Sydney's Coastal Track, Royal National Park: Not for beginners - this is one of Australia's best walks

Coastlines can be slippery things. All sweet and innocent and hideously attractive on a map but they're really all in-y and out-y, up-y and down-y.

Magnificent in their vast, windswept, ocean-blown majesty they might be, but getting from one promontory to another can mean a 20-kilometre inland slog and a rappel up a sheer sandstone rockface.

I might be exaggerating a little.

And let's not get started on beaches, which are sly and vindictive. The soft sand turns a walk into an SAS survival yomp and the hard stuff by the water is, somehow, ALWAYS at an angle best attempted by those mountain goats photographed nonchalantly perched on the walls of hydro-electric dams.

I might be exaggerating. A little.

Which brings us to the Royal National Park and the coastal walk from the pretty, isolated village of Bundeena to the train station at Otford. Or vice versa. Take your pick. I've done it both ways now (thank you, lockdown).

The first attempt, in June, did not begin well. COVID-19 meant that the Cronulla-Bundeena ferry could only take 20 passengers at the time and we missed out on the 8.30am run by just two people – an unexpected hour-long delay which saw us climbing out of the Garie beach section far too late in the day.

It was there that two women outside a wooden holiday hut said: "Otford? Oooh, it's going to be dark long before you get there."

And right they were. We strode up hill and down dale, across the sweeping heathland above the Figure 8 Pool, only to plunge into the Palm Jungle at dusk and out the other side in darkness.

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This steep, upwards, forested section seemed to consist mainly of tree roots trying to trip you up and is not best attempted in the pitch black armed only with the light from a mobile phone.

So, we decided to repeat the walk and … hang on one gosh darn minute, let's get something straight; this is NOT a walk, despite what the national parks' website says. This is a hike. A walk does not end with the two of you staggering around in the dark wondering which one of you will get to the Voltaren first when – if – you get home.

Though, to be fair, the National Parks website does describe it as "an epic multi-day walk" along a "challenging 26km track" and finishes with the somewhat disconcerting: "It's a good idea to let someone know where you're going."

Multi-day? Memo to self; read the website before you go.

The first part of the hike from Bundeena is an easy stroll up through suburban streets and a prosaic management trail out to the clifftops at Bundeena lookout where, if you're lucky (and we were), a succession of whales will pop out of the strikingly blue waters below and wave hello.

Turn right. This is important, trust me. Left takes you back to Bundeena and straight on, well, that's for those people for whom it's "a good idea to let someone know where you're going".

This is one of the busiest stretches of the hike, for the obvious reason that it's so close to the township and accessible even by twiglike pensioners who look like the puff from a whale's blowhole would knock them flat.

From here you head south for 26 kilometres if you're with the National Park, 27.4 kilometres if you're from wildwalks.com, and 30 kilometres if you're a sign at Otford lookout. Eight hours, that's all I'm going to say. Eight hours if you don't stop. Let's say nine if you want to pause to take photographs, watch birds, peek at lizards, eat, drink, pee or generally take in the views.

Whichever end you start from, this is not a walk/hike for the faint of heart. There is, believe it or not, a thing called the Australian Walking Track Grading System (AWTGS), which sorts tracks into 5 grades.

This is a grade 4 or a grade 5 walk, depending on which website you're reading. The RNP says it's grade 5, while wildwalks.com (which has a great blow-by-blow description of the walk) believes it's grade 4.

Grade 4 is described as: "Bushwalking experience recommended. Tracks may be long, rough and very steep. Directional signage may be limited."

While grade 5 is said to be for "very experienced bushwalkers with specialised skills, including navigation and emergency first aid. Tracks are likely to be very rough, very steep and unmarked. Walks may be more than 20km".

According to the RNP website the track "can be tackled in sections or, if you're super-fit, in a day. It's best experienced as a two-day backpack trip with an overnight stop at North Era campground (advance bookings required)".

Neither of us is anywhere near super-fit and we managed it in one day. Twice. On our second attempt, from Otford beginning at 7.30am, there were people running past us. Now, that's super-fit. They were no doubt practising for the Coastal Classic run (postponed until December 5 this year, thanks to the 'Vid).

The tracks are very well marked and the slog is worth it for the sheer magnificence of the views, the majesty of the ocean as it slaps itself against the shores, the bird life and landscapes which range from beachside to bush and heath to forest.

Starting from Otford is, to my mind, the better of the two options. It gets some of the harder, more vertical, sections out of the way first, dropping down the Garawarra Ridge Track through the forested section into the Palm Jungle – both best seen in the daylight, oddly – and across the open headlands to Burning Palms beach.

We pass on through several smaller beaches, up and down steep but well-maintained pathways back to Garie beach, which is a great place to use the facilities and stock up on water and an ice-lolly from the kiosk.

The next section, to Wattamolla beach, is what I call Desolation Alley and is one of my favourite bits (possibly because it's mostly flat). Here, the wide-open clifftop heathland – Curra Moors - is crossed by a snakelike ribbon of beautifully maintained elevated walkways.

At some point, fire has been through, leaving behind blackened areas that are already bursting back to life. This is where Gymea lilies and hundreds of Kangaroo Tails (Xanthorrhoea) stick their heads above the stunted vegetation like triffids and where a plethora of birdlife darts about among the brush and Impressionist splashes of wildflowers.

We spot plenty of banksia, red spider flowers and Christmas bells, among others. The birds are all of the genus Toofasttobephotographed – more commonly known by me as "stay still, you little bustard". Only they're not bustards.

If schlepping the whole length isn't your thing, there's a 9.5 kilometre Curra Moors loop track that can be done from Sir Bertram Stevens Drive and takes about two-and-a-half hours.

The Royal National Park was established in 1879 and is the second oldest national park in the world, behind Yellowstone. It covers 15,000 hectares – that's 720,000 double decker buses (parked together, no gaps) or 15,000 Trafalgar Squares.

To my mind this walk/hike/schlepp along its eastern edge is one of the park's most spectacular sections, where a simple one-day hike will deliver heathland, forest, palm jungles, rugged cliffs, sweeping beaches, raging seas and sandstone outcrops the colour of a swirl of Neapolitan ice-cream.

Do it, even if it's just the once.

IF YOU GO ...

Take plenty of water, food and snacks as there are few places en route to replenish supplies. There are toilet facilities at Wattamolla and Garie beaches but the water isn't considered safe for drinking.

A hat and sunscreen will be needed, especially on sunny days as the walk is very exposed.

Take some cash for the Garie beach kiosk as their eftpos sometimes drops out.

Wear comfortable walking shoes, and don't forget Band-Aids in case of blisters.

Whale watching season is May to October.

Parts of the track can get very muddy after rain.

Don't forget a swimsuit and towel if you want to swim. Be aware many of the beaches are unpatrolled. Wattamolla is a safe and sheltered place to swim but can get crowded.

THE DETAILS

The Cronulla-Bundeena ferry costs $7.10 one way ($3.55 children and concessions). Visit cronullaferries.com.au for more information and timetable.

Cronulla wharf is a short walk from Cronulla train station. Otford station is on the NSW TrainLink South Coast line. Some peak hour and late-night services operate to Sydney Central, Bondi Junction and Kiama.

Check the Royal National Parks website before you go as some sections of the walk are occasionally closed for track work.

Visit nationalparks.nsw.gov.au for more information. There are excellent and detailed track notes at wildwalks.com

The writer travelled at his own expense.

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