Sydney's Great Coastal Walk - South

Getting There

It has taken a few years, but we are finally back to finish the Sydney Coastal Walk. I guess the main reason for the long delay was timing, as we wanted to combine the walk with Bondi's Sculptures by the Sea Festival and each October/November we were either away or had other engagements. Now we are here, which is great, as I don't like unfinished business.

This time we drove down to Sydney, instead of taking the bus, and based ourselves in a small holiday apartment in Randwick. This spot seemed to be a convergence point for local buses servicing the city and eastern beach suburbs, ideal for getting to and from access points of the Coastal Walk. From our experience doing the northern beaches section of this walk, operating out of a single base and using public transport is the easiest way for an "out-of-towner" to do it.

Now, time to eat our dinner as we watch the flights of fruit bats heading out from Centennial Park for their nightly forays to eat the ripening fruit in the gardens of the eastern suburbs. Tomorrow we head off to finish the "unfinished business" and the weather forecast is good.

Day 1 - South Head to Coogee Beach (18 km - 360m ascent - 360m descent)

We joined the city commuters on a crowded bus from Randwick to Circular Quay, but then left them for a pleasant cruise across the harbour on a fast ferry from Circular Quay to Watson's Bay. It was the nicest way to get to the start of our walk.

On disembarking, we followed the protected shore of Watson's Bay around, between the line of "tinnies" inverted on the beach and the line of old harbourside houses with their views out across the moored boats to the distant skyline of the Sydney CBD. Then we cut quickly across the streets to reach the north end of Camp Cove, a magical place with golden sand and calm clear green water. This small stretch of harbourside coastline was a great way to start the walk.

Start of the walk at dinghy-lined Watson's Bay

The tranquility of Camp Cove

From Camp Cove, we did a small circuit of South Head. Having reached North Head at the end of our northern section of this Coastal Walk, South Head seemed an obligatory destination from which to continue. It was a walk steeped in history, passing the 1858 lighthouse keeper's cottage and lighthouse and numerous gun emplacements, set up to keep the Americans, French and Russians at bay at various times during the colonial era. The harbour itself was magnificent, with views across to the cliffs of Middle Head and North Head and ferries plying their way across to Manly.

Lighthouse keeper's cottage (1858) at South Head

Ferry passing Middle Head

19th century gun emplacement on South Head

The lighthouse at South Head

The clear calm harbour water at Lady Bay

Looping back to retrace our footsteps, we passed Lady Bay and its uninhibited bathers to regain the streets of Watson's Bay. Several roads had been blocked off due to construction works on South Head, and it took a bit of manoeuvring to find a path through to The Gap.

The notorious Gap

View from The Gap back over the harbour to Sydney

We were now at the cliffs of the ocean side of South Head - magnificent eroded and sheer-walled sandstone. Unfortunately, they are a magnet for people who choose to end their days by dashing themselves to pieces on the rocks below rather than quietly overdosing in bed. It is probably not a joking matter - the local council certainly doesn't think so, with a series of cameras installed on poles to monitor anyone climbing the cliff-side fencing and signs up offering counseling for those toying with the idea of jumping. It was a grim reminder that not everyone who comes here finds the environment and ambience uplifting.

Cliffs of The Gap

Don't jump - there is hope ....

.... or don't jump - big brother is watching

Looking past the cliffs to North Head

However, on this beautiful clear-sky Spring day we were uplifted, as we followed the cliff-side path along from one spectacular viewpoint to another, or looked westward out across the harbour to the distant Sydney skyline. At first we walked by lovely cliff-top heathland to reach the Signal Station, after which the heath was replaced by a more manicured and open grassy verge. The views were still magnificent and everchanging as we headed south past the classic form of the old Macquarie Lighthouse, the oldest light station in Australia.

Sandstone cliffs and heath


The cliff line extending south past the Macquarie Lighthouse
(first built in 1818)

The old Macquarie Lighthouse

A little while later, we found ourselves wandering down a residential street, away from the privatised cliff-line, to wind our way around Diamond Bay, where a picturesque inlet has cut its way narrowly into the sandstone walls. We were now on the Cliff Walk, following a wooden boardwalk around the lovely white, tan and grey sandstone, and climbing back up past modern cliff-top mansions before another slight inland diversion.

