Magic Kingdom amusement park – southwest Sydney’s forgotten playground

Following recent rumours that Magic Kingdom was dead to the developers and had now been destroyed, of course I had to head out to Lansvale and investigate things for myself. Luckily, apart from one mysteriously missing slide, can confirm everything else seems to be there, albeit partly underwater!

Magic Kingdom amusement park opened in the 70s and was in operation until the early 90s, closing a few years after Wonderland opened. Since then, it’s been known one of Sydney’s most infamous abandoned amusement parks. This original ad from 1987 shows footage of the park during its heyday – it’s almost entirely unrecognisable from the wild marshland and dilapidated ruins that remain today.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Magic Kingdom twice now. My first visit in mid-2013 was on a warm winter day, when the threat of snakes seemed less of a concern. When I recently returned in summer 2016, the weather was humid and stormy but the patchy rain was light enough to still explore.

Unluckily though, I lost all but one of my photos from my original 2013 adventure due to an iPhone-related mishap. The silver lining to this sad tale is that the single photo I still have left is of the Giant Slide – the park’s hero attraction, which was sadly stolen recently. Plus on my 2nd trip in 2016, I was also lucky enough to personally meet the owners and get the inside scoop on the site development plans 😉

Magic Kingdom was actually the first place I ever officially explored and documented, before starting ShhSydney. While other thrill seekers were known to climb right this rusty 70s era ride and slide down as an exploring rite of passage, vertigo kept me strictly on the ground! As the only surviving photo, this image holds particular sentimental significance to me…

image1.JPG

As soon as I pulled up the Alfa, could tell that some small changes were about – A sign at the front gate said cleaning was in progress and can confirm the new owners done a fine job of clearing pathways obstructed by branches and removing all that lame witchy/ satan worshipping graffiti that was on the ground in 2013. Sure it’s fun to play silly buggers in abandoned amusement parks, but don’t blame them for scrubbing that lot off!

Piles of new looking building supplies were stacked up near the far end of the block, making it seem like the redevelopment was about to kick off soon. However, the owner’s son said there’s no set plans as yet and his old man bought the place on a whim when driving past one day. They’re still weighing up their options, but say the site is still zoned as an amusement park – so it’s not impossible to hope that they might consider incorporating a playground into the new development.

I didn’t get to explore the toilet block the first time, because I was too apprehensive to enter. Exploring was new to me and was paranoid about spiders and other creepy crawlies lurking in the dark.

This time, I made sure to head there immediately. Much of the block was trashed, but thankfully no spiders about so managed to get a few shots of the inside. The girls was filled with rubble and old tables, but the boys was in much better condition in comparison.

Around the perimeter there was a wasps nest to be wary of, but still managed to walk around the outside. Some good art pieces here and grass growing out of the tree stumps, which was a nice touch.

The highlight of my 1st expedition was of course the golden Giant Slide, plus the adjacent stage. The mural of quintessentially Aussie cartoon Ginger Meggs with the faded Pepsi ad was such an awesome backdrop against the long wavy slippery dip.

It felt so odd walking around the spot where the Giant Slide once stood so proudly above the flat plain. The rusted scaffolding that once supported the towering structure was completely gone, you’d never know it was there except for a few concrete markings on the ground. The adjacent stage still remained, albeit looking worse for wear. Large pieces of broken mural were now propped up against the side of the stage and spotting small pieces of the backdrop scattered around the area was a bittersweet game to play – I made it my mission to find every piece possible.

The owners say the Giant Slide strangely vanished awhile back, so they had absolutely nothing to do with its disappearance. In fact, they didn’t mind one bit as it saved them the job of having to pull it apart themselves! So looks like Magic Kingdom’s biggest attraction has been nicked and its current location unknown. How these thieves were actually able to dismantle that massive thing and transport it out of there remains the biggest mystery…

Back in 2013, I was seriously spooked by the old waterslides – the twin half pipes were becoming covered by encroaching grass and vines, which had grown over most of the faded blue half tube pipes. Only the end section of the slide were visible from where I stood, at a safe distance from the murky rectangular shaped pool at the bottom. Tall reeds poked out of the dark, uninviting water and I wasn’t at all keen to get any closer.

The 1st exploration also way too frightened to cross the rickety wooden bridge over the swamp, so never got a decent shot of that other iconic Magic Kingdom attraction – the Big Boot. The Big Boot is a throwback to that nursery rhyme ‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.’ It sat large, yet stout on a small island surrounded by palm trees and a rickety wooden bridge. I steered well clear of the tropical themed island and stuck to safe distance shots from the other side of the swamp.

This year, I couldn’t get anywhere near the waterslides due to flooding. Can’t say I was too disappointed not to see those up close again. I managed to get a zoomed shot from across the new lake, which was enough for water-phobic lil’ old me!

The old bridge was now completely underwater, so still no access to the infamous Big Boot – I don’t see how this could be accessed without a boat or raft, really… The land would have to dry up before I ever get up close to it.  The large palm trees were still clustered on the tiny island, giving the horizon an exotic flavour.

The canteen and ticket booth block were still as trashed as I remember, but got some better shots of them now. Looks like a few more wall pieces and cheeky tags have gone up since 2013 too, which just adds to the grungy effect.

Parts of this building still show evidence of fire damage, from a small blaze that occurred prior to 2013. Next door to the decaying canteen/ticket book is an area which looks like was part of the race car track, with overgrown weeds growing through the side walls and bursting out of the cracked cement.

