News that administrators will be appointed to manage the Belmont Wetland State Park might not be considered huge surf news. However, for many surfers who surf on 9 Mile Beach, near Lake Macquarie, it’s another worrying sign. The stretch of beach has recently gone from a relatively isolated section of reasonable beachbreaks with good fishing into a full-blown 4WD park.
The northern end of the beach is Redhead; named after the majestic cliff that frames it. I grew up on that headland and my parents still live atop. I was lucky enough to spend my grommethood waking up to a view that stretched the arc of that nine miles.
For 6,000 odd years that long crescent was bordered by huge sandhills, only bested in size in NSW by the ones on Stockton Beach and Cronulla. Like those hills, the Redhead dunes were first rutted for the use of coal extraction in the late 19th Century. In the 1960s sand mining took over the pillage with the sand used for rutile and zircon, construction, and even exported to cover the black sand beaches of Hawaii.
By the late 1990s only the foredunes remained and the landscape was flattened. All there was left for the owners, BHP, to do was develop the land. The last piece of usable land sandwiched between the ocean and thriving wetlands was to be carved up as a coastal residential estate.
2500 homes were proposed on a fragile ecosystem that had almost already been destroyed. After a long community fight, in which both my dad and sister were heavily involved alongside with Peter Garrett, that proposal was beaten. What was left of the sand dunes had time to recover, aided by local volunteers and time itself. That’s why the current situation is even more upsetting. So many people fought so hard to protect this important bit of coast.
In 2006 the Belmont Wetlands State Park (BWSP) was set up, with a board of volunteers overseeing its management. It was gazetted as a Crown Reserve for public recreation, coastal environmental protection and tourism facilities and services. Rangers and dedicated volunteers have fought hard to implement those goals set out in the management plan ever since.
However lately there’s been a new battle. The stretch of beach just south of what is known as Third Creek has become a 4WD attraction, despite the creek’s obviously contaminated water. Off-road enthusiast websites advertise the stretch as one of the best beach access sites in NSW, and the closest one to Sydney. It became even more popular recently when Stockton Beach shut its dunes to the vehicles.
The interest is unsurprising. The BWSP Board advertises extensively locally and statewide to sell more Beach Permits with no or little control over numbers. The funds raised are used to employ Rangers to help users adhere to the rules. However, those Rangers are already stretched and have limited working hours. They rarely impose fines or other control measures.
Now the beach had always been accessible by 4WD. I myself have had many epic, empty surfs on that stretch after driving down to find a bank to surf with just my mates. Local fishermen have also always utilised the beaches rips to feed themselves.
A decade ago it was estimated that approximately an average of 100 off-road vehicles were accessing Nine Mile Beach each week, almost exclusively from the local area. In the last few years and prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, those numbers have skyrocketed.
The Christmas holiday period in the last few years has seen hundreds of vehicles arriving each day. 650 vehicles were counted on the beach on New Year’s Eve 2018 and around 1000 on the past two Australia Days. Most set up camp and stay overnight.
Now this is just a small stretch of beach with zero facilities. There’s no toilets, bins or fresh water. And with upwards of 2000 people on the piss for a long weekend, you can imagine the mess. Volunteers and groups like the Blacksmiths to Redhead Let’s Keep it Clean group, made up of local 4WD enthusiasts, have started cleanup operations. After one New Year’s Eve they in hauled tonnes of crap including bongs, broken bottles, lounges, syringes, dirty nappies, human turds and whole tents. Yet even average weekends involve huge numbers, and rubbish left behind.
Mounds of rubbish left behind by 4WD enthusiasts and families.
The rangers can’t deal with the huge numbers and if the Board request the presence of police on the long weekends or holidays they have to pay exorbitant costs for the service. Money it doesn’t have.
Of course the fragile frontal sand dunes, already decimated by years of mining abuse and poor rehab (bitou bush was used to re-establish the land), have been trashed. Aerial studies show the sand dunes are moving inland at a rapid rate as the pioneer sand binding plants are killed by vehicles. The marked tracks are ignored and it has become a giant BMX park for Pajeros, as this clip shows.
In effect, it’s a shit show. The local and states government have been unwilling to get involved, as taking on the 4WD lobby is no easy task. The permit money is also considerable, as is the knock on tourism effect of the visitors. The news that the private administrator has been called is a worry, as commercial operations could even be expanded.
Now the ideal scenario is to find some type of compromise. Capping the number of permits being issued for visitors, or an annual ballot system for locals are such ideas. There should be a booking system for camping and numbers capped in designated areas only. All this should only happen on the proviso of there being facilities built for waste and, for chrissakes, dunnies.
As it stands though it’s a free for all where a beautiful beach is getting destroyed, and no one is prepared to step in and provide a way out of the mess. We can’t lose the dunes again. Surely, they’ve copped enough?