The Great North Walk is a rugged 250km hiking track that runs from Sydney to Newcastle. Jason tackled the thru-hike, solo, over ten days.
If you’re a Sydneysider you might’ve walked a section of the Great North Walk already. The route, which starts with a ferry ride from Circular Quay, ambles north through the suburbs before entering the true wilderness south-west of Newcastle. It’s an epic hike that runs through multiple national parks and links up a huge range of top tier spots, but it’s also very hilly and, at times, extremely remote.
Recommendations on how long the GNW should take range up to 30 days, but I chose to tackle the beast in just ten days, solo, whilst carrying everything I needed on my back.
I make mistakes. A lot. And the best part about that fact is that so many are avoidable, I just need to listen to the advice of others. But whilst eating copious amounts of macaroni cheese is a strength of mine, accepting advice is not.
So when I decided that my first solo multi-day hike was to be over 250km long and spread over ten days, I immediately accepted that I was opening myself up to a myriad of mistakes – and I couldn’t wait!
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Preparing for the Great North Walk
There were only two weeks between the idea popping into my head and my feet hitting the ground.
The Great North Walk was something I’d often thought about since moving to Sydney in 2016, but frequent work travel meant I was often out of town, which made the time commitment hard. Then, enter COVID, and suddenly I wasn’t travelling anymore. Taking the time off locally became a reality.
Within those two weeks I decided that I’d complete the track in reverse (starting in Newcastle and finishing in Sydney) and did my best to compile adequate gear and supplies without buying a whole heap of new things.
That last point is important – I took what I had, not what was perfect – but I’ll come back to that.
I left home and boarded a train to Newcastle where I’d spend the evening. The walk began the next morning.
Day 1 – Newcastle to Teralba
Elevation gained: 478m
You know that feeling, the one that creeps up your spine, then whispers in your ear ‘oh dear, you’ve made a huge mistake.’
Well, it was absolutely in my ear when I started out.
My ‘day one’ total bag weight of 27kg felt heavy (which of course, it is!) and each kilometre was hard-fought.
The walk started at the Queen’s Wharf in Newcastle, but almost immediately I detoured to include a little beach scenery and most importantly, a doughnut store (after all, it was International Doughnut Day!).
It was a long first day, walking 33km to reach the town of Teralba. For many, 33 clicks won’t sound huge, it certainly didn’t to me as I’d planned on a few 50km days. But with that weight it was a definite test of my endurance, both physically and mentally.
COVID-induced camping lockdowns had just been lifted and the Teralba Holiday Park was full – a consequence of my relaxed attitude towards booking. So, after a huge day in the sun, with everything aching, I set up my tent in some long grass on the outskirts of Teralba, just off the side of the road.
Day 2 – Teralba to Watagan HQ
Elevation gained: 1,185m
Day two began with me grumbling about the noisy bats that’d kept me awake all night and the immediate uphill climb that greeted me once I set off. I was initially optimistic about the challenge of the day but soon realised that I was gravely mistaken. While there were 8km less to hike, the elevation was brutal – nearly 1,200m up to be exact.
That’s a decent climb at the best of times, but carrying the weight of my bag was proving to be an immense challenge. I was starting to understand why thru-hikers are so obsessed with weight!
Lucky for me, I had help. I met Richard, a 75-year-old gentleman who introduced himself at the bottom of an upcoming climb and asked if he could join me. Richard was working on improving his health and had returned to this spot to beat his previous effort. Together we climbed, slowly.
Every group we passed would joke that I’d drawn the short straw, as I was carrying ‘all’ the gear and Richard was gearless. But I was the one admiring his determination and effort – I hope I’m so driven at 75!
I arrived at Watagan HQ campsite after dark and again, had help. Whilst setting up my tent, some nearby campers offered me some hot food and shortly after, some coals to help light my fire.
After the challenges of the day, and the fact that it was only the second day of such hardship, I was extremely grateful. I ate, put out the fire and slept – or rather tried to while a nearby group enjoyed their weekend camping late into the evening.
Day 3 – Watagan HQ to Ellalong
Elevation gained: 573m
Another long one! Starting out from the campsite at Watagan HQ, I quickly came upon The Narrow Place Lookout – which was one of my favourite views from the walk.
From Watagan HQ you’d typically carry on directly into Corrabare State Forest, but I chose to steer away and instead head into the nearby town of Ellalong. I did try to find rest at Paxton, a town that I had to pass through to reach Ellalong, but apparently there was ‘no room at the inn’.
