Sydney's Great Coastal Walk - North

Urban Walking

The fair Nello and I are used to walking in wilder and more isolated landscapes, so the idea of a walk of several days through Australia’s largest city seemed a bit odd. A few years ago a group of enthusiasts had set up a 90 km route along Sydney’s extensive Pacific coastline and the thought of exploring this urban fringe, the intersection of the natural and the man-made, became increasingly fascinating. But how to do it – I suspect that, if you treated it as a normal multi-day end to end walk and carried a large pack down across urban landscapes, you would look like a bit of a wally. In the end, we decided to embrace the urban setting and base ourselves in one spot from where we could take advantage of public transport to do the walk essentially as series of day walks. It is the way you would do this walk if you lived in Sydney and by carrying a light day pack we would blend in more with the locals and be able to share the urban lifestyle, such as café lattes and lunch by the sea. Bushwalking and walking the urban fringes are very different activities and it was time to see what the latter was all about.

Thus, we found ourselves cruising down the Hume Highway on an intercity bus, headed for a Sydney youth hostel (a gross misnomer in our case) from where we would do the northern section of the Great Sydney Coast Walk.

Day 1 – The Peninsula (17 km - 430m ascent - 430m descent)

The calm surface of Pittwater

Our first latte of the walk

Old sandstone wall and steps

The sky was grey as we headed off on the 50 minute bus trip from our hostel at Collaroy to Palm Beach and the start of the Great Sydney Coast Walk. However, as we got closer, the patches of blue became larger and the sun shone on us as we finally set off on foot. We were at the northern limit of Sydney suburbia, near the tip of the north shore peninsula. Like a hammerhead on a long sandy handle, the rocky knob of Barrenjoey Head guards the mouth of Pittwater and the Hawkesbury River and it was our first destination on this walk.

We headed immediately down to the shoreline and turned north along the firm white sand of Barrenjoey Beach. To the west, across the calm waters of Pittwater lay the dark forested hills of Kuring-gai Chase framed by the brooding greyness of the retreating cloud band. Barely half a kilometre into our walk, we found ourselves sitting on the deck of a trendy shoreline café sipping a café latte. As mentioned, walking the urban fringes is different to bushwalking and we were slipping comfortably into the role.

Caffeine hit over, we continued northward to the end of the sand spit and began the climb up a set of impressive steps cut into the sandstone rock of Barrenjoey Head that led up through the heath to its summit. Here we were greeted by the light house and keeper’s house, beautifully crafted out of sandstone blocks. A narrow side track wandered away to the east through a dense heathland, speckled with the red of callistemon brushes, the white of flannel flowers and the blue of dianella berries. 

Looking up Barrenjoey Beach towards the head

The lighthouse at Barrenjoey

Track through the Palm Beach dunes

It led to a sandstone platform with superb views back over Palm Beach and the narrow spit of sand separating Pittwater from the Pacific. By the end of the century, this rocky knob will probably be Barrenjoey Island, if global warming continues unabated.

Panorama over Barrenjoey Spit - Pacific Ocean on the left and Pittwater on the right

The track doubled back to the lighthouse and we descended the same way we came up via the stepped path known as Smuggler’s Track. Half way down we tried a short cut through the heath, but instead of reaching the dunes backing Palm Beach, found ourselves at the top of a 4 metre sandstone wall.  Retreating back to the path, we reached the bottom of the steps before picking our way across the heath covered dunes to find a track that led to the soft golden sand of Palm Beach. Sandals off, we followed it down to the sound of the Pacific surf to reach its southern end and our lunch stop - fish and chips on a park bench while watching a small group of surfers attempting to ride the underpowered waves.

The splendid isolation of Palm Beach (on a week day)

Refuelled, we left the beach on a grassy strip of parkland to climb up to the heights of Palm Beach on an impressive set of winding stone steps cut into the sandstone. This brought us out into the northern beaches suburbia – impressive houses with impressive views. We followed the quiet leafy streets through to Little Head, with its panoramic views across Whale Beach to the dark silhouette of Careel Head, as another band of grey cloud pushed through from the south.

View from Whale Beach to Careel Head

Crossing Whale Beach and climbing back up into more suburban streetscape, we decided to take an alternative route. Instead of following the coast around, we turned west, dropping down the slope to reach Pittwater and the mangrove lined creeks of Careel Bay.

