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Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A visit to Old Man's Hat

The route we followed. The buildings on the left are part of the Q Station.
Today, I combined a number of things that I enjoy best: scrub-bashing in difficult terrain, social history, biology and geology.

This post is to help others who may want to go there: there are notes on finding the site at the end.

Sydney's Quarantine Station operated for about 130 years, and a lot of people, having suffered sea sickness, fear, discomfort and maybe disease, all the way to Australia, saw no more of our land than this station, some six miles/10km from Sydney itself, in a secluded place on the shores of Sydney Harbour, not far from my home.
You can relate this to the map below,
and note the wall running down-slope.

People arrived by ship, back then, and if there was disease on the ship, they were held at a special facility on North Head near the North Head Sanctuary, where I work as a volunteer. Many of them went up to a headland and carved their names, their initials, or other forms of memorial, in the flat sandstone.

Today, three of we gardeners went bush to look at these stone engravings on the headland. My thanks to my companions, Sharyn and Christabel.

By the way, all of the pictures here have been smallified, but if you click on them, you can embiggen them. 
The wall.

To start, we walked down alongside this wall.  This used to be the boundary that the passengers had to stay inside. 

You can see the same wall in the map and route pictures above, and it starts about 50 metres west of the bus stop that is across the road from the North Fort Cafe. If you can't work out where that is, you probably should not go there.

The route up to Old Man's Hat

The area is called Old Man's Hat: perhaps you can see why? This shows roughly the route we followed: this is a slightly energetic climb, and the bush is reputed to be full of ticks.  There is supposedly no Lyme Disease in Australia, but we seem to be getting a few cases of something similar, so ticks are no joke.

South Head and Sydney

A small view of a bit of the bush on North Head, which I am standing on, and South Head, opposite. These make up "the heads", the only entrance to Sydney Harbour.

The city of Sydney (aka the CBD or Central Business District) is on the horizon, over to the right.
The cliff near the gully

This is Triassic sandstone, a deposit known as the Hawkesbury sandstone, about 200 million years old, give or take a bit.

Some of the beds show current bedding, and a few of them are rather shale-like.

More of that later.

The gully and a shale-like bed

The white bed you can see on the right was very fine-grained. At this point we had walked down the wall, along cliff-tops, down a few interesting drops, and we had started to scramble up the other side.

Note again that if you are thinking of trying this, you need a bit of a head for heights.

Heading up the slope: an easy part.

Here, we had already crossed the gully. 

Incidentally, in May, which we regard as well into autumn, we counted 17 species of plant in bloom.

Finding stuff

And soon we were finding stuff.

The area on top was reasonably open, if only because a lot of it was bare rock.

Looking down Sydney Harbour

And enjoying views. Here, from South Head to Sydney CBD.

The bush here is technically heath.

An engraving.  The "inmates" could make their way up here, where they were still inside the Quarantine Station, and they must have either had tools, or been lent them. Some of the engravings are no more than initials, but others are works of art. There are, by the way, no Aboriginal rock engravings in the area, that I know of.

Another engraving.

But this one is different. In World War I, Japan was in the war on the allied side.In 1916, some Japanese sailors were detained here, it seems.

They appear to have been the crew of 'Nikkon Maru'.

More engravings,

Current bedding.

I also caught this view of cross-bedding in the cliff. Cross-bedding or current-bedding happens when a current pushes sand along so it flows down a sloping face, making a series of beds that are laid down on about a 30-degree angle.

Ribbon markers.

One important thing to remember is that people are studying and marking the engravings with pink ribbons like these. One, in Cyrillic script, has yet to be tagged. We found that when we headed out across-country to the Q-station.

We made it out, but going in that way would be a nightmare. because you simply would not know where you were going. We were warned to avoid the area because of ticks,

Tick warning sign.

We came out through the Quarantine Station, where they didn't want us following one of the tracks. Curiously, the coin for scale is an American one.

Small ant hill, about 80 mm across.

And I had this find as we headed back to our cars: an ant hill where the ants, under the surface, see a different sand to what we see on top. With engravings or anything else, a lot of the story is hidden until you dig for it.

Me near the wall.

Now here are three shots that Sharyn took:

Christabel and I, most of the way down.

Me, climbing up the other side.

How to get there.

You can drive in and park. Be aware that there is a fee to park in the National Parks car park, but as you are driving along the road to North Head, turn in left at the North Fort entrance near the cafe, and parking is free.

You can also walk up from Manly Wharf (about 2 km) or you can catch the 135 bus from across the road from the wharf.

The wall that you walk down beside is about 50 metres back from (west of) the North Fort entrance, and on the other side of the road.

You need good shoes, the ability to climb and scramble, a bit of food, some water, sunscreen, a hat and some sort of anti-insect spray to discourage ticks.  There is no safe swimming there.

Aside from that, you are on your own. If you can't work out how to get there from this, you probably shouldn't even think of going in there.  If you do go in there, be ready at any point to give up and go back.  Look at the climbs with a view to going back the same way, as the route out that we followed was very overgrown and needed a trained eye..

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In July 2017, Brian Concannon made a comment (see below) about the rockfall there and asked if I had looked into it. I had, but I had failed to post it here. See The Great North Head Calamity for an updated form of a piece I wrote for use elsewhere.

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.


  1. Loved your article! Have you got any idea who carved the beautiful New Zealand tiki?

  2. Thanks. I am unaware of the New Zealand tiki, so no idea, sorry, though I have found a picture of it here: in an article which appallingly attaches the name of the current lessee to the Quarantine Station, and refers to that as if it was its historical name. I will have to go looking for it when i get back home.

    One thing puzzles me: the trip across the Tasman by steamer was never more than six days, so few Kiwis would have become sick during that trip. I suspect it was a Kiwi headed home from somewhere far away. That, however, is just a guess.

  3. Hi Peter

    Yea I love sitting on the edge of old mans hat and wonder at the view.

    I was wondering have you checked out the massive rock collapse, that happened close by ?

    1. I did indeed, and I wrote it up for the North Head Sanctuary newsletter, but it appears I failed to add it here. I have now remedied that defect: thanks for the reminder!

    2. Since people coming along later won't find it as easily, use the link at the end of the article.