The long walk

The mul­ti­day Great North Walk, NSW

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents -

What started as a walk on a whim mor­phed into a three and a half year ad­ven­ture along the GNW.

FIRST, A WORD OF WARN­ING: be­fore un­der­tak­ing any 250km walk it is es­sen­tial to make a thor­ough plan. The route, equip­ment, meals, trans­port and weather con­di­tions must be scru­ti­nised and checked down to the last de­tail. On no ac­count should you cob­ble to­gether a plan in the pub the night be­fore over a schooner of ale and a smart­phone. Yet some­how that is what hap­pened.

Paul and I were only look­ing for a day walk but be­cause the Blue Moun­tains, our reg­u­lar haunt, was a swirling caul­dron of fire, so we were forced to look fur­ther afield. Or nearer, as it turned out. I’d known about the Great North Walk (GNW) for years but had dis­missed it on ac­count of its length – if I had the time to walk 250km I’d prob­a­bly go some­where more ex­otic, like Africa or Nepal. I’d never con­tem­plated do­ing a walk in sec­tions ei­ther; it just wasn’t my thing. Nev­er­the­less, a co-worker had re­cently men­tioned the walk and hence it popped into my head the night we were brain­storm­ing for a lo­ca­tion.

The GNW mar­kets it­self as Aus­tralia’s most ac­ces­si­ble walk­ing track, and that may be true given the per­cent­age of our pop­u­la­tion that lives nearby. Cer­tainly a good deal of it is near to pub­lic trans­port, which we in­tended us­ing as much as pos­si­ble. The idea for a ‘Syd­ney to Hunter’ track was orig­i­nally re­searched by lo­cal bush­walk­ers Gary McDougall and Leigh Shearer-He­riot in the early 1980s, then, in 1986, their idea was picked up as a bi­cen­ten­nial project and rushed to com­ple­tion for 1988. The track is now ad­min­is­tered by the De­part­ment of Pri­mary In­dus­tries (Lands).

At first we de­cided to hike the sec­tion through Lane Cove Na­tional Park, which was close enough to ac­cess by train but avoided the 5km of paved roads that threaded through the river­side sub­urbs. How­ever, we quickly re­alised that should we de­cide one day to do more sec­tions of the GNW we would re­gret not be­gin­ning at its of­fi­cial start point. Thus we met up at 9am on a clear spring day, slightly baf­fled and sore of head, at the obelisk in Mac­quarie Place.


A brisk stroll from the obelisk, the orig­i­nal Mile Stone for all roads lead­ing out of Syd­ney, brought us to our first river cross­ing – the ferry from Cir­cu­lar Quay to Wool­wich Wharf. Soon af­ter­wards we were among the man­groves of Buf­falo Creek, out of sight of con­crete and glass, and it took lit­tle imag­i­na­tion to pic­ture our­selves deep in some coastal wilder­ness, weeks from civil­i­sa­tion. This coastal wet­land sanc­tu­ary is just the first of sev­eral di­verse habi­tats through which the GNW passes, in­clud­ing sand­stone plateaus, na­tional for­est, coast­line and quiet river val­leys. To a city dweller the ibis looked in­con­gru­ous among the man­groves; I was used to see­ing them in their nat­u­ral habi­tat, perched on in­ner city dump­sters with beaks clearly evolved for rip­ping open bin bags and scav­eng­ing within.

Most of the day was spent in Lane Cove NP. This 372ha pro­tected area is only 10km from Syd­ney CBD and fol­lows the Lane Cove River vir­tu­ally to its source, a beau­ti­fully serene stroll dis­turbed only by the dis­tant hum of ar­tic­u­lated trucks. The de­lights of the track began to wear off as we crested late af­ter­noon, the jumble of loose rocks un­der­foot not my pre­ferred walk­ing sur­face at this stage of the day. “Hope­fully around the cor­ner it turns into a deep pile Axmin­ster car­pet?” I fan­ta­sised aloud. “Pos­si­bly a lightly sprung con­veyor belt,” agreed Paul. It seems that 35km might have been just a tad too far for a spur-of-the­mo­ment stroll.

We reached Thornleigh Oval at 5:30pm, where it struck us that we’d walked from the cen­tre of the coun­try's largest city to a quaint coun­try vil­lage in eight hours, or a reg­u­lar day of work. It had been hard but some­where along the line my per­spec­tive had changed. Maybe un­der­tak­ing a long hike in sec­tions wouldn’t be so bad? It might be fun to have a goal to aim for, and when­ever we felt like a bush walk we wouldn’t have to think about where to go; it’d be right there in front of us. We’d un­in­ten­tion­ally started some­thing, and both of us knew we wouldn’t be able to stop un­til we’d reached New­cas­tle.


