The Hawkesbury Valley (Sydney)

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My sister’s friends take us out to the Hawkesbury Valley near their home. They have a ski boat and want to take us all water skiing on the river. I’ve never water skied before and it sounds interesting but, other than a short ride on a ski biscuit with two of my nephews I don’t end up trying it. It’s not that I am scared or can’t do it; rather, water skiing with a group of seven children and five adults is never going to be a terribly successful outing. There’s a lot of time spent waiting around for a turn while trying to explain to primary school aged children why the bigger kids and adults get a longer turn than they do. So, instead, I went for a walk to explore the valley. And what a gorgeous valley it is.
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This is a semi-rural area in Sydney’s far western suburbs where horses dot the paddocks.
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I wonder what it is about us humans that makes us want to pat horses. I mean, I can’t walk past a horse paddock without hoping the equine resident comes over to say hello. Fortunately for me, these horses were friendly fellows who trotted up to accept a pat. I never feed the horses, I just hold my hand out for them to sniff before seeing whether they want a pat.
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Nearby a hobby farmer creates rows in the soil to prepare it for sowing. I don’t know what he’s going to grow in that little square of soil but it looks interesting against the soft flowing grass seed heads in the foreground.
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The acreage properties here are picturesque. This one is for sale if you just have to live in the area. It has a house and driveway but the best view is this one of the shed and dam that are visible from the road. I could wake up to this view every day but I don’t want to work hard enough to afford the mortgage repayments. I’ll stick to traveling through and taking a photo.
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I walk about 4km (2.5 miles) before my sister drives by to pick me up. She has her youngest three children in the car and we head to a nearby playground where they can have some fun instead of getting bored watching the ski boat. Instead, the kids take turns being helped onto this awesome old school play equipment that allows them to see-saw high in the sky. They slide down the slippery dip and bounce on another see-saw. A young boy comes to play with us. He has come from one of the two children’s parties being held in the park but is obviously that kid who was invited out of obligation. His old dirty clothes make him stand out from the rest of the kids and he never engages with them. Instead we help him have a turn on the see-saw in the sky and let him join my niece and nephews on the other see-saw that we are helping them with. He wanders off and we start to kick around a soccer ball until my brother-in-law phones my sister to say the skiing is finished and he is ready to be picked up.

Time with my sisters and their kids is one thing I would have missed had I followed my initial plans to cycle around the world. If given a choice between memories of laughing nieces and nephews calling out “Uncle Andrew” or the adventure of cycling around the world, I will take my nieces and nephews every time.

Getting back into geocaching (Windsor, Sydney)

I got into the geocaching game about five years ago on a whim when I borrowed a GPS device off my parents. That was in the days before smart phones and the Geocaching.com app. You still had to manually enter the cache coordinates into a GPS device and, often, to translate them between the different coordinate formats to suit your device. How things have changed. Today geocaching is as simple as downloading the app onto your phone and watching as your blue dot nears the green marker on your smart phone screen that denotes the location of the cache.

I spent most of the day traveling by train from Newcastle to Windsor in Sydney’s far western suburbs. The ride took over four hours so it was good to stretch my legs when I got off the train. It was a 3.5km (2 mile) walk to my sister’s friends’ place where I was staying. So I did a spot of geocaching along the way.
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And what should I find but a whole heap of Australiana and history.
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First I went to the Windsor war memorial. Every Australian town and most suburbs have a war memorial. Some are simple while others are beautiful gardens like the one in Windsor.
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Not far from the war memorial there was an old traditional cricket pitch complete with manicured lawn, white picket fence and small spectator stand. This is old school Australiana; the kind of thing you see in local made for television movies and mini series. I can just see men wearing whites playing mini test match cricket every weekend.
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Across the road is a stunning old building dating to the early 1800s. This is old by Australian standards because Europeans first started living in Australia in 1788 when they set up a penal colony. So this building would be one of the oldest standing buildings in Australia.
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Just around the corner is St Matthews’ Anglican Church where the graves of some First Fleeters are located. The First Fleet is what the first sailing fleet of convicts and their guards who were sent to set up a penal colony in Sydney. I later learned that the area around Windsor was one of the first areas to be farmed by the British; hence the history in the area.

