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

Wollongong, with a population of over 250 000, is the third-largest city in NSW and the tenth-largest in Australia. It is situated 81 km south of Sydney via the Princes Highway within a district known as the Illawarra, from an Aboriginal word, 'allowrie' or 'eloura' meaning 'white clay mountain' or 'high place near the sea' or even 'between the high place and the sea'. 'Wollongong' itself is said to be onomatopoeic, from 'Wol-Lon-Yuh', an imitation of the sound of breaking waves and ebbing surf, hence 'the sound of the sea', although 'five clouds' and 'hard ground near the water' have also been proposed. Taken together these two names reflect the fact that the region is a relatively narrow strip of land hemmed in by mountains to the west and the ocean to the east.

There is a perception about Wollongong which bears no relation to the delights of this charming and beautiful city. It's hard to pinpoint when people started thinking of it as big, industrial, smelly, smoky, and very ugly. Maybe it was all those school excursions to the BHP Steelworks at Port Kembla. Maybe it was just the knowledge that Wollongong was a major iron and steel producer. Maybe it was the image of mountains of coal and of huge smokestacks belching pollution into the air. Whatever created the image it did Wollongong a great disservice. When you think of Wollongong you really need to think again. It is a great place to go for a day out or for a holiday. It offers the traveller a sophisticated shopping area, excellent beaches, some of the most spectacular scenery on the NSW coast, sites of great natural beauty and some ideal fishing spots. The city's Botanic Gardens are a wonderful respite. Situated near the remarkable Gleniffer Brae they are cool and beautiful with extensive displays. The port and Wollongong Harbour are both genuinely interesting places to visit and the town's history, particularly its coalmining background, is fascinating.

History of the City
If it hadn't been for a heavy surf Captain Cook would have made his first landing in NSW within the Illawarra, though he did note, in his log book, the attractive appearance of the shore and the presence of Aborigines - the Wodi Wodi tribe, who had been in the area for at least 20 000 years. He also named 'Red Point' (Port Kembla) and 'a round hill top of which look'd like the Crown of a hatt' (Mount Kembla), subsequently called 'Hat Hill' by Flinders. Cook continued north and landed at Botany Bay the following day.

The first Europeans to officially set foot in the vicinity and to meet the Aborigines of the Illawarra (who claimed that there were already several whites, presumably escaped convicts, living amongst them) were explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders and their servant William Martin in 1796. Sailing south in the tiny Tom Thumb their boat was overturned at Towradgi Point.

In search of fresh water and a place to dry their powder and mend a broken oar they stopped at what is now Port Kembla where they were approached by two Aborigines who led them to Lake Illawarra. There numerous others gathered on the shore and during an encounter Flinders gave a number of the locals a shave in an attempt to play for time and defuse hostilities.

The small islands off Port Kembla they named 'Martin Islands' in honour of William Martin's baling efforts, which kept their bark afloat at a crucial moment. However, the name did not stick and 'Five Islands' was the title bestowed not only upon them but upon the entire region in the early colonial days. The party then camped at a point probably just north of Bellambi Point before returning to Sydney.

The following year the survivors of the wreck of the Sydney Cove passed through the area. The ship had developed a leak and beached on the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait. Seventeen of the crew set out by boat for help but were wrecked at Point Hicks in Victoria and continued the journey by land. Only three survived the harrowing trip to Sydney, thereby becoming the first Europeans to make an overland trip in Australia of any duration.

Bass initially made an eight-day trip with two of the Cove's men intended to search out two crewmen left behind in the Illawarra and to investigate the survivors' reports of coal. This Bass found at Coalcliff and elsewhere at the northern end of the Illawarra, though it would be fifty years before the seams of the Illawarra were exploited. Later that year , in another voyage, Bass visited Wollongong Harbour.

In 1803 a Captain Nicholls shipped cattle into the Shellharbour district when the Sydney area was in drought. In 1804 Captain Kent was authorised to explore the South Coast and botanist Robert Brown also visited the region some time between 1800 and 1805.


