The younger generations of Wollongong’s spectacular northern beaches have rebranded the region, reclaiming their industrial history and driving a thriving cultural scene.
Bulli Pass is a left turn off the open highway, and a gateway into another world.
Wind down this steep cliff road and the air seems to get cooler, a lush botanical curtain rises on either side, and through it, the sea sparkles out on the horizon. That unmistakable feeling of a beach town finds you before you’ve even arrived.
The sea is only half the appeal of this pocket of paradise, Wollongong’s northern beaches. A dramatic escarpment rises behind it, stretching along the coast.
It’s as mesmerising to watch as the water, the sandstone and thick green forest catching the colours of the sky, sometimes disappearing entirely behind clouds.
Nestled between the escarpment and the sea sit pretty, salt-hazed towns: Bulli, Thirroul, Austinmer, Coledale, Wombarra, Scarborough, Clifton, Coalcliff and Stanwell Park, each with a distinct vibe.
They are equally beautiful at any time, but in the late afternoon, when the golden light gets trapped between mountain and sea, bouncing off miner’s cottages and frangipani trees, it’s particularly idyllic.
The name Thirroul itself derives from the aboriginal word for the cabbage tree palms that grow on the escarpment and by the sea.
Captain James Cook noted the region’s botanical wealth and a heavy surf when he sailed past in 1770. But it was the discovery of coal – black gold – by shipwrecked sailors in 1797 that would have the biggest impact on the region. It brought miners, a train line, and various other industries.
These days the once-working-class villages are more about short blacks than black gold. The Coalcliff Cokeworks site – the world’s oldest continuous coal producer – is now closed, but vestiges of an industrial past remain.
Coal seams are visible as black streaks in the cliffs of Austinmer and Wombarra, while the smokestack of Port Kembla’s steelworks looms in the southern skyline. And a new name, embracing the old, is cropping up on social media and local shop signs: the Coal Coast.
“One of the surfing websites made up the name, and we jumped on the bandwagon,” says Chris Kelly, owner of Thirroul’s Finbox. It’s 1 part surf shop and part cafe, with a record shop and gallery upstairs.
“For us it represents the fact that we are an industrial region built on coal mining and history. In the surfing scene, it differentiates us. We are not the Bondi scene, nor the Manly scene,” says Chris.
“A lot of the young surfers here are the ones into the arts, and it tends to cross over. Surfing is always quite a creative sport, every wave is different, everyone has their own style,” he says.
“The first thing you notice here is the natural beauty, but the creative culture has actually been part of this region for a long time.”
Novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote Kangaroo in Thirroul in 1922, capturing the beauty of the sea and the wild escarpment.
Artist Brett Whiteley painted in the cottage next door, and later died from a heroin overdose in the Thirroul Beach Motel. Plenty of working artists and creatives continue to find inspiration here.
“The young generation are really driving the creative scene, the sub-culture, and it rivals that of the big cities,” says Chris.
He rents the space above Finbox to mate and photographer Aaron Hughes, who runs Black Gold, a shared space that has become a hub for the creative community. He also publishes a website of the same name that profiles local art, culture and music.
“I’ve lived here for a decade now but it feels like in this past year there’s been all kinds of great stuff happening, it’s been crazy,” says Aaron.
Local label Spunk Records share the Black Gold space, and are to thank for the area’s strong reputation for live music. Big name acts often feature in Thirroul’s The Beaches hotel and the historic Anita’s Theatre next door.
The time-warped bar of Wombarra bowlo is normally full of old-timers, but in February it attracted a completely different crowd at the cleverly named Coalchella festival. Local line-ups played to a relaxed crowd on the green, with views out to the waves.
It’s this trifecta of natural beauty, a vibrant cultural scene and laid-back beach lifestyle that prompts visitors to check what the commute to work would be – surely the hallmark of any good weekender.
“The way I always explain it to everyone is it’s amazing to be in this place where we are so close to the city but so completely removed from it.
We have our unique space, it’s really creative, it’s a small-town feel, and it has a lot going for it,” says Aaron.
Ask locals and they’ll tell you any time is a good time to be here, but it feels particularly exciting right now.
The details: The Coal Coast
It’s just a 70-minute drive south from Sydney.
Ora Beach House: In beautiful Austinmer, this is great for large groups.
The Beaches: With rooms and an apartment available above this Thirroul pub, it’ll be a short walk home.
Coledale Beach Camping Reserve: This is a contender for one of the best camping spots in the country, right on the beach.