THE COAST TRACK – Bundeena to Otford
From Bundeena to Otford is a 34 minute drive through the heart of the Royal National Park. The Australian bush, heavy with gum trees and scrub, hugs the winding road that has become popular with lycra-clad, city-dwellers riding expensive bikes. It is a peaceful, calming drive. If you’re a sucker for the outdoors and small amount of punishment, you’ll walk The Coast Track instead.
The Coast Track, true to its name, follows the meandering coastline from Bundeena, in the northern part of Sydney’s Royal National Park, to Otford in the south. Depending on where you start, it is roughly 27 kilometres of spectacular scenery which can be enjoyed in small parts over several days, or you can speed through the entire thing in one long day, and probably miss most of the things that make this walk worth doing.
It is technically a grade 5 walk, so the hardest grade they have. There’s a quad-burning climb up to Otford Lookout and a bit of scrambling over rocks, however the length of the walk is probably the main factor in the grading.
The trail itself is very well signposted, except in the one place where signposting is needed the most; a hillside of head-high grass and shrubs with a seemingly infinite number of criss-crossing tracks, spreading from the jagged edge of a cliff to the beginning of the well-named, Palm Jungle. Having backtracked a number of times already, the only thing stopping me from setting the entire hill on fire was the thought of hurting all the other hikers who were no doubt lost in here with us.
Even in the middle of Sydney’s winter, and with fairly high foot traffic, the track is mostly in good condition. While there are a few boggy spots, people who have some experience bush walking will have no issues getting around them, over them or just stomping right through them.
Our trip started in Bundeena at the end of Beachcomber Ave. Some start from the ferry building and walk through Bundeena, adding an extra three kilometres to the walk. We figured 27kms was enough for two days.
Despite being prepared for cold winds and wintry weather, the morning had dawned with blue skies and sunshine. Within minutes of starting we stopped to strip jackets and carefully think about how much water we were carrying. If we run out, we’ll be drinking deer piss from the creeks. Enticing.
The scenery along the Coast Track is spectacular. I do not use that term lightly. The Tasman Sea crashes into the coast, smashing against the red and brown cliffs and throwing spray into the air like watery fireworks. Around each corner is a new vista, all worthy of stopping for a zen moment, or to take photos that can never quite capture exactly how small you feel out here.
THE FIRST DAY
The first day of the Coast Track follows the cliffs overlooking the Tasman Sea before dropping down to arduous walks through the soft sand of the beaches, such as Little Marley and Garie Beach.
If you are interested in cetaceans, like I am, you may be interested to know you can spot migrating humpbacks from the cliffs, usually from June to August. We were lucky enough to spot some, though from some distance. They were great to see in every way except in the dismal photos from my 35mm prime lens camera. I am fascinated by whales, so much so, I did a course with Project Jonah in New Zealand who train people on refloating beached whales. As interesting as they are, I can assure you whales have a smell to them that can only be called whaley, which you cannot get out of your clothes for weeks.
There are a number of milestones along the cliffs such as Wedding Cake Rock, a rock in the approximate shape of a wedding cake and Eagle Rock, which, as you may have guessed, is a rock in the approximate shape of an eagle. It seems as if the names were pulled straight from a map showing the way to buried pirate treasure. These landmarks though, are just a way to break up the distance. The real treasures are the breathtaking views, abundant wildlife and spending time outdoors in this wonderful part of the world.
Wattamolla is conveniently located in the spot you should reach for an early lunch. There are toilets, picnic tables, BBQs and a kiosk which is open for 23 minutes of the third Tuesday of every second month over autumn and winter, where, I can only assume, you could purchase water and some more chocolate.
Luckily, there is Garie Beach. After a short two hour walk, you should be close to the lookout point where you can see the picturesque Garie Beach and, at the far end, the Garie Beach Car Park, where another kiosk is run by a dear lady with bottles of water and the chocolate you have been craving.
The Coast Track runs along the base of the cliffs and through a small settlement of cabins, overlooking the sea. The hill you will see from here is the last obstacle to face before reaching the North Era Campsite. Upon cresting the hill, you’re afforded a view of the sheltered valley; the flat area of the campsite surrounded by forest and bush covered hills. We trudged along, whistling the theme to Jurassic Park, arriving seven hours after leaving Bundeena, having spent a bit of time walking side trails, taking photos and an hour for lunch.
The campsite at North Era needs to be booked through the website and costs $12. They cap the number of people staying at the site, though there was a lot of space and no one checked if we had our receipts. I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay. In fact I think if you’re going to use the facilities you definitely should. But they didn’t check ours.
