Sydney’s Great Walks

Helen Wilson, NPA Illawarra Branch

The Great North Walk (GNW) is a 250km walk between Sydney and Newcastle that was opened in 1988. A 65km Great West Walk from Parramatta to Penrith was opened in 2019 and is a similar multi-agency and volunteer project passing through historic urban areas, parks and bushland remnants. The Great South Coast Walk is a plan for a 660km walk from Bundeena to Mallacoota.

In June this year the NSW government announced the first of a number of ‘new iconic multi-day walks in the state’s spectacular national parks’. The Great Southern Walk (GSW) will go from Botany to Bulli. We in the Illawarra have been part of an extended struggle for a longer version of this that we call the Grand Escarpment Walk, a vision for an inland route from Sydney south to Morton National Park and beyond.

Are all these walks great? Long distance walking routes radiating out from Sydney and crossing different land tenures potentially serve many purposes for locals and visitors. There are plenty of examples in Europe that can be walked continuously or joined for accessible sections. But let’s beware of overusing the term ‘great’. Does it mean ‘long’, officially sanctioned, providing high quality experiences, or perhaps commercially branded? 

The term ‘Great Walks’ is a trademark of the luxury walking company Great Walks of Australia. Queensland has a list of ten ‘great walks’ around the state with a certain degree of infrastructure that showcase its national parks. Tasmania has 60 ‘great short walks’ in its national parks and reserves. New Zealand declared nine official Great Walks in 1993, 32-82km long. All include magnificent scenery, provide a mix of adventure and comfort and are generally difficult to access, with guided or independent options. They form part of the country’s suite of tourism attractions, are heavily promoted and carefully managed. So what does the government have in mind? How are these new walks to be different from what we already have?

The Great North Walk

In May, sixteen NPA members did Bandula Gonsalkorale and Sheila Walker’s GNW trip covering the northern half of the route. It was a journey of discovery, logistics and companionship. It wasn’t easy but was exhilarating. We walked through many kinds of forest, along ridges, down rainforest gullies, and had views in various directions over bushland, towns, rural valleys and coastal waterways. Bandula and Sheila made complex logistical arrangements for accommodation (we loved the Paxton pub) and car shuffles. Definitely a great experience, though we saw few other walkers.

Garry McDougall and Leigh Shearer-Heriot’s 1988 book documents how the walk originated. Garry had grown up on the Central Coast and explored the hinterland as a child. They had a vision for a connected track that wasn’t just located in remote national parks, but had an urban dimension as well.  ‘From 1981 onwards, we spent countless days, mostly weekends, searching bushland areas between Sydney and Newcastle for existing track.’ They knew that connecting large population centres promised that access to the track would be easy and it could be used in many different ways.

The walk passes through national parks, state forests and private land. Having established the route, nearly all of which already existed, the pair then set to work with the many local councils and government authorities that had some responsibility for the land involved. As they say, ‘The problem of shifting, uncoordinated and diverse government authorities involved in bushland management is vexatious’. The name is based on the historic Great North Road between Sydney and Newcastle, which helped in the quest for Bicentennial funding. Garry continues to take an interest in the walk, advises on other plans and runs the GNW Facebook page.

NPA Activities Manager Matt McClelland wrote another guidebook in 2012 with an updated edition in 2018, and also consults with management authorities to develop the track. He pays tribute to Crown Lands’ management of the GNW along with the popular Six Foot Track in the Blue Mountains. However, he acknowledges that the GNW is underused, with accommodation still the biggest problem. ‘Affordable, easy to book accommodation in the right places will be the thing that flips this walk into the crazy popular category’, he says.

In contrast to the New Zealand model, NPA’s position is that built accommodation on these walks should not be in national parks. Matt says this ‘increases the carrying capacity of the track, reducing the impact on the park and creates the potential for regional community involvement’. Cabins could be built in the state forest sections of the GNW however. Most of these parts of the track have been logged in the past except for the steep valleys, and could be logged again, though we saw no sign of recent activity.

The Great Southern Walk

Bushwalking bodies and local councils have for decades presented plans for a comparable walk to the south.  Until recently all that was on the table was NPWS’ 2005 Illawarra Escarpment State Conservation Area (IESCA) Draft Master Plan for Walking Tracks and Associated Facilities for the section within the Wollongong LGA. This proposal crosses private land, roads and other government land as well as the disconnected sections of the IESCA. However, in contrast to the GNW, the private land and road crossings have presented insuperable problems. (Admittedly crossing over Leggett Road at Heaton Gap on the GNW was nerve-wracking.)

NPA Illawarra have seen this plan as too modest and have revived the earlier bigger visions for a much longer escarpment walk. We’ve taken all opportunities to push to get the NPWS plan finalised, implemented and extended, but have met with inaction due to lack of funds. More recently, an early proponent, former Kiama mayor Neville Fredericks, led an effort to establish links between sections of escarpment track further south. Garry McDougall was involved in this and the group was confident the state budget this year would commit funds. But they were disappointed by what it contained.

The government’s media release is still all the information we have. It announced that $80 million would be committed to developing the new walks and unveiled the 59km Great Southern Walk. This would ‘provide a spectacular 5-day experience with a range of new accommodation options such as cabins and “glamping” sites dotted along the track to welcome walkers at the end of each day’s trek.’ Like everyone else, we were happy that the government was finally making a significant commitment, but on closer examination there were so few details provided that it looked more like a publicity stunt.

What had been announced: just long planned upgrades to the camping grounds in the Royal National Park? The term ‘glamping’ was worrying. Did this mean a change of policy towards commercial accommodation within parks? The Illawarra section proposed in the sketch map was very short, going only some way towards what was in the already truncated draft master plan. It did involve creating a formal link between the Royal and the Illawarra Escarpment, a very good first step, but crucially stopped short of the Bulli Pass. The Visitor Information Centre at Bulli Tops at least has a car park but does not link to public transport.

Everyone must have access

The GSW remains embryonic, in contrast to the much longer and well-established GNW. It is extraordinary that a couple of young unpaid walker/explorers managed to drive the creation of such a complex walking connection between two major cities in 1988. Not that it has fulfilled its potential; there are still long sections along roads, limited public transport links and virtually no car parks in places.  Walking the whole route would be a physical and logistical feat, and as our trip demonstrated, tackling even part of it requires careful planning.

Despite these shortcomings, it seems a miracle that the GNW even exists when we consider the current political environment. National parks are severely underfunded, enabling governments to control the drip feeding of additional funds. They are able to package announcements of these for their own purposes: to create commercial opportunities, to pressure the environmental assessment process of their pet projects, to satisfy lobby groups or marginal electorates. The June media release also included a promise of funding for an unrelated, controversial and as yet unapproved project: the creation of a mountain bike trail network in the escarpment.

We know our national parks, state forests and rural and peri-urban private lands provide enormous opportunities for walking links. But the routes need good planning, with agreements about overall management, permissible uses for different kinds of land, access through private land, accommodation options and major road crossings. They can’t just be conjured out of existing plans and pressures and packaged as ‘great’. The GNW project showed the way.

It’s good to have many long distance walks, especially as COVID has got many more Australians out into nature. So let’s make sure there are plenty of extended and interesting walks people with different abilities and needs can do. Luxury walking packages are not the priority.

The author thanks Matt McClelland and Garry McDougall for their contributions.

(Editors note: Matt McClelland has written an article in ‘Bushwalking Australia’ that further explores the Great Walks model. You can read it here.)

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