AT Readers Mark Seabury & Dee Dee Graham set out to capture some images of a small NSW coastal village, only to discover that the town’s spirit is just as inspiring as its landscapes.

All images by Mark Seabury

Reaching out to sea like a giant steel centipede, the Catherine Hill Bay coal loader groans against the force of the incoming tide, still standing as proud and strong as ever.

Symbolising the strength of this small NSW North Coast town’s spirit, the old coal loader has now become an iconic landmark to many Lake Macquarie locals and east coast surfers. Although now in permanent retirement, it’s a constant reminder of Catherine Hill Bay’s heritage and its struggles.

Those that remain are fiercely proud of their heritage, and are determined to keep this peaceful little village intact and out of the wolves’ clutches.

Standing on the beach at dawn you can almost feel the ghostly presence of the long gone miners and hear the faint echoes of a once buzzing community. You could almost be mistaken into believing that Catherine Hill Bay was one of those towns that time forgot. That is, of course, until you realise that with all its natural rugged beauty and bygone charm it’s actually a place that is simply unforgettable to many people.

Catherine Hill Bay, just south of Swansea, is a special place for many people; its natural environment is virtually unchanged since white settlement. The fabulous 2km beach is a haven for surfers, providing a steady supply of great waves without the crowds. The northern end hosts several peaceful little rock pools for those that prefer to just swim and as a bonus it has been rated one of the cleanest and most unspoilt beaches in the region.

Neatly tucked away just off the Pacific Highway, thousands of motorists pass by it daily, totally unaware of its very existence let alone its ambience and historical charm. It was once a struggling yet closely knit coalmining community but with mining ceasing in 2002, Catherine Hill Bay (or, as it’s affectionately known, “Catho”) slowly shut down, with post office, local shop and eventually the little school now ceasing to exist. In 2006 the town’s state heritage protection lapsed and, with the wolves at the door (or, as they’re affectionately known, “the developers”), Catho now has a new struggle on its hands and faces constant developmental threats.

The closure of basic amenities has seen most locals move out. Those that remain are fiercely proud of their heritage, and are determined to keep this peaceful little village intact and out of the wolves’ clutches. Most people who know this town, and everyone who has surfed her pristine beach, would be devastated to see all that history and natural beauty disappear underneath a bulldozer. Even Mel Gibson would join the battle, having made his first starring movie here, the great Aussie surf classic Summer City. Indeed, anyone who has had the Catho experience would want to keep that memory alive.

It’s a place definitely worth a day trip (only two hours from Sydney) or, even better, a weekend. Many of the old miners’ cottages now provide holiday accommodation and have great views of the beach and surrounding national parkland.

If you’re a surfer, you’ll appreciate the vibe of the town and the local surf culture. What is obvious in Catho is that while the surfing law is still respected, it’s almost like taking a day trip to the country or a childhood summer holiday. The atmosphere is just that little bit more relaxed and the people are just that little bit friendlier. These conditions alone can make for an enjoyable and memorable surfing experience.

Catho also hosts a couple of great festivals each year: the Heritage Festival; and one well known to surfers, The Catho Classic. They’re wonderful for the local community, breathing life into this tiny town and creating awareness of how important it is to preserve all of Australia’s hidden treasures, no matter how small (or hidden) they may be.

The miners may have gone but the spirit of Catho is definitely still alive. At the top of the hill, also standing proud and prominent, is the town’s other familiar landmark, the Catho Pub, and there’s no shortage of spirit here! A very popular watering hole for day-trippers and locals alike, often with live music on a Sunday, the big old verandah out front is the perfect place to chill out after a surf or swim and soak up the atmosphere, the fresh ocean air and the town’s unique history.

Now that’s a spirit worth bottling. And another image well worth capturing.

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