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Kiama, NSW

Popular day tripper beach town on the South Coast famed for its blowhole.

Kiama is a well-known and popular coastal resort town known, around Australia, for the famous Kiama Blowhole, a cavern-like fissure in the volcanic rocks which produces dramatic 'blows' of water when the winds and waves are in the right direction. In recent times Kiama has become a popular daytripper destination for people from Greater Wollongong (which lies just to the north) and southern and south-western Sydney. Consequently the town is now awash with coffee lounges and fast food outlets although the council has resisted any high rise development. In many ways Kiama still maintains the charm of an historic seaside town with a small boat harbour. When the onshore breezes are blowing there is the tang of salt spray. Large areas beside the coast have been set aside as parkland suitable for picnics and family activities and there are pleasant walking paths along the coastline. The hinterland behind the town is dominated by lush green dairy pastures, and rolling hills which were once clad in dense subtropical forests.

Location

Kiama is located 120 km south of Sydney via the M1 (F6) and the Princes Highway.

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Origin of Name

The area around Kiama was originally occupied by the Wodi Wodi tribal group of the Tharawal Aborigines who knew this section of the coast as 'Kiarama-a' or 'Kiar-mai'. No one is sure what the word meant. Meanings including 'where the sea makes a noise' (an obvious reference to the blowhole) exist but so too do 'fertile area', 'mysterious spirit' and 'plenty food: good fishing ground'. It is known that the Wodi Wodi referred to the blowhole as 'Khanterintee' which may have meant 'mysterious noise'.

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Things to See and Do

The Blowhole
Kiama's most famous natural attraction is the Blowhole. It has been attracting people to the town since the 1880s (when the railway arrived) and still is a magnet for people visiting the town. The problem in recent years has been the apparent widening of the opening which means it "blows" spectacularly only when the wind and waves are coming from the south-east. When the conditions are right it is common to see spray from the blowhole being hurled across the car park and drenching the walkway out to the viewing platform to the east of the cave-like aperture but it is always worth remembering that in 1888 the local paper could report that "The Kiama Blowhole was, on Saturday morning, in a state of activity that has not been witnessed for many a day. The south-east wind which blew on Saturday had the effect of disturbing the peaceful billows, and caused them to foam and roll to a degree that was extremely dangerous to shipping. The visitors who had arrived in Kiama by Saturday's train had ample opportunity on Sunday morning of witnessing great volumes of water being forced up higher than the lighthouse through the huge crater which bears the somewhat singular, though nevertheless applicable cognomen of 'blowhole'."

The Rock Pools
Kiama has two rock pools where hardy locals can swim all year round. They are located at the north and south edges of the harbour entrance. The northern one was built in 1888 and was designed to reflect the indecency laws of the time which forbade bathing in public. The southern rock pool can be spectacular (and dangerous) when the tide is high and the sea is rough. It tends to be cleaned out by each high tide.

The Little Blowhole
If the town's main blowhole isn't blowing it is worth making the effort and going to the Little Blowhole in Tingira Crescent. Just a small fissure in the rocks, it seems to blow nearly all the time and if the wind and tide are coming from the north east it will shoot high spouts of water into the air. The route is complicated and poorly sign posted but the visitor's centre can provide a map and clear instructions.

Kiama Coast Walk
There is a 22 km walking trail from the Minnamurra River north of Kiama through to Gerringong. It is the kind of walk which can be experienced in small, bite-sized chunks or taken as a full day stroll along the coast. There is an excellent, detailed brochure available at the Kiama Visitors Centre which breaks the walk into three distinct sectors

(a) Minnamurra River to Kiama Blowhole - 8.4km - medium - three hours which passes through Kiama Downs, around the edges of Jones Beach, past Cathedral Rocks (at this point it is worth heading east to the Boneyard where the quarrying has left a large number of dramatic hexagonal basalt columns in a place that looks like a moonscape.  The site is considered of international geological interest and is protected by a permanent conservation order. Then the walk heads along Bombo Beach, up Pheasants Point and then down to Black Beach and up to the lighthouse and the blowhole.

(b) Blowhole Point to Loves Bay - 5km - medium - 1.5 hours - is a walk through southern suburban Kiama along the coastline. There are plenty of views from the headlands and pleasant walks past Surf, Kendalls Beach and Easts Beach.

(c) Loves Bay to Gerringong - 6km - medium - 2 hours - is the most dramatic and beautiful section of the walk as it passes around the cliffs, with Saddleback Mountain rising to the west, on a quiet and peaceful stretch of the coastline. In season the walk is an ideal vantagepoint for whale spotting as they make their way up or down the coast.

