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Touring Canberra to Sydney via the Sea Cliff Bridge

Graham Smith's picture
Bicycle touring Australia's Illawarra Coast near Wollongong to Sydney. Cycle Traveller

Graham Smith is an experienced cycle tourer, but when he takes a trip from Canberra to Sydney via the beautiful Southern Highlands and Illawarra Coast, he's a little rusty. It has been 22 years since his last multi-day bicycle tour and he's not confident he can go the distance in less than a week. Set with his new Thorn Sherpa touring bike, Graham takes us on an enjoyable journey between two of the country's most important houses: Parliament House and the Opera House, while also getting his pedalling confidence back.

Route: Canberra to Sydney via Wollongong
Distance: 424km
Days: 7
Difficulty: Easy to Medium
Conditions: Mostly sealed road
View full page map here

Day 1: Canberra to Tarago – 76 km

It is a steady climb away from Canberra on the Federal Highway's bike lane with good early morning views back to the fog filled valley and across to the distant mountain ranges. I exit the safe but noisy Federal Highway by a right turn onto the quiet Bungendore Rd and pedal by hobby farms, grassy woodlands and vineyards. It is easy to maintain a steady pace until an ear-flattening, eye-watering, steep descent from the range into Bungendore, 45km from Canberra. There are ample cafes, galleries, small shops in this busy village. I have an early lunch of tasty pasta then push on another 32km through the gently undulating countryside to tiny Tarago. I notice a number of 'Stock Reserve' grassy woodlands en-route that look like good camping spots, but not needed on this trip. I arrive in Tarago about 2:45p.m. and book into The Loaded Dog pub to escape what looks like rain coming. The hotelier offers secure bike storage in an enclosed beer garden.

My bike – a loaded Thorn Sherpa (I'm starting to think it should really be called 'The Truck') ran really well. It is remarkably stable and reassuringly balanced; especially on speeding, downhill runs. It just stays put regardless of the load weight and road conditions with minimal rider effort required. Nice.
A rain-squall, strong winds and cold front arrive about 4:30 pm and I'm pleased I'm under a roof and not in the tent.

Day 2: Tarago to Bungonia Conservation Reserve – 56 km

I depart Tarago to the east then north east following signs to Bungonia, which is about 43km from Tarago, of which 30km is on unsealed road. Loose gravel and rough corrugations are thankfully easily handled by the bike. I travel along an area with the think-twice-before-going-there name of 'The Morass'. This is an appropriate name also for today's weather, with wild looking clouds, periods of very strong winds and short, light, blustery rain showers. The route passes through a fairly remote area. I take an unintended side-road detour of about 5km before finding Lumley Road, which leads to the Oallen Ford Road intersection and into the small settlement of Bungonia.

Bike tour leaving from Parliament House, Canberra. Cycle Traveller

There are no services in Bungonia and as sunset is imminent, I decide to take a a 9km side-trip along the 'Lookdown Road' into the nature reserve and to what is a very well set-up NSW national park campground. The road from Bungonia hamlet to the campground is sign-posted and sealed. It appears I'm the only camper – a whole nature reserve to myself. I set up the tent, prepare a quick meal, text a message home and do some writing. Being May, it's completely dark by 5:30pm, so I'm glad I stopped when I did. A walk around reveals that the campground has an excellent communal kitchen hall, which was a good refuge from the continuing strong winds. There are also good, hot showers. There are very wintry conditions outdoors.

The CatEye gadget says a total of 56km; average 12.6km/hr; 4hrs 24mins riding. Max.speed 49.5km/hr. The body is holding up reasonably well with the exception of painful but still serviceable knees. I suspect that they are no longer covered by a Warranty Agreement.

Day 3: Bungonia Reserve to Bundanoon – 64 km

It would have been great to stay a day or two at Bungonia Nature Reserve campgound and to do a few of the walks into the ravine and along the creeks. There is plenty of wildlife – wallabies, kookaburras, coughs, wrens and roos – in the camp vicinity. And yes, I was the only person on the entire site. Kitchen, hot showers, soft tent site, bush solitude... sheer luxury for a $7 camp fee.

