The Royal National Park And Its Coast

by Carol Mills

Living in Cronulla, the National Park (which became the Royal National Park, I think in 1954, when Elizabeth the Last, paid a call) was part of my patch. I knew that it was the world’s second national park, which had started with 16,000 acres in 1879. I remember well each time we came to the Park by the front gate checking the large rustic sign in a frame of logs at the entrance, where, like a country town reporting its population at the outskirts, the National Park people repainted the numbers as the area grew.

As kids we sailed to Jibbon with our lunch tied to the masthead to stop it getting wet. From there, if the boats could be left, we could push through the scrub to look at the rock engravings on the headland with feelings of awe and wonder for the past which they represented, and (heaven forbid!), tracing their outlines on a number of occasions, so that we could see more clearly the creatures depicted. We fossicked about with rowboats, sneaking in to view still other rock engravings on private property. We walked with the Guides to Red Hand Cave. In the spring with our parents, who had walked the National Park since their younger days, we walked, with Thistle Harris in the bag for company, to Marley to see the flowers; boronias, eriostemons, waratahs, native roses, swamp heath, black stunted banksias, blackboys, and in the odd sheltered gully, Gymea lilies. We drove to Maianbar (“take the track on the Bundeena road where there’s an old iron bedstead leaning against a bush”) and admired the wonderful scenery across the flats, up the river, and out to sea. When younger we went to Christmas Picnics, then held by Lodges and other bodies. I once sprang Santa and his dresser in the bush somewhere further up the Hacking River preparing for his canoe ride to Audley – one of those events which mark the progressive end of childhood. We went on family picnics, too, a leftover of an earlier age, when rowing boats were hired from the Boathouse, and one job of responsible children was to go to the Kiosk for billies of hot water so that Grandma and the great-aunts could make tea in the shelter sheds.

On summer weekends, when the tide was high at the right time of day, the ferry would make a round trip to Audley up river from Cronulla; a magic experience past Warumbul and various other places as the river got narrower and narrower, taking in the trees, birds, flowers, and the remaining properties on the banks such as the old Curlewis place (remember Ethel Turner?) whose access with Sydney used to be by sea. At Cronulla we had a ferry wharf – still do. Ferries with names like “Curranulla” and “Gymea”, not so very unlike the present ones, brought the residents of Maianbar (which still had a wharf, then, now lost in the shifting sand – even then the connection of the Maianbar wharf to the shore was a moving experience), and Bundeena to link up with the trains to the city, which had begun in 1939, replacing the steam trams to Sutherland (some of their rails still adorn the perimeter of the rock pools at Cronulla, Shelley Beach and Oak Park on the Cronulla peninsula). At times we would watch with horror the fires on the other side of the river, whipped by the southerlies, and several times we went out in boats, rescuing the animals (snakes were not popular) which had taken to the water in the face of fire across the river, with the animals being returned to the Rangers later.

So it was natural that thoughts should stay with National Park, especially in spring, and especially when there was not time for a weekend trip to the Mountains or other places. In the early sixties, I suspect that there was some walking snobbery with regards to the Park – it was too close to be valued; it was a place where ‘cut-lunchies’ and ‘string-baggies’ and (horror!) Boy Scouts went. We’d go to Burning Palms (where my mother was nearly killed by a freak wave over Figure Eight Pool in the thirties), we’d have our annual ‘recovery’ at South Era in early December, manhandling a sheep and a keg down the ridges from Garrawarra Farm. But in the minds of some, ‘real’ walks happened somewhere else. ‘Nash’ was too tame.

I can’t remember when some of us decided that the coast walk was a good idea, but we did it several times as a SUBW trip. At that time there were two Cronulla residents in the Club, Bryan O’Halloran and myself, and possibly one or other of us was responsible. I remember all trips that I went on as being in stunning weather. Some were club walks. Some were private trips; we just went, leaving the details with the family, as there was certainly no requirement to tell anybody from the Park administration what you were doing.

We’d meet at Cronulla station, down to the wharf, chug out of Gunnamatta Bay, across to Bundeena. The wharf there is exposed to the sea, and I don’t know about the tameness of the walk, but getting off the ferry at Bundeena could itself be rather interesting at times, timing your leap when the ferry was on a wave and close to the wharf, and landing on the slippery timbers without falling over. Then up through Bundeena, stopping at the store to pay respects to the extremely talented white cockatoo who lived in an aviary under a tree outside. At the end of one of Bundeena’s streets the track to Marley just started itself, with no signs or anything else. It was joined by feeders from other starting points, and became quite a little highway across the moors.

