm slowly passed.

Track through Puckey's Lagoon (photo: D. Leyder)

The obligatory cyclists' coffee stop (photo: D. Leyder)

North Wollongong coastline (photo: J. Gatenby)

South Wollongong coastline

Shelter from the thunderstorm (photo: J. Gatenby)

Further south, we detoured from the Grand Pacific Walkway to skirt the edge of Lake Illawarra (a nice change of setting) before crossing the bridge over the lake’s entrance – welcome to Sh’laba (Shellharbour) - for another section of riding between the sea and the suburbs.

After possibly the worst coffee on the trip, we left Shellharbour to cross the new subdivision of Shell Cove and enter the Killalea State Reserve – one last chance to go off-path and put the mountain bikes to the use for which they were made. It was good to be out of the urban areas and back at Killalea again.

Coffee stop at Shellharbour (photo: J. Gatenby)

Passing industrial Port Kembla (photo: J. Gatenby)

Killalea wetlands

Heading towards the mouth of Lake Illawarra (photo: J. Gatenby)

One last off-track climb at Killalea (photo: D. Leyder)

At 4pm, Jeff the bike man, arrived to pick up the mountain bikes – mission accomplished. The ‘Gong had been crossed in style.

Days 5 and 6 - Kiama Coast Walk (5 km kayak : 13 km -165m ascent -170m descent: 18 km - 280m ascent - 310m descent)

The Kiama Coast Walk did not exist 17 years ago, and when we walked this section, Pennie and I used a combination of beaches, footpaths and local tracks, as well as having to cross private farmland and electric fences – not something one should lead a group to do. Now the Kiama Coast Walk essentially follows that route and is one of the touristic jewels in region’s crown.

To get to the start of the walk, we needed to cross the Minnamurra River – first, we needed a bit of a car shuffle to get the vehicles to the south side of the river, then our group wandered down a grassy track beneath the dense forest from Killalea to the tree-lined river’s edge. Here, as pre-arranged, Paul from Canoe and Kayak Adventures had paddled across to meet us, and after a few canoe shuttles we were all on the other side.

Canoe shuttle to cross the Minamurra River

Paddling up Rocklow Creek

Entering the mangrove forest

The crossing was complete, but the adventure about to start – we had timed our trip for a 9am high tide, which enabled us to paddle our mixed flotilla of canoes and kayaks deep into the beautiful mangrove forest of Rocklow Creek, a tributary of the Minnamurra. It was a highlight of the trip, after which we paddled down towards the sandbar at the river mouth and across to James Oates Reserve, where Paul was waiting to pick up the canoes and serve us coffee and hot-cross buns.

Deep in the mangroves

(Kayak photos: D. Leyder)

Open water near Minnamurra sandbar

Here, we put our boots back on and followed the walk route along this very scenic coastline, past Rangoon Island and the river mouth, out past The Boneyard to Bombo Head and its basalt columns, the long stretch of Bombo Beach and a detour to walk around the rock platform beneath Pheasant Point (high morning tide at Minnamurra meant low tide at the platform – timing, as they say, is everything).

The mouth of the Minnamurra River (photo: J. Gatenby)

View near Cathedral Rocks (photo: J. Gatenby)

Bombo Beach (photo: J. Gatenby)

Heading towards Jones Beach (photo: J. Gatenby)

The basalt columns of Bombo Head (photo: J. Gatenby)

Rock platform at Pheasant Point (photo: J. Gatenby)

This brought us to the coffee stop near Kiama Harbour, while two beaches further south, the fair Nello had already transported all our gear to the comfortable 10-bed AirBnB, our base for the next two nights. A quick car-shuffle reunited vehicles at the house.

The next and last day of our walk, saw us continuing down the Kiama Coast Walk, past the Little Blowhole (which, unlike its big brother, was performing), around a couple of coves and out onto the rolling green hills and rugged cliffs to the south. The landscape here is almost European, open and almost meditative to walk, but totally transformed from the original dense littoral rain forest. Only a tiny pocket on the cliff-edge remains and it is difficult to picture what it was like before the cedar-cutters and dairy farmer arrived.

Relaxing at our AirBnB (photo: J. Gatenby)

The next and last day of our walk, saw us continuing down the Kiama Coast Walk, past the Little Blowhole (which, unlike its big brother, was performing), around a couple of coves and out onto the rolling green hills and rugged cliffs to the south. The landscape here is almost European, open and almost meditative to walk, but totally transformed from the original dense littoral rain forest. Only a tiny pocket on the cliff-edge remains and it is difficult to picture what it was like before the cedar-cutters and dairy farmer arrived.

The Little Blowhole

Sandstone and basalt layering (photo: J. Gatenby)

View towards Gerringong (photo: J. Gatenby)

Heading out of Kiama

The grassy hills south of Kiama

On the Kiama Coast Walk (photo: J. Gatenby)

Once across Werri Lagoon at Gerringong, the Walk officially ends (however, plans have been announced to extend it to Gerroa). Our destination was Gerroa, and to avoid private land and/or impassable surge channels, we had to detour inland along the road and then back across the golf course (the new route will follow the coastal cliffs). However, we were able to then drop down on to the aptly named Walkers Beach (sorry Mr Walker) and then continue around the wide rock platform to Gerroa and, with the long expanse of Seven Mile Beach out to the south, on to the Crooked River pedestrian bridge and the end of our 6-day adventure. Here will start Stage 2!

Climbing a grassy knoll above Gerringong (photo: J. Gatenby)

The Crooked River at Gerroa (photo: J. Gatenby)

Rock platform north of Gerroa (photo: J. Gatenby)

End of the 6-day adventure

We had time to enjoy a coffee at the Blue Swimmer before the maxi-taxi arrived to take us back to our AirBnB in Kiama and a celebratory end-of-walk dinner – it was the last piece in the logistics jigsaw. I breathed a big sigh of relief that all had gone well. Thanks to Marg and Alan, Jan and Philip, Daniele, Lois, Jacqui, and Ian for being such congenial companions and to our support vehicle driver, the fair Nello - it would have been a much harder walk without her.

Finally, adding the beauty and diversity of the landscapes to the successful logistics, and the trip would make a good addition to any group or tour leader's portfolio - In fact, our little band all wanted to know when Stage 2 was coming up.