Cronulla sand dunes

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Looking over the dunes, south towards Cronulla.

The Cronulla sand dunes are located on the Kurnell Peninsula in the local government area of Sutherland Shire, Sydney, New South Wales. The Cronulla sand dunes are a protected area that became listed on the NSW State Heritage Register on 26 September 2003.[1]

Coordinates: 34°01′53″S 151°10′19″E / 34.031501°S 151.171875°E / -34.031501; 151.171875

History[edit]

Sand Dunes in the Sutherland Shire, Sydney 3.jpg

The sand dune system which is also referred to as the Kurnell sand dune is estimated to be about 15,000 years old. It was formed when the sea reached its present level and began to stabilise, between 9000 and 6000 BC. The Georges, Cooks and Towra Rivers flowed to the south-east beneath the present sand dune system near Wanda and joined the ocean at Bate Bay. This resulted in the isolation of Kurnell which was an island from the mainland. The rivers eventually became blocked with accumulating sand and sediment as the sea level rose. As the rivers gradually silted up they were forced into changing their course and were led out to sea via La Perouse rather than continue to maintain an opening in an ever-growing sand barrier near Wanda. This resulted in a tombolo being formed and joined Kurnell with the Cronulla mainland. The deepest part of the ancient river channel now lies 100 meters below the surface at the southern end of the peninsula, near Wanda Beach.[2]

Aboriginal culture[edit]

Main article: Gweagal

The sand hills of Kurnell possess historical, cultural, scientific and natural significance as a place of early European contact with the Gweagal Aborigines. The site has significant Aboriginal signs of habitation, from carvings, ceremonial sites, middens and sites of flaked sharpening stones. The site is of significant interest to the Aboriginal community as many of the other hills and dunes that were inhabited by their ancestors have now disappeared. As the dunes move or drift, most of the sites once occupied by the Aboriginal people have been covered and preserved. [3][4] [5]

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The original inhabitants on the Kurnell Peninsula were the Gweagal people, a clan of the Tharawal (or Dharawal) tribe who occupied the region for thousands of years. Their tribe spanned the areas between the Cooks and Georges Rivers from the shores of Botany Bay and westwards towards Liverpool. According to a Gweagal elder, Dharawal is similar to a state and Gweagal is similar to a shire within the state, Cunnel (Kurnell) is a family village within the shire. A clan consisted of approximately 20 to 50 people who lived in their own territory. They had no written language and each tribe had its own dialect. They knew how to light fires long before the arrival of white man. Their clothing consisted of a woven hair sash in which they used to carry tools and weapons and sometimes the optional possum-skin coat for the winter season. The Gweagal Aborigines were the northernmost tribe of the Dharawal nation. They fished from canoes or from the shore using barbed spears and fishing lines with hooks in and around Botany Bay and the Georges River. Waterfowl could be caught in the swamplands (Towra Point), and the variety of soils would have supported a variety of edible and medicinal plants. Birds and their eggs, possums, wallabies and goannas were also a part of their staple diet, in which they made fur coats and ceremonial attire. The abundance of fish and other foodstuffs in these heavily timbered waterways meant that these natives were less nomadic than those of Outback Australia. The various middens, rock carvings and paintings in the area confirm this.[6]

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The Gweagal Aborigines were the guardians of the sacred white clay pits in their territory. Members of the tribe walked hundreds of miles to collect the clay, it was considered sacred amongst the indigenous locals and had many uses. They used it to line the base of their canoes so they could light fires, and also as a white body paint, (as witnessed by Captain James Cook). Colour was added to the clay using berries, which produced a brightly coloured paint that was used in ceremonies. It was also eaten as a medicine, an antacid. Geebungs and other local berries were mixed in the clay and it was eaten as a dietary supplement with zinc. The Gweagal Aborigines made first contact (of a hostile nature) with James Cook and his crew, occupying the area which is now 'Captain Cooks Landing Place Reserve'. Today members of the Tharawal people still live near the Cronulla sand dunes and participate in their traditional Aboriginal art and culture.[7]

European settlement[edit]

The Kurnell Peninsula, also the site of the Cronulla Sand Dune System was the first landing place for Captain James Cook in Australia. On 29 April 1770, HM Bark Endeavour landed in Botany Bay and Cook stepped ashore. Shortly after, James Cook looked down from the sand hills at what is now known as Cronulla Beach. The sand dunes were completely covered in vegetation, so Cook made no mention of any sand dunes during his visit to the Kurnell peninsula. Captain Cook along with his crew stayed in Botany Bay for eight days. During his visit he collected botanical specimens, mapped the area and tried to make contact (unsuccessfully) with the indigenous population. When Cook reported back to England he said that the land was suitable for agriculture, it had sandy soil and the area was lightly wooded.[1] [8]

Less than 100 years after Captain Cook's landing, most of the original vegetation had been cleared and burnt, larger trees had been ring barked or simply cut down. Thomas Holt who was the first owner of the area (and who also owned most of what is today the Sutherland Shire) planned to use the dunes for farming sheep, this industry failed more or less. To promote grass growth he destroyed as many of the oldest trees as was viable and to his dismay all that regrew was dense impenetrable thorny scrub. By 1868 the forests of blackbutt and ironbark were cut down for houses and bridge construction whilst the remaining vegetation was cleared for grazing.

