Tag Archives: National Parks

Exploring Natural Sydney

Part 3 of the Great Sydney Caper!

We are fairly active people and like “doing” things on our vacations. Our beach weekend in Phuket was a little out of character for us, way too much potential for sitting around. One of our favorite vacation activities is hiking and visiting National Parks of all shapes and sizes. Sydney has a lot of National Parks around the harbor. We knew we wanted to visit as many as we could, but there were way too many to even try to see all of them in one week!

On our walking tour of the Rocks area, we stopped in at the Visitor’s Center to get some recommendations on how to prioritize the Harbour National Parks. We had scheduled ourselves an activity each day and we basically had one day to devote to the parks. So which ones should we absolutely not miss? The woman at the Visitor’s Center gave us a few ideas, and then suggested the Eco Hopper Ferry that stopped at many of them. We probably could have saved money by taking the public transportation ferry, but it was nice to have a little bit of a guided tour as we went between locations. Plus, the Eco Hopper only went between the National Parks, so it was a little easier than figuring out the public transport schedule where we might have had to change at a central location or something. We ended up buying a Hop On/Hop Off pass that was good for all day; even though it was more expensive, it was very convenient.

Buying the pass the day before we planned to visit the parks was a really good idea. It gave us time to strategize which parks to visit, in which order, and to find out what we should do and see while we were there. We definitely wanted to go to Watson’s Bay and to Manly. We thought that would take up most, if not all, of the day. There were two other stops on the Eco Hopper that we agreed would be interesting to see for their historical value, but we decided just to photograph them from the ferry. The first one was Fort Denison, in the middle of the harbor. Apparently it has the grisly distinction of displaying the bodies of executed convicts, to serve as a warning for others. From the ferry, it looked as though we would have exhausted the exploration opportunities in about 30 minutes, so we both felt satisfied with our decision not to see it up close.

Fort Denison.

Fort Denison.

The second site we elected not to explore in detail was the Q Station. I guess the full name is the Manly Quarantine Station, but I only just learned that when I was researching facts to write this. Everyone there just calls it the Q Station. That’s even the official name of the ferry stop. It was used for about 150 years as a place to isolate patients with epidemic-causing diseases. It looks like it was still in use until 1984 (the quarantine purposes ended in 1972) to house illegal immigrants. It reminded me a little of Ellis Island in New York, the buildings had the same institutional-quality feel. This is one place I would like to visit on our next trip to Sydney. There is a lot more to know about the Q Station than we could get from the snippet in the guide book and from our brief view while the ferry docked.

WatsonsBayWMOur first real stop of the day was Watson’s Bay. Watson’s Bay is a neighborhood, with a waterfront that had a lot of good-looking cafes, a small beach, and a really nice park. It would be the perfect place to take a picnic if we actually lived there! But the thing to see is The Gap. The Gap is a scenic overlook over limestone cliffs, through “the gap” in the cliffs, to open ocean. It has a boardwalk so that you can safely enjoy the view from many different vantage points along the cliffs. The part that was part of the National Park was, at one point in Sydney’s history, a military base, and there are many places where you can still see vestiges of this history. Now, native plants are retaking the area. For the first time since arriving in Sydney it really struck me that we were in an entirely different ecosystem to any I had ever seen before. Not only were the plants different, but the usual animal and bird noises were different also. It was exciting to explore something so new, but I also wished we had bought a bird book or something to help us identify what we were seeing. (Although an app designed to identify birdcalls might have been better! We actually saw very few birds, in comparison to what we heard.)

At the entrance to the Sydney Harbour National Park in Manly, you can hear kookaburras laughing.  It was really distinctive, and never having heard it before we knew what it was right away.  We think this is a kookaburra.  (If it's not, please don't inform us otherwise.  We are happy in our ignorance.)

We think this is a kookaburra. (If it’s not, please don’t inform us otherwise. We are happy in our ignorance.)

Our next stop was Manly. We were told both at the Visitor’s Center and by several friends that Manly was not to be missed. Indeed it wasn’t! There were a lot of great views and scenery.  We started at Manly Beach where we enjoyed some fish and chips for lunch. By this time, what had started as an overcast and potentially rainy day had turned into a really hot and sunny one. Fortunately for me there were plenty of surf shops around where I could acquire a sun hat, since I had elected to leave mine at the hotel on the chance of rain. Then, we were off on the walking tour from Lonely Planet that would take us to the Manly Scenic Walkway (MSW), only we didn’t realize that’s what it was at first. There was at least one point when we were standing under a directional arrow that said “MSW” and consulting our map in our book to figure out where to go. This comes back to my point that as great as the small maps are in Lonely Planet, having something with more details is very important.