The new family owners actually had no idea about Magic Kingdom or its legacy until I told them about it –  they thought it was just ‘some kind of playground’ and were pretty puzzled about the occasional explorers they catch trekking out around the property. They’d been wondering why anyone would bother coming here in the first place, so at least now they’re aware why others have an interest in their recent purchase.

While the future of Magic Kingdom still remains uncertain, a development proposal is not yet confirmed. Until new plans are approved, I’ll keep on hoping that this offbeat adventure destination could one day return to an enchanted oasis for everyone to enjoy once again.

XO Gia

Advertisements

Sydney’s lost amusement park – Funland of Warragamba Dam

Sydney does a lot of things well – but sadly, we don’t have a good track record at running amusement parks. Out of all the old attractions of yesteryear, today only Luna Park still stands. It seems our original adventure destinations are cursed – while the new localised version of Queensland’s Wet ‘N’ Wild franchise has been successful so far, it doesn’t have the same sense of quaint charm and we can’t exactly claim it as our own idea!

Although Australia’s Wonderland is hands down the most well known of all our lost theme parks, scattered around Sydney are the remains of other forgotten ‘fun lands’ that weren’t as iconic – some forgotten smaller playgrounds still survive, left abandoned and allowed to return to nature over the decades. While more modest fair-style rides than rollercoasters, they’re definitely still exciting (and sometimes scary!) to explore…

I accidentally discovered ‘Funland’ when visiting Warragamba Dam. Just a generation ago, visiting this impressive man-made structure was a popular picnic spot for families and on the weekends you can walk across the wide concrete dam wall. Only about 1 hour from the CBD, I was curious to check out Sydney’s primary water reservoir for myself and play tourist in my own city. Little did I know that by going out to Warragamba, would get two adventures in one daytrip!

Unfortunately am not known for my early starts, so arrived too late to walk across the dam wall and see the full wide span of this impressive structure which was slightly disappointing. But it was still really enjoyable to see the huge Lake Burragorang and learn that it was named after the town that was flooded to create it! The river system that runs through the valleys surrounding the lost town of Burragorang are said to feel a little bit like Kakadu, however this entire area is now a no-go zone and highly patrolled by the Sydney Water Catchment Authority. Despite the tight government-run ship, visiting the dam that supplies our city’s clean drinking water and the well-kept picnic garden surrounds was both informative and enjoyable.

Warragamba village on a late Sunday afternoon is pretty much all shut, but walking around the loop-shaped town centre set on a large communal park roundabout is still a pleasant stroll. There’s lots of original retro signage and structures from a bygone era, which are fun to spot. It’s a shame that several town shops have closed down now, with vacancy and for lease ads in a fair few windows. It makes me wonder about the long term sustainable future of the town, now that it’s all it’s main attractions are long gone…

The sleepy town of Warragamba was a really enjoyable day trip. It’s well worth heading out there to see the dam, have a picnic and appreciate the slow pace of this cute little village that’s relatively close to Sydney and an easy day trip, if you have a car at least!

The little known wonder that is ‘Funland’ appeared unexpectedly – a glint of the red train carriage appeared like a mirage in front of me as I exited the Warragamba Dam complex. Pulling the Alfa over immediately by the roadside, I did a slow, obvious lap of the perimeter. The rural area of overgrown bushland was clearly hiding a diamond in its rough exterior.

I found an easy entrance to the property and while slipping through, several cars driving down the road slow down slightly at the sight of my bright red car by the country roadside. It doesn’t bother me being spotted, because if anything untoward should happen to me out in the wilderness they might remember me and be a key witness 😉

After a few metres of thick bush and black burnt-out mounds, it’s obvious that squatters were once here. From the looks of things, their camp hadn’t been inhabited for some time and they probably had some sort of power generator source, because of the electrical equipment.

It never ceases to amaze me how grubby squats can get. Just because you’ve gone bush is no excuse for such a slovenly campsite, c’mon, guys! Seriously, this place could still be cute if someone tried to clear it up a bit…

Further into the field, I came across this clapped out old ute and squealed with joy – the Datsun ute is one of my favourite dream rides! Unfortunately this once sunny yellow Datsun is now owned by the vines, but he must’ve once been a beauty. Not sure about the age of the old cash register in the driver’s seat, so unsure if it was used during the park’s operational days.

Dotted all around the property are the remains of rusty old rides like merry go rounds, swing sets and a small ferris wheel. It’s hard to tell what some of the rides originally were and am unable to find any photos online of Funland open back in the 70s, so not quite sure what they all once were. Needless to say, none would be safe to play on or anywhere near today!

Unfortunately not much exists about Funland online, so there’s precious little about its history that I can tell you. Have read on internet forum chat that the park originally launched as ‘Funland’ in the early 70s and later changed its name to ‘Adventureland’ or ‘Amusementland’. The venue went out of business around the late 70s, likely due to the greater commercial success of nearby African Lion Safari and Bullens Animal World.

As this modest amusement park hasn’t been as well documented as others of its era, it looks like Funland was one of the earlier casualties of Sydney’s dying adventure attractions. It simply wasn’t open long enough for many people to have visited it and made memories there, plus can’t have been as exciting as the nearby commercialised African Lion Safari and other exotic creatures at Bullen’s Animal World.

