Building on the Great North Walk, Jason crafted his own hiking route between Newcastle to Taree and found that ‘self-made’ expeditions are an entirely different challenge.
Beyond The Great North Walk
If you’re a hiker in NSW then you’ll know about The Great North Walk. It’s a 250km track that runs between Sydney and Newcastle. Well-marked and well-trafficked, it’s a great multi-day hiking experience.
In May 2020 I ticked it off the list as my first significant trek, finishing the 250km solo across 10 days – and it only made me hungry for more.
After looking over many local tracks, each having its own restrictions due to fire damage or COVID-19, I decided to create my own track and build upon something I’d already started. Thus, The Great NSW Trek was born! A route that stretches from the VIC-NSW border, to the QLD-NSW border.
Whilst it’s a challenge that will span years, it’s begun with stage one – The Great North Walk – and stage two, my recent 230km Newcastle to Taree trek, the one I’m here to share with you.
Crafting Your Own Route
On this occasion, I almost exclusively used a website called Komoot to painstakingly map out my route, first as a simple A to B, then more granularly to ensure that each day had an achievable distance that would also see me end near somewhere I could sleep for the evening – that can be a bigger challenge than you might think.
Once marked out, I exported the route via a GPX file, added it to my Garmin watch, and saved it as an offline map on my mobile device – both very useful things!
The challenge of this approach is twofold; firstly, you’re seeing route suggestions and ‘advice’ from an automated system that has no adjustment for bad weather, high tides, closed or tired tracks, or obvious shortcuts where you could potentially just walk across a beach instead of zigzagging all along the dunes.
Secondly, there’s a limit to how insightful the planning can be regarding terrain – 20km on flat-packed earth or a path is significantly different to 20km on sand or sharp elevation climbs, especially with a 25-30kg pack.
Of course there’s a myriad of ways you could call, visit and recon these areas before setting off – however, part of what makes me love these adventures is having the chance to adapt and overcome.
For me, I make the most reasonable plans I can with the simple information in front of me, then you might say I simply hope for the best. Of course, it’s not that simple at all – I may hope for the best, but I pack for the worst.
Day 1 – Taree to Black Head ft. Khappinghat National Park
Walking Time: 6.5hr
Bag Weight: 28kg
The day started early and easy, following the footpath and roadsides coming out from Taree.
I entered Khappinghat National Park and it too was a joy – charred trunks sprouting brilliant green in every direction you look, while at your feet red dust swirled with every step. The sun was hot, 31°C hot, but the trees provided some cover and it was manageable all in all.
However, halfway through Khappinghat NP the path totally vanished and was instead replaced by a thick wall of grasses and small tree regrowth that just screamed ‘snake heaven’. I had very little choice but to press on, trusting in my gear, but also the furious swinging and ground whacking of my trekking pole and stick combo.
During this difficult bush bash, the GPS on two different mobile apps (Komoot & Google Maps) was pointing in opposite directions. Had I been relying solely on my mobile device in that dense bush setting, totally alone with no phone reception, I would have been very, very worried!
But my third and primary GPS on my Garmin Fenix was accurate and helped to reassure me that despite no visual path, I was on track.
Day 2 – Black Head to Forster ft. Nine Mile Beach
Walking Time: 6.5hr
Bag Weight: 27kg
Day two was a day for sand. Leaving Black Head, I walked down to Nine Mile Beach (which is actually just seven miles or 10.4km) and began my long sand-stomp in a very rough 30°C heat.
At first the sand was hard packed, solid, and reliable. But as with most terrain trust exercises, it deteriorated about a quarter of the way in and the grind began.
Once away from the township side of the beach, it was totally deserted and at times I felt like a wanderer exploring a desert, wrapped head to toe in clothing to shield me from the sun whilst slowly planting one foot before the other.
I ended the day on McBrides Beach, watching dolphins and a humpback whale play in the surf as the sun set, before camping on the beach and dozing off listening to the sound of the waves.
Day 3 – Forster to Elizabeth Beach ft. Booti Booti National Park
Walking Time: 5.5hr
Bag Weight: 30kg
Day three kicked my Booti!
After the third day walking under a relentlessly hot sun, the last two of which had been primarily on soft sand, I was very worn down to say the least!
Not quite reaching my intended finish point, I ended up pitching my tent on the track – I won’t say where exactly, but I will say it was an area I was not permitted to do so. I offset that (in my mind) by tying my tent to the top of a picnic table to ensure I didn’t disturb the ground. I also left no trace – I mean none.
I really wasn’t pleased by the fact I stopped early, but it felt like the right thing to do for my body after three very exhausting days and ultimately I believe it was the right call.
I also kept in mind that whilst doing the GNW in June, day three was tough because it’s enough time to hurt, but not quite enough to adapt.
Day 4 – Elizabeth Beach to Camp Treachery ft. Seal Rocks
Walking Time: 7.5hr
Bag Weight: 28kg
If my trek was a scout adventure, day four would’ve earned me a Man vs Wild Badge, or Advanced Bush Bashing Badge. However, since it wasn’t, all I walked away with was half the bush in my hair and two less jackets…
It was another 30°C day (the weather did not relent) and it began pretty amazingly – with a re-supply and coffee at Blueys Beach.
At this point I needed to walk along the highway for a while to join Blueys Point and Smiths Lake, before veering off and walking down to Sandbar Beach. The thing about Sandbar Beach was I had no idea if the sandbar would be there and if not, how would I get across to the track on the other side of the water?
