Cockatoo Island is one of Sydney’s best-kept secrets.
The island sits in the middle of Sydney Harbour, on the westerly side of the Harbour Bridge. It’s where the Harbour meets the Lane Cove and Parramatta rivers.
Ask most Sydneysiders and they will tell you that they know about Cockatoo Island, yet few have ever visited the island, let alone stayed overnight. If they were like me, they will remember Cockatoo Island being closed to the public – for years. 100 years in fact. It was only reopened in 2007.
I was one of those Sydneysiders who had never been to Cockatoo Island.
Oh, I’d been by countless times on the Rivercat (ferry), gazing up at the heritage buildings, wondering about the history and the secrets from long ago. But I’d never set foot on Cockatoo Island.
So, when the opportunity came along to go glamping on Cockatoo Island, I jumped at it.
Staying on Cockatoo Island was truly one of the best experiences I’ve had in Sydney.
Yep, I would put it up there with visiting the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, even my personal favourite, the Royal Botanical Gardens. What they all don’t have is that you can relax in a comfy chair, watch the world go by, soak up the comings and goings of waterways of Sydney, before sleeping in comfort, with all the city lights around you.
That was my favourite part of Cockatoo Island. Once all of the day-trippers had left the island and it’s only the overnight guests around, you feel like you have the place to yourself (even when it is filled with 200 school children on a three-day camping excursion). You can wander at leisure, admire the views, even feel the buildings take a sigh of relief that they are here another day.
Walking to the westerly end of the 18-hectare island, you can watch the sunset, taking a seat on a bench that’s provided, or hang your feet over the water’s edge. We watched as jumbos made their way down the nearby flight path, as they made their way to the airport, high enough that you couldn’t see faces in the windows, but low enough to make out which airlines were coming in (Qantas was, not surprisingly, the front-runner in that count.)
In the mornings, waking to the sounds of the waterways coming alive, with kayakers and rowers out for a morning paddle, and watching the sun peek its head over the Harbour Bridge, Cockatoo Island provide stunning, million-dollar views!
I thought more than once that I would recommend staying on Cockatoo Island over staying in a city hotel. It’s easy enough to get to the city via ferry. The ferry comes in and out every thirty minutes and you don’t have to listen to the beep-beep-beep of trucks reversing at 4 am, or of sirens blaring through city streets in the middle of the night.
Instead, you hear lapping water, seagulls nesting for the night, boats passing slowly by the island, and only distant city noises from the other side of the waterway.
I could spout what I learned during my visit, but I think it’s best I share from the Cockatoo island website directly, mostly to ensure accuracy!
Pre 1788: Frequented by sulphur-crested cockatoos, the island’s first visitors were most likely the Eora people, the Aboriginal people of Sydney’s coastal region. They called the island Waremah. It would have been a great base to fish from for them, in their bark canoes made from the red gum forests that once covered the island hill.
1839-1850: In 1839 the Governor of the colony of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, chose Cockatoo Island as the site of a new penal establishment to alleviate overcrowding on Norfolk Island. Convicts were put to work building prison barracks, a military guardhouse and official residences.
1850-1870: The Fitzroy Dock and a workshop are built by prisoners to service Royal Navy and other ships.
1870-1880: Prisoners relocate to Darlinghurst Gaol and the island is used for an Industrial School for Girls and a reformatory. The ship, Vernon, is anchored nearby to train wayward and orphaned boys.
1880-1900: Shipbuilding and repair activities expand steadily and Sutherland Dock is completed. The island reverts back to a gaol from 1888-1908 due to overcrowding elsewhere.
1900-1930: Cockatoo Island becomes the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard in 1913 and Australia builds its first steel warship on the island.
1930-1945: The island becomes the major shipbuilding and dockyard facility for the South West Pacific in WWII following the fall of Singapore.
1945-1965: Additional buildings are constructed for shipbuilding and repair. The refit of T-Class submarines occurs and the Navy destroyers, HMAS Voyager and HMAS Vampire, are built.
1965-1992: The island’s work includes service and refit of Oberon Class submarines and construction of HMAS Success. The dockyard closes in 1992, machinery is sold off, and about 40 buildings and several wharves are demolished.
2001-present: Cockatoo Island lays dormant for a decade until the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust assumes control of the island and embarks on major restoration works. After extensive remediation works, Cockatoo Island was opened to the public in 2007. The Harbour Trust continues to actively rehabilitate the island.
2010: Cockatoo Island, together with 10 other historic convict sites in Australia, is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
To learn more about the history of Cockatoo Island, do the audio tour next time you are on the island.
How to Reach Cockatoo Island:
You can reach Cockatoo Island by taking a Parramatta River ferrycat from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, and Barangaroo, as well as from the wharves along the Parramatta River ferry route. The ferrycat service runs about every thirty minutes. In late November (2017), Cockatoo Island will receive its own ferry service.
Pick up an opal card to make the journey more affordable.
Alternatively, you can catch a water taxi or take a private boat or kayak to the island.
