Trip Report: New South Wales, Australia
Between September 14 and October 23, 2011, we (Amy and Jim) spent five weeks backpacking in southeastern Australia between Newcastle, New South Wales and Mallacoota, Victoria.
Our trip had three phases.
1. We spent 8 days walking from Newcastle to Sydney on the Great North Walk (GNW).
2. We then spent 22 days walking from Sydney to Mallacoota, following the Great South Coast Walk (GSCW). We were inspired to walk in Australia by the excellent trip report that David and Nello (aka Gang-Gang) wrote, and are deeply indebted to them for the research they did to define this terrific route, and the significant effort they made to share it via their website.
3. We reached Mallacoota with five days to spare before our flight home, so we spent that time poking around (on foot) in the low coastal mountains between there and Eden, NSW. This portion of the trip was not part of our planned itinerary, and is not documented in this report.
You can view our route by downloading our kmz files and then opening the files in google Earth.
Great North Walk kmz file
Great South Coast Walk kmz file
Here is a link to our full annotated photo show.
Great North Walk:
In summary, this is a very pleasant regional walk, but it is not a world-class route, and one ought not to travel from foreign lands in order to take this hike. Those living in the area, however, are lucky to have such a great long distance path close at hand.
The GNW is a government sponsored way-marked route about 250 kilometers long that generally runs through the coastal mountains between Newcastle and Sydney. A good description of this walk can be found in Wikipedia.
For the most part, we found the route to be quite enjoyable. There is one overly long section of road-walking west of Teralba, but otherwise the GNW does a good job of avoiding most pavement. The scenery is pleasant but not outstanding. Much of the walk is in eucalyptus forest, so there are few expansive views to be had. There is diversity in that you get a bit of coastal walking near Newcastle, the Hawkesbury River to cross, and the cleverly twisted walk into Sydney itself that is surprisingly un-urban.
Technically, the walk is not difficult. There are some ups and downs, but no great amounts of altitude are gained or lost at any one time. The path is generally easy to follow and the tread is good. We had little boggy trail and there are only a few rocky sections. In many places, steps have been cut into the soft rock making climbing up and down the frequent short vertical bluffs quite easy. Trail maintenance was generally good and only a few short sections had overhanging brush to push through. During our walk, water availability was good.
We used the set of six GNW maps from the NSW Department of Lands as a primary resource. These maps proved adequate. They were generally very accurate, and include information about shops and water sources. If you plan to do this walk, be sure to obtain these maps. The GNW is way-marked with both signboards and arrow-posts. The arrow-posts do not have a consistent graphic format, but it was only rarely confusing to follow the markers. In a few places, the trail has been re-routed and the printed maps have not yet caught up; however, the re-routes were marked well enough on the ground that route finding was never a problem. Navigating this route should not be difficult for anyone with basic map reading skills and a bit of mountain sense.
We also had the gpx data downloaded from this excellent Great North Walk website .
The one portion of the route that is less than straightforward is crossing the Hawkesbury River. There are three options.
1. The one we used was to the take the train across the river between Wondabyne Station and Brooklyn. Trains stop regularly in Brooklyn and can be stopped on demand at Wondabyne. From Wondabyne, a spur trail leads back to the main GNW. The spur trail is signposted as a GNW alternate route.
2. The primary GNW requires a ferry ride between Potonga Wharf and Brooklyn. The problem is that the ferry must be booked in advance and only runs when there are enough people to make it worthwhile. It also only runs once a day, so even if there is a ferry running, it may mean a long wait. All this forces you to predict when you will reach Patonga or Brooklyn and make arrangements in advance to ensure the ferry is running which is not practical for our style of hiking.
3. The third possibility is to follow a spur track that splits off of the main GNW south of a railroad crossing and goes on to Wobby Beach. There are several ferry connections per day between Wobby Beach and Brooklyn. This alternative looked promising on the map, but we were never able to obtain definitive information about the condition of the spur track to Wobby Beach. Some correspondents implied that the track might be difficult to follow in places due to lack of maintenance and overgrown bush. If a walkable track does exist, this could be the best alternative.
