Home » Towns » New South Wales » Kurnell, NSW

Kurnell, NSW

Historic site on Botany Bay where Captain Cook landed.

Kurnell is a large peninsula that juts out into the Tasman Sea between Botany Bay, on the northern side, and Port Hacking on the southern side. It is a site of great historical importance as it was at Kurnell that both Captain Cook and Governor Phillip first set foot on Australian soil, first raised the flag of British territorial and imperial claim, and had their first encounters with Aborigines and the strangely unfamiliar and exotic Australian bush. Today the peninsula is divided between industry, a national park (the Kamay Botany Bay National Park) and the small, isolated suburb of Kurnell. 
The Kurnell peninsula is predominantly sand with a rocky headland at its eastern end. Although 100 ha around Captain Cook's original landing point were set aside in 1899, much of the peninsula has been seriously damaged by sandmining operations, clearing, grazing and hunting. Koalas have been wiped out in the bushland. 
Since the 1950s numerous large-scale industrial operations have taken place. The peninsula has also been used for landfill, sewage is discharged from the peninsula's coastline, noxious weeds have spread alarmingly and urban development is also posing a serious threat to the peninsula's ecology. 
Only a section has been saved. The Kamay Botany Bay National Park, covering the entire eastern headland, was declared in 1984. It protects a number of important and interesting historic sites on the headland. The bays between Towra Point and Bonna Point (in the middle of the peninsula's northern shore) were also declared a reserve in 1975. Towra Point was the Federal Government's first declared Nature Reserve. It preserves Sydney's largest extent of saltmarsh and mangroves, which has become an important breeding, roosting and feeding site for waterbirds, including a number of threatened species. A visit to Kurnell, while a mixed blessing, is a rare opportunity to see exactly where modern European Australia started.


Kurnell is located 36 km south of Sydney's CBD on the southern shores of Botany Bay.


Origin of Name

It is widely accepted that the Gweagal Aboriginal group, part of the larger Dharawal group, called the peninsula "Cunnel" which was Anglicised to become Kurnell.


Things to See and Do

Kurnell Visitor Centre
Once called the Discovery Centre and now renamed the Kurnell Visitor Centre, this excellent facility, located on Solander Drive, has displays and information relating to the history of the area, the first meeting of the local Aborigines and the crew of the Endeavour, and the ecology of the peninsula, particularly the significant wetlands and the woodland forests that have evolved since the observations of the local flora by Joseph Banks in 1770. It is open from 10.00 am to 3.30 pm Monday to Friday and from 9.30 am - 4.00 pm  on weekends, tel: (02) 9668 2000. For more information check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/visitor-centres/kurnell-visitor-centre.

Captain Cook's Landing Place and the Monument Track 
The Landing Place is where Cook and his crew, including noted botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, became the first Europeans to set foot on the soil of eastern Australia in 1770. It was here where Cook and his crew spent eight days, resting, replenishing the supplies aboard the boats, carrying out scientific studies and, perhaps most significantly, where the British and local Aborigines first met.

The Ten Places on the Monument Track
The Monument Track (an easy 1.5 km) is a self-guided walk which starts at the main flagstaff, not far through the picnic grounds from the Visitor Centre. There are ten monuments, from graves to plaques and grand obelisks, along the foreshore. This is where, on 29 April 1770, Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay. 

1. Solander Monument
Walking down from the Kurnell Visitor Centre the visitor first sees Solander Monument, a grand obelisk which was erected by his fellow countrymen in 1914 to celebrate the Swedish naturalist who accompanied Cook. The signage is simple: "This is erected in memory of Daniel Carl Solander who together with Capt James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks landed in Australia in April 1770. Erected by his countrymen in Australia, August 1914."

2. The Endeavour and Botany Bay
Located near to the Solander Monument is the huge timber and metal anchorage buoy of the Endeavour.

3. Sutherland Grave
Just a few metres further west along the shoreline is the grave of Forby Sutherland who, having died on 2 May 1770, has the dubious distinction of being the first British subject to die in Australia – or first European to die on the Eastern Australian mainland. The monument marks the approximate site of his grave. It was marked by the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1923. The plaque states: "Forby Sutherland - A seaman on the Endeavour under Captain Cook. The first British subject to die in Australia. Was buried here 1st May (Loc Date) 2nd May (Calendar Date) 1770. R.A.H.S."

