Hidden away near the start of the Pacific Motorway is a perfectly preserved former coal-mining village by the sea. The remnants of its past can be found throughout a majestic coastline and untouched wilderness, almost like a heritage treasure hunt.
Marking the southern end of the Lake Macquarie LGA (and the geographical focus of this project) Catherine Hill Bay is a quiet, idyllic little coastal village with a population under 500 people. Said to be the oldest continuous settlement in the region, the 1.5km bay features the white-gold sands of Middle Camp Beach, lush native bush surrounds, and prominent headlands from which to take in views of the Tasman Sea.
There are few physical remains of the Aboriginal history of the area, however, there is documented evidence of occupation in the logs of Captain William Reid, who visited there in 1800, and was shown the rich coal reserves by the local Awabakal people. This moment would come to be a fateful encounter, defining much of the following two centuries.
Originally called Cowper, the name of the village was changed to Catherine Hill in 1867. Like many of the beaches and small towns along the east coast, this change was to commemorate a shipwreck. On the 21 of June that year, the schooner Catherine Hill was on its route from Richmond River to Newcastle, loaded with pine and cedar, when it was hit by a gale and ran aground. Mastered by Captain Crawly, two of its six-man crew perished in the wreck.
European settlement was made official with land sales in 1865. This was followed by the beginning of the local coal mining industry with New Wallsend Company making their first export in 1873. Later, the Wallarah Coal Company would take over and become the primary extraction and washing operator until closure in 2002, after 129 years.
Catherine Hill Bay is now a State Heritage Listed historic village and nearly 20 years after the closure of mines, its future is still very much to be determined. Directly around the corner from Hales Bluff (the southern headland of the bay) is Moonee Beach, which has seen a growing number of housing developments. Strongly resistant to change and the surrounding real estate boom, Catherine Hill Bay has managed to preserve its sleepy, surf-infused country town size and feel almost entirely — an increasingly rare phenomenon. In fact, while the new nearby housing development The Beaches has its own private water provider, the 100-odd cottages that make up most of the village do not have a town water or sewer system. Back in the early days, according to one former local, “nightsoil” was periodically tipped into a body of water called The Shitty. These measures of self-sufficiency are a point of pride for residents and a key part of environmental protection in the bay’s post-mining era.
Coming from Newcastle, you simply need to take the Pacific Motorway exit from Swansea as if you are headed to Sydney. Approximately 9.5km south is the exit to the bay on Flowers Drive, which is clearly marked with official signage as well as a handmade sign for the iconic Catho Pub. Travel a few short kilometres through dense bushland and you will arrive with the beach to your left and cottages to your right. If you feel an immediate sense of calm you know you’ve come to the right place.
The main attraction here is undeniably the Wallarah Jetty. This monolithic jetty was designed and built specifically to carry coal — initially from neighboring Crangan Bay and Chain Valley colliaries — to waiting ships who would then transport the cargo up to the Mayfield berths, sometimes twice a day. The first shipment was made on the 17th of December, 1873.
There are no shortage of historical stories connected to the jetty. In 1892, one Mr Benson, the jetty master of the day, was washed overboard, promoting a difficult rope-based rescue that took over half an hour. Years later, one early morning in 1917 there was a mysterious dynamite explosion. Very little damage occurred, which speaks to the incredible structural integrity of the jetty. No arrests were made.
It’s a magnificent sight, and despite the near-constant weathering by the sea and periodic bushfire damage, the structure remains almost entirely intact. Visitors are restricted to viewing the jetty either from below on the beach or from above on the headland. Entrance to the jetty is heavily fortified and under constant surveillance. For whatever reason, the jetty was not included in the heritage listing of Catherine Hill Bay and remains in the hands of Lake Coal. While it is undoubtedly worth the visit, it is astonishing that this great monument is essentially being left to rot. While restoration efforts have been estimated at anywhere between 3 to 8 million dollars, this seems like an undeniably wise investment in tourism and culture. Inexplicably, Lake Coal has been putting forth serious proposals to demolish the jetty as recently as 2011.
Despite the limited access, you can get up close and personal with the jetty as many of the huge concrete and steel pylons are built directly onto the beach. There is a great network of caves here too, making it a fun place for kids to visit during low-tide periods.
Beyond the jerry and the obvious pleasures of the beach itself, one can spend an entire day hunting for mining relics amongst the wildflowers and forest which dominate the largely undeveloped landscape. On my visit, I found a ship’s anchor and propellor, large chains buried in the sand, giant rusted nails poking out from sandstone, and relics of the old coal washery hidden within the surrounding bush.
Right on the beach itself is the barricaded entrance to which I thought was a mine shaft, but turns out to be the opening where train line ran across the beach. This can be found right next to the creek bridge on Flowers Drive, which locals call The Skelty. Apparently, there are actually blocked entrances at the base of some of the headlands though. Sadly, the bushfires of 2013 caused some major destruction, claiming the historic jetty master’s cottage Wallarah House. Access to this area is currently restricted, but from what I could see, some of the brickwork of the house remains, directly overlooking the ocean. There are also empty World War II radar stations (known locally as The Igloos) on nearby Mine Camp, Pinney Beach*.
The overall experience of Catherine Hill Bay is one of serenity. You get the feeling that this place has been protected rather than forgotten. A secret holiday spot and a place where the locals know they are holding onto one of the last unexploited villages in the area. Despite its many charms, both historical and environmental, it is a place badly in need of sensitive activation. It’s difficult to understand why so many of its features are restricted rather than opened up to the public. While you would never want to see a resort pop up here, nor see any further land-clearing, having these incredible lookouts and structures just out of reach is frustrating. It seems as though over the years there have been many attempts by developers to take over, which have been strongly resisted by resisdents, but why it hasn’t been fully activated as a tourist destination remains a mystery. Perhaps once the recently closed Master Plan findings are released we will have a better understanding of what will come next. Placemaking suggestions from locals and vistors have included linked heritage walkways, viewing platforms, dining and cafe options, an artificial reef, and of course a full restoration of the jetty. We can expect to see some of these changes implemented in the coming years, but for now Catherine Hill Jetty makes for a wonderful day out. Enjoy the surf, just keep the volume down.
*Special thanks to Hector Price for the local knowledge.