In 1805 surveyor James Meehan noted the tremendous stands of huge red cedar trees in the area. The (illegal) pillaging of the South Coast's timber reserves to feed the demand in Sydney for softwoods appears to have commenced around 1810.

In 1815 Charles Throsby and party hacked a track from Liverpool to the Illawarra escarpment and down through an area near Bulli Pass to confirm what his Aboriginal guides had told him: that here was excellent pasturage. He soon returned with his livestock and set up the first stockman's hut at what is now the corner of Smith and Harbour Streets, Wollongong.

Others followed and Governor Macquarie sent John Oxley down to survey the area and negotiate free land grants with the graziers. However, few of the landowners initially took up residence, instead leaving stockmen in charge, who lived in crude makeshift dwellings.

Conflict arose with the local Aborigines and, in 1826, a contingent of soldiers was sent to reinforce the claims of the settlers and perhaps to assert order amongst the unruly timber-getters. They established themselves at Port Kembla (the first land grant being made in that area in 1817) but moved on to Wollongong in 1829. Their presence represented the effective founding of townships at those two sites. Cases were initially heard in the commandant's tent and in a slab hut from 1830. The first church services were held in 1831 and the first hotel opened c.1833. Although the land was originally set aside for grazing, agriculture (mostly grains and potatoes) soon asserted itself.

The town plan was gazetted in 1834 and the first regular steamship service to Sydney began that year. Convict labour was used to cut a path down Mt Keira in 1835-36 and to carve a safe harbour out between 1837 and 1844 so that passengers could step rather than wade ashore. Dairying developed in the region in the 1840s as cedar supplies were trailing off. The first government school opened in 1851 and the newspaper the Illawarra Mercury was established in 1855. Henry Kendall, one of Australia's most-noted 19th-century poets, lived in what is now Fairy Meadow or Corrimal in the 1850s and wrote a number of poems about his experience of the area.

In 1856 the population of Wollongong was recorded as 864. The Bulli Pass route, investigated in 1844, was opened to wheeled traffic in 1868. The railway arrived in 1887.

More importantly, the region's first coal mine commenced operations at Mt Keira in 1849. As steam power developed and was applied to shipping and manufactures the demand for coal increased and, by 1880, there were ten mines along the Illawarra escarpment, giving birth to a string of mining villages which now constitute the northern suburbs of the City of Greater Wollongong. As exports accelerated there was a need for improved transportation, processing and port facilities. Tramways were laid from two of the mines to Wollongong Harbour to transport coal skips which were drawn first by horses and later by locomotives.

In the 1860s Belmore Basin was constructed at Wollongong Harbour. However, even this proved inadequate. By 1885 1600 ships passed through the harbour every year.

Work commenced on the establishment of a smelting works on the western shore of Lake Illawarra in 1895 and harbour facilities were developed at Shellharbour. However, the smelting operation ran into financial trouble and was transferred to Port Kembla in 1906, which soon emerged as the main port. Its shipping history began in 1883 when a jetty was erected to service the output from the Mount Kembla mine, the source of the port's name.

Work on the inner and outer harbours commenced at Port Kembla in 1898. A cokeworks was followed by copper refining in 1908, metal manufacturing in 1918, fertiliser production in 1921 and, most crucially, in 1928, Hoskins Iron and Steel transferred its operations from Lithgow to Port Kembla. This led to considerable expansion of operations and of the fledgling township of Port Kembla. BHP purchased the venture in 1935 and immigration after World War II fed the labour needs of what has become the largest steelworks in Australia and the largest steelworks owned by BHP anywhere in the world.

The influx of migrants caused a rapid population increase and fostered a highly multicultural community. World recession and rationalization in the 1980s led to significant unemployment in the region. Today, fishing, manufacturing, textiles, clothing and tourism supplement the income provided by the steelworks, coalmining and dairying.

Noted British novelist D.H. Lawrence lived in the Illawarra in 1922 while writing Kangaroo (see entry on Thirroul).