Great South Coast Walk:
Gang-gang first walked the GSCW in 2004; they are a retired Australian couple who decided to take up long-distance walking as an avocation. They did a lot of research to string together this route and have published an excellent detailed website about their experiences. There are links on their website to their gpx/kml files, so it was easy to follow their track. Our gpx track does differ from Gand-gang’s where our and their routes diverge.
The route as we walked it was about 670 kilometers long. As far a gang-gang knows, we were the second group to walk this route end-to-end in one trip.
The route generally follows the coastline as closely as practicable from Bundeena (a suburb of Sydney) to Mallacoota, the first town south of the New South Wales/Victoria border. Along the way the route traverses sandy beaches, rocky headlands, pieces of eucalypt forest, tidal lakes, lagoons, estuaries, small towns, a city (Wollongong), and many National Parks and Preserves. For such a long walk on such a settled coastline, there is surprising little road walking and most of that is on very lightly trafficked byways. There are many river outlets and estuaries to cross by whatever means are at hand: bridges, ferries, opportunistic rides with local fishermen, wading, and sometimes, full swims.
The quality of this walk is very high. The coastal scenery is world class and almost continuously good. There is enough variety along the way to keep the walker entertained. The walking is easy, with very few places that required scrambling. Resupply is not a significant problem because of the number of towns along the way. The small towns are interesting and sometimes charming. While we were there (which included a week-long school holiday), the trails were empty of people and the beaches rarely had more than the occasional surfer or fisherman. Undoubtedly things would be more crowded in the summer holiday period.
This is not a wilderness walk, as you pass through towns nearly every day. However, there is still a sense of wildness on portions of the GSCW, particularly in the south in Ben Boyd National Park and the Nadgee Wilderness Preserve. In these parks there is little sign of heavy human touch. Most of the beaches on the GSCW are nicely isolated from commerce and development and feel quite pristine, even though they are geographically close to small towns. There are also sections of coastal woodlands that were seemingly intact with little signs of logging or other activities.
Our walking route followed most of what Gang-gang mapped. Significant differences include the following:
1. Kiama Coastal Walk: This fine trail is relatively new and extends from Minnamurra Point through Kiama and on almost to Gerroa. It eliminated a portion of gang-gang’s walk that crossed some private property.
2. Bateman’s Bay: Gang-gang got a boat ride with friends across Bateman’s Bay to Corrigan’s Beach. We had to walk around the bay and into town. The route we followed, Cullendulla Drive from Long Beach to Princes Highway, was not carefully thought out and could have been improved by following the shoreline from Long Beach and crossing the creek mouth west of town and then along the shoreline past Surfside to the Bateman’s Bay bridge. The creek crossing is likely a shallow wade. After reaching town we followed the coastal Beach Road until we re-joined gang-gang’s route at Corrigan’s Beach.
3. Moruya River to Congo: Gang-gang had prearranged a boat ride across the mouth of the Moruya River. This is a wide river mouth with a lot of current constrained by rock jetties. We did not feel comfortable swimming this and were not lucky enough to find a boat to take us across. We followed the riverside road up to the Moruya bridge and crossed into town. From town we headed back towards the coast on the other side of the river, but left the main road to Moruya Heads and followed the alternate road to Congo. This was a pleasant walk on a road with little traffic. This route passed through portions of Eurobodalla National Park before reaching Congo (no services).
4. Aragunnu to Picnic Point: Gang-gang reported six hours of thrashing to cross eight kilometers of trailless coastal bush south of the Aragunnu camping area. After examining maps and satellite images, we decided that there is a better alternative: from the camping area we turned inland on the dirt road. Just beyond where the road started turning west, we crossed a short neck of open woodland (no thrashing) to fenced open fields bordering the narrow paved road running between the Tathra/Bermagui Road and Picnic Point. Although these fields were private, they were not posted and we discreetly crossed them without incident. Crossing the fields was easy and we were soon walking along the empty road beside Wapengo Lagoon toward Picnic Point.
