Asbestos and chrome

Warilla is the houso suburb where you get more bang for your buck according to the real-estate ads, draped like itchy blankets over ‘concrete deals’ and ‘below median prices’.

This spacious family home in its peaceful and convenient location, for example, is a mere $670,000, starting price only:

That edict only applies the western edge though, where the town tapers out towards the lake. Closer to the pounding surf of the South Pacific, the prices are not as benign. With its as yet ‘unverified balcony’, the pile on Little Lake Crescent is a cool $2.45mill:

Supreme coastal glamour with a uniquely versatile floor plan, this top-drawer residence nestled directly opposite one of the South Coast’s most known beaches and footsteps to Little Lake foreshore, and waterside parklands. An exclusive statement in contemporary style, the property showcases an array of premium appointments guaranteed to amaze. Entertaining is of first-class caliber, and embraces multiple family and entertaining options including a spacious lounge and dining zone finished in neutral tones flowing to a wide balcony commanding those majestic water views.

Sic-kening content aside, the marble tone and neutral ‘fusion of luxury and lifestyle convenience’ DO look directly out at the ocean, if you squint past the dead tree and property eyesore.

Just shy of Shellharbour, and deep in the straggling suburbs of the Gong, Warilla is a curious place. The local Chinese restaurant sports a pseudo temple roofline and majestic cement arches: it is closed indefinitely, however.

Granny flats and troopies line streets prosaically named Veronica, Dave, Jason and Anne, Terry, Brian and Raymond. Joan is a personal favourite, her tin rooves and verdant edges a swan dive into yesteryear.

Across the main road, things are less quaint, Grimmet and Spofforth Streets carve deep grooves into an overactive imagination that conjures underground criminal activity and latent despair. But the blocks are as big…

A mobility scooter flies past, its transportation executive trailing ALDI bags and grim determination to make headway on the only roundabout for 10 miles. On the bumper bar, a sticker reads:

Your political correctness offends me

Which is apt. I suspect the Tin Lid and I might be highly offensive to some, lefties on the loose on an Easter weekend devoid of eggs, carrots or commitment.

This place is liminal, caught between cause and effect. Flagrant ad copy spruiks a realm far removed from the asbestos bungalows and tank traps, from clutches of boardriders blowing horns into the wind, and pokies at the pub, their meaty clatter heard streets away.

Its raw edges are powerfully beautiful – a sand-blasted fringe that stretches to an ocean horizon, and a salted lake that cradles this spit of land in its embrace, full of story and lore – but at its heart, Warilla is pockmarked and sore, unable to reason with a future unchosen by its residents.

At Windang, sentinel structures dominate the horizon, placed with intent to mark a shared place, a dog beach where canine and human partner in their shared distaste for rangers and leashed areas, the air bristling with barking joy and the spray of sand, a tribe at play.

But it falls heavily into the one-careful-owner trope. This pristine Country is what attracts the development that circles – like a dingo on its prey – ready to capitalise on the ‘untouched potential’ it offers.

The traditional custodians of the land surrounding what is now known as Lake Illawarra are the Wadi Wadi people, part of the Dharawal Nation. Jubborsay, as it is known, is a place of spirits, a place to meet, eat, birth and die, burial sites and middens flanking the water’s edge.

The name Illawarra is derived from various adaptions of eloura, or allowrieillawurra, or warra: all refer to ‘a generally pleasant place near the sea’, which seems like a singularly white reinterpretation. It is ‘generally pleasant’, but this belies the powerful undertones that curl around you like tendrils of hair on a blowy day, tickling your subconscious, demanding it takes notice.

It won’t be long before the tatty authenticity of this forgotten community, with its rich Dreaming and proud history, is replaced with an expensive veneer, one that ousts anyone who can’t afford it.

Generational homes on wide blocks will disappear, tended greenery will be forfeited, and the light will change as it is swallowed by buildings that reach for the sky.

And these childhood blocks, with their triangle rooves and strip of green by the gutter, will go.