Local festivals include Seafood and Sail at Wollongong Harbour in mid-February and Harbourfest, held in May at Port Kembla Harbour with a street parade, fireworks, live entertainment, street theatre, children's activities, a waterskiing display and a circus. Folklorica in June is a multicultural celebration with parade that centres around Wollongong's city centre. The Wollongong Visitor Centre has a comprehensive cultural services and facilities directory.

Things to see

Art Gallery
At the corner of Kembla St and Burelli St is the Wollongong City Gallery which is the largest regional art museum in Australia. It features changing exhibitions that showcase local, national and international artwork. With 27 panels along its curved facade it is also the only public art museum in Australia with a major exhibiting gallery facing the street. The gallery is open from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday and from 12.00 p.m. to 4.00 p.m. on weekends and public holidays.

Tourist Information
The Wollongong Tourism Visitor Information Centre is located on the Princes Highway at Bulli Tops. Its resources include walking maps for a self-guided tour of Wollongong's few remaining historic attractions, tel: (02) 4267 5910.

Crown St - City Mall and Historic Buildings
Adjacent the information centre is the post office (1892). Next door, at 87 Crown St, is a terrace shop with decorative facade and verandah - one of Wollongong's last remaining commercial structures of the nineteenth century.

Opposite the information centre is the eastern end of the City Mall which encourages lingering, lunching, playing with the children on the swings or watching performances on the stage.

If you start walking through the mall, you will soon pass, to the right, Wollongong Uniting Church (1882) which replaced the original Wesleyan Church (1843).

Anglican Church
Continue westwards through the mall. When you reach the amphitheatre turn right, heading north up Church St. There before you, at the top of the hill, is one of Wollongong's more notable buildings - St Michael's Church of England which was designed by Edmund Blacket, perhaps Australia's best-known 19th-century architect. It incorporates sandstone from an older church that was completed in 1847.

Historic Buildings of Market St
From the church it is possible to gaze eastwards straight down Market St to the ocean. At the top of Market St, diagonally opposite the church, is the Italianate Court House, built in 1886 and designed by colonial architect James Barnet with a turret clock added in 1890. Extensions were completed in 1951 and, in 1970, the original courtroom was restored.

Walk east down Market St. Cross over Kembla St and to the right is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the Illawarra, the Congregational Church. Dating back to 1857 it counted John Fairfax and David Jones amongst its original benefactors.

Illawarra Museum and Market Place
Continue along Market St. Cross over Corrimal St and, to the right, at the Queens Parade corner, is a building which served as an earlier post and telegraph office (1876-92). The second storey was added in 1882. It is now the Illawarra Museum which features recreations of 19th-century domestic, working and educational spaces complete with pioneering artefacts. There is also a display on the Mt Kembla mining disaster. It is open from 1.00 p.m. to 4.00 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays and on Thursdays from 12.00 p.m. to 3.00 p.m., tel: (02) 4228 7770.

The building is situated at the edge of Market Square which was, at the time, the commercial and administrative centre of the town. The bandstand, antiquated lamp posts, park benches and avenue of figs and palms evoke something of its old character.

Historic Meeting Place
Continue to the end of Market St, turn left into Harbour St and follow it to the Smith St intersection. A small bronze plaque commemorates a meeting which took place at this very spot on December 2, 1816 between the first European settlers and John Oxley.

Oxley had been sent by Governor Macquarie to survey the area and to negotiate free land grants with the graziers who had ventured into the area after Charles Throsby had introduced the first cattle in 1815. This site was chosen as the meeting place because Throsby's stockmen had built their hut here.

Former Courthouse
Continue on to the T-intersection where Harbour St meets Cliff Rd. At this corner is a distinguished sandstone building (1858) that served as a courthouse until the Market St premises were opened. It is now the naval cadet headquarters.

The Boat Harbour and Lighthouse
Opposite the former courthouse is Wollongong Harbour which was once the centre of all activity in the Illawarra. The presence of a reasonable natural harbour, to facilitate the transportation of people and produce to Sydney, was, after all, a major cause of settlement. It is hard to imagine that, until the railway arrived and Port Kembla was developed, most of the wealth of the Illawarra was shipped from this modest facility.

