February 5, 2023

The Tabbigai Cliff Dwellers

For sixty years, the Tabbigai Cliff Dwellers lived in the sandstone cliffs overlooking the ocean near Botany Bay.

Building a shanty, Sydney, early 20th century
Building a shanty, Sydney, early 20th century

Cliff dwelling has a long history in Sydney.

After World War I, and again during the Depression, the city had a high number of people living in poverty. One of the difficulties they faced was finding somewhere to live; many slept rough on the streets, others relied on charity organisations like the Salvation Army.

Government assistance was scarce.

Some impoverished people took matters into their own hands, erecting temporary accommodation on crown land, where they were less likely to be evicted. These were shacks, cobbled together from scrap metal and discarded lumber.

People without the skills or materials to build their own place looked for other solutions.

Folly Point, Cammeray
Folly Point, Cammeray

Sydney harbour is ringed by sandstone cliffs; a porous rock, easily eroded and shaped. The cliffs are riddled with caves, some people simply started living in them.

‘At Folly Point in Cammeray, labourers found that they preferred to live in the caverns along the waterfront, rather than the tents they had been given.

Cave-dwellers could also be found around Middle Harbour, Smedley’s Point (Manly), Narrabeen, South Head (Watsons Bay), Vaucluse, Cremorne Point, the Domain, and Maroubra.

About 2.5 kilometres west of the railway line at Oatley, a small group of people made their homes in the rocky caves of the gully known locally as Waldon’s Estate.’

 

– Stephanie Bailey, Sutherland Shire libraries

A cave dweller was even found in Mosman, a short distance from the lavish home of the state’s Lieutenant Governor.

The authorities managed these dwellings with varying levels of tolerance; sometimes the cave dwellers were moved on, and sometimes they were allowed to stay. In some cases, they even paid a small annual fee, in order to remain.

Kurnell Peninsula location
Kurnell Peninsula location

The Kurnell Peninsula is an extensive sandstone headland, to the south of Botany Bay.

Human habitation has existed for thousands of years. The traditional owners are the Goorawal and Gweagal people, and significant Indigenous sites can be found throughout the area.

The peninsula also has deep connections to European settlement.

Captain Cook landed on the northwest coast in 1770, and would later suggest Botany Bay as a suitable spot for a colony. The first fleet arrived 18 years later, and surveyed the area before moving on to Port Jackson.

Even in present day Sydney, the peninsula is remote and sparsely populated.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it really was a wilderness; there were no roads, and to reach it you caught the train to La Perouse, a ferry across Botany Bay to Kurnell, and then walked several kilometres through the bush. The only other access was via Cronulla, a 16 kilometre hike away.

People used the area for fishing, and camping; a great spot, to get away from it all.

Tabbigai Gap
Tabbigai Gap

Among the visitors was Bert Adamson.

Adamson and a group of friends first came to the peninsula in 1913, when they were teenagers. They spent the day at Tabbigai Gap, a steep, wedge shaped indent on the ocean side cliffs.

Not keen on the long trek back to the city, the group decided to stay the night. They slept on a broad rock ledge about halfway down the gap, above the crashing waves.

For Adamson, it was love at first sight. He would return to Tabbigai repeatedly in the following years, and often sleep there.

As an adult, Adamson began work in the city as a furniture maker. He continued to visit the Kurnell Peninsula, and used his tools to expand his sleeping ledge.

The remoteness of the area provided him with a license to be creative.

Bert Adamson
Bert Adamson

Adamson would gradually fashion a complete house at Tabbigai. The sandstone cliffs were his primary material; free, easily shaped, and right on his back doorstep.

Other building materials, and a few modern conveniences, he brought back from the city.

‘With an electricity plant, concrete floors, waterproofed ceilings, shuttered windows, comfortable beds, a stove, and plenty of cupboards, Adamson combined the conveniences of 20th-century life with the almost forgotten delights enjoyed by the prehistoric cave-dweller.’

– ‘Pix’ magazine, profile of Adamson

The residence had a large living area, with a separate ‘kitchen box’ that jutted out over the ocean. Adamson was able to fish right from his windows, casting a line directly into the sea below.

He rigged up rope ladders to enable him to reach the bottom of the cliffs, where he caught crayfish and other crustaceans.

It was an idyllic lifestyle.

Tabbigai Cliff Dwellers

Adamson's house at Tabbigai
Adamson’s house at Tabbigai

The ocean provided most of Adamson’s food, and he collected rainwater in a large tank he carved into the rock above his house. He spent his time fishing, relaxing with friends who came to visit, and enjoying the spectacular views.

