Watson Bay & South Head

Australia, Sydney Guide (A): Watson Bay & South Head

Take a walking tour around some of Sydney's most breathtaking scenery and colonial history. Watsons Bay, Vaucluse and the rugged coastline of South Head provide a mixture of historical sites, glamorous homes, hidden harbour beaches and fine food establishments.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: Watson Bay & South Head
Guide Location: Australia » Sydney
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 3.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 7.6 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: The Gap   Signal Hill Reserve   Macquarie Lighthouse   Vaucluse House   Parsley Bay Reserve   Watsons Bay   Green Point   Camp Cove   Lightkeeper's Cottages   Hornby Light  
Author: Paul Alexander
Author Bio: I'm a born and bred Sydneyite who loves the city of my birth for it's vitality, multiculturalism, nightlife and awesome places to eat and drink. A career banker and financier, I love history and travel and have three times visited the home of my ancestors at Keiss, near John-o-Groats, Scotland.
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The Gap

1) The Gap

Some sense of the macabre to open this walking tour, reportedly The Gap is the scene of up to 50 suicide attempts each year. The Gap has become synonymous with suicides in Sydney, but it was for a much more disastrous reason that it was first known to Sydney-siders as the last resting place of 121 souls who perished when the British built frigate, The Dunbar, ran aground just south of here on a stormy night in August 1857. There was only one survivor, James Johnson, who spent the night clinging to the rock shelf below before being rescued. As you continue this walk southward, you will pass the anchor from The Dunbar, which was salvaged fifty years later by local residents as a tribute to those who lost their lives on that fateful night.
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Signal Hill Reserve

2) Signal Hill Reserve

To signal the arrival of approaching ships to the fledgling colony of Sydney a lookout post was established near here in January 1790 by Captain John Hunter of the HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet. One of the crewmembers of The Sirius who manned the fort here was Robert Watson, sail-maker, after whom Watsons Bay is named. When ships approached the coastline, a flag was hoisted up a flagstaff here to alert the inhabitants of Sydney Cove and later the harbour pilots who resided down the hill in Watsons Bay. This is also the first recorded site of navigational lights being used in Australia, when in January 1793, a fire was lit here for the ‘Bellona’ which waited outside the harbour overnight before entering. The present stone Signal Tower which you can see was designed by colonial architect, Mortimer Lewis and was constructed with convict labour in the 1840’s. The Signal Station provides watch for shipping to the harbour entrance, a service which has continued unabated since 1790. Also used as a strategic site for the defence of Sydney harbour, guns were placed here from 1893 till the Second World War.
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Macquarie Lighthouse

3) Macquarie Lighthouse

On this site you see the longest serving navigational light in Australia. Originally completed in 1818 by convict architect Francis Greenway, the Macquarie Lighthouse, named after Governor Lachlan Macquarie who ordered its construction, was replaced in 1883 by the James Barnet designed tower which now stands before you. The original tower became dilapidated due to lack of quality building materials in the new colony and disagreements that Greenway and Captain John Gill, supervisor of works had during its construction. Many in the colony questioned the positioning of the tower, being some two miles from South Head and the entrance to the harbour. These concerns were well founded when The Dunbar was shipwrecked just north of this spot in 1857, more than likely mistaking the light to be the entrance to the harbour during the stormy night. Later on this tour you will pass the Hornby Light which was completed in 1858 as a consequence of The Dunbar tragedy. This lightstation was fully automated in 1976. Booked tours will be available from sometime in May 2011 for the Macquarie Lighthouse and they will take place between 10am and 4pm for a reasonable $13 per family.
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Vaucluse House

4) Vaucluse House

Built in the Gothic-revival style, Vaucluse House is best known as the residence of William Charles Wentworth, one of the early explorers who first crossed the Blue Mountains in 1813 and one of the leading figures of early colonial life in Sydney. The name Vaucluse comes from the 14th century poet Petrarch’s Fontaine de Vaucluse penned after the famous natural spring town in the South of France. It was so named by Sir Henry Browne Hayes an Irish convict, transported for abducting an heiress and marrying her in a sham ceremony in 1797. Hayes bought this land in 1803 and built a ‘charming house’ and outbuildings, he was pardoned in 1812 and returned to Ireland. Wentworth purchased the property in 1827 for £1,500 and most of the building works were carried out by him and his wife Sarah over the following 25 years. Now operated by the Historic Houses Trust, Vaucluse House is open to the public, displaying many period artworks and furniture as well as the magnificent gardens and lawns. It is open Friday to Sunday 9.30am — 4pm | Open daily in January and NSW School Holidays and public holidays | Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day. There is a fee for entrance to the house museum, entrance to the grounds is free.
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Parsley Bay Reserve

5) Parsley Bay Reserve

A beautiful and tucked away hiding spot on Sydney Harbour, where one can relax at the kiosk and have an ice-cream or espresso coffee whilst watching the locals swim or fish. After you cross the bridge you can decide whether to visit the kiosk by following the path to your right or you can continue to your left towards the next destination on the tour.