Captain Arthur Phillip, arriving with the First Fleet, stepped ashore on 18 January 1788, after following Cook’s advice. They began to clear land and dig wells, but a week later decided to abandon the site and sail north to Port Jackson.

Cronulla dunes with the city of Sydney and a rubbish dump in View

The first land grant was issued in 1815 when a whaler and merchant by the name of James Birnie, was given 700 acres (2.8 km2) of land and 160 acres (0.6 km2) of saltwater marshes on the Kurnell Peninsula. The grant included Captain Cook’s landing place. He called it ‘Alpha Farm’, and built himself a cottage there. In 1801 John Connell, an ironmonger, arrived in Sydney as a free settler. In 1821 Connell was granted 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) at Quibray Bay next to Birnie’s grant.

When James Birnie was declared insane in 1828 John Connell gained possession of his property. John Connell now had full ownership of the Kurnell Peninsular. Connell erected a new house, which he named ‘Alpha House,’ built on the foundations of Birnie’s original cottage.

James Connell and his two grandsons, Elias and John Laycock, were the first land owners to log the peninsula. They began to harvest timber from the estate in 1835. In the 1840s a canal from Woolooware Bay was built so that logs could be floated into Botany Bay, loaded onto ships and sailed up to Sydney. When John Connell passed away in 1848, he left his estate to his two grandsons. The first Crown land auctions in the area took place in 1856. It was here that John Connell Laycock bought another 700 acres (2.8 km2). This increased the size of the estate to 4,500 acres (18 km2).

Looking south at Cronulla from the dunes

Thomas Holt purchased Laycock’s entire estate on the peninsula in 1861 for £3275. Holt, originally from Yorkshire, sailed into Sydney sometime in 1842. He made his fortune during the gold rushes of the early 1850s. Holt moved to Sutherland and further increased the size of his property to approximately 13,000 acres (53 km2). He erected several mansions, ran his ‘Sutherland Estate’ in the English manner, and travelled into Sydney to manage his business affairs.

In 1868, Holt’s land was still mostly uncleared virgin bushland. After Holt had cleared most of the timber, he began to plant grass seeds imported from Germany. The Sutherland Estate was divided into eleven portions. It was then divided into 60 smaller paddocks using Brushwood fencing. The fence posts used to divide these lots can still be found in Towra Point, which is also part of the Kurnell Peninsula.

Holt attempted grazing, first with sheep which had to be destroyed when they became infected with footrot, and then with cattle. The land on his estate was not suited for intensive grazing, so after most of the trees were felled, herds of cattle then removed the stabilizing grass cover and exposed the sand dunes underneath. Large expanses of sand had been exposed along the coastline. The dune system that covers an area of 1,000 acres (4.0 km2), measuring 40 meters above and 90 meters below sea level, became unstable and began to move north at a rate of 8 meters a year. Land clearing and cattle grazing resulted in a degraded landscape, but created the distinctive Cronulla sand dunes of today.

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Between 1920 and 1930 the sand hills were acknowledged to be a deserted and desecrated landscape, and their economic value was minimal. However, by the 1920s Cronulla had become notable for its beaches with over five kilometres of sand stretched along the coastline. The bare sand dunes became synonymous with Cronulla. Between the 1920s and the 1950s the large expanses of sand became a popular playground for generations of children for activities such as sandboarding.[9]

In more recent times, the site has been used as a backdrop for several Australian movies, such as the epic 40,000 Horsemen (1941), The Rats of Tobruk and more recently Mad Max 3.

In January 1965 the bodies of two 15-year-old girls were found in the sand hills just off Wanda Beach. They had been bashed, stabbed and sexually assaulted. The murderer has not yet been identified and the case remains one of Australia’s most notorious, unsolved crimes, known as the 'Wanda Beach Murders'.

Sand mining[edit]

In 1933 the Sutherland Shire Council asked the Government to set aside the 2,000 acres (8.1 km2) between Cronulla Golf Club and Kurnell as a reserve. In April 1937, Haymarket Land and Building Co. offered Sutherland Shire Council 720 acres (2.9 km2) of land near the entrance to Kurnell for 8 pounds per acre. Most of the councillors wanted to declare the site a National Park. They wanted it to be titled "the Birthplace of Australian History and Gateway to Captain Cooks Landing Place." The dunes at Towra Point were to be included in this park. The Council was evenly split, but Joe Monro, the Council's President [now referred to as the Mayor], argued that because the site "was nothing but sand it was completely useless". He decided to vote against the purchase. The sandhills were doomed from that point. The Government couldn't see any reason to establish another National Reserve so near to Captain Cooks Landing Place Reserve.

