In the time of Aboriginal Australia, the indigenous clans which inhabited the Balmain peninsula, the Wan-gal and the Cadi-gal, called the chunk of land that juts out between Snails Bay and Mort’s Bay, Walama (meaning “to return”). In the 230 years since white settlement Ballast Point has come back to a peaceful state of nature
At the time the First Fleeters encountered the place it was a bushy promontory with great intrinsic value to the original inhabitants. This narrow bluff of land on Sydney Harbour has gone full circle from a spot of untouched natural beauty to (post-1788) a grimy industrial site and is now being returned to something a little reminiscent of its natural state, in time perhaps becoming a palimpsest of what it once was.
Ballast Point Park was opened as a two-and-a-half-hectare public space in 2009 (also called ‘Walama’ as a mark of respect for the traditional custodians for the area). The restoration of the Point as public land was a victory for the people of Balmain, achieved only after a long struggle of determined local activism and community support to overcome the commercial plans of developers and the vacillation of state governments.
Walama’s geology, a boon for the return voyages of cargo ships
Before I outline the details of how the Ballast Point story with its vicissitudes played out in the late 20th century, I should recount a little of the headland’s early history following first contacts between the indigenous and white populations. The British settlers’ first use of Ballast Point seems to have been as a fishing and hunting spot. The name “Ballast Point” is derived apparently from the occurrence of rockfalls from the high point above the shoreline crashing to the bottom of the outcrop. Ships having unloaded their cargo from Europe needed to secure suitable ballast for the return journeys. Stones accumulated on the Point’s shore – some heavy but manoeuvrable, others smaller, mainly broken rocks and gravel – were deemed ideal weighty material to steady the empty hulls of the merchant vessels, providing the stability needed for the ocean voyage.
A succession of colonial land-holders and ‘Menevia’
Part of colonial surgeon William Balmain’s early land grant, Ballast Point passed through many hands in the first half of the 19th century including Fred Parbury, James Goodsir, Henry Smith, George Cooper and John Gilchrist (who subdivided it as ‘Glenelg Crescent’ but this enticed few if any buyers). Merchant and draper Thomas Perkins acquired the promontory in 1852. By 1864 Perkins had built and occupied a large two-story, sandstone villa on the headland, which he named Menevia§. For some years after it was built Ballast Point was known as Menevia Point. After Perkins’ death the mansion became a boarding house until after World War I.
Texas Oil takeover
By 1928 Menevia had fallen into disrepair and was up for sale. Balmain Council expressed an interest but public funds were tight at the time and it couldn’t afford to buy it. Texas oil company Texaco snapped it up. Texaco, who later merged with Standard Oil of California to form Caltex, used it as a depot to store very large quantities of petroleum (and later as a grease plant).
Over time Caltex built 30 large storage tanks at what became known as the Balmain Terminal. However this large scale enterprise did nothing the quality of life of local residents, with trucks coming and going through the narrow, congested streets of Balmain an ongoing irritant to those living in the, mainly humble, dwellings nearby.
Caltex scale-back and preparation for pull-out
Ballast Point became less important to Caltex after the company in the late sixties opened a new, larger oil terminal at Banksmeadow (South Sydney). From the late 1980s through the 1990s Caltex tried to prepare the way to unload its Balmain operations in a commercial deal, twice petitioning Leichhardt Council to have its land rezoned from waterfront industrial to residential, but without success. A struggle for the future land use of Ballast Point ensued: the local community in Balmain formed an opposition group called Ballast Point Campaign Committee (BPCC) in the mid Eighties to save Ballast Point by returning the headland to public land. Leichhardt Council eventually supported BPCC in its actions.
End-game: Victory for the public over developers’ profit-driven plans for the Point
The Walker Corporation (formerly McRoss Developments) sought to purchase the 2.6ha headland site from Caltex to build a 138 unit apartment complex, but the deal was blocked by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority’s (SHFA) compulsory acquisition of the land in 2002. Caltex received nearly $14.4 million in compensation. Walker Corp was offered $10.1 million by the state government (as they had acquired an option on the land), which it disputed in the High Court of Australia as grossly undervalued (Walker Corporation P/L v Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (2008). Initially the developers were awarded compensation of $60M but this was overturned on appeal and the original amount of $10M reaffirmed.
After the SHFA took control of Ballast Point it took another seven years during which the Caltex site was remediated, followed by planning, designing and landscaping, before the post-industrial park was opened in July 2009. The design of the new park includes walls composed of recycled rubble enclosed in wire mesh gabions (cylindrical baskets), sandstone plinths, artworks commemorating the former industrial role, eg, Tank 101 (storage tanks) as well as reminiscences of Menevia – artefacts of the Victorian house excavated whilst the site was being remediated. These comprise domestic utensils (crockery, glassware, bottles, etc) mounted in a display case in the park. Unfortunately, recently the glass cabinet was smashed by mindless vandals and the damaged archeological items have been removed.
The final form of Ballast Point Park has come in for some criticism from various quarters, especially from Paul Keating (who originally championed its creation) for “its lack of romantic verdancy” and the failure of the architects to erase all reminders of the past “industrial vandalism” of Caltex (as the ex-PM described it). Opponents of this viewpoint have attacked it as representing an attitude that seeks to ‘sanitise’ history by omitting the full story of the place’s industrial past. With the full passage of time, they advocate, vegetation will bring this public park back to something like the wooden headland it was prior to European colonisation.
Footnote: The Gabion, the all-purpose retaining wall
Ballast Point Park is not a place to visit if you have a “gabion phobia”, the park is positively gabion-overload! Upon arrival the ubiquity of this construction feature is all-too evident! The Gabion⋇ has become quite the go-to outdoor feature for councils and town planners in recent times. It is both highly utilitarian and cost-effective and embraces the recycling ethos. Some may also find an aesthetic appeal in the gabion’s unusual symmetry – the way it neatly packages an assortment of multi-coloured, irregular-shaped, cast-off building materials in (usually) oblong wire-mesh containers.
⋇ Gabion (from Italian gabbione meaning “big cage”; from Italian gabbia and Latin cavea meaning “cage”) is a cage, cylinder, or box filled with rocks, concrete, or sometimes sand and soil for use in civil engineering, road building, military applications and landscaping [Wikipedia].
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φ At the time the British came in 1788, the pioneering settlers reported that indigenous hunters of the Wan-gal and Cadi-gal clans would hunt kangaroos through the densely wooden and bushy peninsula, driving them towards the north-eastern point of Balmain (down the hill into present-day Illoura Reserve) into a cul-de-sac at Peacock’s Point where they were able to trap the animals and easily kill them
§ The name ‘Menevia’ was apparently derived from a cathedral in Swansea, South Wales which bears the name
 Peter Reynolds,’Ballast Point’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/ballast_point,viewed 15 May 2016
 ‘Ballast Point Park Opening’, The Peninsula Observer, Vol 44 No 3 Issue 312 (Sept 2009)
 Ex-PM Keating, Tom Uren, et al, apparently influenced the Carr Labor Government’s decision to make the Caltex site a public space, K Legge, ‘How Paul Keating saved Barangaroo headland park on Sydney Harbour’, The Australian, 3 October 2015
 B Makin, ‘Ballast Point: from oil terminal to public park’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Oct 2005
 as Laura Hardin put the counter-view: Ex-PM Keating’s “interpretation of history risks replacing the gritty authenticity of these places with the deceptive, pastel languor of a Lycett watercolour…seeks to make amends by erasure, denial and the importation of the picturesque”, L Harding & S Hawken, ‘Ballast Point’, ArchitectureAU, 2 Jan 2012, www.architectureau.com