An account of the GREAT NORTH WALK from Sydney to Newcastle, Australia.
When I did this walk in May 1989 only about 200 people had walked the whole length in one trip. Today the route is slightly different and the track is fully marked and completed. This story appeared in WILD magazine.
GREAT NORTH WALK
"You're on private land" interrupted the settler. Beside him was a half built house and in the background a bulldozer roared as it pushed over trees and re-shaped the ground. Having established ownership, and welcome status, he switched off the generator so we could be heard. Once it was established that we were a couple of city clowns, "lost", he warmed a little. We told him where we thought we were and he told us where we really were. His finger indicated the direction of off.
After nine days of walking this was our biggest bewilderment so far.
The Great North Walk follows a narrow strip of public land between Sydney and Newcastle. If for any reason you leave the track you will certainly be trespassing. In the twelve days it took us to complete the walk we spent about six hours walking the wrong route.
Our Great North Walk started in the peak rush of a Monday morning in Sydney. Some of the office workers dared to look at us, the rest politely ignored us. I imagine we were seen as a couple of overseas tourists "trekking" down-under. I doubt any of them would have seen much sense in walking to Newcastle. A quick visit to the Lands Department for the latest information on the route and we were aboard the ferry up the Parramatta River to Hunters Hill.
My memories of this place are of tall fences and big pedigree dogs, small shops with big prices and lots of leaf litter from English trees. The first day was spent walking across parks, around ovals and through the remnants of bushland along the Lane Cove River. There were busy roads to cross, duckboards, bridges and lots of signs to keep us on the track. The river here is tidal and we have to follow it to its source at Thornleigh.
What was that noise? The haunting sound of horn players could be heard for miles. I imagined a group of ladies in white lacy dresses sitting on chairs in a circle practising. We passed out of sight below them at Fiddens Wharf. There was an urgency to get as far away from the City as possible for the first night. Just short of Deburghs Bridge darkness fell and we camped, probably illegally. Our bodies were wrecked, we had no choice. A nearby jack-hammer stopped at dark leaving us with the background traffic noise. The creek water is polluted so we walked to the nearest front yard and borrowed a little from a tap. I found it amazing that in the middle of Australia' largest city it was possible to fund unspoilt bush to camp in. The track is interesting and it works its way past sandstone overhangs, mossy and dripping. There is a full range of wildflowers and few weeds.
DAY TWO we complete the length of Lane Cover River. There are lots of sewer pipes across the track and you can smell them long before you cross them. A set of traffic lights to see us safely across Pennant Hills Road awaits us outside the Pizza Hut, where we pause to store up some calories. We are at the source of Berowra Creek and over the next few days we must follow it to salt water. Called the Benowie Walking Track it is surprisingly good walking, along the creek then high up the cliff-line. Power lines cross the creek and there are occasional glimpses of houses. We camped where we dropped at dark. The sound of the creek drowned out any traffic noise. Our camp-site slopes and I spend the night slipping off my self-inflating mattress. Water is again polluted so we boil billies of sewerage to drink the next day.
It is early winter and day three finds us on a fire trail passing through superb wildflower country. There are orchids but none in flower and I count 15 species of wildflower on display. "Lobelia Gibbosa" I shout excitedly as I throw down my pack for a photograph. My companion Allan O'Connor is learning to be patient. We found each other through an advertisement in the local paper. Our common daily hardships keep up together. If either of us pulls out it's the end for the other. I tell him my mother fears that he, being an unknown stranger, might murder me. Allan tells me his friends think I belong to some weird sect and at some time on the walk I will sacrifice him and eat his kidneys!
It is a sunny day but the track is wet. The walking is good except for the unavoidable mud and ankle deep water at the Crosslands. Night falls as we reach Berowra Waters. We pitch the tent on the track and beside an aboriginal shell midden. Dinner is cooked on a rock shelf overhanding the water. Hundred of boats lie at their moorings. This is still a place of great beauty. The cable ferry only a few hundred metres away busily recrosses the water taking workers home to their lucky hideaway. In the dying light we enjoy the million dollar view of this peaceful place.
