As we take our first tentative step back on the road after lockdowns, it turns out there are 70,131 more of them that follow. At least, that’s how many steps I will end up walking on my first trip since restrictions eased – a three-day guided hike just north of Sydney.
Thin green needles of the grass trees stroke my legs as I brush past them, and kookaburras call out across the trail. The canopies of rusty red gums offer shelter from any drizzle. Out here, caressed by nature, I’m reconnecting to a world that seems so small, with the immediate focus on the next rock to step on, the upcoming branch to duck under. But it also all feels so vast, with just endless bush, interrupted only by rivers and escarpments… then more bush.
It’s one of the reasons why a hike like this benefits from having a guide. I’ve joined walking company Life’s An Adventure, which runs more than 60 tours across Australia, including the Three Capes in Tasmania and the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory. All the logistics are taken care of, so I can switch off that part of my brain and concentrate on our guide, Grant, as he points out what we’re passing, mixing information about traditional uses of leaves with an almost encyclopaedic recollection of the plants’ scientific names.
“This is the third most diverse biosystem in Australia, after the Queensland rainforests and the Western Australia wildflowers,” Grant tells us. As if on cue, I hear the call of an eastern whipbird crack through the trees.
The region Grant is talking about is the weathered sandstone country that stretches out around Sydney. Our expedition into it begins near Hornsby, in the city’s Upper North Shore, heads down to the peaceful village of Berowra Waters, and finishes on the edge of the Hawkesbury. Although we’ll spend just three days walking it, the trail we’re on is actually part of the Great North Walk, which would take about two weeks if you were to hike the whole 250 kilometres from the Sydney CBD to Newcastle.
The entire Great North Walk would be a tough hike, I think to myself, as I clamber over rough rock steps at one point, pick marks still visible where labourers have carved out a rudimentary staircase. The trail was created for Australia’s Bicentennial in 1988 and some parts are showing signs of wear and tear. But even at the time, many stretches would’ve been difficult, with long steep inclines testing lungs on the way up and knees on the way down.
It would be particularly hard for through-hikers carrying food and camping gear the whole way. But another advantage of a walking tour with a company like Life’s An Adventure is that all the trips are pack-free (other than a day bag for things like water and a rain jacket). Luggage is transported between your accommodation and there are transfers to and from the start and the end of the trail each day.
For many of these tours around Australia, the accommodation changes each night. At the end of a day’s hiking, you’ll arrive at the next hotel or holiday home, a clean warm bed waiting. In the case of our Great North Walk, we stay at the same accommodation both nights, a large luxury apartment overlooking the marina at Berowra Waters, fresh seafood from the restaurant downstairs for our dinner.
I’m particularly grateful for this comfortable retreat on the second day, when rain brings an ambush from a family of leeches. Just as I manage to pull one off, another appears on my shoe. Grant suggests we “roll the leech between our fingers so it just lets go”. He doesn’t like to kill them “because we’ve come into their home” – although I’m not quite as sympathetic. But when we head back to Berowra Waters early for a hot shower, I adopt Grant’s sentiment and squash the last stowaway that is trying to come into our home.
The next day, with the sun out, we emerge from a banksia-lined trail to find Jerusalem Bay, a quiet catchment of the Hawkesbury River with a vista of glittering water that you might hike for days to find in some parts of the world. But here it is, so close to a major city that the rumble of the M1 motorway will start to drift between the trees in about an hour.
Over the past 18 months, with lockdowns, border closures, and other restrictions, walking has become a lifeline for many people – a way to get out of the house, to catch up with friends, to see the neighbourhood in a new light. It’s likely that trend will continue, just further from home. From the bush north of Sydney, perhaps then interstate, and maybe even a multi-day walk overseas down the track.
I’ve always done a lot of walking, but I think I’ve been spoiled on this particular tour. How will I ever carry my own backpack again? Or arrive at the end of the day and not have luxury accommodation waiting? I feel like this could be the first step towards many more.