If I hadn’t got back into geocaching I wouldn’t have gone on this little history tour of Windsor.

Palm Beach to Avalon Beach walk (Sydney)

It’s Mum and my third and final day together on the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk so we catch a bus up to the northern terminus at Palm Beach. It’s about 1.5 hours by bus from Manly with a change half way. Today the bus ride gives the sky a chance to clear a bit so that we don’t have to start our walk in the drizzle that is falling when we leave the hotel.
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We disembark from the bus on the harbour side of Palm Beach just south of Barrenjoey Headland. The view out over Pitwater Bay is spectacular. Mum tells me that it reminds her of Greece, which immediately makes me want to add Greece to my ever expanding list of places to visit. The sight of all the yachts moored in the bay conjures up mental images of deck shoes, linen clothes, blue skies, sandy beaches and tangled hair. Having sailed as a child, I know the reality is something different but it’s nice to have these mental images.
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The sand on the shores of Pitwater Bay is hard and easy to walk along. We follow it north towards Barrenjoey Headland.
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At the end of the beach a restored sandstone roadway leads away from the beach and up towards the lighthouse. As always, Sydney’s rocky landscape takes my breath away. It feels so wild and epic to be amongst these small cliff lines and massive boulders.
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We pass the Smugglers Route and follow the restored roadway to the headland instead. It’s incredibly steep! The road simply climbs up without concern for gradient. It’s a good workout.
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With rewarding views of Palm Beach from the top.
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The Barrenjoey Lighthouse is a stunning sandstone structure. It was built in 1881 from sandstone that was quarried onsite. The Smuggler’s Route to the top (which we follow back down the headland) was built in the 1850s to allow local authorities to monitor local waterways for smugglers. You can take tours of the lighthouse on Sundays, which is something I might do in future.
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After a spot of geocaching we descended down the Smugglers Route and walked out onto the seaward-facing Palm Beach. It felt good to take my shoes off and walk along the beach for a short distance feeling the sand between my toes. But only for a short distance. The sand was soft and I have to admit my legs were feeling a bit fatigued from four days of walking so we soon retreated to the path just above the beach.
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One of the things I like about the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk is that it is so civilised. There are many cafés, restaurants and take away shops at which to refuel and enjoy the beach culture. In the past I always scoffed at this type of luxury hiking but now I enjoy a more balanced view, being quite happy to have a mix of roughing it and comfort in my life. We stop for some morning tea treats at a cute place with a view of the beach commenting on how lovely the presentation of the shop and food is.
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No sooner do we leave the café than we are challenged by the next steep climb of the day. Multiple flights of steep rough steps take us up to the top of the headland between Palm Beach and Whale Beach. The path is a narrow old easement between closely spaced houses but it feels quite wild due to the greenery that hugs the rocks.
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We detour briefly from the trail to visit the Biblical Gardens. The gardens are stunning. They have been established and maintained by a local church group and contain a range of biblical and edible plants, such as a fig tree, a Jonas tree and an apple tree. The view north from this gorgeous resting place makes the climb worthwhile. We can see exactly where we’ve walked so far as well as the seascape beyond Barrenjoey Headland.
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The next section of the trail follows steep local roads around the heads. It passes houses with million dollar views and impossibly steep driveways. From the road we look out over Whale Beach and the next headland we will need to cross. Everywhere there are houses perched along the waterfront and headlands, all competing for the best ocean views.
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There are surfers at every beach we pass. The culture is certainly alive and well here on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Men and women of all ages hit the waves under the gaze of the mansions sitting on their manicured lawns.
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There is a seawater pool at the southern end of Whale Beach and, beyond it around the heads, there is this sculpture. I learned about it through the geocaching game and it was worth the extra few hundred meters walking to come here. The sculpture is an old man surrounded by lizards and a turtle. I don’t know how or why the sculpture is there tucked away from most prying eyes. Even a Google search came up blank. But it is a stunning work of art that shows the mystery artist’s skills.
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Back on Whale Beach we stop for lunch under the shade of the pines. We’ve carried some tinned tuna, bread rolls and a Greek salad. I love this sort of picnic where you have simple food on a bench in a park or natural place.
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After lunch we set off on the final leg of today’s walk. Again we have to leave the beach to cross another headland. This time we have the pleasure of leaving the road to walk up a bush path. Being Sydney there are many rock steps to scale. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of this most northern section of the trail. It takes us from Whale Beach across to Avalon Beach.
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As with the rest of the walk, the path takes us to breathtaking views of the confluence between nature and man. The place where cliffs and pounding waves meet mansions and manicured lawns.
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I wasn’t sure what to expect on my Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk adventure. I learned about it through Lotsa Fresh Air’s blog. When there were some cheap flights available between the Gold Coast and Sydney I booked on a whim. What I have discovered is that Sydney is not all corporate suits and hectic traffic. There is a whole other side to this much maligned Australian city. There are beaches and cliffs, views and mansions. But mostly, there is an amazing strong surfing culture that booms as loud as the crashing waves. I’m no surfer but I love to watch it and have enjoyed lessons in the past. I can see myself coming back to Sydney more regularly to explore the rest of the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk, take a few more surfing lessons, paddle a kayak and explore the many dining options available.