Whale Watching from the Boneyard and Pheasants Point
In season (May-June and October-November) large numbers of whales - particularly humpbacks and right whales - make their way up and down the coast from the Antarctic to Hervey Bay on the Queensland coast. The best viewing spots around Kiama are the headland at the north end of Bombo Beach (often referred to as the Boneyard Headland) and Pheasants Point, the promontory on the northern side of Black Beac

Bonaira Native Gardens
Bonaira Native Gardens are hidden in a valley behind an oval at the southern end of town. After turning left into Bonaira Street the visitor turns into Girrawheen Avenue. Many of the trees and bush are clearly marked with plaques indicating that this small section of regenerated land contains youthful Illawarra flame trees, a mature Giant Stinging Tree, Cabbage tree palms and Giant ferns. There are large areas which are ideal for picnics.

Spring Creek Wetlands
To the north-west of the town is another path through some interesting regenerated wetlands (it can be accessed either from the Kiama-Jamberoo Road or from a path which runs beside the town cemetery). Many of the trees are described on plaques and there is an excellent bird hide where, in season, it is possible to see cormorants, moorhens, coots, swans and many other local species.

Historic Signage
In recent times a program to record the history of the town in plaques with accompanying photographs has created a situation where visitors can appreciate the importance of the blue metal industry to the town and the slow evolution of the working harbour. The signs are spread around town - mostly in the main street and around the walk to the lighthouse and harbour - and are detailed and informative.

Historic Buildings Around the Town
The Lighthouse
At dawn the sun rises behind the lighthouse which stands on the headland above the blowhole. It was opened in 1887 in response to a number of shipwrecks along the coast and was converted to electricity in 1969. The lighthouse is 15m tall and can be seen from 27km out at sea. There was a time when it was maintained by a lighthouse keeper but today it is automated. It is particularly beautiful at sunset when the sky behind it turns a delicate shade of pink.

Pilot's Cottage Museum
Kiama's history museum is located in the Pilot's Cottage which was the residence of the harbour pilots for 100 years from 1881 to 1981. The building is a typical country cottage designed by the office of the colonial architect to house public servants. Basalt was used for the external walls, local cedar was used internally and ironbark for the floors. It was extended in 1881 and again in the 1930s resulting in the original design being largely hidden. The museum is open Friday - Monday from 11.00am - 3 .00pm, tel: (02 4236 0130). The exhibits include an interesting collection of memorabillia about local author Charmian Clift and sections on George Bass and the quarrying of blue metal in the area.

Christ Church above Storm Bay
The modest Gothic Revival Christ Church was built in 1858 of local basalt and red cedar. It was based on a design by Edmund Blacket (he designed St Andrews Cathedral and Sydney University Quadrangle). The design incorporates a number of nautical motifs. The timber ceiling, made from local cedar, is in the form of an inverted ship's hull. It  was added in 1872. There are also nautical blue windows above the altar and the ensign of the H.M.S. Kiama.

Like the Anglican Church at Jamberoo the original design has been modified by enthusiastic locals with the interior being plastered and refurnished, the exterior cement-rendered, and the belfry and porch were replaced by a bell-tower (1922) which is a memorial to parishioners who served in the First World War. Locally it is known for the grave of John Gowen (1763?-1837), a marine from the First Fleet, which can be viewed in the small graveyard.

The Post Office
One of Kiama's most dominant buildings is the pink Italianate post office at the bottom of the main street. Designed by the Colonial Architect, James Barnet, in what is known as Victorian Classical Revival structure with colonnades and tall, square clock towers, it was completed in 1878.

The Court House
The Kiama Courthouse on Terralong Street is one of the oldest public buildings on the south coast. It was designed by colonial architect Alexander Dawson in 1861. Next door is the local police station which was designed by James Barnet (1884) on the site of the local lock-up which dated  from 1855.

Presbyterian Church
Further along Terralong St is the attractive sandstone Presbyterian Church (1863) which is located on the site where church services were held as early as 1840. The steeple and bell were added in 1898.

Kiama Infants School
Now almost hidden by the Blue Diamond pub and the Sebel Hotel on Shoalhaven Street is the remarkable basalt building that was the Kiama Infants School. The central single-storey section was built in 1871 and additions were made, including a second storey, over the next two decades.

Kiama Terrace
One of Kiama's most distinctive buildings is the run of houses (now shops) known as the Kiama Terraces which are on the left as visitors enter the town from the Princes Highway. They were originally small houses designed as residences for blue metal quarry workers and their families and were built in 1886. They are now the only weatherboard terraces left in NSW and, as such, they have been classified by the National Trust and placed under a permanent conservation order.

