If you drive past my place, which is on one of the busiest roads in Sydney, you wouldn’t imagine that there are two gateways to the bush within walking distance of that river of traffic. These are the Lane Cove National Park and the Berowra Valley Regional Park, each with intricate networks of bush tracks that open up in all directions. Some head hundreds of kilometres north, to Newcastle, others 30 kilometres south, to the city. Others wind through the creeks, gullies, valleys and heights of the local bushland, with its giant gum trees, lush ferns, makeshift bridges, rocky staircases and sandstone overhangs.
I have been living in the area for seventeen years and over time I have explored many of these tracks, sometimes alone, and sometimes with company. I have taken the wrong tracks a few times; I have started on one track and ended up on another, or lost the path altogether and emerged in the streets. Notwithstanding my lack of sense of direction, as soon as I enter the bush, I am overcome by a sense of tranquility. Smelling the eucalyptus trees, hearing the frogs and the birds chirping, the wind rustling the leaves and the water flowing in the creeks. Feeling the branches breaking and the pebbles crunching under my feet, and occasionally catching the sight of a lizard or brush turkey.
Recently, I was on holidays for two weeks and it ended up being a walking holiday in my own neighbourhood. I had booked a short trip away with my partner, and planned to have several catch ups with friends and family, which I always do around my birthday. However, Greater Sydney went into lockdown due to an outbreak of the Delta strain of Covid-19 just before I was due to take my leave, and all plans had to be cancelled.
So I made a long list of things to do during my break, from tasks such as wiping out the hard drive of my old computer to preparing my tax papers; projects that ranged from writing a blog post to reading at least two books; treats such as sleeping in every day and having a long relaxing bath; and a challenge: to do 14 different walks in the 14 days of my break, of five to seven kilometres each.
Every morning during those two weeks, I set off after a late breakfast, feet clad in hiking shoes and walking pole in hand, and walked for up to two hours. In my travels, I discovered tracks and fire trails I didn’t know existed; revisited paths I haven’t walked for over a decade; completed walks I have been wanting to do for years, and hiked familiar, well-trodden paths I have done many times before. I saw the city from the lookout near Lorna’s Pass, caught a glimpse of a Wallaby hopping down one of the nearby hills, and snapped a photo of the Whale Rock in Devlin’s creek. Amazingly, I did not get lost once.
I also walked the steep streets of my neighbourhood, finding a public garden, hidden passageways and brief corridors of bush behind the houses. I was blessed with great weather for walking. It was windy but sunny, and in 14 days I only wore my rain gear once, though the grey skies never opened. I couldn’t go very far – we could not travel beyond 10 kilometres from home – but having a walking holiday for two weeks, even if it was in my own backyard, qualified as a “dream holiday” for me.
Since the start of the pandemic, walking has been my salvation. When we had to start working from home last year, during the nation-wide lockdown, I didn’t take to it immediately. I missed the interaction with my colleagues, and the five kilometres I covered every day, walking to and from train stations, and sometimes walking all the way home from our Hornsby office, which is six kilometres away. The walk was not as spectacular as crossing the Harbour Bridge, which I used to do every day after work when my office was based in the city, but it had seven steep hills that used to increase my heart rate and make the endorphins flow.
On my very first day of working from home in March 2020, I only walked a few hundred metres, and mostly in the corridors of my apartment building because it was raining outside. I promised myself I would not let that happen again, and every day, no matter how busy I was, how low my mood or how bad the weather, I got out of my home office and walked. Sometimes I did it in three bursts – mid morning, lunch time and after work, which meant that in winter I had to walk in the dark. Walking got me out of my head, and helped dissipate the worries and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
I have never been very adventurous or sporty, but have always been an avid walker. Growing up in the city of La Paz, Bolivia, with its congested streets and haphazard public transport system, I used to walk everywhere. The CBD was only five kilometres from my house (as opposed to 30 kilometres in Sydney) and it was quicker to walk there than to wait for a bus that arrived packed to the brim, with a few people hanging on for their lives on the outside steps. This was decades before they installed a sophisticated cable car system which has improved transportation enormously – something I am keen to try the next time I visit, when the world opens up and we can travel again. Back in the 1980s, I would walk to university, in the southern suburbs, and to the conservatorium of music in the heart of the city. But all these walks were strictly urban.
Bushwalking is something I started doing more seriously only about thirteen years ago, when I had been living in Sydney for nearly two decades. I bought a book called “Sydney’s best bush, park, and city walks”, which took me to all corners of my adopted city, as I explored all the walks with my partner and friends, methodically ticking them off as I went. I then moved into the “Sydney’s best coastal walks” book, and soon after attempted my first multi-day walk, the Milford Track in New Zealand. I have since done the Inca Trail in Peru, the Three Capes Track in Tasmania, parts of the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria, and the last 120 kilometres of the Camino a Santiago in Spain.
I probably wouldn’t have done any of this without my walking pole. The pole allowed me to find a sense of adventure I didn’t know I had, stopping me from falling when I ventured out on to harder, uneven tracks, and from slipping when I crossed creeks. Ironically, the two occasions on which I fractured bones, were as a result of tripping and falling on the flat street.
At the end of my walking holiday in lockdown, I thank my lucky stars for living where I live, where I don’t even have to drive to enter another world altogether. I’m also thankful for having two feet that take me places, far and nearby, my footsteps often falling in line with those of the walking companions with whom I share these experiences.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,