River Crossings on the GSCW:
The GSCW has many water crossings to contend with, and we enjoyed the diversity and challenge that they added. Some have bridges and there is a ferry at Comerong Island. The remaining two dozen or so must be dealt with by other means. If you follow this route, you will get wet. Some of the crossings can be easily waded with no more than waist deep water to contend with (depending on the tides of course). Others are much deeper even at low tide. We were able to find opportunistic boat rides at seven crossings. Some of these rides we got immediately and others we had to wait as much as two hours for someone with a boat to come along, but nobody we asked ever turned us down. The actual number of water crossings will vary a bit from year to year because many river mouths get closed off by naturally occurring sand bars. Sometimes storms will reopen these bars and sometimes the government will do it with heavy equipment if the backed up water starts flooding valuable riverfront property. Quite a few of the crossings that looked closed by sandbars on Google Earth satellite images were, in fact, open when we did our walk.
We waded across 12 channels, with water between calf and chest deep (conditions change based on tide and shifting sand bars). We were unable to wade the following channels.
Hitched a boat ride (none arranged in advance):
1. Greenwell Point (must go by boat, too wide to swim even in warm water and slack tide); there was a family leaving the dock just as we arrived, and they gave us a lift. Gang-gang arranged a ride from a nearby boat rental operation.
2. Sussex Inlet (must go by boat, too wide to swim even in warm water); we got a lift from the friendly owners of the Christians Minde Retreat. http://www.heritagetourism.com.au/christians-minde-retreat/. (Property changed hands in June 2011 and may have new contact information). Gang-gang caught the attention of the boat rental operation on the dock on the other side of the river, but there was nobody there when we arrived. In retrospect we should have called the lodge in advance, as it is a private lodge and private dock and it was awkward that we showed up randomly.
3. Durras Lake outlet. We did not attempt to swim, because the water and air were cool (so we were not inclined to get wet), and the tidal current was flowing (we did not want to wait for slack tide). It should not be a problem to cross at slack water (either high or low water) without a boat, particularly if the water is warm.
4. Tomaga River. Same story as Durras Lake.
5. Tuross Lake outlet. Same story as Durras Lake.
6. Pambula Lake outlet. Swimmable at low tide slackwater. But not swimmable when there is tidal current, and possibly too wide at high tide slackwater to swim.
7. Mallacoota Lake outlet. Same story as Durras Lake.
1. Huskisson River. We swam across at fairly high tide when there was strong inflowing current.
2. Wallaga Lake outlet. We easily swam on an incoming water at fairly low tide
3. Wapengo Lagoon Outlet. We easily swam at slack tide.
4. Mallacoota Lake backwater. We had gotten a boat lift across the main channel to a big sandbar, and then after walking several hundred meters on the sandbar we swam across a calm backwater.
We each carried a Sea to Summit eVAC 65 liter dry bag into which we could fit packs, food, boots, and all our other stuff. These bags weigh 5.2 ounces and worked extremely well for us. We had added a nylon cord and a Velcro ankle strap so we could swim without the risk of losing the bags to currents. The bags also provided decent floatation during the river crossings and they never leaked. The water was 16-17 degrees C (61-63 degrees F); not comfortable, but also not dangerous. If you do this, wear lightweight wading shoes of some kind because some crossings have extremely sharp rocks and shells at the entrances and exits to the water.
Navigation, Maps, and GPS:
We used a series of large-scale paper maps published by Cartoscope. These maps were very helpful to see the big picture and were available free at Tourist Information Centers along the way. For the GNW, we purchased in advance the six GNW maps from the NSW Department of Lands. For the GSCW, we printed our own paper OpenCycleMaps using an inexpensive Mac app called myPhotoMap. We did not carry any of the (very expensive by our standards) government topo maps, and never missed having them as the route finding on this trip was never a challenge.
We used an iPhone4 to carry electronic maps. We did not have a data connection with the iPhone while on the trail and therefore preloaded all maps and tracks. We have been using the iPhone as a gps/mapping device for nearly a year, and are extremely pleased with it. For critical information about how to optimize the iPhone for backpacking, read the article we wrote on the topic.
On this trip, we used the following applications:
1. Gaia GPS (gpx tracks and OpenCycleMaps preloaded before leaving home, since we didn’t have a data connection while on the trail.)