Another reason why Funland isn’t well known might be its close proximity to the African Lion Safari park. It’s actually on the same block of land as the Bullens brothers owned commercially advertised attraction, so it could easily be mistaken for being part of it – in fact, when I found Funland I spent my whole exploration believing it actually was African Lion Safari and sang the catchy theme song to myself the whole time, to take my mind off the constant fear of snakes & wasps!

It wasn’t until researching later that I learnt this was actually the even more mysterious Funland. This unexpected twist is just another reason why exploring gets under my skin…sites seen and photos snapped can take on new meaning and reveal information about a place later on. Even after visiting a place, it can still manage to surprise me. Sometimes don’t have a clue what I’m even looking at, especially rusted and disintegrating man-made objects that have so beautifully been returned to bush.

Nature has now claimed Funland as its own and Sydney’s idea of adventure has certainly evolved in the 21st century – but for us underground urbex oddballs, our old abandoned amusement parks are still the ultimate in entertainment for the big kid within.

XO

Gia

Crater Cove huts – a northern beaches secret paradise

An unmarked section along the Manly to Spit Bridge walk is the hidden pathway to an abandoned oasis.

Standing at Davey Point lookout you can get a good vantage point of a few – squint and you’ll see them on the very edge of the clifftops below Balgowlah Heights. This cluster visible on the northern side of are known are the ‘Mens’ huts and even at a distance, these cute structures clearly have multimillion dollar views of Sydney.

Now part of Sydney Harbour National Park, the Crater Cove huts date back to the depression era. Fisherman built the original structures in the 1920s to serve as temporary weekend shelters, while trying to catch food off the flat rock ledges underneath. In the 1960s,a group of free-spirited hippies set up permanent camp in the existing shacks and built several more. Here they lived a relaxed lifestyle, secluded from the rest of the rat race – until the 1980s, when the Government made it illegal to live on national parkland and kicked them out. The hippies were forced to leave their idyllic colony and the huts have remained abandoned and undisturbed for almost 30 years.

To get down to Crater Cove is pretty tricky – while the path isn’t difficult for the novice hiker, finding the right cutting between the trees isn’t exactly easy. The unmarked turnoff to take is mainly known only to bushwalkers, history enthusiasts and among local northern beaches circles. It has a deserved reputation as a sort-of secret walking trail which leads to an unspoilt paradise that most Sydneysiders are completely unaware of.

After heading down the right turnoff for a few metres the well-worn ground widens, creating a tunnel through the bush that’s surprisingly easy,  although adults would still have to duck in places to dodge branches that protrude through. This pleasant bushwalk takes about 15mins, winding down the steep hilltops, dense shrubland and overlooks some great views of Sydney Harbour from unusual angles. In some photos you can even spot a ferry or two in the background!

The whole area is protected by the National Parks & Wildlife Services (NPWS) and a group of volunteer caretakers, who are vigilant about ensuring the huts and native ecosystem is conserved. This is definitely not the kind of abandoned site where people go to paint, tag and trash  – Crater Cove is part of  Sydney’s heritage and it’s important to our history that this place remain intact.

For that reason, it’s never been publicised as a tourist attraction and park rangers visit regularly to monitor the site. It’s hard to believe anybody could come here and not be moved by its beauty. While the NPWS is notoriously overprotective of the huts, perhaps keeping quiet about this private paradise is what’s kept it so well preserved.

When the hippies were evicted most of them simply shut the doors and left, taking few belongings with them. Many items are still in their original place, making it seem that perhaps they hoped to one day come back. In fact, the huts feel less abandoned and more like loved homes.

Unfortunately, all the huts are securely boarded up now…likely to prevent opportunistic people setting up there overnight or stealing any artefacts inside! While the interior is a no-go, you can still peek through the some uncovered windows and still spot many perfectly preserved signs of the quaint life these hippies enjoyed.

All seven huts were handmade using natural and recycled materials found in the local northern beaches region, except a few sheets of corrugated iron used for the roofing. The combination of stone & wood feels quaint, yet cool. I can imagine many hipsters today would be envious of this authentic 60s hippy existence, bar the lack of wifi connection 😉

The native vegetation is really eye-catching and many  coastal species can be spotted that I’ve never seen around the inner west! There’s also an abundance of Eastern water dragons – while the lizards seemed very curious and approachable, I steered clear of them because I imagine they can deliver a pretty nasty bite!

The Crater Cove crew were clearly an ingenious bunch. They practiced sustainable farming and did their best to avoid leaving their tiny community. Their crafty setup is impressive in its simplicity, use of space and recycled materials. In steep spots, the cliff’s natural sandstone has been hand carved into stairs. Rocks were ingeniously used to create a canal system, allowing rain to flow down the steep hillside to prevent waterlogging. Slats of wood have been placed across as a makeshift bridge. A wooden seat built into the rock ledge is the perfect place to sit and admire the amazing surrounds. The guttering of one hut funnels rainwater into a tank below, maximising fresh water supply. Old bottles laid with cement create windows that must make an awesome green & gold leadlight effect. Recycled doors give an enchanting feel to the huts’ entrances, while also providing a source of ample indoor light.

From all the evidence that remains, it’s obvious that these guys weren’t a group of crazy ferals – they were bloody clever and very house proud! With sound knowledge on horticulture and off-grid living, the hippies had their own homemade oasis away from the rest of civilisation.

