Eugene von Guerard's magnificent painting of Lake Illawarra
can be seen in the Illawarra City Gallery
Before European settlement, many Aboriginal groups lived on the NSW south coast. The area from Bulli and Stanwell Park, in the north, to Shoalhaven and Kangaroo Valley in the south was and still is called Thurawal. There were many different Aboriginal groups living in the Illawarra region. The Wadi Wadi people occupied the southern part of the Thurawal area with several camp sites around Lake Illawarra including Berkeley and Hooka Creek. They moved freely throughout the region and shared resources with their near neighbours without fear of trespassing.
Lake Illawarra was a valuable source of food and spirituality for the Wadi Wadi people. Burial sites and middens (shell and camp rubbish heaps) discovered at Windang (meaning "battlefield") and surrounding areas indicate that the Wadi Wadi used the area extensively and performed various corroborees and ceremonies here.
Life for the Wadi Wadi revolved around seeking food, finding shelter, participating in ceremonies and managing family matters. Men performed specific hunting duties and ceremonies, and the women were responsible for fishing, gathering food, cooking and rearing the children.
Most families lived in the open, or within gunyahs (bark shelter or hut) or rock shelters, their only clothing consisting of possum skins and personal adornments such as hairbelts and shell necklaces.
There were, and still are, hundreds of different Aboriginal languages spoken on the Australian continent. The Wadi Wadi people spoke a version of the Thurawal language. Many of the town and locality names in the Illawarra have derived from this language - Tongarra, Kiama, Illawarra, Wollongong, Minnamurra (plenty fish), Dapto (broken foot, Unanderra (place of larrikins, Bellambi (no), Towradgi (sacred site), Cringila (pipeclay), Warrawong (side of hill), Bulli (two).
The Wadi Wadi people found time in their day for leisure. Children especially played games of throwing spears at targets and small game. Ball games, using a ball made from soft bark tied with sinew or yarn, were also played. Making animal tracks in the sand was popular and taught the children to recognise the different tracks, a skill necessary for hunting. Games which involved remembering how a group of objects were arranged on the ground helped develop skills in observation.
Swimming and body surfing at nearby Windang Beach were also popular activities. On special occasions, other Aboriginal groups would gather together prompting contests in spear and boomerang throwing and dancing.
The Tom Thumb was the first boat to heave-to off Port Kembla on 26 March 1796, with Bass and Flinders at the helm. Flinders wrote about "Canoe River" in his journal, making reference to the Lake Illawarra entrance. Flinders also made a journal reference that there were reportedly some white men and women amongst a local Aboriginal tribe, possibly the survivors of earlier shipwrecks. In 1812, the explorer G.W. Evans, crossed the entrance of Lake Illawarra on his journey from Jervis Bay to Appin.
Cedar cutters were the first Europeans to exploit the Illawarra region. The first land grants in the region were marked out by Surveyor General John Oxley on 2 December 1816. He marked out large parcels of land surrounding Lake Illawarra with names such as Illawarra Farm, Berkeley Estate and Macquarie Gift. Crops such as wheat, oats and potatoes were grown around the lake and dairying became the primary industry in the late 1880s.
In the 1890s attempts were made to make Lake Illawarra a deep sea port. A jetty was to be built on the western shore of the lake to allow the export of coal from the Ocean View colliery. As part of this scheme, a channel was to be dredged through the entrance of Lake Illawarra to allow ocean-going boats to reach the lake jetty. The channel was to be four and a half miles long and 430 feet wide between the breakwaters at the lake entrance. A railway line was built on Windang Island to carry rock cut from the south-western side of the Island through to the mainland side of the Island. This rock was used to build the breakwaters, the remains of which can be seen today. The project was abandoned in 1902 because of the problem of drifting sand blocking the lake entrance channel.