Sydney winter can be a quite gloomy at times with weeks of rainy weather on end, plunging the residents of the sunny down under into an equally gloomy mood. Thankfully there are ample opportunities to enjoy the sunshine when it finally arrives. This long-awaited arrival of sunny weather happened last weekend and to celebrate I headed out to Royal National Park to hike along the coastline and to do a bit of birdwatching along the way.
Royal National park has an incredible amount of trails through a wide variety of habitats, but the 2-day Coast Track is the unbeatable favourite. And it doesn’t have to be done all at once. The southern end can be explored via the Palm Jungle loop track that covers about a quarter of the Coast Track and returns via a fire trail through wet eucalypt forest. Only an hour away from the city centre, Palm Jungle Loop Track offers the best of all worlds: towering cliffs of the rugged coastline, eucalypt forest, rainforest gullies, beaches, grasslands and even a palm jungle!
The birdwatching started as soon as I got off the train at Otford. A flock of vividly colourful Crimson rosellas was noisily feeding on the fire trail next to the train station. I also got my first taste of the topography of this part of the park with an incredibly steep walk up from the station.
Wet eucalypt forest
The track itself starts at the beginning of Cliff Track at Otford Lookout and immediately ducks into wet eucalypt forest. It meanders along the cliff tops over relatively flat ground and the forest here is alive with Fairy wrens, Eastern spinebills, Eastern whipbirds, Brown thornbills, Eastern yellow robins and even an occasional Rockwarbler. The Rockwarbler is not much to look at, but being the only bird species endemic to NSW it is always a good find.
This patch of the forest is a perfect place to walk a little off trail, find a rock to sit on, wait for the forest to get used to your presence and watch an incredible variety of birds emerge from the understory as they chase their lunch.
There are also a couple of unsignposted cliff top lookouts along this part of the trail that offer quite dramatic views of the rugged Illawarra coastline.
Soon the track narrows and starts to descend into the cooler and wetter rainforest as it enters the Palm Jungle – a unique forest of cabbage tree palms and tropical plants. Here the trail twists up, down and around, over lichen-covered boulders, through rainforest gullies and across small creeks. Now and then there are gaps in the canopy that allow you glimpses of the underside of the cliff that you are descending from.
In the past I have seen Superb Lyrebirds in Palm Jungle and I was keen to try to find them again. However, this part of the trail is so steep and narrow that it forces you to keep your eyes on the ground, rather than on the surrounding forest. You can still listen out for the scraping sounds in the bush, off course, but as hard as I tried, all I got was a Green catbird that swiftly flew across the path and disappeared in the dense undergrowth.
At one point the trail climbed onto the top of the cliff again and as the forest was briefly replaces by shrub. Immediately bird chirping filled the air. Eastern spinebills, New Holland honeyeaters and Little wattlebirds hopped erratically from branch to branch, probably as excited about the sunshine as I was.
Burning Palms Beach
After about an hour the forest suddenly ends and the trail bursts out onto the open grassland that stretches out all the way to the ocean. An elevated walkway leads across the headland towards Burning Palms Beach. The head-spinning change of scenery from closed forest to sweeping coastal vistas makes you feel like have been transported to a different world. On the right sandstone cliffs rise out of the brilliantly blue ocean and on the left, forest-covered escarpment towers over the grassland. Burning Palms beach is virtually deserted on a cool winter day.
Burgh Ridge Track
After relaxing on the beach I braced myself for the most strenuous part of the track – a pretty steep assent to the top of the escarpment I was admiring on the hike across the grassland. The trail up the grassy slope was muddy and slippery after the recent rains, which added an extra challenge. Though I was lucky going up that trail, I wouldn’t want to walk downhill here.
As I climbed higher, my efforts were rewarded by some more dramatic views of the beach and the surrounding headlands. Eventually the grassy slope gave way to rainforest and wet eucalypt forest towards the top of escarpment and soon the gate of the Garawarra Farm marked the end of the assent.
From the farm 5.5km fire trail leads back to Otford. It is a pleasant change from all the ascents and descents as it is almost completely flat at about 250 meters above the sea. And while you know that the cliff edge is just off to your left, you can neither see nor hear it from the trail. Yet again you are transported to a different world, one of tall eucalypt trees, primeval ferns and chirping birds. It is an incredibly peaceful walk through typical Australian bush.
The birdlife along the trail was similar to what I encountered at the start of the track, though not as active late in the afternoon. I picked up a few more Eastern yellow robins and Eastern spinebills, a couple of Laughing kookaburras and a pair of Australian ravens.
I finished the track back at Otford lookout in the rapidly disappearing daylight and within half an hour I was speeding away on a Sydney-bound train nursing some sore muscles, covered in mud half way up my legs, feeling more content than I had in weeks.