When Sean and I arrived in Bundeena tonight at Moya’s place, Josh asked us how our route had been. “A bit of a curate’s egg,” was my reply, that is, bits of it were excellent. Other bits, not so good.
In many ways, I had been looking forward to today as a highlight of the whole pilgrimage – indeed right from the very start of our planning four years ago. I was hoping to enter Sydney (“that Great City”) via the Coast Walk through the Royal National Park along the cliffs. Common sense took over a few days ago, when it was clear that a) 31 km was too far for us to do in one day with our packs and b) our bodies were nearing exhaustion and would not have been able to endure the climbs involved. Having done the Kiama Cliff walk and the Kangarutha Trail at Tathra, we had a pretty good idea of what it would be like, and I realised that I had to put this one back on the bucket list for later.
Instead, we determined to go up the centre of the Park, via the Sir Bertram Stevens Drive. Given that I had already climbed up to Otford Station, starting from there and walking to Bundeena would be in the vicinity of 23 or 24kms, which would be much more manageable. We thought too that Josh might decide to come with us, but in the end, he decided to stick to his original plan of taking the train from Stanwell Park to Heathcote, and walking through to Cronulla from there and taking the ferry over to Bundeena to meet us. This was about the same distance (19 km, he thinks), and avoided the high hills and clifftops that otherwise bring on his fear of heights (vertigo makes him freeze).
We all had to catch the 8:48 train from Stanwell Park Station, so we were up fairly early. Anne came over to tidy up after us, so was there when we left. Sean went up to the Cafe to order takeaway coffee for himself and Josh, and Josh followed him after a while, as I was still packing. I said thanks and farewell to Anne at 8:30, leaving a fairly narrow window to climb up the hill. I had walked up it the day before without my backpack, but what a difference an extra 12kg makes! I was already feeling the strain when I arrived at the cafe, only to find Josh and Sean still waiting for their coffees. Josh was on the verge of saying “forget it”, when they produced two coffees in take away cups, and we all headed off. We were all exhausted and drenched in perspiration by the time we made it to the top – with only a couple of minutes to spare. I have found the one of the most useful training exercises I have done for this trip was to climb the Parliament Station escalator stairs in Melbourne from Platform 4 at the bottom to the top without stopping while carrying my heavy briefcase. It is more psychology than anything else. In this case, it didn’t matter how tired I was when I got there, I needed to be on that train or we would lose another hour waiting for the next one.
Of course we made it, and were soon up at Stanwell Tops Station where I had spent an anxious hour and half the night before. Josh was staying on the train, so we waved him off. Sean and I then took the steep stairway up the hill on the Eastern side of the station – I had come in on the Western side from Lady Carrington Road the night before. This track is called “Station Road” and “Farnshaw Road” on the map, but they are really just fire trails rather than roads as such. The way is very steep, however, and after last night’s rain, the track was quite slippery in places. Farnshaw Road comes out on Lady Wakehurst Drive, and the entrance to the Royal Coast Track is just a little further north up the road on the right. For the first 2km or so, we followed the same route that would have taken us on the cliff walk. This continued the very steep climb upwards, and skirted very close to the cliff edge. This would not have been suitable for Josh to attempt at all. Signs were warning parents to “supervise young children”, but there is no way I would bring a young child up here. For all that, it was very beautiful – predominantly rainforest and rock formations. Near the summit, we veered left onto the Garrawarra Ridge Trail at about 10am. This trail goes along the ridge (as the name suggests) for about 4 km more on a wide and even track before coming out at the Garrawarra Farm Carpark. The highest point we reached was about 285m somewhere above the Figure 8 Pools.
On this section of the track we met a young Frenchman who was studying for a year at Sydney University and had come down to explore for the day. We commiserated with him over the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, but he admitted that he had only ever been inside it once, and that was because a friend had come from overseas and wanted to see the tourist sights. We talked a little about what we were doing, and he asked how we managed to walk so far. So I shared with him the Leunig poem “How to get there”. He in turn drew our attention to a poem by the Greek poet, Cavafy, called “Ithaka” which I had not previously known, but, upon reading it, found it strangely appropriate to our journey. We had sat down for a rest as we were having this conversation, and as he walked on, I called out after him “Hope your road is a long one!” – and he laughed.
Once we reached the Garrawarra Farm carpark, the experience of the day turned from exceptional to very ordinary. The carpark was full, and the short unsealed road leading to it was streaming with constant traffic. This only became worse when got out onto Sir Bertram Stevens (SBS) Drive. This road was almost exactly like the road out of Jarvis Bay, but with even more traffic. There was virtually no verge on which to walk and very little shade either. We stopped at about 11:45am at the Curra Moors Track entrance carpark for a rest and an early lunch. While sitting there, enjoying our lunch of kransky, dolmades, Camembert, bread and strawberries, I received a text from David Spike with condolences and encouragement of his prayers. I decided to give him a call, and talked with him until we had eaten all our food and decided to push on.