We followed Careel Creek out from the bay, and as we headed inland, the mangroves were slowly displaced by casuarinas sighing in the southerly breeze. It was good to have discovered a different landscape. However, somewhere the tree-line creek turned into a graffiti-lined concrete storm water channel, so we hurried on to reach Avalon Beach and the Pacific Ocean once again. We were back on the coastal track.

Lapwing chick scurrying across the sand

Mangrove reflections - Careel Bay

Careel Creek

From Avalon Beach, we had to cross Bilgola Head, the one unpleasant (though short) section, as we walked alongside busy Barrenjoey Road. Leaving this main thoroughfare, a side street led us to the Bilgola Head lookout with superb views southward over Newport and Bilgola Beaches to the coast line disappearing in the south beyond. 

Clifftop houses - Bilgola

Avalon Beach

Avalon Rock Pool

boardwalk through a hanging swamp

Overlooking Newport Beach

Bilgola South Head

From here, it was a descent past cliff-top houses (with their million dollar views and even bigger prices) to the beach, where the fair Nello was able to watch the start of a beach wedding (quel bonheur!). One last headland lay between us and Newport Beach, our destination for today and we were tiring of the forays into suburbia. However, fortune favours the persistent and this time the route followed a footpath through the cliff top heathland and across the hanging swamps of Bilgola South Head to the golden sand of Newport Beach below. With the sun back out, it was a good end to a good day’s walk and, on reaching the southern end of this beach, we ducked inland to catch the L90 bus back to Collaroy for a well-earned beer (we can recommend Cantina from El Salvador).

Always swim between the flags

Classic Surf Life Savers' club house

Day 2 - (Mid) Northern Beaches (20 km - 270m ascent - 270m descent)

This morning it was only a 20 minute bus journey up the Pittwater and  Barrenjoey Roads – we were retuning to Newport Beach to continue our version of the Sydney Great Coast Walk. The breeze was gentler and the sky was split in two – clear blue out to sea and clusters of puffy white clouds on the landward side – altogether a perfect walking day.

From Newport Beach, we quickly found ourselves climbing up into suburban streetscapes as we crossed Bungan Head and the fair Nello was soon enjoying herself checking out the diversity of houses and gardens. There was no uniformity of style, with houses ranging from small and tired old brick boxes, interestingly renovated weatherboard cottages, to modernistic glass and steel architectural statements, and the odd hard-to-describe folly. However, there seemed to be a distinct correlation with altitude and the higher we got on the headland the more opulent the houses became, culminating in the cliff-top dress circle overlooking the isolated gold sand of Bungan Beach to the south.

Suburban streetscape - Newport

Panorama of northern headlands - from Bungan Head

A glimpse over the marina at Pittwater

We followed the houses around to Mona Vale Headland, remarking on the large numbers of for sale signs – was it just the norm, or were generational change and the global financial climate the drivers of this turnover.

Our arrival at Mona Vale Headland stopped all these wonderings, as we took in the 270° views – northward along our track from Palm Beach and southward over the long golden strands of Warriewood, Mona Vale and Basin Beaches.

View north from Mona Vale Headland

Here we at last left the streets behind and followed a footpath down through the scrubby casuarina heath to reach the shoreline at Basin Bay, a small stretch of sand and one of the few areas where sea weed had been washed up on the beach. At its southern end we spotted a small café – it was time for a cappuccino, joining the Sydneysiders out for a late Saturday morning breakfast in the warm sun.

Panorama from Mona Vale Head over Bongin Bongin and and Mona Vale Beaches

Catching a wave


Leaving the café, we headed on south, strolling down the firm golden sand of pristine Mona Vale Beach, the chill foaming waters of the Pacific washing over our feet as the waves rolled in and out – probably the best part of the day as we headed towards the long rocky profile of Turimetta Head.

Paddling down the golden sand of Mona Vale Beach

As we edged around the rocks beneath the small cliff separating Mona Vale from Warriewood Beach, a pair of parapentists circled above enjoying the thermals that it generated. Ahead a group of surfers were trying to make the best of the sloppy sets rolling in to Warriewood – Sydney was enjoying itself on a beautiful Saturday morning. We stopped beneath a rock overhang at the southern end of the beach to soak up the atmosphere.

View from Turimetta Head over Warriewood and Mona Vale Beaches

Leaving the beach, we climbed up through a taller heathland where large banksias dominated, stopping to admire the views at various clearings and enjoying the sound of the cicadas. A tiny bit of streetwalking brought us back into the coastal heath on Narrabeen Head and, a little later, its superb view over the mouth of the Narrabeen Lakes.  On this part of the coast, the headlands had been spared the development so obvious further north – in parts you could almost forget that almost 5 million people live nearby.

