In this article, released to coincide with our 20th Anniversary, veteran volunteer Sandra Hall reflects on her journey with the Harbour Trust and celebrates the diversity of our volunteer team...
Having resided on Sydney’s Northern Beaches my entire life, Sydney Harbour has always been an important gateway to the city. As a child, growing up in the 1950s, I regularly travelled to Sydney CBD from Manly by ferry. It was always a thrill, especially in bad weather. Gliding past beaches, bays and headlands, it seemed very far away. My parents would help pass the time by pointing out all the different landmarks on the foreshore. So, when I later joined the Harbour Trust as a volunteer, I was already very aware of the beauty of Sydney Harbour and understood some of its layered history.
In 2001, a newspaper advertisement about a major exhibition at Customs House, Circular Quay, caught my attention. Titled Sites Unseen: Exploring the future of Trust lands on Sydney Harbour, the exhibition concerned sites on Sydney Harbour being returned to the people by the Federal Government plus their newly-created guardian: the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust (aka Harbour Trust).
I was one of the thousands of people who visited the exhibition, eager to discover more about these sites. I knew a little of Woolwich Dock, Snapper Island and the former defence lands at Georges Heights, Chowder Bay and Middle Head in Mosman. However, I was more familiar with Cockatoo Island, Macquarie Lighthouse and the Former Artillery School at North Head in Manly. In fact, as a ward of Legacy Australia, I spent part of my youth having adventures with other children at North Head, under the supervision of soldiers from the School of Artillery.
I recall Nick Hollo’s beautiful paintings of these unseen sites, displayed at the exhibition, and was captivated by the idea of them being returned to the public. So, when I noticed the Harbour Trust was recruiting for volunteers at the exhibition, I put my name down.
I became one of the Harbour Trust’s first fifty volunteers in 2002 and was initially posted to Chowder Bay, the first site being opened to the public. The Harbour Trust sought our help to deliver Open Days and other activities at Chowder Bay.
The first major event for the volunteer team was Seafood Day at Chowder Bay. We led small groups of people on short tours of the site… but before the day was up, we were overwhelmed by thousands of attendees. In fact, the ferries bringing people to the old wharf at Chowder Bay were so crowded that services running from Circular Quay had to be paused. It was amazing to see all the people intrigued by – and interested in discovering – the Harbour Trust’ sites. By the end of the day, my fellow volunteers and I were so exhausted, all we could do was sit down and laugh!
I was hooked.
Wanting to introduce others to the Harbour Trust’s sites, I continued to volunteer. Leading guided tours was my way to share the stories of each site, from their First Nations uses through to their convict and military history as well as their contemporary use for recreation.
Since joining the volunteer team, I have been involved in many activities, from guided tours and planning days through to the popular New Year’s Eve event at Cockatoo Island – an opportunity to camp on Sydney Harbour AND enjoy close-up views of the city’s world-renowned fireworks.
Over the years, the volunteer team has expanded to include public speakers, gardeners, restoration workers, researchers, oral historians, and visitor service workers at the North Head Sanctuary and Cockatoo Island visitor centres. The volunteers are a diverse group of people with one thing in common: a passion for Sydney Harbour and for ensuring the Harbour Trust’s sites, each of which has a different story to tell, remains available to the public.
I’ve seen the Harbour Trust steer many positive changes across its sites. It has worked with like-minded partners to offer valuable public facilities and benefits on Sydney Harbour, including walking tracks, bike trails, restaurants and cafés, accommodation, conference and event spaces, big launches and filming opportunities.
As someone said to me the other day when I handed them the Harbour Trust’s Harbour Highlights brochure, “You could go to a different place each week and visit as many times as you like for free.”
We now live in a digital age. The proliferation of computer and mobile devices means the Harbour Trust can share the grandeur of its heritage sites with new audiences (across Australia and internationally) and excite the next generation about all the wonders that exist on their doorstep.
Paid back twofold
Although original staff and volunteers have moved on, the Harbour Trust has retained the integrity and focus on community consultation that attracted me to the agency in the first place. Plus, I’ve learned much as a volunteer, including how to manage heritage, how to manage people and how to manage places.
As volunteers, we have been encouraged by the Harbour Trust to lean into our interests and use our skills to help preserve and share the heritage of amazing places on Sydney Harbour. This has included contributing to restoration projects and advocating for some of Sydney’s most amazing places in television interviews as well as film and photo shoots.
Whatever we’ve given as volunteers – time, knowledge or presence – has been paid back twofold in terms of the people we’ve been able to meet and the friendships we’ve made. Whenever you see Harbour Trust volunteers, you’ll see a group of people with smiles on their faces.
The Harbour Trust has achieved twenty years as an organisation, above and beyond what was first envisaged. The respect in the community for the Harbour Trust has grown and – with its continued commitment to heritage conservation, community consultation and attention to detail – I am excited for what the next twenty years holds.
Interested in being part of the journey? Learn more about the Harbour Trust’s volunteer program, including current vacancies in our team.
About Sandra Hall
A lifelong resident of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Sandra attended Harbord Primary School and Manly Girls High School and is a graduate of the Sydney Teachers’ College. She worked as an early childhood teacher for 32 years, holds qualifications in tourism, and taught tour guiding at TAFE. Prior to joining the Harbour Trust in 2002, she volunteered for the Sydney Olympics. Her other volunteering work includes helping orphans who arrived in Sydney from Vietnam in 1972 and, in 1975, helping victims of Cyclone Tracey who were relocated to the Q Station in North Head.
Article was originally published on 25 February 2021.