Great North Walk – some resources and updates (October 2018)Overview
The Great North Walk runs for about 250 kilometres from Sydney to Newcastle. Possibly not so well known outside NSW, it deserves greater usage and acclaim. While it is certainly not a wilderness walk, the track skilfully winds its way through surprisingly natural and attractive settings, given that it is set in an area of high settlement density. Particularly at its ends, the track allows for staying in commercial accommodation and buying meals from cafes or restaurants.
In short, I loved the walk, particularly that it took me through some would bush and allowed me to camp in areas on my own, while still giving me access to the benefits of proximity to settlements.
I walked the track as a ‘through walk’, south-to-north, although I had an unintended break due to very heavy ongoing rain. I have written these notes mainly with the through-walker in mind.Information sources for the walk
The walk was created as a Bicentennial project in the late 1980s, and I gather connected a range of pre-existing tracks. Despite this initial government imprimatur, there is almost no evidence on the web of an ongoing relationship between state or local government bodies and the walk. The Lands department used to sell a kit of six pamphlets with strip maps and interpretative information. I liked the kit and found it gave a useful overview of the walk, but it is now long out-of-print, and so may be hard to find. Presumably the relevant agencies are still involved in maintaining sections of track within their domains, but there is no ‘official website’. As a result, it takes some time to get up-to-date information about the walk.
Web searches will bring up a website which uses the walk’s name as its domain - http://www.thegreatnorthwalk.com/
- but the site appears not to be maintained and has very limited if any useful information.
The most useful site I found was http://wildwalks.com/lists/great-north-walk/
The overnight walks link provided detailed information, maps, photos and profiles of the walk. It is very useful as a planning tool. You may wish to print the maps and either the summary navigation sheets or the full track descriptions. This is a matter of preference as to how much paper you want to carry. I found the signage along the walk very good, but I lost the track on a few occasions. I mainly just carried hard copies of the summary navigation sheets, and carried full downloads of the documents on my phone for reference if required.
These notes do have some limitations. Do not expect to use the summary navigation sheets as a comprehensive set of directions – they are not, and do not include a number of track junctions. Many of the names of the features mentioned (e.g. track names) are not signed and are only identifiable if also carrying maps. They are most useful as a summary of distances and climbs and descents. The notes are also written as if you will walk two-day or one-day sections, which is less helpful for through-walkers. Some of the sections proposed as full days might take as little as four hours.
The notes are pretty good at identifying key campsites, but are surprisingly less useful for identifying places where water can be collected. The notes appear also to be a bit dated, as some of the information is now incorrect, but this relates less to the route of the walk itself. The notes are written as going from south to north.
I use the GPS app Back Country Navigator and downloaded maps and the following route gpx file: https://www.traildino.com/trace/contine ... North_Walk
I found this very valuable on a few occasions. Note that the gps line of the track doesn’t always align perfectly with the track itself, but it is generally clear which track on the map you should be on.
The Terrigal Trotters hold ultramarathons on the Great North Walk each year and have very useful information on their website, including maps, detailed directions and an altitude profile: http://www.terrigaltrotters.com.au/GNW/
(go to ‘Course Information’). Note, however, that their directions are written as southbound (consistent with the running of their ultramarathons).
Searches on bushwalk.com may throw up some further useful information, including a blog by someone who has walked the whole route in sections: https://solohiker.blog/
One post on Wild Walks outlined a range of resources en route, but beware again some information (e.g. about cafes) may be out-of-date:viewtopic.php?f=36&t=4881&p=333880&hilit=Browns+water+hole%3A+Access+to+Cafes+and#p333880
John and Monica Chapman have some overview information, including weather charts at: http://www.john.chapman.name/nsw-nth.htmlAccess
Both ends of the walk are very well served by public transport, and the section from Sydney CBD through to Brooklyn has very good, fast railway access to Sydney Central Station.
There are daily bus services to and from Somersby, but nowadays there is no service to Yarramalong. You can probably get a taxi out from the Gosford area to Yarramalong, but reportedly they may not honour requests to pick you up from Yarramalong.
