There seems to be an unofficial rule that every travel writer doing a story about Thirroul must mention that DH Lawrence lived here in 1922 while he wrote his novel Kangaroo.
Certainly, it is an interesting, albeit wearied, fact that the English author chose to stay in a small town just south of Sydney, but it feels more like a footnote these days.
The house where Lawrence stayed, a low red-brick bungalow called Wyewurk, is still here atop a cliff, but it’s a private home and hardly an attraction. At least its heritage has been retained, though, while around it, multi-storey modern mansions have been constructed by the town’s new (often part-time) residents.
Lawrence wouldn’t recognise the quiet beachside community these days, which he described as “a far and wide scattering of pale-roofed bungalows at random among grassy, cut-out streets, all along the levels above the sea, but keeping back from the sea, as if there was no sea”. A century later, it’s all about water views.
Change took a while, and then happened quickly here, manifested in the huge number of cool cafes that have opened in recent years (by my count, there are now at least 15 … for an official population of 6000 residents).
For my caffeine hit, I’m drawn to the distinctive appearance of one called Buck Hamblin, where I meet owner Luke Barrett, who has seen Thirroul start to buzz.
“It was once forgotten about,” he tells me. “It’s largely bypassed from Sydney to Wollongong, particularly when the Sea Cliff Bridge was closed, it was a dead end, but now it’s a popular weekend drive and day trip from Sydney.”
Luke opened the café five years ago – but the business name has been here since Buck Hamblin opened it as a cobbler in the 1940s, with three generations calling it home, before it closed in 2000 and the building lay empty for 15 years. When Luke came along, he kept the original sign and plenty of heritage touches.
“In the midst of the increasing presence from Sydney folk and outsiders, there was this strong sentiment of locals wanting to tell you that they’d be here for a long time, and keeping Buck Hamblin tickled their fancy,” Luke says.
Across the road is Thirroul Collective, a shopfront shared by 30 small local businesses, selling a wide range including food, clothes, homewares, and crystals. It’s in a space that was once part of a hardware store that now also houses a surf shop, café, vintage clothing store, and pizza restaurant – none of which would be here if it wasn’t for the regular flow of visitors to the town on the weekends.
“If they have a beautiful experience with us, and we entice them to go to the rest of the stores in Thirroul, it creates a really cool vibe about our village,” says Sheralee Rae, the owner of Thirroul Collective.
Thirroul is a surf village that now can offer visitors a whole day of boutique shopping. But this shift towards hip modernity has also helped preserve local businesses and the local community, which beats as strong as ever, intertwined with its distinctive geography.
“We like it’s coastal, we like it’s country,” Sheralee tells me. “Our sport is done over on the beach, the ocean pools are used for swimming carnivals. People who have lived here for a long time, live here for a reason.”
The coast and the country. The two extremes that embrace Thirroul. To the east is the ocean and to the west is the Illawarra Escarpment, and both are worth exploring on a visit to the region.
At Thirroul Beach, the deceptively welcoming water is still patrolled by one of the oldest surf life saving clubs in Australia, established in 1907, while there’s also a remarkable Olympic-size salt-water pool (with free entry). At the end of the sand are the cliffs and, beneath them, the dramatic coastal landscape unchanged from when DH Lawrence admired its “strangely sea-scooped sharp sea-bitter rock floor, all wet and sea-savage”.
Along the string of beaches on the Coal Coast (as this stretch north of Wollongong is known) each community has its own distinct presence, and it’s an easy stroll from Thirroul to Austinmer, past the excellent South Sailor seafood restaurant and the Beach Motel notorious for Brett Whiteley’s death in one of its rooms in 1992.
In Austinmer, the turquoise rock pools at the southern end of the beach are calm except for the splash and spray of the occasional wave at the far end.
It’s from here you can walk to the bottom of the escarpment and begin the region’s best hike up to Sublime Point.
The trail may only be 700 metres each way, but it’s a literal game of snakes and ladders as the wildlife watches on while you plod up hundreds of steps and haul yourself to the top of metal staircases.
The ferns, the mossy trees, and the sandstone cliff face all provide a beautiful backdrop for the walk, but the epic panorama of the coast from the viewpoint at the top is the highlight.
From here it’s easy to see how the coast and the escarpment create a natural barrier to any expansion of Thirroul. It will always be a small town, even if the pale-roofed bungalows are not so scattered these days.
You can see more about things to do in Thirroul on Michael Turtle’s Travel Australia Today website.