Travel Story Walking Sydney: Manly ramble full of surprises

Photo of Bonita Grima

A scenic coastal walk in Sydney's north reveals a locals' secret: a series of abandoned fisherman's huts perched by a cliff. 

In planning to do the coastal walk from Manly to the Spit Bridge, known as one of the most scenic hikes in Sydney, I get chatting to the girl in the visitor centre and she lets me in on a “locals’ secret”.

The abandoned “fisherman’s huts” are unlikely to be found on any map so she scribbles her own directions down. Built about the 1920s as weekend retreats, the huts were occupied by fishermen and later by artists and alternative-lifestyle seekers during the 60s and 70s before the area was declared part of Sydney Harbour National Park. Since then they seem to have been forgotten.

The 10km western stretch of the Manly Scenic Walkway includes some of the most picturesque and historic parts of Sydney’s North Harbour and Middle Harbour and should take me about 3.5 hours. 

I begin early from the wharf passing Fairlight’s ocean pool before a gradual incline leads me into the rainforest of the North Harbour Reserve, to the crescendo of cicadas. It’s humid from last night’s rain and the smell of damp earth and eucalypt permeate the air as I listen to the calls of pied currawong before watching the sailing boats from the hill. 

The vegetation in the national park is hardier, consisting of shrubs, grass trees and wildflowers in which New Holland honeyeaters flit about. When I reach the lookout at Dobroyd Head (an excellent spot for whale watching) I am rewarded with a panorama which includes North Head and South Head. Close to Crater Cove, I check my map, looking for clues of the un-signposted track to the huts and ask people I pass whether they’ve heard of them. No one has. After a few wrong turns, I eventually find the track. 

It widens through a tunnel of trees down to some large rocky boulders which I scramble across. Zigzagging down through more bush, receiving a few scrapes, I finally see the stone chimneys and flat tin roofs of the cabins which have been built from “found materials”.

To my delight I have the place all to myself. It’s eerily silent except for the gentle crashing of waves and the scampering noises of a colony of water dragons. Looking out to sea, it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like before settlement and it’s hard to believe I’m so close to the city. 

There’s nothing to stop people from visiting these huts but a spokesperson for NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service later tells me visitors aren’t encouraged because the huts are fragile and the area is near the edge of the cliff. 

At one of the sturdier huts I find fishing gear, ropes, buoys and a framed old newspaper article outside. The doors are padlocked but I can see old beds, furniture, cooking utensils and crockery. I’m even sure I hear movement inside. 

Leaving the huts, I feel the best of the walk must be behind me but I’m wrong for the walkway delights with the Grotto Point lighthouse built in 1911, Aboriginal rock engravings dating back 1000 years and spectacular views of Middle Harbour and the city skyline. The little swimming beach of Castle Rock can be reached by a downhill rainforest ramble and a staircase and as I emerge from the national park, there are the Clontarf Reserve picnic areas.

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