The beach at North Era is a nice one, though the swell was quite high for our stay. I would have eagerly gone for a winter swim except for the rough water, though with the sun setting and the temperature plummeting, I am glad how it turned out.
A swamp wallaby appeared, entertaining the campers while we were setting up. With careful, watchful movements, they skulked around the tents, and attempted to make off with unwatched food. I can see why the Australian rugby team are named after them.
As evening set in, a guttural moaning could be heard from the forest on the hill above the campsite. In a scene from of a horror movie, an answering moan could be heard from the opposite hill. Deer. More precisely, stags. Stags on the roar. If you have never heard a roaring stag, it can be a little unnerving. Luckily I have. I have also heard my father trying to impersonate a roaring stag on various hunting trips, with limited success. A third stag answered the other two. He was close to the campsite and could be seen in torchlight with a herd of hinds. A proper party at North Era.
We had a bright moon and were able to eat our dinner without other light, which made me feel a great deal more outdoorsy, though I would have gladly given that up for an open fire. I am quite sure others at the campsite would have gathered around too; we’d have laughed and joked and made new friends. Instead, everyone huddled close to tents in the imposing dark, occasionally looking over and blinding each other with our headlamps, listening to the waves crash and the stags roaring their challenges into the night.
I am not a great sleeper. I can fall asleep almost anywhere, but have trouble staying that way. The first night sleeping in a tent has always been a shitty one for me. After a long day of walking I fell asleep early, but my body decided at 4AM it had recovered sufficiently and promptly woke up, ready for the day ahead. I lay in the tent grappling with my own skipping thoughts, attempting to convince my brain that more sleep would probably be beneficial and that the sound of waves should be enough to lull me into a doze at least.
Two hours later, I gave up and went for a walk to the beach.
I love being the first one on the beach in the morning, especially before dawn. The fresh air blows the last of the sleep away and people don’t look at me strangely if I stare off blankly into the distance. I get to pretend as though I am struggling with deep thoughts, whereas I’m actually just imaging how a conversation with a coffee girl could have gone, had I been more verbally interesting, as I am in my own mind. As a bonus I also managed to get signal on my phone to send a quick message and uploaded a photo to Instagram.
After a hot breakfast, and a quick pack down, we were walking again. When you camp in a valley, you have to walk up a hill no matter which way you go. A quarter of an hour after leaving the campsite, we were sweating again.
The second day of the Coast Track is a lot shorter than the first, assuming you are walking in the direction we were going. The track follows the coast, again offering beautiful views and pristine beaches, before cutting inland through Palm Jungle. Seriously, treasure map.
The terrain differs somewhat from the first day. The track follows the lower slopes of a range, and lazily zig-zags through shrubs and small trees. Sections of this track are still being built; raised grating keeping the walkers off the ground and protecting the area.
As we reach Palm Jungle, we veered off to Figure 8 Pool. There is a signpost at the intersection and though Figure 8 Pool is missing from the official sign someone has rather helpfully amended it by scratching an ‘8’ into the paint. Thank you, whoever you are.
The Figure 8 Pool is somewhere on that rock shelf, I believe
The path to Figure 8 pool drops down the cliff face. It isn’t a climb I would want to do after a heavy rainfall as slipping and sliding off the cliff start to feel like a very real possibility. The path crosses the lower part of a waterfall and out onto the rock shelf. Unfortunately for us, the swell and the tide were working against us. In the interests of self-preservation, we decided against risking being swept into the ocean and repeatedly smashed against the rocks.
From this point, there are steps. The path runs straight up towards Otford Lookout. Though it didn’t feel dangerous, it was definitely steep. There are also parts that were particularly wet. Having just slipped in a puddle and splashed mud up my leg, I spewed forth a few quiet curses and, as a grand finale, dropped a defiant C-Bomb. I looked up and into the startled eyes of an elderly woman. Knowing quite well what my mother would have done had she heard what I said, I was on guard in case this lady could throw a left jab as quick as my dear Mum. “I think you summed it up quite nicely, dear” the lady said brightly, picked her way around the mud, and calmly wandered down the path I had come from.
The view from the top of the steps is nice, though we had seen better the day before. What makes it sweeter is how close you are to the finish. There is a short walk along a wide track, which turns into a trail along the ridgeline and within a few minutes it is over. Having left the campsite at 8AM, we were at the train station by 10:15.
If you’re looking to do an overnight walk around Sydney, this should definitely be on your list. I can see why it is so popular. There are a lot of people on the trail, both overnight and day walkers. The campsite does fill up quickly, so book in advance. Read the website and make sure you’re self-sufficient. Unless you don’t mind begging for water.