Previously rarely open to the public, a tour of the tunnels at Georges Heights along with its amazing history and stunning views is a weekend must-do.
Standing at the peak of Georges Head Lookout Mosman, as the James Craig Tall Ship glides past below, full sails set for the open waters beyond the Heads, it is not too hard to imagine back to a time when the first settlers arrived seeing these headlands and impressive shoreline for the first time.
Looking out today, the view is stunning, surrounded by Sydney’s beautiful waterways for as far as the eye can see – the panoramic scope showcasing Manly, Vaucluse and off to the right the city. If you’re interested in the fascinating history of the area, or just want to try something different in your own beautiful backyard, The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust – set up in 2006 to look after the military sites given back to the people of Sydney – now provides tours of this significant site, including the incredible tunnels, one of which has rarely been open to the public.
The tours are led by volunteers from the Trust, many with an ex-military background to provide the right note of authenticity. Taking groups of up to twenty, there is something of interest for everyone – from history lovers to bushwalkers and families alike. Participants are first provided with an orientation of the harbour. Before embarking on an underground adventure in the oldest tunnels dating back 145 years – prior to the invention of electricity. As such, torches are recommended however mobile phone light is sufficient as they are not entirely blacked out, nor do they feel claustrophobic.
Over the next 1.5 hours, the guide proves to be a wealth of information, spouting facts and lesser-known anecdotes from the naming of Chowder Bay and Clifton Gardens to the origins of popular sayings. Luckily the battery was never called on to fire in battle and the site is preserved for our appreciation today. It has since been realised that the cannons as they stood in those days had no great accuracy or range and the chances of hitting anything were relatively slim. Still, drills were undertaken every day but they were more about noise, ensuring everyone was aware of the cannon’s existence and deterring any potential spies.
The bush track between the two sets of tunnels is an easy well laid out walk suitable for all fitness levels, again taking advantage of some of the best views in Sydney. The second set of tunnels then lead to the end of the tour and the original site of an experimental farm established in 1815 by Governor Macquarie and the traditional land of the Borogegal clan. Governor Macquarie gave 16 Aboriginal men and their families a piece of fertile land, the necessary tools and equipment for farming and access to the harbour for fishing. Amongst them Bungaree – a well-known Aboriginal man who accompanied Matthew Flinders on his 1802-03 circumnavigation of the continent – was provided with the first Aboriginal land grant on Georges Head by Governor Macquarie. In early 2015, he was recognised and remembered in the naming of the walk from Chowder Bay to Georges Heights, where his farm had been located.
Today, this parkland area is well patronised by family picnickers and the once inhabited officer’s quarters have been revitalised as a creative space for local businesses inclusive of the bustling Frenchy’s café, Headland Park Artist Precinct and artist studios. The area offers a variety of activities including outdoor education, dance lessons, gym, scuba diving, snorkelling, bushwalks, swimming, art classes, exhibitions, special events and more.
Reaching the hill top, we find the 21st Australian Auxiliary Hospital established in 1916 to accommodate the increasing number of WW1 casualties returning from the trenches of the Western Front. The “Hospital on the Hill” gained its notoriety from specialising in the early experimental stages of plastic surgery for returning soldiers who had lost limbs or burn victims scarred in battle. The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust has conserved the hospital buildings – incorporating an exhibition in Building 21 (Ward I) to commemorate the medical staff and soldiers who worked and recuperated here.
Georges Heights is easily accessible by car, bus or ferry. For those who have not yet discovered Headland Park – it is well worth the visit and may even prove to be your new favourite picnic spot. And for those looking to gain a glimpse into the history of the area, venturing into underground tunnels rarely before open to the public, the tour is a definitely a local hidden gem. As the guide suggests it is only through knowing and understanding our past can we decide on the future.
The Headland Park Tunnels & Gunners Tour takes place the first Sunday of every month at 10:45am. Bookings are essential. Contact the Harbour Trust on (02) 8969 2100 Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm or visit www.harbourtrust.gov.au.