Kiama Inn Hotel
The one hotel in Terralong Street is now known as the Kiama Inn. It stands on the site where  the Fermanagh Hotel was built in 1842. It was replaced by Tory's Hotel, a handsome building with cast-iron lacework, in 1888. It became the vital centre of town and was the local stopping point for the Cobb and Co coaches. Today the cast iron and the balcony have been removed and it has been modernised.

The Banks in Manning Street
The ES&A Bank
Now a private home, and previously a branch of the ANZ Bank, this building on the corner of Morton Street and Manning Street is a simple, two-storey, Georgian house with internal fittings which included cedar skirtings, architraves, doors and windows and oregon floorboards. It was built in 1859 as the largest store in the district but by 1860 the ES&A Bank had rented office space and by 1875 they had purchased the entire building. It became the bank manager's residence and in 1885 extensions, including a downstairs ballroom, were added. It was the birthplace Sir George Fuller who was the NSW premier - 1922-1925.

Westpac Bank
At 16 Manning Street is the Westpac Bank, a two-storey stuccoed stone and brick building with wrought-iron railings and gate. Designed in the Victorian Classical Revival style iit opened in 1887 as the City Bank of Sydney. The figurehead of George Thorton, original chairman of the bank, appears proudly in the front of the building. Next door are the offices of the Kiama Independent in a building which was originally the Commercial Bank of Sydney (1881).

Hartwell House
The most elegant house in Kiama (now a private home) is Hartwell House which is located on the corner of Bourroul and Farmer Streets (off Manning Street). It was built in 1858 by Thomas Chapman and named after a residence near Aylesbury in England. It is a delightful example of an early Victorian country house with a stone veranda, turned timber columns, 12-pane sash windows, intricate cornices and roses on the plastered ceilings and cedar joinery. Backing onto Farmer Street are high walls of basalt and a coach-house, groom's quarters and large stable. The postern gate still has a hitching post and mounting block. It is not open for inspection.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Australia's First Co-operative Butter Factory and the road to Jamberoo
The site of Australia's first co-operative butter factory (1884) is commemorated on the Kiama-Jamberoo Road. It is recalled by a small nondescript plinth with a wooden milk bucket (made out of concrete) beside the road only a few metres beyond Spring Creek on the north-western side of the road about 2 km out of Kiama. This winding road which makes its way from Kiama across the hills and along the valley to Jamberoo can be explained by the fact that it follows the same route as that laid down by the local roads committee in 1841 when only horses and bullocks used it.

Deep Sea Fishing and Whale Watching
There are a number of charter operators in Kiama harbour who are happy to use their vessels for whale watching (in season) or deep sea fishing. Kiama is known for the temptation of marlin, yellowfin tuna, kingfish, mulloway, snapper, flathead, morwong, bream and blackfish all of which are still plentiful off the coast. Ask at the Visitor Information Centre or, if you are staying a few days, simply walk down to the harbour and talk to the owners.

Saddleback Mountain Lookout
One of the great views on the South Coast is that from Saddleback Mountain. To the north the visitor can see Lake Illawarra, Port Kembla and Wollongong. To the south is Seven Mile Beach, Coolangatta Mountain and Shoalhaven Heads. From Jamberoo the visitor should head towards Kiama, turn south into Fountaindale Road and follow the signs. The reserve at the lookout  is modest but the mountain, which is the point where the escarpment tumbles down to the sea, offers one of the best views on the whole of the south coast.

Hoddles Track
Bushwalkers eager to gain even better views should head to the western end of the Saddleback reserve where there is a sign pointing to Hoddles Track. In 1830 Robert Hoddle cut a track from the Southern Highlands to Kiama so that produce from the highlands could be shipped to Sydney. Little remains of the track (it was replaced by the easier Macquarie Pass) but this track leads from Saddleback up the escarpment. The track is marked with green posts to indicate the route. It is rough, very steep at times, and takes about four hours return. My colleague, Ivan Coates, walked the track about a decade ago and offers the following helpful advice: "When you reach the second marker you can go left or right, the left being a steeper descent. Stone fencing can be seen here and an old trail branches off to the left, leading to Foxground Road, which, in turn, leads south to the Princes Highway. Climb over the stile to enter Barren Grounds. The ascent up Noorinan Mountain is steep but you are surrounded by remarkable and cool rainforest and the breathtaking views from the summit make the effort worthwhile. Looking out to the coast, Seven Mile Beach and, beyond that, Jervis Bay lie to the south. To the north are Kiama and Wollongong. A shorter, if more strenuous route to the top, is by a rope which dangles down just before the track turns to the left as it begins its ascent to the lookout."