2. GPS Kit (gpx tracks, OpenCycleMaps, and Satellite images preloaded.) We used two mapping/gps apps because each has advantages and disadvantages. It would have been possible to use just one of them, but we preferred to mix the two tools.
3. Shralp Tide (free and simple tide information).
4. Maplets (maps of Sydney’s walking routes and regional cycle route maps).
5. The Michael Morcombe eGuide to the Birds of Australia (excellent).
6. Field Guide to Victorian Fauna (helpful for mammals and reptiles, since we didn’t carry a paper guide to these).
7. SCS (guide to cetacean species, not very easy to use, but we were glad to have the small amount of information it provides).
8. GoodReader (pdf reference material we had saved prior to our trip).
9. ReadItLater (we saved all of Gang-Gang’s GSCW web pages so we could reference them while on the trail).
10. Safari (when we could find WIFI connections, which was surprisingly rare; cafes and shops in Turkey were more likely to offer WIFI than Australian shops).
11. Emerald Chronometer (extremely beautiful app; sunrise, sunset, moon, and planet information)
12. Pano (very easy to use to make panorama pictures).
13. Beachsafe (looked promising, but turned out that it was not useful, because you must have a data connection to access any information. Too bad they don’t let the user save-for-offline-use the photos and beach descriptions.)
14. Oz Weather Lite and Oz Radar Lite (Very nice apps, useful only when we had WIFI access).
Anyone who goes walking in Australia and ignores the birds is wasting one of the highlights of their trip. The Australian avifauna is one of the best in the world. The birds are colorful, noisy, often confiding, diverse, and have much interesting behavior. Their calls and songs are astonishing; the racket is constant and sometimes overwhelming. One evening we were eating dinner at a picnic table at Lane Cove National Park and the Sulfur-crested (huge parrots: BackpackingLight won’t let me post the actual name of the bird because it detects it as profanity!) were coming home to their roosts. The din as these birds discussed the day’s events was so intense we could not hear each other speak from across the table.
Casually birding as we walked along, we saw about 195 species. A serious birding trip would yield many more. Listening to a Superb Lyrebird tell fart jokes and then laugh at his own jokes, having a Pied Currawong visit our picnic lunch, and watching as gangs of drunken Rainbow Lorikeets engage in bird wrestling contests really enhanced this trip.
Our trip took place during Australian early spring. We had cool to very warm temperatures and no rain on the GNW. We never had any truly hot weather, which meant that the walking conditions were quite favorable.
By the evening of the first day on the GSCW, the weather pattern had changed and we had generally much cooler temperatures than normal for most of the remaining walk. We also had at least some precipitation on 13 of the following 31 days. For the most part the rain was light and not especially troublesome. We did have very heavy rain and high winds for a good part of the day in the Wollongong area and intermittent heavy rain in the vicinity of Bateman’s Bay. We also had a few spectacular nighttime thunderstorms. Afternoon winds were common on the coast. The cool temperatures were ideal for walking, but not for swimming across estuaries.
We would not have wanted to hike the GNW in warmer weather; it is mostly an interior route and would get too hot for our comfort. On the GSCW, the cool temperatures were ideal for walking, but the combination of cool air and cool water meant that we did not do any recreational swimming, and the water crossings were viable but not particularly enjoyable. Because the GSCW is primarily a coastal route, we don’t think it would be too hot to hike it in November or March, when the water temperature would be warmer and the swimming would be fun.
Insects and Snakes:
Insects were rarely a problem during our trip. We had a few large biting flies once or twice and mosquitoes were noticeable at a couple of campsites, but not an issue during the day. We understand that insects can be unpleasant later in the season.
We saw about a dozen snakes, including several we knew were venomous. We talked to many people along the walk who brought up the issue of snakes as in Aren’t you worried about snakes? Based on pre-trip research, the number of snakebites in Australia, let alone fatal ones, is actually not very high, but we were aware of snakes and were cautious. Again, we were there in the early spring when the snakes are just getting going (or so we were told by some people), so maybe they are more of a problem later in the season. For those who are really concerned, heavy bite-proof gaiters are possibly a good answer.