It’s easy to see why the people who sustained this colony for over two decades tried so desperately to stay. They took their case to stay at Crater Cove right up to the High Court, Australia’s top legal authority, but all appeals were rejected. One bloke known as Simon Flynn was said to never be the quite same again after he was kicked out of his beloved home. He moved to Tasmania and reportedly died in recent years, having never returned to visit the huts. Here’s a photo of Simon outside his shack in 1987 – note the solar panels installed on his roof(!)

crater-simon_flynn_1987

Crater Cove – Simon Flynn outside his hut (1987) Pic sourced from: http://pacific-edge.info/2007/08/hidden-path-to-a-coves-history/

final thoughts

I find the Crater Cove colony so inspiring. The idyllic lifestyle and tight-knit community they must’ve enjoyed while overlooking the rest of the rat race is enviable. The experience of exploring this hidden paradise in the heart of Sydney felt like being the little girl in children’s classic The Secret Garden – or maybe Leo Di Caprio’s cute French crush from that movie The Beach.

There’s a lot we can learn from the hippies – not just about horticulture and self-sufficient ways, but also the sense of peace that can be found in a slower pace and happiness in the simple life.  It’s great that our national parks are available for everyone to enjoy – thankfully historic sites like Crater Cove have been well preserved, allowing people to enjoy this spot and take inspiration from it for many years to come.

XO Gia

 

 

 

Balmain Tigers Leagues Club is crumbling – derelict Rozelle development

A sad state of affairs for both Balmain Tigers & the inner west Sydney community

Who doesn’t want the Balmain Tigers to return to their spiritual home in Rozelle, right? The financially-strapped club is on the brink of collapse and the Tigers are adamant they can’t survive much longer without reopening the leagues club. Having already suffered the shame of merging with Wests in 1999, saying goodbye to this foundation footy team for good would be a great loss for Sydneysiders. So Leichhardt Council and site developer Rozelle Village – for the love of rugby league and the good of the inner west community, can you two please just compromise?

The abandoned iconic Victoria Rd venue has been officially vacant since 2010, after the Tigers received notice to vacate to make way for the new NSW Government metro transport project. Since then, those plans was scrapped and the cash-strapped club infamously sold the property for $1.00 (yep, one dollar) to the Rozelle Village developers. In exchange for this deal they agreed to help with the Tigers’ $23 million debt, build them a brand new clubhouse within a new development and provide ongoing financial assistance to the ailing business. Over the years Rozelle Village has purchased several properties sandwiched between the club and carpark, in their efforts to get the large-scale proposal pushed through. The boarded up buildings and grungy exterior have left the stretch between Darling St and the Bridge Hotel looking increasingly bleak.

Since the site’s closure, neither the Council or the developers have been able to reach an agreement on the proposed scale of the new project, which was to become an ambitious combined residential, commercial and entertainment precinct.  The abandoned building is now completely derelict – an infamous urban wasteland (read: urbex explorer wonderland) thoroughly vandalised by local youths, stripped by thieves and on occasion housed by the odd group of squatters. It’s become a popular underground spot for the Sydney art scene, with several pieces from well known street artists appearing on the carpark walls.

Although I always see beauty in the abandoned,  even I’ll admit that this place has become an eyesore on the horizon of Darling St Rozelle. The row of tagged up buildings acquired by the developer look well out of place with the rest of the quaint suburb. Quite frankly, it’s not out of order to say this situation has been an ongoing insult to the fine heritage of both the Balmain Tigers Club and the whole inner west side.

While I’ve enjoyed exploring and photographing this notorious secret Sydney spot a few times now, I hope this situation is resolved so the Balmain Tigers can come home before they’re forced to call it quits. It’s a shame a place tied to Sydney’s heritage allowed to deteriorate like this. It would be incredibly sad if Sydney lost another of our historic rugby league clubs to the history books…

Leichhardt Council VS Rozelle Village – the lowdown

The ongoing saga has been rumoured to be a dodgy development deal, with whispers of corporate fat cat corruption involved in the approval of the building’s sale. This fateful decision has allowed Rozelle Village to take control of the property and plan construction of two gigantic skyscrapers – so huge at one point that Airservices Australia warned they would encroach onto Sydney’s airspace! Leichhardt Council claims the structure will overshadow the low-rise heritage inner west area and is against community interest. It’s demanding the towers be reduced to a height that Rozelle Village claims will make the project unable to turn a profit.

This seemingly neverending status quo has left the once mighty Tigers in a frustrating and vulnerable state of legal limbo since then. After the latest public mediation hearing held at Rozelle Village’s offices in December 2015 failed to reach an agreement on the issue, the Tigers have now well and truly missed the deadline for their contractual agreement with Rozelle Village. This clause which officially expired on 29th November gave the club first rights as leaseholder of the new site, plus a discounted rate on rent.

As the developer is no longer under any legal obligation to the Tigers, This failure to pass a decision on the latest proposal has left club in very precarious position, because if they’re booted out of the building they have literally zero funds to lease a premises elsewhere. With no power against these competing community VS commercial interests, the Tigers are essentially a financially weak and contractually helpless animal at the mercy of bureaucracy. Rozelle Village developer Ian Wright says “We’ve made no secret that we’re going to sell [the site]…if we sell it to someone after November 29, that buyer has no obligation at all to the Balmain Leagues Club.”

