Stair challenges are a quick and effective way to improve your fitness. Walk them, run them or bound up two at a time. To liven up my Sydney CBD workday routine, I went looking for some lunchtime stairs in Sydney, exploring Barangaroo, Millers Point and Dawes Point west of the Harbour Bridge. The rule I set myself was at least 50 steps with a nice recovery run or walk to link the sets of stairs into a circuit.
Barangaroo has a mix of historic stairs linking the residential high spots with the working wharves, as well as shiny new stairs for office workers.
Walking from Wynyard to Barangaroo, the first steps encountered are those at the Sussex Street pedestrian bridge, 35 steps on the west side of the bridge and 42 on the east side of the bridge, making 77 in total with a short jog in between. There is a lift and escalators, but we won’t be using those.
Opened in 2015, these are nice, safe stairs. As you cross Sussex Street bridge, look out for Australia’s first wooden highrise, currently (2016) being erected just to the north of the bridge. To the south, spot the abandoned, inexplicable stretch of roadway to nowhere, hanging below the Western Distributor.
Walk a nice little loop from Sussex Street Bridge to nearby Napolean Bridge, a beautiful contemporary bridge design. Only 40 steps, but it has some cover for rainy day intervals, and another escalator. You can always go the wrong way up the escalator for an extra challenge? No, maybe not.
A short wander north on Hicksons Rd, a narrow old staircase (Gas Lane Steps) with 60 risers climbs towards Jenkins Street. Sydney’s first gasworks was in this area, with Australian Gas Lighting (AGL) distributing gas to Sydney from 1841. Continue north to the beautiful heritage AGL building. A stunning new staircase rises here, lets call it the The Bond Stairs, with 84 steps, and a lift (if you insist). On hot days, this staircase is shaded and cool.
Along the great rock wall that runs along Hicksons Rd, or The Hungry Mile as it was called during the depression era, are two sets of steps. Both were constructed during wharf redevelopment in 1920. To the south is the steep, narrow zig zag of the heritage High Steps, cut into the rock wall and joining Hicksons Rd and High Street. High Steps has 108 steep and sunny steps, often busy with lunch time warriors. The Steps to Nowhere, at the northern end of the rock wall, are bricked up top and bottom, and you won’t be climbing those.
Following the curve of the bay north, we reach the headland park (Barangaroo Reserve), which is stair climbing Nirvana. Mostly the stairs are concrete, spacious and sunny, heading relentlessly upwards to a big blue sky. Fortunately the staggered stairs on the Wulugul Walk offer some shade to provide relief to hot and weary walkers.
Enter the park from the south to find the Gira Gira stairs, all 100 of them, surrounded by glorious sandstone blocks. This set is popular with the lunchtime crowd, so play nice and climb to the left of the centre railings. Enjoy the view of the Barangaroo skyscrapers and construction zone as you descend.
Continue around the park from Gira Gira to find the first of the two separate sets of Wulugul Walk stairs. These concrete stairs are narrow, zig zagging down the hillside in short sections with lovely flat recovery bits for tired muscles. The first set of stairs on Wulugul Walk, closest to Gira Gira, has 77 steps, while the second set has 72.
Next, facing west to Balmain across the harbour, are the Burrwang steps with 82 risers, as tough as the Gira Gira steps. There is a convenient water spout at the base of these steps. You might need it.
Across the stargazer lawn, the fifth and final set of stairs is the Baludarri Steps, a lazy 74 of them nicely interspersed with short flat sections to catch your breath. At the bottom of these steps, you can take a pit stop at the 1904 Pump House at Marrinawi Cove.
Continue along Hicksons Road from Headland Park to find more steps, both new and old.
Towns Place steps don’t really fit my criteria with only 38 risers, but they are pretty and make a nice circuit with other stairs in the area.
Count 60 steps going up the historic Windmill Stairs from Hicksons Road to the intersection of Windmill Street and Kent Street. The ridge above these steps was known as Windmill Hill, after the first of many Sydney windmills was built there in 1797. The windmills ground flour to enable the growing colony to be self-sufficient.
Also in Millers Point, are the heritage Agar Steps in the shade of a magificent Port Jackson fig, rising 67 steps from Kent Street to Observatory Hill. These steps were constructed between 1870 and 1880, and are flanked by some historic terraces. This makes them the oldest stairs in the area, and the subject of many photographs and sketches. A sandwich shop at the base sells refreshments.
Continue on Hicksons Road past Walsh Bay Wharves towards Dawes Point. Ferry Lane Steps are quite unlike any of the other steps – tightly squeezed between two buildings, with 51 narrow, dark steps. Ferry Lane Wharf dates from 1890, these concrete stairs replaced an earlier laneway. In January 1900, a plague infection spread from the first recorded infection, Arthur Payne who lived in Ferry Lane. The plague ultimately lead to the redevelopment and modernisation of the wharves. Sea walls to protect Sydney from plague infected rats, and the constructions of pedestrian access steps such as High Steps, were part of the response to the plague and the redevelopment of the area.
A set of 61 nameless steps link Pottinger Road to Lower Fort Road, with a sign noting the steps are the Gateway to Walsh Bay, on the Walsh Bay Heritage Walk.
The final set of stairs are Hicksons Steps, 83 risers in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge, opposite Pier One. Lookout for an intriguing lump that resembles a dead white pigeon on the side of the steps – closer inspection reveals the word “nothingness” on the back of the body. The artist is Will Coles.
Hicksons Steps link Fort Street to Hickson Road, and unsurprisingly are named, like the Road, after RP Hickson, Chairman of the Sydney Harbour Trust between 1902 and 1912. Hickson led the re-development of the Walsh Bay wharves after the plague of 1900. Want to know more about the Hickson Heritage Walk?
Counting steps is hard. Sometimes it takes all my effort to breathe, or look at the view, or not fall over. Go count them yourself and let me know if I’ve got any wrong. You can link all these stairs into a circuit that is about 5km long. Climb each set once, and that’s a neat 1000 stairs (ok, 1018 to be precise).
1000 stairs not enough? It’s raining and you don’t want to go out? The buildings in Barangaroo are Big. Very Big. And some of them follow the current office trend for beautiful internal stairs designed for employee communication, collaboration and incidental exercise. Healthy workers are good workers. Sadly, to access most of these stairs, you’ll need to be an employee to get past security.
One staircase however appears open to the public (no access gate stops you, although a troll might leap out and demand to know your business). In International Tower 2, a beautiful white stair case reminiscent of a shell winds up a few floors from the public space. Smile at the staff and climb these stairs at least once.
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Urban Stairs Part 2
All of these stairs are west of the Harbour Bridge, west of Wynyard Station. In Part 2 I’ll look at stairs to the east : The Rocks, Circular Quay, Botanic Gardens and Woolloomooloo. If I haven’t flagged by then, I might head across the Bridge for Part 3.