Shellharbour, New South Wales: Travel guide and things to do

Shellharbour is a charming township on the coast, south of Wollongong. It is located 106 km south of Sydney and 25 km from Central Wollongong. Inevitably in recent times it has become a bedroom suburb as Greater Wollongong has spread south. Now it has a small shopping centre, a pub, a post office, and a few services. Most residents prefer to travel to the large shopping complexes at Wollongong, Warrawong, Warilla and to Shellharbour Square, which, confusingly, is not in Shellharbour but west at Barrack Heights, along Lake Entrance Road.

Shellharbour was a meeting place for Aborigines who called it 'Yerrowah'. The first Europeans to set foot in the area were explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders in 1796.

In 1803 a Captain Issac Nicholls shipped cattle into the district when the Sydney area was in drought. Some time between 1803 and 1817, when the government was issued free grazing rights, James Badgery grazed his cattle on the land between Lake Illawarra and the Minnamurra River under the supervision of herdsman Bob Higgins.

Explorer George Evans camped the night at Barrack Point in 1812 en route to Appin. The region's huge reserves of cedar were being illegally exploited around this time.

In 1816 Governor Macquarie ordered his surveyor general, John Oxley, to negotiate free land grants. Consequently, between 1817 and 1831, the land around Shellharbour was divided up and issued in the form of 22 free grants. The first grant (700 acres) was 'Waterloo', issued to Andrew Allan on land now occupied by the Albion Park airport.

Shellharbour was first established as a port in the 1820s by the cedar cutters who used it as a convenient loading point. The cedar was floated out on wooden rafts to ships which waited off the coast. By the following decade the port was in regular usage.

By 1828 D'Arcy Wentworth, the largest landholder, owned 14 050 acres south of Lake Illawarra on which were grazing 1600 cattle.

In 1851 a private township was laid out around the harbour by the Wentworth family. It was named 'Peterborough'. This created some confusion as the white settlers had been using the name Shellharbour (sometimes spelt Shell Harbour) because of the vast quantity of shells on the shores. The name 'Shellharbour' was officially recognised in 1885.

The first stores appeared in the 1850s, one of which still stands. A stone watch-house was erected in 1861 followed by a courthouse and gaol in 1877. Prior to this the local constable simply tethered felons to a tree.


Wheat, dairying, cattle and bacon industries thrived in the second half of the 19th century and Bass Point had a gold strike in 1868, exploited by Thomas Reddall and Edward Killalea.

By the 1890s, Albion Park, at the junction of the roads from Macquarie Pass to the sea and from the north to the south, had become the major centre in the region.

Coalmining commenced in 1893 but it was the rich deposits of basalt at Bass Point which proved most profitable. Quarrying began in 1880 and it has continued until the present with vast quantities of 'blue gold' being removed and shipped from the jetty which juts out into Fullers Bay. The lease will run until 2020.

It was at Bass Point that the Wodi Wodi Aborigines came to catch fish and live off the shellfish they found on the rocks. A number of shell and stone artefacts have been found, including one of the most ancient edge-ground axes outside of tropical Australia. Some remnants, such as middens, indicate human activity in the area 17 000 years ago. Bass Point is a rare example of a Pleistocene era site in south-eastern Australia.

With the arrival of the railway in the area in 1887 the town of Shellharbour was ensured survival by the day trippers and tourists who poured into the Illawarra on the weekends.

Things to see

Historic Buildings
Stella Maris (1861) in Wentworth Street is the oldest stone building in town and the oldest church in the municipality. At the intersection with Addison St is the general store (1857). The oldest building still in its original condition it probably served as the first post office and council chambers. Adjacent is the Steampacket Inn. One of two original hotels the wooden structure was erected in 1856, though it is much transformed. On the south-western corner is an attractive old building, 'Windradeen' (1871).

Walking west up Addison you will see Allen's Store (1868) then the courthouse and gaol (1877). Cross Mary St. Halfway along the next block, to your right, are the council chambers (1865). Return to Mary St. There at the intersection is the Wesleyan Chapel (1865). Turn left into Mary St and on your right is 'Aronda' (1900), originally a school residence. At the Towns St intersection, to your left, is the public school (1871). Turn right into Towns St and take the first left into Eastern Avenue. At number 21 is 'Beau Vista' (1885). Return to Towns St, continue east across Wentworth and, to your left, just before Wollongong Street, is St Paul's Church of England, built in 1886 to replace the original 1859 structure. Take a look at the wall-hanging made by the parishioners to celebrate the bicentennary in 1988. Follow Towns St to the ocean and boat harbour, built in 1859, then extended and deepened in 1879.

The Harbour
The harbour is notable for the Norfolk pines that were planted in 1895 as part of a beautification project intended to attract holidaymakers. The rock baths were established at the same time as the pines and for the same reason. Nearby Bassett Park occupies the site of an old Aboriginal midden, upon which a pioneer cemetery was later built.