Lush gully at Diamond Bay

Clifftop boardwalk at Diamond Bay

The base of Diamond Bay's cliffs

Rock fisherman

This one took us past the Dudley Page Reserve, well worth the slight detour for some of the best views back over Rose Bay to a harbour framed by the skyline of skyscrapers, opera house and coathanger bridge.

The superb panorama of Sydney and its harbour from Dudley Page Reserve

The cliffs of North Bondi

We were soon back at the cliffs, crossing the dry baking grass of a large sportsfield. A sequence of footpaths, streets and parks then brought us out at that most well-known of Australian beaches, Bondi - its long stretch of golden sand speckled with the sun-bronzing bodies of backpackers from the world over.

View from Hugh Bamford Reserve towards Bondi

For us, it was lunch time and we sought shade, not sun - not an easy feat. We ended up finding a nice spot to eat and watch the surfers trying to catch a ride in the problematic surf. Still, it was such a lovely day, who really needs to catch a ride when you can sit out on your board in the clear blue water and just enjoy the grand blue of the Pacific Ocean.

The golden sand of Bondi Beach

Looking back over Bondi Beach from the south

Pushing on, we wandered around the golden strip of Bondi to reach its southern end and one of the main attractions of the day - we were at the start of the Sculptures by the Sea Exhibition and, on rock, sand and cliff-top over the next couple of kilometres, were scattered over 100 sculptures in stone, metal, plastic and wood, an eclectic collection of works to amuse and amaze. Suddenly, we were amongst a lot of other people, all intent on seeing these works of art and the skill became to capture one in a photo without a person in the frame.

Sculptures by the Sea Festival

Click here to see more
of the sculptures by the sea

Sculpture displays on Tamarama Beach

The people's choice - 2013

The setting for this display, on a rocky stretch of coastline from South Bondi to Tamarama was superb, framing sculptures against the intricacies of sandstone cliffs, the deep blue of the ocean beyond or the golden sand of the beaches. On reaching the tiny but beautiful sandy cove of Tamarama, we stopped for a coffee to take it all in. Visitors can vote for the best sculpture, the People's Choice, and after a bit of reflection we decided - there were a lot of lovely works and the beautiful Horizons Sphere was a close second, but the winner was ....... The Sandstone Cliffs of Sydney, superbly carved in tones of white, tan, pink and grey to create an abstraction of the forces of wind and wave - brilliant work by the artist!

Time was now getting on after our slow and delight-filled wander through the Sculpture by the Sea and the afternoon breeze was picking up. We headed off, quickly crossing to Bronte Beach with its calm green natural rock pool juxtaposed against the white foaming surf, then up and over the next headland on a road carved into the sandstone.

Looking south over Bronte Beach

The rock pool at Bronte

From here we overlooked the Waverley Cemetery, where residents enjoy one of the best coastal views in Sydney and the nearest thing in Australia to PARIS, with a its long list of famous tenants. A new-looking boardwalk took us southward between sea and sepulchre, before descending to the long concrete lined inlet of Clovelly Beach. This is one of the few places on the ocean side of Sydney where you can swim in calm water.

Boardwalk around Waverley Cemetery

The crosses of Waverley

We crossed the sand at the head of the inlet and pushed on. Around the next bend lay perhaps the steepest climb of the day, up and over the rocky apartment-lined cliffs on the northern side of Gordon's Bay. From there was a quick descent to to round the end of this deep green and somewhat sea-weedy inlet, followed by a gradual climb up and over the next headland. This brought us to Coogee Beach, backed by green parklands and dark-leafed fig trees.

Memorial to the victims of the Bali bombing

Clovelly Bay

Looking down on Coogee from the park

Coogee was a very pleasant spot, moreso because we had decided it was where we would end for the day. The local buses stop just opposite the beach and one was waiting when we arrived. A short time later we were back on the balcony of our apartment in Randwick, cold beer in hand and feeling very satisfied - it had been a day of superb cliff scenery and the sculptures on display had been the icing on a very nice cake.

