Whale, totem of Gweagal people Kurnell

Kurnell: “A suburb like no other”

“Kurnell – a suburb like no other” says a friend. Kurnell has never been on Travel with Joanne’s radar. It would take hours for me to get there by public transport, and an hour and a half by car from where I live.

Taking a Drive to Kurnell

But 2020 has changed many things. Being “in the area” after a very pleasant a couple of nights in Cronulla, we drove home via Kurnell taking my friend’s advice to “go to Captain Cook’s Landing Place, and Cape Solander”.  

The Eyes of the Land and the Sea by Wadi Wadi and Walbanga artists Alison Page and Nik Lachacjzak
Whale bones or ribs of a boat?

Similar to Brooklyn in Sydney’s north, there’s only one road leading into Kurnell, home to around 2200 people. Captain Cook Drive winds its way past industrial complexes. There’s the Sydney Desalination Plant and the old Refinery which now serves as a terminal for imported fuel. 

The Waterfront

We follow the road around to the waterfront. Newish looking double storey houses face the water. Opposite them the bay stretches out to Port Botany.

Nuwi canoe and tankers at Kurnell
Old and New

On the dog beach, a young golden retriever bounces and splashes in the shallow water. Other young dogs chase up and down the beach, their owners chatting amongst themselves. There’s a relaxed feel in the air on this weekday morning.

I guess, like Brooklyn, it gets parked out on the weekend.  

Stepping out of his campervan, an old bus conversion, a man gesticulates towards his dog, telling it to go off. The dog hesitates and then runs off past the “No Dogs” sign to a rocky breakwater. Seabirds take flight at its approach.

Cook's Landing Place
History in the Making

A gate bars the entrance to a long jetty which juts out into the bay where a tanker awaits. Imported fuel flows inside the large wide pipes running along the length of the jetty.   

Cook’s Landing Place

The footpath at the end of Silver Beach leads to Cook’s landing place. I step onto the beach to inspect a bronze sculpture more closely.  It reminds me of the bones of a whale or the ribs of a boat. Carvings decorate each curved ‘rib’ of the sculpture.

Bronze Sculptures

Designed by Wadi Wadi and Walbanga artists Alison Page and Nik Lachacjzak, “The Eyes of the Land and the Sea” was installed in 2020.

On a short boardwalk, which provides a different view of the sculpture, signs tell the story of the encounter between the local indigenous people and Captain Cook and the crew of the Endeavour.

Nuwi Canoes, by Theresa Ardler and Julie Squires
Nuwi Canoe with catch in bow

Further on another sculpture, two Nuwi Canoes, by Theresa Ardler and Julie Squires, rest on the sand. Bronze fish rest in the bow of one. Sand fills the other.  In the bay huge tankers wait to be unloaded.

Waterbirds and La Perouse

Nearby I watch a stand-off between a group of oyster catchers with their distinctive long red beaks and a pair of lap wings or spur winged plovers.

On the opposite shore, I recognise Bare Island and La Perouse realising for the first time that the Kamay Botany Bay National Park lines the shore of both Kurnell and La Perouse.  

Other historic landmarks recognizing Captain Cook’s Landing include an obelisk, flag poles and a seat commemorating Joseph Banks. Interpretive signs line the path.

Banks Memorial at Captain Cooks landing Kurnell
Joseph Banks Memorial

Walking back to the car a tourist approaches me and shows me a photo of a whale sculpture. She asks in broken English if I know where it is. I can’t help her.

Finding the Whale

At the Visitor Centre, where we purchase a day pass, I ask about the whale sculpture. I learn that the whale is the totem of the Gweagal people and had we continued past the flag poles and around the corner we would have seen it. I hope the tourist found it.

Totem of Gweagal people in Kurnell. Kamay Project 2020
Looking out to sea

All three bronze sculptures are part of the Kamay Project 2020 and mark the 250th anniversary of the first encounter between the Gweagal people and James Cook in 1770.  

Cape Solander

Driving towards Cape Solander, as we pass signs to Inscription Point and other walking trails. Today we’ll only scratch the surface.

The views from Cape Solander extend across the sandstone cliffs and deep blue sea dotted with white caps to the horizon. A sign suggests that the walk to the Cape Baily Lighthouse is 3.5kn and will take 45min to an hour one way.

Walk to Baily Lighthouse

As it’s midday and we’ve not yet had lunch, we don’t plan to go as far as the lighthouse. The boardwalk soon gives way to flat expanses of sandstone rock. The weathered rocks display beautiful natural patterns that swirl and ‘move’ in waves.