Some­how, a whole sum­mer had passed since

our first ten­ta­tive steps along the Great North Walk. It’s not that Paul and I weren’t keen to get back out there but sum­mer is busy with other ac­tiv­i­ties and we had agreed from the start that the GNW was some­thing we would fall back on when all other op­tions had been ex­hausted. So, af­ter a sum­mer that in­cluded climb­ing in Mt Cook Na­tional Park, hik­ing the Ton­gariro Cir­cuit and cany­on­ing in the Blue Moun­tains, we fi­nally found our­selves back at Thornleigh train sta­tion on a warm au­tumn morn­ing, packed for an overnighter.

De­spite the fore­cast rain the sky was cloud­less but very hu­mid, and it felt as if a storm could break at any time. We fol­lowed Berowra Creek from its head­wa­ters all the way to the sub­urb of Berowra Waters, cross­ing Calna Creek on the way. At that time Calna Creek was spanned by a 1980s army-built log bridge, but be­ing good lit­tle hik­ers we had done our re­search and dis­cov­ered that the bridge had col­lapsed the pre­vi­ous year. Signs ei­ther end warned that only two per­sons at a time should use the bridge and in­ter­net ru­mour sug­gested these had been ig­nored. The two pieces of the struc­ture still lay across the wa­ter but with an im­pos­si­bly wide gap be­tween them, and we would have been fac­ing an early evening swim ex­cept for one bush­walk­ing fo­rum that ad­vised the creek was wade­able 500m up­stream. For­tu­nately we got away with only wet knees be­fore pitch­ing camp. [NB. A new bridge was opened in Au­gust 2015 and the creek is now cross­able with dry feet.]

The next day’s sec­tion from Berowra to Cowan was la­belled ‘Mod­er­ate, with hard bits’ but I con­tend that the ‘hard bits’ made up 90 per cent of the route. The track took us steeply up to the tops of Berowra Re­serve, through eu­ca­lypts, black boys, cut steps, iron rungs set in the boul­ders, and the fa­mil­iar sand­stone over­hangs. Af­ter two and a half hours of up and down we huffed into Cowan, very ready for a lunch break, which we took un­der the eaves of the lo­cal shop. And thank good­ness we did; we hadn’t even fin­ished our cheese and crack­ers when the sky col­lapsed in a sheet of solid wa­ter. Brook­lyn, our goal for the day, was still 12km away but to walk in this would be like try­ing to hike through the gorge be­neath Vic­to­ria Falls – we would likely drown. There was noth­ing for it but to pull the plug.


Some­how we’d kept our­selves busy for over a year be­fore feel­ing the pull of the GNW again, dur­ing which time I’d trained for and run (and won) an ul­tra marathon, and to­gether we’d

Soon af­ter­wards we were among the man­groves of Buf­falo Creek, out of sight of con­crete and glass.

done a month-long cy­cle tour of New Zealand’s South Is­land (see AGO Jan-Feb 2016). We were fit and ready to recom­mence our mis­sion.

This sec­tion marked our only real di­ver­gence from the of­fi­cial GNW. Af­ter a pleas­ant enough walk to Brook­lyn, the Hawkes­bury River (slightly too deep to wade) could only be crossed to Pa­tonga Wharf by wa­ter taxi. This was go­ing to work out rather ex­pen­sive be­tween the two of us so we hatched an al­ter­na­tive plan: the sched­uled ferry ser­vice to the iso­lated com­mu­nity of Lit­tle Wobby. This charm­ing row of houses sits be­tween the lap­ping waves of the Hawkes­bury and the loom­ing cliffs of the penin­sula with not so much as a foot­path to spare. Once we’d dis­em­barked the fi­nal boat of the day we picked our way through front yards and over rick­ety wooden plat­forms to the vil­lage’s south­ern­most house, and from there to an empty beach where we made camp in the warm glow of sun­set.

The next day we tack­led the High­way Ridge track up through Bris­bane Wa­ter Na­tional Park. Not be­ing part of the for­mal GNW the route wasn’t sign­posted and the ini­tial as­cent was an ex­er­cise in bush bash­ing, fol­lowed by an in­dis­tinct trail marked only by the oc­ca­sional bit of pink tape tied to a log. Once on the ridge we some­how got com­pletely turned around and head­ing firmly south, and only nu­mer­ous con­sul­ta­tions with map, com­pass and GPS per­suaded us of our er­ror. Many scram­bles, scratches and fallen branches later we fi­nally re­joined the GNW just south of Mt Wond­abyne, be­fore head­ing east to Woy Woy and a train home. De­spite be­ing the most dif­fi­cult sec­tion so far, and not rec­om­mended for the leisurely GNW sec­tion hiker, the day had been thor­oughly en­joy­able.