The entire walk was 10km, one way. We knew we wouldn’t make the whole thing, based on the time we started and the time the last ferry was leaving. Our goal was to make it to a certain point, where there were Aboriginal rock drawings. We made it about half way to that point, about a quarter to a third of the way on the whole walk, before we had to make the tough call to head back to catch the last ferry. It would have been amazing to see the rock drawings, but given our after lunch start, the heat of the day, and the fact that we only brought one bottle of water each, it was just not to be. Oh well. It was only Tuesday and we already had a definite reason to come back to Sydney!

One of the lizards we saw along the MSW.

One of the lizards we saw along the MSW.

I have done several multiple day, very long distance walks for charity in the past. On several of them, I have experienced what the medical crew calls “road rash” on my legs. It’s apparently a form of heat rash, one gets it from the heat reflected from the pavement. I usually get a nice swelling of my feet, ankles, and lower legs as well, which makes walking sometimes painful. About an hour into the 3-4 hours we spent on the MSW, I started to experience these very familiar and unwelcome symptoms. I was unwilling to give up and go back, so I just stopped to sit and rest more frequently than I would like to admit. Micah took these opportunities to take pictures of plants, animals, and scenery, so it worked out OK. At one of these rest stops, we met a family out for an afternoon nature hike. I chatted with the mom while the 4 kids showed Micah the various plants and flowers they had found, and even a lizard! Eventually, we all started talking together and the mom asked what else we had planned for vacation. When Micah told them about going to our first cricket match later in the week, the oldest girls (about 9) were shocked (shocked!) that we had never seen cricket. They couldn’t fathom a world where two grown adults wouldn’t have watched even a little bit of cricket before. We explained that it wasn’t popular in the US, and she was equally outraged by that piece of news. It was really sweet, actually.

My favorite part of the day was the rock pools. In the area where I grew up, we might call these tide pools. The rocky landscape reminded us of something lunar. We both really enjoyed exploring the pools and just watching the water.


Shortly after meeting the family, we made the decision to turn around and go back. Because we had already taken a lot of pictures and enjoyed a lot of scenery, the trip back was much faster than the trip out. We had enough time to enjoy a beer or two at the bar on the dock while we waited for the ferry. Pretty good timing, I’d say! The ferry ride back was really nice because there weren’t a lot of other people on board. We had the whole top deck to ourselves and enjoyed a private sunset cruise of the harbor.

We got back to our hotel totally exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. We showered and went downstairs for dinner. We discovered in the whole “getting cleaned up” process that we were both very sunburned. I thought I had done a good job applying sunscreen periodically, but apparently I missed random small parts of my body- like the top of my thumb, as well as the tops of my feet. The heat rash had also spread to my feet, so that was really fun. Micah had a really terrible sunburn on his forearms as well as his ears. We discovered later in the week that the intensity of the sun is much stronger in Australia as compared with other places we have been because the atmosphere is thinner. I remember learning about the hole in the ozone layer in elementary school, but to be honest I hadn’t thought about it very much since then. The rest of the week though, we thought about it every hour as we reapplied our SPF 1million.

The other really great “natural” walk we did was the Bondi to Coogee cliffs walk. I don’t think any parts of this were officially included as part of the Harbour National Parks, but it was just as beautiful. It was a very hot day, just like the day we did the Manly walk, and this one had very little opportunities for shade. But it felt easier than the Manly walk for some reason. Perhaps we were better prepared mentally, and with more water, or maybe it was flatter and therefore actually easier. I’m not sure. We were never far from the ocean though, so I’m sure the ocean breezes went a long way to helping us stay comfortable.

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Bondi Beach is famous for surfing, so once we got there we walked the beach and watched the surfers for a while. There were a lot of beaches along the whole walk; some were more popular with surfers, some with body borders, some with families. There were also several “ocean pools” along the route- actual pools on the beach, I assume filled with seawater, where people could get their exercise swimming in. Sometimes a wave would crash over the edge, which must have been fun if you were trying to get your laps in! This walk was probably one of our favorite outings of the week. The boardwalk was right along the cliffs so we heard the sound of waves (my favorite sound) for nearly the entire distance. The walkway was well maintained and very easy to follow, and despite its popularity it never felt like there were a lot of people around us. Another great thing was that the city or local neighborhood groups had placed drinking fountains along the way so you could fill your water bottle. Having easy access to clean (and free!) drinking water was so nice. One extra perk of these fountains was they had a spigot on the side specifically to make it easier to fill your bottle, rather than having to tip it at a funny angle as you would at a regular water fountain (or bubbler, in my neck of the woods). Even with sun hats, copious sunscreen, and plenty of water we both felt hot and exhausted at the end. The walk is 6km, and the book says it takes 2-3 hours to complete. I would guess it took us about 4.5, given the time we spent to take pictures and soak in the ocean air. This walk is something I would do every time we are in Sydney. It was that fantastic.

The last “natural Sydney” expedition we made was to the Blue Mountains.  Details of that outing are here!