At the end of Anzac Parade, not far from where the bitumen meets the grassy knoll, was once the location of the La Perouse tram terminus (known locally as “the Loop”). The tram lines were torn up in 1961 with the La Perouse line having the distinction of being the last Sydney tram service still running at that time. This is an ideal spot to kick-off a leisurely and instructive saunter through Sydney’s southern suburban coastline and unearth some of the connexions with its past. The knoll is dotted with a number of landmarks recalling both the early British colonial regime and Comte de Lapérouse’s brief sojourn on his eponymous peninsula.
Looking south, the first colonial structure that comes into our line of sight is the 1822 built sandstone, castellated watchtower … today an exotic backdrop favoured by numerous newly-weds for their wedding photos. In the 19th century the watchtower functioned as a surveillance point and customs post (under David Goodsir who had the quaint official title of “coast watcher”): strategically important because Botany Bay was a vulnerable point in the early colony, a sparsely populated “back door” through which smugglers sought to sneak contraband into Sydney by sea. A fire destroyed the attached wooden living quarters in 1957 [‘The Macquarie Watchtower, La Perouse’, (Randwick and Districts Historical Society www.randwickhistoricalsociety.org.au]. To the west of the castle tower is the monument to J-F Lapérouse, not far from the museum which also bears his name.
Leaving the monument and walking east past the Mr Whippy van, the weekend kite-flyers, and assorted day-trippers reclining on the side of the hill, we come to a bridge leading to a one-time fort and later war veterans home, Bare Island. Organised tours of historic Bare Island on Sundays are available, but these days the most activity the hilly island sees are the scores of scuba divers who flock to its shoreline to enjoy what is one of the most popular dive sites in Sydney. From here we return to Anzac Parade and to a sign directing us to Congwong Bay Beach. Before we take that path lined with sandy vegetation on either side, we spot a square, fenced-off area just ahead which is decorated with colourful Aboriginal motifs. This is the famous “snake pit” (AKA “the Loop”), for 107 years a source of entertainment for Sunday visitors to La Perouse. A small, dedicated team of herpetological enthusiasts (for most of this period the work of one family of seasoned handlers – the Canns) have enthralled, mesmerised and horrified (probably in equal measures) untold numbers of onlookers. Every Sunday since c.1909 this pit has been the stage on which countless snakes, goannas, lizards and other reptiles have strutted their stuff!
We leave the snake ‘sideshow’ and cross small Congwong Beach, heading north-east into the scrub. Ignoring a right turn which leads to secluded Little Congwong Beach (a long-time haunt for unofficial nude bathers … shock/horror!), we keep to the main track which cuts through ragged scrubland that once was thick with tall, abundant Eastern Suburbs Banksias (melaleucas, coast tee trees, banksia serratas and the like). At the top of the rise (where a solitary rest bench sits) we go left up to the boundary of the first of four golf courses we will pass on our travels (the NSW Club), then right down a long, disused service trail that leads us to Henry Head. Henry Head was the site of a 19th century battery post which was meant to back up the fortifications at Bare Island further inside the heads (neither sets of guns were ever fired in anger!). On the point, in front of the Henry Head emplacements, is a small, obsolete lighthouse (Endeavour Light). The empty mountings where the guns were once housed now are bare shells with only the calling cards of vandals, graffitists and rubbish dumpers to show.
This windswept and desolate spot marks the start of a spectacular coastal walk. The quality of this walk has been enhanced in recent years with the addition of a mini-mesh boardwalk which facilitates the up-and-down clamber over the rocks. About halfway along the winding boardwalk we see a bench seat made from the very same mesh material … obsessive-compulsiveness or 100% utilisation of existing materials? Perhaps when they finished laying the boardwalk they had some mesh left over and thought, waste not, want not, might as well make a matching seat as well! The high cliffs from here down to Malabar provide some of the best vantage points in Sydney to view northbound pods of migrating whales (mainly Winter-Spring).
At the point where the rocks on the shoreline start to get too high to climb without the right mountaineering gear, we verge left and follow a narrow trail that winds up the hill. At the top we find ourselves rejoining the NSW Golf Club course. We steer a tight course around the edge of the cliff so as not to antagonise any iron-wielding golfers we may run in to, but also because it affords walkers the best views of the ocean. Lots of vivid, native coastal wildflowers can be seen along the cliff-top.
Halfway through the golf course we take a diversion over a narrow footbridge to explore the aquatic reserve at Cape Banks. This sinewy peninsula, jutting out into the sea, was a WWII fortification and the site of a 1937 shipwreck, SS Minmi. The collier upon impact with the rocks one dark night split in two, the remainder of its stern, a rusty grey mess, draws curious sightseers and hikers to the peninsula (‘Shipwrecks’, Randwick City Council, www.randwick.nsw.gov.au). One of the holes of the golf course has a professional tee on the nature reserve itself, a challenging lofty shot back across a broad and windy stretch of water to the green, fully testing the nerves of even the most confident of golfers.
