AUSTRALIANS HAVE AN ALMOST INGRAINED UNDERSTANDING OF BOTANY BAY AS THE PLACE where Captain Cook landed in 1770. It is remembered, as the signs in Kurnell remind us, as the birthplace of modern Australia. It is also seen as the place where two cultures met and in turn the place where their histories were irrevocably changed.1 But the history of this site as a place, as a location in time and space, beyond its historically laden metaphorical conception, is far more textured. It is the desire to investigate Botany Bay as more than simply the site of first contact that has motivated the development of this exhibition. The name Botany Bay, as Paul Carter argues, evokes a history that is sometimes at odds with the actual place. He states: "the name itself becomes an arbitrary imposition on the place, a linguistic gesture without a local topographical... justification".2 It is this local topography that is of interest here, for Botany Bay is a site that is frequently imagined but seldom seen or experienced at a deeper level.

Botany Bay is, today, a place of immense contrast: between the past and the present, the industrial and the natural, the local and the national. It is viewed by an average of 90,000 people a day from the planes that dominate the airspace above, transiting to and from Sydney Airport.3 Yet most of these people will only ever experience Botany Bay from the air. Many will never go there and feel it from the ground up. For this exhibition Hazelhurst Regional Gallery invited six contemporary artists/collaborators, from disparate parts of Australia and the world, to experience this place in a more comprehensive way and to uncover the complexities of its contrasting personalities. These artists - Micky Allan and Steenus von Steensen, Julie Gough, Fiona MacDonald, Timothy Nohe, Kate Rohde and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy - all depict Botany Bay as a multilayered site located spatially and temporally within the Sydney metropolitan area of the twenty-first century.

The area that is now known as Botany Bay was occupied by at least four Aboriginal groups. To the north of the bay was the domain of the Kameygal people, the Gweagal people resided on the southern arm of the bay near Kurnell, and the Bidjigal and Cabrogal people lived to the west of the bay.4 Today the Indigenous presence is strongly asserted at La Perouse, on the northern headland of the bay, and at Kurnell on the southern headland. Both are part of the Kamay-Botany Bay National Park. The addition of 'Kamay', the Dharawal place name for Botany Bay, to the existing park name was announced in 2000. It was seen as a respectful gesture by local elder Mrs Beryl Timbery-Beller.5 The National Parks and Wildlife Services, which administers the park, also saw the decision as an acknowledgement that "when Cook turned up there were already people here".6 Yarra Bay House, a community centre located on the northern side of the bay and home to the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, also plays a role in providing an Indigenous perspective on this area.7 In La Perouse there has been a continuity of Indigenous presence extending from the present back to pre-colonial times.8 In 1895, a portion of land was officially reserved for Aboriginal people by the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board on the northern edge of Botany Bay.9 The site of the reserve reflected the location of existing Aboriginal camps and that presence remained strong, albeit in various guises and locations. In 1984, the title to some of this land and the historic Yarra Bay House was transferred to the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council; this was the first time a Sydney Aboriginal group was granted title to parts of their land under the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act.10

The site around the reserve was also home to many of Sydney's poorest people during the great depression.11 In the late 1920s and early 1930s, as unemployment rose and people were evicted from their homes, vast shantytowns sprang up with people camping in public reserves around the bay.12 The camps continued beyond the Depression and in the 1940s they became the first port of call for newly arrived migrants who were escaping the ravages of war torn Europe.13 It was also during these few decades that the bay underwent major developments that were to fundamentally change the nature of the place. In the 1950s the shantytowns were cleared making way for the suburbanisation of the area.14 The airport, which had been at its current location since 1919, undertook expansion works in the 1940s to construct a passenger terminal and divert the Cooks River to accommodate two new runways. The international passenger terminal was constructed in the 1960s and the existing runways were also expanded.15 An alternative airport had been debated for many years but this debate was quashed when, in 1989, plans for a third runway at the current facility were approved. The runway was completed in 1994 and the airport continues to dominate the landscape of the bay. Two runways now protrude out, on reclaimed land, into the actual bay. It is now impossible to separate the airport from the bay either physically or conceptually.