The writing is on the wall just a few kays up the road. Frasers Property at Shell Cove is developing The Waterfront, and asking us to ‘set a course for luxury living’.

Like a clipper wallowing in dead water, the metaphor is insistent, nautical themes bedecking timber stanchions, caramel-and-sea-salt gelato flogged to the highest bidder.

The litany of advertorial is loud:

Here you can enjoy a harbourside lifestyle in a stunning natural environment with an array of amenity on your doorstep. The world-class Shellharbour Marina, The Waterfront Dining Precinct  and The Waterfront Tavern are all open. Imagine strolling along boardwalks surrounding the marina to shops, playgrounds and in 2025 a state-of-the-art community centre, library, visitors information centre. In 2025 there will be a stunning new Crowne Plaza hotel at The Waterfront. This is the opportunity to live metres away from unrivalled amenity not found anywhere else on the NSW South Coast.

Imagine the unrivaled amenity, she mutters with a hint of Kerrigan-esque irony. Imagine a state-of-the-art community centre…

Amid spanking new builds and sharply demarked 50-zones, life here is sanitised and a world away from Warilla and her renegade residents. The kid and I came here for seals (alleged to flump their salty weight on slick pontoons and bark menacingly at timid landlubbers), but we are met with linen smocks and squealing children on motorised toys, fluffy lap dogs and maniacal seagulls. At least there is one constant.

The digital download is less prosaic: masterplans, aerial construction updates, property guides and mortgage calculators paper the air, chasing buy-now die-later rhetoric full of ‘lifestyle opportunities’ and ‘last-ever lots’.

It leads me to question how this ‘unbeatable lifestyle’ is better than what Wal from Lake Entrance Road – to the west of Shellharbour Road, the ‘bad bit’ – has.

Wal’s coastal dream has been his reality for over 30 years. His hard-earned, deeply loved fibro is an asbestos castle. Just a few hundred metres from the sea and cradled in the swell of community, it’s a crucible for his family’s memories, steeped in a wealth far richer than a Warrigal new build, shiny with chrome and vanilla scented.

Frankly, Wal says he just can’t understand the fuss…

Romantic heroine

Toting dancing shoes and a sultry smile, the Bestie is in the mood for sport, which in itself is unusual as she has a less that polite attitude to all things sporting – unless you include wagers or card-sharking.


The Tin Lid, however, knows exactly what’s going on. In his bright little mind, dancing is sport, as is snorkelling, lemonade drinking and Lego. And he is ready to roll:


Overlooking Varna Park in the rarefied suburban sweetness that is the east, Bronte Women’s Bowling Club* is proudly defiant – she wears her hair well styled, pinned and primped to perfection with not a strand out of place, and her stance is impeccable, that of a romantic heroine glancing over her shoulder with a knowing smile.


She is well attired too: a cloak of faded glory, lawns that fan out like a fluted skirt, and undergarments that are both appealing and restrained, like patterned bloomers…

Exhibit A: The Queen


Exhibit B: Bain-maries in military formation beneath a natty bunting string


But as every open space – no matter how slim – from the coast to the inner west is now prime real estate eyed by slick-set developers with lupine snarls, clubs have been forced to become increasingly creative in their multi-purposing. And this old lady is no exception.

Childcare centres, markets, gyms, alfresco dining spots, community gardens, yoga on the green, outdoor movies, corporate events, Christmas parties, weddings, barefoot bowls and – heaven forbid – bocce**, these old ladies are dancing a fine line between commercial reliability and wrack and ruin, with many forced to sell off their skirts to pay their way.


At Bronte, a large-scale development glares over one fence, and a childcare centre and car park creep closer at the edge, a phalanx of shiny vehicles static in the face of the grassy endeavour in front of them. Yet she remains resolutely old-fashioned, this grand old dame, brandishing glamour and grit in equal measures.


