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

Swansea, 131 km north of Sydney via the Newcastle Freeway, is the largest town in the City of Lake Macquarie which covers 749 square kilometres and within which are some 175 510 persons.

The lake itself is the largest coastal saltwater lake in the Southern Hemisphere, covering 109 square kilometres (four times the size of Sydney Harbour). It is 24 km long, 3.2 km across at its widest point and 9.7 m at its deepest. There is no appreciable tidal range within the lake although the tidal race at Swansea Channel can be strong. There are 92 towns and villages, 29 public boat ramps, 28 public jetties and wharves and 7 marina berth around the lake. The Swansea channel has six boat ramps and a public wharf by the southern side of the bridge. Despite being overfished in the past the lake still has good supplies of whiting, bream and flathead for the angler.

Lake Macquarie is linked to the ocean by a narrow channel. It was, at one time, a bay, but it was almost enclosed by the development of sandbars caused by wind, waves and tides.

The lake's foreshore consists of 174 km of bays, beaches and headlands. The eastern side of the lake is well-developed and tourist oriented. The western side is quieter and more rural with scrubby woodland fringing the shores and the Watagan Mountains in the background.

The southern shore is characterised by bushland and wetlands while the northern shore is part of the Newcastle sprawl, complete with heavy, industry, including a major sulphide factory. The area around the lake has old ties with coalmining which is still the backbone of the local economy. There are about a dozen mines around the lake, a few dating back to the start of the century.

The headland by the entrance to Lake Macquarie, at the north-eastern corner of Swansea, is known as Reid's Mistake after Captain William Reid who, in 1800, became the first European to make his way into the lake. Sent from Sydney to collect coal from the mouth of the Hunter River he mistook the channel for the river estuary, ventured inside and there encountered some members of the Awabakal tribe, who directed him to some embedded in the headland. It was only upon his return to Sydney that he realised he had got the wrong coal. The lake was known as Reid's Mistake until 1826 when it was renamed in honour of Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

Pressure from settlers wishing to move into the Hunter Valley caused the penal settlement to be removed to Port Macquarie. By far the most important of the early settlers was a missionary, the Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld, an ex-actor and businessman who, in 1826, established a 1000-acre reserve for an Aboriginal mission which occupied the whole northern peninsula, from Pelican north-west to Redhead and north-east to Croudace Bay.

Threlkeld chose the land after noting it was a gathering point for Aborigines, drawn by the living conditions and food around the lake. He held his Aboriginal friends in high regard and learned their language so as to communicate and to translate scripture (this work being an early landmark in Aboriginal studies). The mission house, called 'Bahtahbah', was located on a rise overlooking Belmont Bay. It was connected to Newcastle by a rough dray track. He started the first coal mine around the lake at Coal Point, c.1840, and subsequently bought ten acres at Swansea Heads for coal-loading and storage around 1842.

The first land grant on the southern side of the channel was to J.H. Boughton in 1833. He started up a small saltworks managed by convict servants in 1835 but was forced to shut down the operations when his servants helped some runaways across the entrance. Cattle thieves then utilised the buildings until they were arrested in 1841.


Two settlers named Taaffe and Boyd arrived in the 1850s. Taaffe was a farmer and grazier who ran cattle near Chain Valley Bay. Boyd was his brother-in-law. A mariner who piloted boats in and out of the lake he was appointed pilot at Swansea (then known as Pelican Flat) in 1883. His brother Thomas became the lake's first fisheries inspector and his son James became a boatbuilder, establishing J.L. Boyd and Sons of Newcastle.

By 1860 there were 30 or 40 Chinese living at Pelican Flat, Swansea's western peninsula. They caught and dried fish and grew vegetables. The first town allotments at Swansea went up for sale in 1863, taken up by fishermen and seamen. Others relied on the burning of oyster shells for lime, the making of hats from cabbage trees and the procuring of swans. A water cargo trade based on coal and timber flourished.

The road from Newcastle to the northern side of the channel was improved in 1873. From there people crossed by boat with horses swimming behind. A school opened in 1875-76. By 1877 there were 120 people at Pelican Flat and a dredge was at work deepening the shallow channel. More settlers arrived from Catherine Hill Bay when the mine closed that year. Consequently the postal service was moved from Catherine Hill Bay to Pelican Flat in 1879.

The name of the settlement was changed from Pelican Flat to Swansea in 1887. However its hopes of becoming a major commercial and coal-shipping port ended with the completion of the Sydney to Newcastle railway along the western shore in 1889.

Just inside the lake entrance, on the southern side of the channel, is Black Ned's Bay, named after the last member of the Awabakal tribe to live in the area after the tribe had been destroyed. Black Ned lived there with his wife, a blind mother whom he supported, and four or five children.

