The Illawarra is where the Lotus lives when she’s not travelling. She is perched at the top of a steep back yard with access from the street behind. When it’s time to go travelling she comes down to the front driveway and is packed ready for a life on the road.
The name is given to the region south of Sydney and north of the Shoalhaven, the three main cities being Wollongong, Shellharbour and the town of Kiama. The word Illawarra is derived from the Aboriginal Tharawal word Allowrie. The word is variously translated as “pleasant place near the sea” or “high place near the sea”.
It is a very pleasant place, consisting of a coastal plain, narrow in the north and wider in the south, bounded by the Tasman Sea on the east and the mountainous Illawarra escarpment to the west. In the middle of the region is Lake Illawarra, a shallow lake formed when sediment built up at the entrance to a bay.
The traditional industries were coal, steel and farming but in recent times these have become less important with education and health care being the biggest two employers.
When I arrived in the city of Wollongong 50 years ago it was not by choice but because my scholarship to Wagga Wagga Teacher’s College did not meet with my mother’s approval. She felt she would never see me so she marched into the Department of Education in Sydney and demanded I be moved closer to home and surprisingly they agreed. Every Friday I was able to catch the little rail motor up the mountain to Moss Vale where my mother would be waiting. Fate (or the Teachers College) can be blamed for my second-year practice teaching placement when I met my husband. Fate again intervened when my first teaching appointment was in a Wollongong suburb. It seems I was meant to live here.
The university has changed considerably in 50 years. It went from a provincial feeder college to the University of NSW with 300 students to an international university with over 30,000 students spread over nine domestic and four international campuses. It originally served the region’s steel industry with Engineering, Science and Metallurgy Faculties. Some Arts and Commerce were squeezed in somewhere. On the other side of a hockey field was the Teachers College with state of the art gymnasium, library, music auditorium and lecture block. When I arrived it was already overcrowded so we were bussed to the local Technical College for some of our lectures. Two years after our arrival we were out in the world teaching children full time. The pay was lousy but the bond system meant we were guaranteed a job on graduation. The Teachers’ College has now been absorbed into the university and is no longer detectable in the mass of construction.
For those who live nearby the parking issue is a popular bone of contention but to me, the assets outweigh the inconvenience. Not everyone can walk to a heated outdoor swimming pool which operates summer and winter or has access to a fully equipped gymnasium.
On the other side of the university is the Wollongong Botanic Garden. It was just getting started when I arrived and I recall being underwhelmed by its lack of maturity but it has transformed into a peaceful and colourful oasis over the past 50 years.
In 1939 the Hoskin’s family home ‘Gleniffer Brae Manor’ was built and still sits on a hill overlooking the Gardens. Now owned by Wollongong Council and housing the Conservatorium of Music it has also been used as a reception centre and hopefully will be again. It was a perfect venue for my daughter’s wedding in 2007.
The Illawarra is famed for its Sea Cliff Bridge which leaves the cliffs and winds out over rock platforms to the edge of the sea. Built to avoid rock falls it is part of a picturesque coastal road once lined with miner’s cottages and now the setting for far grander homes.
Thirty three beaches (with twenty one patrolled) give the locals plenty of choice. For those who would rather avoid the waves, there are the ocean pools, many cut out of the rock by local miners over 100 years ago. As I child I recall holidaying at Coalcliff where my grandmother had a shack on the hillside above the beach. It remains my ideal beach, with a rock platform at one end, lots of rocks to clamber on at the other, a lagoon fed by a small rock strewn creek, a crashing surf and an ocean pool.
Our closest beach is North Wollongong where coffee shops and cafes abound. The Continental Baths is a far cry from Coal Cliff’s rock pool but is still fed by the briny water 0f the sea.
The Blue Mile draws you along its path until you reach Flagstaff Hill where you can view the two lighthouses. Wollongong is the only point on the eastern coast of Australia which has two lighthouses. The Breakwater Lighthouse was built in 1871 and has been inactive since 1974. The Flagstaff Hill Lighthouse is active. Restoration work on the former has made it operable once again so that it is used on special occasions.
It takes 40 minutes to walk to the beach from home or about 15 minutes to ride a bike. There is also a free shuttle bus which travels in a circular direction passing key points such as the University, the Innovation Campus, North Beach, the main shopping centre and Wollongong Hospital.
The Illawarra once had a reputation for pollution from its steelworks and associated industries. One of the biggest emitters of acid and related gases was the ER&S Copper Smelter. Built in 1909 and predating Hoskin’s steelworks by 19 years, it endeavoured to reduce pollution by constructing the 198 metre Stack in 1965. The plan was to limit ground-level sulphur dioxide concentrations to acceptable levels. Public outcry gradually increased and in 2000 the government spent five million dollars moving the Port Kembla School to a safer location. It was the beginning of the end for the copper smelter due to an ongoing dogged campaign by local residents.
Six years after it closed in 2008 the stack was demolished using explosives. We were among the thousands of people who waited patiently for the Stack to fall on February 20 2014. From Flagstaff Hill to Port Kembla people watched, some rejoicing and some nostalgic for former times.
The closure resulted in the loss of around 290 manufacturing jobs. To put this in context, the Port Kembla steelworks employed around 29,000 during its peak in the 1970s with that number now pared back to around 6,000. With public sentiment strongly supporting Australian made steel the future of the steelworks is looking reasonably secure. The spectacular collapse of a local sports stadium during construction, made from imported steel, caused a sudden realisation that Australia must retain its few remaining steel mills.
Further south of Port Kembla is the Shellharbour Marina. Or almost. The concept began in the 1980s and yet now in 2019 there is still no water in the marina. That is not to say it won’t happen.
A huge housing development with the promise of a boat harbour with 300 wet berths and associated harbourside development and facilities has been very successful. As the final Waterfront Development takes place, the houses on medium sized blocks give way to townhouses and finally home units. Over the hill is a glorious beach renowned by surfers called The Farm and behind that is a large State Park called Killalea. From here you can see the pretty town of Kiama, with its Blowhole and row of historic terrace houses once built for quarry workers but now housing cafes and shops.
I have just scraped the surface of the Illawarra so if you are visiting Sydney remember we are only 90 kilometres away. Just one last photo of the Wollongong Breakwater on a particularly wild day.