A Winter Family Blockbuster. The Coast Track - Royal National Park
I've been overnight adventuring with my kids every season for the last few years and it’s been three months of lockdown since our last adventure in Brisbane Water National Park - which was fun but not the most picturesque setting. For Winter this year we are experiencing what is arguably Sydney’s most spectacular walk - The Coast Track in Royal National Park - in a three day camping adventure.
AUSTRALIA'S FIRST NATIONAL PARK
The Royal National Park's Coast Track includes 26km of stunning coastline, with rolling hills, cliff tops, dunes, palm forests, beaches, waterfalls, whales, sea eagles and people… so many people.
But this walk is a blockbuster - so you can expect a bit of a crowd. And the crowds are typically day trippers who won’t venture too far from the safety of the nearest car park. We on the other hand are traversing the entire park, from Bundeena to Otford. And the old "Crazy Danger" crew are back together. Daisy & Rory (10), Ava (12) Mary (8) myself and Crazy Chris (both 40 something - but age is an abstract concept right?).
The Coast Track has one official campground - North Era Beach. Where campers are required to book a site, which - if you begin at Bundeena - is 18km into the walk. And anyone who has hiked with an eight year old knows that 18km of undulating coast track is a bloody long way to walk. So instead, we are splitting the hike over two nights and three days. We’ve booked North Era campground for our second night and what we do on our first night is a mystery.
Two family groups means two cars… so we can do a car shuffle. We leave our car at Otford Lookout and drive 30 km through the park to Bundeena in Chris’s car - overloaded with two adults, four kids and a heap of backpacks. Unfortunately Mary, the youngest member of the crew gets car sick and manages to deposit her breakfast into every crevice of Chris’s front passenger door, delaying our departure a while as I attempt to right the wrong with paper towels and pine-o clean.
After the clean up we drive to Eric Street, near the junction of Beachcomber Avenue, strap on three days food and camping gear and enter the Royal National Park.
The trail begins along sandy firetrails through heathland and it is busy! Within the first few hundred metres we have easily passed a hundred other walkers. And when we make it from the heath to the first clifftops, it’s obvious why the hike is popular. The sun is shining and the views are magnificent, with sandstone cliffs plunging down to the pacific ocean, where whales jump and splash in the vast blue expanse before us. We haven’t even gone one kilometre, but we can tell this is a very special place.
After a few kilometres the crowd spread out and our little company continues the adventure. We pass the Soviet style fences around wedding cake rock (apparently a popular insta-spot) and some other high features of the cliffs… But the highlights of day one were around the lower ground… Like the dunes at Marley beach - a vast landscape of sand with small mesas and undulations.
Then there's Little Marley Beach, where we finished the walk for the day. A stunning sheltered beach backed by a Casuarina forest with soft grass. The winter weather so nice that we all brave the cold ocean for a swim in the gentle waters and feel a thousand miles from Sydney.
But the greatest thing about day one was seeing the whales, spouting, breaching and swimming in the sea, we counted 11 by the end of the day. This is the bonus of hiking here in winter.
Our second day is almost too epic to describe in words. It’s about 14km, up and down, up and down - from beaches to sea cliffs, to heathland, to the incredibly stunning Wattamolla - with what can only be described as an “election year toilet block” and it’s amazing golden beach - complete with a frickin waterfall. It’s a sunny day and the kids beg us for a swim. But we know we have a huge distance to cover so we painfully walk away from this unreal paradise or be damned to arriving at our campground in the dark.
The next leg takes in the most remote section of the walk, with more clifftops, whales, eagles, and rocks shaped like eagles. Our team divides into two over a great distance as the kids struggle with the monotony of the undulating heathland. We deploy a set of walkie talkies that add some fun and keep us connected. The kids also consume a lot of sweets…. so many sweets. Day two is powered by sugar.
By the late afternoon we emerge at Garie Beach. Ava - the oldest of the kids - has been carrying a full adult backpack and is tired and starving - at Garie we smell barbecued meat and watch as picnickers enjoy ice cold soft drinks… but we know we have some kilometres left and two more big hills to climb, which is very hard on Ava’s 13 year old morale, but she soldiers on bravely.