Transport NSW has an excellent trip planner on its website: https://transportnsw.info/trip#/?home-toolkit=Climate and weather/when to walk
This section is particularly directed at those who do not live in the region. While the area has fairly mild temperatures, beware of the potential for heavy rain. East coast lows can dump hundreds of millimetres in a few days. It is worth your while looking at climate charts for the area; the first half of the year is on average wetter than the second half, but major rain can happen any time of year. While NSW was in heavy drought as I was planning to walk, in two weeks some areas along the walk received up to 300 mm of rain. This can be unpleasant to walk through, but some of the small creeks can become dangerous to cross. After the rain finishes the rocks can remain slippery for a period.
I am not a local, but my impression is that September-October is probably a good time to walk, particularly with daylight saving and lengthening days. I would however be watching the forecast carefully. If you have flexibility as to when you start, wait for an extended forecast of favourable weather. From November, the weather can start to get hot.Distances
Just be aware that different sources can have quite inconsistent indications of distances along the track. I thought of any number of explanations, but still could not reconcile the differences between the signpost distances, the distances in Wild Walks notes (see above) and the following detailed distances schedule:viewtopic.php?f=36&t=6078&p=73332&hilit=99.2+km+Phill+Houghton+Bridge#p73332
I found this list useful as a single coherent source to plan the lengths of each day’s walk.Signage
I am a rogainer and orienteer, so I love maps, but did not need to carry hard copies for navigation, because the signage was so good. I briefly lost the track shortly after starting from Valentia wharf and then was pretty much okay until I got to the edge of Newcastle. Maybe I was tired and losing focus, but I did find the track hard to follow a few times through the Newcastle suburbs. In these cases, my GPS track of the walk was very helpful.
Part of route-finding on long tracks is getting an understanding of the approach used to mark the track. In the south, they were particularly diligent and only occasionally would they not mark a junction with a minor side-track. You could follow your nose and instincts. They occasionally would not mark a junction if following a wrong direction would quickly lead to a dead-end.
You become very used to following the stylised markers (which are different along suburban streets and in the bush). In the Watagans, dropping off from Macleans Lookout towards Wallis Creek the track manager decided to use paint instead of the normal markers. This is confusing after the previous consistency of the markings – at first you do not know if the paint is marking the Great North Walk, a different track or possibly a track that temporarily coincides with the Great North Walk which at some stage will diverge! In the Newcastle suburbs, I found the markings in the bush inadequate in places.
The weirdest instance, however, was crossing the Old Pacific Highway near the Charlestown shops. On one side of the intersection is a huge metal ‘Great North Walk’ sign and on another is a ‘trailhead’ for the walk. Yet, it was very unclear where I was supposed to go from there, so I followed my nose until I came to a sign marked from the opposite direction! Definitely, useful having access to maps in that area.Track condition
The track mostly follows walking tracks but also some management tracks and sections of foot paths, bicycle paths and sealed roads. I found the walking tracks generally to be in good conditions, with very limited tree fall and no sections where the track was overgrown. I am not sure whether this reflects regular maintenance.
One thing you should be aware of is that there are numerous creek crossings. Major, deep creeks have bridges of some sort. But most creeks do not. Most but possibly not all will be crossable keeping dry feet by using stepping-stones. When I walked after heavy rain, some of the creek crossings near Hornsby and Jerusalem Bay were a bit tricky – on one occasion I avoided fast-flowing water with a waist-deep wade.Brooklyn to Mount Wondabyne - crossing the Hawkesbury
The ‘official’ track has the walker catching a ferry from Brooklyn to Patonga, but the scheduled ferry service no longer goes to Patonga. If you are committed to following the original route, your options would appear to be:
- to catch the train from Brooklyn to Woy Woy and then a bus to Patonga, or a combination of train, bus and ferry via Palm Beach. This would take 1-3 hours.
- get a water taxi (http://hawkesburywatertaxi.com.au/
from Brooklyn to Patonga. I didn’t ask, but I suspect that this would cost about a $100 for a single person (I got the impression that the total goes up with the number of passengers).