Remnants from this heyday include the concrete base of a crane, which juts from the waters of the outer harbour, and the first lighthouse. Made of cast iron and riveted boiler plates, it was erected in 1871-72 after numerous wrecks on offshore reefs. Its acetylene gas-lamp was replaced with electricity in 1916.

The second lighthouse is visible atop Flagstaff Hill - the headland which encloses one side of the harbour. The hill was named after a flagstaff placed atop a stockade in the 1830s to warn incoming ships of harbour conditions. The concrete lighthouse was built in 1936. A walk or drive to the crest of the elevated headland, via Endeavour Drive, is highly recommended.

Today the harbour, with its small fishing fleet and flotilla of pleasure craft, is part of the character and appeal of Wollongong. It is a delightful place for a picnic. There is a restaurant and a Fishing Co-op which supplies fish straight from the waters offshore. The information centre has a map of the area marked with the historic sites.

If you walk northwards a short distance along Cliff Rd, you can see (or walk through) a cutting which has been gouged out of the cliff adjacent the Olympic Pool. Now a pedestrian track it was originally part of the tramline route from Mt Pleasant mine to the harbour.

1 km north of the harbour, along Cliff Rd, is Battery Park. The two cannons and the partially-excavated underground fortifications are the remnants of a fort built in 1890 to guard the approaches to the harbour. An earlier battery was established in the 1870s on Flagstaff Hill. Also buried are some coke ovens. Built in 1875 they were amongst the area's first industrial enterprises.

Diving offshore can be organised through Dive Time at the Novotel, tel: (02) 4226 5066.

Port Kembla
The industry around the Port Kembla Harbour is fascinating. It is worth driving out to Harbourside Park at the southern end of the Port Kembla Coal Terminal to see the harbour operations, the huge coal stockpiles, the giant reclaimers scooping up coal and the conveyor belts which shift vast quantities from the coal piles to the ships which wait in the harbour to take it to the power stations and steel mills of Asia, Europe and North America.

The Port Kembla Coal Terminal is one of New South Wales' first examples of privatisation. Once run by the Maritime Services Board, in the late 1980s it was taken over by a consortium of coal companies. It is recognised as one of the great success stories of the Wollongong area and is central to Australia's overseas earning capacity. You can drive around the ocean side of the Coal Terminal and this offers excellent views of the operations as well as interesting views of the huge breakwater which, remarkably, is used by both surfers and fishermen.

Alongside the breakwater are coastal fortifications built in World War II. Designed to protect the harbour the battery is now a museum concerned with the military history of the region. It is only open on the second and fourth Sundays of each month from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.

From the southernmost points of the breakwater it is possible to get an idea of the size of the harbour and the scale of the operations of BHP's huge steel mill which covers 800 hectares, employs 9000 people and produces over 4.5 million tonnes of steel anually. Tom Thumb Lookout, off Springhill Road, is probably the best vantage point over the steelworks and it provides outstanding views of the coastline north to the Royal National Park.

The Grain Terminal has 30 storage bins with a capacity of 260 000 tonnes, BHP Coated Products produces 25 km of cladding annually and Incitec over 600 000 tonnes of superphosphate a year.

Looking at the steelworks and then looking at the Pacific Ocean is a reminder that, for all its industrial ugliness (somewhat alleviated in recent years by a new and brightly-coloured paint job), this has to be the most beautifully located steel mill in the world. Where else is there a steel mill only metres away from surfers, fishermen, and people in sailing and power boats? If you really want to experience this contrast at its most extreme drive south of the steelworks, turn east on Five Islands Road, head towards the huge 200-metre Southern Copper chimney adjacent the township of Port Kembla and continue along Military Road to Fishermans Beach. With its white sands and its views towards the Five Islands this beautiful beach seems far away from the heavy industry which lies just behind it.

Nearby is Hill 60 Lookout and Park, surrounded by regenerated bushland, which affords spectacular views up and down the coast, west across the lake to the escarpment and, closer at hand, of the Five Islands and 'Australia's Industry World' as it has become known since opening its doors to tourism. The hill is dotted with old gun emplacements and tunnels from the Second World War.

