Whichever way you approach the Bondi to Manly Walk, you’re either starting at Sydney’s most famous beach or its second most-famous beach, so it’s easy to be lulled into a sense of complacency. You might expect that the walk will be, if not exactly easy, then at least familiar if you’re not a first-time visitor.
But make no mistake, the Bondi to Manly Walk – or B2M, launched in December 2019 – is a 50mi (80km) odyssey into the wild heart of Australia’s largest, most dynamic city. Nearly half the walk meanders through national park where you’re as likely to spot a long-nosed bandicoot as a Bondi hipster.
There’s one particular stretch, a tunnel of twisted angophoras between Taronga Zoo and Bradleys Head, where primitive-looking water dragons sun themselves by the track and black-bellied swamp snakes lurk unseen, that feels utterly alien. But peer through the foliage and you can still see the Harbour Bridge and city skyline rising above the sparkling waters of Port Jackson. These surprising contrasts between the civilized and uncivilized city are a constant theme of this trail.
The walk links several existing coastal paths, each rich in its own secrets and wonders. There is so much to see and do that it’s smart to plan ahead.
Do you want breathtaking views, breathtaking mansions, or both? Do you want to swim at magnificent beaches, or have cultural experiences, or eat and drink well along the way? Is your in interest Indigenous and European history? Or nature? Animals? Landscapes? Architecture? All of the above options are possible.
Or you could simply leave things mostly to chance, as I do. That way you can set out from the start of the walk at the lifeguard tower on Bondi Beach and find yourself, minutes later, perched at the edge of Ben Buckler headland marvelling at ancient engravings in the sandstone escarpment. The markings, made by the people of the Eora Nations, depict a whale, a shark, and a lizard man, their origins and exact meanings lost to time.
The clifftop views here are mesmerizing, extending all the way to North Head in one direction, and to the south to Maroubra and beyond in the other. Over coming days, I witness the coast and harbour from every angle, all of them unforgettable.
The first leg of the walk is comparatively well-known but, if you’re not one of the many locals who walk it daily, it’s worth taking your time to revel in its revelations.
Within the first hour you’ll witness brochure-perfect panoramas of Sydney Harbour (Dudley Page Reserve in Dover Heights has an awe-inspiring outlook), Australia’s first lighthouse (Macquarie Lighthouse), clifftop panoramas and surging seas – best viewed through Joel Adler’s Viewfinder, a periscope sculpture that captures the ocean’s fury far below.
There are also the remains of a CSIRO radio astronomy site that once recorded extra-galactic signals and was regarded as one of the most important of its kind in the world.
Given the walk’s endless diversions my best tip would be: take your time. I covered the 80kms in three days with minimal blisters but regret I didn’t allow more time, not least to swim at all the siren beaches lining the route.
Arriving at the pristine sands of Camp Cove, as Arthur Phillip did in 1788 when he first set foot on Port Jackson, is like stumbling onto an urban paradise. You will definitely want to take a dip.
Likewise at alluring harbour beaches such as Nielsen Park, Redleaf, Lady Martins and – on the north shore – Whitings Beach, the honeycombs sands of Balmoral, and the positively Maldivian vibes of Castle Rock Beach. Accessible only by boat or on foot, Castle Rock is one of the walk’s greatest treasures.
Architecture/real estate fans will enjoy the extravagance of harbourside homes crusted along the coast from Point Piper to Cremorne, with its impressive array of Arts & Crafts mansions. Make time to poke around colonial piles such as Strickland and Vaucluse houses, both open to the public and set in attractive grounds.
Delve deeper into the harbour’s secrets on tours run by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, which manages landmark sites including the Macquarie Lighthouse, Platypus submarine base at Mosman and Headland Park.
On a fascinating tour here led by volunteer guides, I learned about the old wartime hospital at Georges Heights and explored the labyrinthine corridors of a sandstone fort built after the Crimean War. Despite living in Sydney for more than a decade, I had no idea any of this existed.
There are relics of First Nations culture cached along the track including more rock engravings at Dobroyd Point and a 3,200-year-old cave and kitchen at the southern end of Balmoral Beach. If you’re keen to know more about Sydney’s Indigenous history, book a tour with Dreamtime Southern X which shares Eora perspectives on Port Jackson.
While there are spectacular urban walks in cities such as Vancouver and Hong Kong, I can’t think of any that so thoroughly reveal a city’s character as this one. My friend Jacqui captures its special quality as we’re hiking through the ritzy suburbs of Vaucluse and Double Bay.
“They’re all neighborhoods!” she says. “It’s just everyone doing their thing, everywhere you go. They’re not tourists. It’s all these glimpses into people’s lives everywhere. And it’s unique that it’s so accessible.”
As long as it’s paced to your fitness level, the walk is not strenuous. Paths are well-maintained and new signage just installed (2022) makes it far easier to navigate. There’s no need to carry food because the route runs past some of Sydney’s loveliest waterfront eateries. Options include beach kiosks at Watsons Bay, Parsley Bay, and Nielsen Park, the Archie Bear café stilted above Mosman Bay, Bathers Pavilion at Balmoral, and Manly’s smorgasbord of seafront eateries.
Your first step should be to download the B2M app and start planning. Accommodation-wise, you can stay high or low depending on your budget. There’s no shortage of hotels but if you’re on a budget, consider basing yourself at the Sydney Central YHA. Its roof terrace has million-dollar harbour views.
From any Central Business District base you can use Sydney’s public transport network to get to and from each day’s walk and save the hassle of having to transfer luggage between lodgings.
Children will love every section of the B2M. Some sections are accessible to those with physical disabilities; email firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm access.
Nomad Niamh Geaney connects deeply with indigenous culture as she learns about the world's oldest civilization.
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