Sydney’s Harbour and beaches are celebrated by many every day, but her fascinating islands are often overlooked. Introducing the thriving cultural and historical hub that is Cockatoo Island.
In the 1800s, atop the steep cliffs of Cockatoo Island, lived convicts who were considered the ‘worst of the worst’ in the new British colony called Sydney. By night more than 550 men were crammed into hot, putrid, sandstone cells with rats and other rascals for company. By day, they were forced to make their own living quarters – forging the steels bars that kept them imprisoned and building the surrounding barracks with their bare hands.
Now, from those same cliff-tops, visitors look down upon a field of khaki tents in orderly rows – camping chairs positioned by their zippered front doors. The tents have million-dollar views of Sydney Harbour, and for less than $150 a night you can ‘glamp’ on a UNESCO World-Heritage-listed island in the middle of one of the world’s most famous harbours.
The inner-city locale has everything from an undercover kitchen with electric BBQs to shower blocks, a cafe and the funky The Island Bar – a popular venue created from shipping containers where you can enjoy a beverage and wood-fired Italian-style pizzas. If tents aren’t your thing, there are also heritage-listed houses on the island to rent, with balconies overlooking the harbour and beyond.
Cockatoo Island is a drawcard for history buffs, artists and particularly photographers, as its flower-framed pathways, cliff-side tracks and winding roads through fascinating industrial sites are a visual documentation of its many interesting incarnations. It was first used by Indigenous Australians (specifically the Eora people as a food gathering and ceremonial site) before becoming a penal colony in 1839.
Over the past 200 years, as well as being a prison and a reformatory school, it's also been a major shipyard, with Cockatoo Island Dockyard employing thousands of workers to build warships, remodel cruise liners, perform general ship repairs and modernise submarines.
For those interested in the intriguing, gruesome and amusing stories of the island’s convict period, or the maritime years with its many inspiring developments, you can head off on self-guided audio tours or book ahead for group guided tours. But it’s not just about the history. Cockatoo Island has established itself as a key cultural site where everything from Red Bull events to yoga, photography and arts festivals are held, so no matter what time of year, there’s something interesting going on. And it’s all only a 20-minute ferry, or a 10-minute water taxi ride away from Circular Quay.