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Wodi Wodi Aborigines who spoke the Tharawal language had lived in the area for tens of thousands of years.

* A census of Aborigines in 1838 revealed that there were 49 Tharawal people living in the Illawarra of whom a small number were living in a camp in Kiama. By the 1901 census there were 13 Aborigines living beside the Minnamurra River, 18 living at Bombo and 3 at Kiama.

* In December 1797 the explorer George Bass, during his journey down the South Coast in Governor Hunter's whaleboat, became the first European to sight the blowhole. He anchored in the area now known as Black Beach and described the 'tremendous noise' this 'subterraneous passage' produced.

* Cedar cutters were drawn to the area in the 1810s and by 1815, as they cut down the local forests, Kiama's main beach, Black Beach, became an important place for loading the timber onto ships bound for Sydney. By the 1820s Kiama was supplying nine-tenths of the Sydney cedar market.

* Around this time the local mill manager's daughter who wrote that the trip from Wollongong to Jamberoo "was a mere day track through a forest of tropical foliage; gum trees 200 [feet] or more in height, gigantic india-rubber trees with broad shining green leaves, lofty cabbage palms, and many other kinds of tree towered above us, so that their tops made a twilight canopy, unpenetrable to the sunlight, save for an infrequent clearing in the forest made by the settler's axe."

* The district was surveyed in 1819 by surveyor James Meehan. John Oxley, the NSW surveyor-general at the time, explored the area and named it 'Kiarami'. Development of the town was slow. The land around the harbour was reserved by 1826 and surveys laying out the town were carried out in 1830 and 1831.

* It is widely accepted that a timber cutter, David Smith, was the first permanent European. He settled in the town in 1821 and built a permanent house in 1832 which became Kiama's first tavern, the Gum Tree Inn, in 1837. The town was gazetted in 1839.

* Kiama developed as a shipping and service centre for the timber and gravel industries. In the 1840s mooring chains were attached to the rocks on either side of Black Beach. Two of the original iron posts can be seen, driven into the rocks, from the concrete walkway on the north-western side of the harbour. They are on the rocks near the oval. The posts are Kiama's oldest surviving historic relic.

* Prior to its construction, on the site originally reserved for a town hall, the postal service was conducted on private premises from 1841 and before the railway arrived the mail was delivered by coach. Kiama was receiving deliveries twice weekly by 1842.

* Dairying began in the district in 1842 and by 1880 Kiama butter was being shipped directly to England. It was the site of Australia's first butter co-operative which opened in 1884.

* The 1840s saw a local building boom with the town's the first church (Anglican) completed in 1843, the first local school in 1844 and a jetty was completed in 1849. By 1851 there were 199 residents in the town.

* In 1861 the first public school opened and in 1863 the Kiama Independent was founded. Until recently when it became part of the Fairfax Media group it was published by the Weston family and was the oldest family-owned newspaper in NSW.

* The town's first basalt/blue metal quarry began in 1855 where the Kiama Leisure Centre is now situated, in Havilah Place. The crushed gravel was taken to Black Beach by horse and dray where, before a proper wharf was constructed, it was floated by barge to waiting ships.

* The harbour was completed in 1876 and this with an increased demand for blue metal from Sydney (it was being laid between the tracks for tramways and railways) saw the basalt-quarrying industry in Kiama boom.

* In 1880 the basalt business was expanded with two quarries being opened at Bombo. Such was the demand for the gravel that a special 'stone fleet' was transporting 400 tonnes of rock a day in 1883. At times there were as many as six ships waiting offshore ready to load up.

* In 1880 a tramline was built to transport basalt from Bombo to Kiama harbour but it was unsuccessful and it wasn't until 1914 that a successful line was laid. It operated until 1941. One of the trams, built in Ohio and named 'Kiama', is housed at the Illawarra Light Railway Museum in Albion Park.

* In 1887 the railway from Sydney arrived at Bombo. After extensive tunnelling it reached Kiama in 1893. It expanded the market for local basalt and saw local butter and milk being taken by rail to Sydney.

* The establishment of a direct rail link to Sydney in 1893, combined with an improvement in the Princes Highway, saw Kiama become an increasingly popular holiday destination and so the local economy was increasingly driven by tourism so that today it is a popular daytripper destination.

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Visitor Information

Kiama Visitors Centre, Blowhole Point Road, tel: (02) 4232 3322

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Useful Websites

Kiama Tourism has its own site. Check out http://www.kiama.com.au

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