By Jade Johnston
Sydney is renowned for many things.
A busy international city, characterized by the graceful curves of the Sydney Opera House, a symbol recognized all over the world. A city known for it’s cleanliness, it’s beautiful beaches, and it’s easy access to the beautiful Blue Mountains and the award winning Hunter Valley Wine Region.
But you may be surprised to hear, as I was, that there is a national park, of great natural beauty, and cultural significance, within city limits.
Within city limits?
Established in 1879, the Royal National Park is the world’s second oldest National Park, and also features on the Australian Heritage List. The small town of Bundeena sits at the entrance to the park, which is easily accessed by Sydney public transportation. Just a short train and ferry ride and you will feel like you are world’s away from Australia’s largest city, and yet, you will still be within it’s limits.
We met Ian at the Cronulla ferry. He was going to be our guide for our day walk with Royal Coast Walks. On the short ferry ride across to Bundeena, he handed us out some maps and goodie bags, and showed us where we would be walking today.
We would not be walking on the conventional trails.
We would be exploring the paths and trails along the coast of the park – far from where the other weekend goers would be. These were the paths that Ian had played on with his brothers when he was growing up.
As we walked along the beach, we noticed a large embankment made of shells.
“That’s an Aboriginal midden – Over 1,000 years old. Shellfish was one of the main components of their diet, and this beach was where they lived for about half of the year.”
Ian has been doing his best to forge a relationship with the Dharawal, the traditional owners of the land. This is no easy task. Many of these people disappeared tragically, and rapidly after European arrival. The population thinned either by direct conflict, contact with new diseases, or just dispersion to other areas. Now the main group of Aboriginal people living in the Sydney region are from other tribes.
“Almost every tribe had it’s own language. The people living on this beach, wouldn’t understand the language spoken by the tribe which lived on the beaches of what is now Cronulla. And they all had their own stories and their own interpretations.”
Which is why it is a major challenge, and one Ian is eager to undertake, to rediscover some of these stories and pass them on to the visitors of his tour.
As we leave the beach and walk onto a patch of smooth rock, Ian instructs us to look down.
There, carved into the rock is a story.
Carved into the rock are Orcas, and the frog like spirit Byame.
The Aboriginals had a very special relationship with the Orca. This relationship was called the law of the tongue. The Orcas would come and alert the hunters of the presence of humpback whales, and would then chase the whales into the confines of the bay. Here the Aboriginal hunters would be able to easily spear the whale, providing food for the entire community and for the great feasts. In thanks for the Orca, they would cut off the lower jaw, tongue, and lips of the whale and give it to the Orca.
The law of the tongue and their special relationship with the Orcas was instrumental to their culture. Without the food provided by the humpback whale, they would not be able to hold their annual gathering which was there main way of passing down stories, law, and their culture.
“Here, taste this.”
Ian points out a variety of Banksia, a common Australian wild flower.
“These produce an extremely sweet nectar, which literally oozes out of the plant. The Aboriginals used to hunt the birds which would come here to feed, and also combined the nectar with water to produce a sweet and refreshing drink.”
But the best part of the walk happened around noon. As we enjoyed the picnic lunch which Ian had been carrying with us, we scanned our eyes over the water. Suddenly Ian pointed out a shot of spray from the water.
It was a humpback whale.
We stayed in our position, watching the whale play in the water as he made his way closer and closer to us. Finally he was right below us, waving his massive tail at us as he swam past.
It was surreal. My first whale encounter.
Apparently, spotting whales is a fairly regular occurrence on walks with Ian. And they usually show up right around lunch break.
As the whale made his way past us, we looked out over the sea behind us. In the distance, we could see the skyscrapers of the Sydney skyline. A startling reminder of just how close we really were to Australia’s largest urban centre – and yet it felt like we were miles away.
The Royal Coast one day walks really do offer something for everyone. Aboriginal legends, interesting geological features, animal encounters, and even examples of human creativity and resilience in the form of depression era caves where many families retreated to live out their lives when city life became too challenging during the 1930’s.
All this, and at the end of the day you will find yourself back in bustling, urban Sydney.
But for those wanting an even more in depth experience, then I would highly recommend the multi day walks with Royal Coast Walks. Spaces and permits are limited, so these walks only operate on the first weekend of the month. Book ahead to avoid disappointment.
- Your return ferry from Cronulla is inclusive
- Drinking water, healthy snacks, and a picnic lunch are all included
- Day walks operate several times weekly. Check the Royal Coast website for availability.
- Multi day walks operate on the first weekend of each month
- The walk proceeds at a comfortable pace, and the terrain is very gentle, making this a great walk for all fitness types and ages.
- Don’t forget your camera!
- Tours can be booked through the Royal Coast Website
Have you been to Sydney’s Royal National Park? Let us know in the comments!
Our Marley day tour was provided complimentary by Royal Coast Walks, but all opinions remain our own.