If you ever harboured an inclination to walk from Sydney to Newcastle it is worth knowing that the price of a one-way rail ticket is $18 and the journey takes approximately two hours. And I have undertaken this trip on a number of occasions and must say it is a pleasant trip, especially as the train winds its way around Brisbane Waters and Lake Macquarie en-route to Newcastle.
However, on the other hand if you want to save the train fare and have around ten days to spare, then I thoroughly recommend you take The Great North Walk.
The Great North Walk was initially constructed as a celebration of Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988. In 1981, two walkers from Sydney, Garry McDougall and Leigh Shearer-Heriot, came up with the idea to walk from Sydney to Newcastle.
After spending some time identifying an appropriate route, they decided to try and create a formal track. In 1983 they approached the NSW Bicentennial Committee for support. Minor grants followed and in 1986, the Bicentennial Committee allocated a major grant.The track was then adopted by The Department of Lands and became a reality in 1988.
The Department of Lands continues to undertake its maintenance, construction, conservation enhancement and future development.
It is estimated that more than 40,000 local, interstate and international visitors use the walk annually, either taking the challenge of the full 12-16 day hike, or enjoying short walks of one or two days in different sections of the walk.
My walking partner, and good friend, Ray Tong, set out on the walk in April of this year with another friend Michael Hawxwell and walked for six days, but was quickly extracted from the track one morning when his partner, my sister-in-law, put a call in to say that the birth of Aubrey James was going to be three weeks earlier than expected. Now Ray could have started this walk from where he left off… but he didn’t and there we were, five months later on the 7.20am ferry from Circular Quay, heading under the Sydney Harbour Bridge on our way to the start of the walk in the pretty harbour-side suburb of Woolwich.
I doubt if those waiting to be transported to their city offices even noticed these two people stepping off onto the jetty, loaded up with maps and back-packs, so it was with little fan-fare that we headed off up the road, passing bleary eyed school kids and women walking their dogs.
Perhaps I should set the scene for the first couple of days as this was spent walking through the inner, and outer northern suburbs of Sydney, mostly along bush tracks, as the walk winds its way towards the Hawkesbury River. I could say that we roughing it those first three nights, and if you call coming back to a home cooked meal, and a nice warm bed, at Dinsmore, our family home at Epping, than consider we were roughing it.
In fact, the number of days actually camping out were less than those spent tucked up in a regular bed, as the walk can be done in a way that allows you to stay at bed & breakfast type accommodation along the way. Not that either of us was unaccustomed to camping out in the elements, however let’s face it, with an average of twenty-six kilometres to walk each day a nice bed to sleep in at night has its appeal.
On the second day we were fortunate to have our good friend and frequent walking partner, Bob Todd, join us on the picturesque Crossland to Berowra Waters section of the walk.
And there was no rest on father’s day which we celebrated walking through a number of valleys to arrive at Brooklyn, a fishing village nestled on the banks of Hawkesbury River. However, we did arrive to a fan-fare of sorts with Thomas and Aubrey greeting us with a welcome afternoon tea.
There are two ways to get to the other side of the Hawkesbury; one is via a ferry to Patonga, and the second on the train to Wondabyne.
We elected to take the train, and its departure from Wondabyne station marked our moment of truth as we stood there, back-packs loaded with twenty kilograms of gear and water, another seven days ahead of us, and a rather imposing walk up a hill from the station.
As we trudged along there was plenty of banter exchanged during the first hour and it mostly centred on the weight of our packs and whether there were items we could have done without to lighten the load.
Too late to worry about that now!
The landscape was changing as we progressed towards the Somersby Store, from open ridges to secluded and moist valleys.
Ray had quipped that the Somersby Store had the best Icy Poles, a frozen fruit delight, he had ever had. However, this was a delight I wasn’t going to experience on this day as the bus to Gosford was pulling up at the store just as we arrived.
On boarding the bus we quickly slinked back into the seat for a well earned rest as we were transported to our night’s accommodation. Oh, did I mention, we were toughing the night out at a motel in downtown Gosford.
Day five was billed as a long walk to the small locality of Yarramalong nestled in the Central Coast hinterland. And similar to previous days the day’s walk it had its fair share of hills, gullies, and at times open forestry trails.
We were greeted to the sleepy township by a scarecrow at almost every house, part of the area’s welcome to spring celebrations. I’d venture to suggest that had we stood still many would have been forgiven for mistaking this couple of weary and dishevelled walkers as just another pair of scarecrows.
The kind staff at the local store rustled us up a couple of steak sandwiches and refreshing cold drinks. In fact, the food was so good we were back there for dinner a couple of hours later after settling into our accommodation at the town’s local bed & breakfast.
As we turned in for the night Ray suggested the next day was going to be a real slog and that we should get an early start. But when the alarm clock went off a two-thirty something in the morning I was left to ponder, half comatose, just how far this days walk was going to be if we had to rise so early.
It turns out the alarm clock in the next room, which was unoccupied, had been set for this time, and Ray was still blissfully asleep as I lay there listening to the mind-numbing sound. Fortunately, this lasted only two hours, but unfortunately, this left me half an hour’s sleep before there was a knock at the door from a refreshed Ray who was arising from a restful night’s sleep.