If you are interested in this walk, check out the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk website. There are more than 300km of trails to explore so I have only touched on a small section.

Manly to Fishermans Beach walk (Sydney)

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The skies are grey and threatening as we set off from Manly to walk as far north as our legs will take us in a day. A few spits of rain fall from the sky and there’s a bit of wind blowing. We carry raincoats in our packs just in case we are going to spend the day wet but hope we don’t need to use them.
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We make our way along Manly Beach and up onto Queenscliffe Headland. Mum observes that Sydney is all layers; the houses don’t stop on one level but are stacked behind each other all the way up the hillsides with streets and lanes running along every level. The headland provides fantastic views and my first insight into the type of living the Northern Beaches are famous for: expansive ocean views and big old houses, some of which have sandstone facades. Rounding Queenscliffe Head we come to our first northern view of the walk. Freshwater Beach lies below. It’s still overcast but that isn’t stopping the surfing culture from going full steam ahead below.
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Down across at the northern end of Freshwater Beach I take a look back and admire the almost foreign looking scene. Crystal clear water is backed by tall sandstone cliffs that are iced with apartments and houses.
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We hike up the next headland. The views are amazing, as is the boardwalk that leads in to Curl Curl Beach. Waves crash against the cliffs and then the backwash crashes into the next waves that are hurtling towards the cliffs. It’s an explosion of sights and sounds.
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The path to Curl Curl Beach is lined with gorgeous yellow flowers that contrast sharply with the violence of the waves below.
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Curl Curl Beach is pretty but we don’t want to walk in the soft sand, preferring the path that runs through a park behind the dunes. This also gives me an opportunity to indulge in some geocaching. I’ve been out of the geocaching game for a little while but put the app on my new phone last week and decided to get back into it. Geocaching is a game where you use a GPS to locate containers (lunch boxes, Eclipse mint tins and old Gatorade jars) that have been hidden all over the world. Once you find the container you sign the log book, hide it again and set off on your merry way. You also log your find online so that you can keep track of how many caches you have found. The game is free to play (though the official app costs about $12 – I used to have a free version on my old phone but could only find the official version on the iTunes app store). It’s still cheap family fun if you are into the outdoors. I am fortunate that my mum is patient enough to wait for me to find caches along the way.
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After Curl Curl Beach the path climbs up Dee Why Headland. This massive headland makes for spectacular walking. The southern end is open and covered in low shrubs in which birds sing. You can watch the surfers in the sea below as they catch almost see-through waves to the shore.
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As we round the head we find ourselves standing atop steep cliffs that plummet a long way into the sea. Caves have formed in places where the rock has eroded away, leaving precarious overhangs. It looks amazing!
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Native plants and flowers surround the narrow walking path. These banksia flowers felt like plastic but are actually real.
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These delicate yellow petals smiled up at us as we walked, announcing that the grey skies had gone.
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I love this sort of walking where the views are expansive and the spaces wide. Sure, there are houses all along the coast, some close to the trail. But the landscape is so wild that it dominates.
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We reach Dee Why Beach around lunchtime and the seawater pool is too inviting to resist. Mum dives in quickly while I faff about complaining that it is cold. That’s my style though – I am more a stand in the water or paddle on it kinda guy than a swimmer. But eventually I get in too and it’s refreshing after the long hot walk. We munch on a picnic lunch as we watch the surfers who are surfing just outside the rock pool. They are close to rocks but don’t seem too bothered. Maybe this is their lunchtime ritual.
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We now have a choice: to walk along the beach or to follow a path past the Dee Why Lagoon. It’s hot in the now shining sun so we opt for the Lagoon. Whip birds call out to each other from the trees as we walk past and the ocean roars on the other side of the dunes. I am fascinated by the array of landscapes we’ve walked through today. It’s magnificent.
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At the end of the lagoon we have to walk a short distance along the beach to get to Long Reef Point. That’s our arbitrary goal for the day. A class of school kids are being taught to surf. I feel a twinge of jealousy that my school didn’t offer surfing classes (mind you, my school was about two hours from the nearest surf beach). The kids are clearly not locals because they have little idea about the sea or surfing. But they look to be having fun and which teenager wouldn’t love a day at the beach instead of sitting in class.
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Long Reef Point headland is a magnificent final lookout. The headland has been landscaped by the local paragliding and hang gliding club. And boy is it a lovely place to sit and contemplate life.
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The views looking north (above) and south were pretty amazing. There were headlands and beaches for miles in either direction. Each headland separating the next surf beach like a barrier separating different worlds.
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And then we were done. We reached Fisherman’s Beach just north of Long Reef Point Headland and decided it was time to catch a bus back to Manly. All up we walked about 16km (10 miles) of spectacular coastal trails. To end on a quiet beach protected from the waves by a headland and reef seemed fitting after enjoying the sight of surf waves crashing into sand and rock all day. It just added one final landscape to an already diverse experience.
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We did work up quite an appetite though, with all that walking and geocaching. Fortunately, Manly has some fantastic modern restaurants with spectacular harbour views. We shared a meal of snapper, curly fries and a fresh light take on coleslaw while recounting our day and discussing that how we are likely to come back to Sydney more often now that we have realised just how fantastic it is for outdoor adventures.