In the 1950s a series of power stations were built around the lake, at Eraring, Wangi Wangi and Eraring (tours of the latter can be arranged by phoning 02 4352 6111). Swansea has been a resort for many years now and is very popular with anglers. Caves Beach, on the ocean side of the peninsula, is usually full of surfers. Blacksmiths Beach is also popular.

Things to see

Koolewong Coastal Ecotours
If you want to experience the local area accompanied by an expert local guide and are interested in the ecology, fauna and flora of the district then double click here and check out Koolewong Coastal Ecotours . Details of their tours are provided.

Koolewong Coastal Ecotours are conducted within the Brisbane Water and Bouddi National Parks on the NSW Central Coast. The trained Ecotour Guides have extensive local knowledge of the flora and fauna of the native bushland. Travellers are picked up from their Hotel from 8.30am and and are returned by around 5.30pm. Optional starting and return times can be booked where required.

Tourist Information
The Lake Macquarie Visitors' Centre is located on the northern side of the channel, at Blacksmiths. It is large, well-organised and professionally run and an obvious place to start your investigation of the City of Lake Macquarie. They have a number of books related to the region, including Walks in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, and Coastal Walks from Newcastle to Sydney, both by Ken Scott. There are also two large photographic books: A Pictorial History of Lake Macquarie and This Is Lake Macquarie.

Blacksmiths Beach
Along the eastern shore of the northern peninsula is Blacksmiths Beach which is popular with surfers. To get there head north from the bridge, along the highway, and take the first right into Ungala Rd. At its end is the surf lifesaving club. This is a good spot to access the beach. There is a breakwater nearby, at the mouth to the channel, and just offshore is Moon Island, a breeding site for birds. To the north Blacksmiths Beach is known as Nine Mile Beach, which stretches northwards to Redhead Pt. That stretch is unpatrolled and considered dangerous.

On the western side of the northern peninsula is a camping area by Pelican Inlet which is notable for, well, its pelicans. This is a well-treed area. There are picnic and barbecue facilities, a playground, two boat ramps and pleasant views along the remainder of the channel to Lake Head where Spectacle Island, Pelican Island (both with patches of trees) and a vegetationless sand isle stand guard over the outlet. Directly opposite is the north-eastern tip of the southern peninsula, although the closest section is Coon Island, separated off from the main body of the southern peninsula by a very narrow rivulet. Nearby, at the northern tip of Lakeview Pde, is Pelican Boating Centre where there are boats and houseboats for hire, contact 02 4972 0790. Just to the north, along the highway, is Aeropelican Airport from whence there are flights to (and from) Sydney, contact (02) 4945 0988.

To access this area, proceed north from the bridge, along the highway, to the first set of traffic lights and turn left into Turea St. At the T-intersection turn left into Ninag St then turn right at the next T-intersection into Lakeview Parade and proceed to the lake's edge.

East Lake Macquarie Historical Society
The East Lake Macquarie Historical Society is located in the Swansea Arcade in Shop 22/174  Lake Road Swansea. Some of the areas covered by the society include Aboriginal heritage, early settlers, ship building and coal mining. It aims to provide opportunities for historical research to the general public and schools. The office is open four days a week Tuesday to Friday from 9.30 to 12.30, or by appointment. Contact (02) 4971 3509 or write to PO Box 284 Swansea NSW 2281.

At the southern end of Swansea is a good lookout. The only access is by turning east off the highway into Bowman St at the roundabout (opposite McDonalds). Turn right into Park St and follow it south for 1 km then turn right into Scenic Drive. Head up the steep hill for 1 km and you will see an un-signposted turnoff to the right which will take you to the lookout area. There are 360-degree views: south-south-west to the stacks of Vales Point Power Station, on the southern shore of Lake Macquarie; south-west to the long, narrow Pt Wolstoncroft Peninsula; west to Pulbah Island in the middle of the lake; north-west to Wangi Wangi Pt at the end of a peninsula which extends from the western shore of the lake; north-north-west to Coal Pt, at the end of the Toronto Peninsula, and north over Swansea.

At the eastern edge of Swansea one can see Lake Entrance. The inlet channel snakes its tortuous way from Reid's Mistake Headlands and the breakwater around to Black Neds Bay, branching off in a large U through a narrow inlet on the southern side of the channel, under the bridge, past the various sand islands and into the lake. Just offshore from the headlands is Moon Island. On the northern side of the headland the coast stretched north along Nine Mile Beach to Redhead Pt. The southern coastline is characterised by a rocky shoreline with Catherine Hill Bay in the distance.

Caves Beach
If you return to Park Rd and turn right it will empty into Caves Beach Rd. A number of side roads branch off to the east to Caves Beach, where there is a network of caverns. This is another popular surfing beach.

Tourist Information

Lake Macquarie Visitor Centre
72 Pacific Hwy
Swansea NSW 2281
Telephone: (02) 4972 1172