To his credit, Ray did organise with the local storekeeper to have our twenty kilogram packs transported to a track head some eleven kilometres down the road, so our first two hours walk this day was done in relative comfort and without our back-packs weighing us down.
The walk took us along a quiet country road to Cedar Brush track head, the point from which we would launch our assault, and long climb, into the Watagan Mountains.
This was quite an arduous day, although I wasn’t to have the long climb to the top of Mount Warrawolong inflicted on me, something that Ray insisted that Michael and he undertake on the last crossing of their paths in April. As fate would have it, had it not been for their climb to the top, and an overnight camp there, Ray would never have got the call on his mobile that his was only hours away from becoming a father.
Given there was no chance of that happening again on this trip, the part of Ray becoming a father again, we gleefully walked past the turn-off that lead to the highest point in the Watagan Mountains, observed only by a rather large goanna.
Our camp was still another hours walk down a steep fire trail, with our only respite being a welcome encounter with two people from Challenge Ranch, who were providing vehicle based support to a group of young adults undertaking their Duke of Edinburingh Silver Certificates. This entailed them undertaking a two night hike through the bush. We could only dream of vehicle based support!
Nightfall came fairly quickly and with it a cool evening and after enjoying some rehydrated food we tucked ourselves into our respective accommodation, two tents, and snored the hours away until the kookaburra’s awoke us just before sunrise the next morning. Mind you when you go to bed at six o’clock at night you get plenty of sleep in before the birds start their early morning wake up calls.
After six full days on the walk you would think the hills would come just a little easier, especially as our fitness levels were increasing each day. Our walk to Barraba Trig threw a number of hills and gullies at us, but it saved the best till last. This was an hour and half’s walk up the side of a hill that got steeper with every step we took.
And we had the added imposition of another two kilograms each in our pack, after we picked up additional water supplies at the bottom of the hill.
Ray had secreted this away in a hollow log a week or so earlier, along with some refried beans and corn chips for dinner that night.
I’m not sure who was more pleased to see each other, the leaders on the Duke of Edinburingh walk, who were looking forward to some adult company and relief from the giggles of six young adults, or me. I mean, I know Icy Poles are desirable, but Ray had a strange fixation on them by this time. Okay, there is some literary licence being taken here, but hey, he scoffed a few down when we once again encountered civilisation.
The Watagan Mountains is a beautiful place with many walking tracks and fire trails to be explored, and the view from our campsite was magnificent and took in parts of the Hunter Valley wine growing region.
The next day was spent wandering in quiet contemplation along shaded fire trails before arriving at Heaton’s Lookout, and a wonderful panorama of the hinterland through to the ocean.
From here we could even see our destination, a mere forty-five kilometres away.
However, before we could wind down for the day and relax at the cabins located at Heaton’s Gap we had to negotiate our way down a steep power line track. We had walked this route previously and I can attest it doesn’t get any easier on your legs the second time around.
However, the bottom of the hill would signify a couple of things though, Icy Poles and a refreshing shower, and importantly, we would be rid of some of the gear out of our back-packs as we were to be joined by Janet, my wife, and son Thomas that evening.
In fact, we even had a visit from Michael, his wife Emma, and good friends Ian and Stella who were keen to see how we were going. The term ambulance chasing did come to mind briefly after all this was day eight. The night quickly passed though with good company, ample food and plenty of good humour……
However, there is a downside to most things, and over dinner Michael casually mentioned that with the sign suggesting it was only forty-one kilometres to the Brewery Pub at Newcastle (yes the walk finishes at a pub) that we should give consideration to knocking it off tomorrow instead of over the planned two days.
There was an awkward, but silent moment, as Ray and I caught glances, and Michael with a hint of a wry smile on the corner of his mouth recognised the bombshell he had just dropped.
I thought, that confirms my thinking, and Ray had a look of disbelief and no doubt was hoping that I hadn’t actually heard what Michael had said. But the penny had dropped!
The next day we were greeted to a lovely sunny spring day and with a hug and a kiss from Janet and Thomas we headed off on what was to be our last day on the walk.
Oddly, there was no discussion of Michael’s suggestion; I didn’t want to raise it too early, and Ray surely didn’t want to remind me of what Michael had said just on the off chance that a good night’s sleep may have erased the thought from my mind.
But like an irritating blister on the heel of your foot I raised it with Ray just as we walked into what was supposed to be our night’s rest spot at Warner’s Bay.
And yes there was some animated discussion at that point, but in the fine tradition of what goes on tour stays on tour it is best left at that, but fair to say Ray was cursing both Michael and me for a good hour or so at least.
But to his credit, Ray, a Kiwi, showed the grit and determination usually reserved to the New Zealand All-Blacks performing the Haka ahead of a Bledisloe Cup match, and he pushed through the pain of his blisters, egged on by my promise that I would have us sitting at the Brewery Pub downing a pint of lager as the sun set over Newcastle harbour.
And after being met by Michael at Burwood beach for the final six kilometre walk to the centre of Newcastle, we were met by our families and did just that…
And was the nine day walk worth the saving of an $18 train fare – you bet it was!