Following European occupation of Australia, this land was granted to Thomas Laycock in 1792, he was Deputy Commissary-General and a member of the New South Wales Corps. It formed part of the Vaucluse Estate which was subsequently owned by Sir Henry Browne Hayes and Captain John Piper before Sir William Charles Wentworth purchased the land in 1827. It was to be in private ownership until 1906 when this land was resumed by the New South Wales government for public use. The suspension bridge you crossed was built in 1910 for the cost of £500. The original kiosk, built in 1910 was designed by Varney Parkes, son of Sir Henry Parkes best known as the Father of Federation. When this kiosk fell into disrepair is was replaced by the existing structure in 1929. Over the years Parsley Bay Reserve has been a popular place for picnics and more recently weddings.
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Watsons Bay

6) Watsons Bay

Whilst it is one of the premier tourist destinations of Sydney, Watsons Bay still retains the feeling of a quaint fishing village and it could be a thousand miles from the Sydney central business district, not just 9 miles away.

Prior to European occupation, the area was originally inhabited by the Cadigal people and the first land grant here was made to Edward Laing in 1793. It is named after Robert Watson who was quartermaster on the flagship of the First Fleet, the HMS Sirius, Watson later become harbourmaster in 1813 and the first keeper of the Macquarie Lightstation in 1818. The area around Watsons Bay was soon to be recognised as a major strategic position for the new colony of New South Wales and as mentioned previously it was near here that the first Lightstation was erected in Australia as well as being the safe inlet from where the first harbour pilots would base themselves. The Doyle family have had a long association with Watsons Bay, they claim to have opened Australia's first seafood restaurant here in 1885 and after five generations are celebrated worldwide for their famous fish and chips and the magnificent restaurant atmosphere. As you walk along the beach promenade you pass Doyle’s on the Pier and their iconic Doyles on the Beach. The Palace Hotel at Watsons Bay has been serving the local community and tourists alike for over 100 years. The original Palace Hotel was built in 1886 but demolished and replaced by the present hotel which was finished in 1939 in deco-style and called the Watsons Bay Hotel.
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Green Point

7) Green Point

Green Point, otherwise known as Laing’s Point, forms part of the Sydney Harbour National Park and is a popular location for picnickers, wedding parties and sunbathers alike. In the 1850s a navigation obelisk was erected on Green Point and as it was recognised for its strategic position on Sydney Harbour, a submarine boom net was installed here in World War II crossing the harbour to Georges Head on the north side of the harbour. One of the midget Japanese submarines was caught on the fateful night in April 1942 when three Japanese submarines raided the harbour. The foundations of the winch house of the boom net can still be seen on Laing’s Point. The grassed areas of Green Point are a great vantage spot to watch the passing harbour traffic. If you are lucky you may see one of the magnificent ocean liners pass or a huge container ship laden with all sorts of commercial wares.
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Camp Cove

8) Camp Cove

Noted as the first place on which European’s landed in Sydney Harbour, it is reported that this was where Governor Phillip decided to camp on the night of January 21 1788 before he undertook exploration of Port Jackson, better known now as Sydney Harbour. Now popular with tourists and locals alike, it is a lovely, secluded and safe beach in which to swim. The surrounds of the beach provide for some historical exploration with the remnants of the Sydney water Police wharf at the Western end of the beach and the house nearby was built by Russian scientist Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay, finished in 1881 for scientific research but resumed by the military in 1885 for strategic purposes.
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Lightkeeper's Cottages

9) Lightkeeper's Cottages

Pass the gun emplacement and then onto Lady Bay Beach, a designated nudist beach so you may see some of the Sydney ‘wildlife’ trying to gain a suntan in all of their glory. The Lightkeeper's Cottages, positioned on South Head have magnificent views of Sydney Harbour, Manly and North Head, These cottages designed by colonial architect Alexander Dawson and built in 1858, housed the keepers of Hornby Light. Ironically, Able Seaman James Johnson the sole survivor of the Dunbar tragedy was the first head light-keeper of the Hornby Light. Johnson later went on to Newcastle and became first assistant light-keeper at Nobby's Head Lighthouse which had its own tragedy in 1866 and, as fate would have it, Johnson helped rescue the sole survivor of the paddle-steamer the SS Cawarra. Following the automation of the Hornby Lighthouse in 1933, the cottages feel into disuse and ill-repair before the National Parks and Wildlife Service resumed control of the harbour foreshore here in 1975 and renovated the cottages and installed caretakers.
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Hornby Light

10) Hornby Light

As you follow the path around South Head and pass further gun emplacements, you cannot help but notice the striking red and white striped Hornby Lighthouse. Designed by Alexander Dawson and built in 1858 in response to the Dunbar and the Catherine Adamson shipping disasters in 1857, the Hornby Light was commissioned to supplement the earlier built Macquarie Lightstation which was deemed to be too far away from the entrance to Sydney Harbour to be effective for safe navigation of the harbour entrance. It was painted in this distinctive manner to distinguish it from the Macquarie Lighthouse. It is reportedly named after Admiral Hornby, father-in-law of the then Governor of New South Wales Sir William Denison. It was the third lighthouse built in what is now New South Wales and as mentioned previously it was automated in 1933. The light has a range of 15 nautical miles.

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