North Head Loop walk (Manly, Australia)

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Over the past year, I have developed a particular love of waterfront places. I don’t know whether its because I started my journeys by camping on Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island) for six weeks or whether it’s because I’ve come to live across the road from the sea. Whatever it is, waking up and seeing the water makes me feel relaxed. So it was only natural that I would start today by wandering down to the water to eat my breakfast. A glorious sight awaited me as I walked past the Manly Ferry Terminal: crystal clear water, white sand and moored yachts.
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Mum arrived from Brisbane just in time for an early lunch. My sister had picked her up from the airport too and made arrangements with our cousin to meet up. We ate at a delightful gourmet café on Pittwater Road where I indulged in some home made baked beans served with fresh pressed juice. As I took a photo of my food my sister joked that I am on a “food tour of the world” and I guess she’s probably correct.
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Lunch eaten, farewells to cousin said and it was time to hit the trail. For our first foray onto the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk we decided to do a loop of North Head starting and finishing in Manly. The walk is well-signed and the trail well-maintained. The trail winds through some amazing natural landscapes but is accessible even to the novice because it is clearly marked and close to civilisation.
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We started up the trail that I took yesterday but continued after the big rock wall. It didn’t take long to come to this hanging waterhole. A man was sitting on the rocky shores painting the scene in the hot afternoon sun. He was friendly and chatted a bit with us, lamenting his decision not to bring any shade with him.
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The trail moved easily through a range of different vegetation types. In places National Parks have built protected grates to allow walkers into an area with minimal disturbance to the delicate soil and plant life. This allows the path to be used by hundreds of people a day without eroding a depression into the soil. It also means we get to keep our feet dry when walking through here in wet weather.
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We walked through an old barracks complex that was used as a training ground by the artillery unit of the Australian army. Beyond that, the trail took us to another hanging swamp where someone had started a cairn over on the other side of some water.
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The nearby soldier’s memorial walk was quite a contrast to the hanging swamp. A great big cannon stood pride of place at the entrance and interpretive signs told of the role that the artillery units played in Australia’s military history. It was moving because a family friend was in the artillery unit during the Vietnam War and I realised he might have known some of the men standing in the photos in the display.
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There are a range of bunkers and gun posts on the headland due to the military training camp. It is something unfamiliar here in Australia where war has not touched our shores in the way it has in so many other countries of the world. It made me think of the artillery posts on South Korea’s north-east coastline.
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Before long the trail took us back to the coastline and some spectacular cliff-top views.
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This is something I love about Sydney: all the seaside cliffs. There are just so many spectacular lookouts to stand at.
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And then you see the city skyline and realise that you are still in Australia’s most populous city but yet this view has been preserved.
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We also found some dinosaur eggs. Well, not really. But these boulders sure did look interesting.
