Monday, 8 July 2019

Royal Coast Track (NSW) - North Era to Otford

Day Two of Sydney's most famous overnight hike, this day on the Royal Coast Track explores the southern half of Royal National Park from North Era to Otford. Starting at North Era, the track passes through small cabin communities before the side trip to the famous Figure Eight Pools. Passing through the Palm Jungle littoral rainforest, the trail finishes along coastal cliffs and eucalypt forest before descending to Otford Station

Distance: 8 km (one way to Otford Lookout; add 0.7 kilometres to Otford Station and 3 kilometres return to Figure Eight Pools)
Gradient: A mix of moderately steep descents and ascents, with more gentle sections and some flat beach walking
Quality of Path: Very clear and well maintained; a mix of unmodified rocky cliff-top walking, purpose built walk trails and stretches of beach walking. Large sections of the walk trail are on raised boardwalk
Quality of Signage: Largely well signed, with directional markers and trailheads along the way
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Recommended
Time: 4-5 Hours, including the side trip to Figure Eight Pools
Steps: Many formal and informal steps along the track, particularly through the Palm Jungle section onwards to Otford Lookout
Best Time to Visit: Autumn-Spring; the track would be very hot in Summer
Entry Fee: No, however camping fees apply at North Era Campgrounds
Getting There: No direct access to North Era; either start at Bundeena the previous day or from Otford Station

Waking up before sunrise after a great first day of hiking the Royal Coast Track and a good sleep, Alissa and I were greeted by my least favourite conditions for packing down. While Alissa hates setting up a tent in the rain, I always think packing a wet tent up in the rain is way worse, and this is exactly what we had to do. While only a light drizzle, having to do all our packing in the tent slowed us down but we nevertheless got out at good time for sunrise.

Leaving the campsite, Alissa and I discovered the muddy moat that surrounded our campsite at least had some stepping stones for us to cross at, meaning we didn't have to have wet boots within the first two minutes of the day's kilometres.

Being keen to get into camp the day before, Alissa and I didn't really take much time to appreciate North Era Beach and we wandered down to have a look. The rugged rocky shelf of Mid Era Point looked suitably moody under the dramatic cloud, which gave this second day a different character to the clear skies of day one.

Also of note was a fenced of area in the middle of the beach. Alissa and I have seen similar fenced of areas in Western Australia and thought it was perhaps for a scientific or dune rehabilitation reason. Reading the sign, we discovered this is a shell midden. This midden is of significance as it is a record of occupation and trade by the local Aboriginal people and their connection to the land. 

With the broad shelf of Mid Era providing a passage to Era Beach, it was surprising to discover the Coast Track rises up a very muddy coastal hill instead. I would later see how rough the coastal conditions can get, and I would suspect the risk of being washed out to sea is the reason for the trail's route.

Over the hill, Alissa and I could see more of the cabin communities that are a part of the area. While the top of the hill was grassy and firm under foot, the muddiness returned at this point. Heading downhill, the walking was a bit of a slippery slope and our trekking poles most definitely came in handy.

The rain kicked back into gear as we reached Era Beach. As with many of the other beaches along the track, a creek drains to the coast here. In spite of being the meeting place of Era and Cutty Gullies, the two watercourses did not have enough flow to empty out into the ocean and it was an easy walk around.

Rising up and following the vegetated dunes, the track passes through a tunnel of low coastal trees as it makes its way through the cabin settlement at Era Beach.

At the southern end of the settlement, a small faded plaque provides some information about the historical significance of the settlement. Built in the 1920s-1930s, the cabins were developed on privately owned farming land that has since been resumed by the State Government and made part of the national park. These cabins are heritage listed, and while a modification of the natural environment are nevertheless part of the Royal National Park experience.

From a small saddle across the rolling hills, the track currently continues on the more sheltered side of the crest, and includes some muddy stretches near the top.

Joining onto some boardwalk for the first time today, Alissa and I could see that Parks and Wildlife were rerouting the track so that it would take walkers closer to the coast for more sustained coastal views. This is the kind of attention to details that makes this a great track; rather than just putting a boardwalk over the current route, they have taken the opportunity to look at ways to make the route better as well.