If you weren’t going to walk right through in a day perhaps you would instead go to Jibbon for the engravings, then around the lagoon, pick up the shell-gritters’ track to The Cobblers (these men in horse-drawn carts with two rubber-tyred wheels gathered shell grit to sell to poultry farmers), and get to Marley that way. Once at Marley, with its dangerous surf, you went on to Little Marley, which is Where the Walk Really Started. Most of the time the track then was a narrow sandy one through the heath, staying close to the clifftops. You swung along, admiring the sea, the cliffs, the flowers, and speculating on any shipping which could be seen. You might see the odd deer; relic of a misguided arrangement of the 1880s when Park management set up a dear park. Dropping down off the moors at the back of Wattamolla, you’d flounder across the sandbar, with David Darmanin leading the dignified superior response to the idiot stares of the ‘tourists’ of Wattamolla who had come by road. Sometimes we’d have a swim there ourselves. Wattamolla always filled me with a sense of history, as it is one of the places where Flinders had sheltered in the “Tom Thumb”, naming it Providential Cove; and as a place of refuge it would have been superb.

Up the hill to the moors, and on to Curracurrang, a small harbour with a boathouse. I don’t know whose it was. Curracurrang was not a particularly good swimming spot, and we tended to pass through. Lunch was usually at Curracurrong, a dip in the clifftops, with a stream running off the moors, and dropping into the frighteningly dark blue sea below. On a breezy day, you’d sometimes see Curracurrong well before you got there, as the wind would lift the water back in a cloud above the falls. There was a small rock shelter there where on a bad day you could have your lunch; I’ve often speculated if this was an Aboriginal rock shelter, but it was probably fond hoping, as Curracurrong lacks shelter, and does not seem to be suitable for fishing and food gathering like Curracurrang and Wattamolla. Of course, we always lit a fire for lunch. Walkers always lit fires for at lunchtime then, even if only just for a billy, and perhaps to toast a sandwich or some marshmallows (the only ones to get were big square chunky ones with stripes of jelly from Coles’ confectionery counter – the modern sugar-coated ones would be useless – and who could toast a marshmallow on a fuel stove, anyway?).


Above – From the SUBW logbook, Volume 2, a sketch showing an abseiling route to Burning Palms commonly used by SUBW

Lunch over, we’d perhaps sunbake, put the fire out, and be on our way for the longest leg without a break, to Garie. Here we would be back with the tourists briefly through Garie itself, then usually we went around the rocks to Little Garie. Era with its shacks we thought a slum. The war to remove the shacks from the Park was just starting, and in places tempers were high. From there we went through our old stamping ground of South Era, and over the saddle to BP (Burning Palms), with its fringe of shacks at the northern end in the Royal national Park, some of them with extraordinary walls made from empty bottles. By now it would be getting late in the day, and we did not have the time to do much. BP itself was in the then Garrawarra National Park, which was a private operation run by a group of conservationists which included Myles Dunphy. There was a new shack there, the only building in Garrawarra, where a ranger lived sometimes at weekends.

The climb up to Bulgo Trig from BP, although not the worst, was definitely in the league of Horrid Climbs Out. At one time it seemed as if all SUBW trips had to have an obligatory climb out to finish the trip; out of some valley in the Blue Mountains, back to the road in the Snowies, or whatever. On a good day (Port Kembla willing), you could make out the Five Islands whilst taking a breather. They started selling cool drinks at the rather isolated Garrawarra Farm, and so we would usually stop there. They also sold the sorts of lollies kids like. I well remember Col Olomon saying, “Oohh, raspberry blocks!”; a forgotten delicacy from childhood. Then down the track to Lilydale. John Paynter, making a late return one warm night, had a close encounter with a snake which knew what snakes were supposed to do – curled in a classic coil with its head emerging from the top, saying “Hissssssss!”.

Sometimes we would go on to Otford on the track, and once to Stanwell Park, virtually rolling down the slopes of Bald Hill through the sword grass to get to the station (I remember Dave Dash and John Byrne skipping down in front on that one, packs bouncing, getting faster and faster as the skips failed to check the pace). But Lilyvale was the usual. Once across the flats, and at the deserted station, sometimes there was time to kill until train time. We explored the tunnel, preferably waiting inside till there was a train coming the other way, which provided the fun of leaning back in one of the little archways in the tunnel wall as it went past, feeling the heat of the fire (and hoping that nobody was using the loo at that precide moment). Once we met the mushroom farmer, tenant to the Railways for the never-used tunnel next to the one on the line.

The station still had its tatty flag for stopping trains, but the lantern provided was long since gone. After dark we waved torches as the train came around the bend from Otford. Once aboard the train the trip was over. At Sutherland those of us who lived in the south would wave the rest off to Central before catching local trains ourselves.

Always a stimulating day trip, and one which sent you home feeling happy. Beyond the temporary ravages of fire, the country has of course changed little. I was there recently, and the flowers are recovering. Looking back, the space and light of the moors, the flowers, the proximity of the sea made a trip along the eastern boundary of the Royal National Park something very special.