4. Alpha Farm
This is the site of the district's first home, Alpha House, which was built by James Birnie in 1815. The next owner, John Connell, built a new house on the foundations in 1828, retaining the underground cool rooms. When it was abandoned in the 1890s, a local boy found a tin pot full of half crowns in the foundations and what remained of the house was destroyed by hopefuls who went treasure hunting. A new Alpha House was built on the site in 1902. The sign notes: "In 1902 the trustees built the timber house on the hill above for the caretaker of the Reserve. It is now the ranger's residence. The house stands where a stone cottage called Alpha Farm was originally built in the 1820s."

5. Cook's Stream
This is the site of the stream which supplied the Endeavour with fresh water supplies and where Cook encountered a number of Aborigines. It is recorded by a simple bronze plaque: "From this small stream Captain Cook took water for his ship Endeavour which entered the heads 28th April 1770." There is a map, drawn by Cook, on the plaque beside the stream and the source - Cook's Journal April, 1770 - which notes: "Sunday 29th [Log date] - After breakfast we sent some Empty Casks a shore and a party of men to cut wood, and I went myself in the pinnace to sound and explore the bay."

6. The Aboriginal Inhabitants
At the landing place is an important bronze plaque which reminds visitors that Cook and his crew were not welcome. It reads: "The Landing Place of Captain Cook April 28th 1770. The following brief extracts relating to the Landing of Captain Cook and his party on the rock opposite this tablet are taken from the original MS Journal of Sir Joseph Banks in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. The journal records that: "The natives resolutely disputed the landing, "although there were but two, and we thirty or forty at least." Parleying with these two continued for about a quarter of an hour. "They remained resolute, so a musket was fired over them, the effect of which was that the youngest of the two dropped a bundle of lances on the rock. He, however, snatched them up again and both renewed their threats and opposition A musket loaded with small shot was now fired at the eldest of the two who was about 40 yards from the boat, it struck him on the legs but he minded it very little, so another was immediately fired at him, on this he ran up to the house about 100 yard distant and soon returned with a shield. In the meantime we had landed on the rock." Several 'lances' were immediately thrown and fell among the party. This caused two further discharges of small shot, when, after throwing another lance, the natives fled."

7. Banks Monument
The Joseph Banks monument is a simple bronze image of his head with the inscription "In grateful memory of Sir Joseph Banks 1743-1820. Famous British Scientist who visited these shores with Captain James Cook R.N. in 1770. His advocacy of British settlement in New South Wales, his beneficial influence on its early administration, his comprehensive researches into its flora, his vigorous personality and breadth of vision merit his recognition as The Patron of Australia." The memorial was unveiled in 1947.

8. Cook Monument
The Cook Obelisk, a grand sandstone monument constructed to celebrate the centenary of the landing. In 1870, Kurnell landowner and politician Thomas Holt erected a monument to celebrate the centenary of Cook's visit. It dominates the foreshore just to the south of the landing place. The plaque says simply "Captain Cook Landed Here 28th April, A.D. 1770. This monument was erected A.D. 1870, by the Honorable Thomas Holt, M.L.C., Victoria Regina, The Earl of Belmore, Governor &c."

9. Cook's Landing Place
There is a small plinth on the rocks where Midshipman Isaac Smith (cousin of Captain Cook's wife), according to family folklore, became the first European to set foot on Sydney suburban soil. It's easy to walk out at low tide and less easy at high tide. Then ask yourself the obvious question: "Why land on the rocks when you could land on the beach nearby?" The plinth states: "According to tradition in the Cook family Midshipman Isaac Smith (cousin of the wife of Captain James Cook R.N.), afterwards an Admiral of the British Fleet, was the first Englishman to land on this rock and on the shores of New South Wales, April 29, 1770."

10. Cook's Well
The simple brass plaque states: "The records of HMS Endeavour point to this spot (where at one time a well existed, known as Cook's Well to the early settlers of Botany Bay) as the Watering Place frequently mentioned in Captain Cook's Journal, from which the following is an extract: "I sent a party of men ashore in the morning to a place where we first landed to dig holes in the sand, by which means and a small stream they found fresh water sufficient to water the ship.""

Muru and Yena Tracks 
These two tracks form a 2.5 km, one-hour loop walk. They lie on the southern side of Solander Drive just opposite the Visitor Centre. The walks take visitors to the sandstone cliffs which provide excellent views over the Pacific Ocean and the coast. It is possible to branch off the Yena Track along the short Banks-Solander Track. Along the way it is possible to see a wide variety of Sydney's coastal scrub plant species. Whales can be sighted offshore between May and November.

