Over a decade ago, I was invited to join the Malabar Headland Interagency Working Group. I have to thank Geoff Withycombe of the Sydney Coastal Councils Group and Randwick Council for this opportunity to participate in what was one of the most contentious issues we have faced on the Sydney coast. The group consisted of representatives of the Commonwealth Government through the custodian of the area, the Department of Finance (and during the Labor Government period also the Department of Environment, noting the then local member Peter Garrett was also the Environment Minister). Also represented was NSW Cabinet Office, the EPA, and departmental representatives of Planning and Environment, later OEH and NPWS, and Sydney Water. The council served as convenor.

So what was the problem? The site reflected a mess of our coastal history: a former massive rubbish dump, a rifle range, a horse exercise ground, war time bunkers and tunnels, sewer works and remnant Eastern Banksia scrub. It was a classic area of social and environmental conflict owned for the most part by the Australian Government. The rifle range was treasured by the shooter community and despite offers to move them no easy solution had been found. But the range is located on top of land fill containing many years of unregulated disposal of materials from a range of sources allegedly including waste from the former Prince Henry Hospital. Seepage from the land fill to the north into ponds has been monitored over the years; I understand that it possesses some nasty stuff!

The working group discussed various options. One aim was to convert much of the area into a regional park assuming the rifle range could be re-located. But there was also a very strong push to protect ecological values at the western end and to open the eastern or headland portion to the public. For many years this area was out of bounds not just because of shooting events but because of dangers from the old military structures. An outcome of sorts has been reached: the range still exists and is well fenced off as are the polluted ponds; the NSW National Parks Service (NPWS) has obtained an area to the west of the range for protection of the Eastern Banksia scrub; and in 2016, the NPWS has had dedicated the eastern area as part of the Malabar Headland National Park.

Along with my wife, Irene, and grandson, David, I recently walked the new track from south Maroubra to Malabar. It was a gorgeous day. Sun shining, temperature in low 20s, little breeze and calm sea; Sydney at its winter’s best. Whales were offshore migrating to the north. But thanks to NPWS a new track has been established to provide access to the headland. No more did one feel a trespasser threatened by shooters or at risk to falling down hidden tunnels and shafts. We were able to experience the joy of wandering through coastal scrubland and over rock pavements high above cliff faces and rock platforms carved into Hawkesbury Sandstone.

Malabar headland is rich in geological features. Cross-bedding is very apparent in the both the pavements on the cliff top and cliff faces. They represent sand waves of the mighty Hawkesbury Sandstone river of Triassic age. Layers of quartz pebbles intermixed with coarse sand occur in the bedding of this rock. But these sands contrast with the fine and well-sorted quartz sand that exists in patches along the cliff top. These sands have a very mature soil profile and from work in similar sites in the Sydney area most likely were deposited as a dune cover during the last glacial period around 20000 to 30000 years ago. Most striking are the weathered dikes cutting through the sandstone. These form vertical clefts in the cliffs. The dikes were once filled with basalt of Tertiary age (c. 50 m years?). In one place the heat of the intrusion has baked the sandstone wall into prismatic blocks.

Plant life along the walk is quite diverse. Different species of banksia, hakea, acacia, coria, and leptospermum were noted as well as many small birds, and offshore were the whales. For many years, the Friends of Malabar Headland and Council’s bushland team have worked tirelessly on bush regeneration and their efforts are now there for all to see. This is now a Sydney treasure. NPWS must be congratulated on achieving access to the headland and creating this new park and in building a safe walkway.

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect Bruce Thom’s thoughts and reference where appropriately: (c) ACS, 2017, posted 7 July 2017, for correspondence about this blog post please email admin@australiancoastalsociety.org