5 Daytrip Bushwalks From Sydney, Australia

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5 Daytrip Bushwalks From Sydney, Australia

As we started up the path to Barrenjoey Lighthouse, sun sparkling off the deep blue of Palm Beach, I remarked that it was a beautiful day for a hike.

“It’s really just a bushwalk,” my cousin replied, a word he defined as “a leisurely walk in bush land.”

Before coming to Australia, I’d imagined a bushwalk as a hardcore excursion requiring one of those hats with the corks bobbling from the brim to keep deadly flies and spiders off my face. Turns out, a bushwalk can be a stroll to a scenic point, a hike along well-maintained national park paths, or yes, even the sort of trek where you need a machete to cut through the vegetation.

While it’s sensible to take precautions against spider and snake bites, there’s no need to fear bushwalking in the Sydney area, said Simon Stroud, spokesman for the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service. After all, Americans wouldn’t advise Australians to stay out of Yellowstone just because there are grizzlies there.

“Everyone is often afraid of other country’s animals,” he observed.

Inside and around Sydney, bushwalks ranging from just 15 minutes to a full day abound, providing opportunities to encounter animals you thought you’d only see in the zoo; absorb Aboriginal history; and enjoy peek-a-boo sightings of the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, and ocean vistas. Sydney is a walker’s city, with signage pointing you in the right direction and telling you the distance to the next scenic outlook. These five bushwalks will give you a new perspective on this scintillating city and its hinterland.

1. Taronga Zoo to Bradleys Head, Sydney Harbour National Park
Distance: 2 miles roundtrip

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Photo by Erik Purins

Just as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area covers disconnected acres in and around San Francisco, Sydney Harbour National Park comprises scenic spots on all sides of the Harbour. This walk takes you to the tip of one of the area’s many fingerlike peninsulas. You can practically step out of Taronga Zoo onto a park trail, where you’ll soon be immersed in a chorus of birdsong from the lush canopy above.

Just 15 minutes along an easy path of stones and boardwalk takes you to the Athol Hall Cafe, a 100-year-old former dance hall where you can sit on the porch and sip a James Squire ale while taking in tree-framed views of the Opera House across the Harbour. While we lunched here, a kookaburra swooped down from a nearby tree to try to steal pork belly from my plate. The genial waiter distracted him by pitching handsful of duck fat onto the lawn.

Continue down the path until you emerge from the woods at Bradleys Head, where you can walk out onto an old stone jetty and take in views of the Harbour from three sides, from the Harbour Bridge and Opera House to the city skyline and beyond. You can fish or swim here as well. On a weekend, don’t be surprised if you come upon the nuptials of Sydneysiders in the amphitheatre here.

2. Manly to Spit Bridge, in and around Sydney Harbour National Park
Distance: About 6 miles one way

sydney bushwalk 2.jpg
Photo by Erik Purins

If you hope to see the world’s most adorable birds, Manly to Spit is the walk for you, because it takes you past the tiny, blue-feathered fairy penguin’s only remaining breeding colony on the New South Wales mainland. Starting at Manly, an ocean beach 20 minutes from downtown by ferry, this outing takes you first along a series of cove beaches. When you see a sign stenciled on the sidewalk warning, “WATCH OUT! PENGUINS ABOUT,” it’s time to start searching among the boulders at the water’s edge for the little guys. Good luck; I have met plenty of Australians who have never seen a fairy penguin in the wild.

The walk will then take you through a suburban neighborhood and into the national park, where it alternates between bush and beaches until you come to Grotto Point. Here, Aborigines of the Eora group etched outlines of whales, kangaroo and even a boomerang into the sandstone. No one knows how old these images are. Looking at them imparts a frisson of connection to the roots of earth’s longest continuous civilization, indigenous Australians.

Once you reach the Spit Bridge, you can take a bus back to the city.

3. Palm Beach to Barrenjoey Lighthouse, Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park
Distance: 3 miles roundtrip

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Photo by Erik Purins

An hour’s drive north of the city, this is a winding path up to the Barrenjoey Lighthouse, an excellent whalewatching perch. Bring binoculars. As you ascend, the interesting shape of the peninsula you’re on reveals itself below; it looks like you’re standing on the head of a giant hammerhead shark. If you fly out of Sydney at the end of your trip, watch for this landform from the plane.

Then descend to a choice of beaches—calm inland waters on one side, raucous waves for surfing and Boogie boarding on the other. Cool your gullet with a milkshake (the small ones are served in bear-shaped jars) on the terrace of The Boathouse Palm Beach, a hangout that nails the Sydney area’s split personality of beach bum meets sophisticate. From the terrace or the beach, watch for the seaplane that makes daily trips from Sydney to land in the water here, allowing well-heeled daytrippers to skip the drive.

4. The Basin Camground to Guringai Land Aboriginal Engraving Site, Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park
Distance: 3 miles roundtrip

sydney bushwalk 4.jpg
Photo by Erik Purins

Seeing roos and wallabies at the zoo is well and good, but there’s nothing like coming upon one of the marsupials in the wild, placidly grazing, with a joey poking its head out of her pouch to grab a stem or two for himself. Throw in an alarmingly large lizard sauntering around, and you have the scene at The Basin, a campground area of Ku-Ring-Gai that’s a short ferry ride from Palm Beach.

After photographing the swamp wallabies and goannas, hike up a road past scribbly gum trees; bushy grass trees; and native wildflowers such as delicate pink boronia, which look like wrapped presents until they open.

Your reward for the climb: engravings made by the Guringai Aboriginal people, showing humans holding fish and lifelike images of the same wallabies that hop around The Basin. It’s best to arrive in the morning or evening, when the angled light helps distinguish the carvings from the mottled rock.

When you get back to the campground, take a dip in the limpid lagoon that gives The Basin its name, and admire the reflection of the trees in the water before catching the ferry back to Palm Beach. If you’re driving, you can park in the lot near the engraving site and do this hike in reverse.

5. Wendy’s Secret Garden, Lavender Bay, Sydney
Distance: As far as you want to wander the labyrinthine paths

Curiously, the walk on which I felt most cocooned in nature was right in the middle of the posh Sydney neighborhood of Lavender Bay. I wandered into this garden, created by Wendy Whiteley, wife of the late artist Brett Whiteley, by accident while looking for a shortcut. Instead I found a series of narrow paths switchbacking along a harbourside bank. As I descended, the sound of traffic was replaced by loud avian conversations; a willie wagtail chirping in staccato bursts like a squeaky toy being chewed by a dog, rainbow lorikeets shrieking as they chased each other through treetops. The cityscape was replaced by a profusion of flowers, some familiar, others new to me, their fragrance almost palpable in the close air. Bits of whimsy were everywhere, from stairways with branches for bannisters to bits of cast-off statuary mounted on tiny terraces.

While the name “garden” doesn’t sound anywhere near wild enough to be “bush,” the riotous foliage and teeming birdlife said otherwise. This was a bushwalk, shoehorned between a dog park and the Luna Park amusement grounds, just a few steps from the Harbour Bridge. The beauty here has tragedy at its roots; Wendy Whiteley transformed an overgrown dumping ground into this enchanting work of living art out of love for her late husband and daughter. Both of their ashes are scattered here.


Carrie Kirby of The Miles Mom writes about credit card points, travel and personal finance from her home on an island in San Francisco Bay.

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