Instead, I wandered on to Ellalong in my exhausted state, all the while muttering just the first few words of the Foo Fighters song ‘Everlong’, but of course, adjusting the words to fit.
My favourite moment was entering the Ellalong Pub. Picture me trying to walk through the door and getting stuck thanks to my large bag. All the locals turned and stared at this absolute mess of a human being, just stuck in a doorway.
I headed to Ellalong for a few reasons, but primarily to recharge my devices and ensure I had adequate supplies for what appeared to be a few days without the opportunity for resupply. I certainly wasn’t sad about having a shower in the town either!
But as nice as it was to have those luxuries for the evening, they didn’t come cheaply – the detour added 15km to my walk across days three and four.
Day 4 – Ellalong to Flat Rock
Elevation gained: 811m
Day four took me through parts of Corrabare State Forest, an area that was extensively damaged by the recent fires. After several months, many areas remain closed.
It felt good to get back on the proper track to continue trudging forward. I was fully loaded with water and supplies, bringing my bag to a hefty total of 33kg. Despite a little numbness in my left thigh, I was feeling pretty great. The numbness was a concern and stuck around for the remainder of the walk, but I later learned it was due to pressure on my hips from the weight and fit – something I’ve hopefully resolved for future heavy walks.
Day four was the first day I felt like I was actually going to complete the walk in its entirety. Up to this point, the consecutive days of walking for up to 12 hours with that weight on my back had me feeling like I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But, bit by bit, my body was rising to the challenge. Each day I set out feeling stronger and more in control.
I ended the day at a Walker’s Rest Stop just a little way past Flat Rock Lookout, and after three nights of disturbed sleep due to noise, I was really looking forward to some peace. I couldn’t help but laugh when I arrived at the campsite and there was a family present with not one, but two screaming children.
They eventually settled and even helped me gather some sticks for a fire, whilst the parents gave me parting gifts of sausages and, unbelievably, scones with jam and cream – I was in heaven!
Day 5 – Flat Rock to Yarramalong
Elevation gained: 793m
This day was a grind. It started with a 20-minute delay after a large bull blocked a gate on the path (you’ll have to watch the full video to understand), then ended with several kilometres of road walking, during which I was bitten by a dog. A grind, but an eventful grind!
Neither event was serious, the bull cared little for my presence and the dog only caught the back of my boot, but nonetheless, it was a day to remember! I stumbled into Yarramalong in the dark, with rain pouring down. Again I hadn’t planned anywhere to stay and in the end, I chose a local park (tsk tsk) to set up for the night.
Day 6 – Yarramalong to Somersby
Elevation gain: 1062m
More rain – a lot more. It rained all day! I left Yarramalong and headed into Ourimbah State Forest, where I was greeted by constant hungry leeches climbing on my shoes and up my pants. I’m pleased to say none managed to find purchase, despite having to cross a heavily flowing river barefoot.
The track was very soggy and the clay became thick and sticky, making each step either slippery or rough on the ankles as the clay sucked at my boots. By the time I reached Somersby I was very sore from the effort. I’d hoped to arrive a little earlier to scope a good spot to camp, but the rain and elevation had slowed my progress and I arrived after dark – wet and exhausted.
I did the only sensible thing I could – I set up my tent near a general store that was set to open early and would provide a much-needed coffee and bacon and egg roll in the morning. I’m not sure what part of me needed that more at the time, my belly or my brain!
In any case, the next morning went exactly to plan, and it was glorious.
Day 7 – Somersby to Brooklyn
Elevation gain: 726m
Day seven got off to a good start as I mentioned, but again the rain made things a little uncomfortable. The combination of rain and sweat meant I was pretty much soaked through, which I just had to accept.
I knew I had dry clothing to sleep in, which was mentally comforting as I squelched my way through the 28km journey to Brooklyn. Typically at this point, you’d head through Brisbane Water National Park towards Patonga to catch the ferry across to Brooklyn.
But given the unreliability of services thanks to COVID, the thought of walking to Patonga only to be denied passage was motivation enough to detour down to Wondabyne and catch the train across instead. I stopped for dinner in Brooklyn before walking on a little further to the Brooklyn Dam Camping area.