Day 2 - Coogee Beach to La Perouse (16 km - 310m ascent - 310m descent)

Going against the flow of city bound commuters, the bus got us quickly from Randwick to Coogee Beach and the start of our day's walk. The pale golden sand of the beach itself was virtually empty, with just a few people out for a morning swim as we wandered around the promenade behind it.

However, many more were out for their morning constitutional on the broad footpath that wound up and around the low cliffs of South Coogee - joggers wired to their i-pods, people walking their dogs and people walking themselves - and why not on this beautiful clear blue morning. We were now on the Eastern Coastal Walkway and followed a boardwalk around the narrow strip of cliff-side heath to cross a marshy wetland where water drained of the sandstone tops. It was a favourite spot for waterbirds.

Early morning on Coogee Beach


The low sandstone cliffs of South Coogee


The beauty of sandstone


Boardwalk though the coastal heath


Sandstone overhang at Lurline Bay

The houses encroach very closely to the cliff edge in South Coogee and at one stage we were forced to climb up inland on suburban streets to by-pass a section where the sea-edge was totally privatised. It was interesting to see how the old original houses are gradually being replaced by close packed cuboid mansions - the character of coastal suburbia is changing.

However, our musings on the architecture of wealth quickly ended as we descended a set of steps to reach the lovely rock platform of Lurline Bay. It was great to be able to walk on this platform and the eroded slabs and boulders that comprised it, particularly the beautifully patterned rock walls beneath the sandstone overhang near the exit back up to street level.

Rock platform at Lurline Bay

Reaching the low headland at Mistral Point, we looked back one last time to take in the series of rocky headlands disappearing to the north, before looking out at the broad vista of heath-topped Malabar Head across Maroubra Bay. We had reached the last of Sydney's famous surf beaches and ahead lay the golden strip of Maroubra stretching to the south. Perhaps it was the fact that there was no development ahead on Malabar or that the beach is so open compared to others, but once we had rounded this headland, the ambience suddenly changed to one much less urban. Whatever it was, it was a good place to stop for our morning coffee while watching the old surfies out catching their morning waves (the young ones were all at work or school).

View over Maroubra Beach to Malabar Head

Pushing on, we crossed the parkland at the back of the beach to commence our by-passing of the seriously fenced-off Malabar Headland. Our map showed a "proposed" track through the heath of the headland, but it remained just that, obliging us to scurry across the suburban streets of Maroubra Heights, before a nice new cycle path took us down to Long Bay. Aptly named, this long stretch of water was backed on its northern flank by the heathlands of Malabar Head and on its south by a line of character-laden original houses (no new cubic mansions here).

Long Bay

The track along Long Bay led us up to the windswept fairways of Randwick Golf Club, where we briefly joined a foursome on the cliffside holes. Having watched them tee off, we decided to let them play through rather than risking a stray ball in the back of our heads. "Fore" is not part of the walkers vocabulary. Still, it was pleasant to skirt the edge of the course and watch the golfers out and enjoying their day - with the views out over the blue Pacific, who wouldn't.

Randwick Golf Club near Tupla Head

Looking south from Tupla Head


Lunch spot at Little Bay

At the end of the golf course lay the beautiful calm clear waters of Little Bay - we dropped down to cross the small beach on its south side and find ourselves a nice shady spot beneath the low and ornately eroded sandstone cliffs. It was lunch time and this was the perfect spot to enjoy it.

The clear waters of Little Bay

Rock overhang at Little Bay

After a long and lazy lunch listening to the rhythmic sound of the waves, we headed on, crossing a grey sandstone rock platform to climb back up to .... another golf course. It was a quiet stroll across the fairways this time - I suspect all the members had reached the 19th hole. This time we left the fairways to follow a bush track through thick natural heath. It, in turn led us to an open field with scattered and crumbling 19th Century headstones and gravesites. We had reached the old Coastal Hospital Cemetery, now an historic site, and wandered up through it to join the road leading in to Botany Bay National Park.

