Review: Sydney Tank Stream walking tour reveals the history beneath our streets

Majestic Sydney Harbour has always played a prominent role in Sydney life, but the city's early survival depended on a much more unassuming waterway. Learn the fascinating history of the Tank Stream on this private guided walking tour. Review: Joanne Karcz

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour

4.5 stars

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour with Go Local Tours

Explore the Harbour City’s hidden laneways and fascinating early history on this private two-hour Sydney Tank Stream walking tour. Follow the path of the small waterway that sustained the early colony and hear fascinating stories from your local guide. Duration: 2.5 hours (approx.)

My life on Sydney’s Hawkesbury River is quiet and relaxing, but I often yearn for a city break to catch up with friends, eat fine food and perhaps see a movie – without having to cross the river in my tinny late at night just to get home!

While water is always a consideration in my daily life, it was absolutely crucial to the survival of the early colony. The fledgling settlement largely depended on the Tank Stream – a small freshwater tributary of Sydney Harbour.

Today I’m happy for two reasons. I’ve been invited to enjoy a city break at Sydney’s newest hotel – The Tank Stream, and I get to learn more about one of the unsung heroes of our colonial past on the Sydney Tank Stream walking tour.

It’s a short walk from Wynyard Station to the hotel. Although I’m early my room is ready, so I drop my bag and set out to meet my daughter for lunch in nearby Angel Place. The hotel has a great location and many of Sydney’s key sights and best restaurants are within easy walking distance.

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour

Image courtesy of The Tank Stream

On my return to the hotel, I make use of the complimentary Wi-Fi and enjoy a free non-alcoholic drink from the minibar. The room is compact but comfortable, with all the amenities I need.

After a comfortable night’s sleep and a freshly cooked omelette, I am ready to join Go Local Tours on their Sydney Tank Stream walking tour.

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour

Join Go Locals Tours on their Sydney Tank Stream walking tour.

Our guide John is waiting at the George Street entrance to the Strand Arcade. He starts the tour by describing the background to colonial settlement and the relevance of the Tank Stream. The availability of fresh water was an integral reason for the selection of Port Jackson as the site of the new colony. Water is of course essential for life, and discovering a stream in this beautiful natural harbour must have made Arthur Phillip’s decision an easy one.

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour: Strand Arcade. Image: Joanne Karcz

The beautifully restored Strand Arcade which was opened in 1891 never ceases to amaze me. It was the first Sydney arcade to have electric lights and an electric lift. John describes how people used to promenade in the arcade at night, just to see the lights. A bit like Sydneysiders venturing into the city during Vivid or Christmas. Some things never change.

In Pitt Street Mall, John tells us that we are standing on the site of the original stream. Now covered and built over, the Tank Stream once flowed from here down to the harbour. As the population of Sydney increased, the stream became polluted and was later integrated into Sydney’s sewer and storm water system.

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour. Image: Joanne Karcz

Outside the Sydney Arcade is the first of eight tank stream markers set into the paving. They originated as part of an art installation for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. We will find the others as we walk. I try to imagine life back in the early colonial days when buildings were low-rise, transport was by horse and cart and people threw their slop into the streets. Today we’re surrounded by high rises of concrete and glass, the sealed roads are busy with motorised traffic and we have indoor plumbing and running water. So many things have changed in a little over two centuries.

The tour meanders through lesser known laneways towards Circular Quay. It’s fascinating and fun to be learning new facts about this wonderful city. A fountain in Martin Place that I have walked past many times represents the eleven waterfalls of the Tank Stream. Another fountain is located above the site of three 20,000 litre tanks that were cut into the sandstone to store water from the stream for the young colony – and led to the name ‘Tank Stream’. I am amazed when John shows us an archaeological display of artefacts from the stream in the basement of the historic General Post Office building. I wonder how many people even know that this publicly accessible display is here.

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour

Sydney’s General Post Office Building displays Tank Stream artefacts in the basement.

The ‘Forgotten Song’ art installation in nearby Angel Place recalls birds that used to live in the area. Listening carefully I can hear the birdsong as we pass more tank stream markers in the shape of stylised arrows.

Arriving at The Tank Stream Hotel, we look up to admire the beautiful Wombeyan marble which decorates the hotel façade. Nearby an entrance down to the Tank Stream culvert itself is marked by a map (there are occasional tours of the brick-lined tunnel, which is not for the claustrophobic!). In Underwood Street is another surprise. None of the group have previously seen the series of tall murals which depict early Sydney life.

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour

Sydney Tank Stream walking tour: Circular Quay. Image: Bigstock

Here a narrow brass strip set into the pavement indicates where the harbour shoreline once was – a reminder that some of our city is built on reclaimed land. Our final stop is yet another fountain with a link to the Tank Stream. The fountain uses storm water flowing from the stream.

Well, my Sydney city break is over. I’ve had a relaxing time and discovered so much about the city I thought I knew. All thanks to a humble stream, the colonial course of which still exists, hidden beneath our busy streets.

Joanne travelled as a guest of The Tank Stream and Go Local Tours.

Additional images: Bigstock


About the writer

Joanne Karcz published a blog when she walked the Camino de Santiago some years ago and has been writing about her travels ever since. She is also an aspiring travel photographer and takes her camera wherever she goes. Joanne loves discovering new things to see and do in her own Sydney backyard, and blogs regularly about the city’s suburbs. She has travelled through Europe and South America and taken a group of friends on the trip of a lifetime to South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. Her visits to Cuba and India were bucket list items, but she still has a few destinations to tick off!

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