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And while Cobar Memorial Services and Bowling Club has to suffer the indignities of a remote control car track carving up the now-bald third green, at least here the hydrangeas are stout and the view is winsome.


To keep afloat, clubs have been forced to be more open and innovative too, allowing social and (gasp) temporary membership. At Bronte the whites are off, kids and dogs are welcome, the bar is manhandled by a large man dressed wholly in nylon, who, while less than effusive, sells cold beer cheap, and the bistro is expertly pan-handled by a Greek couple who kiss as much flesh as they batter…


Perhaps the bubbler has seen a little less use of late, but the tablecloths have a military precision, the chairs are safely corralled (you can’t trust early 80s chairs, they are thoroughly deviant), the dance floor is shining in anticipation and the carpet is busy making a profound statement on late-20th century fashion clashing.



As for the Ladies, it is a nebulous light aqua dreamland that might possibly have swallowed my mind whole…

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The Cowboy reports in with sherbert-scented amenities and flanks of shiny trophy shields mounted on pine, and the Tin Lid has found not just a fish tank but a flower for the Bestie’s hat and an uncanny ability to throw coasters.


But the main attraction here is the promise of sprung boards skiddy with talc, the hammering of twanging ivories and the bellow of a double bass, courtesy of a rollicking swing band and West Coast swing dancers who spring and catch each other in a flurry of laughing movement.

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Unsurprisingly, the six-year-old is impressive, which further adds fuel to our fear he may be set for a career in musical theatre. Not such a bad thing perhaps, but the practice years may leave their mark as anyone who has heard Dammit Janet! sung at full volume every hour on the hour will know.

His performance, which includes cronking, crumping, wrist-flicking and stomping, fortunately, avoids twerking or interpretive moves, but he is readily awarded a shout out from the vocalist and free ice-cream from the cheek-grabbing Greek mama in the kitchen.


From tattoo-flecked bodgies to toe-tapping nanas, this joint is jumping. I find a middle-aged woman backing out of the Ladies with tiny sheer squares of silk beneath the soles of her shoes. It’s to protect them apparently, and save them for the dance floor. This is a serious business, with big-panted sensibly shod dancers twirling in metronomic rhythm, beaming grins breaking across their faces like wild surf.

The Bestie describes the Bronte Bowlo as “like a dated photo that forgot how to fade”, and while this makes me ponder exactly why I am the one writing this and not her, she is spot on. Caught in the eddies of time, this institution, once strictly staunch and glowing white, has learned to adapt.


It welcomes everyone and offers the world – smiling faces, cresting sound and an open space in this sickeningly crowded city. It offers respite and respect, alongside a staff that proffer litres of tartare sauce and assistance with your cardi, should you need it.

It is a haven of sight and sound and well-battered flesh, laced in the gentle premise of community spirit, a space to meet, eat, play and dance.

It offers sport for all.

I can remember when they were daggy places inhabited solely by pensioners and alcoholics there for the cheap drinks. Now lawn bowls clubs are the place to be. Take off your shoes and get into some barefoot bowls. It’s the perfect sport for dudes; you can smoke and drink while engaging in “sport.”

Dave O’Neill, SMH

*Bronte Bowling Club is not gender specific: both men and women make up the members. The signage was just too good to resist.

**Lawn bowls is generally accepted as Anglo-Celtic, bocce is Italian, boules is French, and there is fierce rivalry between them. Although in times of crisis, anything goes.


River Queens

Forever in debt to the rapacious canine demands of The Kelpie, the newest member of the mob, I find myself in the weedy gutters of anonymous backstreets being tugged towards the park – any park. With noses snuffling, ears twitching and eyes bright with the expectation of rotting treasure, she and I explore our daily date with dedication…

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On a lip of land that juts above a sulky river was once a castellated Victorian Gothic mansion, a queen sporting a regal demeanour over her 130-acre domain. The Warren, so called for the tumbling colonies of rabbits bred on the estate to be hunted, was home to wool merchant and politician Thomas Holt in 1864; a prestigiously leafy estate overlooking the Cooks River, she wore her grandeur as freshly-combed ermine.

