Nedra Orme walks into a suburban adventure.
It all started with a JetCat trip from Circular Quay to Parramatta. As we identify the passing suburbs on our cruise up the river, we're surprised by how little we know of them. Tennyson Point and Bayview Park we'd never even heard of. Though we've lived most of our 73 years in Sydney, we realise we're ignorant of so much of our home town.
We think of Alan Waddell, that remarkable old man who set out to walk every street in 284 suburbs of Sydney. He died in September at 94, well into the task. What an inspiration.
We heard of a walking game in London where people take the well-known "London, A-Z" street directory and walk their way through the alphabet, 26 routes out of one's comfort zone. If you play by the rules, you're supposed to take the Underground, emerge at the chosen station and take the first street to the right, then second to the left, third to the right and so on until you decide to head back to a station and return home.
We decide to invent a home-grown version with two rules of our own: choose a suburb we know nothing about; and get there by the easiest way possible - bus, train, ferry or car.
We decide to look for suburbs with some established walking routes but with street walking to be included. We set three or four hours strolling as our objective, take out our trusty Sydway Street Directory, which has most of Sydney's walking tracks marked, and then trawl through the As in the list at the back. Our first choice: Abbotsford.
On a sunny morning we set out from Chiswick wharf to walk a route around the harbour's edge to Abbotsford, then on to Cabarita to catch a ferry back. While we enjoy the exercise, a bigger reward is the number of interesting and unexpected things we discover and the conversations we have along the way.
First are the hidden arcs of bays curving behind the houses, including Exile Bay with its melancholy story of Canadian political prisoners transported to Sydney during the 1840s. Suddenly the name Canada Bay makes sense. Here we sit eating sandwiches, watching migratory stilts, godwits and curlews as they pick through the mangroves.
The range of housing is impressive, from the occasional old mansion such as the one established by the Nestle family at Abbotsford Bay, through modest post-war brick bungalows to the massive new developments behind Cabarita.
As we wait for the ferry at Cabarita to take us back to our car, we lie in the sun in the park on the headland with its quaint monument to former world champion sculler William Beach and its small beach covered with shells.
Since then we've walked along the creek in the valley floor at Bardwell Park. We've visited the museum in the 1863 cottage in Carss Park. We've followed the Ponds Walk, where the first settlements were made at Dundas in 1791. And we've followed Terrys Creek Walk from Eastwood to Brown's Waterhole in Lane Cove National Park. We followed this with walks through the forest of Forestville and a long stretch of Prospect Creek at Guildford West.
So, A to G behind us, H to Z ahead. Our walks have delivered unexpected riches of history, towering forests, green corridors, parks, gardens and houses. A bonus has been stopping to chat to people along the way and seeing the ethnic diversity of each suburb.
While our interests have led us to out-of-the-way tracks, anyone taking up the sport of A-to-Zedding can tailor their wanderings to suit their own passions. For some it might be seeking waterholes, pools and baths; for others hunting down good cafes.
Most people are aware of the health benefits of walking. A recent study shows improved memory for people over 60 who walk at least 50 minutes, three times a week. But it is not health reasons that spur us on. We have become hooked on the experience of hoisting ourselves out of our comfort zones to search for some of the hidden gems of Sydney.
Luckily, Sydney has a Zetland as our last objective but we've been challenged by what to do for "X". Someone suggested Kings Cross as the answer but it breaks our rule of visiting only the unknown.
We've found a solution in any case. We intend to put on a blindfold and pick the X suburb from a map with a pin, based on the old treasure map principle that X marks the spot.
We fall short of the achievements of the indomitable Waddell but we're looking forward to the 19 journeys we have ahead of us.