Of course we had to start with Bondi. We strolled along the promenade toward the north shore, where the currents were less unpredictable, passing an open air gym, where muscled young men performed before the admiring looks of their girlfriends. I did a few pull-ups on the bars, just enough to show my wife and son that I could still do it, but not enough to embarrass either them or me.
From a working class area during the early twentieth century, this curving kilometre of unbroken sand has evolved into a cosmopolitan suburb, from which the upper middle class residents enjoy a view over one of the most famous sea fronts in the world. The name is of Aboriginal derivation, and refers to the crashing noise of the waves on the rocks. Indeed, big breakers, gathering strength from Pacific winds and steered by the rocky headlands to north and south can almost be guaranteed, bringing surfers in their hundreds onto the beach to brave the rip currents of the south beach in search of the perfect wave, while thousands more pack the strand to bathe in the intense sunlight.
A century ago, ladies were prosecuted under indecency laws for bathing on Bondi in what were perceived as revealing swimsuits, and again, with more shock headlines during the late 1940s, when the two-piece made its appearance. Nowadays, the only female one-piece bathing attire you are likely to see here is the bottom half of a skimpy bikini.
We enjoyed an energetic half hour body surfing, then conscious that the edge of the ozone hole hovered above us, decided to move on to explore the more northerly beaches.
We paused in a small park overlooking Rose Bay, one of Sydney’s affluent suburbs. The bay itself was scattered with sailing craft of all sizes, and from the main cluster, a row of yachts reached out across Sydney Harbour, as if acting as a chorus line to the main performance that was the wonderful backdrop of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. We walked past more dwellings of the wealthy to The Gap, and the Triassic sandstone cliffs that impended over an expanse of rocky slabs against which crashing, white waves sent great clouds of spray exploding upward through blowholes.
We moved on to the quieter waters of Watson’s Bay, which in 1788, saw the first landings of Europeans in Sydney Harbour. The expedition leader, Captain Arthur Phillip, was charged with setting up the first of Australia’s penal colonies, an event fictionalised in the 2015 BBC TV miniseries, ‘Banished‘. He later became the first Governor of New South Wales. Watson’s Bay is also the site of one of Sydney’s most famous sea food restaurants, Doyle’s on the Beach. Not yet being ready for a full meal, we settled for a snack at a Doyle’s annexe at the adjacent Fisherman’s Wharf.
Then it was on to the smaller, subsidiary bay of Camp Cove. A short stretch of curving sand, this faces west and thus is sheltered from the Pacific winds. The result is that there are no waves or strong currents, and the sand slopes gently, making the beach safe for children. A large number of family groups, separated by plenty of space, lay around the beach or paddled in the shallows. Farther out were moored a motor launch and a catamaran. At the northern end of the beach, some trees offered shade from the midday sun.
Refreshed by a swim in water that was warmer than a swimming pool, we walked through trees past Lady Bay, a tiny beach on which a small number of naturists enjoyed a full body sunbathe. Beyond this, the peninsula ended abruptly at South Head, which marked the southern end of the entrance to Sydney Harbour. A 470-metre Heritage Trail brought us past Hornby Light. The second oldest lighthouse in New South Wales, this was built following the wrecking of the Dunbar in 1857, from which there was a single survivor from a total of 120 souls. Passing the light keepers’ cottages, the remains of a gun emplacement and a naval base, we returned to Camp Cove.
From Bondi, a footpath leads for a kilometre around the south headland of low cliffs to the next bay, Tamarama. This is quite a small beach, but whereas Bondi is frequented by a representative sample of Sydney’s beautiful people, those who regard themselves as the really beautiful gather at Tamarama, which has led to the locals referring to it as Glamarama. It is a place to be seen rather than to swim, for the currents are among the strongest and most dangerous on the coast.
Continuing south, later in the week, we came to Bronte Beach, which was very crowded. Again, the waves were large, so the sea was filled with surfers taking full advantage of the swell. Lifeguards patrolled the beach, directing non-surfers to a stretch called Bogey Hole, to the south end, where we enjoyed being tossed about by waves that were still high, but rip currents at a minimum.
We drove on to Coogee Beach, a miniature of Bondi, and having already had a swim, walked gently uphill, past a concrete outdoor swimming pool, and into the Trenerry Reserve. This is a thin strip of wetland between the houses and the sea, that has been left to allow the natural vegetation to regenerate. A tiny stream trickled from an almost dry, reed-fringed pond, over a small cataract and under the boardwalk to reach the shore, which was occupied by a flock of gulls and a solitary ibis.
On south again to Botany Bay and the suburb of La Perouse. On the far side of the bay was the place where Captain James Cook made his first landing on the continent in 1770, naming it as a result of the enthusiasm of his botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, for the abundant vegetation they found there. Today’s visitors frequently also make their first Australian landfall here, for Sydney’s airport lies at the western side of Botany Bay.
Our side of the bay, however, was named after a French explorer, Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse, who charted many of the islands and coasts of the Pacific in the late 1780s. He left Botany Bay in March 1788 and disappeared, his ships subsequently being wrecked in the Solomon Islands, a mystery that took nearly forty years to solve.
Bare Island, La Perouse.
The small beach, Congwong Bay, unlike the other beaches we had visited, was almost deserted. We counted four people sitting on the rocks and two more in the sea. We crossed a wooden bridge onto Bare Island, also named by Cook, because in contrast to his landing site, it appeared devoid of vegetation. Beneath the bridge, however, there was plenty of life. Rock pools contained large barnacles, zebra periwinkles and an abundance of Pacific flat oysters. Much of the sea life here is unique to the Sydney area, and it is a favourite venue for divers.
And in the evening, it was back to Bondi. From the overwhelming number of eating places, we chose Bucketlist, on the centre of the sea front. We enjoyed our al fresco meal of baramundi and chips while the sky darkened. The restaurants bustled noisily. Only a tractor drove along the beach, sweeping up rubbish and levelling the sand, the drumming of its engine just about matching the hiss of the waves. As we returned along the promenade to our car, we again passed the outdoor gymnasium, where a single youth did his final exercises of the day.
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Copyright © 2016 Anthony Toole