The small town of Helensburgh in New South Wales is known as the gateway between the cities of Sydney and Wollongong, as it is located roughly halfway between the two (45km south of Sydney s CBD and 34km north of Wollongong). The town is on the Woronora Plateau. It is separated from Otford to the south by a high hill and Otford Road. It is separated from Waterfall by tight twists of railway descending from the South Coast Line's highest point at Waterfall to Helensburgh Station.

Helensburgh is the northern-most suburb governed by Wollongong City Council, and marks the northern end of the Illawarra region, though in recent years the urban sprawl of Sydney has almost reached Helensburg. It also borders the southern end of the Royal National Park and the western side of the Garawarra State Conservation Area, which adds to the town's isolation from its neighbours. Many travellers drive straight past Helensburgh on the Southern Freeway or Princes Highway without ever even knowing the town is there.

Helensburgh is surrounded by the bushland of the Royal National Park, the Garawarra State Conservation Area and the water catchment of the Woronora Dam and adjacent Heathcote National Park, so is environmentally sensitive, though picturesque and naturally bound. This bushland location also makes Helensburgh susceptible to damage from frequent summer bushfires. The drysclerophyll bush is home to several walking tracks and lyrebirds are not uncommon nearby. From Helensburgh you can access lookouts over Kelly's Falls, a waterfall that marks the top of the Hacking River and serves as a great backdrop for a picnic or bush walk.

Helensburgh Country Fair is an annual community event, usually held on the last Saturday in October at Charles Harper Park, Helensburgh.

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Metropolitan Coal Mine

Being Australia's oldest working coal mine, and its unique geographical location, makes a visit to Helensburgh's Metropolitan Coal mine an educating and fascinating experience. The entrance to the colliery grounds is located off Parkes Street in Helensburgh. The mine itself is hidden from view, down in the valley amidst the Royal National Park. The main part of the mine is located 500 metres below ground, with workers reaching the mine via high-speed lift, and then taking an engine on rails through the 100-year-old tunnels of the original mine. The current mining operations are approximately 5 kilometres away, taking the engine about half an hour to reach. Jeeps take workers further into the smaller tunnels, before they must walk the rest of the way, with total travel time taking about an hour from the surface. Every year during the Helensburgh Country Fair, the Peabody Energy owned, Metropolitan Coal conduct ground facilities tour during the fair.

Railway Tunnels

Railway Tunnels
In 1884 there was a great demand for a rail service from Sydney to Wollongong and the construction of the Illawarra line was commenced. Settlements for railway construction workers were established at Otford and Cawley in 1884 and the coming of the railway in 1888 provided improved communications for the isolated Helensburgh. Helensburgh growth depended on the operation of the Metropolitan Colliery and its establishment was due to the opening of the railway line. In October 1888 a continuous service from Wollongong to Sydney was opened. Helensburgh's original railway station operated from January 1889 until May 1915.

Helensburgh station's duplicated curved platform is a rare remainder of early railways. The old Helensburgh railway station was covered in earth until recent years but has been partially uncovered for historical purposes. The section of line between Waterfall and Otford passed through rugged country, much of which is in the Royal National Park. So difficult was the terrain, a number of tunnels had to be built. Most of these are no longer in use, having been replaced by longer, straighter tunnels on a more direct route, that made the line easier to handle for the steam locomotives of their time. Ironically, the older, more direct route of the original line, would be far quicker and better suited to the electric trains of today than the route they now follow. The abandoned tunnels are all still accessible via an interesting bushwalk between Waterfall and Stanwell Park.


East of Helensburgh is the locality of Lilyvale, a one time mining community, now mostly part of the Royal National Park. Lilyvale once had a railway station but this was closed after mining ceased in the area. A mural depicting miners is at the starting point of the old line. A Lilyvale railway station was open from 1890 until 1983.

Otford is a former village, now satellite housing in the Otford Valley. Otford railway station once had award winning gardens and picturesque buildings. The station is used by bushwalkers accessing the southern section of Royal National Park. A local attraction is the Otford Valley riding farm, stables, horse agistment and equestrian centre. Otford's coastal ridge is home to the Otford Lookout on Lawrence Hargrave Drive which has similar views south over the Illawarra as does its southern neighbour Bald Hill.

Werrong Beach

At Otford lookout, take in spectacular coastal views up and down the coast. From here, it s a short steep climb down to Werrong Beach, passing a dramatic sandstone cliff before dropping into lush coastal rainforest of cabbage tree palms and ferns. Werrong Beach is a designated nude beach. Although the beach is beautiful, it's unsuitable for swimming due to the prominence of rips and rocks. Toilets and picnic facilities are located at Bald Hill near Stanwell Tops and Otford lookout.