Guided tours of the whole Pt Kembla complex can be arranged though the Wollongong Tourist Centre or, if you would prefer to see it from the harbour, try Harbour Ferry Tours who provide a one-hour cruise with commentary, tel: (02) 4274 1045.

The suburbs around the steel mill - Port Kembla, Warrawong and Cringila - have their own appeal. While being typical working people's suburbs they reflect the waves of migration which have arrived in the Illawarra area since the 1950s. If you wander through these shopping centres you will have moments when you'll wonder whether you haven't travelled to Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey or Vietnam. Needless to say all the restaurants in the area are ethnic delights.

Nan Tien Temple
If you head west back along Five Islands Road you will, before reaching the Princes Highway at Unanderra, come to a roundabout which directs you to Berkeley and the Nan Tien Temple. Situated on 55 hectares of hillside this massive and striking complex constitutes the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. The entrance takes you past extensive rose gardens to the main carpark. There is a beautiful pagoda, two enormous shrines, a museum, auditorium, conference room, meditation room, a reception room, dining hall and a 100-room accommodation centre for visitors.

The University, Gleniffer Brae and the Botanic Gardens
Wollongong isproud of its 19-hectare Botanic Gardens, located off Murphys Avenue in Gwynneville. The land was first granted to James Spearing in 1825. His 'Paulsgrove' (later 'Mount Keera') Estate was, for a time, the largest population centre in the Illawarra, with 43 people. The property was subdivided and later became dairying land. In 1928 it was purchased by Sidney Hoskins, a founding director of Australian Iron and Steel, who donated the land to the local council for usage as a garden; the development of which began in 1964.

There are pamphlets at the entrance with outlined walks through exotic, subtropical and Illawarra rainforest, Eucalypt forest, an azalea bank, a pathway out to a rotunda in the middle of the picturesque lake where ducks and other birds abound, a fountain, a beautiful secluded rose garden, a woodland garden at its best in winter, and a glasshouse for tropical plants. Paths, small creeks, open grassy areas and pleasant shaded spaces make the gardens an ideal place for a picnic. They are open from 7.00 a.m. to 4.45 p.m. on weekdays and 10.00 a.m. to 4.45 p.m. on weekends with hours extended to 6.45 p.m. in summer. There are conducted walking tours held on the first Sunday of each month by the Friends of the Botanic Gardens, tel: (02) 4229 2571.

People interested in architecture should walk up the hill to Gleniffer Brae (now the Wollongong Conservatorium of Music), completed in 1939 for the Hoskins family. The chimneys (fascinating examples of the bricklayer's art) alone are worth the walk. Nearby are the rather beautiful grounds of Wollongong University.

Those interested should go to Mt Pleasant Rhododendron Park, in Parish Ave, Mt Pleasant. It is open weekends from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. from Easter to October. The entry fee, as of October 1, 1997, was $2 per car and there are barbecue and picnic facilities.

Mt Kembla Historic Village
Mt Kembla started its colonial life as a farming and orchard district. The first land grant was made in 1817. In 1865 it became the site of the first kerosene works in Australia. The coalmine, which opened in 1880, was the site of Australia's worst mining tragedy when 96 'men' (some as young as 14) were killed as the result of an explosion in 1902. Along with the Bullidisaster when 81 people were killed, it is a reminder of the 630 or so men who have been killed in the region's mines since 1887. The cemetery of the Soldiers and Miners Memorial Church of England contains a number of graves from the 1902 disaster.

Today Mt Kembla village, 11 km south-west of Wollongong, is a quiet attractive little village that still retains something of its original character. The beautiful setting of mountain views and bushland surrounds has attracted painters, poets and craftspeople over the years. Mt Kembla Primary School was built in 1895 and the Mt Kembla Hotel in 1890. All are located on Cordeaux Rd, which heads west off the Princes Highway at the roundabout just north of Unanderra.

Lookouts and Walks around Wollongong
There are several superb lookouts with spectacular views around Wollongong, some located in bushland conducive to bushwalking and horseriding. The Tourist Information Office provides maps and details of the various escarpment walks.