Just before 1pm, while still on the SBS Drive, we came over a crest and there in front of us was The Great City. We had had glimpses of the other side a few times already along the road, but this time we could clearly see the Sydney Tower on the horizon. As per custom, when pilgrims sight their destination, we knelt and gave thanks to God and prayed for a safe conclusion to our journey.
We continued on the relentless SBS Drive for almost 6 km before turning right onto the Bundeena Road at 1:35pm. If we thought the Bundeena Road would have less traffic or better walking conditions, we were wrong, although we found that walking on the Western side of the road gave us some shade. After another 4 km or so, at 2:25pm, we decided to take the turn off to the right towards Maianbar, the other settlement on the north shoreline of the Royal National Park, West of Bundeena. This was a good decision. The road down to Maianbar is relatively new, and had a feature that the SBS Drive should have had – wide cycle lanes on either side of the road. One might hope that eventually the SBS Drive will be upgraded with the same feature – although a better idea would be to put an entirely separate track for walkers and cyclists a few metres off the road into the bush. The other nice feature of the Maianbar Road is that it had virtually no traffic.
We sat and rested in the bushes on the side for a while (as per Leunig’s instructions: “Sit down and have a rest every now and again, / But keep on going, just keep on with it.”) When we arrived on the outskirts of Maianbar, I walked over and sat down in a school bus shelter and rang Fr Tony at the Chevalier Centre in Kensington to check our accommodation booking. He seemed surprised at first, but then checked his books and said yes, he had our booking. He thanked me for ringing to remind him. I was glad I did! I also sent through a message to Archbishop Anthony’s diary secretary to let her know to let him know that we had arrived in his Archdiocese. While I was sitting on the seat, Sean came up and photographed a large spider in its web – the web covered about 1/4 of the front of the bus shelter. I must have just missed walking straight into it as I rushed to plonk myself on the seat!
The Maianbar Road skirts around Maianbar before entering it, so we didn’t go into the village – instead, we took a steep rough track that led down to a bridge over the Cabbage Tree Basin inlet. This track leads into the back end of Bundeena from the West. It goes through an old section of the Bonnie Vale camp ground in which there are a number of old asbestos shacks still standing. But there were signs up everywhere about the danger of asbestos and all but the marked walking track was closed to traffic of any kind. Apparently there were once some 170 such cabins in the area and that most of these were demolished years ago but – as we learned later from Moya – an unscrupulous demolition contractor had simply buried the asbestos on site and now it was all emerging into the open air.
At this point, Josh was coming across on the Ferry, having completely exhausted himself on his section of the walk. Moya texted to offer to pick Josh up in her car, an offer Josh gladly accepted. Sean and I walked into town past the “Our Lady of the Way” Catholic Church. This is nothing particular to admire architecturally, and there was no statue of Our Lady of the Way as when we last saw her in a grotto in the garden of the Bairnsdale Presybytery, but nevertheless, we took the dedication as a good sign. The we made our way up to the RSL club for a beer. While sitting there, I rang Josh. He had been picked up by Moya, and they had had a good long chat before she had to go off to tend to a palliative care patient. I asked Josh what he wanted to do about dinner, and he didn’t want to go out, so I went down to the IGA store and bought food and wine and beer to make a pasta and salad dinner.
Sean and I then shouldered our packs and pushed on up the hill to Moya’s house. This house is made available to people and families from Sydney who are in need of a break or a holiday but can’t afford the usual commercial prices. The rooms are comfortable and the kitchen is well stocked. We met Moya when she came back from her errand and she made us very welcome. She was not charging us to stay in the house, but I felt it right to make a donation. Josh had the room in the back porch, Sean had the bunk bedroom and I had the main bedroom with the queen bed facing the beach. I made dinner while we chatted about the day. My brother Ken sent through the draft of my father’s memorial card, which he wanted us to look over. Josh and I did some redrafting and I sent back our suggestions. They have chosen a really beautiful picture of my father, gently smiling and looking directly into the camera with a sparkle in his eyes. I hadn’t seen it before, but have saved it in my phone favourites list to keep.
After dinner, I was feeling so tired that I asked Josh and Sean to do the cleaning up in the kitchen and went to bed. It was only 8pm, but I went straight to sleep. Josh says that he came in to check at 8:30pm to see if I was still up blogging, but that I was completely out to it.