Tabbigai Gap was on crown land, and Adamson registered with the Lands Department. As the area was largely unused, they allowed him to stay, and charged him a few pounds a year for rent.

Adamson described his residence as a ‘holiday home’, although he stayed there frequently.

Cliff dwellers
Cliff dwellers

Other people lived on the Peninsula more permanently.

During the Great Depression, an unemployment camp was established across the bay at La Perouse. Known as ‘Happy Valley’, this provided temporary accommodation for thousands of unemployed people.

When Happy Valley filled up, new arrivals spilled into the surrounding areas. Many made their way across to Kurnell Peninsula, to squat.

Among these was Charles Hay. Hay also fashioned his own clifftop residence out of a rocky sandstone ledge, north of Tabbigai Gap.

‘The house is one long room, homemade beds at one end. At the far end is the kitchen with an oven, which is really a metal drum set in concrete.

 

Wide doors and windows give a clear view of the Pacific, from the dining room table. The walls are of stone, chiselled from the rock.’

– ‘The Sun’, March 1934

Hay lived there with his 77 year old mother; like Adamson, he paid a small annual fee to the government for the site.

The Sun called it, ‘the first house on the left’, as you sailed into Australia.

Captain Cook Drive under construction
Captain Cook Drive under construction

But the bulk of the peninsula’s residents were not as well established as Adamson and Hay. Most of the other dwellings were shacks knocked together from scrap; the humpies seen in other parts of Sydney.

There was another influx of residents after World War II. By the 1950s, there were about 100 homemade houses across the peninsula.

In 1953, Captain Cook Drive opened. This was a sealed road running to Cronulla, the first proper land connection between Kurnell and the rest of the city. Shortly afterwards, Shell established an oil refinery on the north coast.

Both the road and the refinery brought a much higher volume of people to the area.

Some of the shacks that were demolished
Some of the shacks that were demolished

In 1962, Adamson retired, and moved to Tabbigai full time. This had long been his dream, but the peninsula was changing.

There were now walking tracks in the area, and much more foot traffic. Litter became a problem, and also hygiene; for a long time, there were no public toilets.

People raced their vehicles along the empty sandstone clifftops, scaring away animals and harming the native plants.

Some passers-by could not resist poking around Adamson’s house. It was broken into on a number of occasions, and his possessions stolen or damaged.

In 1963 his battery set up, used to provide electric lighting, was taken. Adamson then added a combination lock to his front door; this was wrenched off by intruders, and his house vandalised.

Someone even took a shot at him with a rifle, from the cliff opposite.

From the government’s perspective, there was an even more serious problem: several visitors fell from the clifftops, and drowned.

Tabbagi Cliff Dwellers, 1970s
Tabbagi Cliff, 1970s

In 1969, the NSW Department of Lands decided to clear the peninsula of residents. Health and safety concerns were the catalyst, they also wanted to turn the area into a state park, which precluded most development.

Eviction notices were issued to the people still living there, who gradually began to vacate. As they left, the government demolished the houses they left behind.

But Adamson was reluctant to go; by that time, he had been living on and off at Tabbigai for more than 50 years.

He had continued to improve his house, installing large timber buttresses to better secure it to the cliff face, and building an ingenious plumbing system powered by rainwater filtered through charcoal. A fenced trail lead from the clifftops, to his door.

He complained to the press, ‘Why push me out and wreck all this?’

The government relented for a time. Adamson was allowed to continue living on the peninsula into the 1970s, the last of the area’s cliff dwellers.

The last of the Tabbagi Cliff Dwellers: Bert Adamson, 1969
The last of the Tabbagi Cliff Dwellers: Bert Adamson, 1969

Adamson’s hand was eventually forced by another act of vandalism.

An abandoned car was pushed off the top of Tabbigai Gap, deliberately crashing it onto his roof, and causing significant damage to the property.

By this time in his 70s, Adamson was no longer capable of completing the repairs himself. He had no choice but to move, although he lamented leaving his unique location behind:

‘I’ve seen blue gropers down there so big you had to be careful they didn’t pull you in. And lobsters like kittens, you could catch ‘em with your hands.

And sharks, whales, sea lions, right down there. Strike me lucky, there used to be wildflowers all over the bush, Christmas bells, and wild pit ponies.’

– Bert Adamson

Although by the time he left, the wildflowers and pit ponies were long gone.

Location of the cliff dwellers, present day
Location of the cliff dwellers, present day

In 1977, Adamson moved to a house in Carss Park. He died in 1981.

The Cape Bailly hiking track now passes Tabiggai Gap. Adamson’s house is commemorated by a small photographic plaque; the expanded shelf it sat on is still prominent, no other physical trace of it remains.

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