After a 9km backtrack to Bungonia hamlet, it is then on to the almost car-free Jerrara Road for an enjoyable 18km toward Marulan and the Hume Highway. Marulan has shops, cafes, accommodation and other services. The big Hume Highway – the road that links Australia's two biggest cities Sydney and Melbourne – what a cacophony compared with the peaceful and scenic back roads I have been on for the past two days. Although the Hume (Hwy 31) appears daunting and is exceedingly noisy, the shoulder lane is very wide, smooth and it is only a very short ride (approximately 1km) along it from Marulan until the turnoff toward to the genteel southern highland villages.

Autumn colours in the Southern Highlands. Cycle TravellerFrom the Southern Highlands Way turnoff (just out of Marulan) it is back to a pleasant, almost car-free road to Bundanoon via Wingello and Penrose. I later learn there is indeed a completely car-free route, a cycleable trail, from Penrose through to Bundanoon. I am told that it is along a mid-1800's road route, the Argyle trail, which is only suitable for single-track riding but has been restored to a condition adequate for loaded bikes.

I call a halt at about 3pm. There is camping at the Morton National Park entrance campground but storm clouds are abundant so I book into the Bundanoon Youth Hostel. I walk around Bundanoon to find scones and cream at Ye Olde Bicycle Shoppe Cafe – it's that sort of town. A base for mountain-biking, kayaking, bushwalking or for just a quiet few days in the attractive village adjacent to the Moreton National Park. I phone home, buy ingredients for dinner and return to the hostel.

The Bundanoon Youth Hostel is an excellent place to stay with just three other guests. Once again, a good night to be indoors with heavy rain falling throughout the evening.

I have now covered well over half the distance from Parliament House to the Opera House and, except for protesting knees which are slowing the pace, I am feeling fine. My initial pre-tour uncertainty as to whether I'd be able to make the distance has waned. Bundanoon is located on the main southern railway line so I have the choice of taking a train from here, but I'll continue to ride and should be able to reach the coast tomorrow.

Day 4: Bundanoon to Kiama via Jamberoo – 74 km

Forest near Jambaroo, Cycle TravellerIt is a memorable ride today starting with an easy roll from Bundanoon mostly by backroads through to Robertson, which sits perched on the edge of a high escarpment running to the coast. The famous Robertson Pie Shop (elevation 760 metres above sea level) is where a cycle tourer looks at the T-junction and has to decide whether to drop to sea level by the Macquarie Pass (shorter but more traffic) or the Jamberoo Pass (longer with far less traffic). Jamberoo Road is my choice, party due to recommendations and signage banning heavy vehicles from this road.

The very steep Jamberoo Road gradients, and the arrival of 90km/hr winds and horizontal rain showers, certainly focus my riding attention during the early afternoon. It is an exciting if somewhat hazardous descent on a narrow, twisting, slippery road. Gusts push the 120+kg of loaded bike to and fro with alarming ease while gravity pulls it toward Jamberoo at speed. Even in the very wet, windy and steep conditions the bike is comfortably stable. Well done Thorn Sherpa and Schwalbe tyres for staying upright and on a road where it would have been easy to slide over the edge.

Even though the wind and the wet are distractions, passing through the rainforest and the many different types of vegetation is a buzz. There are very dramatic changes in landscapes from the verdant fields and rolling hills of the Southern Highlands to wild seas crashing into the cliffs near Kiama.

The winds on the coast are gale strength so I call it quits early and book into the not so grand Grand Hotel in central Kiama. Although it is a bit tatty, it is friendly, quiet and recommended by the Kiama harbour fish and chip shop owner. Tenting in these wild windy conditions would be for purists with a heavy-duty tent and a myriad of guy-ropes attached to anvils.

Day 5: Kiama to Central Wollongong – 40 km

My knees are demanding an easy day today, so I don't expect to go past Wollongong. Fortunately, it is an excellent day for taking photos, having chats with other cyclists – like a retired Scottish bricklayer – and absorbing the countryside and cityscapes.

Sea scape along Australia's Illawarra Coast. Cycle TravellerThe convenience of the bikeway from Kiama to Wollongong is a highlight. Being able to ride almost the entire way on either car-free paths or low traffic streets is fantastic and I am pleasantly surprised at how good the facility is. The bike-way is not perfect of course with some confusing signage and a route which includes less than pristine as well as some truly beautiful scenery. Without question though, the Kiama to the Gong ride gives me a genuine, close-up, brickbats and bouquets sampling of the exciting, unique Illawarra region. Heavy industry, grand homesteads, salt marshes, expansive lakes, a sprawling city, quaint villages, dramatic sea cliffs, beaches and blindingly green fields make today's ride, though my shortest to date, the most feature packed day-ride I can recall doing. I find hostel accommodation in Kembla St Wollongong and call it a day in the mid-afternoon.

