A Manly Walk

Across the bay from downtown Sydney you will find the not-so-sleepy town of Manly. It’s good for surfing, good for seafood, and has the best hike in the Sydney metro area — which may sound odd, but Australia is a wild place, and even in the middle of a city, you can find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no one else around. The best way to do this in Manly is to follow Manly’s network of trails, which will lead you from beach town to beaches, then up coastal cliffs to tangled woods, rolling grasslands, the ruins of World War II gunnery stations, and swamps full of thousands of thousands of frogs (actually probably hundreds, but they make enough noise for thousands).

Disclaimer: my camera pulled a fake-out on me, and though the battery indicator said 100% when I left the hotel, it said 5% by the time I had walked the few minutes to the ferry terminal, and was dead by the time the ferry pulled away from the dock. All I was left with for taking photos was the loaner phone they gave me at work, an ancient BlackBerry with a dreadful camera. So I sort of indulged in filters to make up for the low quality of the original photos, and even the ones with which I did not fool around hardly catch the vibrant green and blues of Manly. If anyone wants to pay for me to return, I am more than willing. Anyway…

Although you can drive there, who wants to deal with traffic and parking when you can just hop a ferry from Sydney’s Circular Quay (impossible for me to visit without singing The Pogues’ “Waltzing Matilda,” which then just makes me sad). The ride to Manly takes you across the harbor, with great views of the Opera House, Harbor Bridge, and assorted harbor traffic and oddities. Dropped off at the Manly Aquarium Pier, it’s a short walk through town to the beach, where you pick up the trail toward Shelley Beach. At this point, it’s well-paved and well-populated, with brass sculpture lining the walkway. On the other side of Shelley Beach, however, you plunge into the trees and shed about 99.9% of the people around you.

If you look at the name Manly and think it’s humorously masculine — that’s actually by design. It was named by one Capt. Arthur Phillip in honor of the toughness of the locals, whose “confidence and manly behaviour” he admired. Although best known for its beaches and surfing, Manly offers the casual stroller a chance to hike up cliffs and across wetlands, including a chance to get totally lost somewhere in the vicinity of the old artillery school, which is the one spot that should be totally easy to navigate. But I lost the trail somewhere around there, eventually found and followed a spur to North Head, then hoofed it via other streets back down to Manly proper (you can get a map of the trail here). But in between were countless breath-taking vistas and views of the Pacific, or across the bay to not-so-distant Sydney.

Among the highlights once the trail turns away from the shoreline is a hilltop wetlands bristling with frogs and flowers and smooth, sweeping rocks. There are also the ruins of an old WWII gunnery post, and one is allowed to freely poke around the old gun pits and barracks with very little limit. Much like hiking in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, one quickly forgets how close to downtown Sydney and the beaches of Manly one is once you are enveloped amid the trees and flora of Manly’s meandering trail network. I ended up spending the better part of a day following the path, poking around side trails, and generally losing myself in this contrarian urban wilderness.