There are two main alternatives to going to Patonga. The first is to catch the train from Brooklyn to Wondabyne, which misses 1-2 days of the walk.
The other is to catch the ferry to Little Wobby and then head south a few hundred metres to where a powerline goes up a creek-line. Follow up a subtly-defined but persistent track on the south (right-hand) side of the creek-line to just before the ridgeline, where you run into a foot pad heading left (generally north). The pad is followable the whole way to Tank creek, some kilometres north, even though it is only very occasionally marked. As of October 2018, there were some fallen shrubs and trees, but they did not cause major inconvenience. Be careful exiting north from Tank Creek, as you enter a camping area with lots of tracks heading in all directions. The correct track heads right not far past Tank Creek, to follow a creek line out to the management track. It had a (pink?) tape not far from where it left the track between campsites. You then follow the management track until you meet the Great North Walk near Mt Wondabyne campsite. I can highly recommend this route via Little Wobby, as the village is interesting in itself and the pad above Little Wobby to Tank Creek provides a pleasant route with views across the Hawkesbury.
The scheduled ferry service from Brooklyn to Little Wobby is at http://brooklynferryservice.com.au/
Note that there are time gaps in the service and that they only accept cash. If you don’t want to wait, consider taking the water taxi – I was quoted $30 for one person (although I gather the total charge went up for more passengers).
The three options for crossing the Hawkesbury are shown at: https://www.traildino.com/trace/contine ... North_WalkWater
The location of reliable water is very important in determining your camp locations and to keeping down your pack weight. Water sources and my preferred camp locations generally did not coincide, so I was often carrying water from mid-afternoon until some time the next day. Having said that, there are good water sources fairly regularly along the way. This blog provides useful information:viewtopic.php?f=36&t=27612&p=347392&hilit=North+Mooney+Mooney+to+Palm+Grove+campsite#p347392
There is of course no guarantee of water in the tanks supplied that are otherwise working, but most of the time you would be very unlucky to find them empty. I will however outline what I found with the tanks.
As of October 2018, Kingtree, Flat Rock, Crawfords and Barraba all were operational. The tank at Archers campsite was not usable (but I did not go to the nearby clubhouse to check there). None of the tanks east of Barraba were usable – Watagan HQ, Hunter Lookout and Heaton Lookout. Can’t remember if there was a tank at Maclean Lookout, but if there was, it wasn’t operational either. I sterilised the water from tanks, but this might not be necessary.
There are lots of creeks you can get water from, but I suggest using your nous when sourcing water. In most other states, settlements are in the valleys and creeks through forest in the hills are probably unpolluted. In the NSW sandstone country this can be flipped over – you can be walking through beautiful forest and the streams you cross have flowed from the rural and suburban settlements above you on the plateaux. I sterilise water as a matter of course, but that will not remove industrial or agricultural poisons. If taking your water from creeks, look carefully on your maps at the catchments upstream. Watagan Creek (just north of Mt Warrawalong) did not look like an attractive water source, flowing as it does through grazing country).Camping/Accommodation
Much of the walk could be done without camping gear, by hopping from accommodation to accommodation, but this would require some long days on some sections, and some detours from the walk itself. As an aside here – I recommend carrying some form of identification e.g. your driver’s licence, which you may need to present (specifically at the Lane Cove Caravan park and the Newcastle Youth Hostel, but possibly elsewhere).
I stayed at the motel in Yarramalong – Angel Sussuri. You could find a rough camp on the track a few kilometres south of Yarramalong (going north it is a few hours before you get to anywhere suitable), but I found the motel useful for a number of reasons – washing (but not drying) clothes, showering, recharging device batteries and getting a good feed. At $220 per night it is not cheap, but I saw that as part of the cost of an otherwise inexpensive holiday. Staff were very obliging. I also stayed at the Brooklyn motel, which was okay at $130 – pleasant staff and rooms okay, but a bit claustrophobic. I didn’t go into the motel at Heaton Gap, but I would propose using it only as a fall-back, going from the outside appearance and the photos of the interior on the web. The Teralba Caravan Park did not get a good review from friends who stayed there.
