Our engine hummed like a big old refrigerator under a brilliant, clear sky as we splashed and sloshed our way towards Cockatoo Island – a curious little place in Sydney Harbour. Despite having lived in Sydney for most of my life, the island has remained a mystery to me until now.
Arriving at the dock, I half expected to step onto a forest-clad island littered with raucous birds. What I discovered, however, was a place with a hodgepodge history and a conspicuous absence of cockatoos.
Firstly, the island’s entrance looked like an austere 1970s hospital, while around the corner sat a row of rusted beam benders – testimony to an industrial past – which looked like a dystopian version of Easter Island’s statues. I could already tell I was going to like this place.
Cockatoo Island – a pithy history
The island was at one time frequented by sulphur-crested cockatoos, hence its name. The Eora Aborigines, however, originally called the place Waremah.
In 1839, the island’s forests and cockatoos were abruptly disturbed after some of the country’s most vile criminals were relocated here, as the penal settlement on Norfolk Island was literally overflowing with bad news. Prisoners slept in locked boxes until they built their own quarters, which remain on the island today.
After a few years, the prisoners were relocated and the island became an industrial school for girls, then a shipbuilding hub, then once again a prison, then an air-raid shelter, X-ray laboratory and a naval dockyard. At one stage, Cockatoo Island harboured the likes of Captain Thunderbolt, one of Australia’s most notorious outlaws. He escaped, rumour has it, after his wife swam lovingly to the island with supplies.
Around the turn of the 21st century, the island’s shipbuilding industry ceased and it lay abandoned for roughly a decade until the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust began restorations. The trust opened the island to the public for the first time in 2007, which is why it has flown under the radar of curious ex-Sydneysiders like myself.
Things to do
Today, Cockatoo Island is protected under UNESCO World Heritage and hosts a range of cultural activities such as art and film exhibitions, comedy festivals and even world motorcross championships. You’ll just have to keep a lookout for what’s happening, as there’s always something on.
The island also offers holiday letting, overnight camping in rows of military-esque tents, boat hire/storage and birthing, the Marina Café and even a tennis court should you feel like an island-top whack. Of course the island is very atmospheric and is a superb spot for a wander.
If you use your imagination, you could picture mad experiments taking place beneath the rusted pipes, tight passages and long tunnels found on the island – which is perhaps why part of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was filmed here in 2008.
I explored the place with an old friend, chatting amongst the sandstone cells and courtyards. One thing I liked about Cockatoo Island is the seats, which are perched on the cliff’s edge, offering splendid views over Sydney Harbour. The place is also a wonderful representation of Sydney’s protean nature, with its mishmash of convict/industrial history and tourist facilities, conspicuously located amidst one of the world’s most dazzling harbours.
As the sun began to set, I sipped on a glass of shiraz on the harbour at the Marina Cafe, then wandered through curiously small doorways, past a maze of pipes that seemed to grow out of the cliff face and dark recesses with no entry signs. Continuing along the harbour’s edge, my friend and I watched the sun set across old buildings such as the slender searchlight tower – a WWII lookout for enemy submarines and air raids.
Like all good days, it went fast. And soon – like the former inhabitants of this mysterious island – we were gone…
Cockatoo Island lies roughly 15 minutes by ferry from Sydney’s Circular Quay. Return tickets costs $12. Entry onto the island is free.