All that remains… ghosts of former times at Bonnie Vale
Story & photographs: Russ Grayson 2002
AT FIRST, I thought the two women were just day trippers, people out to enjoy the early Spring sunshine. They stood close together, looking at the fibro shack with its galvanised iron roof that was still in good condition after all these years, and talked quietly in the stop-and-start fashion of people comfortable with each other.
“There was a community hall over there where they held dances… and over there is where we saw the ghost”, said one of the woman, pointing to an area of open space.
They moved towards where I stood, camera in hand, attaching a polarising filter to my lens. It was the younger one who spoke, a woman of late-middle age with a quiet voice. We acknowledged each other, made small talk about the warmth of the day, then somehow the discussion got around to why we were there. I explained my interest in the old huts. The woman explained that as a child she used to come on holidays here with her family.
“We lived in Newtown then. Now we live in the western suburbs”, she said.
It was on one of those holidays that, one night all those years ago, she and the other children saw the ghost that was rumoured to haunt the settlement. Now, more than 70 years after the first holiday-makers came, it is the settlement itself which is becoming a ghost of ts former self. Bonnie Vale, a monument to the way people lived and enjoyed themselves in the middle years of the Twentieth Century, has been progressively diminished by a National Parks and Wildlife service that has believed that such artifacts have no place in our national parks. A pocket of Sydney’s social history could disappear from the south bank of the Hacking River.
A modest settlement of ordinary people
The modest, fibro and galvanised iron huts that dot the flat land between the forested hills and the beach at Bonnie Vale have been holiday home to generations of Sydney families. They occupy a small corner of Royal National Park, Australia’s first and most-visited park which separates Sydney’s sprawling southern suburbs from the Illawarra region to the south. Continuing a 70-year old tradition, each January Sydney families gather on the flats to erect their tents, to swim, fish and enjoy the end-of-year break.
The densely-packed settlement of owner-built holiday buildings that was Bonnie Vale pre-dates the incorporation of the area into the national park in 1947. By the 1950s, the impromptu, unplanned settlement was a thriving village of modest, simple huts of the kind one built by holidaymakers at other settlements at South Era, Bulgo, Little Garie and Burning Palms, all now within Royal National Park. Like these other settlements, Bonnie Vale evolved from a seasonal tent city.
Recollections of Bonnie Vale’s early history are vague. According to the NPWS, “It is not clear when the cabins at Bonnie Vale were first constructed. An early reference suggests that some fishermen’s huts may have been in existence before 1918 but this is unsubstantiated and conflicts with other evidence. One other report proposed the 1930s and it is apparent that there were cabins at Bonnie Vale before the Second World War.”
Stephen Ward, once a resident of neighbouring Bundeena and publisher of Village Voice, the local newspaper, wrote in The Bulletin that, ” …between the ’30s and the ’50s (Bonnie Vale) grew to about 500 permanent campsites and about 200 fibro cabins. At first, the depression accounted for its popularity, as Syd
Stephen wrote that by the late-1970s most of the huts were occupied by pensioners who received a rent concession from the NPWS.
At the turn of the Twentieth Century the land was privately owned by William Simpson who built a hotel on the foreshore. Today, the NPWS ranger’s house stands on the foundations of the hotel. According to Stephen, the hotel gained some noteriety. “…by the ’30s the hotel’s location made it a haven for a section of Sydney’s racing fraternity. It was known for after-hours drinking and all-night two-up and poker games”.
As the settlement evolved, huts became more closely spaced and a community centre was built. But by the late-1960s, the settlement had gone into decline. The number of huts was reduced from a NPWS count of 171 in the 1960s, 123 in 1971, 59 in 1982, 31 in 1992 to about 20 cabins today. “At this rate they would all be removed by 2000”, the NPWS erroneously predicted in its 1994 draft Cabins Conservation Plan.
The decline in hut numbers was due not to bushfire, not to abandonment and decay, not to any natural agency. It was due to the NPWS which, since 1967, has been knocking them down.
Within big institutions like national parks services, ideas change and notions about the role and place of people in the bush vie for dominance. Notions are replaced as new staff bring new ideas.