Small wave at Warriewood

The isolation of Turimetta Beach

Panorama of the entry to Narrabeen Lakes

We dropped quickly down to the shore and civilisation, bought ourselves some fish and chips and ate them in the shade of a casuarina as we watched the fishermen, frolicking children and pelicans enjoying the shallows of the lake entrance. Here we made our second major variation to the route, heading inland along the shores of the lake instead of down the long sandy stretch of North Narrabeen Beach.

A shady spot for lunch

There was plenty of time for beach walking and the bicycle path that wound around the calm shoreline of Narrabeen Lakes beneath shady casuarinas, the water dotted with canoeists and rowers, was a pleasant diversion.

Quiet backwaters of Narrabeen Lakes

Fisherman and friend - Narrabeen Lakes
As the lake turned inland, we turned back to the coast, to follow Narrabeen and Collaroy Beaches southward – the much softer sand making for a bit of a trudge in comparison to our walk down Mona Vale Beach just a few kilometres to the north. At its southern end, we passed one of the many ocean rock pools that are so characteristic of Sydney, crossed Fisherman’s Beach and climbed gently up to the heights of Long Reef Point.

The soft golden sand of Narrabeen Beach

Surf at Collaroy

To the north the views back up the coast were magnificent, inland the golfers were enjoying their weekend on the greens and fairways of Long Reef Golf Club, above a pair of hang-gliders were swooping and wheeling in the breeze and not a cloud was left in the sky.

Hang glider at Long Reef Point

Tree-lined fringe of Dee Why Lagoon

Beauty even lies in a rusted sewage breather pipe

We headed on, down the southern flank of the golf course to wade across the narrow entrance to Dee Why Lagoon and on down to the southern end of Dee Why Beach, our terminus for the day. It was a busy scene of swimmers, sunbakers, body boarders and surfers – we were getting the impression that the further south you went, the more crowded the beaches became.

Welcome ....

... to the ...

Dee Why Beach and the crowds start appearing

...northern ....

... beaches

Leaving the clear blue waters of the Pacific behind, we followed a cycle path alongside the dense scrubby forest that backed Dee Why Lagoon to reach the noise of Pittwater Road and our bus stop – this time just a quick trip northwards and we were back in our hostel, feeling content with our second day of exploring the beaches and headlands of Sydney and watching the locals enjoying themselves in their own (and magnificent) backyard.

Day 3 – Southwards to North Head (18 km - 310m ascent - 260m descent)

Staying in a large Backpackers hostel on a Saturday is an interesting experience – the noise peaks around 2am when the revellers return, but next morning most are all still sleeping it off. Thus, after a peaceful breakfast on our own, we set off for the last day of our walk. The grey cloud creeping in from the south suggested that the forecast of “isolated showers later in the day” might be spot on, so we quickly pushed on, leaving a Dee Why Beach already filling with early morning bathers to climb up on to a long line of cliffs heading south.

The cliffs of North Curl Curl (above and below)

It was good way to start the day, meandering along the heath-lined cliff edge on a rocky footpath, with only the sound of the surf below, the leafy whisper of the wind and occasional rich honey scent of flowering hakeas. The track brought us out to Dee Why Head, overlooking the long golden strand of Curl Curl Beach.

View northwards from Ghania Lookout - North Curl Curl

Looking over the heath of Dee Why Head to Curl Curl Beach

We dropped down to cross the bar of Curl Curl Lagoon and climb up into the dunes for a bit of variation from beach walking. Here, at the back of the dunes, we found ourselves sharing the area with dozens of pooches from mastiff size to miniature poodle, towing their humans behind. We were crossing the local dog-walking reserve.

Freshwater Rock Pool

On the dunes at Curl Curl Lagoon

The track rejoined the beach near the surf life saving club and then followed a footpath around the rock platform to a low headland overlooking Freshwater Beach, backed by the imposing apartment block crowned cliffs of Queenscliff.

Rock fishing -
the most dangerous sport in Sydney

Apartment buildings squatting on Queenscliff

We quickly crossed this small beach to climb the sandstone cliffs via a zig-zagging set of steps and ramps, where a short section of street-walking brought us down to a point overlooking the famous Manly Beach, backed by its long boulevard of Norfolk Island pines.