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Thirty bedrooms, a dining room to seat 50, art gallery, bathing sheds and Turkish baths, and located in the heart of riverside Marrickville, The Warren was a real-estate’s wet dream. Today, little remains, though there is a distinct sense of propriety, of sweeping capes and walking canes, of parasols and rum at dusk, as the bats flit silently by.

The Warren may be long gone, but it still exerts a powerful fascination. Residents, both old and new, often refer to their locality as The Warren, and its presence can be sensed in many ways.

Ferncourt School is built from the stone of The Warren’s demolished stables. On the banks of Cooks River, hidden behind concrete, are the remains of The Warren’s burial vaults, and a large amount of sandstone… has been recycled into retaining walls and kerbs and gutters throughout the suburb.


Two towers, originally piers from the back of the building, stand sentinel on Richardson’s Lookout in Holt’s Crescent in South Marrickville, a spindly curve of street that follows the swell of the river. Cobblestones rumble beneath ancient figs, a memory of a driveway perhaps, and the ghosts of garden paths linger, lined with sandstone flags worn soft with time.

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Gazing into the distance you can imagine languid lunches on the lawns, the clip of a sulky bearing well-dressed guests and the breezy air of entitlement.

And while the castle was demolished in 1919 (after hosting an order of Carmelite nuns and an artillery training camp during the First World War), the estate remains closely guarded by its feudal community. Despite the glaring absence of the original mansion, a hollow lost to time, the glory of Holt’s domain is steeped in a run of ageing river queens moored to the sludgy banks of the Cooks River.

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With their toes in the damp, mottled faces staring resolutely uphill, the grand dames of Thornley Street would once have been landscaped gardens. In a later incarnations, they were the boom-time beauties, Edwardian weatherboarders and Californian bungalows of the late 1800s, turn of the century and ’20s respectively, sought after seclusion perched high above the banks.

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These landlubbers have time sequestered in their dappled flanks, weary memories surging like tidemarks in the rising damp. Paint peels like sunburnt skin, raw patches peeking out from beneath, fly-screened verandahs scratch in the heat, and pastel fibro fades in the glare.

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Their captains are invariably polite yet reserved, wary of too much attention. Lola and Luigi, deep in conversation over the fly spray, are happy to pose for a shot, asking; “why you want love? You like us old peoples?” Well, yes. I do. What with your stories and insight, life mapped on your faces like sea charts speckled with salt. Further along, an old fella caresses the tarp tied taut around his late ’80s Mazda; “Got a few of ’em love, great motors. Bloke next door hates ’em, says they is an eyesore. But his whole place is a bit on the nose if y’ask me…”

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The bush thrives here, in this slice of suburbia; the river breeds it in swathes along her banks; mangrove roots thick with mud, sandstone cliffs that create shadows of cool, banksia, acacia and mulga ferns, speargrass, she oaks and prickly-leaved paperbarks that line walkways yipping with dogs on leads and kids wobbly on their wheels.

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Between the faded faces and gentrified glitz of Thornley Street are cool diving driveways that strip down to the water hundreds of metres below, asbestos afterthoughts – home to tarped cars and garden tools – clinging to them like carbuncles.

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It is like looking down an old woman’s gullet, a vaudeville trick that vilifies. Beyond the tidy-town streetscape, straggly ends trail to crippled Colourbond fences that lounge near the water’s muddy flanks, bereft of bilges. Flood marks are a permanent stain, and veggie patches are overrun with natives.

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Like decaying paddleboats hauled high on their hitches, the river queens slump slowly into their watery graves, an expression of resigned implacability on their tired faces.

Yet while the river continues to inveigle her prey, inch by sodden inch, The Warren Estate persists with its page-one status in the brochures of local real estates. It is the ever-enduring wet-dream…

The Kelpie and I walk on, the river warbling her sordid siren song…

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