The belief that human works should be removed from at least some national parks, for example, became popular in the 1970s as the idea of ‘wilderness’ as something free from human impact gained ascendency. Later, people realised that humans, both indigenous and European, had long been a factor in what are now national parks and wilderness areas and their works represented a heritage, an example of the human experience in those places. So it is that national parks today contain historic sites.
Yet old notions linger into new times and it was this that the woman with whom I spoke that warm saturday morning confronted as she acknowledged, sadly, that the huts — a part of her own family’s history as much as they are a part of the wider social history of the southern Sydney region — would go. I could tell from her voice that she was unhappy about this, that something of value was to be taken from her as much as from the rest of Sydney, that the past was to be obliterated.
Bonnie Vale reborn
When the huts go, Bonnie Vale will be redeveloped for camping. That the NPWS would do this is understandable for, each January, there are more would-be campers than there are campsites. Bonnie Vale has 40 campsites and between 15,000 and 20,000 visitor nights a year, according to the NPWS. The lucky ones are those pulled out of the ranger’s hat in the ballot for a campsite.
But what of the people who continue to holiday in the remaining huts under an agreement with the NPWS? Well, they are going to go, and to make sure that they do they will be offered five-year, non-renewable leases. Pensioners whose only residence is a Bonnie Vale hut will be offered a life tenancy. As the huts are demolished as their leases expire, permanent buildings will be replaced by the ephemeral campsites of seasonal visitors.
I left the two women to wander among the huts, to relive their memories of childhood and family, to recall ghosts seen or unseen.
As I pointed my camera at those modest buildings still a part of the living memory of many people I know that they were the visible part of an Australian experience fast disappearing.
Therese WilkinsJuly 24, 2010 at 5:18 am
Hi I am doing an art course at Ourimbah and we have to do some work on something from memories as a child in the very early 50s.. I came to Bonnie Vale with mum and dad and nan to the shacks at bonnie vale my parents owned own and my great aunt elizabeth another …. So was scouting for some photos as being 3 etc I dont have any of those days what a shame.. I love this site found by accident.. thankyou…
Les SmithJanuary 3, 2016 at 1:02 am
My dad had one of the “shacks” there around 1960 called “Seabreeze” (I was around 18 yo and used to sail a Moth sailing boat over to Cronulla to race and then sail back again. Initially they were not even allowed “tin” roofs (malthoid being the most common). A small water tank was allowed and we used bottled LPG for lights and cooking.
I probably have photos/slides buried away somewhere if anyone is interested.
Russ GraysonFebruary 20, 2016 at 9:05 am
Thanks for commenting Les.
Could I encourage you to publish those photos online when you locate them? There is a lot of interest in Australian shack culture especially when it is accompanied by oral history like your comment about your own experiecne. I discoved this when I wrote on my website about the old fishermen’s huts at Crater Cove in that is now Sydney Harbour National Park.
Yvonne IdeFebruary 4, 2023 at 10:22 pm
After ww11 my grandmother had a huge big green army bell tent at Bonnie Vale.We loved to go there,the grass inside was quite long and we slept on canvas stretchers,also probably army.After some time my parents built one on the front row,we just walked over a grassy mound to the beach.We called Bonnie Vale the “camp” and huts were referred to as weekenders.
I remember a ranger used to come around,he looked like a bus conducted t or with his cap,blue uniform and money bag slung over his shoulder.He collected the fee,about 2 shillings a week or some ridiculously low amount.
Near the wharf was a big shed like building which served as general store.At this time the roadvthrough the National Park was more like a dirt track and took hours by road.Best way to travel was train to Cronulla and catch the ferry across,could only access Bonnie Vale at high tide because of sandbar so more frequently we would arrive at Bundeena wharf and walk around to Bonnie Vale with luggage,they later ran a bus.
These were th fondest memories of my childhood and younger years.Nothing could ever come close to this wonderful time spent there.
My parents were there till the 1970s then had to leave as the fees became too expensive for normal working class families. They wanted weekenders out so it could be “developed “,such a shame.Would give anything to be able to revisit these wonderful,unforgettable times.I am 78 yes old now and live on mid North Coast NSW,but never forget Bonnie Vale.
I also remember the house they floated across from I think,Como,th Bundeena beach.It was a guest house,rest home and I think store facing beach.Last I read somewhere it was a museum?