About ten minutes south of Corrimal via the South Coast Railway Line lies the city of Wollongong. It is the third largest city in New South Wales with a metropolitan population of about 290,000. Situated on the coastal plain between the Tasman Sea (part of the Pacific Ocean) and the Illawarra Escarpment, it was first settled in the 1810s by agriculturists. In the 1830s military barracks beside the harbour became the basis for the town, which was established in 1834. The name apparently comes from an Aboriginal word meaning “seas of the south.” Once coal was discovered in the Escarpment, the Wollongong region became a center of industrial development in the 1920s and remains so to the present day.
As we usually do when we come into a town new to us, we went directly to the Visitor Centre. There, a friendly woman immediately picked up on our interest in history and gave us a map of the city’s Heritage Trail. She also piled us up with information about places to see in the Illawarra Region – more about that later. So many times we have been impressed with the eagerness people have to share their special places with tourists, to say nothing of the ability of the best ones to make us feel as if we absolutely have to see every single place to which they refer us!
We did indeed walk the Wollongong Heritage Trail, visiting churches dating back to the 1840s, residences from as early as the 1830s, governmental buildings from the 1850s, and commercial buildings from the 1870s. We explored the two lighthouses for which Wollongong is famous. The Breakwater Lighthouse was built in the harbour in 1871; the Wollongong Head Lighthouse was erected on Flagstaff Hill in 1937.
One of the recommendations the lady in the Visitor Centre gave us was the Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk. Located in the Southern Highlands about an hour southwest of Corrimal, that was a day trip in the motorhome. “The Fly” is on the Illawarra Escarpment about 700 meters (2300 feet) high up a narrow, twisting road that doesn’t allow buses or trailers. Winston is short enough to handle the switchbacks and light enough to get up the steep hills – in first gear! The Treetop Walk is a steel structure about 500 meters (550 yards) long averaging about 25 meters (82 feet) above the forest floor. There is a tower in the center with an observation deck about 45 meters (148 feet) above the forest floor.
We took a ranger-guided tour of the Walk. Nathan, our guide, provided a wealth of information about many things. He told us that there are no koalas in that region because there are only two kinds of eucalypts there. There are some 700 species of eucalypts (many more than the 200 we had previously thought), and koalas will only eat 12 of them, which do not include those two species. Additionally, they need at least four different kinds of eucalypts in their diet in order to stay healthy. Thus, there are no koalas in the park – but there are lots of wombats. He showed us several wombat burrows. One of them had a little mailbox beside it with the name “Dozer.” Jon asked if that was the wombat’s mailbox. Quick as a wink, Nathan replied, “It used to be, but he’s on Facebook now.”
We learned a bit about the Illawarra Escarpment, which has been a large presence in our lives ever since we arrived in Corrimal. This mountain range is about 92 kilometers (57 miles) long and is part of the rim of the Sydney Basin. Its highest point is about 803 meters (2,635 feet). The range is made of hard sandstone over basalt, underlain with coal. There are still many coal mines in operation, providing fuel for power plants and the coke needed to process steel. The Fly is in a warm temperate rainforest because of the action of the Escarpment in catching moisture that comes inland off the ocean. There are ancient species of tree ferns and cabbage tree palms and epiphytes among the eucalypts and blackwoods.
A bit west of the Treetop Walk is Carrington Falls, where the Kangaroo River falls off the Escarpment to drop 50 meters (about 150 feet) to the pool below. Heading east again we dove back down onto the coastal plain to the seaside town of Kiama. There, in a drenching downpour, we quickly visited the Kiama Lighthouse and the Kiama Blowhole. Even though it was pouring rain, there was almost no wind to create the large waves needed for the blowhole to spout more than a tiny plume – oh well. We did get to watch a large funnel cloud playing around over the ocean offshore.
Another day we drove north from Corrimal on the Grand Pacific Drive along the edge of the Illawarra Escarpment. Here the coastal plain narrows until the Escarpment meets the Pacific Ocean. The railway we had traveled to Sydney has stations in many little towns along this route. On the Drive we went through the hearts of many of these same little villages that were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to harvest the cedar in the hills of the Escarpment or to mine the coal seams beneath it. In 2005 the Sea Cliff Bridge was opened to bypass a troublesome area on the Grand Pacific Drive. The original highway had been built on the soft, unstable coal seams of the cliffs and was ultimately closed by a slide in 2003. The new bridge was built out over solid stone shelves away from the dangerous cliff face.
We followed the Escarpment to its northern end in the Royal National Park just south of Botany Bay on the southern edge of Sydney. This is the second oldest national park in the world (after Yellowstone National Park in the United States), having been established in 1879. At the Bald Hills Lookout on the southern edge of the park, we could see along the coast all the way south to Wollongong.