Cliff to beach to burning palms

Ben Stubbs explores diverse landscapes on a national park walking trail on Sydney's southern doorstep.

I have become a slave to the "beep" of my phone, so decide to go out of range for a few days in the Royal National Park south of Sydney by undertaking a Royal Coast walk with friends. Our plan is to spend a day and a half walking the 26-kilometre trail south, from Bundeena to Otford, past sandstone outcrops carved by the weather over millions of years, through the bush and along cliffs' edge.

Our packs have camping gear and rations for two days, and we ease into a rhythm once we leave Bundeena's beach houses behind and move into the national park's corridors of bottlebrush.

Although it is the third-oldest national park in the world (after Yellowstone in the US and Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia), I'm not expecting much in the way of wildlife because of the park's proximity to suburbia. Yet there is no shortage of creatures to keep us on our toes: tiger snakes, brown snakes, death adders and red-bellied black snakes thrive in the park, as do 43 species of native mammals and 241 bird varieties.

We wind across carved lunar headlands to Big Marley beach. It is deserted. The sand is soft and siphons into our boots as we stomp through Dharawal country to the next headland. The Aboriginal people of the Dharawal nation called the coves and headlands here home for thousands of years before the area was marked out as a recreation area for colonists and declared a national park in 1879.

We stop for lunch at Wattamolla beach, hemmed in by cliffs and a cluster of waterfalls that drop to the freshwater lagoons on the edge of the beach. There are bins and marked trails here and as we cross the dunes I see evidence of native regeneration. While the natural value of the national park is now apparent, it wasn't always so.

People, rather than native flora and fauna, were the priority here for many years; the national park seen as a place to enjoy nature - within range of the city. A longing for the "old country" has had detrimental effects, too: as they dreamt of the soft countryside of Mother England, colonists cleared land, displaced bush habitats and planted 3700 ornamental trees. Native trees were logged, and foxes, deer and rabbits introduced to the area for hunters.

Despite those changes, it isn't hard to find pockets of natural beauty. We hop and skip across the rocks of a freshwater stream; I follow the flow and watch as it cascades from cliff to ocean far below. We see a humpback whale and its calf flip and dive below us as we walk along the edge of the park's sandstone cliffs and don't notice the planes circling at sea to our north, waiting to land at Sydney Airport.

My knees are creaking as I wind along the last headland of the day to arrive at North Era beach. Our campsite is a patch of grass overlooking the ocean and, as the sun dips behind the hills while we pitch tents, I see a deer through the trees. It stops and watches from the edge of the clearing. Rusa deer from Indonesia were introduced to the park more than 100 years ago, and a healthy population is still here. As night falls and stars come out, the only sounds are the wash of waves and kookaburras seeking scraps from our dinner.

The next morning we rise early, hoping to walk several headlands south before the humidity arrives. But we dawdle at Era as its hills are home to little shacks. They look like children's cubby houses, though on closer inspection we see fishing gear and beer cans. There are more than 200 shacks here, most built during the Great Depression, and they are listed on the State Heritage Register.

The terrain changes as we turn and walk inland, to Burning Palms, where the forest is dense and Jurassic. We walk surrounded by ferns and hanging creepers, then pick the wrong fork in the trail, realising our mistake only when we scuff against the cliff's edge.

When we emerge from the trees, we're sweating, dirty and thirsty - but I feel refreshed and the weight of the backpack on my shoulders is a pleasant one. We walk across to Otford railway station, where we wait for a train back to Sydney, filing into a carriage where commuters in suits are busy attending to their phones and computers. I take a seat and reluctantly turn on my phone after two days of silence.


Getting there

The Royal Coast walk can be undertaken from Bundeena in the north or Otford in the south. From Sydney CBD, trains run to Cronulla, with ferry connections to Bundeena. Trains to and from Sydney also stop at Otford.


Walking there

The 26-kilometre trail is considered to be of medium difficulty. Fresh water is limited, so be well provisioned. Camping permits are required for North Era. Phone 9542 0683 to make a reservation.

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