Thankfully, it was there and despite it disappearing shortly after, I managed to cross and attempted to join the track that’d been marked on the map – only, the track did not exist.
What followed was a two hour pathless bush bash as the path’s no longer maintained and is now totally lost in vegetation.
At some point, due to the constant pushing through trees and vines, I must’ve managed to dislodge the two rolled-up jackets from the back of my pack, leaving them lost forever to the bush on a path I doubt few ever tread these days.
Trust me when I say I cannot fully explain how intense this day was.
Day 5 – Camp Treachery to Mungo Brush ft. Yagon
Walking Time: 7.5hr
Bag Weight: 32kg
Another big day! Starting out at Treachery Camp, I had to backtrack 8km through Seal Rocks and out to nearly the same spot I emerged from the bush the previous day.
It was during the evening of day four that I noticed a flaw in my planned day five route – a headland that cut off the beach and impeded my walk along the coast. The only way forward was to go backwards, at least at first.
Once that 8km was completed, I hit the Mining Road fire trail, a 20km track that connects Seal Rocks and Mungo Brush. But, with the harsh 32°C sun, it felt more like the Highway to Hell.
I dragged myself along the track under the full force of the sun, yet still I saw a grand sum of zero snakes! Plenty of trails and evidence, a few goannas even, but not a single snake.
Once I emerged at Mungo Brush, I hobbled down to a campsite just in time to sit down and watch the sunset over the lake.
Day 6 – Mungo Brush to Hawks Nest ft. a Nasty Tick!
Walking Time: 7hr
Bag Weight: 29kg
Day six saw me follow Mungo Brush Road down from Myall Lakes and into Hawks Nest. I veered off the road to follow both the Mungo Bush Trail and a small portion off the Tops to Myall Heritage trail (which connects Myall Lakes and Barrington Tops).
Yet another day with zero snake sightings, however I’d have much preferred to see a snake slither by, instead of having the wondrous experience of finding a tick embedded in my neck! It’s the first time I’ve played host to one of these horrible little guys and suffice to say I didn’t let him enjoy his meal for long. I say ‘him’, but in fact it’s only the females who suck the blood…
I removed her in the most inglorious, inappropriate way – but hey, I learnt a little more about tick management for next time!
Day 7 – Hawks Nest to Nelson Bay ft. Very Little
Walking Time: 1hr
Bag Weight: 27kg
Day seven was easy.
Having covered more distance at this point than originally planned, as well as needing to wait until 2:30pm for the ferry across to Nelson Bay, the day was mostly filled by eating and resting.
I enjoyed the break whilst I could, knowing full well that the walk would continue the following day and I’d get back to the enjoyment of grinding out 25-30km in the hot sun with a small house on my back.
Day 8 – Nelson Bay to Anna Bay ft. Whales
Walking Time: 6.5hr
Bag Weight: 27kg
Waking up in Nelson Bay, I was able to treat myself with a few comforts again – including a new toothbrush after I foolishly left it behind the previous night – before heading out into Tomaree National Park.
I hiked 25km and for the most part it was pretty easy going – a few ups and downs and overgrown paths, but nothing like what I’d experienced on previous days. I also managed to climb over a headland which saved me some time and kilometres since I didn’t have to go all the way around.
Absolute highlight of the day was filming three humpback whales from overhead with my drone as they made their way along the coast. To be able to see them live from that perspective was truly incredible, I felt lucky indeed!
Day 9 – Anna Bay to Newcastle ft. Tin City
Walking Time: 8.5hr
Bag Weight: 26kg
I was joined for day nine by a hiker who’d been planning the long beach walk for a while and saw I was going to be doing the Anna Bay to Newcastle stretch. He asked if he could join me and I was more than happy to oblige.
We’d a great day marching through the endless sand, detouring just once to explore the famous Tin City – a collection of depression era shacks built in the sand dunes.
After 36km of sand, I arrived in Newcastle at precisely the same location I began my Great North Walk adventure just a few months earlier.
Marked Track vs Self-Made Track
On the Great North Walk or most well-utilised trails, the little trail markers are a constant reassurance that you’re on the right track.
However, when self-crafting a route you can find yourself exposed to the risk that trails marked on a map may no longer be safe, or even passable, and this can cascade into a variety of challenges or even terminate the adventure all together.
I had more than one experience on this walk that made me very anxious, even with my experience and gear on hand. Personally, I enjoy this as it helps me test myself against the physical and psychological assault that feeling and being ‘lost’ or ‘isolated’ can bring on. But it’s not for everyone, nor should it be attempted without adequate safety equipment (First aid kit, PLB, warmth and sustenance to name a few).
I find accomplishing a self-made track to be satisfying in a way that’s rather different to that of completing a marked trail – it feels more personal, wilder.
Whenever I set off on an adventure, I always have people ask me about pack weight. Since my adventures are never perfectly planned, safe and structured (I intentionally leave my adventures open to challenges) I very deliberately pack myself to be fully prepared – the absolute first rule of survival.
I’d rather carry a few extra kilos and be comfortable and safe than shed some weight and require my PLB because I freeze or starve.
It works for me, but I absolutely encourage you to get out and hike in whatever format suits you – just do it safely!
I’ll be sidelining the NSW treks for the moment as I gear up for my next adventure, a massive 630km trek in May. Feel free to follow any of my social accounts to stay in the loop on that challenge as it develops and unfolds!