From the snow to a stunning winter’s day in Sydney, last week I took a group of year 7 students to Middle Head for a geography and history excursion. There were all the elements of a fun day out of the classroom as well as to get a real feel for the natural and built environment and how it changes over time. Even though the kids are all from Sydney, I was surprised how many hadn’t been to Middle Head, or anywhere around there, especially when Taronga Zoo is just down the road. Thinking of Taronga Zoo, I must pay another visit, as the last time I was there, was on a school excursion when I was 5! I do remember that there were giraffes and a koala, but I’m sure there’s more animals there than that and I’m getting side-tracked.
Middle Head, its history and military usage is fascinating. Much has been preserved as National Parks are now responsible for the area. What could be better than spending a day in a beautiful National Park that’s located right in the middle of Australia's biggest city!
The Disappearing Gun Emplacement
As with much of Australian history, it starts with the aborigines. Middle Head is no exception. If you're looking for an amazing place to live, with beautiful beaches and stunning views, you can't go wrong here. Whilst it’s not entirely clear which tribe based themselves on the headland, the Camaragal (Cam-mer-ray-gal) lands took in a signification area of Mosman and North Sydney. Hence the suburb Cammeray!
After settlement and before Fort Denison was built, a fort was built on the southern side of headland next to Obelisk Beach as a means of providing early warning for the colony when ships entered the harbour and to surprise them with a shot over the bow if they had hostile intent. However, due to the distance from the colony, it was soon abandoned. Today however, this is a nudist beach, which can still provide an equally shocking a surprise to passing ships.
In 1815, with Governor Macquarie in charge, busily building the colony and naming things after himself, he granted Middle Head to Bungaree, an aboriginal who accompanied Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia. Named the ‘Chief of Broken Bay’ and the ‘King of Port Jackson,’ Bungaree was a colourful character who was an important intermediary between the European Settlers and the local aborigines. Whilst it was probably a noble gesture for Governor Macquarie to ‘give’ Bungaree this land, which he probably already ‘owned,’ this quickly fell apart, as the soil on Middle Head isn’t much good for farming.
The site was soon abandoned until its (no apostrophe!) rebirth as a military fort in 1853 when NSW was getting worried about the prospects of being invaded by Russia. In terms of success, this fort was amazing! It protected us from invasion by Russia right throughout the Crimean war. We won’t dwell on the fact that Russia didn’t even bother sending out anyone to New South Wales, because that would ruin a good story.
Main Middle Head Fort
Middle Head as a fort was of great strategic importance. As the headland is positioned right in the middle of North Head and South Head, you can see and track everything that comes into Sydney harbour. The fort had several key areas and gun placements built throughout and many of the remnants can still be seen. Over the years, the fort was upgraded for each subsequent war in which Australia was involved. The cannons changed to artillery pieces and at the height of its military use, it was covered by 71 guns. The most important period of operation however, came in World War II when the Japanese posed a real threat to Australia and managed to get two midget subs through the anti-submarine net and into Sydney Harbour.
The military base on Middle Head was finally abandoned after the end of the Vietnam War. It was then handed over to National Parks in 1979 and has been cared for and developed into a wonderful natural and historic tourist attraction. The added bonus that we had during this excursion, was to see the air ambulance conducting training exercises on and around the headland. It was awesome to see them doing a moving boat rescue exercise as well as landing and taking off right in front of us. Whilst I can’t guarantee that you will have the same amazing experience with a helicopter, you can be assured that a trip out to Middle Head is well worth it to explore the fascinating geography and history of such an important site in the development of Sydney. If you’re not feeling up to guiding this yourself, give National Parks a call and talk to them about school options.