The Banks-Solander Track 
This easy 1 km walk is a nature trail that departs from the Yena Trail. Starting a short distance from the Visitor Centre, it is a self-guided track that provides glimpses of some of the remnant vegetation that was noted by Cook's botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, in 1770. The views are panoramic and beautiful.

The Cape Baily Coast Walk
This walk offers dramatic coastal views from the sandstone cliffs of the headlands. It also passes hanging swamps, sand dunes, spring wildflowers, historic sites and Cape Baily Lighthouse. The distance is 4 km each way. Along the way it is possible to see terns, kestrels and sea eagles and, from May to November, humpback whales can be seen offshore. 
The walk, which is 5.5 km return and takes around 2 hours (that is from Cape Solander Drive to Cape Baily Lighthouse), starts at the end of Solander Drive and takes walkers around the coast to Cronulla Beach. The coastline around Cape Baily is exposed, often windy and it offers no facilities or shelter. 
The lighthouse was first mooted in 1931 and finally built in 1950, although its lantern enclosure was taken from an unknown late 19th century lighthouse. It is now powered by solar panels, has an elevation of 54.9 metres above sea level (the lighthouse stands 9.1 metres) and it has a range of 10 nautical miles. It provides fine views of Kurnell Peninsula and its coastal heathlands and is close by significant Aboriginal sites and several important wetland areas. The lighthouse was required so that ships travelling north could avoid the strong southerly currents which lie further out to sea. They could hug the coast. There is an excellent, detailed site with a map and all details. Check out http://www.wildwalks.com/bushwalking-and-hiking-in-nsw/botany-bay/cape-baily-coast-walk.html.

Towra Point Nature Reserve and Towra Point Aquatic Reserve
The bays between Towra Point and Bonna Point (in the middle of the Kurnell Peninsula's northern shore) were declared a 603 ha reserve in 1975, making it the Federal Government’s first declared Nature Reserve. It preserves Sydney's largest areas of saltmarsh and mangroves, which has become an important site for waterbirds, including a number of threatened species. Some 95% of Sydney’s salt marshes and 50% of its mangroves are to be found here. There are 200 bird species and 300 plant species. The flora represents a remnant of what existed when Captain Cook arrived. Apart from saltmarshes and mangroves, the wetland complex includes littoral forest, artificial lakes created by sand mining which have evolved into frail ecosystems, seagrasses (eelgrass, strap weed and paddle weed), mudflats, dunes, beaches, sand spits, bars and tidal wetlands. There is a viewing platform on the southern side of Quibray Bay which can be accessed from Captain Cook Drive. For more detailed information check out http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fishing/marine-protected-areas/aquatic-reserves/towra-point-aquatic-reserve and http://www.ssec.org.au/our_environment/our_bioregion/towra/about/wise_use.htm.


