How the Illawarra spent New Year's Day

The sky is an empty white in the first daylight hours of 2013 – a downer for the hundreds who have camped overnight on the Illawarra coast so they can wake up and find themselves already at the beach.

At North Wollongong, the surfers are forgiving the choppy conditions and small waves for the sake of tradition.

Best friends Jesse O’Brien and Sarah Bell hit the waves at 9.30am, not long after waking up at a friend’s house.

‘‘We went from the party, to home, to here,’’ says Jesse, 16.

‘‘We wanted to have the first surf of the new year.’’

As they paddle out, that ambiguous white sky starts to melt, giving way to patches of colour.

By 10.20am there is nothing but blue. The queue at the kiosk threatens to run out the door. Everyone wants coffee and those big plastic cups of vibrant orange or red juice.

Welcome to Wollongong's tent city

The demands are different at Louis’s Corner Store on Campbell Street, where Louis himself greets customers from behind the counter.

He has sold a lot of Berocca, Nurofen and Panadol this morning.

The ladies, he says, come in with their high heels in their hands, while some of the guys nurse a bottle of beer. ‘‘Yes, they’re still drinking,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve seen a few.’’

Nearing midday, a quiet little house on Corrimal Street conceals the multiple, serious hangovers within.

The previous night the house hosted a backyard gig that was the subject of multiple noise complaints. Somehow the band – Curious Temple – managed to play on well past midnight to an appreciative audience of about 50, plus a few neighbours who yelled things other than support. 

Now bodies are slung around the lounge room and on a couple of mattresses in the backyard.

The drummer, Taylor George, is at a tender stage in his recovery. He lives in the little house and is nowhere near ready to contemplate the big clean-up. ‘‘Avoid,’’ he says, automatically. 

‘‘There are lots of bottles...I still haven’t slept.’’

Midday: Bunnings – a honeypot for the efficient. The customers are alert and showered. Focused. Most ‘‘had a quiet one’’ last night.

Rachel Bridge woke before 7am and has already dropped her partner at the airport in Sydney, washed the front porch and bought a bucket, a set of coathangers and the tools needed to assemble a flat-packed cupboard.

She looks like she may just knock it together before lunchtime.

‘‘It’s always nice to start the new year feeling on top of things,’’ she said. 

Ms Bridge has planned a civilised lunch with friends, but many eat late, out of brown paper bags. 

At 3.30pm the Wollongong McDonald’s drive-thru queue runs onto the street. The cars hold tired, bare-chested 20-somethings, tanned brown after a morning at the beach.

It is a good day to not be working, to be with friends, to get ready. A new year has begun. 

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