Day 6: Central Wollongong to Cronulla via Bundeena – 68 km

Today is my idea of an excellent day of cycle touring. Weather conditions are perfect, the 18km exit route north from Wollongong City to Thirroul is a zero-car, mostly easy gradient path with constantly changing views of beaches, the ocean, headlands, parks, small towns and the dramatic Illawarra escarpment. There are cafes at just the right locations. Even from the end of the official path, the ride has more paths and relatively little, slow and courteous traffic right through to Bundeena. And there is ample scenic variety.

A highlight is riding the 665 metre, $49 million Sea Cliff Bridge, which curves out from the land over the sea. It is a neat feat of engineering.

Cycling on the bike path from Cronulla to Sydney CBD. Cycle TravellerThe ascent from Stanwell Park to Bald Hill is the challenge of the day being steep, but the view at the top on a day like today is truly spectacular and is completed with paragliders decorating the sky. The ride from Bald Hill lookout (the Lawrence Hargrave memorial) through the Royal National Park to Bundeena is one I would classify as a 'must do' for any cycle tourist. I find it an exhilarating ride.

From Bundeena, there is an hourly ferry service across the bay. For less than $7, it delivers me and the bike to Cronulla wharf from where I ride 1.5km to the Cronulla Beach YHA hostel well ready for a rest. There is also an option to camp near Bundeena at the national park campground. Cronulla is a terminus for one of the Sydney metro lines, so it would be easy to jump aboard a train and head into the city. However, in the interests of travelling all the land route from Australia's Parliament House steps to the Sydney Opera House steps by loaded bicycle, I will cycle in using the RTA maps of Sydney cycleways.

Day 7: Cronulla to the Sydney Opera House – 46km

Sydney by bike is the only way to arrive. For more years than I care to remember I have arrived in Sydney either by car or by plane, giving me a particular impression of Sydney as having next to no natural environment, and being a city of asphalt, concrete, buildings and transport infrastructure. Well today, in a 41km cycle ride from Cronulla to the Sydney Opera House, I am privileged to experience an entirely different aspect of Sydney and it is a much more favourable side of Australia's biggest city. Beach esplanades, mangrove wetlands, open bays, river fronts, clean streams and attractive inner city backstreets with twittering birdlife.

Graham Smith reaches the Sydney Opera House on his bike tour. Cycle TravellerJust as I'm about to launch myself along the fantastic Bourke Street bike lane, onto College Street and then to Macquarie St for a pedal turning finale to the Opera House, I meet a young couple on touring bikes who are obviously experienced bike travellers. I recall seeing a story about them in The Canberra Times newspaper. Richard and Stani have been travelling the world by bike for some six years. Remarkable. We ride together to the Opera House. They are lovely company to finish my seven-day ride with. It is also helpful for us all to be able to reciprocate as photographers for each other for the souvenir shots at the Opera House.

The ride is not the traffic plagued hassle I had anticipated. Indeed, it is the opposite. It is mostly on easy gradient, well signed and pleasant bike paths with interesting views. Using cycling maps and a GPS, I'm able to stay on track. I could not have asked for a better conclusion to my Parliament House to the Sydney Opera House ride.


I and the bike are on our way home by train. I am feeling in fine fettle and pleased that I've confirmed that a House-to-House tour on a fully loaded bike really is doable in seven days by a middle-aged, out-of-practice cycle tourist. The route I experienced does indeed provide an exciting, accessible, interesting and diverse sample of Australia.


This route joins or intersects with the following bicycle routes:

Images from top: 1. The Sea Cliff Bridge on the Illawarra Coast. 2. Map. 3. Parliament House Canberra. 4. Autumn in the Southern Highlands. 5. Forest cycling through Jamberoo. 6. The Illawarra coastline near Wollongong. 7. Cycling on the bike path from Cronulla to Sydney. 8. Graham Smith at the Sydney Opera House at the end of the ride.


Hi Graham. What a good read. I'm looking to do the opposite journey. I live in Sydney, but just love Canberra so I'll be looking to go house t house also. I too have a Thorn which I just picked up second hand - a nomad. I may call on you for some tips and advice when the time comes! :-)Thx, Tom

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