Ponytailed young women in black gymwear jog alongside topless bearded musclemen on the esplanade at Bondi Beach, passing through a parade of similarly dressed people walking briskly in the opposite direction carrying cups of coffee.
It’s as if they’re all taking part in a hipster biathlon, or a caffeine relay race that ends with a CrossFit class in the sand.
As for me, I’m setting off on the Bondi-to-Manly coastal walk, a wildly beautiful, life-affirming, 80-kilometre coastal hike, which opened a couple of months before the start of the pandemic and remains ridiculously untravelled (I pass fewer than a dozen other hikers the whole way).
There are “official” itineraries offered for two-, four-, five- and seven-day versions of the Bondi-to-Manly walk. I choose the three-day option, because I think it might make for good exercise without being exhausting. The trail is supposed to be suitable for anybody with a moderate level of fitness, but it can be surprisingly heavy going – particularly if, like me, you are prone to getting lost.
It’s easiest to mislay your bearings on day one, when the least signposted part of the walk winds through the wealthiest of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, across Waverley cliffs through Dover Heights to Vaucluse.
I don’t notice a directional marker (and there are supposed to be 700 of them) until I reach a parkland reserve in Dover Heights – and then, alarmingly, the arrow is pointing the wrong way.
But Waverley Cliffs are reason enough for the hike. It seems a celestial privilege to watch the ocean from the high headlands. No two coastal moments are ever the same. As the waves lick, lap and smash against forever frowning, unyielding rocks, I realise that I am watching the world being made.
And the creek near Diamond Bay – blooming with cliffhanging flowers – is primordially gorgeous, a natural wonder.
Another, less pure attraction of the Eastern Suburbs is the chance to perve through high, ocean-facing windows into homes of improbably rich people, with their minimalist decor, hidden pools and strange, globular interior lighting.
So many questions pass through my mind. How did the owners make their money? Do they ever get time to enjoy the view? Why don’t they buy more comfortable furniture?
There’s a pleasing number of lighthouses around. My favourite is the Hornby Lighthouse at Watsons Bay, which is painted red and white like an Edwardian women’s bathing costume.
I arrive at Watsons Bay before midday, which turns out to be exactly the right time to order lunch from Doyles on the Wharf – just before the tourists pour in at 12pm. I forgo Doyles’ famous takeaway fish and chips for a box of salmon and rice – which makes me feel almost as virtuous as spending a whole day walking.
I hadn’t realised that there was anything but a hotel in Watsons Bay. It turns out that there’s also a ravishingly pretty little library with tearooms attached. From Watsons Bay, the walk continues ravishingly to Rose Bay then on to Double Bay, where the cafes and restaurants make a handy end point for day one. Thirsty hikers might like to reward themselves with a drink at the Royal Oak Hotel.
The second day explores the best-known features of Sydney Harbour, as the trail winds through Double Bay via Woolloomooloo and the Royal Botanic Gardens past the Opera House and into Circular Quay.
The stride across Sydney Harbour Bridge to Milsons Point is spectacular beyond belief. I like I’m strolling through a Brett Whiteley painting in a dream.
On the north side of the harbour gloats Luna Park and the stunning outlook around the often-overlooked suburb of Kirribilli. The day draws to a close just after the trail crosses the intriguing Sub Base Platypus, a former torpedo factory, submarine school and gasworks that seems to be on its way to becoming a kind of arts centre and history park.
The third day begins outside Taronga Zoo, where the unmistakable but almost forgotten smell of concentrated jungle animals reminds me of childhood – both mine and my kids’ – and how much young people have missed out on during the pandemic.
The walk leads around the wondrous Bradleys Head through Taylor Bay to Chowder Bay, then Georges Head and Georges Heights in Mosman.
At Georges Heights, I break for a coffee at laidback Frenchy’s Café. It’s good, so I decide to try a raspberry tart from the French bakery.
I’m about to return to the line when I notice a woman standing to the side of the queue. I ask if she is waiting to be served. “Yes!” she barks. “It’s just that I didn’t want to push in”, thus reminding me why the people of Mosman are famous throughout Sydney for their simple warmth.
Fiercely geometric topiary is popular outside the wealthier homes in this area, and some of the residents are as spiky and uptight as the hedges.
I make my way via Balmoral Beach and Chinamans Beach to the Spit Bridge, where I cross over to Manly for the final 19 kilometres from Manly Wharf via Manly Beach to North Head.
I’ve never spent much time in Manly. It seemed too young and raucous for me even when I was young and raucous. But I quickly come to understand how many beguiling parts of the peninsula I have not seen before, from the many small pockets of beach to the fascinating Barracks precinct and unpromising-sounding “hanging swamp” in the national park.
North Head is also home to Australia’s Memorial Walk, which borders a Second World War coastal defence artillery battery site and was constructed to honour the men and women who served and supported the defence of Australia.
As a military historian, I scan the various plaques with a mean heart, searching for errors and exaggerations, but the Memorial Walk turns out to be sober and informative – and, of course, blessed with sweeping, evocative views of the heads through which tens of thousands of young Australians once sailed off to war.
It might be worth mentioning that there are many other war memorials on the trail (I particularly like the dynamic digger at the ready in Double Bay), two statues of dogs and one rather baffling bull. But if there’s a statue of an Indigenous person on the harbour foreshore, it must be fairly well hidden.
By the time I reach Manly Wharf, I am sweaty and tired, thankful for my walking shoes and largely empty backpack and satisfied that I have accomplished something special. I’d recommend the Bondi to Manly Walk to any traveller to Sydney – and, in fact, to anyone who lives in Sydney.
But I’d probably advise locals to linger for longer. The start of each morning is exhilarating, but by late afternoon the relentless beauty of the harbour becomes almost banal, and I started to think it would be a relief to see something ugly or, at least, dull.
It’s as if Sydney Harbour is too rich to fully digest in such a short time – like drinking three bottles of Moet with six dozen oysters, then tucking in to steak and lobster.
It might take weeks or months to appreciate all the treasure the foreshore has to offer.
Perhaps it would take a lifetime.
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