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Holiday romance: A love story that unfolded on a famous coastal walk

“We set off on Saturday morning. By lunchtime I thought, “Oh my God, I think I'm in love with him”

In this new nostalgia-inducing column, Maeve Galea asks her subjects to reminisce on a time they experienced the kind of carefree romance that can only blossom when the pressures of everyday life are removed. This week she speaks to journalist and author Tara Wells who’s just launched her new book, The Bondi to Manly WalkIt’s a must-have guide to a must-do hike, and it all started with a beautiful romance…

Tara:

I met Ian through mutual friends two years before we got together. The night we met I went home and took off my earrings and thought, “Well, I didn’t meet anybody tonight.” He went home and said to his flatmate, “I’ve just met the girl I’m going to marry.”

I grew up in the Sutherland Shire, which backs onto the Royal National Park and I spent a lot of time hiking there. As a kid with my family I always led the way, not because I was the most enthusiastic, but because I wanted to get back to the car first. It was a bit ironic that fast forward a decade or two and I had created a life for myself that found value in those same bushwalks.

Ian and I saw each other occasionally at the same mutual friends’ parties, but we didn’t really talk. Once, Ian told me that he had started a business guiding hikes in Sydney, but at that point he was only doing the coast track in the Royal National Park, which is Bundeena to Otford. My reaction to that was, “No way! That’s my walk!” That was the first time I started thinking, “God, that’s a really unusual thing to do with your life and very interesting.” But again, nothing further happened.

Another year past. I had been working in journalism and had just resigned from a stable job to take up freelancing, which I wasn’t particularly enjoying. I remember thinking, “That’s it. I’ve had enough. I really want to go out hiking.” I was 33 and all my friends were coupled up already, doing their own holidays with their partners and young kids. I had no idea how I was going to get out hiking by myself and then I thought, “Oh, I know! I’ll call up Ian and invite myself on one of his guided hikes! And I don’t want to pay for it, so I’ll offer to do some marketing for him, taking pictures and writing stuff for the website.” He said yes straight away and booked me in for a weekend trip he was running over Easter.

The couple's first hike together

Rain was forecast as it always is at Easter time. I called Ian a few days before the scheduled departure and said, “It’s gonna rain. The whole reason I’m coming is to take photos for you and they’re going to look bad, do you still want me to come?” He said, “Yes, yes, yes. I want you to come.”

We set off on the coast track in the Royal National Park that Saturday morning. By Saturday lunchtime I thought, “Oh my God, I think I’m in love with him.” I’ve never said this about anyone before or since, and I don’t usually don’t talk like this, but his aura was massive. It was really easy to see the best of him, seeing him in his natural element. He still says that’s the weekend where I saw him for the first time, even though I’d met him two years previously. He tells me he knew straight away but it took a while for me to work it out. 

After I worked it out there was no debate for either one of us. We finished the hike on Sunday night, had a date the next Monday and moved in together three months later. There was no: should I? Shouldn’t I? It was a decision as easy as breathing. 

Ian and Tara on the Taronga track

We got together romantically very quickly, but we also started working together very quickly. I’d always wanted to own my own business and Ian welcomed me into his because I had a different skill set to him. So he was the guide and my job title became “everything else”. 

Six months after we met I had very sudden onset rheumatoid arthritis, which meant that I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do up my the buttons on my shirt, I couldn’t even cut my own food. There was a three month period before getting the treatment I needed where I felt like the future that I had imagined for us – which included a lot of nature, a lot of outdoors, a lot of travel, and a lot of shared walks – was taken away from me. It also put our business under pressure. When I eventually did get the treatment, we celebrated by attempting to do some of the Great North walk around Berowra waters for New Year’s Eve. And then we got married.  

We had barely enough money to eat, much less get married and go on a big holiday so we decided to do the Bondi to Manly walk as our honeymoon. It was seven years before The Bondi to Manly Walk Supporters would announce they had inter-government support to create an official route (and another year before its launch) but The Walking Volunteers had mapped out the route and created the first track notes.

The walk was spectacular, it changed how I thought about Sydney. It felt like the whole city was a jigsaw puzzle, and suddenly all the pieces fell together. Having lived in Sydney nearly my whole life, I still felt surprised when there were places I had never been before. We splurged for the extraordinary Q Station, a hotel in The Rocks and one at Bondi and spent the last night of the walk back at home because we literally couldn’t afford another night’s accommodation.

The couple at Dobroyd Head on their hiking honeymoon

Doing the walk as our honeymoon, a lightbulb went off and we thought, this deserves to be more than just a walk. At that point we didn’t quite know what to do with it but the idea was planted. All along the trail we were discovering fascinating history and I really liked how when you do the walk the same characters come up in multiple places, it all felt more connected for me.

After having three children in three years we decided that it would be better to turn our business into a blog, Sydney Coast Walks, so that we could continue sharing our expertise, but without personally having to be on the walks. In late 2018 the partnership to create the Bondi to Manly Walk was announced and it officially opened on December 8, 2019. I decided to write a guide book for the walk, but knew that it could not possibly just be how to get from A to B, It had to tell the story of Sydney, its landscape and its history.

In the book’s acknowledgments I wrote: Thanks to Ian Wells, who had the guts to found Sydney Coast Walks, the passion of a walking tour guide, and then had the graciousness to step aside for me. 

Now that our kids are a bit older we’ve got so many hopes and dreams of travel, which involve bushwalking in Australia, hiking, tramping and Camino-ing. I love being in nature with Ian, I get to see glimpses of that man who I saw for the first time walking down the track in front of me all those years ago.

The Bondi to Manly Walk: The Definitive Guidebook (NewSouth, $34.99) is out now.

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