Day 8 – Brooklyn to Berowra Heights
Elevation gained: 1,119m
Sleep in! I woke a little later than normal, but to the sound of yet more rain. So I rolled back over and snoozed for a little longer. It was a nice, gentle start to the day – which, of course, I’d regret later.
I travelled through Jerusalem Bay for the first time – something I’d been looking forward to doing for a while. However, one thing I found repeatedly throughout the hike was tracks that would normally excite (twists, turns, climbs and squeezes) are much, much less enjoyable with a small house on your back.
Although the area was beautiful, I found myself being a grumpy old man, muttering and sighing at every minor inconvenience along the way.
I wove my way down to the water’s edge in Berowra before stopping for dinner – at a fancy Italian restaurant no less! I explain it better in my video, but stopping for food when it presented itself was just as welcomed as it was unplanned. I was very happy to take advantage of anything I came across, but I wasn’t sure the lovely restaurant would want me!
Due to COVID I was the only guest – so I guess that worked in everyone’s favour. No one had to sit near me – and smell me!
After eating, I walked on to Crosslands Reserve, arriving rather late in the evening, before setting up my tent in the total darkness, climbing in and dozing off.
Day 9 – Berowra Heights to Macquarie Park
Elevation gained: 750m
I woke up to a misty day nine. It’s an odd thing going to sleep in world that’s pitch black and waking to discover your new surroundings.
Even in those early hours, people were about – running and fishing – I was getting close to Sydney now.
I knew this was my last ‘big’ day, which just made each kilometre even tougher! Dreams of pizza and chocolate clouded my vision; my legs and feet were asking ‘are we there yet?’ with every step.
I walked along the water for most of the day, then headed into Lane Cove National Park. I was able to follow that right into Macquarie Park where a friend’s home provided the promise of a shower and a soft bed. My slow pace meant that (for something new and different) I arrived well after dark, cold, hungry and so near to the end that it was hard to rest.
Eventually I was able to nod off despite my swirling head and throbbing feet.
Day 10 – Macquarie Park to Sydney
Elevation gained: 288m
The last day! A short day and a day following a decent rest. I was very happy heading out from Macquarie Park knowing that I’d be spending that evening at home – all I had to do was reach Sydney!
Throughout the earlier stages of the hike, I had determined that the last stretch of the track, which is a ferry ride from Woolwich to Circular Quay, was not fitting with the distance I had walked! I wanted to arrive in Sydney by walking across the bridge and then, maybe even walk all the way home to Lewisham in the Inner West simply so I could say I walked home from Newcastle.
On day ten however, none of these things seemed like a good idea anymore, I just wanted to finish!
Step by step, I made my way through the last leg of the journey, walking to Woolwich to catch the ferry. It was a pretty neat ending as the weather was perfect.
I spent a lot of time and effort throughout the walk recording my experience. But the great irony is that when I got to the Opera House, my ‘end’, I took no video – just a quick photo. Was it mental exhaustion? Maybe just a huge desire to finish and get myself home?
Nope, the thing I was so distracted by was wanting to stuff my face at the nearby McDonalds. A triple cheeseburger later and I could finally call it a day.
Water, Food and Places to Sleep
I’ve been asked constantly about places to source water, food and the most ideal campsites. It’s a fair collection of questions, but the issue in answering them is that each hike will likely be totally unique.
Weather, fitness, physical attributes, route plan – all these things will alter your requirements. I do recommend planning your route thoroughly, doing the research so you know ahead of time where to acquire these things, but I’ll admit that I didn’t plan thoroughly at all. I enjoy the opportunity to adapt and overcome more than most, and with that, accept the risk of failure.
In addition to paper maps, make sure you download offline maps too, they’ll definitely help throughout the journey.
Hike Your Own Hike!
Hike your own hike is critical to me. Some people want to hike natural, some bring a dozen gadgets, some prefer long distances, some only enjoy short tracks. Some people head out with just the shirt on their back whilst others bring the kitchen sink.
There’s no right and wrong, most certainly not just because someone else tells you so. I started this article by saying I make mistakes, and I do. I’ll take gear that’s useless, or too heavy, or not book a campsite and sleep on the side of the road… these things happen, but they’re all part of the experience, my experience.
I enjoy my mistakes as I get to learn my way, free from bias or influence – and I find that truly the best way to explore my own sense of adventure. Of course, safety must always be paramount. Don’t skimp on that and know when to call it. But otherwise, tread your own path and craft your own adventures.