Continuing through the golf course onto a bush track with lush vegetation, the path turns towards the road, coming out near the Westpac Chopper Base. Adjacent to the base is a pistol range, the home of the Sydney Pistol Club❈. Just after that we turn right and enter what a sign describes as the “Coastal Hospital Management Trail”. It is an ancient looking graveyard … the widespread, abandoned remains of the old Coast Hospital Cemetery, the scattered graves and headstones all looking decidedly unkempt and decrepit (the approaches to the cemetery are usually water-logged after any significant rain). Many patients from the Little Bay infectious diseases hospital are buried here. Most of the headstones, much weathered by the elements and/or vandalised, are hard to read (see below for more on the historic hospital).
After the cemetery the trail returns to the cliffs and we walk along the edge of the second golf course, St Michaels. More attractive wildflowers on the right side. At the end of the golf course where the headland turns to the left we catch a glimpse of a secluded little beach deep in the bay, aptly name “Little Bay” (behind the beach a third and shorter course is situated, this is the Coast Golf Course). There are many more houses and apartments in Little Bay now than 47 years ago when the celebrated avant-garde artists, Bulgarian-American Christo and his partner Jeanne-Claude, selected this remote and uninhibited stretch of Sydney coastline for an environmental art project. In a major logistics operation involving over 100 workers in 1969, these two practitioners of what has come to be called “environmental sculpture” ‘wrapped’ a 2.5km long section of Little Bay’s deserted rocky coast using one million square feet of synthetic woven fibre fabric and an awful lot of rope!❦
A short diversion from the walking path at Little Bay beach takes us up to Coast Hospital Road where the Prince Henry Hospital, initially called the Coast Hospital, was situated (in 2001 the hospital was closed and its services transferred to the Prince of Wales Hospital, the salvageable buildings were absorbed into local public housing). From 1881 Prince Henry functioned alternately as a smallpox hospital, a convalescent hospital, and a “fever hospital” dealing with all manner of infectious conditions over the years (diphtheria, TB, scarlet fever, bubonic plague, swine flu pandemic). Later the medical focus of Prince Henry was extended to epidemiology and preventative medicine and the poliomyelitis virus (‘Prince Henry Hospital – South Eastern Sydney Local Health District’, www.seslhd.health.nsw.gov.au).
Close to the Coast Hospital site the University of NSW maintained a campus for many years. Originally intended for a medical school which was never built, it was used instead for biological sciences research and for solar energy research (Solarch, first building in NSW to generate green power). In 2008 UNSW sold the land to developers and it now contains high-rise apartments (‘Development of ex-UNSW site Little Bay’, LAPEROUSE – Social Change not Climate Change, www.laperouse.info
The Coast walk continues north from Little Bay above “Christo’s Rocks” (a headland once owned by the Prince Henry Hospital) where we trek past the last of the four ocean-facing golf courses in a row, the Randwick Council course. Keeping out of the range of flying golf balls✥ is one of the navigational skills needed to thread your way through the maze of golf courses … a key to managing this is to hug the red marker posts on the cliff edges.
Finally we get beyond the last of the golf holes by the distance of a 4 wood, reaching Bay Parade and Long Bay where there is a rockpool and a tiny, unfashionable beach, too sheltered from the ocean to lure many serious board surfers. On the northern side of Long Bay you will spot plenty of black suited “frogmen and women”, signifying another popular dive site. Malabar Beach is very much the “poor relation” of much larger neighbour, Maroubra Beach, and its popularity probably hasn’t been enhanced over the years by its proximity to both a large sewerage outlet and a large penitentiary (Long Bay Gaol).
The route taken for the final leg of our walk, to Maroubra, depends on circumstances at the time of the walk⊗. The optimal route is out to Boora Point where you can find a series of isolated concrete lookout posts from WWII, then north along the cliff-top past dense thickens of tea trees and banksia (the scrubby track here is ill-defined or even non-existent!). The last part which takes you to South Maroubra Beach skirts around the eastern perimeters of the vast Anzac Rifle Range (there has been recreational target shooting here on-and-off since the 1850s). After passing the northern boundary of the rifle range you do a sharp dog-leg left through wild, lanky vegetation around the model aero club field, followed by a U-turn, then back through an open gate (hard to spot until you get close, look to the right side) leading to Arthur Byrne Reserve and the South Maroubra beachfront.
All up the La Perouse to Maroubra coastal trek is about a 12.5 to 14.5 km walk depending on which route you take from Malabar Beach – with very minimal amount of gradient to contend with. If you are looking for a pleasant and feature-packed sort of coastline ramble, with plenty of variety to see on the way, then this one definitely ticks the box.
❈ located here (near Cape Banks) since 1959, previously the handgun club practiced in a disused rail tunnel near Wynyard Station(!?!)
❦ Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ‘bag’ seems to have been to temporarily wrap large objects – natural or human-made … one of the other famous projects of the environmental artist-couple was the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin
✥ especially on the Council course where we find ourselves walking directly towards the golfers hitting from the tees!
⊗ if you are walking on a weekend on which the Rifle Club is holding a competition (red flags flying over the range), then the Boora Point route is not available (for safety reasons) and usually patrolled. On these occasions you need to take the western path through Cromwell and Pioneer Parks and come out at Broome Street, South Maroubra