Leaving the Era Settlement behind, Alissa and I descended to the next cabin community along the coast at Burning Palms. Filled with palm trees (thankfully not on fire), Alissa and I had initially assumed that the palms we had seen at North Era campground were introduced species, however we would discover that palm rainforest is a major vegetation type along this stretch of the track.

Making our way through the small settlement, Burning Palms Beach came into view. At the other end of the beach are a series of rocky shelves and low cliffs. While not part of the Royal Coast Track per se, this is a commonly visited side trip on the Royal Coast Track as it leads to Royal National Park's other potentially dangerous but regularly Instagrammed locations - the Figure Eight Pools. Alissa was not keen to follow me so stayed behind at the trail junction while I went off to do the side trip.

Heading down Burning Palms Beach, the beach walking was easy going, however the southern end is strewn with boulders. Just behind the rocks is a rough track that leads to the rock shelf.

The Figure Eight Pools are extremely tide dependent, and the Parks and Wildlife website posts conditions and tide times on their website. This is really important to note as the waves are unpredictable and people have literally died there by visiting at high risk times. Alissa and I had timed our departure for both the train at Otford and for the tide here, however overnight it had gone from Low Risk to Moderate so I approached the rock shelf with caution as I looked for the pools.

Along the rock shelf, I could see what appeared to be figure eight-like formations in the rock but it wasn't the impressive pool I'd seen online. I looked up and down the shelf and just could not find the Figure Eight. It made me wonder if the tide was higher than expected and I looked closer to the edge to see if the pool was maybe submerged.

This was a fairly scary prospect as the waves were pretty intense even at low tide and the platform was extremely slippery. I ended up wasting a lot of time trying to figure out where on earth the pools were along the shelf, and at one point I headed back to the beach having given up. Just before quitting, I realised that I'd walked into reception range and I looked it up on YouTube. It was then that I realised that it was on a second rock shelf further along the coastal cliffs!

Climbing slightly precariously along a narrow section of the shelf, I rounded the corner and was able to see the second shelf on the other side of a boulder-strewn cove. Having wasted so much time trying to figure out where the pool was, I was worried that conditions were getting worse (they were) and I questioned whether it was worth the effort. Ultimately, I decided that it was quite likely I would not get a chance to see the Figure Eight Pools again and that I should just press on while I'd already invested this much time into it.

Finally at the second platform, I could see that it had a lot more pools than the first platform, with many being larger and deeper. I could also see how large groups could potentially come here and not have to fight over the Figure Eight Pool itself as long as they didn't have their heart completely set on that specific pool.

Heading along, I peered into each of the pools and found them to all be intriguing in their own way. The most memorable of the lot was an oval-shaped pool where a fish had been washed into.

The poor fish must have wondered how on earth it ended in this small pool, and I hope that it was able to escape at some high tide event in the future. 

40 minutes after first seeing the side trip junction to Burning Palms Beach, I was finally at the Figure Eight Pools. It was probably the frustration at the amount of time it took for me to find the pool, but my first impression was "is that all?!?!" as it seemed like a lot of effort for not much.

After having a moment to take it in with the surrounding landscape, I reassessed my disappointment and felt that it was indeed worth the effort to get out to see the Figure Eight Pools. I've seen better and more spectacular swimming holes elsewhere in Australia - the incredible Spa Pool in Karijini immediately comes to mind - but it is still worth checking out when the tide is low and it is safe to do so. Seeing how wild and unpredictable the waves are in this area firsthand, I can see why people have been injured and even died coming out here. 

Having fallen out of signal range, I received a flurry of messages from Alissa who had become really worried by this point, as she'd seen me turning back to the beach and then hadn't seen me again and was fearing the worst. Having wanted her to have come with me for a bit of safety and because I thought it would have been worth seeing since we were in the area, we had a bit of an argument when we reunited as emotions were pretty high by this point.

Sorting things out, we pressed on along our last bit of boardwalk through open grasslands for the day as we entered the completely different environment of the Palm Jungle. 

Having assumed the palms at North Era were introduced, we never would have suspected at the start of the day we would be walking through this kind of environment as the littoral rainforest seemed completely alien to the coastal heath that predominated most of the walking. If anything it brought back strong memories of my time living in South East Queensland, in particular the palm trees along the Sandy Creek Circuit on Tamborine Mountain. 

