"The Coal Loader"

An old industrial site has been transformed into a centre for sustainability.
Sunday, 27 June 2021     

The platform at the Coal Loader, showing part of its original surface

What have coal and gardening got to do with one another, you may ask. Well, at a historic site called the Coal Loader at Waverton, North Sydney Council has creatively re-imagined a place of endless filthy toil amongst mountains of coal into a cutting-edge centre for environmental sustainability (including community gardening), whilst preserving the fascinating story of its original purpose and the industrial technology of its time. The Coal Loader of today shows how far we have come in our journey towards a greener world. I recently visited this place to learn more about it.

Situated on Balls Head Bay, this spot was where from 1920 to 1992, coal was delivered from large ships, stockpiled then bunkered into smaller cargo and passenger vessels. At the time of its construction, coal was the main source of fuel in Sydney for shipping, manufacturing, lighting and heating. The operation required an enormous platform next to the bay, where the coal was deposited, and a system of four tunnels beneath chutes in the platform, which allowed the coal to be transported via skips running on cable-hauled railway lines to awaiting boats at the wharf. Some of this infrastructure can still be seen inside Tunnel 1 today, during the free guided tours conducted by volunteers from the centre. Tunnel 2 can be walked through to reach Balls Head Reserve, the largest bushland remnant in North Sydney. The other two tunnels are not open to the public - one is home to a threatened species of microbat (the Eastern Bent-wing Bat); the other contains 50 tanks that capture rainwater from the site.

Much of this water is used for the irrigation of plants and gardens on the repurposed coal-loading platform. It now has thriving fruit trees, herb beds, open greenspace and a set of raised allotment garden beds, using a wicking-system irrigation, which are available for members of the local community to rent to grow their own food, using organic principles. In an area of many apartment-dwellers, these allotments are in high demand! All are covered in mesh to deter pests from devouring the crops, held up by hoops of sturdy pipe along with pieces of steel mesh that also act as supports for climbing plants such as snow peas. In this area there are also two aquaponic beds run by volunteers. Fish and plants exist in an integrated, mutually beneficial system whereby waste produced by the fish in the ponds below is used on the garden beds, thus filtering and cleaning the water of excess nutrients that are used by the plants - with the cleaned water then returned to the ponds.

To the side of this vast platform, there is a community garden run by a group of volunteers who meet each week to cultivate fruit and vegetables in a shared space, using organic methods, in a variety of formats, including raised beds and vertical garden containers. This endeavour has been going since 2007. Composting systems and worm farms are used to recycle waste and nourish the plants, which all appeared to be thriving! A large chicken run lies below this area, full of happy, healthy chooks, demonstrating how to care for these creatures in a home garden and how they can contribute to a sustainable lifestyle. There is also a community nursery on the site where volunteers propagate seedlings of native plants for bush regeneration projects, green corridor plantings in the municipality and for local residents' gardens. A bush food garden grows an array of edible Indigenous plants, including plum pine (Podocarpus spinulosus), native grape (Cissus hypoglauca), wombat berry (Eustrephus latifolius) and warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides). Nearby are rock engravings by the Cammeraygal people, the original inhabitants of the site, including the depiction of a large whale or shark.

There is a cluster of interesting old buildings dating back to the coal-loading days, including the mess hall and the caretaker's cottage. The latter now houses an education centre for the community that provides a plethora of information about new technologies for environmental sustainability that can be applied in homes, such as rainwater tanks, solar panels for electricity and hot water, glazed windows for heat control, natural lighting options and ventilation systems. Many of these technologies are used within the education centre itself. It includes a recycling spot for batteries, old mobile phones, soft plastics and other such materials. Nearby is the recently opened 'Sydney Library of Things', which hires out to locals on short-term loans useful objects that are only occasionally needed, including tools, gardening equipment, musical instruments and party gear, as a way of saving money and resources in the community.

The Coal Loader is set within extensive parklands along the foreshore, offering many walks and picnic areas, with stunning views across the bay. Along the foreshore can be seen a garden demonstrating how to provide habitat for native flora, and a wetlands garden built on the site of an old fuel tank. Many educational events are held at the Coal Loader throughout the year to promote its aims. It has provided a space for the community to come together and learn, as well as to build the connections so vital to our wellbeing.

This site was saved from development in the 1990s by the concerted actions of local residents, and dedicated as public open space by the NSW Government in 1997. This month, the Coal Loader was added to the State Heritage Register.

 Reader Comments

1/4  Suzanne - 2073 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 28 June 2021

Thanks Deidre, our Garden Club has enjoyed a most interesting and informative tour of this amazing example of initiative, transformation and sustainability. We followed this with a lovely lunch at the adjoining cafe where, incidentally, an owner is the daughter of one of the founders of Easy Care Gardening. There is so much to see and do at this wonderful family friendly site where you can also start a bush walk viewing Sydney harbour and our three unique bridges. Thoroughly recommend a visit. Thanks so much for your comment, Suzanne. I think it is a wonderful destination for a garden group. There is so much to see. I'm keen to do some of the walks - on the day of our visit a week ago, it was windy, cold and rainy! I plan to go back before too long. Deirdre

2/4  Patty - 2087 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 28 June 2021

Thank you for writing about the Coal Loader Deirdre, I think many people are unaware of it and will be interested. I have been there three times this year, with friends and then with my book club friends and we have all enjoyed it. On my first visit there was an art show in the tunnel, and it was fascinating. Wet each time I've been there, but on a dry day I plan to tackle some walks. Thanks, Patty. I only really became aware of it in fairly recent times! I gather there are usually some sorts of events going on, including markets every so often, as well as all the other features to explore. Deirdre

3/4  Joe - 2040 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 28 June 2021

Great article, the Coal Loader is a great place for all ages and we take the kids there regularly so they (meaning I) can look at the plants and they can scoot around and explore the tunnels. I wonder what anyone thinks of the planting on the top level where many beds have been mass planted with lavender. I love the effect but wonder if a chance to do something less mono-cultural has been missed? A lot of the other planting in the central beds is really nice however. I guess the planting may evolve over time. Sounds a great spot for kids! Deirdre

4/4  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Like others, thank you for your blog on the Coal Loader. Until you mentioned it, I had not heard of it, but will make a note to visit it. It sounds as though it is a very interesting place, the area of which has been put to good use. Hope you can visit, Margaret. Deirdre

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