Friday, October 12, 2012

This Ancient Land

Wow, time passes. My last blog post was about walking the Coast Track through the Royal National Park. Much has happened since then, including buying a vehicle (Hyundia Santa Fe), leaving on a three week road trip, which, for reasons which will soon be disclosed, turned into a three day road trip, and watching a big storm hit the NSW coast while humpback whales breached off-shore.

The thing with moving to a new country – and, although I grew up in Australia, I left when I was 26 and that was 23 long years ago so coming back home feels like moving to a new country – is that there are so many things to do that it's hard to decide what to do first.

In any case, after much dithering, and with a somewhat uncertain forecast – spring in NSW is proving wetter and colder than we anticipated – we packed up the Hyundia and drove south. As usual for us, we didn't get very far – blame it on an extreme aversion to driving – in fact, at our furthest we didn't get more than 1.5 hours from the cave in Loftus. Our first day was spent on coastal beaches south of Wollongong as a big rain event the night before meant that the crags at Mount Keira that we had been intending to climb were wet and dripping. So, we drove south to Killelea State Park where we had a wonderful walk along Mystic Beach to the Minnamurra River and camped for the night. Next day, we visited “The Farm”, the other beach in Killelea State Park. The surfers were out, somewhere in Australia surfers are always out, and we both conceived an almost overwhelming desire to learn to surf!

Doug on Mystic Beach

We spent the rest of the day climbing at Mount Keira enjoying a full range of grades, although we actually weren't climbing that big a range – it just seemed that way. That evening, we drove west up Macquarie Pass to the top of the Illawarra Escarpment and camped at a deserted NPWS campsite near Carrington Falls in Budderoo National Park. Australia is a funny place where passes are actually routes up to higher ground instead of being a low passage between two heights of land. It's also funny to pay $30 to camp at a State Park yet camp for free (for up to two weeks) in a National Park.

It rained in the night, and the next morning was fogged in – in Canada we would call it a white-out were you on a snowfield - and the fog was actually easily as dense as I've ever seen it on a big Canadian Icefield. We walked through the misty forest with huge gum trees looming overhead and the eerie calls of Australian birds echoing through the forest to a series of look-outs above Kangaroo Valley. Standing out on a rock promontory overlooking – if being totally surrounded by white can be called overlooking – the gorge carved deep into the sandstone of the Illawarra Escarpment was like standing at the edge of the world, and I thought what an ancient land Australia is, with everything worn down to its essence. 

Nellies Glen

Later that day, we walked an 8 kilometre loop through the Barren Grounds Nature Reserve, a heathland area on the Illawarra Escarpment bursting with spring native flowers and the calls of birds. A big storm was predicted and, our telephone search for reasonably priced ($15 each) indoor accommodation for that night was unsuccessful so we drove back to the cave for the night and, sure enough, overnight a tremendous wind arose and lashing rain came in.

On Friday, during a lull in the rain but just as the winds were increasing in strength we drove down to the Kurnell Peninsula to witness the storm. The ocean was a mass of white spume spraying the cliffs for 50 metres and, in the two hours we were out, the wind increased to such a force that walking was difficult and spray from the ocean was blowing inland 100 to 200 metres. We were lucky to see a pod of humpback whales breaching off shore as soon as we arrived. For half an hour, we watched them leaping almost entirely out of the water then crashing back in, before the seas became so rough that they were all but obscured.

The day after (today) dawned clear and sunny with only light winds. For newcomers to the country, used to the (usually) gradually building and dissipating storms of western Canada, the nature of Australian weather, where blue skies become storm clouds rapidly and equally rapidly clear, the weather is hard to read.

The week ahead has lots of fine weather forecast and tomorrow we leave for the “Blueys” (the Blue Mountains) for some climbing and hiking. Hopefully we won't be back in three days. 

Humpback Whales

Monday, October 1, 2012

Spectacular Scenery: The Coast Track


South of Sydney, the Coast Track runs for 26 km across the length of the Royal National Park from Bundeena in the north to Otford in the south.  From Bundeena to Garie, the track winds along the top of impressive sandstone cliffs with superb ocean views.  Beyond Garie, the coast line gentles and the track crosses over several grassy headlands, wanders along sandy beaches, and through the vine choked palm forest of Palm Jungle.  At Palm Jungle, the trail climbs 200 metres to join the Cliff Track along Garrawarra Ridge and passes through large stands of eucalpyt, before descending once more to Otford Lookout and the end of the walk.  

The track is variously recorded as being 26 to 30 km long.  Even the National Park and Wildlife Service (NPWS) publishes varying statistics, but, if you take transit to the start and finish of the walk (as we did) the walk is likely closer to 30 km than 26 km.  Apparently, there used to be numerous places to camp along the walk, but currently, NPWS only allows camping at North Era, which means you do one long and one short day, and camp at a location, which, while offering pleasant camp sites, has no reliable water.  The north section of the walk features plentiful water from numerous streams along the walk (we filtered all water) while the southern section is dry with water only available from a very scuzzy looking rill at North Era campsite (we did not use this water), and from the Surf Life Saving Club at South Era.  Bizarrely, if asked, NPWS will tell you that “there is no water available in the park,” and “walkers must carry all their own water.”  This is clearly ridiculous as there are taps at numerous locations along the walk even if the many streams may have run dry in late summer.  You may need to treat water from taps but forcing walkers to carry all their water for the entire walk is nonsensical.  