As we made our way through the Palm Jungle, I was intrigued by a section that had obviously been prescribed a burn in the recent past. Palm fronds are quite flammable so it is understandable that they would do some reduction of fuel loads through here. Being accustomed to the heavy-handed scorched earth approach that is used in Western Australia, I was impressed by how restrained and targeted the burn was.

It was just as well that the stretch through the Palm Jungle was an interesting change of pace as the walk through the jungle is almost entirely uphill with some moderately steep sections.

Along the way, there were a few pockets of open terrain that broke up the closed in littoral rainforest. It was really interesting to see some of the more typically Australian dry sclerophyll forest filling these open sections, allowing for unusual combinations like banksias right next to rainforest palms.

Near the end of the littoral rainforest, the gradient became increasingly steep, with an almost continuous series of stairs curving their way up the hillside.

Reaching a break from the steep climbing, Alissa and I left the rainforest behind with the transition dramatically signposted by a beautiful view of tall, smooth barked Eucalypts filling the valley beyond. The view reminded me of the Karri forests back home in Western Australia, particularly the Boranup Forest as seen along the Cape to Cape Track

From the valley view, the track continues along well formed stone stairs as it skirts the rim of the valley. Passing a few other hikers, we were glad to hear that Otford was only a short distance away.

Returning to another small pocket of rainforest, we reached a small creek across the track. This reminded me again of Queensland, although of course if it was Queensland there would have been ten of these small creeks along the way!

A short side trip along the walk leads to a lovely lookout point. Having been through thick, dense forest for so long, the viewpoint gave us a chance to appreciate how much elevation gain we'd had since Burning Palms. 

Looking across the rim, we could see how this area had once been a series of cliffs before the valley had filled out and become forested. 

After walking on continuous single file walking track for almost the whole day (and indeed almost all of the previous day), Alissa and I turned onto what seemed like a vehicle service track.

While vehicle tracks aren't as good a walker experience as single file walk track, the density of the forest meant it didn't feel as horrendous as a broad vehicle track can feel in more open terrain. The vehicle track was fairly narrow anyway, and eventually narrowed out to a single file walk track yet again. 

The walking through the forest here along the coastal ridge was enjoyable forest walking. It again brought back fond hiking memories, particularly the section of forest on the Wilsons Promontory Southern Circuit near South East Point.

Nearing the end of our day's kilometres, Alissa and I reached another trail junction, with the side track leading to Werrong Beach. Some previous visitors had kindly noted with graffiti that the beach is in fact a nude beach, with the Parks and Wildlife page saying 'it’s perfect for those who like their nature ‘a la naturelle’'. It is a steep Class 5 walk down to the beach, so while it was intriguing and slightly humourous we were keen to finish the walk. We were only 300 metres from the car park at the southern end of the Coast Track and then only another 700 metres to Otford Station. 

Even along these last 300 metres, the Coast Track continued to offer us great views looking back across the coastal cliffs. 

Descending a flight of steps, Alissa and I reached the end of the Coast Track at the Otford lookout. From here, the signage is not as clear as it is in Bundeena, and Alissa and I were initially slightly confused by where we had to go from here. Just to the right of the picture above is an unsealed vehicle track which leads to Otford Station.

Following the vehicle track reminded me of some of the back block sections of the Bibbulmun Track as uses such fire tracks between private properties to make it into town.

Following signage, Alissa and I found ourselves descending our last flight of steps down to Otford Station. Our Royal Coastal Track adventure was now over, however we had a long train journey ahead of us to the Blue Mountains for our next overnight hike in the Grose Valley.

While the second day of the Royal Coast Track was not quite as filled with 'wow' moments as the first day, this was still a really enjoyable and stunning day of walking in its own right. Rather than more of the same, this day had its own unique features and character, with the Figure Eight Pools, the littoral rainforest and the multiple cabin communities providing major highlights. With shorter kilometres, this day is a perfect second day as it allows for a reasonable return time back into Sydney after the walk. It is remarkable that such a great overnight walk with few signs of city life can be done entirely with public transport. Overall, the Royal Coast Track is a real benchmark for an 'Icon/Great Walk'-style overnight hike, and a walk I would thoroughly recommend.


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