Review: Step back in time on a self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island in Sydney inner banner

Review: Step back in time on a self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island in Sydney

Evidence of Sydney's fascinating past can be found across the city, but one of the lesser known chapters has to be that of Cockatoo Island. This long silent harbour stronghold has a new lease of life as a recreational precinct and the home of a hit TV show. Susan Hinchey takes a self-guided walking tour...
Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island
Take a self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island to find remnants of colonial Sydney.

Australian Ninja Warrior contestants may have had it tough, navigating spinning logs, dangling from cargo nets and scaling a warped wall — but Cockatoo Island’s inhabitants have always done it hard.

Cockatoo Island is Sydney Harbour’s largest island, and our version of ‘Alcatraz’. Just a short ferry ride from Darling Harbour or Circular Quay, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is now a venue for large-scale events (such as the filming of Ninja Warrior), a film set (parts of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine with Hugh Jackman were shot here), and a top spot for viewing the New Year’s Eve fireworks. However, perhaps most importantly, the island has a history well worth hearing.

Sydney travel guide

Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island
Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island

Originally a convict gaol for second offenders (where bushranger Captain Thunderbolt was held before becoming the only successful escapee), the island later became an Industrial School for Girls, then a Commonwealth Naval Dockyard. It was the main ship building and repair facility in the Pacific during WWII, and one of the country’s biggest shipyards for much of the 20th century. The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust took over in 2001 with a mission to revitalise the island. Buildings were re-purposed for accommodation and new life was breathed into the ageing infrastructure. Off limits to most Sydney-siders for more than a century, today this historic harbour vantage point is open to the public and even offers the world’s first inner-city waterfront campground.

Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island
Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island: Spend a night in the world’s first urban waterfront campground. Image: Bigstock

While guided tours are available, I’m here to do a self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island. I grab my audio headset and numbered map from the helpful staff at the Visitor Information Centre. The walk has 26 marked stops and begins near Societe Overboard — one of two cafes on the island. I follow the audio prompts around the northern foreshores and through the idyllic campground. ‘Glamping’ options are provided (or you can BYO tent), along with showers, toilets, and barbeque facilities just metres from the harbour’s edge. I stop to take in one of the best views in the world. Ferries glide by and the gentle lapping of water against the old sandstone blocks is a soothing serenade.

Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island
Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island. Image: Susan Hinchey

The trail and guided commentary lead me up the western escarpment to the Convict Precinct and I begin to feel the presence of the ghosts of Cockatoo. Original buildings, solitary confinement cells and workshops retell the tale of the 550 prisoners who were incarcerated here; how they built their own barracks: and were used as labour to build the Sydney docks. My audio shares sad stories of those who drowned trying to escape to the mainland.

Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island
Image: Bigstock

At the top of the island historic residences sit acropolis-like on the upper plateau. The cottages of colonial coxswains and superintendents have been revamped to offer one and two-bedroom overnight accommodation — complete with a tennis court! I didn’t bring my racquet today so I follow the steps down the 18-metre cliff face to the main Ship Design and Industrial Precinct, and the massive Turbine Building. This cathedral-sized hall, with its exposed steel structure and soaring ceiling, attracts major television productions like Masterchef, and events including the Sydney Comedy Festival. At the time of its construction in 1946 it was the largest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Empty today, the vast space draws me back in time to a bustling dockyard filled with hundreds of tradesmen, boilermakers, fitters and engineers.

Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island

On the Sutherland and Fitzroy Dock side of the island I take a break for a drink and some nibbles at the Marina Café and Bar and to admire the modern mansions a stone’s throw across the water on Balmain’s foreshores. From there it’s a long, spooky walk through the dimly lit Dog-leg Tunnel. Passing through the bowels of the island, the 180m underground passageway was carved out of rock in 1915 to move goods from one side of the island to the other, and to serve as an air-raid shelter. An old store-room is now a cinema showing historic film clips.

Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island
Self-guided tour of Cockatoo Island. Image: Susan Hinchey

As I wander along the aprons of the silent slipways, passing unique steam-driven cranes and industrial relics, I ponder the thought that today the island is both a photographer’s dreamscape and a ninja’s battleground. All I’ve got to do is catch the ferry home.

Additional images: Bigstock


About the writer

Susan Hinchey is a Sydney-based freelance travel writer who, even as a teenager growing up in country NSW, knew she wanted to see the world. A couple of years out of high school Susan embarked on an eight-week Grand European Contiki tour. Since then she has visited Alaska, Canada, Thailand, Vanuatu, Fiji, Greece, parts of North America, and Britain several times. Her go-to getaway is a camping trip anywhere along the Australian coast. Her favourite travel moments have included sailing the Mediterranean, driving over the Swiss alps from Interlaken to Lake Como and Venice, and visiting Denali National Park in Alaska.


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  1. Hey I just love the way you write about what you see & experience I live 9 hours away from Sydney but my imagination connected with your words & I felt I was on that tour with you. Great writing Sue.

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