In 2015 Rozelle Village escalated an appeal to the NSW Land & Environment Court, requesting it determine the case. In an game of legal-style jinx, Leichhardt Council has retaliated by also requesting a hearing with same court, insisting the current commercial zoning laws be changed to protect Balmain’s heritage character. This grudge match is now set to be refereed by an impartial, but possibly locally unsympathetic 3rd party.

Wright insists the development has been compromised enough, having already reduced the original plan for two formidable 32 and 28 storey buildings down to 12 and 8 storeys. He says the current 2015 proposal complies with NSW Planning and Environment Department zoning laws set in place since 2008, which at that time were Council approved.  Wright says after the latest proposal rejection he “can’t see any way now that the Balmain Leagues Club can return to that site..if the Tigers do not survive the journey, it will be Council with blood on their hands.”

But Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne is confident the current laws are in breach of local community interest and wants the site rezoned. He is adamant Council will refuse to pass any deal with Rozelle Village that doesn’t guarantee the Tigers will return to the new development and be financially viable at a maximum of 8 and 6 levels high. Byrne says “the whole premise of this rezoning, since 2008 when council first approved it, is that the Balmain Leagues Club would have a new home in the redevelopment…after recent public statements that they ‘can’t see any way now that the Balmain Leagues Club can return to that site’, the developer has again failed to provide certainty that the Tigers will have a home in Rozelle.”

With Wright and Byrne both publicly pointing the finger at each other for destroying the Tigers’ chances of getting back in the building, the bickering between them seems increasingly personal – Wright even recently threatening to sue Byrne over statements made that he says are defamatory and suggest he’s acting outside of the law.

The only thing both sides say they agree on is they want the Balmain Tigers to stay on home soil – but after years spent watching the old Tigers left to suffer for too long like a wounded beast, it’s fair to say both Rozelle Village and Leichhardt Council lack good sportsmanship and gotta start playing fair. It’s just not cricket, boys…

 

 

The Balmain Tigers Club Board has called out Leichhardt Council for being inconsiderate of the commercial realities and untenable situation the club’s facing, by not taking into account the vast profits both the club and developer have lost due to years of unexpected closure. In a 2015 press release Club Chairman Dr Leslie Glen criticises the Council’s stalling tactics, which he says have been a waste of tax payers’ money.

Dr Glen has warned that Council’s refusal to pass the latest development plan by November 2015 will mean the club is likely be forced into volunteer administration -He argues: “How can Council justify a proposal to scale down this site, when every other site is Sydney is being developed to accommodate the growing needs of the community?”

So it seems that unless some Russell Crowe-type tycoon randomly decides to swoop in and save the day, the club is in very serious trouble indeed…

Adventure time – Tigers style

It’s known in Sydney’s underground urbex scene that this place has security surveillance in operation – but I’ve chanced it during the mid-afternoon several times now with no problems, providing there’s a good gap in the fence to slide through. Technically, I’ve never seen any signage dissuading people from entering the property and as a lifelong inner west resident, I feel it’s my civic duty to investigate this one!

Teenagers from local Balmain High School can be found here, identifiable by their black & white uniform, plus young budding creatives who take advantage of the space for various art projects. They’re harmless enough and usually scatter like shy cubs once they spot a strange girl on the scene – preferring to play amongst themselves while pretending not to pay me much notice, apart from giving a few little grunts in my general direction.

The dim entrance to the dark underground carpark levels looks gloomy, but once inside the lair bright colours splashed on the walls by spraypainters sets a vibrant tone to the large multilevel space. The floors are littered with rotting moudly mattresses, piles of rotting garbage and in some areas the stale scent of urine pervades one’s nostrils.

The expansive interior of the main entertainment room is dark and cool compared to the scorching Sydney summer heat outside. The building has been completely stripped of valuable copper by opportunistic thieves, leaving the discarded electrical wiring dangling from the ceiling. Masses of cords hang like thin vines which I dodge in the dim light, squealing whenever one scrapes against my skin.

An audible hum from the outside traffic on busy Victoria Rd is a soothing backdrop, reminding me that civilisation is still close by. Glass from the many smashed windows crunches underneath my Doc Martens as I creep around the room surveying the scene. The building is seriously leaking – water drips from the roof and the carpet squelches with every step. Evidence of water damage is clearly visible in the main ballroom, the waterlogged floorboards have buckled and feel wavy to walk on.

Litter is strewn all over the floor and any furniture not bolted down has been upended, giving the room an apocalyptic vibe. The space is so trashed it’s hard to imagine this was once an okay place to grab some drinks, eat a steak and catch a local entertainment act.

Final thoughts:

While I’m an advocate for the preservation of our heritage suburbs and protecting community interests, to come at the cost of killing off our beloved Balmain Tigers is a blatant act of animal cruelty.It’s hard to believe that either Leichhardt Council or the inner west community could prefer this decaying sight over a 12 and 8 storey construction. Considering everyone seems to agree that the current building is a blight on Balmain, it stands to reason that the current development proposal would be a considerable improvement of its current sorry state.

While the current proposed towers would still alter the current low rise landscape, new apartments, club, shopfronts and underground parking would provide inner west Sydney residents with a modern new residential, entertainment and business precinct. The recent huge success of nearby Harris Farm and Salt Meats & Cheese development in Drummoyne should stand as an example of what the Balmain and Rozelle suburbs could benefit from. Business at the glitzy new Harris Farm has been booming and this proposal almost didn’t go ahead, due to local objections.