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The walk was incredibly diverse. Between the swamps, military history and views we also came to an old quarantine cemetery. Most of the graves dated to the small pox epidemic of the 1880s and the bubonic plague outbreak of 1900. This was just one of a series of cemeteries established around Sydney at the time and the interpretive sign told of the stench that they created. The grave stones are slowly being over run by the local flora so I wonder whether this site will one day cease to be visible at all. The overrun flora did give an interesting atmosphere to the site though … It made it kind of creepy.
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Pretty Collins Bay appeared at just the right moment. We’d been walking for a few hours and it was hot in the sun so cooling off in the water was delightful. The beach was set in a sandstone bay with great gum trees rising from the cliffs. It was so Australiana.
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From here the trail hopped from one pretty beach to the next, providing plenty of opportunity to stop for a swim or just to watch the water. At Little Manly Beach we swam a bit before watching a big school of fish in a frenzy further out in the sea. The fish would have been a good 50m from the shore, maybe more but we could see them thrashing about. Seagulls hovered above and dove to grab a feed. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the fish were being hunted by that large aquatic animal with the big teeth and ominous fin.
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The sun started to set as we walked back towards the Manly Ferry Terminal. They have daylight savings here in New South Wales so it was already after 7pm.
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Near the ferry terminal we watched a group of guys playing stand up paddleboard water polo. It looked like a fun game. Few were actually standing on their SUPs but all were using their paddles to great effect to grab at the ball. A guy jumped off his board to tackle another guy off his and a few goals were scored. There was even a referee on a SUP governing the game complete with umpire’s whistle.
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We’re staying in a much nicer hotel for the next few days. We have the front two rooms of a gorgeous Sydney cottage on a quiet street near the beach. The front veranda is the perfect place to eat cheese and crackers after a long day walking. There’s something enjoyable about coming home to a good space when you travel. Sometimes it’s the comfort of your own tent in a picturesque campground while other times its rented apartments or homestays. I think it proves that sometimes accommodation needs to be more than just any old bed if you want to get the most out of your travel experience because you don’t just go there to sleep; you go there to relax, reflect and recharge so you are good to go and explore some more.
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The only trouble with our place being so nice was that we didn’t go out to look for a meal until about 9pm so many kitchens were already closed. But we did find this spectacular table overlooking the harbour and the Manly Ferry. The ferry looks beautiful as it cruises in and out of the terminal all aglow. It would be amazing to have a slow shutter speed on a camera and to take a photo of it moving across the water so gracefully.
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Of course a magnificent day requires a delicious ending. We end ours by sharing a Greek-style lamb pizza and a fig & prosciutto salad. Have I mentioned yet that Manly has some amazing food options?

Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk: First Impressions (Manly, NSW, Australia)

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After a long two hour motorbike ride in the rain and a short bumpy one hour flight I look out the plane window to see that most famous coat hanger the Sydney Harbour Bridge straddling the water and the big white sails of the Sydney Opera House shimmering under an overcast sky. I feel excited about the week ahead. I have five days set aside to explore sections of the Sydney Coast and Harbour Walk, two nights to visit friends further up the coast in Newcastle, and then a couple of nights holidaying with my sister and her family who are holidaying in Sydney for the weekend (would you believe they bought return airfares for a family of 6 for a total of $120 from Brisbane … not $120 each but $20 each return).