Perhaps most impressive are the two lookouts at the top of Bulli Pass - Bulli Lookout at Hopetoun Park and, in particular, Sublime Point. The two are interconnected by a walking path.

The views are also outstanding from Bald Hill (see entry on Stanwell Park) to the lookouts at Mt Keira and Mt Kembla.

There are several walking trails around Mt Keira (369 m), most notably the ring track (5.5 km) which provides access to Dave Walsh's Track and the Robertsons Lookout Track. These rainforest walks have excellent views of the Illawarra. To get there head west out of Wollongong along Crown St. At the top of the hill turn right into Mt Keira Rd and follow it up the mountain and you will see signs indicating points at which the ring track can be joined. One turnoff leads to Mt Keira Summit Park which has picnic and barbecue facilities, a kiosk and tearooms.

Further along is Robertsons Lookout where there is a concrete walkway suitable for wheelchairs. Drive to the end of Harry Graham Drive through the village of Kembla Heights into Cordeaux Road. A right turn off the bitumen and on to a gravel section of Cordeaux Rd which will take you past Windy Gully. Another kilometre will bring you to Kembla Lookout.

The area of subtropical rainforest around the peak of Mt Kembla (534 m) is a flora and fauna reserve'.The views from the lookout are quite exceptional and there are several fine bushwalking trails which start from that point. The ring track (5 km) takes you past a pond constructed last century to supply water for the pit ponies, the entrance to a mine that operated from 1887-90 (entry is forbidden and life-threatening), an old cemetery with more graves from the 1902 disaster, and some old miner's huts built in the 1880s.

The Mt Keira and Mt Kembla areas described above are a part of the Illawarra Escarpment State Recreation Area, donated by BHP in 1980. The Sutherland office of the National Parks and Wildlife Service has several pamphlets relating to the area and its walks, tel: (02) 9585 6444.

The Beaches
There are numerous beaches along the Illawarra Coast, most of them patrolled and most of them of exceptional quality and beauty, particularly to the north where the escarpment drops precipitously down to the beaches which adjoin picturesque old mining villages in busland settings.

In terms of its diversity North Wollongong beach is the equal of anything in Sydney - and it's never as crowded. The huge pink building, the Northbeach International, is a five-star hotel which offers typical five-star eating with views across the beach. North of the hotel is The Lagoon, a delightful, Mediterranean-style restaurant which is located on the lagoon behind the beach. Behind the beach, and beside the lagoon, is Stuart Park with its excellent barbecue and picnic facilities.

The surfing comes highly recommended at Stanwell Park, Coledale, and Sandon Point (Thirroul), Pt Kembla, the northern end of Warilla Beach, The Shallows near Bass Point, Killalea and Minnamurra Beaches (Shellharbour), Jones Beach at Kiama Downs and Bombo Beach.

The Illawarra beaches are rich in rock pools and beach and rock fishing for bream, whiting and flathead is popular. There are prawns in season at Lake Illawarra and deep-sea fishing for snapper and tuna off Wollongong Harbour. Naturally there are boat ramps galore and there are boats for hire from Wollongong Boat Charter (tel: 02 4256 6173) or Windang Boatshed, tel: (02) 4296 2015.

Science Centre
Also of interest is the delightful Science Centre at Fairy Meadow, which has numerous hands-on interactive displays for people of all ages, tel: (02) 4221 5591.

Illawarra Motoring Museum
The Illawarra Motoring Museum on Northcliffe Drive at Kembla Grange is open on Sundays from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. with barbecue facilities, tel: (02) 4228 7048.

Cycling and Driving
There are extensive cycling tracks throughout the region, particularly from Wollongong north to Thirroul (the visitor's centre has a pamphlet detailing the routes).

While in the Illawarra be sure to drive north along the coast road through the delightful villages that dot the escarpment (see entry on Stanwell Park).

Tourist Information

Tourism Wollongong

Visitor Information Centre
Southern Gateway Centre
Princes Highway
Bulli Tops NSW 2500
Telephone: (02) 4267 5910
Facsimile: (02) 4267 5912

Freecall: 1800 240 737

Email: info@southerngatewaycentre.com.au