Fishing in the area
The harbour is the ideal spot for anglers to launch a boat. Fish in the area include mackeral, tailor, snapper, trevally, jewfish, kingfish, tuna and teraglin.

The Shellharbour area is ideal for beach, rock, estuary and deep-sea fishing. Local beaches are a rich source of whiting in summer. One of the most popular fishing spots is the mouth of Lake Illawarra, a shallow lagoon of some 33 square kilometres. The inlet is located a few kilometres north of Shellharbour at Warilla (a rearrangement of three of the four syllables of 'Illawarra'). Here, virtually 24 hours a day, fishermen can be seen dangling their lines from the Windang Bridge. The Lake is noted for its catches of bream, blackfish and flathead and, in the summer season, prawns are in plentiful supply.

Picnic Island
A small walkway on the western side of Windang Bridge leads across to Picnic Island where there is a 250-metre bushwalk and lookout. There are around 150 species of birds in the vicinity including pelicans and pied cormorants. If you retrace your steps and walk under the bridge to its eastern side there are picnic and barbeque facilities, shops, toilets and showers. The beach to the east is ideal for children due to the shallow waters and beyond that is a popular windsurfing area. At low tide the sand flats are used for prawning and it becomes possible to reach Windang Island.

Bass Point Reserve
Excellent fishing prospects also exist at Bass Point Reserve, named after explorer George Bass. This is an ideal spot for an outing. There are picnic and barbeque facilities and pleasant views of the coastline. Surfing and, in particular, snorkelling and scuba diving can also be pursued. Indeed the waters off Bushranger's Bay have been declared a Marine Aquatic Reserve. Equipment, expeditions and training are available from local businesses such as Coastwide Diving Services, 41 Addison St, Shellharbour (02 4296 4266).

The reserve is also a good place for walking. At the north-eastern tip of the headland is Boston Point. It is a short, 30-metre walk down to the rocky shore where there is a memorial to four Australian soldiers who died in 1943 rescuing the 62-man crew of an American tanker, the Cities Service Boston, which hit an offshore reef during a storm then drove itself onto the rocks of Bass Point in order to avoid breaking up in deep water. At low tide a portion of the wreck can still sometimes be seen.

Killalea State Recreation Area
Killalea State Recreation Area, named after Edward Killalea, is a favourite haunt of surfers who frequent the Minnamurra and Killalea Beaches (known locally as 'Mystics Beach' and 'The Farm'). This is also a good spot for scuba diving, snorkelling, fishing and walking. The coastal wetlands and unspoilt beaches make this one of the most beautiful areas on the South Coast.

Blackbutt Forest Reserve
Just north of Shellharbour township, off Shellharbour Road, is Blackbutt Forest Reserve which is 100 hectares of coastal forest with walking tracks and picnic areas. It is the largest natural woodland reserve in the Illawarra and the last remaining viable remnant of coastal plain forest in the Illawarra. It is, therefore, a rare opportunity to experience what the district was like before the clearing of the land started in the 1830s. A number of clearly-defined walking paths lead through areas of rainforest, melaleuca, blackbutt, stringybark, grey box, bangalay, wet schlerophyll forest and red gum woodland. An open-air amphitheatre depicts Australian flora and fauna. There are picnic and barbecue facilities and open spaces for outdoor activities.

Illawarra Railway Museum
For those interested in rail history the The Illawarra Railway Museum in Tongarra Road, Albion Park has, in its collection, several nineteenth-century steam engines, trams and carriages. Essentially an open workshed and a track it is best visited on the second Sunday of each month (11-5 in summer and 11-4.30 in winter) when the trains and an old miner's tram carry visitors around the 1-km bushland track (there are currently plans for its extension). Children can toot the whistle, watch the steam engine in operation in a separate display or play on the merry-go-round and chair-o-plane. Steam-train fanatics can go along for a look at the engines on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, though, being strictly run on a voluntary basis it may be advisable to ring first (02 4256 4627). There are picnic and barbecue facilities.

Tongarra Bicentennial Museum
Tongarra Bicentennial Museum has displays Aboriginal artefacts, colonial farming implements and household items and an 1882 time capsule buried by the Sons and Daughters of the Temperance Society. It is open Sundays (1-4) and Wednesdays (10-4). Phone (02) 4256 6698.

There is an excellent book on the area titled Land Between Two Rivers: a historical and pictorial survey of Shellharbour Municipality by Jim Darbyshire and Dianne Allen which was published by the local council in 1984. For further information on this or any other matter contact the visitor's centre at Lamberton House, Shellharbour Square (02 4221 6169). There you will also find the Hall of Fame, open 8.30-4.30 Mondays to Fridays.