Sydney: The Military Maze at Middle Head

With its Victorian-era military fortifications, underground bunkers and stunning views out to the open ocean, the heritage-listed Middle Head makes for a fascinating day-trip.


If you’ve ever ridden the ferry between Manly and Circular Quay in Sydney, you would have passed them without giving them a second thought.

But look up high on the magnificent rocky outcrops around Sydney Harbour – at North Head, South Head and Middle Head – and you just might spot a reminder of Australia’s colonial past.

Numerous military relics – including Fort Denison in front of the Sydney Opera House – are daily reminders that Sydney Harbour once bristled with big gun batteries, ready to defend the colony from seaborne attacks.

The most extensive military relics – including sandstone gun pits, cannons, gunpowder storage rooms, spotlight stations and underground tunnels – can be seen at Middle Head, near the northern Sydney suburb of Mosman.

Not far from Taronga Zoo, you’ll find a subterranean maze hiding historic artefacts dating back to a time when the Americans and French were Australia’s biggest threats.

These heritage-listed fortifications were built after Great Britain withdrew the last of the Redcoat garrisons from Sydney in 1870, fuelling concerns about a possible Russian or French invasion, or raiders from America coming to steal the young nation’s gold supplies.

Visit today and you’ll find gun placement sites still hugging the cliffs, as well as tunnels where soldiers loaded shells and gunpowder into 12 and 25 tonne guns beneath the surface.

A network of scenic bush trails and roads also link Middle Head to Balmoral Beach, Cobblers Beach other nearby attractions, as well as the neighbouring precincts that makeup Headland Park – Georges Heights and Chowder Bay.

Inner Middle Head Battery

To reach the Inner Middle Head Battery, walk along Middle Head Road, through the round-a-bout near the HMAS Penguin navy base and past Middle Head Oval.

When you reach the boom gate, you’ll see the Sergeant Major’s Quarters directly in front.

Head left along Governors Road, past another semi-detached cottage (the Officers Quarters), and you’ll come to a marked bush track that leads to the Inner Forts, built in 1871.

There are two gun positions here connected by a network of tunnels with ammunition storage, an elevator to bring shells up to the guns and engine rooms to provide hydraulic pressure to raise the guns.

The Inner Battery was operational for 21 years, but was not used after 1911.

Outer Middle Head Battery

Head along the bush track towards the Outer Middle Head Battery.

You’ll pass two old machine gun nests along the way, that are linked by a tunnel. As you can see in the video at the top of the page, they often become muddy and waterlogged following heavy rainfall.

At the end of the dirt track you’ll come to a large opening. This is the Outer Forts, with its old fortifications, tunnels and a row of 1870s gun carriages made of tough hardwood (above, left) pointing out to sea.

Nine gun pits made of solid sandstone were dug here, connected by a series of zig-zagging trenches and an underground gun powder magazine.

The Outer Battery also contains gun pits and Vietnam War-era ‘tiger cages.’

They were essentially underground torture chambers that were flooded to prepare Australian commandos for interrogation if they were captured during the Vietnam War.

Here you’ll also find the lookout station where spotters saw Japanese mini submarines enter Sydney Harbour during World War II, but failed to alert anyone because their orders were to stay at their post.

Work for building the fortifications started in 1801 and the last batteries were built in 1942, with the majority of the work done between 1870 and 1911 .

1801 Fort

Leaving via Old Fort Road, walk back to the round-a-bout at Chowder Bay Road. On the edge of the carpark you’ll find the Don Goodsir Walking Trail ,which leads to the 1801 Fort – the first fort built at Middle Head in 1801.

The 1801 Fort is a short five minute walk along the trail, on a sturdy boardwalk, and provides magnificent Harbour views.

You can see from the clip above how officers had a bird’s eye view of Sydney Heads should enemy ships try to enter the Harbour.

Despite its prime position, the fort was considered something of a failure because it was so isolated – nestled in thick bushland on a cliff face and difficult to reach when restocking. It was abandoned seven years after it was built.

If you’re keen to explore more of Sydney’s early military history, it’s just a short walk around the bend to the Georges Heights Headland Park, where you’ll also see numerous defensive gun batteries with cannons in place (below).

The tunnels and fortifications are easy to access and open to the public. You can visit the sites on foot from Georges Head Road and Middle Head Road at Mosman.

While there are plenty of car parks around Middle Head Road and Chowder Bay Road, they are metered, so you will need a few coins or a credit card if you choose to park there.

To avoid paying for parking, visit early and leave the car up the hill in one of the two-hour roadside parking spots. It’s an easy stroll down, either along the bush track or by the roadside path.

Guided Tours 


The National Parks & Wildlife Service conducts guided tours of these historic fortifications, including the rarely opened Beehive Casemates (above) – huge dome-shaped cavities carved into the sandstone rockface – below the headland at Obelisk Bay.


© 2020 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved. 

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