Era beach shack
The beach shacks at Era, NSW (Image: Georgia Holloway)

One hour south of Sydney, 95 shacks line the coast along Era Gully. There is no mobile phone reception, and the shacks are kitted out with kerosene fridges and ovens. Buckets are used as shower heads, empty beer bottles are used in retaining walls, and the nearest road — a narrow, uneven dirt one — is more than 2km away by foot.

To most people, these shacks are historical relics. Built on the land of Dharawal people, the first shack went up in 1910, and most others were established during the Great Depression. Many workers made their way down the hill from the Helensburgh Mine, searching for refuge and stability.

To 24-year-old Georgia Holloway, however, they are home. She was raised in shack 16.

Georgia and her twin sister Sophie in her grandfather’s shack (Image: Georgia Holloway)

“In the early 1950s, my grandfather was part of a bushwalking group and they used to bushwalk through what they called Era,” Georgia tells Crikey. “This is when it was freehold pasture land, so there were already shacks established there, and he just thought it was a really special place.

A veteran of World War II, Georgia’s grandfather returned to Era to start building. Georgia’s father later inherited his own shack from a family who were close with her grandfather, Fred. Though her family mainly stayed in the shacks on weekends and holidays, Georgia says that her most treasured childhood memories were forged at Era.

“My parents were pretty working class when I was growing up and they had declared bankruptcy before my sister and I were born. Without the shack I wouldn’t have had any holidays as a child because we couldn’t afford it. All my sentimental memories are from Era.” 

The fight so far

Over the past 70 years, the shackies have repeatedly fought to stay put. In the mid-1940s the Era shacks were threatened with a potential land sale to wealthy developers, which inspired residents to form a “Protection League” with the aim of purchasing the land. (Fred was once president of the organisation.) The league successfully lobbied against the developers and, in 1953, the land was incorporated into the Royal National Park.

A new threat then came in 1967 with the establishment of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The service made plans to demolish the shacks on the instance of the death of an owner or overdue rent. More than 21 of the 116 shacks at Era were removed, but the number could have been much higher; the shackies often didn’t inform the NPWS of an owner’s death and instead banded together to pay for and maintain the shacks of the deceased.

Georgia’s father, aged four, outside an Era shack in 1958 (Image: Georiga Holloway)

While this plan was initially successful, it didn’t ensure any long-term protection. In the 1980s the community successfully managed to secure heritage protection for the shacks. All demolition stopped and, in 2006, a 20-year license was accepted by cabin owners at Era, Burning Palms and Little Garie. But with the license set to expire in seven years, Georgia worries that she will soon have to take up the fight herself.

“I remember, at age nine or 10, people saying to me ‘enjoy it while you can now because we might not be able to keep [the shacks]’. And now I’m older and we don’t really know what will happen in 2026 when this current license expires. At times I feel that same fear starting to creep back in.”

Preserving the memory

Looking back, Georgia realises the small beachside community was anything but normal. She’d heard stories of the Surf Life Saving Club, which was built in 1938, being swept into the ocean by the east coast lows that regularly hammered the coast. Her toilet was the next victim, destroyed before flying away into the wind.

But with every toilet that flew away came the clean-up, and it was the communal effort that spoke to the spirit of unity at Era, forged during the years of protection. “Because you’re so isolated, there’s such a great sense of community,” Georgia says. “Everyone just pulls together and helps out.”

The rebuilt toilet at Era (Image: Georgia Holloway)

The shacks are still only accessible by foot, but that hasn’t stopped Georgia from regularly making the trek. “You feel really at home and free, you don’t have all the anxieties and worries of everyday life when you’re down there because your phone doesn’t work, you’re not getting emails — you are literally switched off and it’s just you, the bush and the beach.”

She’s not the only one who sees the appeal. “People ask us all the time if they can rent them but because of the license conditions NPWS don’t allow it,” Georgia explains. “Shack owners aren’t against the idea … but there are lots of little things about each individual shack that someone who’s never been there would have to learn, like how the solar system works.”

The increased popularity of the nearby Figure Eight Pools, made famous by Instagram, means that the number of visitors to Era is rising too. “We want new people to be able to take part in the community, but for the right reasons.”

Era’s shacks are now the largest, most intact group of coastal weekender cabins remaining in New South Wales and offer valuable insights into technologies and ways of living that are now becoming rare. But, aside from their broader historical importance, the shacks hold an even greater emotional significance.

“Both my grandparents’ ashes are interred into the walls of the shack that they built,” Georgia says. “It’s more than a holiday house for us and that’s what some people don’t realise.”

Peter Fray

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