3 August 2023

South Coast true crime tours more chilling than fiction

| Kellie O'Brien
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South Coast True Crime Tours

Michael Waples has researched to find some of the South Coast’s most gripping historic true crime stories for his weekend tours. Photo: Supplied.

True crime buffs can swap Netflix series and podcasts for chilling stories of South Coast murders and mysteries amid the haunting walls of the historic Berry Hotel.

Tapping into the rise in the true crime genre, South Coast Events and Tours owner Michael Waples has brought back the lost legends, forgotten stories and dark side of Berry in his Dark Secrets Unravelled tours.

Telling tales that terrified the locals from Wollongong to Batemans Bay from the 1840s to 1930s, he’s uncovered some of the area’s most gripping murder stories, which are shared over a drink at the 1860s ‘Coach House’ at the Berry Hotel and during a short night walk along Queen Street.

Many tales even the locals don’t know.

Michael’s father was interested in family history, which led Michael to start scrolling through Trove, the online newspaper site.

“Seeing tours in other towns, I thought Berry’s got a lot of tourists and a lot of interesting stories that I’ve come across,” he said.

The tours have run for about a year, blending local history, the South Coast’s most notorious true crime stories and eerie ghost tales.

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Booked most weekends, his audience is 95 per cent women aged 25-60 years, primarily from Wollongong.

“People really love true crime at the moment and pretty much everyone that’s doing it are women,” he said.

He confessed he loves true crime stories himself.

“I guess Netflix and all the podcasts have helped because there’s such a high interest in that so I concentrate more on those than actual really spooky ghost stories,” he said.

“We put a few in but the true crime is what people like.

“There’s a couple of quite horrific ones that I go into as well.

“I tell people, ‘Look, you’re going to be shocked by this’ and they don’t think they will, but these stories are often worse than anyone could make up.

“You couldn’t write it.

“There’s often a good twist in these stories too.”

While Michael didn’t want to give too much away, he did have a few stories to share.

“There’s one that goes back to the 1860s around Nowra Hill and it’s to do with a girl going missing, which would make a great book if someone could write a book,” he said.

“She goes missing and it’s quite obvious that probably her mother did it.

“These were national stories at the time in newspapers but then forgotten fairly quickly.

“There are ghosts seen at the bridge at Nowra Hill where this girl went missing.”

Another story he tells was made famous in the late 1800s through Henry Kendall’s poem Ghost Glen.

“It’s about a couple of sawyers that were employees of the Berry Estate that go missing around the Gerringong to Berry area,” he said.

“That’s a really good ghost story and possibly there were murders behind it.

“He wrote the poem, supposedly, from stories he heard in the local area, and that were printed in the papers nationwide.

“All the Irish farmers in the area said whenever there was a break in the storm they would hear the sound of the saw cutting.”

Michael sticks to historic stories to avoid tales that might connect to people still alive.

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Trove had been particularly helpful, but it often took hours of research to find a good tale and then piece together the full story.

“It might be page 20 before you come across something in a search,” he said.

“You don’t want to just hear about a murder, you want to hear a good story or a ghost story.

“You want to find something behind it, not just someone that told you ‘Oh, I know there’s a ghost in Berry here’.”

He said poisoning was common, such as with a 1930s scandal when a man poisoned his best mate.

“It was easy to get a bit of strychnine and poison someone and get away with it,” he said.

The true crime tours start in the Coach House in the Berry Hotel, the oldest building in Berry’s main street, to help set the mood.

“We start there because it’s a good place that connects to some of the stories,” he said.

Participants are then taken into Queen Street where further stories of intrigue and suspense are shared.

The tour also shares Berry’s history, dispelling the myth that rich gentleman farmers settled in the area on large properties, but rather scores of Scottish and Irish labourers who were more akin to drinking rum and fighting.

He also shares what the local farming community thought of brothers Alexander and David Berry.

“People like that part of the tour and get a different opinion of what Berry is actually like,” he said.

“They want the horrific ones to be included, but they also like the history and are shocked at what Berry was like back in the day.”

Michael’s interest in history has led him to also host ‘Ireland to Australia’ nights, and he will be holding a traditional Scottish music night on 12 August with band Kejafi at the Cambewarra School of Arts.

The band will play two songs originally performed at the same venue in the 1800s.

Michael is also starting a podcast to share the historic crime stories he’s discovered.

“The last 50 years everybody knows about all those but there’s some good historic ones, like the Nowra Hill one where the girl goes missing, which are just as interesting as any current ones.”

Tours are run most Saturday nights and tickets can be purchased here.

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