Cockatoo Island

Heritage listed Cockatoo Island is just a gentle 20-minute ferry ride from the hustle and bustle of Sydney's CBD.

Escape there to relax for a few hours, take in the wonderful harbour views and soak up the island's history.

One of the massive old naval cranes overlooking Sydney Harbour on this beautiful island.

There are lots of heritage reminders - like this massive old naval crane silhouetted here in the setting sun.

It's a free day out ... no fee to land on this largest of Sydney Harbour islands which for more than 100 years was off-limits.

Cockatoo Island has all the bar and cafe facilities you might need. Just stroll around the relics of former industrial, naval and convict times and when you need that coffee or beer refreshment it's an easy walk to get it.

If your Sydney stay is leisurely rather than tight for time, why not camp overnight?

Great area to camp - on the harbour's edge.

Pictured above (with darkness fast approaching) is part of the beautifully set out waterfront camping facilities.

Stay over on Cockatoo Island

There are several options for overnighting - from budget to luxury. They include camping, glamping (glamour camping), holiday apartments and heritage holiday houses.

After it closes off to ferries in the early evening, overnighters feel like they have the island to themselves.

Accommodation details on the Cockatoo Island website.

First real colonial use of the island came in 1839 when Governor Gipps chose it for a new prison to take the pressure off over-crowded Norfolk Island.

Over the years convicts quarried sandstone, built prison barracks, cut grain silos into the stone, and established official residences and a major port facility - Fitzroy Dock.

This was a dry dock for repair of Royal Navy and other vessels.

Awful conditions for convicts

The barracks accommodation for the prisoners was appalling and after 30 years (1869) they were relocated to Darlinghurst Gaol. Meanwhile, the island's industrial use was gaining pace - shipbuilding beginning in 1871.

In the same year, the convict facilities gained new residents - girls! An industrial school was established and a reformatory.

Some were orphans, others were wayward girls transferred from Newcastle after riots over terrible conditions at a reform school there.

At their new accommodation in Sydney Harbour the "good" girls mixed with girls undergoing reform. This caused concern, as did the proximity of neglected boys on a school ship moored close by. And of course the island was full of dockyard workers.

(The island's official website has lots more on this volatile mix under Reform School).

The beautifully restored old steam crane at Fitzroy Dock.

       Click photos to enlarge.

Today you can wander about the island freely. It is very well signposted with information about buildings, convict relics and heavy industrial and dockland equipment. It gives you a real sense of what Cockatoo Island was like in times gone by. 

History on the island is being carefully cherished. In 2010 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its early convict days.

Meanwhile, Sydney Harbour Federation Trust is transforming the island into a foreshore park - enriching Sydney's cultural life.

When I visited, the 19th Biennale of Sydney was on, with special art exhibits housed in many of the island's industrial buildings. 

Click to enlarge.

The island has been an important venue for some interesting Biennale exhibits for several years - increasing visitor numbers significantly March through to June.

Sailboats and setting sun

The ferry ride from Circular Quay is just $12 return. Great value for enjoying the harbour sights.

When you're done with the sightseeing after a couple of hours' walk around Cockatoo Island, settle down in the Island Bar for a pizza and drinks.

Watch the sailboats go by and (if you've timed it right) enjoy the setting sun over the harbour.

If you visit in January you'll see some engaging wildlife, with many nesting seagulls and their chicks. Take care with them  and expect some swooping antics as they try and protect their young.

Tunnel cut through Cockatoo Island. Fun for the kids to explore.

Pictured is one of the tunnels cut through the sandstone of Cockatoo Island.

Submarines and destroyers

Cockatoo Island was one of Australia’s biggest shipyards in the 20th century. After the fall of Singapore in World War 11 it became the major dockyard and shipbuilding facility for the South West Pacific.

For more than 40 years after the war it was used to service and refit submarines and to build destroyers.  

When the shipyard closed in 1992, much machinery was sold off and many buildings were demolished. Cockatoo Island lay dormant for a decade until the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust was established and began major restoration work to revitalise this part of the harbour.

Helpful ways to tour the relics

The island opened to the public in 2007 and the Trust continues its work.

Tourists can see convict era buildings that have been restored, and the many shipbuilding and repair facilities that remain.

Do your own one or two hours self-guided journeys with the help of informative brochures. These include the Convict Trail with the accent on what the prisoners built in those very early times, and the Maritime Trail with the focus on naval, maritime and wartime history.

If you're pressed for time go for the Highlights self-guided journey, and if time's not a worry take a more In Depth look - adding 30 minutes to your journey.

Audio guides bring history to life 

You'll need to pick up the brochures from the Visitors Centre on Cockatoo Island, which is beside Parramatta Wharf where the ferry docks. Friendly volunteers man the Visitors Centre (10am-4pm daily) to help tourists and campers.     

A great way to journey the island is with the aid of an audio guide. Spend $5 (single) or $8 (shared) to hire a digital audio player and head off with a special map for the first of 26 audio stops.

Lots of effort has gone into the audio production, with professional actors, sound effects and even the voices of some who lived and worked on Cockatoo Island. Get your Audio Tour at the Visitors Centre.