Wilderness within reach: Sydney's bush backyard

G Magazine

Keen to breathe some fresh eucalyptus-laced air without travelling too far from Sydney?

Manly Dam through the trees

Manly dam is just one nature centre close to Sydney.

Credit: Warringah Council

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It's been a long time since my hiking boots have had a good workout. So it felt good to have their support and grip as I ran down a leafy little gully and across a sharply sloping rock.

The only downside was that I was running was to make sure my three-year-old did not fall off a cliff.

Perhaps it wasn't the best idea for two adults to volunteer to bring five children out on a bush walk.

We were walking around Manly Dam, the lesser-known body of water in the beachside Sydney suburb.

Established in the 19th century to provide the township of Manly with water, the dam is now the centre of a nature and recreation reserve.

The dam's shores offer playgrounds and BBQs, but we headed for the nature trail, which snakes up the sandstone cliffs and provides fantastic views of the dam and the surrounding bushland.

The trail joins up with the 7.3 km circuit walk around the dam, which passes through eucalypt forest dotted with wildflowers, including the NSW centenary bloom: the flannel flower.

But while the nature trail involves some steep steps, precipitous edges and bridges over creeks, the flatter and longer circuit track is frequented by mountain bike riders looking for some off-road thrills, so is probably equally dangerous for three-year-olds.

While the seven of us were a little too noisy to have any hope of seeing the famed local echidnas, we did spy lizards, camouflaged insects and kookaburras. We also passed stands of delicate flowers surrounding the scribbly gums and grass trees that lined the route.

The older kids kept us on track with a compass and map printed out from Wildwalks - not strictly necessary on such a well sign-posted walk, but it gave us all the impression we had lost ourselves in this gorgeous patch of bush.

Wet and wild

It's not really politic to shout "Shark! Shark!" when snorkelling at one of Sydney's favourite beaches, but I needed to get my snorkel buddy's attention. I had just seen my first ever wobbegong shark a few metres below, nestled into the sandy floor of Clovelly's prime snorkel pool, and I wanted to tell someone.

I had never dreamed I would see such a variety of wildlife this close to the city.

Clovelly Beach and its larger neighbour, Gordon's Bay, are part of a 40-hectare aquatic reserve, located just seven kilometres from Sydney's CBD.

They sit on one of Australia's most populated stretches of coast but once you dive below the water's surface it's easy to imagine you are miles from anywhere. The waters teem with a huge variety of fish, coral, crustaceans and even the occasional shark.

They're not scary sharks: wobbegongs sit on the sandy bottom, not threatening anyone unless prodded or stepped on, and this one was less than a metre long. But they are officially sharks nonetheless and my shouting "Look, there's a shark down there!" had a dramatic effect on my fellow swimmers.

My snorkel buddy, however, was busy taking huge breaths and diving down in an attempt to pat Bluey, Clovelly's famous blue groper.

Groper are astounding fish, all juveniles are female and brown in colour, with one in each territory developing into a male and turning bright blue.

When Clovelly's resident male groper was speared in 2005 (the offending fisherman was later prosecuted for the incident) one of the juveniles grew into the dominant male to replace him.

Around the headland at Gordon's Bay, we had the beach all to ourselves so the kids could play happily on the small strip of sand below the rows of boat racks while I explored the little rocky shoals.

I saw schools of pipe fish, old wife fish and something frilly, the size and shape of a dinner plate, swishing along, which I later discovered was a cuttlefish.

Looking out to sea between the rocky headlands I could imagine we were far from civilisation, until my snorkel buddy showed up with coffee and ice creams.

Jurassic Park

The Wolli Creek Nature Reserve is the only stretch of dense eucalypt forest still standing in Sydney's south west and it's only a 20-minute train trip from Central Station on the East Hills line.

So we set off for a morning walk in this skinny 60 hectares of largely untouched bushland.

Once you plunge onto the bush trails from the grassy picnic area, you feel immersed in the wilderness.

The kids were so taken with the idea that we were far away from the civilisation, they hid amongst the bracken and pretended to hunt for dinosaurs. Rocks were mattaburrasaurus eggs, broken twigs evidence of T-Rex having passed this way.

The path, while being clearly visible and well used, is lined with waist-high ferns and stands of eucalypts tower over it.

My intrepid explorers scampered up rocky stairways and jumped over muddy stretches with ease, but the steep declines (lined with handrail and chains) proved tricky, even for junior palaeontologists.

While houses and even the railway tracks are visible from parts of the trail, this little pocket of forest provides a natural habitat for local skinks, turtles, native bats and birds.

It's also a great spot to introduce kids to bushwalking without too much effort, particularly if you live in Sydney's inner city suburbs.