In the early years following European settlement, Australia experienced enormous infrastructure, industrial and urban development. Coupled with a fast-growing population, the new cities and settlements became overcrowded, unsanitary and hazardous. To combat these concerns, the development of a national park was proposed, and on 26 April 1879, the (now Royal) National Park in Sydney was created.
Located roughly 30 kilometres south of Sydney, National Park wasn’t only Australia’s first national park, it was also the second national park to be established worldwide, with the first being Yellowstone in the United States. As such, Sydney’s National Park covers 15,000 hectares – a small area compared to other national parks in Australia – stretching the coast from Cronulla to Wollongong.
The National Park was part of the Robertson Land Acts of 1861, which was put in place by Sir John Robertson – the then-premier of New South Wales. This was just one of Robertson’s many land reform policies designed to address the growing issue of unsanitary urban development and its threat to public health, particularly with the outbreak of scarlet fever in the 1870s. The introduction of the National Park expressed the new idea that the typically ‘scary’ Australian landscape could be beneficial to health, rather than simply pose as a threat to unequipped settlers.
Upon opening, the National Park became a popular picnic and recreational area for the locals at the time. To accommodate more familiar facilities, the park turned into something inspired by a traditional garden; rivers were dammed and blocked, European grasses replaced natives, and thousands of exotic trees were planted. There were also rail lines built to charter visitors, with the park reaching a record of 250,000 visitors annually by 1910. Despite this, the park’s rugged charm remained – bushwalking trails through dense native scrub, popular cliff jumping spots into swimming holes, and biking trails by the coastline hidden away from the flat, picnic and playing facilities.
In 1955, National Park was renamed as Royal National Park in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s Australian tour in 1954. Today, Australia is home to more than 500 national parks that focus on the ecological conservation of both native plants and animals.