We camped every night except one (the friendly Harbor Lights cabins in Mallacoota). We never stayed in commercial caravan park campgrounds. ”No camping” signs are everywhere, but we ignored those signs and never had any issues with people questioning us (in fact we only saw a single park ranger the entire time we were in Australia). We stopped opportunistically towards the end of each day and never had any specific campsite planned ahead of time. We practiced routine stealth camping techniques: discreet location, set up after sunset, break camp at dawn, no noise, no fires.
On the GNW, we camped one night on the edge of a golf course and another in a picnic area at Lane Cove National Park just a few miles from downtown Sydney.
On the GSCW we frequently camped on the beach or in the dunes behind the beach. We also camped on the lawn next to the Stanwell Park Surf Life Saving Club and on a covered porch attached to the Tathra Amateur Fishing Club building (which provided cover from an unexpected evening rainstorm). In Sussex Inlet we ran into a local policeman and asked if we could camp alongside the river in the town park. He was very friendly and told us he would notify the owners of the nearby businesses to let them know who we were and that everything was ok.
We don’t cook on our backpacking trips. We eat hot food in restaurants when convenient, and buy picnic supplies at local markets. Our staples are cheese, bread, crackers, nuts, fresh and dry fruit, carrots and red peppers, peanut butter, tuna, yoghurt, cookies, chocolate, and muffins; we were able to find most of those staples at every shop, even at the smallest markets. At the bigger supermarkets we could find a greater diversity of deli food to carry with us.
Americans will find food in Australia to be relatively expensive in both restaurants and shops. Hot whole BBQ chickens from Coles, Woolworths and other supermarkets provided the core of a tasty, filling and inexpensive meal, and we ate a lot of them. We also found that anything made by the Arnott’s brand (packaged crackers and cookies) was consistently good: Tim-Tams are terrific!
The GNW required a bit of planning ahead because there are a couple of multi-day stretches without re-supply possibilities unless you go significantly off route. Shop locations are identified on the map set. Below are some notes on specific re-supply options:
1. The small store at Heaton Gap was very useful. While the stock is a bit limited, we found everything we needed and the very friendly proprietor made us some hot take-away sandwiches and some salads. He also gave us complementary tea and baklava.
2. The store in Yarmalong was great. Not a huge variety of stock, but enough. They did have a grill and cooked us a fine meal. The people were very nice.
3. The store is Somersby is another story. There is very little on the shelves and the woman we interacted with was grumpy and screwed up our breakfast order. It is amazing she is still in business.
4. The restaurant at the marina in Berowra is expensive and the food wretched. There is a tiny deli there as well, but it stocked nothing useful for walkers. The ferry to the marina, however, is free.
On the GSCW, finding food was never a problem as the numerous small towns had a shop, a restaurant, or both. On a couple of occasions, we had to carry two days worth of provisions, but otherwise we only carried a few meals in our packs. We particularly enjoyed the small shop in Stanwell Park where the proprietor was extremely nice and made us great burgers. We also enjoyed the tiny store in Wonboyn; while the selection of groceries was limited, the helpful woman who ran the store let us wash some clothes and cooked us a decent meal.
We flew non-stop from San Francisco the Sydney. Once in Sydney, we used the excellent public rail network to travel north to Newcastle. On the GNW, one short train ride enabled us to cross the Hawkesbury River. A ferry crossing of Sydney Harbor finished the GNW. We again used local trains and another ferry to traverse Sydney south to Bundeena, the start of the GSCW. While walking the GSCW, local fishermen gave us boat rides across seven river mouths. We took a 6 kilometer train ride in Wollongong to avoid walking through the steel works in a howling rainstorm. We also hitched a 4 kilometer ride into Bateman’s Bay to avoid walking the narrow shoulder of the very busy Princes Highway (holiday weekend crowds), again in the rain.
After completing the GSCW, we used some hitched rides to access the mountain walking between Mallacoota and Eden. To complete the trip, we took an eight hour bus ride north from Eden to Wollongong, a pelagic birding trip at Wollongong, and finally a train from Wollongong back to the Sydney airport.
The rest of the trip was all on foot.