An inlet in the cliff-line

Green on The Coast Golf Club

Old track through the coastal heath

The historic Coastal Hospital Cemetery

As we entered the park, I noticed that the dunes about us were all covered with a dense infestation of bitou bush, a notorious coastal weed of South African origin. The shrubs were all silver-tipped with the damage caused by the tip moth biocontrol agents - great for the moths but not apparently having much impact on plant density. Still it was pleasant to be well and truly away from suburbia, as we wandered between dunes and the deep blue with a cooling off-shore wind.

Walking through a solid stand of bitou bush

The road to Cape Banks

Wreck of the "Minmi" (1937) at Cape Banks

Ahead lay the bone-white low-domed rocks of Cape Banks. We turned east to walk briefly along the manicured pathways and fairways of yet another golf club, before taking a narrow sandy track down to the crystal clear blue-green waters of Cruwee Cove. It was yet another beautiful stretch of water on this coastline and is part of the Cape Banks Aquatic Reserve.

Green of the New South Wales Golf Club facing Cape Banks

Beautiful Cruwee Cove

On the new Henry Head Track

Sandy track through the heath

A paper bark grove on Henry Head

Bushland on the bay side of Henry Head

We crossed the rock platform at the edge of the cove to climb out onto a new ramped pathway. This was the Henry Head Track and it wound its way through some lovely natural heathland, with tall banksias, paperbarks and tea-trees, before crossing a region of marshy wetland with views across to the entrance of Botany Bay.

Henry Head and the entrance to Botany Bay

A short climb later, we were at the lighthouse on Henry Head and crossing over to the bay side of the cape. Here, in this more sheltered aspect, we found ourselves walking through increasingly lush heathland, on a sandy footpath beneath archways of paperbarks, with the rich nectar-scent of eucalypts in flower and the songs of bushbirds replacing the sound of waves.

View over the bush to La Perouse

The only reality check that this was an "urban" area was the occasional glimpse ahead to the container port of Port Botany, one of the country's major gateways to the world. The huge gantry cranes stood silhouetted against a hazy sky like a herd of giant giraffes.

A herd of metal giraffes -or the gantries at Port Botany
container terminal?

Container ship entering Botany Bay

The track wound around high up the lushly vegetated slope, before we found a side path that headed down to the beach at Congwong Bay. It seemed a good idea to take it, and so it was, as Congwong is a beautiful sheltered cove in Botany Bay - a good place to cool our feet in its calm clear water and have one last break on track before climbing up and over the hill to La Perouse. Here at the historic octagonal sandstone watchtower, we ended the day's walk.

Congwong Beach in blue and gold

The Macquarie Watchtower at La Perouse (built 1822)

It had been yet another superb exploration of the sandstone cliff environment of Sydney, lower perhaps, but indented with beautiful coves and bays. A large chocolate milkshake (like they made when we were kids) at a La Perouse cafe, a half-hour bus trip back to Randwick and a soak in the poolside spa of our apartment - life is sometimes very, very good.

Day 3 - Kurnell to Cronulla (14.5 km - 110m ascent - 110m descent)

The Sydney Coastal Walk stops at La Perouse and then recommences at Kurnell on the other side of Botany Bay, just over a kilometre away as the crow flies, but well over 32 km to walk or drive. Consequently, it is a good stage break and the reason why we drove from our accommodation in Randwick to Cronulla, where we parked the car and boarded the local bus to Kurnell - along with 50-60 high school students. Fortunately, they all disembarked at Cronulla High, about a third of the way along, and the rest of the trip was quiet and comfortable for us remaining four passengers.

Captain Cook Memorial Obelisk

We got off at the eastern end of the esplanade at Kurnell and, spotting a small coffee shop open for breakfast business, started our walk with a coffee and muffin in this slightly time-warped and pleasantly isolated part of Sydney. Then it was off for the last stage of the coastal trail.