I could never support a redevelopment that would destruct Sydney’s heritage buildings, or threaten our native wildlife. However, there’s something to be said for updating disused sections of the Victoria Rd strip – capitalising on the 50s era building of the leagues club building and creating even more of these combined residential/business hubs would ultimately benefit the whole inner west community, providing our city continues to accommodate the increased urban density by improving public transport services.

With neighbouring iconic Rozelle Markets sadly ending its longterm presence at nearby Rozelle Public School in January 2016, this stretch of road could do with some much-needed cheering up. I can’t think of a more perfect way to celebrate the suburb and than by bringing the Balmain Tigers back to their rightful home and keep them in the competition.

xo Gia

El Caballo Blanco Sydney urban exploration – amusement park no more

The Camden Valley Way today – abandoned El Caballo Blanco site redevelopment

The south-west Sydney suburb of Catherine Field down Camden Valley Way near Narellan is now hot property in today’s expanding real estate market. Housing developers have had their eyes on this suburb for some time, with big plans to transform the once semi-rural area into a vibrant new residential precinct. Sadly, in 2016 construction for new developer Sekisui House’s new planned community The Hermitage Gledswood Hills estate swallowed up the one of the last remaining abandoned attractions of Sydney’s yesteryear – the infamous secret Sydney attraction the El Caballo Blanco amusement park.

This promotional video by The Hermitage dated 7th Oct 2015 shows the once iconic entertainment venue is now part of their new residential development. I guess as that bloke in Muriel’s Wedding said ‘you can’t fight progress’.

I revisited the site in January 2016 to search for any evidence left of this magnificent place to find, well, not much…here’s a tour video of my visit, which features exclusive 2016 footage, photos from my urban exploration in 2013 and rare original vintage shots of the amazing Spanish dancing stallions in action.

My El Caballo Blanco memories

I consider myself lucky to have visited El Caballo Blanco during its glory days of the mid-80s, back when I was young and optimistic enough to believe that begging to get a pony for Xmas was an achievable goal. Having experienced the simple kinda life ‘Before Internet’ and being the huge nostalgia nerd I am, the hazy snapshots of my time spent at El Caballo Blanco seeing the dancing stallions are a fond memory.

Some 20 years later, I explored the abandoned ruins and photographed my adventure. This was around mid-2013, before it was claimed by the Gledswood Hills estate developers. The opportunity to document this lost Sydney attraction and research its history has been my most personally rewarding and bittersweet exploration to-date. I feel fortunate to have experienced it both as an amusement park and in its abandoned state, especially now it’s gone forever.

Sydney’s love affair with amusement parks

Sydney has a history of quaint local theme parks and recreational gardens dating back many decades. Today only Luna Park is still in operation, but dotted all around the outskirts of our city were once other well-known destinations. TV commercials for enchanting places like Magic Kingdom, Bullens Animal World, Paradise Gardens and Mt Druitt Waterworks promised entertainment, attractions and adventure for all ages.

The appeal of small amusement parks like El Caballo and its kind was their offer of an oasis-type escape that was both convenient and affordable. In previous generations, many people couldn’t afford the luxury or time for wide range travel options we enjoy today. Hence, day trip destinations that provided a relaxing outdoor retreat for parents and excitement for the kids all within an hour’s drive from Sydney CBD were a popular pastime.

But by the 90s, overseas travel and wider options for tourist options had increasingly become the norm and visiting local theme parks lost its novelty. Small operators like El Caballo Blanco and its kind couldn’t compete with large overseas franchises like Disneyland and more impressive interstate attractions like Warner Bros Movie World and Dreamworld in Queensland. Declining visitor numbers and occasional safety concerns led to financial issues and eventual closure of these once magical destinations.

This old TV commercial for El Caballo Blanco Sydney  ran until up until it shut down in 1999 – the ad contains some great footage and shows a slice of 80’s style Sydney life!

The El Caballo Blanco legacy

The idea for El Caballo Blanco was created by Western Australian business entrepreneur Ray Williams, who first imported Spanish Andalusion horses into Australia in 1972. Williams had travelled the world for the past two years searching for a perfect horse breed to mix with Australian bloodlines. In 1971 he visited Jerez, Spain and was taken by their renowned Andalusian horse, favoured by European royalty over centuries for its intelligence and graceful dancing capabilities.

He purchased prize stallion ‘Bodeguero’ plus several mares, brought them back to his ranch in Wooroloo, WA and began the Bodeguero stud farm.  Williams was inspired by the Spain’s tradition of the stallion’s dance and unique partnership between rider and dancing horses, so saw an opportunity to capitalise on his investment. He opened ‘El Caballo Blanco’ (meaning simply ‘The White Horse’) at the  Wooroloo ranch in 1974, a Spanish-style holiday ranch with arena performances by the famous dancing stallions, featuring the star Bodeguero and other horses from the Bodeguero Stud.

The show gave an Australian audience a taste of an authentic European experience in a tourist resort setting and a chance to witness the beauty of these special horses. It proved to be such a quick success that by 1979 Williams expanded his operation to the East coast of Australia, overseeing the establishment of a 2nd El Caballo Blanco resort in Sydney, with entreprener Emmanuel Margolin.

He later launched a 3rd El Caballo Blanco park in Disneyland USA, securing his ambitious dreams of the brand’s global success.In fact, many of the Andalusians in Australia today can be traced back to that frisky ol’ Bodegeuro and his herd of fine fillies!

