Getting there is a slog, with access via a kilometre-long coastal track that traverses a creek and a hill or two.
In the late 1980s, the McKenzie property narrowly escaped demolition when NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service decided to raze hundreds of coastal shacks at Little Garie, Era and Burning Palms, some dating back to the Depression.
Expecting the family’s getaway was about to be burnt down, Mr McKenzie gave the entire contents to other shack owners rather than see it all go up in flames. “These things are precious because you have to carry everything in. Everything has to be useful,” he said.
On the weekend the McKenzies’ shack, No. 19, was slated for demolition, it was inexplicably spared. Over the years, others weren’t as lucky; 50 properties at Little Garie, Era and Burning Palms were destroyed. In the 30 years after Parks and Wildlife formed in 1967, its policy was to demolish the shacks as each lease owner died.
That was a bitter twist for families who had campaigned to add the land to the National Park in 1953, wrote Helen Voysey, the president of the Royal National Parks Coastal Cabins Protection League.
To hang on to the cabins, many families paid rent on places owned by parents and grandparents who had died. When Parks and Wildlife realised Mr McKenzie’s grandmother had died, they forced him to relinquish the property.
“Giving up the shack was like losing a member of the family,” Mrs McKenzie said.
When the McKenzies saw the two-room shack boarded up and becoming derelict with “grass growing up through the floor” they fought to take back the family’s lease.
After the huts were recognised by the National Trust in 1993, the ombudsman intervened and gave the family a provisional caretaker’s licence.
But the house was an empty shell. “Miraculously, when we did get the shack back everyone started bringing the stuff back, the saucepan, cutlery, dishes,” said Mrs McKenzie. “Everything somehow materialised again,” said Mr McKenzie, who said the “shackies” look after each other and make do with what the community has.
The communities at Little Garie, Era and Burning Palms were founded 100 years ago during the Depression. Like the owners of the remaining 130 shacks, they built makeshift homes and repaired them with whatever they could.
The community and the shacks were given a NSW Heritage listing in 2012. The McKenzie’s licence expires in 2027, and like others, they are only allowed to maintain and repair the huts.
“People look at the shacks with envy, but we are normal people. The circumstances are that we were there before it became a national park,” he said. “We are not elitist, or millionaires buying up the land,” said Mr McKenzie.
Photographs of these communities by Dean Saffron were acquired by the State Library of NSW as a way of documenting a way of life that has disappeared nearly everywhere else.
Mr Saffron’s hero, photographer Max Dupain, also photographed Little Garie in the 1940s.
Mr Saffron said it was “really important in this world that we have these magical little enclaves that are unaltered”. State Library curator Elise Edmonds said photos like Mr Saffron’s, which provided “a snapshot in time of how a location or home looked”, would help others in the future understand “a way of life that has now disappeared”.
Mr and Mrs McKenzie’s grandchildren are now the fifth generation to holiday in their hut, where there’s no mobile coverage, internet or television but children can roam free. For entertainment, Mr McKenzie said they enjoy the “lost arts” of cards, Scrabble, talking and watching birds.
When the shacks are full, residents meet daily at “Knowledge Rock” for elevenses to discuss the problems of the world. Most grew up together. Some were conceived there. Mr McKenzie’s mother had wanted to name him Garie after the beach, but settled for Gary.
Away from Little Garie, the owners of the 20 shacks have different lives and incomes. The humble beach shacks, though, are a leveller: “When you are sitting on the rock, you are all one,” said Mrs McKenzie.
Sitting around the rock, Mr McKenzie and Tim Strange, 73, a cane farmer and a Vietnam vet whose family has been going to Little Garie since the 1940s, discuss their responsibility to the place.
“I can understand the feeling of ‘place’ that Aboriginal people describe,” said Mr McKenzie.
Asked if he felt an obligation to give back, Mr Strange responded: “Deadset right. We plant trees, we do maintenance and get rid of weeds, and put fences around the middens to protect them. We are privileged to be there, and we owe the place something.”
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Julie Power is a senior reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.