Major industry also moved into the area in the twentieth century. During the 1960s, Botany Bay was investigated as an alternative location for Sydney's major port facility and construction of the port began there in 1971. This involved a major dredging operation to allow container ships access to the relatively shallow bay. By 1979, the Port Botany facility was operational and, like the airport, it physically colonised the bay through a major land reclamation project. This continues today with Port Botany undergoing a major expansion operation to build a new container terminal. When complete the new terminal will again involve extensive dredging of the bay and further construction will create 63 hectares of new land for the proposed container terminal and wharf.16 To mitigate the impact of this major upheaval, the plan incorporates a number of environmental and community features. These include rejuvenation of the saltmarsh habitat and mudflats to attract marine life and migratory birds and an attempt to control erosion and improve water quality.17 Once the development is complete, the northern side of the bay, from where the Cooks River originally entered the harbour to Yarra Bay, will be completely changed. These developments on the northern side of the bay are mirrored in the south where sand mining, the oil refinery and the newly constructed desalination plant dominate the landscape. Sand mining began at Kurnell in the 1930s and it is estimated that 70 million tonnes of sand have been removed from the dunes since that time.18 The threat to the dunes was officially recognised by state parliament in 2003 and the dunes were subsequently placed on the New South Wales Heritage Register.19 This did not, however, halt the degradation of the area and in 2009, it was claimed that illegal mining was occurring and seriously jeopardising the stability of the peninsula. Further, it was revealed that "a major storm event, combined with sustained mining and rising sea levels, would overwhelm the remaining natural barrier between the Pacific Ocean and Botany Bay".20 Botany Bay could conceivably change to such a degree that Cook's landing site might literally become an island of history within a completely transformed landscape.

As the once-towering sand dunes have diminished in size, the oil refinery has become a much more prominent feature of the peninsular. The refinery was constructed in 1954 and is connected to Sydney Airport via an underground pipe that traverses the bay. This pipeline is currently being upgraded to facilitate the transportation of double the amount of jet fuel to the airport in order to meet increasing demands.21 This pipeline is one of many that cross the bay, the most recent of which has been designed to pump water from the desalination plant into Sydney's main water network. The plant opened in January 2010 and was not a welcome addition. When the location of the plant was announced the Mayor of the Southern Shire was said to be furious. He stated that if the plant went ahead it would be "condemning the birthplace of modern Australia" which, he continued, "had fulfilled its metropolitan responsibilities through sand mining, the Caltex oil refinery and heavy air traffic movement".22 During the construction phase (it took two years to complete the pipeline) Kurnell residents complained that their properties had been structurally damaged as a result of the vibrations. One house allegedly had "cracks so large that the waters of Botany Bay can be seen through them".23

In the face of these major industrial developments, and in spite of the fact that they dominate much of the visual landscape of the bay, there are still pockets of profound natural beauty and rare biodiversity struggling to survive. The desalination plant, for example, had to incorporate a significant conservation area in order to accommodate habitat for vulnerable species such as the Grey-headed Flying Fox and the endangered Green and Golden Bell Frog.24 The protection of the fragile and unique Towra Point Nature Reserve also had to be considered. It has been claimed that "Towra is Sydney's most significant wetland".25 In part this is because it provides refuge to migratory birds who fly up to 17,500 kilometres a year.26 As a local environmental group boasts, the area is a haven for around "200 bird species... Nearly 300 plant species [and a] diversity of habitats ranging from littoral forest, tidal wetlands, seagrasses, mangroves, saltmarshes, sandspits, bars, mudflats, dunes and beaches".27

It is these contradictions between natural beauty and industrial development, national historical significance and banal suburban reality that have been foregrounded by the artists in this exhibition. This is the second exhibition that Hazelhurst Regional Gallery has hosted on the topic of Botany Bay. Ace Bourke, the curator of the first exhibition and co-curator of this second show, has a special interest in the area as a local resident and concerned conservationist. Beyond this he also has explicit familial connections with foundational figures of colonial Australia.28 What is unique about Botany Bay, however, is that embedded within the very fabric of its landscape, populated as it is with memorials to the foundation of this nation, it provides all those who visit with the opportunity to consider that story and their place within it.

