Think Sutherland Shire and you’ll most often picture the Royal National Park with its Instagram-worthy sites. But just the other side of the Princes Highway lies a lesser-known oasis, Heathcote National Park.

Here the bushwalking is serious, but studded with gorgeous freshwater swimming holes, stunning scenery and abundant flora and fauna. It’s also directly accessible via public transport, with the journey from Central to Waterfall station, nestled alongside the park, taking just over 45 minutes. It makes for a simple day trip. That said, once there you might just kick yourself for not camping overnight.

Here’s how to explore Heathcote National Park.

Head south
First, pack the essentials: sturdy shoes, sunscreen, a hat, snacks and a map (paper or via the app). There’s no drinking water or rubbish bins in this park, so pack plenty of fluids and know you need to take out whatever you bring in. Once set, hop on the T4 Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra line train from Central and head south. A 50-minute journey will take you to Waterfall station and from there it’s an easy 10-minute walk to the end of Warabin Street and the main entry to Bullawarring track in Heathcote National Park. Tip: Double-check the NSW Parks website for any safety and bushfire alerts before making the journey as parts of this track do close.

Bullawarring track
This one errs towards a hike for experienced bushwalkers. While there are some tame sandy stretches of the track, there’s also some very challenging sections. Steps have been worn into the natural stones, at times the track forces you to shimmy between boulders, and for other brief stretches the path is so steep you’ll find it easier to negotiate on all fours. You can get away with it in runners, but you won’t regret donning full-length pants and hiking boots, especially in wet weather.

The track to Kingfisher Pool is a 1.3-kilometre walk, or around 45 minutes from the beginning of the Bullwaring Track. Be aware that once you’re walking there is very little signage. Several other tracks run through Heathcote, but be sure to take care in sticking to them as the vegetation grows so quickly they can at times be obscured, making DIY-navigation difficult. Tip: yellow and white arrows have been painted on rocks to guide your way, but they’re unofficial and should be as reference only. Refer to the park’s navigational app to be sure.

The Bullawarring Track in total is a four- to five-hour trip spanning 5.5 kilometres. Once you reach Lake Eckersley you can exit the park and walk on backstreets toward Heathcote train station. Or you can continue your journey through the bushland towards Mirang Pool, however this will almost double the distance covered.

If you’d prefer to keep it a shorter loop and return to Waterfall station, just continue past Kingfisher Pool until you see a sign for Mooray track, which will eventually link back up with Bullawarring. All up the loop should take about two hours.

Kingfisher Pool campground
The path down intersects with small streams at several points, all of which lead to the gorgeous Kingfisher Pool and picnic area. The turquoise freshwater pool makes for a welcome spot to splash your feet and freshen up while you catch your breath. There’s a table and a composting toilet here, as well as some space to spread out. If it’s been dry, definitely venture out onto the rocks by the water for an idyllic picnic. You can also take advantage of lower water levels to get down and explore what is usually submerged; fallen trees, moss-covered boulders, and the small caverns the water usually floods.

Stroll just past the picnic grounds into a small clearing and you’ve entered the camping grounds. It won’t hold more than a few tents, so book online if you plan to go in the busier months of the year. If you plan on completing the whole track, there’s two more campsites further on, at Lake Eckersley and Mirang Pool, both of which also need to be booked in advance.

Flora and fauna
With most of the track buffered by banksias, it is not uncommon to see yellow-tailed black cockatoos foraging for seeds lower to the ground as you travel. They tend to steer clear of humans though so you'll have better luck bird-watching with binoculars. You might also be fortunate enough to spot the bright blue faces of some superb fairy-wrens, or else some swamp wallabies and koalas making good use of the leafy surrounds.

Be mindful in spring for the snakes and blue-tongue lizards waking up after winter – the track is drenched in warm sun. Scribbly grey gums line the path and the wattle flowers that bloomed in late winter blanket the way in golden pom-pom blossoms.

Keep in mind you’re not there to mess with the natural wonders of Heathcote. Take your rubbish home with you and don’t hesitate to let the local rangers know of any overgrown patches of the path they might return to for clearing.

Settle in
While the track is easily doable in a day, there’s no better way to wake up than to the sounds of running waters and chirping of birds at first light. The privacy, peace, and quiet of the campground here will make returning to the real world all the more difficult, but to know this oasis is just an hour away is a wonder.