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Flat Rock Gully Walk

By ALEC SMART


Flat Rock Gully is a forested region on Sydney’s Lower North Shore that follows Flat Rock Creek from the sports facilities at Willoughby Leisure Centre down to where it flows into Long Bay, at Middle Harbour.


Woman walking across Flat Rock Creek crossing

Flat Rock Creek crossing. Photo: Alec Smart


Encompassing the interface between four suburbs – Cammeray, Northbridge, Naremburn and Willoughby - there are walking tracks winding through the forested valley that can be accessed from either end – Tunks Park to the east and Hallstrom Park to the west.


With historic curiosities scattered amidst the lush forest trails, and passing beneath the iconic Long Gully suspension bridge with its crenelated four stone towers, it makes a very interesting 4km return walking trip.

However, the unsealed bush tracks are steep in parts and after rainfall the stone steps may be slippery and the creek waters swollen, so it requires sturdy walking shoes and caution. Dogs are also allowed, on leashes.

 

Beginning at the Tunks Park Boat Ramp, at the mouth of Flat Rock Creek, there is car parking, toilets and a water bubbler, and when you return there are picnic tables, 2 BBQs and a kids’ play area on the foreshore if you decide to finish the walk with a cooked meal.

Tunks Park is also accessible by the 194 bus, which commutes between the City and St Ives Chase.

 

Following the creek inland, initially you’ll be walking a bitumen path for a few hundred metres as you pass sports fields on your right. There are three sporting fields: soccer, rugby league and union in winter, and cricket pitches during the summer.


Long Gully Bridge from below

Long Gully Bridge linking Cammeray and Northbridge. Photo: Alec Smart


Soon, you’ll pass beneath the magnificent Long Gully Bridge, also known as Northbridge and Cammeray Bridge, although it actually links these two suburbs.

At 51 metres above the valley and 152 metres in length, on each corner it features four towers made of sandstone (quarried at Castle Cove) that resemble Norman castle turrets. The bridge was considered an engineering marvel and proved a significant tourist attraction when it first opened in 1892.

 

The original steel suspension bridge was closed in 1936 after it fell into disrepair, its suspension cables dangerously corroded, so a Victorian Gothic-themed concrete arch and support beams, opened in August 1939, was installed to replace it. The turrets were kept.

 

At this point of Flat Rock Creek you traverse a timber walkway that takes you around designated wetlands, designed to inhibit the flow of sediment into Long Bay. It provides a habitat for fish and wildlife, including striped mullet, rare finches and robins, long-nosed bandicoots and the occasional swamp wallaby.

 

Aerial shot of Flat Rock Creek

Flat Rock Creek and walking track, seen from the historic bridge above. Photo: Alec Smart


Hereafter, the path transitions from gravel to dirt track and the creek widens at a point where it forks. This point marks the end of the once-navigable lower part of Flat Rock Creek, where, to the left, an historic wharf serviced barges sailing in from Long Bay, which collected sandstone from a quarry further up the hill on West St.

 

The main conduit of the creek (to the right), bearing north, takes you up into Northbridge. Soon, you reach a crossing, consisting of rectangular stone slabs that curve in an ‘S’, and a little further on another crossing over rock slabs that line the creek bed.

These crossings are potentially treacherous in the wake of storms, when fast-flowing rainwater submerges the stones, so they may be impassable and remaining on one side of the creek is the safest option.


The option to deviate now has presented itself: after crossing the aforementioned rock slabs the path ascends north through Coachwood Forest, via stone steps along Wilksch Walk, parts of which (higher up) consist of timber walkways, where you can enjoy views of the Long Gully Bridge in the distance before it ends at Willoughby Leisure Centre.

 

Wilksch Walk was named after Eric Wilksch (1918-2002), a South Australian conservationist and historian who settled nearby in Market St, Naremburn in 1950. A renowned environmentalist, who also worked in the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Wilksch is credited for protecting the bushland of Flat Rock Gully and why the main pathway (that he helped construct) through this beautiful bushland was named after him.


The sandstone ruins of Fatty Dawson's historic piggery in Flat Rock Gully. Photo: Alec Smart

 

Alternately, remaining on the southern bank (after crossing the ‘S’ stones over the creek) enables you to visit several historic curiosities.

Firstly, turn south-east along Dawson Street Track and you’ll come across some sandstone blocks that are all that remains of a former house and garden. These are known as ‘Fatty’ Dawson Ruins, named after a former farmer who ran a piggery above, on the intersection of West and Dawson Streets, in the 1870s.

Legend has it that when he slaughtered his livestock, Long Bay was full of sharks attracted to the blood and offal that flowed downstream along Flat Rock Creek.


Following the path back westwards, towards Dawson Playground (but remaining on the south side of the creek), you’ll pass a dry sandstone retaining wall that once bordered historic orchards.

Avoiding suburbia, head north up the dirt track, and soon you’ll reach a combined cycle/pedestrian path that takes you through a short tunnel beneath Flat Rock Drive that is intricately painted with magnificent Aboriginal artwork.

 

The Indigenous clans that historically inhabited this area were the Cammeraygal – from whom we derive the suburb named ‘Cammeray’. Their traditional lands encompassed what are now the North Sydney, Willoughby, Mosman and Manly local government areas.


Settlers on a high ridge in what is now Cammeray, c1842-50. Painting Georgiana Sherbrooke

 

In fact, until the 1920s (c1926-8), the suburb now known as Cammeray (an uninhabited steep and forested part of St Leonards township) was initially called ‘Suspension Bridge’, after the 1892 Long Gully Bridge.


Previously, a ‘Cammeray Estate’ was sub-divided and settled further north, around Middle Cove in 1886, and in 1890, Cammeray was suggested as a name for the entire Lower North Shore municipality, to reflect its Indigenous heritage, instead of the proposed ‘St Leonards’ or ‘North Shore’.

Lamentably, that was rejected and ‘North Sydney’ chosen instead, for business reasons.

 

Later, apparently to confuse things, Cammeray Estate was renamed ‘Middle Cove’. The actual Middle Cove (inlet) on Middle Harbour was renamed ‘Sugarloaf Bay’, and the peninsulas sandwiching Middle Cove (suburb) and either side of the crescent-shaped bay (formerly Middle Cove, now Sugarloaf Bay) were called ‘Castlecrag’ (to the south) and ‘Castle Cove’ (to the north).

Perplexed? I am! But back to the walk…

 

By now the creek will be out of sight, as from here onwards much of it is a stormwater drain. However, if you continue along the footpath, you’ll pass through a sandstone brick tunnel, and a short distance ahead is a rock overhang known as Henry Lawson’s Cave.

Here, between 1907-18, the writer Henry Lawson (1867-1922), a chronic alcoholic by this stage in his life, reputedly slept off hangovers after nights drinking in Crows Nest bars, when he was too drunk to return home to his room in a North Sydney coffee house.

Willoughby Council now host an annual poetry reading event in the rocky overhang.


Henry Lawson's Cave - where the renowned bush poet slept off hangovers. Photo: Alec Smart

 

Nearby is also a mural painted by Indigenous artist Shane Haurama in 2007. Consisting of three sections, each section refers to the past, present and future relationship between the Aboriginal people and the landscape of Flat Rock Gully.

Here you’ve reached the end of the route, and crossing the netball courts to Small St will join the start of  Wilksch Walk and the return trek back down to Tunks Park.

 

Download the Flat Rock Gully Walking Track brochure from Willoughby Council’s website:

 

 

Flat Rock Gully Walk between Tunks Park and Willoughby Leisure Centre


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