The sand dune system which is also referred to as the Kurnell sand dune is estimated to be about 15,000 years old. It was formed when the sea reached its present level and began to stabilise, between 9,000 and 6,000 BC. The Georges, Cooks and Towra Rivers flowed to the south-east beneath the present sand dune system near Wanda and joined the ocean at Bate Bay. This resulted in the isolation of Kurnell, (which was an island) from the mainland. The rivers eventually became blocked with accumulating sand and sediment as the sea level rose. As the rivers gradually silted up they were forced into changing their course and were led out to sea via La Perouse rather than continue to maintain an opening in an ever-growing sand barrier near Wanda. This resulted in a tombolo being formed and joined Kurnell with the Cronulla mainland. The deepest part of the ancient river channel now lies 100 meters below the surface at the southern end of the peninsula, near Wanda Beach.
The original inhabitants on the Kurnell Peninsula were the Gweagal people, a clan of the Tharawal (or Dharawal) tribe who occupied the region for thousands of years. Their tribe spanned the area’s between the Cook's and George's Rivers from the shores of Botany Bay and westwards towards Liverpool. According to a Gweagal elder, Dharawal is similar to a state and Gweagal is similar to a shire within the state, Cunnel (Kurnell) is a family village within the shire. A tribe consisted of approximately 20 to 50 people who lived in their own territory. They had no written language and each tribe had its own dialect. They knew how to light fires long before the arrival of white man. Their clothing consisted of a woven hair sash in which they used to carry tools and weapons and sometimes the optional possum-skin coat for the winter season. The Gweagal Aborigines were the northernmost tribe of the Dharawal nation. They fished from canoes or from the shore using barbed spears and fishing lines with hooks in and around Botany Bay and the Georges River. Waterfowl could be caught in the swamplands (Towra Point), and the variety of soils would have supported a variety of edible and medicinal plants. Birds and their eggs, possums, wallabies and goannas were also a part of their staple diet, in which they made fur coats and ceremonial attire. The abundance of fish and other foodstuffs in these heavily timbered waterways meant that these natives were less nomadic than those of Outback Australia. The various middens, rock carvings and paintings in the area confirm this. The Gweagal Aborigines were the guardians of the sacred white clay pits in their territory. Members of the tribe walked hundreds of miles to collect the clay, it was considered sacred amongst the indigenous locals and had many uses. They used it to line the base of their canoes so they could light fires, and also as a white body paint, (as witnessed by Captain James Cook). Colour was added to the clay using berries, which produced a brightly coloured paint that was used in ceremonies. It was also eaten as a medicine, an antacid. Geebungs and other local berries were mixed in the clay and it was eaten as a dietary supplement with zinc. The Gweagal Aborigines made first contact (of a hostile nature) with James Cook and his crew, occupying the area which is now 'Captain Cooks Landing Place Reserve'. Today members of the Tharawal people still live near the Cronulla sand dunes and participate in their traditional Aboriginal art and culture.
The Kurnell Peninsula, also the site of the Cronulla Sand Dune System was the first landing place for Captain James Cook in Australia. On 29 April 1770, HM Bark Endeavour landed in Botany Bay and Cook stepped ashore. Shortly after, James Cook looked down from the sand hills at what is now known as Cronulla Beach. The sand dunes were completely covered in vegetation, so Cook made no mention of any sand dunes during his visit to the Kurnell peninsula. Captain Cook along with his crew stayed in Botany Bay for eight days. During his visit he collected botanical specimens, mapped the area and tried to make contact (unsuccessfully) with the indigenous population. When Cook reported back to England he said that the land was suitable for agriculture, it had sandy soil and the area was lightly wooded.
Less than 100 years after Captain Cook's landing, most of the original vegetation had been cleared and burnt, larger trees had been ring barked or simply cut down. By 1868 the forests of blackbutt and ironbark were cut down for houses and bridge construction whilst the remaining vegetation was cleared for grazing.
Captain Arthur Phillip, arriving with the First Fleet, stepped ashore on 18 January 1788, after following Cook’s advice. They began to clear land and dig wells, but a week later decided to abandon the site and sail north to Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour).
The first land grant was issued in 1815 when a whaler and merchant by the name of James Birnie, was given of land and of saltwater marshes on the Kurnell Peninsula. The grant included Captain Cook’s landing place. He called it ‘Alpha Farm’, and built himself a cottage there. In 1801 John Connell, an ironmonger, arrived in Sydney as a free settler. In 1821 Connell was granted at Quibray Bay next to Birnie’s grant.
When James Birnie was declared insane in 1828 John Connell gained possession of his property. John Connell now had full ownership of the Kurnell Peninsular. Connell erected a new house, which he named ‘Alpha House,’ built on the foundations of Birnie’s original cottage. James Connell and his two grandsons, Elias and John Laycock, were the first land owners to log the peninsula. They began to harvest timber from the estate in 1835. In the 1840s a canal from Woolooware Bay was built so that logs could be floated into Botany Bay, loaded onto ships and sailed up to Sydney. When John Connell passed away in 1848, he left his estate to his two grandsons. The first Crown land auctions in the area took place in 1856. It was here that John Connell Laycock bought another . This increased the size of the estate to .