In the 1930s the Holt family began its sand mining operations to supply the expanding Sydney building market and continued until 1990 with an estimate of over 70 million tonnes of sand being removed. The sand has been valued for many decades by the Sydney building industry, mainly because of its high crushed shell content and lack of organic matter. The site has now been reduced to a few remnant dunes and deep water-filled pits which are now being filled with demolition waste from Sydney's building sites. Removal of the sand has significantly weakened the peninsula's capacity to resist storms. Ocean waves pounding against the reduced Kurnell dune system have threatened to break through into Botany Bay, especially during the storms of May and June 1974 and August, 1998. [10][11][12][13]

Looking north over the Kurnell Peninsula.

Caltex oil refinery[edit]

In 1951 Caltex Oil Company approached Sutherland Shire Council for the first time with a proposal to build an oil refinery at Kurnell. It required a large block of land of approximately 400 acres (1.6 km2) in size. At first the Council rejected this proposal. The matter sparked a number of protests from environmental groups and those concerned that the refinery would mar Captain Cooks Landing Place Reserve. Not long after the proposal, Sutherland Shire Council withdrew its objection, and what became known as the Australian Oil Refinery Company, a subsidiary of Caltex, began operating in 1954. Whilst the refinery was being built, the Council also built Captain Cook Drive to allow access to the refinery.

The refinery is due to cease operating in the second half of 2014 and be converted into an import terminal.[14]

Further development[edit]

Looking south with the Australand construction zone in view

Industrialisation of the Kurnell Peninsula continues to be an ongoing problem amongst community groups and environmentalists. Plans for further development at the site has been cause for continual public protest between developers, locals and environmental groups.[15] A proposal to build a chemical plant by the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer in 1986 resulted in public protests, environmental objections and a Commission of Inquiry, chaired by John Woodward. The plan never went ahead on the grounds of both environmental and economic issues.

In 2004 a major housing development at the Kurnell site just north of Wanda Beach was cleared by the Land and Environment Court after developer Australand appealed Council's rejection of the plan. The court has allowed building on one-third of the 62-hectare site, "subject to conditions such as safeguarding the environment.

Sutherland Shire Council's objections included issues such as the impact on the threatened green and golden bell frog and concerns about two key ecosystem impacts on the sandhills and the freshwater wetland area. The court's commissioners rejected Sutherland Shire's case, ruling in favour of the Australand development. The court also accepted that the Wanda sand hills had to be revegetated to stop the sand from filling up ponds and swallowing up the vegetation in the area. The council spent $650,000 on the case and wanted the area set aside for tourism, environmental conservation and heritage.

In 2010, after 2 1/2 years of negotiations, approval was granted for the rezoning of 130 hectares of land owned by Australand and Breen Holdings for a major residential housing subdivision of around 420 single dwellings and recreation / sporting areas to include 10 community-owned playing fields, a skate park and other facilities worth up to $25 million plus an additional 49 hectares of public open space on top of the existing 42 hectares already committed as open space. Treated water is to be diverted from the nearby sewerage treatment plant to be used for toilet flushing and garden irrigation for all homes in the subdivision and to irrigate the 10 new playing fields on the site.[16][17]

Geology and geomorphology[edit]

The geology and geomorphology of the area is characterised by an island of outcropping bedrock on the eastern headland and joined to other bedrock outcrops on its western end by a sand spit which forms the main part of the headland. The Peninsula still has quite a view overlapping transgressive barrier dunes and it is believed that they have shifted north from Bate Bay. Older stable parabolic dunes occur on a series of north to south oriented ridges and while most of the vegetation has been cleared, some dry sclerophyll woodland remains.

Fitness training[edit]

Amateur and professional athletes push themselves to exhaustion in unforgiving soft-sand conditioning sessions at the Cronulla sandhills.

Amateur and professional athletes on a daily basis push themselves to exhaustion in unforgiving soft-sand conditioning sessions at the Cronulla sandhills. This is to either keep fit, stay in shape or prepare for amateur and, or professional sporting events, like Rugby league, Rugby union, Cricket, Soccer and boxing.

At one stage professional cricketers Glenn McGrath, Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee and Brad Haddin trained at the sand dunes daily in preparation for international test cricket.[18] Anthony Mundine held a one-hour workout in the sandhills to prepare for his bout with WBA super-middleweight champion Mikkel Kessler.[19]

Amateur and professional Rugby league teams, especially those of the NRL also use the sandhills.[20][21]

At inclines of 45 degrees or more, these sandhills rise upwards and all but collapse downwards in hour-long sprint sessions. According to the conditioning coach of the Australian Cricket team Jock Campbell, these sandhills, along with gym programs is the best way to train athletes for endurance work. "Working in the sandhills is hard aerobic interval training, and good specific leg training without the shock on knees and ankles.[citation needed]

References[edit]

A sign at the start of the walking track leading into the duned area