When I arrive in Sydney I get a pleasant surprise, my other sister lives here part-time and calls to say that she’s picking me up from the airport. She’s on her way past the airport to have lunch as Sushi Train in Bondi Junction where you have to line up outside to get a seat. The wait is worth it because the sushi is fresh and delicious; not like the suburban stuff I’ve eaten in the past. And then I’m off on the train to Circular Quay and the famous Manly Ferry. This is a must do here in Sydney and I discover why as I’m on board. However, I forget to take photos as I find myself talking with a lovely elderly lady who insists I take the forward facing view because she has taken the ferry many times.
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Half an hour later I am in Manly. After checking into my hotel (do not stay at the Boardrider Hostel and Budget Hotel because it is more boarding house than hostel so is filthy and noisy) I head out for a short 5km run. The beach is beautiful and just a few hundred meters away. It reminds me a bit of Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast but with better waves for the surfers.
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The surf culture is thriving here. There are plenty of surfers in the water, both on the beach break and the points. I love watching surfers in action. There’s something amazing about the way they can stand on the water and move on the waves. I have taken lessons in the past and enjoyed it but found that the act of dropping down a wave freaked me out a bit. So I think I will just watch the wetsuit-clad crowd do their thing from the relative safety of the shore.
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The walking path here along the coast is well-signed and easy to follow.
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It takes me past quiet suburban beaches where homes proudly boast ocean views and rocky headlands are criss-crossed from decades of surfers and walkers taking short cuts to their favourite spots.
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A rough but well-trod bush trail takes me up onto the headland. It feels good to be running along trails again after such a long break. I am not a good runner but I enjoy it when I get into it. And today I am definitely getting into it.
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Some of the rough-hewn steps through the rocks remind me of The Great North Walk (which I walked in 2013) and I can’t help but wonder whether Sydney is the best city in Australia for bushwalking because there are so many kilometres of these paths within easy reach of public transport. It’s difficult to believe I am just a half hour ferry ride from the Australia’s busiest CBD and less than a kilometre from the nearest suburban maze.
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At the top of the climb I am rewarded by amazing views over that other fantastic Sydney icon: the coast’s sandstone cliffs. I am always drawn to headlands and mountains. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the views they promise or maybe it’s something more mystical than that. But I just have to get higher and closer to those big rocks and that’s exactly where the path takes me.
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There’s a huge sandstone wall at the top of the trail. It runs from the suburban houses to the edge of the cliffs. I’m not quite sure what it is but it sure does make an impression. A low hole has been broken in the wall to allow people to walk through and up to North Head. This is where I turn around on my afternoon jog. I will continue from here later in the week with Mum because I imagine North Head will be a fabulous walk.
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On my way back to Manly I stop to watch the surfers off the end of a point. It feels surreal that this is some people’s every day life: surfing and watching surfers. The surfers here are ending their rides on top of shallow rocks and I can’t help but wonder at how many broken bones and near drownings it took for them to get good at their craft. A part of me envies their courage and wants to be out there living that dream. Maybe I will find a quiet safe beach somewhere to take lessons and gain confidence.
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I stop to take a few photos before heading back into Manly to meet my cousin and his family for dinner. They are from Holland but have lived in Shanghai for over a decade and I haven’t seen them since I was in their city in 2009. It’s funny because I only learned this morning that they are in Australia and, by coincidence, they are also staying in Manly tonight. We while away the night catching up and eating at one of the many fantastic restaurants near the Manly Wharf. Later I return to my hotel and am glad I have to knock over a lot of work because the noise from someone playing shoot-em-up games on his big screen television doesn’t end until after 2am and the drinking noise coming from another room continues well into the morning. I can usually sleep well at any place but “backpacker hostels” that are actually boarding houses are not my cup of tea and should  be forced to register as boarding houses not hostels. But, I manage to pump out a heap of work meaning that I now have a couple of days to just relax and enjoy some time with Mum exploring all Sydney has to offer.