Garawarra State Conservation Area

It's not often you get to retreat to the bush, so close to the city. Garawarra State Conservation Area borders the Helensburgh end of Royal National Park between Sydney and Wollongong. It is a haven of scribbly gum and red bloodwood, with patches of subtropical rainforest, making the area perfect for bushwalking and hiking. Take a walk or ride your mountain bike along Cawleys Road trail. It's a great place for birdwatching, and you could easily spot satin bowerbirds, honeyeaters and perhaps even a lyrebird. Horse riding is also popular in Garawarra, and there are scenic bridle trails located in the reserve to the west of Helensburgh. Kellys Falls are located within Garawarra State Conservation Area.

Heathcote National Park

A close neighbour of Royal National Park, Heathcote is less frequently visited and is centred around the deep valleys carved out of the sandstone by Heathcote Creek and its tributaries. 32 km south of Sydney, the park can be entered on foot from a number of places around Heathcote and Waterfall area. Once known as Heathcote Primitive Park , as it was a wild place close to Sydney. You can see the beauty and diversity of the Australian bush in this rocky park. In spring, Gymea lilies give a scarlet glow to the gullies. Swim in hidden pools along the gorges. Heathcote is a walker s park, and Discovery Rangers guide regular walks (bookings essential 02 9542 0649). Camping permits are required.

Aboriginal rock art sites
A rock shelf in a front yard in Short Street, Heathcote, contains a carving of a 2 metre long snake. There is much evidence of Aboriginal occupation in Heathcote National Park though most is not clearly identified to protect it from vandals. Of particular interest is a rock shelter used by Aborigines located beside the Bullawaring Track between Kingfisher Pool and Myuna Pools. The shelter, its roof blackened by the cooking fires of the Aborigines, once contained hand stencils on its walls but these have been obliterated by graffiti. Alongside the overhang is a rare surviving example of a scarred tree from which the bark has been cut away to form a shield. The shape of the shield is visible even though the tree is old and has been affected by bushfires.

Canoe trees
As well as a possible food source to the Aborigines of pre-colonial days, trees were an important source of bark from which canoes and shields were made. For an Aboriginal hunter finding the right tree for a canoe was one thing, getting the bark off and moulding it into a suitable river craft was quite another. In order to reach the desired piece of bark, the craftsman would need to climb and if there were no low branches, foot holds had to be cut with wooden chisels or stone axes. The valley of the Woronora River in Sydney s south was a source of canoe bark for Aborigines in the Botany Bay and Port Hacking areas. Numerous scarred trees can be seen near overhangs and caves alongside the walking trails of Heathcote National Park.

Kookaburras and New Holland honeyeaters are common in the wooden gullies while lyrebirds, yellow-tufted honeyeaters and spotted quail-thrush are less visible. Swamp wallabies, eastern native cat and platypus have been seen, but mainly in the early morning and evening. As with the Royal National Park, the majority of mammals are small and nocturnal and so are rarely seen. Possums are plentiful but are rarely seen other than at night.

To the purist bushwalker, walking inner suburban remnants of bushland is not bushwalking. Such is not the case at Heathcote, however, its main appeal being its limited vehicular access and lack of picnic areas, leaving the greater part of its area to walkers and campers. The park is home to fantastic plant life, both trees and flowers, and has plenty of lightly wooded sandstone ridges and gullies to explore. Among the best features are the pools and swimming holes which lie on both the Woronora River and Heathcote Creek. Access is easy. Leave Waterfall station, crossing the bridge over the railway. Take the Bullawaring Track at the northern end of Warabin St.

Bottle Creek Falls: Bottle Creek is a watercourse which flows through the township of Heathcote before falling over the escarpment into a deep valley. The creek then enters Heathcote Creek, which flows north into Woronora River and on into the Georges River. Close to the corner of Willandra Parade and Rosebery Street, Heathcote, the creeks passes over a small upper falls. At the end of Boundary Road it passes over another bigger falls on its way into the valley.

Kingfisher Pool: Take the Bullawaring Track at the northern end of Warabin Street from Waterfall station. Follow the fire trail to Heathcote Creek then walk alongside the creek past Bondell Pool to Kingfisher Pool, the most popular spot in the park. The at times unclearly defined track continues alongside Heathcote Creek after crossing Kingfisher Creek, passing an Aboriginal rock shelter near a tree from which a bark shield has been clearly cut before reaching Myuna Pools and its 3 metre high falls. Further on Bullawaring Track doubles back towards Waterfall along the line of Princes Hwy, completing a full day walk. Alternatively, take the Myuna Track alongside Myuna Creek past rapids to a rock amphitheatre and a spectacular waterfall as well as ruins which date back to the Depression.