Other Attractions in the Area

A Detailed History of Kurnell 
1. First Contact - Cook and the Gweagal - "all they seemed to want was for us to be gone".
Indigenous Australians had occupied the land at Kurnell for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Captain Cook. Archaeological evidence has revealed that the locals have been feasting on fish and shellfish on the peninsula for at least 2000 years. The Gweagal tribe, part of the larger Dharawal Aboriginal group, were living on the peninsula at the time of the arrival of Europeans. The abundance of seafood meant they were permanent residents who fished with barbed spears and fishing lines with hooks made from shells and were guardians of sacred white clay pits - the clay being used to line the bottoms of canoes, for body painting, to make a base for fires, and it was eaten as an antacid and a dietary supplement, being rich in zinc. 
The first European to visit the area was Captain James Cook who had been sent to the South Seas to observe the transit of Venus across the sun and to secretly investigate the largely uncharted southern lands. He reached Botany Bay on 28 April, 1770. The arrival was observed by Aborigines onshore and others fishing from canoes. As the Endeavour approached, about 10 of them left their fireplace and sought higher ground to view the ship. The British party anchored at Kurnell. Joseph Banks noted "a small village consisting of about 6 or 8 houses." An old woman gathered the children together and the men landed their canoes on the beach. As two small boats from the Endeavour approached, bearing Cook, Banks and others, all retired to the bush except two men. Cook threw some nails and beads ashore which, he later wrote, "they took up and seemed not ill pleased". He thought the men were signalling encouragement to come ashore but, when he advanced, the men, perhaps unsurprisingly, threw stones and 'darts' at them. Cook fired a musket between the two in response. As it had no effect, he then fired "a second musket load with a small shot", some of which struck one of the men, "yet it had no effect than to make him lay hold of a shield and defend himself." Cook then continued to shore where two more 'darts' were thrown. The two men left when a third shot was fired and Isaac Smith, cousin of Cook's wife, held the boat while Cook clambered ashore at Milgurrung Beach, which has been described as "the birthplace of modern Australia."
On the beach Cook found "4 or 5 small children" in one of the bark huts, to whom they gave some beads. They found some 'darts' and three bark canoes, each made of a single piece of bark, 3-4 m in length, in the huts. Fish could be cooked on open fires which sat on a base of clay inside these canoes. The only fresh water about was in a "small hole dug in the sand". 
On the third day, Cook sent a party ashore to exploit an underground stream. Another party went ashore to cut wood and Cook made a landing at a place from where Aborigines had just fled, finding mussels cooking on a fire and "the largest oyster shells I had ever seen" scattered about. 
Later, a group of "16 or 18 ... came boldly within 100 yards of our people. Mr Hicks tried to entice them to him but all they seemed to want was for us to be gone." Cook wrote that they were 'well armed' although their weaponry, he states, consisted of throwing sticks and their 'darts'. The latter, he noted, "have each four pointed prongs made from fish bones and seem to be intended more for striking fish than as offensive weapons." They also caught 300 pounds of fish "in 3 or 4 hauls of the fishing net."
The next day a seaman named Forby Sutherland died of tuberculosis and his body was buried at the watering hole, making him the first European to be buried in eastern Australia. The southern point of the bay was named after him and the approximate location of his grave was marked by the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1923. 
Later that day, Cook and others made an excursion inland noting the condition of the land, sighting "a small animal something like a rabbit that ate grass" and finding huts, trees that had been cut with a blunt instrument, barked trees and steps cut into trees for climbing. At the watering place "17 or 18 natives" attacked a Mr Gore. Cook and others followed them but they "could not be enticed to come near us." This pattern of assiduously attempting to make contact with the locals continued for the rest of the stay but they continued a pattern of flight and attacks with fishing darts.  Cook did attempt leaving some beads at one campsite, where they tasted the roasting mussels after the inhabitants had fled, and another party found a very old man, a woman and two small children who were clearly terrified, would not speak, and refused to touch a dead bird the party offered them. Cook named the inlet Botany Bay because of 'the great quantity of new plants'. 
After catching some large stingrays (two together weighing 600 pounds), Cook made some notes in his journal, describing the bay as "safe and large" with "ample fresh water and wood for fuel" on the southern shore. The gum trees were described as "large and straight and the wood hard" and he noted shrubs and palms and mangroves at the head of the bay. "The country is woody, low and flat as far inland as we could see and I believe the soil is generally sandy." He noted many beautiful birds and waterfowl, oysters and mussels "which I believe to be the natives' main food supply".  Of the locals he wrote: "The natives do not appear to be numerous, and are scattered in small groups. They are of average height, very dark brown in colour and have lank dark hair. No sort of clothing or ornament is worn. Some had white paint on their faces and bodies. We know little of their customs." 
Elsewhere Cook wrote of the Aborigines he observed: "They may appear to some to be the most wretched people on Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happier in not knowing them. They live in a Tranquility which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Conditions. The Earth and Sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent House, Household-stuff etc, they live in a warm and fine climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to be very sensible of, for many of whom we gave Cloth etc to, left it carelessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short they seem'd to set no Value upon anything of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessaries of life and that they have no superfluities."