Cape Solander Kurnell
Dramatic Cliffs

A young couple busy themselves with Instagram photos. With the coastline to my left, the blue expanse of sky above, and waves crashing against the rocks I chide myself for not doing this sort of thing more often.

At Tabbigai Gap I learn that during the 1920s a group of fishermen lived here on the cliff face. They built homes into and on the rock, only leaving in the 1960s when they were required to vacate.

Sandstone features on Cape Solander walk to Cape Baily Lighthouse
Flat and Interesting Landscape

The geological face of another narrow “gap” which reaches right down to the water, reminds me of a row of mattresses sandwiched together on their ends and then pushed over to a 45degree angle. The “mattresses” are held down in place with flat blocks of sandstone layered above them.

It’s Not Far???

A group coming from the direction of the lighthouse say that it’s “About 1.5km” away. Not too far, I think.  Now that we’re here, we might as well go all the way.

Cape Solander walk to Cape Baily Lighthouse Kamay Botany National Park
Nothing for miles
Sandstone patterning

Not much further on, to the same question, a woman grimaces and says “It’s far”. Later I look at the map from the Visitor’s Centre which states the distance is 4km return and will take approximately 2.5hours. That sounds more like it. 

A dog bounds past us followed closely by a runner who hops from one rock to another. I take another swig of my water.

Cape Solander to Cape Baily walk near Kurnell
Cape Baily Lighthouse

We reach the lighthouse, and admire it from a distance. There’s thick bush between it and the path.  Hot and hungry now, we return to the car at a brisk walk and drive back to the waterfront for a late lunch.

Kurnell Surprised Me

Kurnell was a very pleasant surprise, and I’m really pleased to know that it’s so much more than an old refinery.

Useful Information

  • Remember to purchase a day pass if you park or drive within the National Park. Passes can be obtained from the Kurnell Visitors Centre or from ticket machines.
  • A map of the National Park from the Visitor’s Centre is marked with the walking tracks and places of interest.


  1. My maternal grandfather lived in one of the huts on the clifftops at Cape Solander. We scattered his ashes over the cliffs as it was the place he loved best. I played on those clifftops as a toddler. My father and uncles used to climb down those cliffs to fish. I think there are still some remains of the old iron ladders attached to the rockface. It’s been a few years since I last visited and your pics make me think it’s time to revisit.

    1. Author

      What a lovely story, Rhondda. Thank you for sharing it. It sounds like a carefree time. Now there are warnings to “Stay away from the clifftops”, although not everyone takes note.

  2. Interesting reading Joanne … I think most of us just think there’s the refinery there as not much else

    1. Author

      That was my impression Christine. I suppose that’s why I like getting out and about. It challenges my preconceptions.

  3. I remember the huge sand hills on the way to Kurnell. We’d roll down them. Are they still there?

    1. Author

      I didn’t see them from the road, Manuela, but when we revisited Cronulla, we saw the ones there – they may be part of the same dune formation and are heritage listed. They were mined for sand at one stage.

  4. Hi Joanne, the local council is currently taking submissions for the building of a ferry wharf at Kurnell for ferry services between La Perouse and Kurnell to run on weekends which used to run when I was a child. I believe this would be an a lovely way to travel to Kurnell from the Eastern suburbs.
    Also, if you do the walk to Cape Bailey during whale migration season you can safely sit on one of the rock platforms and possibly be able to watch whales breaching and frolicking while you enjoy some refreshments and snacks. We love doing this and if you go during the week there are very few people around. Just make sure you take your camera.

    1. Author

      Thanks for that information, Lorraine. The ferry service would be a great way to travel to Kurnell. I have heard about the whale watching and will make sure to get there during the next whale migration. While I am intrepid about some travel, I kick myself that I took so long to get to Kurnell.

  5. There is a great cafe called Cook on Kurnell at the very far end of Kurnell past Silver beach – a real Byron Bay vibe
    Great atmosphere

  6. Hi Jo! Lovely article and such interesting responses! We were there not so recently and also thought – must come back here with more time. Will definitely do so! Thanks for the inspiration. Di

    1. Author

      I’m pleased you enjoyed the read, Di. There is so much to explore in our great city and now that not much travel is happening….lots of time to do so.

  7. The Kurnell bronze sculptures are exquisite, they capture nature and human interaction well.
    Cape Solander looks like a lovely place to visit, I love the rock textures shown in your photos.

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