Steam driven pump at Lake Toolooma

Lake Toolooma Trail: This lovely Sutherland bushwalk may only take a couple of hours to complete, but the wonderful sense of solitude it promotes gives you a real feeling of escape. Lake Toolooma trail leads you through uninterrupted bushland to a scenic secluded dam that offers great birdwatching. Though it can be quite steep at times, the trail, like most of the walks in Heathcote National Park, is easily accessed from Waterfall train station. Soak up picturesque views including Sydney sandstone vegetation and lovely water glimpses as you hike along this rough track. Keep your eyes peeled for birds like honeyeaters, wattlebirds and delicate fairy wrens.
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  • Location: 32 km south of Sydney. UBD Map 351 Ref A 4. Walk in from Heathcote or Waterfall. National Parks & Wildlife Service South Metropolitan, 02 9542 0648.

    Stanwell Tops

    Bald Hill is located at the southern end of Royal National Park on the Illawarra escarpment high above the coastal village of Stanwell Park. At the apex of Lawrence Hargrave Drive, the Bald Hill lookout takes in the panoramic 360 degree views of the Northern Illawarra and the escarpment all the way to Wollongong and Port Kembla. Whale watching, when in season, captivates many a Sydney day-tripper. Today the lookout is Sydney's most popular launching place for hang gliders. Bald Hill lookout a viewing platform for the sport. Bushwalks from Stanwell Tops lead to and through a number of abandoned railways tunnels between Otford and Helensburgh.

    It was on the beach below Bald Hill that Lawrence Hargrave, an Australian pioneer of flight, experimented with box kites in the early part of the 20th century. Set dramatically against the steep, forested escarpment cliffs, Stanwell Park has a glorious surf beach.

    Wodi Wodi Walking Track

    This is a 6.5 kilometre track, named after one of the Aboriginal tribes who lived along the Illawarra coast. The track has been designed to provide a comfortable one day circular trip, starting at Stanwell Park Station. Various points of interest are: Bullock Track used by European settlers (1820), Lawrence Hargrave House (1880) and Stanwell Park Lagoon. Picnic areas and lookouts will be encountered on the way.

    Symbio Wildlife Park

    Symbio Wildlife Gardens is a family owned zoo, and one of the largest privately owned freehold zoos in New South Wales. Bordering the Royal National Park, Symbio occupies sixteen acres of bushland. Symbio started in 1975 as a small wildlife park and has now gown to an award winning zoo and tourist attraction. Animals at the zoo include red pandas, crocodiles, alligators, meerkats, koalas, kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, monkeys, dingoes, birds of prey, snakes, reptiles, ostrich, emus and farmyard animals. Symbio is located 15 minutes south of Sutherland, just off the Southern Freeway at the Helensburgh and Stanwell Park turnoff. You can also get there via the old Princes Highway. Heading south, the park is on the right hand side on Lawrence Hargrave Drive just off the Freeway. The Zoo is open from 9.30am to 5.00pm every day except Christmas Day.

    History of Helensburgh

    Helensburgh owes its existence to the coal mine that is still in operation today, and is notable for being Australia s oldest working mine. The job opportunities provided by the mine in those early days meant that Helensburgh continued to thrive after the neighbouring villages of Cawley and Lilyvale slowly dwindled and disappeared, eventually reclaimed by the bush. The expansion of the railways to the south throughout the 1880s and 1890s also provided employment for many and added to the area s population.

    The town was a mostly poor community of working class families, but it continued to grow and expand outwards to the west of the mine. Upgrades and deviations to the railways provided more work and attracted more business to Helensburgh throughout the 1910s and 1920s. The Depression in the 1930s could very well have shut the town down, as coal just wasn t in demand like it had been, and the mine laid more and more people off, driving people away from Helensburgh. But the construction of the Woronora Dam brought workers back to the area, before WWII and post-war reconstruction in the 1950s kept the area kicking along. The 50s and 60s also brought a migrant population boom to the Burgh, and a level of affluence the town had never seen before.

    Helensburgh became more easily accessible with better roads and more affordable cars, and Helensburghers could seek entertainment outside of town, as well as attract more outside visitors. The Sydney suburban sprawl reached Helensburgh in the 1970s, real estate prices went up, more land was cleared and developed, and the population boomed throughout the 1980s, despite the difficulties the mine was now facing. Helensburgh was no longer reliant on the mine to keep it afloat, and easily weathered the several temporary closures of the mine that occurred through the80s and90s. The mine did eventually bounce back, and is still going strong today.

    Helensburgh was first known as 'Camp Creek'. It was mainly a tent town of railway workers who were constructing the Illawarra railway line. There are two different explanations for the choice of the name Helensburgh. The first is that the town was named after Helensburgh in Scotland, birthplace of the Cumberland Coal Mine's manager, Charles Harper. The second explanation is that the town was named after Harper's daughter, Helen, who may well have been named after Helensburgh in Scotland! Harper was one of the first successful coal miners and a leading community worker in Helensburgh. He was the first manager of Metropolitan Coal Company, the father of nine children and he died in a tragic mine accident in 1887. Today Helensburgh in Scotland and Helensburgh in NSW are sister cities.

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