ECB_ORIGINALPRINTAD_Vintage

Original print advertisement for El Caballo Blanco – Sydney’s ‘premier attraction’

The glory days of El Caballo Blanco Sydney

Like its West coast original, the even larger Sydney version was a celebration of Spain’s rich history and tradition, right in the heart of the rural Macarthur region. It introduced Sydneysiders to the beauty and grace of the amazing Andalusians, with family-friendly and affordable tourist accomodation. The star attraction was of course the dancing stallions arena performances, featuring horses from the famed Bodeguero Stud, complemented by the hotel’s striking Spanish-style architecture and immaculately kept gardens.

The Sydney resort had several amusement rides including a miniature train ride, go-kart track, ornamental boating lake and waterslides. There was even an adjoining modest zoo called ‘Australiana Park’ that operated in conjunction with El Caballo Blanco. There also were other horse breeds, like dwarf Fallabella ponies and a grand Clydesdale horse-drawn carriage.

ECB_Facebook10_Carriage

‘El Caballo Clydesdales’ – Photo © Facebook page ‘In memory of the beautiful horses of El Caballo Blanco & Notre Dame’

Dancing stallions, dazzling costumes & talented trainers

Elaborate dressage shows with traditional Spanish music were held several times daily and showcased 23 different dance steps – the most famous being the Pas De Deux, a synchronised dance between two horses. The fine costumes were imported from overseas and the performances were a stunning visual display, especially during that era.

The horse trainers coveted their roles and the opportunity to work with such a revered species was considered pretty prestigious. The staff developed close bonds with these intelligent creatures during performances, plus on a  personal level as well. Click here to see a full length feature video of an original El Caballo Blanco performance recorded in its launch year 1974 –  some incredible footage here of the majestic Andalusians and their talented trainers in action. Below is an original brochure that features some cool snapshots of the park’s attractions and some of the trainers in costume.

Closure and abandonment

After Williams’ death in the US, the three El Caballo Blanco parks struggled. An ageing attraction once full of European charm, had grown tacky and tired in appearance. As Sydney grew increasingly urbanised and cosmopolitan, pursuits like horse riding  became a more niche interest. The Sydney venue couldn’t recover from the economic downturn, so the dancing stallion shows wound down and gradually ceased in 1999. It remained open some time after that for occasional equestrian events, hotel accommodation and wedding receptions.

Today only the Woorola resort remains, still partially open as a rather outdated looking hotel, restaurant and function centre. In 2013, Aussie blogger The Food Pornographer reviewed the Woorola resort and restaurant – this article is well worth a read, to get a sense of what Sydney’s El Caballo Blanco experience might’ve been like.

ECB_MainArena_CR

Spanish-style and name remains

Abandoned, but not forgotten

After the Sydney park’s closure, the Andalusions remained onsite for some years, cared for by a group of horse enthusiasts. Some were eventually sent back to the WA Bodeguero Stud, but apparently a few were kept Sydney and shown off at horse trade shows/country fairs, to fundraise for their expensive ongoing care. However, the exact whereabouts of the original group of performing stallions remains unknown. The people who took them on have reportedly been highly protective of their locations and any grave sites, so nothing definite could be found online – it seems the Andalusians are destined to remain as mysterious and magical as they always have been throughout history.

Left abandoned, the disused main arena building and stables were utilised as a warehouse to store carpets. Several infamous 90s bush raves were held there until 2007, when a fire destroyed most of those sections.

In August 2015, former trainers Esther Mckay and Shayn Spark confirmed their plans to co-author a book about El Caballo Blanco. Their story is set to bring the park back to life, through memories of Spark’s incredible time working with Andalusian stallions ‘Bizarro’ and ‘Razorback’. Spark says the arena shows were spectacular and the horses were a much-loved part of the Macarthur region’s history. Below is a Today Tonight feature story on Spark’s caretaking of the Andalusians on the old El Caballo Blanco property and ongoing horse rescue work. It’s lovely to see the horses happy in their retirement years 🙂

It’s not hard to believe this place is still considered important to Sydney people, when a recent post on the Macarthur Chronicle Facebook page about El Caballo Blanco reached over 7,000 likes, 900 comments and 800 shares – an impressive response that proves while this place may be lost forever, it hasn’t been completely forgotten.

ECB_MainArenaArchway_Nature_CR

Nature overtakes archways

Urban exploration of El Caballo Blanco Sydney

Abandoned theme parks are well-known for supposed hauntings and giving generally spooky vibes. Slipping underneath a gap in the back fence next to the Camden Valley country club and golf course and cautiously entering the stables was a lot like crawling through a Narnia-esque wooden wardrobe and stepping into a completely different, not entirely safe feeling world – such hesitation is something every urban explorer has to face, but ultimately has to push through in order to make adventure times happen!

The stables and main performance arena were totally wrecked, having been gutted by the 2007 blaze and left in a derelict state. I was wary to approach too close to the unstable looking awning and the performance arena was full of broken glass, with once plush red stadium chairs thrown about by unknown bandits before me.

The hotel and resort buildings were thoroughly trashed, local louts have obviously spent some time here and graffiti artists have taken advantage of the walls, creating some nice pieces. The vandalism and destruction painted a gritty, urban topcoat over the still kitschy-cute 70s leisure resort.

Evidence of remaining Spanish-style architecture was everywhere – from the faded salmon pink facade of the buildings, to the motif of the gently curved archways echoed throughout the whole property. Now crumbling columns that still partially lined the hotel grounds would’ve once been a grand border around the beautifully tended gardens, left to grow wild and return to bush.

