One of the quirks of the Newcastle NSW coastline is the presence of world-class surf beaches and heavy industry side by side. At any hour of day or night, you can stand near the shoreline anywhere between Nobbys beach at the entrance to Newcastle’s port and the Lake Macquarie beaches 40 km to the south, and you’re likely to see vast coal loading ships queuing on the horizon to collect their cargo.
Most of the coal exported from the Hunter Valley and region is mined inland, but the coast around Newcastle was also mined extensively in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mostly, there is very little to see, with workings abandoned and off limits.
But there is just one place in the region – and for that matter, the whole east coast of Australia – where much of its industrial heritage remains intact – Catherine Hill Bay, the southernmost beach on the Hunter coast. It is named after a schooner which ran aground in the bay in 1867.
Catherine Hill Bay village is clustered around Middle Camp Beach, a perfect crescent of Pacific sand with a unique landmark at one end – a coal loading jetty stretching out into the ocean.
The jetty – the third on the site – served the nearby Wallarah and Moonee collieries, both of which have long since closed. It suffered damage during the 2013 bushfire, but somehow stayed standing.
Just back from the beach, most of the village’s houses were originally miners’ cottages, and these add to the unique feel of the village.
My favourite time of day to visit Catherine Hill Bay is before sunrise, when you have the beach almost to yourself – last time I was there the only company was a fisherman on the rocks and a woman practising yoga further up the beach. This is when it is at its most evocative, with the jetty silhouetted against the sky’s glowing dawn shades of pink, orange and red.
Catherine Hill Bay beach was voted one of the best beaches in Australia by someone who should know – surfing writer Brad Farmer was half of a team that surveyed all of the country’s 10,000-plus beaches, and between them they had to whittle it down to a top 100, and from there choosing their personal top ten and favourite. Catherine Hill Bay won his vote.
Near the top of the hill and looking out towards the sea, the Catho pub is one of the best-known on this stretch of coast, a real character pub with vintage vehicles and bikes often parked outside like in our photo. It’s a great place to stop by for a schooner of beer, and they also serve meals. But I winced when I saw that they have lingerie waitresses once a week, I thought we had seen the back of that sort of thing long ago.
Around Catherine Hill Bay
‘Catho’ is around 10 km south of Swansea, which enjoys a great position on the channel linking Lake Macquarie with the Ocean. The unspoilt Wallarah National Park sits to the north of Catherine Hill Bay.
Immediately to the south of the village, you’re into the Central Coast. Moonee Beach, tucked away behind a proposed housing development, marks the beginning of the Munmorah State Conservation Area.
Catherine Hill Bay is easily reached from the Pacific Highway (A43), with turns at Montefiore Drive and Flowers Drive and a 3km drive along either to the village.