The walk is a project of the N.S.W. Lands Department and our tent is still up in the morning when two track construction workers arrive. They are delighted to find someone doing the whole walk. A group of about eight walkers came through two months previously. They are a mine of information. We spend an hour talking about the sections ahead and when it is time to leave one borrows some powered milk for his morning tea. From here there are alternative routes to Brooklyn none of which have been finalised. We were advised to take the Muogamarra option even though we would probably be trespassing.
From Berowra Waters to Cowan we follow an underdeveloped route marked only with red ribbon wrapped around trees and bushes. Although heavy going we are at last in virgin bush- all flowers and wallaby dung. Our red markers led us down to the creek and a waterfall. The lushness of the vegetation and the wild atmosphere made it one of Gods special places. Growing on the bare rock where we must cross the waterfall are half a dozen Sundews. These carniverous plants are about the size of a 50 cent piece and live usually in nitrogen poor soil. This is the first time I have seen them on bare stark rock, rooted apparently in an invisible crack. Most people would not notice them and crunch them underfoot. I hope this area is never tamed by steps and developed tracks. The difference track construction makes is enormous.
Later is the day we meet a local resident, Sue, on a fire trail. We are glad to talk to someone new, and she is interested in our endeavour to walk to Newcastle. Sue is thrilled to learn that she has a namesake amongst the wildflowers, Black Eyed Susan. We enter Cowan to the usual chorus of dogs barking, and pig-out on what the General Store has to offer. We spend the next two hours looking for a campsite. All we want is a dry and level area big enough to pitch our 3 man Japara tent. It is dark when we camp just outside the Muogamarra Nature Reserve. Probably trespassing we pitch our tent silently in the dark. Without a fire we go straight to bed. Every half hour 3 dogs come up to a fence 50 metres away and bark for 5 minutes.
The Great North Walk wasn't ready for us. The alternative section in the Jerusalem Bay area had recently suffered a "NO GO" from the Urban Transit Authority. We were advised to go through the Mog, even though permission to do so was not granted. Up very early we slipped through before anyone was about.
The Muogamarra Nature Reserve ends at sheer sandstone cliffs. We spend a worried hour finding a safe way down and walk to Brooklyn.
We retrieve our food dumps from Hawksbury River Railway Station, scoff up, and take the Water Taxi across the Hawkesbury River to Little Wobby. Cliff top walking and fabulous views are our reward on this section. Having camped probably where we shouldn't for the last 4 nights our 5th night was to be at an approved campsite. The Tanks, as it is known, was a big disappointment. The area was picked clean of firewood and after walking long and hard to get here we found the place littered with tin cans, aluminium foil and a car body in the middle of the creek.
The morning chorus of birds wakes us to a wet day. We left this ruined place via what appeared to be a watercourse but turned out to be a completely degraded fire trail. The bush was now pleasant and heath-like. Expecting at least 4 days of rain on this walk I wore a Peter Storm 2-8 Jacket under my Akubra. Whilst this type of jacket is supposed to transmit some water vapour I found the "vapour" turned to condensation as soon as it hit the material. If the rain was light I stayed drier not wearing it. Crossing the Hawkesbury put us in the territory of the leech. The first few were burn off, followed by more and more. I quickly learnt to cover my feet with "Rid" an insect repellant, before putting on shoes and socks. Leeches arriving on my volleys would move quickly down a lace hole and through the weave of my sock. Not liking the irritation they would re-group on the shoes, confused, and unfed, where I would flick them off by the dozen. One has to be philosophical about pitching your tent on a leech infested site and spending all night there, knowing that it only takes them a few minutes to get on to you. The loathsome creatures were arching about all over the ground, where they were distributed about 20cm apart. We had no choice and just had to put it out of our minds. In the morning a fat leech was seen leaving the tent and a thin one entering. Allan had blood on his sleeping bag.
The next 3 days we spent walking along farm roads. First along the bitumen, then along dirt roads, 4 wheel drive tracks then bush bashing following the red tape to another dirt road.