Path beneath Queenscliff -
the beauty of Sydney sandstone
We had walked right into the middle of a Nippers Surf Carnival – the northern end of the beach filled with kids in life-savers caps, their attendant parents and officials in the mandatory broad-rimmed straw hats (even on an increasingly grey and windy day as we were having). We stopped to watch a couple of beach sprints and surf-ski races before wandering on down the beach and joining the Sunday morning latte set for a coffee in one of the many trendy cafés that line the esplanade.

After the squall on Manly Esplanade

Nippers' Surf Carnival at Manly

Heading out in the board race

The beach at Cabbage Tree Bay

The start of North Head

The sky was looking more and more menacing, so we decided to push on. Bad decision – we should have stayed in the café as very shortly after a southerly squall blew through, forcing us to put on our rain gear and seek shelter beneath the thick branches  of a Norfolk island pine. This set the pattern for the rest of the day – a bit more progression up the esplanade, then sheltering beneath the canvas of an Environment Day Fair as a second squall blew through; a pleasant wander up the walkway around the rocks of the Fairy Bower to Cabbage Tree Beach, the last, smallest and perhaps prettiest of the 22 beaches we had crossed on our walk, where we again were driven into shelter by squalls and sunshowers.

Sunshower on Cabbage Tree Beach

We were now about to leave the city behind and explore the biggest area of natural vegetation remaining on this coastal walk – the North Head. This large peninsula guarding the entrance to Sydney Harbour was, until recently a military reserve, a fortunate thing as it saved it from the developers clutches until society was sensible enough to appreciate its magnificent conservation value.

View back over the northern beaches from Shelly Beach Reserve

Passing through the hole in the wall

Grass trees in the heath

We were now about to leave the city behind and explore the biggest area of natural vegetation remaining on this coastal walk – the North Head. This large peninsula guarding the entrance to Sydney Harbour was, until recently a military reserve, a fortunate thing as it saved it from the developers clutches until society was sensible enough to appreciate its magnificent conservation value.

Perched lake on the sandstone plateau of North Head

Boardwalk across the wetlands

It was a great way to complete this walk – climbing up a narrow footpath beneath the dripping vegetation to reach the top of this sandstone plateau, with its different heathland communities, some open and windswept, others dense and scrubby, hiding perched swamps and scatterings of wildflowers. The track also led us past some of the old military fortifications and gun emplacements, one providing yet another shelter from the passing squalls.

Sheltering in an old gun emplacement

North Head - the end of the road

A sign best heeded

The cliffs of North Head
The wind was getting stronger and the squalls more frequent, so we quickly pushed on to our primary destination, North Head itself. Here shear walls of multi-coloured sandstone plunge down into the ocean and, on reaching the viewing platforms at the cliff edge, we were almost blown over by the wind - the system had developed into that notorious feature of Sydney weather – a full blown southerly buster. Still, what better place to be in the face of a fierce cold wind than on an isolated exposed headland – it just seems right.

"Southerly buster" view from North Head over Sydney and the entrance to the Harbour

Although technically we considered our walk over, we still had a bit to go - a quick stroll back up to the gateway of the old Quarantine Station. For almost 160 years, from its opening in 1828, this had been the place where people on ships carrying yellow fever, small pox, typhoid and other exotic diseases were sent to either die, recover or be declared disease-free. Now it is an upmarket resort, the lovely old weatherboard buildings with their broad verandahs and views out across the harbour having been renovated without losing the heritage feel and ambience – e.g. the bathrooms, though private, are in their original block off the verandah.

It just so happened that it was the fair Nello and my 37th wedding anniversary and this beautiful spot, so close yet so far from the bustle of Sydney seemed a great place to stay and celebrate it. We occupied the quarters of the First Class quarantainees, but my original vision of sitting out on the verandah sipping a gin and tonic as we watched the sunset over Sydney Harbour was blown away with the southerly buster. nonetheless, our room was a cosy spot from which to watch the horizontal rain and wind-blustered treetops, as we reminisced over a very pleasant and surprisingly varied walk.

Not a ghost - just a ring-tailed possum

Stormy night at the Old Quarantine Station

They say that the spirits of those who never left
still roam the Old Quarantine Station

The Quarantine Station is also reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of those who died here. In the early hours of the morning, I woke to see a pale white shape slipping silently out of our bedroom.  I smiled – it was just the fair Nello heading off to the loo in her resort-issue white terry-towelling bath robe.