We pass the Little Garie shack community, a village of historical beach cottages built in the first half of the 20th century and possibly Sydney’s best real estate…
We now have one last punishing hill to climb and as we summit the ridge we see at the back of a beach, tents littered around a grassy clearing below. It’s North Era beach, the official Coast track campground and our home for the night.
14km doesn’t sound like a great distance, but the entire day was spent walking from sea level to high clifftops and back to sea level. Over and over and over. With each kid carrying a pack, the bigger kids carrying a fair bit of weight and Ava with a full adult load. It’s likely this was the hardest day of hiking the kids have ever done.
Once we arrive at the campsite the kids are starving and sit in the dirt munching on dry noodles trying to recover lost energy. There are three pit toilets in the valley below the campground, none of which you can get to without ending up ankle deep in boggy mud. A pair of swallows take advantage of the mud to build a nest in the toilet we use.
Chris and I set up camp, with some help form the kids and we all have an early night - and a really good sleep… lulled by the whispers of the sea.
The full moon aligned with Mars and Saturn.. or Saturn and Jupiter ?(can't actually remember but it was special)
We wake at North Era Beach to a stunning Winters day, the other campers are packing up. Many are heading back to Garie Beach - apparently not hardcore through-hikers like us.
Today's walk from North Era to Otford is the most diverse scenery of the trek. And like the two previous days - it’s bloody hard going, but incredibly beautiful. We pass through another shack community. Then through a palm forest before embarking on a punishing climb to the escarpment 400 metres above us. We see deer grazing on the hills and the scenery changes from open heath to stunning eucalypt forests.
WE MADE IT!
After hours of slogging up hill, we emerge onto a sandstone plateau with boulders, Angophora, grass trees and the distant sound of weekend motorbike enthusiasts rumbling along the road to Bundeena. Eventually we see the Otford Lookout and our old Toyota parked by the side of the road.
We are tired, relieved and happy to have finished our epic winter walk - even happier to discover a packet of mint creme biscuits in the car. We drive the 32 km back to Bundeena, watching as the landscape flies by at 80kph… like a high-speed rewind of the last three days.
We have a late lunch at Bundeena RSL - the kids order soft drinks and Chris and I have a schooner - it’s the first time I’ve drank a cold beer, poured by someone else in a venue since the end of our last trek, three months ago. The whole crew feels a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction. The beer and lunch are delicious.
THE COAST TRACK
...Is an amazing walk. It’s not technical, it's almost impossible to get lost and there is excellent infrastructure with walkways covering much of the 26km. But I don’t think it’s possible to do it in the prescribed two days with a child as young as Eight. Even the older kids would have struggled, it is a really hard slog. We did it in three days and it was still really hard, but the kids rose to the challenge and had a great time.
For adults this is fine in two days - or even one day if you like a challenge. But to do the full two-day walk with kids, the problem is there is only one campsite and whether you start at Otford or at Bundeena, you are up for an 18km day - which is fine if your goal is to put the kids off camping for life.
If you want to do this walk in two days with kids, there are a few options, without needing to illegally stealth camp:
One option is to start later in the walk - you could begin the walk at Wattamolla beach. Meaning you would only have to walk 9km on day one. However this means you miss out on our day one highlights around Marley beach. But the total walk would only be 18km instead of 26km - manageable with kids.
You could reduce the hike even more by beginning a Garie Beach.
Or, you could start at Bundeena, walk to Wattamolla. Get picked up (or leave a car there) then drive to Garie beach and continue. Cutting out 7.5km of the long heathland walk we encountered on day two - the total walk being about 18km again.
Or, who knows - you might have amazing athletic kids with lots of energy and good time management, meaning you can crush the whole hike in two days.
The walk can be accessed by car or public transport, via trains and a ferry - and can be taken in either direction. There is fresh water available in streams and creeks along the way, but make sure you treat it (boiling, puri-tabs, UV or filters, or a combination of these methods). But water was hard to find between North Era and Otford, so it's best to fill all your bottles whenevr you get a chance.
Whichever way you choose to walk it - the Coast Track is a true journey and is certainly one worth taking.
For more information check out the National Parks website here
And there's out some info on the beach shack communities here
Or some information on the Aboriginal heritage of the Royal National Park
The Author wishes to acknowledge the Dharawal people, who are the
traditional custodians of the land featured in this article.
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