The walk is surprisingly flexible for camping, given its location. I suspect even in the Lane Cove River valley you could find a camping spot tucked away with little chance of being shooed on, but I am not specifically recommending it (the NPWS caravan park there is pretty good and has very good facilities).
There are a number of sites designated as camping grounds along the route. Most of them I did not find attractive, but would serve if required. Forget about Watagan HQ, particularly on weekends. Often the designated campsites only had room for one tent. Tunks Ridge, Palm Grove and Barraba designated campsites were, however, pleasant.
Generally, I found alternative spots which were more attractive. The Watagan Creek campsite was not much chop, and fortunately I had camped a kilometre or so earlier, immediately before the track descends steeply to the valley. The ridge top camp a kilometre before Mt Warrawalong was also a nice spot for one tent, but a bit exposed to wind. In some places, I just camped on the side of the track itself and that worked fine.
Note that there are signs at Jerusalem Bay threatening significant fines for camping there. Similarly, camping is not allowed at any of the main lookouts in the eastern Watagans (Macleans, Hunter or Heaton Lookout) – although it appears to be permitted at Heaton Gap Lookout – a bit rough, but good views (NB – yes, Heaton Lookout and Heaton Gap Lookout are different places). Mind you, it appears that people do camp at the other lookouts, but I am not recommending that. I also strongly discourage walkers from creating their own campsites – please do not damage vegetation when you camp.Other walkers/noise/timing your walk
I walked the track in October and did not meet another through-walker. I did meet other walkers doing discrete sections of the track of one to three days, particularly near Sydney, but not as part of a longer planned through-walk. So, much of the time, you can expect to have the track to yourself, particularly on the weekends. All but one of my camps was on my own.
The fact that the walk is so close to Sydney does mean that a relatively high proportion of walkers are only occasional hikers, or are new to walking (e.g. teenagers). They may well not value the peace and quiet in the way you do. At Tunks Ridge, I was peacefully camped, looking forward to a calm evening, when three eleven-year-olds arrived to camp with musical device blaring.
I reached the eastern end of the Watagans on a Saturday. My morning had been quite serene and then had that shattered by the roar of dirt bikes and numbers of four wheel-drives. Worth keeping in mind.
Then there is the hum of the motorways. I had a lovely campsite on the plateau above Wondabyne station, but could hear the drone of trucks from the motorway some 6km or so away.
But don’t be deterred by this– you will have a peace and quiet most of the time. It probably will be a secondary consideration in your planning, but it is worth trying to avoid some areas – Sydney to Cowan and the eastern Watagans - during the weekends. If staying at Angel Sussuri motel in Yarramalong, bear in mind that it is generally booked out a long way in advance on weekends, but you are likely to have it on your own (and can book at short notice) on weeknights.Getting food and other supplies along the track
There a number of places along the track where you can get prepared meals, but if you are through-walking and camping, you are going to have to carry supplies for most of the walk. There are supermarkets not far from the track at Thornleigh and Hornsby, and similarly in Newcastle suburbs – but you are close to the start or finish of your walk in those places, and unlikely to be re-stocking. There are shops in Brooklyn, but I don’t know what they carried.
Do not rely on restocking at Somersby or Heaton Gap stores – they are basically just take-away shops with some snacks (mind you, the ladies at Somersby were very welcoming). Yarramalong store was again basically a take-away store, but had some supplies which might be useful in a crunch – I think they had some staples like noodles or rice and possibly some breakfast cereal. Either way, don’t expect to get the supplies you would choose to have on the walk.
This leads to the question of food drops. Locals could conceivably stash food along the route and retrieve the containers later, but the chances of them being discovered are greater than, say, on the Alpine Walking Track. I avoid heavy packs when I can, and the idea of carrying all supplies from the start did not appeal. The best option seemed to me to post a food drop to Somersby or Yarramalong (note that both of these locations are in Australia Post’s Express Post delivery zone). I don’t know how much these places have been asked to receive food drops, and it would be a hassle for them if too many people starting doing this. But I felt okay about sending a parcel to Angel Sussuri in Yarramalong, given I was staying there. I suspect they would agree to such an arrangement if asked again.