Heath land and sea cliffs

Bundeena to North Era Campsite

We took the train from Sutherland to Cronulla, then followed sporadic signs to the ferry terminal a few minutes walk away.  The ferry runs every hour on the half hour from Cronulla and offers a short, but pleasant ride.  The ocean swell rolls in during the middle section of the crossing picking up over the large sand bars in Port Hacking.  There are various routes through the small suburb of Bundeena to reach the start of the walk, we took a somewhat convoluted route crossing between small closes via a pathway, and it may be quicker to simply walk up Brighton Street to Scarborough Street and follow it east  to the fire road that runs south to the start of the walk.  

The start of the walk is marked by a large sign indicating that Wattamolla is 8 km away and begins on a broad fire road.  Within 100 metres pass a track to Port Hacking Point and shortly thereafter the Coast Track exits to the east (left).  A short section of sandy track leads out to the coast, where the track turns south to Marley Head.  This section of the walk offers spectacular coastal views and easy walking on eroded sandstone slabs.  Scenic viewpoints are abundant and you’ll find it tough to keep walking rather than sitting on a sandstone slab and enjoying the view.  At one point, a huge gleaming white sandstone slab is detached on all three sides from the surrounding cliffs and looks remarkably like a large cracked cornice overhanging the sea.  Along the way, a number of small rills run over the sandstone slabs and water (treat) could be obtained from these.  

About a kilometre beyond Marley Head, the trail overlooks Marley and Little Marley Beach and then descends to the north end of Marley Beach.  Marley Lagoon is visible inland from just south of Marley Head.  Beach walking leads along Marley Beach – soft and energy sucking sand at high tide – where the waves crash in, and, soon to Little Marley Beach, a delightful little cove sheltered from much of the surf.  The track climbs again to the top of the sandstone sea cliffs and continues south away from the coast, now through a tunnel of heath alive with all kinds of birds, and crosses Wattamolla Creek at a small rock dam.  This is a good place to get water.  A short descent brings you out to the picnic area at Wattamolla, which can be accessed by vehicle and is thus popular.   Wattamolla Lagoon offers warm water swimming. 
At Wattamolla, follow the track up past the toilets to the upper car park, cross the upper car park and pick up the signed track again. 

Doug on Marley Beach

Within minutes, the track is empty of people again and will remain that way until Garie, the next road accessible beach.  After more cliff top walking through heath, descend down to Curracurrang, a delightful little cove with no beach but good water.  Climb up again and follow the cliffs south to where Curracorrong Creek crosses the trail and cascades 30 metres down to the ocean.  Eagle Rock is visible, and, should be named Turtle Rock as it looks remarkably like a turtle which seems, at least to me, more Australian than an eagle.  We filled up with water from Curracurrong Creek and then followed the track through heath on the eastern edge of the Curra Moors  south along cliff tops until Garie North Head where the view opens up and reveals surf pounded Garie Beach and Little Garie Beach below.  Garie marks the end of the big sandstone cliffs and the start of the gentler terrain that marks the southern half of the walk.  

Descend steeply to Garie Beach and walk along the beach through soft sand to Little Garie Point where a trail runs under short broken cliffs just above high tide mark to Little Garie Beach.  The old trail used to follow the shore line underneath Thelma Head but has been closed due to rockfall danger, so now you must climb about 80 metres up and over Thelma Head and descend again to reach North Era and the campsite.  The track is a little difficult to find at the south end of Little Garie Beach, but once you find it, it is well marked with track posts and the final climb to Thelma Head is on steep wooden steps.  Crossing over the grassy Thelma Ridge, North Era campsite comes into view tucked into a grassy meadow surrounded by palm trees and is a welcome sight after walking all day.  

Morning at Era Beach

The camping at North Era is delightful – grassy flat meadow – but the only water is a stagnant looking rill, and searching up both drainages behind camp yielded only more scuzzy looking water.  A better option would be to walk over to the surf club at South Era for water.  Fall asleep to the sound of frogs, crickets and the unending surf rolling onto the beach nearby.  

North Era Campsite to Otford

Pick up the track next morning at the back of North Era beach and walk over a low headland to South Era beach where the trail descends through shacks to the Surf Club (water available from a tap outside).  Pick up the track again on the ocean side of the Surf Club and climb up a grassy slope to Burgh Ridge.  The track becomes indistinct as you cross Burgh Ridge and you may have to walk west and uphill to locate an indistinct junction where Burgh Ridge trail runs west and climbs to Garrawarra Ridge and the Coast Track traverses palm forest and descends through palm trees and shacks to the small beach at Burning Palms.  

Climb up through palm forest south of Burning Palms, cross another grassy headland and then enter the dark environs of Palm Jungle, a feisty humid jungle of vines and palm trees that stretches for perhaps a kilometre.  We took a short break on a large sandstone rock overlooking the ocean near where the trail begins the final climb up to Garrawarra Ridge.  A pleasantly shaded jungle climb up steps leads up onto the escarpment where the palms gradually decrease in number and the eucalypts increase.   A large sandstone outcrop near ridge top affords one further view of the coast as well as sandstone bluffs in the surrounding bush.  A half kilometre of fire road walking along Garrawarra Ridge through attractive eucalpyt forest follows and then the fire road becomes a track again and a gradually steepening descent leads to Otford Lookout.  The best views north up the coast to Eagle Rock and south to Wollongong are actually north of the road accessible Otford Lookout along the final section of coastal cliff.  

From Otford Lookout, cross Lady Carrington Drive and walk south a short distance to a fire trail that leads downhill and east to an ambiguously marked junction.  After deliberating at this junction we took the downhill and incorrect branch, and, after descending steeply, had to walk back along a beaten in track – undoubtedly made by other lost walkers – to the train station. The correct way is to travel south from the junction to locate the stairs down to Otford Station.  Board the train at Otford Station after a wonderful two day walk down picturesque Australian coast line.

Spectacular walking along the Coast Track