Long Reef Headland history walk
By Alec Smart
The circular trek from Dee Why Surf Life Saving Club (DY SLSC) north to Long Reef Headland and Fishermans Beach, then back around Dee Why Lagoon (via Pittwater Rd), is approximately 7 km with amazing views (and not too steep).
Pelicans on Fishermans Beach below Long Reef Headland. Photo: Alec Smart
It’s an enjoyable 90-minute walking adventure at all times of year, especially during whale migration season (May to November) when these magnificent leviathans can be seen offshore making their long journeys between the Southern Ocean and the Coral Sea.
The seafront path follows part of the route of the Bicentennial Coastal Walkway, which extends from Manly to Palm Beach. As well as spectacular vistas from wind-swept cliffs and opportunities to pause for picnics or a paddle in the ocean, there are several key points along the route that are historically fascinating.
Dee Why Lagoon tank traps
At the southern end of Dee Why Lagoon, hidden behind bullrushes and almost submerged, lies a dual row of 22 timber poles. Resembling the supports for a ruined jetty, these rotting stumps are actually remnants of World War 2 sea defences to halt a Japanese invasion, known as “dumble stops”.
After three Japanese mini submarines entered Sydney Harbour in May 1942, one of which torpedoed a ferry upon which 21 sleeping sailors were killed, shoreline defences were erected from Manly to Newcastle. These included rolls of barbed wire and “dragon’s teeth” (metre-high concrete pyramids weighing two tonnes apiece) along the seafront, and dumble stops - timber bollards - driven into tidal lagoons.
Old WWII ‘dumble stop’ tank defences in Dee Why Lagoon, Dee Why. Photo: Alec Smart
The shoreline defences were embedded to impede tanks arriving by marine craft. Their main tactic was to channel the tanks into areas where they could more easily be intercepted and destroyed by heavy armaments.
Incidentally, one of the aforementioned submarines, M-24, which managed to evade capture and escape out to sea, rests on the sea floor 5km off Bungan Head, Newport, at a depth of 55 metres. Its two crew members are still aboard, having committed suicide, and it is a protected war grave.
On the southern face of the cliff above Long Reef Beach, close to where the path to the headland ascends from the sand, lies a hidden tunnel from an old copper mine. In operation for a short period in the 1930s, it was dug horizontally 30 metres into the claystone and had a rail track for buggies along its floor.
Years after it was abandoned and occupied by roosting bats, the entrance was capped with a concrete plug, to deter youths from entering and risk getting buried beneath collapsed ceilings.
Hard to detect, the sealed entrance is described on Flickr website by a photographer as “between the red-brown oxidised rocks and grey-green reduced siltstone.”
Dee Why Beach and Dee Why Lagoon (top right), viewed from Long Reef Headland. Photo: Alec Smart
Fossils of sea creatures and marine plants often fall from the cliff face around the headland.
According to Northern Beaches Council, “Formed in the Triassic period 230 million years ago, Long Reef Headland is unique in Warringah for its chocolate shales, claystones and ironstones.
“Fossils of fish and plants are not uncommon on shale rock platforms. In 1986 the Australian Museum uncovered the bones of a 200 million year old, 2 metres long Labyrinthodont amphibian, similar to an axolotl."
Located at the northern base of Long Reef Point, on the southern end of Collaroy, lies Fishermans Beach. Part of Long Reef Aquatic Reserve, the oldest aquatic reserve in NSW, it’s a sheltered cove ideal for snorkellers and at low tide rock pools appear. Pelicans also inhabit the beach.
The water is often reddish due to the erosion of the volcanic clays. However, be mindful that the beach is not patrolled by surf lifesavers.
Fishermans Beach c1937, showing three residential cottages. Photo: Northern Beaches Council Library
From the 1870s a small community of fisher folk dwelled in seafront cottages, although there is only one of these small buildings remaining, which was built in the 1930s. A Council photo from 1937 shows three houses. The sheltered cove was also used to collect cattle and ship them to Sydney markets when the district was farmland in the 19th century.
A few rusted winches from this era still line the shore; one is believed to have originally been used to haul a buggy in the copper mine on the southern face of the headland.
Several ships have run aground at Long Reef, where no lighthouse was built, despite the imposing headland and exposed reefs at low tide.
These include: the steamer SS Duckenfield in May 1889 with one fatality (which already had a notorious reputation from multiple collisions and maritime accidents dating back to 1876, one of which involved the washing overboard and drowning of 500 sheep); and the paddle wheel steamer Euroka in October 1913 which disintegrated on the rocks by Fishermans Beach.
Incidentally, Collaroy Beach was named after a paddle steamer, the SS Collaroy, which ran aground there during dense fog on 21 January 1881 and lodged in the sand. It was not recovered until 4 years later but became a popular tourist attraction in the interim.
SS Collaroy, 1881, run aground on the then-unnamed beach north of Long Reef Headland. Photo: State Library NSW
The whole Upper Northern Beaches region was originally inhabited by the Garigal, a saltwater people, whose clan totem was the whale. Historians believe they ranged from Dee Why Lagoon north to Broken Bay and the Lower Hawkesbury, and west to Terrey Hills, encompassing Middle Harbour Creek, Cowan Creek and Pittwater.
There are numerous Aboriginal sites revealing evidence of their thousands of years of inhabitation, including rock engravings, shell middens, grinding grooves, cave art stencils and shelters.
According to an online e-book, Long Reef Golf Club, The First One Hundred Years, “prior to white settlement, the coastal Aborigines used part of the headland area as a burial ground. Some of their remains were excavated during the early construction of the golf course and clubhouse.”
A versatile maritime culture, the Garigal paddled out into the Pacific Ocean in simple canoes made of gum tree bark to catch fish and marine creatures. The first Europeans reported that they surfed recreationally in these water craft too – like modern sit-on kayaks.
Beach walkers at sunset on Dee Why Beach. Photo: Alec Smart
Start from Dee Why Surf Life Saving Club, amber north along the seafront path between Dee Why Lagoon and the sand dunes. Then, when you reach the beach, pass the entrance to the lagoon and Long Reef Surf Life Saving Club (both on your left), whilst sticking to the sand.
A short distance ahead, ascend the timber boardwalk stairs and stroll up to the lookout atop Long Reef Headland, skirting the golf club greens (to your left) and the cliff edge (to your right).
Still bearing north, after a detour down to Fishermans Beach at the southern end of Collaroy, turn west (inland) and ramble through the playing fields in Griffith Park, then back down the hill to Dee Why via the edge of Pittwater Rd, where you’ll overlook the western side of Dee Why Lagoon.
There is no path on the left side of the road, so for safety’s sake, cross to the right side pavement. After a 1.5km descent, cross back over to the eastern (left) side of Pittwater Rd at Lismore Ave, then walk another 50 metres south to a small green bus shelter.
Here, on your left, you’ll find a footpath that weaves in behind apartments around the south-western edge of the lagoon, where you’ll see and hear all manner of birdlife in the tree canopies above. Heading east to the sea, the forested path eventually takes you back to James Meehan Reserve (named after the emancipated convict and government surveyor who named the beach DY – literally two letters, perplexing everyone! – from which the seaside suburb sprung).
Soon you’ll return to the original starting point: Dee Why Surf Life Saving Club.
View of Dee Why Lagoon from Pittwater Rd, Collaroy. Photo: Alec Smart
There are public amenities at Dee Why SLSC and Long Reef SLSC, as well as Fishermans Beach and Griffith Park. There are several cafes in close proximity to Fishermans Beach, either at Long Reef Golf Club or on Pittwater Rd nearby, and near Dee Why SLSC on The Strand.