Walking through the Kurnell historical precinct

A footpath headed from the road across to wander amongst the landscaped grounds of the "First Landing" site, where a series of plinths, plaques, obelisks and assorted monuments mark where Europeans, Captain James Cook to be exact (or Midshipman Isaac Smith, to be pedantically correct) first set foot on the eastern part of the Australian continent in 1770. Here they were greeted by two local Dharawal people with the not so well known words "warra warra wai". Now which part of "go away" Cook and his crew failed to understand is unclear, but they didn't and that day marks, for some, the first act in the founding of a great nation and, for others, the first act in the dispossession of a great nation. History is always written by the winners.

What is clear is that the march of time is unstoppable and, while this little bit of shoreline still has its clear blue waters and beautiful forests and heathlands, the regular whine of planes (each loaded with more international passengers than Cook's ship "Endeavour") landing at the airport opposite and the throb of the massive ships lined up at Port Botany container terminal or Kurnell refinery reminded us of how much has changed in 240 years or so - for each to judge what is "progress".

Jet planes and refineries - two centuries of progress?

A flock of garrulous corellas were gorging themselves on grassy tubers as we wandered up past the Discovery Centre (where a group of equally garrulous school children were about to learn of these historic events) and disappeared into the forest. We were on the protected inland side of the ridge and the eucalyptus trees grew tall and shady, with ferns and pandanus palms, as we followed the Banks-Solander Botanical Track through this lush forest.

Palms and eucalypts

The lush inland forest

Regaining the broader road, we climbed gently to cross the ridge where the trees abruptly ceded way to coastal heath, taller at first, but diminishing in size as we closed in on the cliff-tops exposed to the winds and salt air of the Pacific. The track ended at an asphalt road that led us parallel to the coast up to a whale watching platform at Cape Solander.

Coastal cliffs at Cape Solander

Sculpted sandstone towers

A rugged section of cliff-line

It was getting near the end of annual southward migration for Humpback and Right Whale, but none were to be seen today - just a long line of beautifully rugged sandstone cliffs heading southwards. It was our path and we were glad to leave the asphalt and walk along the almost glaringly bright water-rippled and wind-carved surface of my favourite rock.

Path through the dense coastal heath

We passed by a succession of dramatically eroded cliff-faces, guided by a series of blue painted arrows on the rock slab, before a path headed inland, into the thick low heath that covered the plateau at the back of the cliffs. Rounding a narrow gash in the cliff-line, the track continued to lead us through taller and denser heath, at times almost disappearing, before we emerged again near the sandstone-topped edge.

Low heath on the cliff edge

Ahead lay a series of rounded, heath-topped dunes rising above the plateau and the track turned inland again to head for them. We were soon pushing up a narrow pathway of soft, hot sand to cross a small sand-blow and skirt the edge of the reed-filled Blue Hole Swamp.

From the swamp, the direction was straight up the big dune, the dull green foliage of the thick heath scattered with the soft-white of flannel flowers and the occasional red flash of a bottlebrush. As we reached the top of the dune, we could see the white silhouette of the Cape Bailly Lighthouse across the depression.

Blue Hole Swamp

A blow-out in the sand dunes

Cape Bailly Lighthouse

The path meandered through the heath towards it, passing open sand-blows and small swamps to arrive at Point Long Nose, its carved white sandstone offering one of the most dramatic cliff profiles along this coast. We climbed up to the lighthouse, not so much for the views which were mainly hidden by the heath, but for the shade and the cooling breeze - it was time for a break.

Impressive cliff-face at Point Longnose


The "nose" of Point Longnose
- or the snout of a great white shark?

Back into the big heath

Heading on, we passed through a short section of tall coastal heath (the height of the heath seems inversely proportional to the thickness of the sandy soil clinging to sandstone bedrock) to round Cape Bailly itself and cross a large expanse of ripple-patterned and multi-tiered sandstone slab.

An ancient Roman ruin? No, just the remains of
a disbanded sewage outflow

White sandstone slab between Cape Bailly and Potter Point

Sculptures in the sandstone slab

From here we could see the high-rises of Cronulla across the sea in the hazy distance - our walk was nearing its end. The rock slab gradually sloped down to sea-level, and we passed a large orange-coloured hollow (probably a result of sand-mining) to cross a boggy seep at Potter Point, where freshwater trickled down from the peat swamps of the plateau and into the sea.

