An unmarked section along the Manly to Spit Bridge walk is the hidden pathway to an abandoned oasis.
Standing at Davey Point lookout you can get a good vantage point of a few – squint and you’ll see them on the very edge of the clifftops below Balgowlah Heights. This cluster visible on the northern side of are known are the ‘Mens’ huts and even at a distance, these cute structures clearly have multimillion dollar views of Sydney.
Now part of Sydney Harbour National Park, the Crater Cove huts date back to the depression era. Fisherman built the original structures in the 1920s to serve as temporary weekend shelters, while trying to catch food off the flat rock ledges underneath. In the 1960s,a group of free-spirited hippies set up permanent camp in the existing shacks and built several more. Here they lived a relaxed lifestyle, secluded from the rest of the rat race – until the 1980s, when the Government made it illegal to live on national parkland and kicked them out. The hippies were forced to leave their idyllic colony and the huts have remained abandoned and undisturbed for almost 30 years.
To get down to Crater Cove is pretty tricky – while the path isn’t difficult for the novice hiker, finding the right cutting between the trees isn’t exactly easy. The unmarked turnoff to take is mainly known only to bushwalkers, history enthusiasts and among local northern beaches circles. It has a deserved reputation as a sort-of secret walking trail which leads to an unspoilt paradise that most Sydneysiders are completely unaware of.
After heading down the right turnoff for a few metres the well-worn ground widens, creating a tunnel through the bush that’s surprisingly easy, although adults would still have to duck in places to dodge branches that protrude through. This pleasant bushwalk takes about 15mins, winding down the steep hilltops, dense shrubland and overlooks some great views of Sydney Harbour from unusual angles. In some photos you can even spot a ferry or two in the background!
The whole area is protected by the National Parks & Wildlife Services (NPWS) and a group of volunteer caretakers, who are vigilant about ensuring the huts and native ecosystem is conserved. This is definitely not the kind of abandoned site where people go to paint, tag and trash – Crater Cove is part of Sydney’s heritage and it’s important to our history that this place remain intact.
For that reason, it’s never been publicised as a tourist attraction and park rangers visit regularly to monitor the site. It’s hard to believe anybody could come here and not be moved by its beauty. While the NPWS is notoriously overprotective of the huts, perhaps keeping quiet about this private paradise is what’s kept it so well preserved.
When the hippies were evicted most of them simply shut the doors and left, taking few belongings with them. Many items are still in their original place, making it seem that perhaps they hoped to one day come back. In fact, the huts feel less abandoned and more like loved homes.
Unfortunately, all the huts are securely boarded up now…likely to prevent opportunistic people setting up there overnight or stealing any artefacts inside! While the interior is a no-go, you can still peek through the some uncovered windows and still spot many perfectly preserved signs of the quaint life these hippies enjoyed.
All seven huts were handmade using natural and recycled materials found in the local northern beaches region, except a few sheets of corrugated iron used for the roofing. The combination of stone & wood feels quaint, yet cool. I can imagine many hipsters today would be envious of this authentic 60s hippy existence, bar the lack of wifi connection 😉
The native vegetation is really eye-catching and many coastal species can be spotted that I’ve never seen around the inner west! There’s also an abundance of Eastern water dragons – while the lizards seemed very curious and approachable, I steered clear of them because I imagine they can deliver a pretty nasty bite!
The Crater Cove crew were clearly an ingenious bunch. They practiced sustainable farming and did their best to avoid leaving their tiny community. Their crafty setup is impressive in its simplicity, use of space and recycled materials. In steep spots, the cliff’s natural sandstone has been hand carved into stairs. Rocks were ingeniously used to create a canal system, allowing rain to flow down the steep hillside to prevent waterlogging. Slats of wood have been placed across as a makeshift bridge. A wooden seat built into the rock ledge is the perfect place to sit and admire the amazing surrounds. The guttering of one hut funnels rainwater into a tank below, maximising fresh water supply. Old bottles laid with cement create windows that must make an awesome green & gold leadlight effect. Recycled doors give an enchanting feel to the huts’ entrances, while also providing a source of ample indoor light.
From all the evidence that remains, it’s obvious that these guys weren’t a group of crazy ferals – they were bloody clever and very house proud! With sound knowledge on horticulture and off-grid living, the hippies had their own homemade oasis away from the rest of civilisation.
It’s easy to see why the people who sustained this colony for over two decades tried so desperately to stay. They took their case to stay at Crater Cove right up to the High Court, Australia’s top legal authority, but all appeals were rejected. One bloke known as Simon Flynn was said to never be the quite same again after he was kicked out of his beloved home. He moved to Tasmania and reportedly died in recent years, having never returned to visit the huts. Here’s a photo of Simon outside his shack in 1987 – note the solar panels installed on his roof(!)
I find the Crater Cove colony so inspiring. The idyllic lifestyle and tight-knit community they must’ve enjoyed while overlooking the rest of the rat race is enviable. The experience of exploring this hidden paradise in the heart of Sydney felt like being the little girl in children’s classic The Secret Garden – or maybe Leo Di Caprio’s cute French crush from that movie The Beach.
There’s a lot we can learn from the hippies – not just about horticulture and self-sufficient ways, but also the sense of peace that can be found in a slower pace and happiness in the simple life. It’s great that our national parks are available for everyone to enjoy – thankfully historic sites like Crater Cove have been well preserved, allowing people to enjoy this spot and take inspiration from it for many years to come.