For the past few years, my wife Trish and I have been a regular part of a Friday walking group. The group is led by retired journalism academic Chris Nash, who we all respectfully address as Dear Leader. It includes among others a retired judge, one of Australia’s leading children’s writers, a heritage architect, retired teachers, journalists, academics, a scientist, a political staffer, a children’s legal advocate and a criminal lawyer. All but three are women.
Above: your correspondent with Dear Leader
Nearly all of us are gold senior opal travel card holders, so our journeys to and home from our walks never cost us more than $2.50 if we stay within the greater Sydney boundaries. These could take us as far south as Nowra, west to Mt Victoria, north to the Hunter and south west to the southern highlands.
Our rules are few and include always using public transport to move to the start of a walk and again to come home on its completion. Where possible, we try to end walks somewhere where we can have a late lunch and replace some of the calories just burned. Last week that was in Cabramatta’s Vietnamese strip. We’ve ended at Harris Park to eat south Indian dosas, perfect fish and chips at La Perouse, and wolfed the best Lebanese pastries at Granville.
We start at 7am in spring and summer and 8am in autumn and winter and typically walk 10-15km, or in fitbit-ese, 16,000-24,000 steps. Good footwear and hats are critical, and good conversation pours out all day long. It’s a walkin’, talkin’ group.
In 2019, I gave a talk at an international conference in Copenhagen where the focus was on lobbying governments to introduce policies that can assist in delaying the onset of dementia. Research here suggests that keeping cognitively, socially and physically active act synergistically to slow the slide that many will make into cognitive senescence.
With the exception of a few overseas stints, I’ve lived in Sydney since I was 18. For a time, I drove taxis as a uni student and thought I knew Sydney well. But driving through suburbs almost always takes you along very limited routes. I lived in Balmain for several years, but it wasn’t until we walked around its perimeter that I discovered so many wonderful parts I’d never seen.
Walking is like taking your time to eat a good meal or drinking good wine slowly: you experience and appreciate so many more dimensions. When you walk in a city, you see houses, buildings, gardens, parks, and interesting shops you’ve never noticed. And a profusion of wonderful bird life. Rookwood cemetery is worth a whole day, for the history, the different cultural aspects of burial and the many foxes you’ll see.
Highlights for me have included our longest walk that took us by train and bus to Kurnell and then walking across the spring wildflower thick escarpment where Sydney’s jets fly in, past the fishermen’s shacks at Boat Harbour and then the long walk along the hard foreshore sands of Wanda and Cronulla Beach. Famed photographer Lorrie Graham joined us that day and recorded the walk in her blog here.
Circling Manly dam was special (I took my grandkids around it again soon after), as was walking through the bush from Lapstone to Emu Plains. We’ve done every section of the very long walk from Pyrmont to Parramatta via the many bays of the Parramatta River, as well as all beaches from Palm Beach to Manly, and Watsons’ Bay to La Perouse. These each take several Fridays to complete the whole distance.
One of our group has detailed historical knowledge of Kings Cross, Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo and our heritage architect turns off her meter to talk us through different housing periods and the history of various stately homes.
Perhaps the most memorable was a route we took from Oxford St Woollahra across Centennial Park and onto Eastlakes golf course, all in the search for the holy grail delights of the Croquembouche Patisserie in Botany. After coffee at the clubhouse, we took the advice of a staff member that we should walk through the full length of the golf course, taking care to avoid flying balls, and then exit into the Botany suburb.
The golf course is massive. We took the crow-flies direction from Dear Leader and after a good many kilometres struck an unscalable high wire fence which seemed to surround the entire course. Golfers we asked about exit points all gestured vaguely that we should keep walking and surely we’d find a way out. “We just drive around in our buggies” they told us helplessly. Trish copped a golf ball in the bum before we eventually found a section of the fence that had been vandalised, promising our escape rather than retracing ours steps all the way back.
Outside the fence we saw a single railway track with another unscalable high wire fence on the other side of it. As luck had it, a man in high viz gear sat alone next to the track in a folding chair. His car was nearby on a dirt track. His job seemed to be to wait for trains to pass. Nice work if you can get it.
“Hi mate, which way should we walk, left or right, to get out to the Botany streets?” I asked.
“Youse are not meant to be here. You’re trespassing. You need to get out of here straight away.” he told us in monotone, in what we later decided must have been among the most exciting episodes of his employment.
“Yes, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do … so which way do we head, right or left””
“Youse are not allowed to be here”
“Right, we get that, so how do we leave. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
He refused to answer. Google maps suggested we head right. But after 300 metres the track stopped and we felt unsafe at the idea of walking down the railway track, so we headed back down to old mate in the high viz.
“I’ve phoned through to the rail crew down past me and told them about youse. I think you’ll find the police waiting for you to charge you with trespassing.”
Our retired judge became excited at the prospect of a magistrate listening to some drone solicitor for the railways trying to secure a conviction for us all. Half a kilometre later the rail crew were sitting about and waved at us. And no police, of course.
On another walk we noticed a former church incorporated into the community sections of a harborside high rise housing estate. It looked interesting so our terrorising group of 10 or so 60 and 70 year olds walked up the path to look over the old church. High up from a balcony a woman called out to us “This is private property! You have to leave!” Understandably. When you’re a wealthy property owner, you don’t want a dishevelled bunch of people who might be from poorer suburbs lowering the tone and gawping at your estate!
I look forward all week to the walks. Our Dear Leader has an insatiable appetite for new suggestions and has a particular liking for following urban creeks that flow into the Cooks or Georges Rivers. There’s talk of walks in Japan, Victoria and the NSW South Coast. We sometimes run into other small groups and exchange tips.
It’s been a sheer unexpected pleasure for us all in our zimmerframe-banishing retirements. Walking in streets is endlessly interesting. But walking in bushland with its sounds, smells and clean air is sheer intoxication, Highly recommended.
Two views near South Durras