Rippled sandstone near Cape Bailly

Cronulla through the sea mist

Here we left the Botany Bay National Park to follow a narrow foot track along the low grass and herb-covered dune, looking out over the rock platform of Merries Reef. Rounding one last low sandstone point, we reached Boat Harbour itself, a beautiful protected inlet, backed by a cluster of ramshackle fishermen's huts.

It was a tranquil setting, if you discount the fact that it is directly under the flight path for Australia's largest international airport and adjacent to a desalination plant and landfill in old sandmining pits (what you don't know won't hurt you?). It is also still corporately owned, with beach access for 4WD vehicles.

The birds of Merries Reef

Tranquil Boat Harbour

Fishing shacks at Boat Harbour

We stopped to wash the dust off our feet in its crystal clear waters (hard to believe it was once considered the most polluted beach in Sydney - before), the last time we would need our sandals until we arrived in Cronulla, as ahead lay the 5km long golden curve of the Cronulla Beaches - our route to the end of the walk. Once we had passed the last of the 4WDs parked on the beach, the zen of barefoot beach-walking kicked in as we strolled steadily around to the rise and fall of the waves with the cool wind at our backs carrying the faint sweet waft of death. Yes death - all along this lonely stretch of beach lay the bodies of shearwaters, crumpled feathers in the sand washed up as exhaustion took its toll near the end of their 8000 km migration from the northern hemisphere.

A long and secluded stroll down North Cronulla Beach

The crowds pick up as we pass Wanda Beach on the way to Cronulla

The shearwaters provided focus for this long beach-walk meditation - life, death, effort, purpose - broken only when I realised there were no more dead birds and lots more live people. We had reached the more accessible southern parts of this gently curving stretch of sand and were passing the low dunes of Wanda Beach. A shiver ran down my spine - even after almost 50 years, the name Wanda Beach sends a chill into someone of my generation.

Surfer chicks of Cronulla

Walks end - the art deco style of Cronulla life-saving club

We hurried on as the beaches became more and more populated - school groups were out for their phys ed classes on surfboards and boogyboards, and then the beach ended beneath the tall seaside apartments and hotels of Cronulla. We quickly followed the promenade around the rocks to the next small beach and headed up the grassy parkland slope with its big old Norfolk Island pines. At the corner was a place voted one of the ten best fish and chip shops in Sydney. It was lunchtime and the walk was over - what better way to finish than with a big serve of grilled dory and octopus, with juicy potato chips and a crispy fresh salad.

Sculpture by the Sea - bonus photos

There were over 100 sculptures on display along the rocky foreshore and sandy beaches between Bondi and Tamarama - too many for a simple walk description. So I have included some of my favourites here to give a better idea of the diversity of these exhibits and their inspirational setting.

"Semaphore" by Bert Flugelmann

"Diminish and ascend" by David McCracken

"Snake" (Phil Price) and "Life reflection xx" (Byung-Chul Ahn)

"Concealed craft" by Kirsten Lewis

"Equestrian" by Bert Flugelmann

"Moon Buddha" by Vince Vozzo

"Great Bondi sharehouse" Margarita Sampson

"Start" by Richard Tipping

"Encounter" by Jörg Plickat

"The Cheshire's grin" by Matthew Harding

"Bubble no. 5" by Quan Sihua

"Passage secret" by Silvia Tuccimei

"A message from Fantasia" by Akiho Tata

"Multiverse (2012)" by Ewen Coates

"Husk" by Marcus Tatton

"Sandstone etched in white" by Windan Water

"There's many a slip ..." by Ken Unsworth

"M.130901" by Toshio Iezumi

"Snake" by Phil Price

"Legend of 10 red crows" by Mikaela Casteldine

"Horizon" by Lucy Humphrey

"Time frame" by Maggie McFadyen & Griffen Lim

"A tale of romance" by Kathy Holowko

"Sandstone in cream and tan" by Windan Water

click to return to day 1 of the walk