Travelling Australia - Journal 2015a




17-19 March 2015


Urunga is a small settlement of about 3000 people, about 60% of them retired, set near the mouth of the Bellinger River and the Kalang River. Originally established as a commercial port, subsequent events have led to the townwhip being mainly bypassed. The train line runs through town (trains stop on request) and the Pacific Highway runs through the edge of town, but nowhere near the shopping centre. The project to reroute the Pacific Highway well clear of Urunga is in progress at the time of this visit. Fishing is popular at Urunga and surfing on the ocean beach, reached by walking along the boardwalk or driving to Hungry Head, is popular. The name "Urunga" is said to be derived from an aboriginal word for "long white sand" which exactly describes the ocean beach south of the river mouth.

This part of the New South Wales coast was first settled by timber-getters harvesting cedar growing in the inland hills. At that time there were no roads, railways or any communications along the coast and the only way to get the felled timber to Sydney for sale was by sea so a township grew up at the entrance of the Bellinger River and Kalang Rivers. The rivers did not have a settled mouth to the sea but moved around depending on a variety of natural factors so establishing shipping channels was practically impossible. One of the earliest attempts to make the river mouth into a working port was to stabilise the river's route with rock "training-walls" preventing the river from changing its bed. These training wall, built between 1890 and 1905, are still very much in evidence today.

Training-walls stopped the river mouth moving along the coast and it had been hoped the water flow would gouge out a channel deep enough for safe navigation but that did happen. Instead, sand bars built up against the rock wall made negotiating the channel dangerous and the entrance to the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers remained a hazard to the shipping which was essential to take timber to Sydney and to provide food and services to the community growing inside the entrance. Dredging was undertaken to provide a safe channel. A pilot service had been established in 1868 and steam tugs had begun working in 1880 to help sailing ships negotiate the entrance.

In 1892 a breakwater (or breakwall) was built at the southern side of the river mouth in an attempt to make the entrance a little safer. 1900 to 1915 were peak years of activity for shipping into Bellinger Heads (as Urunga was then known); by 1902 more than 300 vessels a years were being helped to negotiate the entrance. In 1908 the first primitive boardwalk was built so the pilot and local boatmen could reach the breakwall to light a beacon to assist shipping negotiating the river mouth.

In the 1920s shipping activity on the Bellinger declined as a deep water port was opened at nearby Coffs Harbour and the railway line reached Urunga/Bellinger Heads. No longer was the sea the only way to handle freight to and from Bellinger Heads and users were, no doubt, delighted that risk associated with the river mouth could be avoided. Dredging ceased in 1929 and the pilot station closed in 1933.

Although the boardwalk was no longer needed for pilots and boatmen, its value providing access from the town to the ocean beach must have been recognised and it was rebuilt and extended several times. It has now become the centre-piece of tourism in Urunga. After the last extension, in 2010, the boardwalk extends from the shore near the caravan park, across the Lagoon, past the mangroves, and onto the breakwall; then runs along the top of the breakwall to the ocean beach. Total length is now nearly a kilometre. An auxiliary, low-level boardwalk runs off the main walk at one point taking walkers along the mangroves to a viewing platform looking over tidal sand flats. This auxiliary boardwalk, favoured by fisherpeople, is unfenced and low enough that a very high tide splashes on the planks.

The main boardwalk is well above the water with handrails both sides. Steps are provided for walkers (or fisherpeople) who want to get down onto sand flats, training-wall, breakwall or ocean beach. The boardwalk is heavily used by locals for their morning walk (with or without a dog), as well as for visitors. Seats are provided at intervals along the boardwalk for people to stop, rest and chat.