A visit to Kurnell today to see the site where in 1770, the first Europeans landed on the east coast of Australia and met the local Gweagal people of the Dharawal nation, and to try to relate to that event, will disappoint those expecting pristine bushland. Certainly the landform as Cook saw it is still there - the natural foreshore with outcropping sandstone rocks, the sandy knolls and the freshwater stream - and it has not been overwhelmed by urban consolidation as has Governor Phillip's landing site at Sydney Cove (Warrane).
However, since 1770, the landing site at Kurnell, now known as the Meeting Place, and part of Kamay Botany Bay National Park, has been altered by a series of different land-uses: farming and grazing, commemorative tree plantings and parkland improvement, and pleasure ground. This means that the native vegetation at the actual landing place that made such an impact on the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander is but a faint shadow of its former natural state.
Much of the historic landing site is now mown grass. The Banksia scrub of 1770 has been replaced with a towering forest of Norfolk Island Pines and Australian rainforest trees planted by over a century of visiting dignitaries and well-meant tree planting projects. It is neat and tidy, a nice parkland, but any sense of place, any original essence of the first European contact with Aboriginal people on the east coast of Australia, has all but gone. This is sad, because it has certainly been a well-loved site, as indicated by the tree planting and the tidiness.
Fortunately, the visitor does not have to go much farther into the national park to see the native species that would have grown at the historic landing site. Indeed, some hardy descendants of the original vegetation have survived despite the mowing and planting of the picnic areas. On the southern knoll near the Cook Monument, Monotoca shrubs and native groundcover plants grow amongst weed species that have invaded the site. Weeds include the common gum trees, which you might think are natives but are actually planted Tallowwoods, Eucalyptus microcorys, native to the forests of the North Coast region of NSW but not to the sandhills at Botany Bay.
The real thrill for the botanical explorer is farther round to the east, in the woodland and extensive areas of heath that survive on the windswept clifftops of Cape Solander. Here you can still see the rich and diverse flora that so impressed Banks and Solander. So, explore the coast walks along the sandstone clifftops above the Pacific Ocean or the more sheltered tracks through the sand dunes. The Cape Bailey Coastal Walk runs south from the carpark at Cape Solander along the sea coast to Cape Bailey lighthouse.
Somewhere here you might be following in famous footsteps. Cook records in his Journal, 3 April 1770: 'In the PM I made an excursion along the Sea Coast to the southward accompanied by Mr Banks and Dr Solander.'