‘A secret garden and a spot history: This Sydney walking track is a must-do’

Oct 16, 2020
Strap on your hiking boots and get ready to explore Sydney with Ian. Source: Getty

It came from an idea. One begat another and, hey presto, here we were at Waverton Station, a place I’d never been before in my life. Leaving it was like walking away from the past. Original refurbished wooden railway buildings were still spread across the concourse; the station was wonderfully historic. May they never change it.

Immediately to the left across the road was an atmospheric rustic café, awash with bric-a-brac, odd plants and convivial conversation, aptly named Botanica Garden Cafe. I so wanted to stop but we had to move, it wasn’t quite lunch time and we had Ball’s Head in our sights … well, not physically, just yet. Heading south were more culinary treats of my favourite kind – pies. It was the second time in just a week that I’d stumbled on a Grumpy Bakery; a place where pies cost $9 and you’re lucky if you can get one. I’ve always been acutely aware that “make a better pie and they’ll beat a path to your door”. The only trouble was, that meant waiting outside just to get in; the curse of popularity and Covid-19.

Megan had suggested we buy a pie and eat it en route somewhere, a suggestion that brooked no negatives from me. Though it was well short of midday, by the time I reached the counter the varietal selection of pies had gone from eight to just three. Still, I was grateful just to be able to get some.

Further south was a sidewalk café called Waterview, yet another I would gladly have stopped at with its tentative harbour vistas, not quite panoramas, but tempting nonetheless. We joined Balls Head Road, descending till we met the path that would take us east around Berrys Bay, though I momentarily diverted to photograph HMAS Waterhen in Balls Head Bay, Australia’s anti-mine warfare base. Interestingly, the first ship by that name was Australia’s first naval casualty of World War 2.

Back to Berrys Bay and the views were more tempting. Moored yachts and assorted fishing craft dotted the waters and glimpses of The Bridge and Packer’s tower at Barangaroo formed the frame of a classic Sydney landscape. We were on the North Sydney Circle Walk. Here and there some Australian native plants were flowering as if in a tentative attempt to regain what once was.

The concrete path moved beneath our feet and occasionally we checked the architecture. Where before there were lovely circa 1930s brick houses with carefully tended gardens we now saw modernistic boxes with all glass fronts to enable the entire scene to be taken in without leaving your armchair. Coupled with a bookcase on an adjacent wall it looked like my idea of a perfect room.

Then you come to dramatic holes in the ground, large circular sandstone cuttings that once held fuel storage tanks, some of 31 in total. Once a 524 acre land grant, BP had closed it all down and allocated $3 million towards the reclamation that we see today. Multiple paths criss-cross the area and many are the scenic views to be had, mainly across to Sydney Harbour Bridge and Darling Harbour. One in particular, the Will Ashton Lookout, was named after an ex-director of The NSW Gallery (1937-1944) who had won the prestigious Wynne Art Prize three times, some for landscapes painted from this very area.

By now the paths had turned north towards Waverton Park where a soccer field adjacent to the harbour conjured up all sorts of images of where zealously misdirected kicks might end up. I pondered if they would have a permanent volunteer kitted out in swim gear ready for such an eventuality.

Rounding Berrys Bay we head south once more, drifting towards Sawmillers Reserve and crossing over an irregularly used goods railway line, descending past a wooden and iron workers cottage that was first built in 1898 and lovingly reconstructed in 2013 using mostly original materials after a landslide wrecked the foundations. It’s such a contrast to further down Munro Street where the fabulous modern architecture and gardens of the Watermans Apartments cannot fail to impress, especially with the mature palm trees in the garden.

As you wheel onto Boatbuilders Walk, there’s an interesting sign detailing much of what when on along this very shore, for this is where the first double-ended ferry was constructed, along with a multitude of other craft by a multitude of other builders over a century of manufacture. Today it’s all town houses and apartments though, at Sawmillers Reserve, there’s a ray of what might have been, and we have Harry Howard to thank for that.

Before 1828, land was granted with waterfronts and, at the end of the reserve, you can’t go any further unless you trespass. When the saw milling disappeared, the developers got their hands on the land but, in the 1970s finance became a problem and, though Blues Point Tower had already been built, the other 30-odd varied sized towers never made it. Thus, in 1979, with financial help from the State Government, Sawmillers Reserve became a public park. How ironic then that Harry Seidler, at Howard’s funeral at the reserve in 2000, stated “I thought that this was the most beautiful environment that I had ever seen … the Australian bush and trees were treated like pieces of sculpture … I think that this must be one of the greatest works that Harry has ever done.” And all this overlooked by Seidler’s controversially bland Blues Point Tower.

Howard, after whom an annual architectural award is named, is a legend in those circles and has had a bushwalk named after him. Here, we escape by going out the back of the park, climbing through a wonderful tree house to the streets behind and then moving east to Bay View Street before heading to Wendy’s Garden, once a secret, now a tourist attraction of the highest order.

For those of you who don’t know, it was the vision of Brett Whitely’s partner. She started the garden of her own volition. “I’ve loved making this garden,” she said. “It’s been a great gift to my life. It let me find myself again and it’s my gift to share with the public.” The only trouble was she did it on railway land. At one stage someone in the railways tried to stop the whole thing. Fortunately, enough people knew and cared by that time and the land was rezoned.

Wendy has been joined by other enthusiasts, like Carrado Camuglia and Ruben Gardiol, over the years and their combined legacy is a testament to human endeavour without any thought of material gain. Though it’s spring, the garden doesn’t resonate with the colour normally associated with that time of year, though there are quite a few in flower. My favourite plant is the fig tree and its three massive trunks, one curving like a contour road towards the harbour.

Hunger starts to reign and we depart to the nearby Kirribilli Club, strangely closed on Mondays and Tuesdays but open today with its lovely views over the park and harbour. It’s time to reflect on how a seemingly easy 6 kilometre walk could take around five hours. I expect if you spend time eating pies and dining in restaurants, that could help!

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Have you done the North Sydney Circle Walk?

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