Residents call for next generation to defend the Depression-era shacks built of economic necessity but a now highly desirable remote escape destination.
As the waves crash upon the sandy stage, Deb and Graham Holloway watch the kookaburras fighting in the trees and the resident goanna trailing past their home — all with beers in hand and smiles on their faces.
Although tin roofs and kerosene fridges may frighten some, Deb and Graham have called this shack at South Era Beach, in the Royal National Park (RNP) south of Sydney, home for the past four years. Having travelled the world with their son, Wallabies star Jed Holloway, there is no place they would rather be than at the beach where Graham, and then Jed, have played footy over the past six decades.
“We get so excited to come back here. It’s great to experience other places, but the simplicity of this place … It’s one of the most unique places in the world,” Graham Holloway said.
“We love the people down here. [The community] is more like our family than our actual family sometimes,” Deb Holloway said.
Their shack is a relic of Depression-era Australia. The shacks were first built 90 years ago at the height of the Depression when the families of miners working in the nearby Helensburgh pit moved into the Royal National Park to survive. The families lived off the land by catching fish, hunting rabbits and growing vegetables.
Josephine Adam, the author's grandmother, pictured in the family shack at South Era Beach in the 1960s.SUPPLIED
Today, 143 shacks remain in the park: 95 at South Era, 20 at Little Garie and 28 at Burning Palms.
Historian Ingeborg van Teeseling who wrote Shack Life, says "this is a place that, for me, symbolises Australia. I’ve been all over Australia, but this tiny, tiny piece that you can barely see on the map - this to me is my heart place."
'The simplicity of this place ... It's one of the most unique places in the world.
Living at South Era is much easier nowadays. However, the locals are very aware of all the shacks that have been lost, and the ongoing threat to their own shacks. In 1967, the National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) decided the Royal National Park, (the world's second-oldest declared national park after Yellowstone) should be wilderness at its most pristine: without human interference. Therefore, all evidence of the human past, including the shacks, needed to be removed.
From the late 1960s, the parks service decided to clean out the shack communities and over the next 30 years, more than 55 shacks were demolished. With the forced demolitions came tension with the shacks' "owners". Helen Voysey, a former president of the Royal National Park Coastal Cabins Protection League, remembers her frustration when the NPWS told her that the shack she grew up in was no longer hers.
“A decision by all the communities was made then that we are going to fight this. We were not going to accept that dividing of the community and pushing some people out and becoming caretakers in these shacks we believed we own,” Voysey said.
The Coastal Cabins Protection League lobbied hard to stop the demolitions. The battle reached a point where the NPWS informed the shackies in 2000 that they were no longer recognised as owners of the shacks and urged them to sign a new licence in which they “relinquished all rights to the cabin structures.”
“That was their intention. You don’t sign, we’ll get rid of you and we’ll demolish the shacks,” Voysey said.
'You can't have someone coming in and having a huge shower and then there's no water ... the following weekend.'
Finally, after decades of conflict, in 2006, an agreement was reached that gave the shackies a Bona Fide Licence for their shack for 20 years. In 2012, the shacks were given heritage status with the Government Gazette confirming their State Heritage Listing.
On the surface, the shacks seem to be safe. However, even though the shacks can no longer be demolished, the future of the shack communities remains in the balance. The bona-fide licences are set to expire in 2027.
Summer at the South Era Beach shacks. The next generation will have to take up the fight if they want to preserve this lifestyle.SUPLLIED
The NPWS has, for years, floated the idea that the shacks should opened to the public. As early as 2004, an NPWS press release indicated the service's interest in allowing the public to “share the shacks for as little as $15 per week”. In 2023, the shacks would be a hot Airbnb-style destination for those craving a slice of remote, simple life.
For the shackies, this is out of the question. They say a casual visitor would not know how to operate the shacks and their unique water, sewerage and electric systems.
“The sanitation is tricky and the water is tricky. You can't have someone coming in and having a huge shower and then there's no water for the people who are coming the following weekend,” Voysey said.
However, critics of the shacks say they contradict what a national park should be, perceiving the shacks as destructive and as providing no value to the park. In 1990, 12 years after he left parliament, former NSW Minister for Lands Tom Lewis, who was responsible for establishing the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service in 1967, said the NPWS regarded the shacks with “the same enthusiasm we would lavish on feral pigs or oil spills”.
When the shackies are told that some find their presence in the park destructive, they point out the services they provide gratis for the RNP. They run a local rescue service for park visitors in trouble. Shack owner Ian Badham formed the first rescue service in the park in 1974. On its first day, two people were rescued, including a young boy who was hit by a rock slide and had to be flown to hospital for critical head injuries. That young boy grew up to father three children, my brothers and I, who have visited the shacks for as long as we can remember. The shackies have gone on to save countless lives through surf rescues and tend to the land on which their beloved shacks reside.
“Without the communities and the surf clubs, there would be a lot more accidents and dangers,” Graham Holloway said.
“There won't be any land care. There will be absolutely nothing,” his wife Deb added.
Despite these contributions to park life, the shackies still feel threatened by the 2027 licence renewal. “They’re nice as pie to our face, but they say all these things behind our back,” Voysey said. Going forward, the Holloways are concerned the NPWS will try to make the shacks open for public use and that many shackies won’t be able to pay the price to keep their shacks.
“My fear is that they are going to try and price us out. There are some people here who do have the ability to pay, but there’s a lot that don’t,” Deb Holloway said. The shackies will be counting on the younger generation of shackies' kids to hold the line they have courageously held for the past 60 years. “It’s now the next generation’s job to take it all on,” Voysey said.
'It's now the next generation's job to take it all on.'
Although the expiration of the licenses is still three years away, the shackies have already begun lobbying the State government, speaking with the Premier, Chris Minns, and the Minister for Environment, Penny Sharpe.
The Holloways, waking up each morning in their cherished shack, pray that the future of their shack remains bright, not just for them, but for the generations of their children and grandchildren to come.
“I want all my kids and grandkids to be able to experience what we have down here,” Deb Holloway said.
“We hope the future is exactly what it is today," her husband Graham adds. "That it remains the way it has."