I proceeded with much much more caution around the waterside and the creepy old swamplands, which used to be the ornamental boating lake. The murky water was covered with a thick blanket of waterlilies and a tarry-looking layer of sludge. Having a pretty big water phobia, felt a strong sense of trepadition around the lake – so with anxiety levels rising, avoided it entirely. However, I did manage to get some snaps of a few old paddling boats, trashed outdoor pool and aptly named ‘Jack & Jill’ waterslide, which does indeed look like it could break a few necks and crowns.

Getting down to the go-kart race track meant shuffling through the overgrown paddock and avoiding heaps of horse muck along the way – it’s times like these am glad to be a Doc Martens girl! The track is situated closer to the roadside of the Camden Valley Way, so was well aware that motorists driving past could see me blatantly trespassing, whoops…

The loop was pretty petite in size, with chunks of grass pushing through any available cracks in the tarmac. There was no sign of any actual go-karts, but considering how many people have visited over the years of abandonment, it’s fair to say they’ve likely all been nicked – hopefully at least one’s been hoarded and saved as a souvenir. Was still nice to see the sign was still intact, with the old Peter’s Ice Cream sponsor logo.

ECB_GoKarts_CR

Go-kart race track lap

The original miniature railyway track did roughly a 1km loop around the amusement park, but only certain parts of the lines were still visible. Many sections had been either reclaimed by the grassland or removed entirely and the train was gone. Good news is the railway station structure, concrete platform and track line still remained, albeit now overgrown with tall weeds and encroaching grass shoots.

ElCaballoBlanco_TrainStation_CR

Abandoned railways, lost dreams

When approaching the canteen block, I immediately got a kick out of its groovy name ‘La Canteena’ and giggled out loud at yet another little nod to 70s Spanish flavour. The second thing that invited attention was a lovely mural along the side of the building with scenes of a train ride, a rearing Spanish stallion and waterslides – another awesome reminder that this was once a fun, vibrant place. Was pleased to see that apart from a few graffiti tags and wear over the decades, this artwork had been left untouched.

More old logos were inside La Canteena, this time Qantas on some plastic crates stacked up in a corner. I love old logos, they’re a wonderful timestamp of the past. There were also several huge hay bales strewn around La Canteena and its surrounds – you can spot one next to the train in the mural photo below.

Surprisingly, a large number of horses and a few stray  and skinny looking cows were allowed to roam free on the partially demolished property, which explains those random hay bales about.

While research shows that none of the original Andalusians were still onsite by 2013, it was pretty easy to pretend that every white horse on the property were some of the famous Spanish dancing stallions. A local in the know later informed me this motley crew of horses actually belong to the riding school on the adjacent property, but still have no idea who those cows belonged to…

Below on the left is one the cows being creepy with me in the stables, standing next to some old carpets that must’ve survived the fire of 2007. To the right you can just spot  three horses grazing outside the overgrown main arena building. In both shots are yet more archways, they’re seemingly everywhere.

A white horse appeared to be the pack leader and he (well, presumably a boy) didn’t hesitate to walk right up to me outside La Canteena. We faced off while the others curiously trailed behind him, until they eventually had me completely surrounded. Just then I remembered the rather bruised Pink Lady apple in my backpack, so slowly pulled it out and flat palmed, so no nipped fingers, presented it to him. He immediately devoured it and let me pat him for a bit. After that they walked around with me being adorably distracting, while I took snaps around the main arena and paddocks.

I was struck by an intense feeling of awe at this unexpected moment – it was a totally out of this world and emotional experience for this city chick to wander around an abandoned amusement park being followed by a herd of horses! Check out this short video clip I posted on my personal Instagram in 2013 of the gang curiously following me around while I took photos. The La Canteena wall mural is visible over in the far right background.

Made some mates – I gave the white one my apple, so they followed me around for awhile!

A post shared by Gia (@giacattiva) on

The Australiana Zoo section adjacent to El Caballo Blanco appeared to be basically part of the park, with no fence boundary between the two. It did have a more farm-type feel, in keeping with a more Aussie outback theme. There was a small Pizza-Hut looking farmhouse nestled amongst gum trees and palms, a huge wooden spiral aviary built around a large tree and various animal cages still around. Next to the zoo section was another paddock and outdoor stadium, with the bleacher seats still peeking through the grass.

The sun began to dip behind the horizon and dusk fell over the remains, the shadows made mystical and eerie place. I took in the landscape and committed the final scene to memory, with the knowledge that this special place was living on borrowed time and this really would be the last goodbye…

ECB_DuskShadows_CR

Dusk shadows

Final thoughts on El Caballo Blanco

While Sydney’s growing population understandably requires vast improvements in housing and infrastructure, it’s disappointing to see to see no mention of El Caballo Blanco in the history section of The Hermitage website. Developer Sekisui House and Camden Council have no plans to commemorate the park in any way. It will sting just a bit cruising down Camden Valley Way through the waves of new suburbia and seeing the new Gledswood Hills estate where El Caballo Blanco once was.

Will leave you with just some of the few fantastic photos from the appropriately named Facebook page ‘In memory of the beautiful horses of El Caballo Blanco and Notre Dame’. Hopefully the majestic Spanish dancing stallions of south-west Sydney will not be forgotten in our time.

xo Gia