A mere two months later we were back, and with a spe­cial guest no less. Gerda’s in­tro­duc­tion to the GNW, al­beit un­der per­fect blue win­ter skies, was any­thing but gen­tle as we chose the most di­rect route from Woy Woy sta­tion back to the track. From an old junk­yard we bush bashed up a creek be­side the train line; dead­fall, mossy boul­ders, tan­gled bushes – this was tick heaven.

I al­most felt like apol­o­gis­ing on be­half of the GNW but we even­tu­ally found a fire trail and Gerda was re­warded soon enough with pos­si­bly the loveli­est spot on the en­tire walk. Round­ing a cor­ner be­neath a sand­stone over­hang north of Mt Wond­abyne we came across a de­light­ful lit­tle wa­ter­fall and pool: Kar­i­ong Brook Falls. The dap­pled glade was a per­fect lunch spot and source of cool wa­ter and fully re­vived us for the af­ter­noon stint – en­joy­able sin­gle­track along­side Piles Creek and, af­ter cross­ing the Pa­cific High­way, a long sec­tion fol­low­ing Mooney Mooney Creek.

Af­ter a night at one of sev­eral nice camp spots along the creek, the next day saw us on the ap­proach to Somersby, a small ru­ral ham­let based around a pri­mary school and a sin­gle store. The map’s scale seemed to have grown overnight as we fairly bounded along, eat­ing up the dis­tance. Un­for­tu­nately the prox­im­ity of ‘civil­i­sa­tion’ meant more fire­trail than usual and even a few kilo­me­tres of un­wel­come tar­mac. With the ab­sence of a rail line we fell back on hitch­ing a ride on the school bus into Gos­ford and the train sta­tion there.


The dis­ap­pear­ance of pub­lic trans­port al­to­gether from this point on forced us to en­gage in a com­bi­na­tion of bribery and ca­jol­ing to en­sure a pick-up by Gerda at our fin­ish point,

Round­ing a cor­ner be­neath a sand­stone over­hang north of Mt Wond­abyne we came across a de­light­ful wa­ter­fall and pool: Kar­i­ong Brook Falls

some­where in the mid­dle of Ol­ney State For­est, three days later. A greasy break­fast at Somersby Store set us up for the weekend, one that began grey and driz­zly but soon trans­formed into a swel­ter­ing heat wave.

Mov­ing north of Somersby marked a def­i­nite change in the mood of the GNW. Gone were the me­an­der­ing creek val­leys, sparkling bays and sand­stone plateaux. In­stead we en­coun­tered more and more for­est fire trails along low moun­tain ridges. Scrib­bly gums and stringy­bark trees shaded us from the burn­ing sun and the wildlife, mostly noc­tur­nal, be­came more abun­dant, as did the dirt­bik­ers. A red-bel­lied black snake sun­ning it­self in the path was in­fin­itely prefer­able to a suc­ces­sion of noisy petrol-heads.

At some point on the first day I cal­cu­lated that we had reached roughly the half­way point. Half­way, and it’d only taken us two years! Where does the time go? Dis­ap­point­ingly there was no con­grat­u­la­tory sign­post to be seen but we cel­e­brated any­way with a photo and some brief rem­i­nis­cence about our first steps in Lane Cove NP. Ah, those were the days!

The next day was char­ac­terised by flies as we each walked along in our own per­sonal buzzing cloud, but our spir­its were lifted by the con­tour path around a beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral am­phithe­atre lead­ing to the vil­lage of Yar­ra­ma­long. Two ice creams later saw us be­gin 11km of road, the long­est stretch on the whole GNW, and while there were worse places than the peace­ful Yar­ra­ma­long Val­ley to be pound­ing tar­mac, it was still nice to get back in amongst the trees for our sec­ond night.

We ar­rived at our Basin Camp­site ren­dezvous sev­eral hours early, hav­ing un­der­es­ti­mated our speed to make sure Gerda was not kept wait­ing. Our thought­ful­ness was re­warded with hot Chi­nese food and cold beer. Best pick-up ever!


It was only af­ter another hec­tic sum­mer that we found time to drive to Basin Camp­site one Fri­day evening. I was feel­ing strong from re­cent mul­ti­day hikes around Patag­o­nia’s Tor­res del Paine and on Tas­ma­nia’s Over­land Track, use­ful since we were about to tackle the high­est sec­tion of the GNW – the Watagan Moun­tains.

