It’s not so grim up north

  

The kestrel soars on the updraft, slightly frantic wings betraying a sense of cool. Suddenly it dives down, presumably having spotted a skink on the rocks. Bad luck and RIP, little lizard.

Theoretically, we’re standing on the Long Reef headland looking for whales. They migrate up the coast in June and July, coming back between August and October. But in the absence of the big boys, it becomes clear how much wildlife there is, sneaking into the gaps between the flash seaside houses of Sydney’s northern beaches.

For most visitors to Sydney, there is no real call to head north of the harbour. Perhaps the ferry to Manly, then back again in the evening. Or an afternoon outing to Taronga Zoo. Beyond such tickboxes, there’s little apparent reason to venture upwards. It’s not just visitors either – the harbour provides such a natural barrier that those living south of it tend to regard northern Sydney residents as “living overseas�?.

Damien McClellan, who runs Eco Treasures Tours, is Northern Beaches born-and-bred, however. And he makes a living of showing off the bits that many people don’t bother to go to. The beaches themselves are clankingly obvious – anyone with a functioning pair of eyes can see they’re better than the more lauded ones in the eastern suburbs – but it’s what’s in-between that proves to be more interesting.

 

 

The Long Reef headland is a mini-nature reserve, and an excellent indication of how the coast works around here. It is not one of the more dramatic headlands – it offers a relatively gentle, tapered slope down to the crashing Tasman Sea. Brown sediment in the water shows how the rock is weathered away. It’s a gradual, relatively smooth process, due to the type of rock. The big sandstone cliffs on other headlands work differently – they’re cut away at from underneath and eventually the overhangs crash into the water.

“The indigenous people of the area divided the year up into seven seasons,�? says Damien, reaching for the wattle plant. “When it flowers in September, for example, it usually coincides with mullet fish running. It’s a good indicator of a change of season - and plentiful food.�?

Looking down towards Dee Why beach, Damien explains how the rhythms of nature affect the entrance to the small lagoon lying behind it. “Small waves gradually build up sand and close the gap. Then a storm comes along and knocks it down again.�?

He’s a man who spends a lot of time studying waves. Surfing is his real love, and the Northern Beaches has a strong surfing scene. Narrabeen is arguably the most beloved hotspot, but the best breaks can vary from day to day.

The surest sign of dedication is when someone prefers to surf. Logic would dictate that the summer months and warmer water are the best bet, but McLellan spends more time on his board in the winter. The prevailing winds are more conducive to consistent breaks, and if that means donning a wetsuit, so be it.

Being close to the sea is a fundamental part of Northern Beaches life. The inconveniences of getting into the city are happily traded off for the chance to hear the waves crashing. The further up the coast you go, the more detached from the rest of Sydney it feels. There are fewer commuters and more self-employed businesspeople working from home. The houses, some bought by rich blow-ins, others passed down through the family from the days where this was a cheap place to live, get ever more spectacular.

It all ends at Palm Beach, better known to international audiences as Summer Bay, the fictional setting of Home And Away. The gloriously long stretch of sand goes up to the lighthouse on the Barrenjoey Headland, while the Bouddi National Park on the Central Coast can be found on the horizon.

The place has a smug contentment about it, the knowledge that it’s about as far from hardship as it’s possible to get without entering the world of private helicopters and superyachts. Novice surfers attack the waves at the relatively tame southern end of the beach, dozens of dogs walk their owners and residents with seemingly not much to perturb them graze on flat whites and eggs benedict.

It is at the same time very separate from Sydney and the absolute embodiment of it. If you’ve got the money, the Northern Beaches have the dream. Well, unless you’re a soon-to-be devoured skink, anyway.

 

 by David Whitley