I carried 2 litres of water a day but Allan used twice as much. He gets half savaged by a dog (Tim) asking for water at a farmhouse. The battle each day is to find somewhere to camp that is not privately owned. The untracked taped sections are by far the most interesting. It would be useful for various bushwalking clubs to "adopt" a section and keep it adequately marked. The highlight of the walk for me was a section of primeval rain forest north of Somersby. The leeches were so thick that we would stop every minute and flick 6 off each shoe - for hours. Not the slightest bit of sunshine ever hits the ground. Any rain that falls stays where it lands. Everything is cool and sodden. In the middle of this aweful magnificence we loose the red tape and have to use map and compass to get out. There are citrus farms, turf farms, chicken farms, piggerys and horse studs, each with a dog that barks at us. We enjoy a civilised sit down meal at the Yarramalong Manor. After nine days I phone home to get news which all seems to be bad. The simple thoughts of the traveller are replaced now by the things I should have been thinking about. My son has a broken arm.
A lady on a horse springs us while we are retrieving our second food dump. She cannot even guess what we are up to. We have a long way to go to find a campsite. Our packs now weigh 25 kg with extra food. Night falls just as Allan declares he cannot walk anymore. Mercifully we find somewhere to camp just off the road.
The point we leave the road is, as usual, not marked so walk up and down the road consulting the map, then the book and finally see the now familiar red plastic tape leading off behind a "trespassers will be prosecuted" sign. We are now in the Watagan State Forest.
The forest roads are well graded, well marked and leech free.
With the scent of victory in our nostrils we hit a dizzying 6 km/h. It takes us just 2 days to pass through the Watagans. The forest roads are covered with aromatic mounds of wallaby dung territorially deposited and scratched in. Leech-eating Lyre birds call to us from the leafy darkness. I whistle them a simple tune, three times, and wait. They whistle it back. The thing that strikes me most about the Watagans is how green the place is, there are no wildflowers out. The wind is cold and the machinery dangerous. We are 600 metres above sea level and it is time to head east for the coast.
The book warns us that we will need rope to get down the steep cliffs at Heaton Gap. The track-makers have beaten us to it and we are grateful to find steps and sign posts. The last leech is cracked and we spend the night in the Awaba State Forest. Last day! The forest tracks are all cut up by motorcycles. A freeway under construction completes the desecration.
Lake Macquaire, 1 p.m. we leave our packs at a friends place for the sprint to the finish. Lots of cars, lots of noise and the dogs bark at us again. We walk with passion and determination now.
The route is well marked and we devour it at 6 km/h.
Just before dark we make it to the beach. A old colliery railway line keeps us company. Iron rails rusted through and sleepers, jut from the sand and the whole lot, rolling stock and all, perched part way up the cliff just out of reach of the breakers. We cross the sewer outlet and signs warn us of thinks not to do.
The beach is littered with the type of flotsam perculiar to sewer outfalls. Syringes are visible in the sand. Huge black stormclouds are moving in from seaward with rain. High tide forces us onto the highest rocks at the bottom of the cliff. Fisherman in bright yellow raincoats cast their lines into the murk. We at last reach bitumen and street lights. In a cruel twist the track markers lead us up a steep hill to an oblisk, apparently for the view and we walk all the way down for nothing. The view was OK but our muscles deserved better. A little later we are led down a steep path in a public reserve only to be led back up to almost where we had began. That was enough. We could see the finish and we headed straight for it. Only a mugging could stop us now. For the last time I threaten to take Allan's kidneys. We finish at Queens Wharf in light rain. Allan and I decide on a celebratory and parting beer at the Queens Wharf Brewery. As I sit down a man in a sports coat tells me I am occupying his chair. I tell him I have just walked 50 km and haven't sat down for 11 hours. Even here, it seems, I am trespassing.
He wants his chair. He isn't friendly. What is Newcastle that I have spent 12 days walking to get here! I finish my beer and go home.
It has been more of a journey than a bushwalk. For two weeks one has the opportunity to cyclically enjoy the benefits of civilisation and the hardships of rough travel. There is hardly an unspoilt place left, for through even the most untouched bush flows polluted water. Mans impact can be studying and judged. Each day we walked, represented only 15 minutes drive in a motor car. We were not about to reject the comforts of civilisation but we were more aware of the cost.
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