2. From Governor Phillip to Modern Day Kurnell
The British government was looking for a new outlet for its unwanted convicts and between January 18 and 20, 1788, the First Fleet, under Governor Phillip, anchored off Kurnell, with a view to establishing Australia's first penal colony. However, lack of shelter from prevailing winds for the ships, insufficient water and poor soil led him to seek greener pastures. On January 24, 1788 two French ships were sighted off Botany Bay. Phillip thus raised the British flag on the south side of the bay, near Sutherland Point before continuing on to Port Jackson. 
The first landowner at Kurnell was Captain James Birnie, a mercantile trader who established Alpha Farm in 1815. He worked the farm, a dairy and market garden with the assistance of convict labour and built a small cottage he named 'Curnell', which he took to be the Aboriginal name for the area. 
In 1821 John Connell received further land at Kurnell and, in 1828, when Birnie was declared insane, Connell also bought Burnie's land, building a new homestead (Alpha House) where Birnie's cottage had stood. Connell's grandson cut much of the large timber from Kurnell and Woolooware for the Sydney market and, by 1838, most of the peninsula was in Connell's hands. The government reserved land for fortifications from Cape Solander southwards around to Boat Harbour. 
Noted businessman and landowner Thomas Holt, a member of, and the treasurer of, the first NSW Legislative Assembly, purchased Connell’s land from Connell's grandson in 1861. He employed convicts, Aborigines and runaway sailors on his estate. Unfortunately, his determination to clear, cultivate and profit from the peninsula's land led to further felling of timber, the burning of scrub and the introduction of grazing sheep then cattle, all of which destroyed much of the vegetation that bound and covered the dune system, creating an unstable mass of sand that rapidly began to spread. 
The open dunes proved attractive to sandmining operations which commenced in the 1930s. By the end of the 1990s, over 70 million tonnes of sand had been carted away for usage in the construction industry, depleting the dunes, which stood 60 metres high in Cook's day, and further destroying the woodlands that once grew on them. 
The township of Kurnell was established in the 1880s, though it had long been something of a holiday spot, known for its fishing and shooting and the annual celebrations of Cook's landing, centring on a large obelisk erected on the spot by Holt. Early dwellings tended to be shanties, fishing shacks and holiday camps built of bush and scrap materials on land leased to individuals by landowners. The first store was established in 1918 and a school was built in the early 1920s, although the village of Kurnell was not officially proclaimed until 1933. 
The Depression-era of the late 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of more improvised housing in the area. It was at this time that a series of cliff houses sprung along the peninsula's eastern edge. Some became quite sophisticated structures with the inhabitants paying fees and rates for the right to their idyllic existence. This came to an end when the Lands Department changed its policy and ordered them to leave. 
Over the years income has been extracted from the peninsula by a number of small-scale industries, such as kelp gathering (filling a hole in the market created by Japan's inability to supply world markets in the Second World War), shell gathering (burned to produce lime), shellgrit (for the pet bird and poultry industries), worms for bait, and, most profitably, oyster cultivation and fishing. 
Captain Cook Drive, from Caringbah to Kurnell, was constructed in 1953 in conjunction with the establishment of the enormous Australian Oil Refinery, with its shipping berths and kilometre-long wharf, at Kurnell. 



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was home to Gweagal-Dharawal tribe of Aboriginal Australians.

* Captain James Cook landed at Kurnell on 28 April, 1770. They stayed for eight days.

* Governor Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived between 18-20 January, 1788.

* The first land grant on the Kurnell headland occurred in 1815 when Captain James Birnie purchased 700 acres.

* By 1821 John Connell had acquired land at Kurnell.

* By 1838 most of the peninsula was owned by Connell.

* During the early years of the 19th century the peninsula was popular for fishing.

* In 1914 the Daniel Solander memorial was built.

* Kurnell's first store was opened in 1918.

* The school was opened in the early 1920s.

* The village of Kurnell was officially proclaimed in 1933.

* In the 1930s, during the Depression, Kurnell Headland offered simple accommodation for out of work Sydneysiders. A shanty town named Happy Valley sprang up.

* In 1951 Caltex Oil Company approached the Sutherland Shire Council to establish an oil refinery at Kurnell. Sutherland Shire denied the application on the grounds that a refinery would be a "Consecration of the landing place of Captain Cook".

* In 1952 Caltex purchased 174 ha of land at Kurnell.

* Construction of the oil refinery began in 1953 under a subsidiary company, Australian Oil Refining Pty Ltd. Captain Cook Drive from Caringbah to Kurnell was built at this time.

* More than 3000 men worked at the sites during the peak of construction.

* The Kurnell refinery was completed in 1956.

* A kilometre-long wharf attached to the refinery was renovated in 1994.

* Caltex closed the Kurnell refinery in October, 2014.

* By 2017 Caltex had converted the refinery to a depot where they stored finished fuel products.


Visitor Information

Kurnell Visitor Centre, Kamay Botany Bay National Park, Cape Solander Drive, Kurnell, tel: (02) 9668 2000.


Useful Websites

The National Parks and Wildlife site is useful. Check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/visitor-centres/kurnell-visitor-centre.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

2 suggestions