Back In Time To Iluka

Story and Photography by John Denman

Copyright © On The Road Magazine 2001. Any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.

Relive the excitement of a holiday by the seaside at this little New South Wales town.

Those of us who can remember back far enough may recall those little seaside towns that as children we spent our Christmas holidays. They were uncomplicated places for uncomplicated times. There was always a little boatshed where you could sometimes go and not actually hire a boat, but sit on the jetty and maybe try fishing for something.

These were places where the summer sun pounded streets that had dirt along each side of them and no gutters, and the old bloke down at the shop remembered your face, even if he could not recall your name.

Those days are long gone, at least from most places. But there are a few little corners of the world where it lingers, if not entirely intact, at least in some part.  

Fishing from the breakwater...

Iluka is just such a place. While many newer homes have been built in recent years, there are still a good number of the older style fibro places on big blocks of land with louvred windows and verandahs.

Neither McDonalds, nor any of their ilk have found the place. Hamburgers from the little shop in the main street are still made the old-fashioned way, and when you buy fuel from either of the service stations, sorry garages, the man will come out and pump the fuel and actually talk to you.

There is a boatshed on the river a little upstream of the town, and there’s the fish co-op and the trawler wharf back downstream where you can get fresh seafood virtually straight off the fishing boats.

This is the Lower Clarence, or part of it, anyway. Over the water you can see the buildings of Yamba, Iluka’s bigger and more-developed sibling. Connected by little more than geography and the twice-daily ferry service, both sides declare that the fishing is better on “their” side of the river.

But Iluka has always been renowned for the quality of its fishing, so purely in the interests of providing the facts we took up the offer of Frank Ferguson to go out with him on his boat Cranky Franky.

Frank has been fishing the Clarence since he was four years old, and now in his advancing years he’s seldom short of an opinion. “If you know what yer doin’ you’ll always get a feed out of the river.” Frank obviously knows what he’s doing because our little trip resulted in a dozen good to outstanding sized bream, plus one big flathead caught by my wife, Liz.

For my part, I spent a lot of time re-rigging my gear after a couple of fairly spectacular bust-offs, one of which had the tip of my rod going under the boat. Frank reckoned that it was probably a mulloway. Anyway, my light gear was totally inadequate for the job. As Frank sat watching my latest bust-off, he passed simple
judgement by saying: “Yer don’t get that happening in a river that’s supposed to be buggered.”

The fortunes of places like Iluka are closely tied to the river. People come here to fish, swim, go boating or merely to look at it and watch the water as it moves to the sea.

There is only one way into the town and that is on a narrow bitumen road that runs through Bundjalung National Park. 

On the way you cross the Esk River, stained a permanent coffee color as it drains from its source in the wetlands of Bundjalung National Park.

Watch out for the locals..

Locals tell me further upstream from the bridge lurk some of hardest hitting Australian bass to be found anywhere. It’s not hard to see that this town depends on just two main avenues for its income: professional fishing and tourism.

Most of the fishing fleet moored in the small harbor conduct their fishing outside, that is in the open ocean. The fleet returns to port early in the morning after having been out all night, and the crews unload their catch directly into the co-op.

Here you can buy a feed of school prawns for prices that would be ridiculous in just about any other location, or maybe throw a line in between the trawlers just after they’ve unloaded. This is about the best time to pick up a good sized bream or two as the fish are waiting for the smorgasbord that is washed off the decks of the fishing boats. This is the best berley trail anywhere, and usually gets you a feed.

For those not inclined towards fishing, Iluka is central to some of the best beaches you will find anywhere. There’s nothing to compare with something as simple as a quiet walk along the beach. If you own a four-wheel drive vehicle there is vehicular beach access not far out of town in part of the national park. There is a fee for using the park, but it will give you access to some spectacular coastline scenery.

Just a short distance from the town, and not far from the bowling club, is the Iluka Rainforest Reserve. This is a remnant of littoral rainforest that only occurs behind frontal dunes that help protect the rainforest from direct salt spray.

Littoral rainforest is different to some other types of rainforest in that it has evolved to suit its salt laden environment. Not as lush as those found further inland away from the influence of the sea, the ground underfoot is sandy, rather than of the volcanic basalt type, and there is not the heavy growth of massive Antarctic beech that typify inland rainforest.

As a result of the harshness of its surroundings the littoral rainforest is slightly drier and lacks the heavy canopy of inland forest, but there is one plant species it has in common and that is the stinging tree. Keep an eye out for its broad, light green leaves, and if you do get stung don’t rub the area, it will only make it worse. Apply a suitable antiseptic cream.

This is all contained within the Iluka Nature Reserve, and is World Heritage-listed. A good-sized colony of koalas live in the reserve, and often venture out onto the nearby roads at night, so drive carefully.


Work up a thirst...

Something of a legend along the Clarence is the rambling old Sedgers Reef Hotel. As pubs go, it would be hard to pick a better spot to put it – right on the beach overlooking a sheltered swimming area behind the breakwall and near the Fisherman’s Co-op and trawler wharf.

The pub is open seven days a week and sitting out the front of the pub in the fairly informal beer garden is not a bad way to spend some time. We got there late one afternoon and had a couple of ales and a steak sandwich from the bistro as the setting sun lit up the surface of the river before sinking behind the hills to the west.

The pub in its current shape dates back to 1928 when it was called the North Head Hotel. This was changed in 1983. The licensee at the time was Cecil Sedger, and the pub was run by his son-in-law John Hood. But Sedger had been involved with the pub since 1952, and many locals were of the opinion that more fishing trips had been wrecked here than at sea. So the name of the pub was changed to the Sedgers Reef Hotel. Before that there had been a two-story pub on the site, which had been destroyed by fire.

This is one of those pubs that rate well alongside some of the other notable hostelries you find in your travels. It is a building with great character and, when the trawler crews are ashore, a lot of that character can be directly attributed to the patrons. There are a lot of stories that come out of a place like this; most of them can’t be printed.

But there was one that comes to mind of a trawler skipper coming ashore from his boat moored just off shore from the pub. After a lengthy session he swam back out to the boat, fired it up and steered it straight into the breakwall. It may or may not be true, but it makes a good yarn.

Facilities and Rates

Stay at Iluka...

Three caravan parks serve the immediate Iluka area, all with powered sites. We stayed at Anne and Graeme Lockyer’s Anchorage Caravan Park, and camped in one of their well-appointed on-site cabins. Anne and Graeme have been in Iluka for about 16 years and have put an enormous amount of effort into building up their park. The amenities are first class, the sites are of a generous size, and while it’s a little further out of town than the others, this is more than made up for in having a quiet location that is just over a little road to the river. It’s also handy to one of the best blackfishing spots on the river. 

You can get more information and a brochure by calling (02) 6646 6210, or email: or  check out their web site at 

There is also the council-run Riverside Tourist Park. It has en suite cabins as well, and excellent drive-through sites. It’s close to the shops, launching ramp and boatshed. Contact (02) 6646 6060.

Further down town and not far from the pub is the Clarence Head Caravan Park. This has on-site vans, en suite units and its own little shop and newsagency. Bookings can be arranged with them by calling (02) 6646 6163.

Further information on the area can be yours by contacting the Lower Clarence Visitors Centre on (02) 6645 4121.

Our map is from Hema’s Road Atlas. Contact (07) 3340 0000 for stockists.
Copyright © On The Road Magazine 2001. Any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.