Like the artists in this exhibition, I too have explored the bay. On a recent visit to the landing site of Cook, an island of parkland within an otherwise industrial landscape, I was struck by the realisation that to travel though this place is a surreal experience. The strange juxtaposition of iconic and historically significant monuments and the actual lived experience that is the focus of Shifting Sands: Botany Bay Today, is starkly obvious. I was reminded of this inescapable past as I watched a majestic cargo ship being piloted out of the bay on a beautiful winter afternoon. A fellow onlooker observed: "Captain Cook'd be turning in his grave...".

Anna lawrenson co-curator


  1. This history was explored in detail by the first exhibition in this series, Lines in the Sand: Botany Bay Stories from 1770, curated by Ace Bourke at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre in 2008
  2. Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p.13
  3. Sydney Airport Corporation, "Sydney Airport - An Overview", June 2010
  4. Keith Vincent Smith, "South" in Keith Vincent Smith & Ace (Anthony) Bourke, EORA: Mapping Aboriginal Sydney 1770-1850, (exhibition catalogue), State Library of NSW, 2006, p.12
  5. James Woodford, "Original Touch For Botany Bay", Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 2000, p.1
  6. Gary Dunnett quoted in James Woodford, "Original Touch For Botany Bay", Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 2000, p.1
  7. See Melinda Hinkson and Alana Harris, Aboriginal Sydney: A guide to important places of the past and present, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2001, pp.109-111
  8. Maria Nugent, Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet, Allan & Unwin, 2005, p.189
  9. Maria Nugent, Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet, Allan & Unwin, 2005, p.63
  10. 10Melinda Hinkson and Alana Harris, Aboriginal Sydney: A guide to important places of the past and present, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2001
  11. This history was depicted in the exhibition Skint! Making do in the depression, Museum of Sydney, 27 March - 25 July 2010
  12. Maria Nugent, Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet, Allan & Unwin, 2005, p.120
  13. Maria Nugent, Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet, Allan & Unwin, 2005, p.126
  14. Maria Nugent, Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet, Allan & Unwin, 2005, p.131
  15. Sydney Airport Corporation, "Sydney Airport - An Overview", June 2010
  16. Sydney Port Authority, "Project Update - Port Botany Expansion", November 2009. Available online: http://www.
  17. Sydney Port Authority, "Project Update - Port Botany Expansion", November 2009. Available online: http://www.
  18. Heritage Branch, "Cronulla Sand Dune and Wanda Beach Coastal Landscape". Available online: http://www.heritage.nsw.
  19. Parliament of New South Wales, [Hansard Records - Kurnell Sand Dunes], 18 September 2003. Available online: http://
  20. Justin Vallejo, "Cutting off Kurnell - Claims mining is destroying famous sand dunes", Daily Telegraph, 6 January 2009, p.11
  21. Steve Creedy, "Caltex plan fuels access debate", The Australian, 7 May 2010, p.36
  22. "NSW: Desalination plant will be located in Kurnell", Australian Associated Press General News, 11 July 2005
  23. Erik Jensen, "Street of broken dreams", Sun-Herald, 23 May 2010, p.4
  24. Sydney Water Corporation, Sydney's Desalination Plant: Kurnell Conservation Area Management Plan, 2009, section 4.7
  25. Wendy Frew, "Rough ride for bay's fragile beauty", Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 2007, p.7
  26. Jennie Curtin, "Habitat replacement keeps visitors posted", Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2010, p.11
  27. Sutherland Shire Environment Centre, "Unique Towra Point: Creation", 2008, bioregion/kurnell/history/towra/creation.htm
  28. Bourke is a descendent of Governor Philip Gidley King and Governor Richard Bourke. See Ace Bourke, Flesh+Blood: A Sydney Story, (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Sydney, 1998

Anna Lawrenson
Shifting Sands: Botany Bay Today, Exhibition Catalogue, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, 2010