After almost two years of life shrinking to a single postcode, Sydney’s Bondi-to-Manly walk feels as though it’s opening up whole new worlds – if only you don’t get lost. By Mark Dapin.

How to lose yourself on the Bondi-to-Manly walk

Heading north along the coast at Dover Heights.
Heading north along the coast at Dover Heights.
Credit: Richard Milnes / Alamy

Within six minutes of setting off from Bondi Beach on the 80-kilometre Bondi-to-Manly walk, I’m already lost.

It’s 7.30am. Pods of surfers bob in gentle waves. An athlete from a functional-fitness class tries to sprint through the sand while another hangs on to a band around his waist, dragging him back. It’s a fitting metaphor for, well… life in general, really.

The uncrowded beach is head-turningly lovely. While my head is turned, I miss my turning and end up at the top of a cliff instead of in the shadow of a war memorial.

The uninterrupted Bondi-to-Manly coastal walk was composed in collaboration between various local councils, Aboriginal land councils, state agencies and the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.

It officially opened in December 2019 – the month before the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a global health emergency.

In 2020, just as the loveliest hike around any city in the world was opened to visitors, nobody was allowed to visit.

As that miserable year ground on, even the citizens of Sydney were confined to their home suburbs and it became effectively illegal to walk between Bondi and Manly.

So it is with a sense of incalculable freedom (but no sense of direction) that I set out to explore the shoreline of the metropolis where I have lived for the best part of 30 years.

The walk is augmented by track notes and an irritatingly named “B2M” app that I cannot use.

The notes are oddly robotic. As I reach a clifftop reserve in Dover Heights, I am advised to keep the Pacific Ocean on my right.

If the ocean were on my left, I’d either be drowning, in Argentina or heading to Wollongong instead of Manly.

I’ve chosen to complete my journey over three days, walking for about eight hours a day. It feels invigorating to be crossing so much public land in a nation where the very idea of public ownership has taken such a savage and cynical beating.

In the wealthy eastern suburbs, it’s pornographically compelling to peek through the electronic gates of the braggadocious homes of businesspeople and other criminals, but the dour municipalist within me can’t help but consider that the real jewel of Dover Heights is the clifftop housing commission block and the views it affords those who couldn’t otherwise afford them.

I walk without music, because I need to clear my head and think about the future, and there isn’t a single song or band that doesn’t remind me of some time, something or someone.

But there are traces of my past throughout Sydney.

On day two, walking up Macleay Street in Potts Point, I reach the unusually severe Art Deco unit block where I stayed when I first arrived in the city, but I can barely even remember it now. I’ve always found it hard to recognise my former homes – although all of Sydney seems like my home today.

While I’m congratulating myself on this uplifting thought, I realise the reason the block looks unfamiliar is that I am standing in the wrong street. My actual unit was up the road and on the left.

I’m almost choked by tears as I veer from the trail to look at another shabby Kings Cross apartment where I lived for six months, my melancholy nostalgia offset only slightly by the fact that I know I’m probably again outside the wrong building.

At the Empire Hotel (formerly Les Girls and the Carousel) smiling drinkers breakfast on beer. Of course, I had forgotten – it’s Australia Day.

Circular Quay is crowded with families carrying both Australian and Aboriginal flags. I thought I could get up to the Harbour Bridge through the pylons, but in fact I have to walk back to The Rocks to join a staircase.

However, there is an elevator. This presents me with a moral(ish) problem(ish). The trail notes don’t specifically forbid me taking the elevator, but it seems against the vibe of the thing. I won’t detail my choice – it’s a private matter.

Walking the bridge for the first time since the Walk for Reconciliation in 2000 (which was also the last time I saw so many Aboriginal flags) is wondrous and wonderful. To watch from above as the boats line up for the Australia Day Ferrython is an almost heartbreaking privilege. How can any harbour possibly be so beautiful?

On the north side of the bridge, in the shadow of the Greenway housing commission complex in Milsons Point, I stop to return a call from John Killick, a former armed robber who once escaped from Silverwater prison in a helicopter hijacked by his girlfriend.

Killick now lives in Greenway. When I tell him I’m nearby, he asks what I’m doing. I say I’m walking from Bondi to Manly.

Don’t worry, he says, I’ll give you a lift.

Killick has always believed in taking the fastest route from A to B.

On nearby Prue’s Beach, Australian Mensa is holding a sausage sizzle for poorly dressed men with spectacles who don’t get lost trying to follow simple instructions – because once again, I’ve gone the wrong way. Prue’s Beach is lovely but it is not a part of the walk.

The next day’s hike begins at the Taronga Zoo ferry wharf, where someone shouts, “Get the bus!”

I turn around, thinking it’s an idiot out to troll hikers, but it’s actually a bus driver offering help up the hill, John Killick-style.

By the third day of the hike, I have managed to get myself lost six times, adding several hours to the walk. A friend turns up to meet me at Georges Heights in Mosman, where I just cannot find the bush track promised in the trail notes. My friend comes up with an astounding solution – she asks someone!

This would never have occurred to me, but she employs the same novel strategy a few minutes later – and it’s successful on both occasions.

This suggests to me that I should be walking with a responsible adult so, once my friend leaves, I tag along behind two elderly Americans who appear to know what they are doing.

In fact, they don’t.

They (and, therefore, I) somehow lose the path at Forty Baskets Beach and we discover that there is no trail across the next cove. The Americans consult two confident-looking locals – whose occupation seems to involve taking dogs swimming – how to proceed.

The doggy paddlers say we can either go back the way we came or get our “feet” wet wading through knee-deep water.

They (and, therefore, I) choose the latter option. The water is as warm and gentle as a massage, making me wish that I had jumped in earlier.

I reach Manly at the end of the day, but I still have to walk 10 kilometres around the peninsula to complete the hike. A normal person could easily have finished the journey in three days, but I have to put aside another afternoon.

In a narratively convenient (but nonetheless real) mishap, I get hopelessly lost for the final time in the last hour of the walk, on private land surrounded by signs warning of rockslides.

I end up walking for about 30 hours, getting lost about 10 times and losing exactly one kilogram in body weight.

And it is all absolutely bloody marvellous.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Back on track".

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