The for­est roads con­tin­ued much the same as be­fore but now wa­ter started to be­come a se­ri­ous is­sue. Descend­ing Mt War­rawa­long, the high point of the en­tire walk, we ex­pected to be able to fill our bot­tles in Watagan Creek but found it pol­luted by farm runoff. Af­ter another steep and thirsty as­cent we man­aged to coax some dodgy-look­ing yel­low liq­uid from the rain­wa­ter tank at Flat Rock Look­out, but it was barely enough to last the night. We ran out com­pletely at break­fast but made it to the Conge­wai Val­ley alive, only to dis­cover the wa­ter there also un­drink­able. It would have been folly to be­gin the steep as­cent of the Wata­gans with­out wa­ter so we were forced to ask for help at a farm­house, where for­tu­nately they re­vealed the pres­ence of a ded­i­cated GNW wa­ter tank just up the track. We were saved!

The re­main­ing fire trails along the spine of the Myall Range were long and some­what te­dious and we were re­lieved to ar­rive at Watagan HQ to meet our won­der­ful col­lab­o­ra­tor, who drove us back to Basin Camp­site to col­lect the other car.


Gerda’s fi­nal favour was to re­turn us to Watagan HQ for the penul­ti­mate leg, and with

a long day walk ahead the three of us drove up the night be­fore to camp. Sadly our evening’s re­lax­ation was spoiled by a group of red­necks blast­ing rock mu­sic from their ute and com­pet­ing to throw their empty beer bot­tles the deep­est into the for­est. When they roared off at 3am I couldn’t help hop­ing they’d wrap them­selves and their throb­bing woofers around a tree.

The day began with sev­eral glo­ri­ous panora­mas in­clud­ing a view of our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, still al­most 50km away, from Heaton’s Look­out. The other high­light of the morn­ing was a burnt-out van at the edge of the es­carp­ment that looked sus­pi­ciously like a torched get­away ve­hi­cle. Af­ter that ex­cite­ment the af­ter­noon was less in­ter­est­ing: vir­tu­ally the en­tire Su­gar­loaf range was mo­not­o­nous fire trail and began to feel like a chore, with the last 6km to Teralba sta­tion all on tar­mac. At least we could fi­nally catch a train home again.


It was a weekend in late sum­mer, al­most three and a half years af­ter start­ing, that we de­cided to fi­nally fin­ish the GNW. At an av­er­age speed of around 200m per day we were un­der­stand­ably keen to see off this project come hell or high wa­ter, and the lat­ter is ex­actly what we would be get­ting with the fore­cast for clas­sic Syd­ney thun­der­storms.

By this time it took two and a half hours to get to the start, wa­ter stream­ing down the train windows as we sped past towns through which we walked so long ago I could hardly pic­ture them. The rain paused as we strolled along the es­planade to Warner’s Bay but as we turned in­land it set­tled in for the day – con­stant driz­zle with oc­ca­sional heavy show­ers. A mix­ture of pave­ment and sparse bush­land brought us to the coast, only 8km from New­cas­tle. The beach was a heart-warm­ing sight but our re­lief was short-lived as the rain began in earnest and we rushed to erect shel­ter.

We were up and at it early on the fi­nal day and took only one and a half hours to walk into New­cas­tle. The last vic­to­ri­ous strides turned into a farce as we scur­ried hither and thither try­ing to find the of­fi­cial end point. The sig­nage sort of pe­tered out and the map was in­con­clu­sive so we were re­duced to Googling the GNW to see where it fin­ished – Queen’s Wharf Tower, ap­par­ently. I’m not sure what I was hop­ing for – back-slapping, cake, danc­ing girls maybe, but there was no sign, no plaque, noth­ing. It was a bit of an an­ti­cli­max. Worse, the pubs weren’t even open. How on earth were we sup­posed to plan our next ad­ven­ture?

Clock­wise from left Day one, bliss­fully un­aware of just how long this walk is go­ing to take; pic­turesque board­walk near Berowra; just one of the many, many trail mark­ers we passed.

Clock­wise from left Re­lax­ing above Bris­bane Wa­ter Na­tional Park; we both used a num­ber of dif­fer­ent packs through­out the walk, in­clud­ing this one from Aarn.

Clock­wise from left Sun­set on the rocks near Lit­tle Wobby; Oa­sis at Kar­i­ong Brook Falls.

Clock­wise from left Descend­ing from the tops to Gal­ston Gorge; the sea sig­nals the be­gin­ning of the end of our epic mis­sion; a red-bel­lied black snake slith­ers qui­etly away.

Clock­wise from left An im­promptu half­way mark cel­e­bra­tion; a beau­ti­ful camp­ing glade near the Conge­wai Val­ley; so close we can al­most smell the beer.

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