Thomas Holt purchased Laycock’s entire estate on the peninsula in 1861 for £3275. Holt, originally from Yorkshire, sailed into Sydney sometime in 1842. He made his fortune during the gold rushes of the early 1850s. Holt moved to Sutherland and further increased the size of his property to approximately . He erected several mansions, ran his ‘Sutherland Estate’ in the English manner, and travelled into Sydney to manage his business affairs.
In 1868, Holt’s land was still mostly uncleared virgin bushland. After Holt had cleared most of the timber, he began to plant grass seeds imported from Germany. The Sutherland Estate was divided into eleven portions. It was then divided into 60 smaller paddocks using Brushwood fencing. The fence posts used to divide these lots can still be found in Towra Point, which is also part of the Kurnell Peninsula.
Holt attempted grazing, first with sheep which had to be destroyed when they became infected with footrot, and then with cattle. The land on his estate was not suited for intensive grazing, so after most of the trees were felled, herds of cattle then removed the stabilizing grass cover and exposed the sand dunes underneath. Large expanses of sand had been exposed along the coastline. The dune system that covers an area of , measuring 40 meters above and 90 meters below sea level, became unstable and began to move north at a rate of 8 meters a year. Land clearing and cattle grazing resulted in a degraded landscape, but created the distinctive Cronulla sand dunes of today.
Between 1920 and 1930 the sand hills were acknowledged to be a deserted and desecrated landscape, and their economic value was minimal. However, by the 1920s Cronulla had become notable for its beaches with over five kilometres of sand stretched along the coastline. The bare sand dunes became synonymous with Cronulla. Between the 1920s and the 1950s the large expanses of sand became a popular playground for generations of children for activities such as sandboarding.
In January 1965 the bodies of two 15-year-old girls were found in the sand hills just off Wanda Beach. They had been bashed, stabbed and sexually assaulted. The murderer has not yet been identified and the case remains one of Australia’s most notorious, unsolved crimes, known as the 'Wanda Beach Murders'.
In the 1930s the Holt family began its sand mining operations to supply the expanding Sydney building market and continued until 1990 with an estimate of over 70 million tonnes of sand being removed. The sand has been valued for many decades by the Sydney building industry, mainly because of its high crushed shell content and lack of organic matter. The site has now been reduced to a few remnant dunes and deep water-filled pits which are now being filled with demolition waste from Sydney's building sites. Removal of the sand has significantly weakened the peninsula's capacity to resist storms. Ocean waves pounding against the reduced Kurnell dune system have threatened to break through into Botany Bay, especially during the storms of May and June 1974 and August, 1998.
Industrialisation of the Kurnell Peninsula continues to be an ongoing problem amongst community groups and environmentalists. Plans for further development at the site has been cause for continual public protest between developers, locals and environmental groups. A proposal to build a chemical plant by the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer in 1986 resulted in public protests, environmental objections and a Commission of Inquiry. The plan never went ahead on the grounds of both environmental and economic issues.
In 2004 a major industrial development at the Kurnell site just north of Wanda Beach has been given the go-ahead by the Land and Environment Court. This has prompted fears that the State Government will now approve the construction of hundreds of homes on the site. The court upheld an appeal by Australand, allowing it to build on one-third of the 62-hectare site, "subject to conditions such as safeguarding the environment."
Sutherland Shire Council had objected to the proposal, citing issues such as the impact on the threatened green and golden bell frog. The Council also put forth their concerns about the ecosystem, the two key areas in question were the sandhills and the freshwater wetland area. The court's commissioners rejected Sutherland Shire's case, ruling in favour of the Austaland development. The court also accepted that the Wanda sand hills had to be revegetated to stop the sand from filling up ponds and swallowing up the vegetation in the area. The council has spent $650,000 on the case and wants the area set aside for tourism, environmental conservation and heritage.
Sandminers, aware that their resources are dwindling, are looking to further profit from the stripped land by building residential housing or recreational resorts or industrial complexes. In 2000 a proposal by Australand for 250 houses on the same site was called in by the then Minister for Planning, Andrew Refshauge. The Opposition said the Land Court's decision could encourage the Government to allow for the construction of a large housing development on the site.
Amateur and professional athletes on a daily basis push themselves to exhaustion in unforgiving soft-sand conditioning sessions at the Cronulla sandhills. This is to either keep fit, stay in shape or prepare for amateur and, or professional sporting events, events like Rugby league, Rugby union, Cricket, Soccer and boxing.
At one stage professional cricketers Glenn McGrath, Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee and Brad Haddin trained at the sand dunes on daily basis in preparation for international test cricket. Anthony Mundine held a one-hour workout in the sandhills to prepare for his bout with WBA super-middleweight champion Mikkel Kessler.
Amateur and professional Rugby league teams, especially those of the NRL also use the sandhills.
At inclines of 45 degrees or more, these sandhills rise upwards and all but collapse downwards in hour-long sprint sessions. According to the conditioning coach of the Australian Cricket team Jock Campbell, these sandhills, along with gym programs is the best way to train athletes for endurance work. "Working in the sandhills is hard aerobic interval training, and good specific leg training without the shock on knees and ankles.