Getting Around Cockatoo Island
When you disembark from the ferry, you will go through a security checkpoint. This is to make sure that no alcohol is brought on to the island (you can purchase it however from the Cafés) unless you are staying in an apartment on the Upper part of the island. There will be a bag check, so be prepared. You’ll pass through the entrance and the visitor’s information centre is ahead to your right. Definitely stop in and pick up some information about the island, ask questions of the volunteer staff and if you are staying overnight, this is where you check in.
There are audio tours, guided tours or self-tours – whatever your exploration style may be.
Societe Overboard café is to the left of the entrance and across from the Information Centre. Handy if you need a coffee pick-me-up or an easy lunch. This is also where you will pick up your BBQ packs if you’ve pre-ordered them (48 hours in advance) for camping.
At 18 hectares, Cockatoo Island is completely walkable. Keep your little ones close though, because there are not many secure barriers around between the water and island and it could be easy for them to fall in. There’s a lovely grassy area, looking toward the city, for a picnic. There are also lots of nooks and crannies to explore, including interesting tunnels that connect one side of the island to the other. There is both convict and industrial sites, so it’s sure to keep your exploring for a while.
There is access for wheelchairs but it is an industrial heritage site so some of the paths that are quite uneven and some buildings are not accessible by wheelchair. It is also a steep hill between lower island to upper island.
What to Do
There is a lot to discover on Cockatoo Island. Simply walking around, reading the posted information will give you a sense of the history but we recommend picking up an audio guide though from the information centre.
You can visit Cockatoo Island for the day and it is free to enter.
The Shipyard Stories exhibition in Biloela House (amazing in its own right), is a photographic presentation of the story of Cockatoo Island’s dockyard and shipbuilding history. It is a tribute to those who made Cockatoo Island a powerhouse of the industry for over a century. Photos document the working life and tales of mateship from former workers. Some photos capture the drama and spectacle of those major ship launches. Other images document the tough, demanding work of shipbuilding and ship repair. It’s a free exhibition and a definite must see.
If you’re into tennis, you’re in for a treat! There is a grass court that sits atop of the hill, with views of the city. It is $20/hour to rent (racquets and balls a little extra), half that price for campers, and you have a beautiful spot to whack some balls for a while. It is like living an exclusive life, playing on this grass court, as in ‘how the other half lives’.
While the island is called Cockatoo Island, due to the Sulphur-crested birds who frequented back in the 1800s, it’s now the home of hundreds of seagulls. During our visit, in October 2017, it was nesting season. Walking around, there were seagulls on nests everywhere, in really weird and wacky places, but also chicks and fledglings who were finding their place in the world. It was a sight to see.
The historical elements are touchable here. From a real convict prison to the seeing shipbuilding machines, it’s quite fascinating.
At night, Cockatoo Island is even more fascinating.
If you’re inclined, you can watch a movie in the camp cinema, outfitted with very comfortable bean bag chairs to lie on.
My suggestion though is to grab your torch or, if glamping, the battery-powered lantern and go for a wander. After dark is when I really fell for Cockatoo Island. Just walking through the massive turbine warehouse gave me chills. There is rumour that the island is haunted, but the closest I got were chills down my spine walking through the warehouse. I said out loud: “Someone hanged themselves here”, not knowing where that came from or whether it was true, but somewhere deep within me, I knew it to be true. Bizarre, right?
The convict prison was enough to give me goose-bumps during the day but visit it after dark and your mind can venture into some dark places.
Oh yes, I highly recommend staying the night on Cockatoo Island. In fact, if I return… No, when I return, it will be to stay overnight again.
As mentioned, I recommend glamping on Cockatoo Island. It’s an experience I think every Sydneysider needs to have, but it’s a great alternative to staying in the city for a tourist.
You can bring your own tent and pitch yourself in an unpowered site, but I’d recommend spending a little more and enjoying the comforts of glamping where you are enjoying your campsite immediately.
It’s not even camping. I mean, you can go budget with the camping package, where Cockatoo Island provide the tent, mattress, and chairs and you bring your own pillow/sleeping bag. These are set off the water’s edge but still plenty accessible.
Or you can upgrade to glamping. You get to indulge in a water’s edge tent, where cots, linens, lighting and an esky are provided. This is what we did and we loved it. It’s where you can sleep with only your fly screen closed at night, to enjoy the sounds and views as you lay in your cot. Granted, you are still cooking outside and you are still using communal facilities as you do with camping, but it’s another luxurious experience altogether.
There are other accommodation options available of course, such as apartments and studios, but since we didn’t experience that, we can’t recommend it. Although the options did look spectacular and something I’d be looking forward to doing in the future.
But let’s get back to the glamping because we need to talk about facilities.
The bathrooms are communal. There are male and female facilities, one block including toilets and showers, the other a toilet block only. The toilet/shower facilities are nice but they are quirky. The large individual cubicles include a sink, shower, hooks for clothes and either includes a toilet or a bench. (Not all cubicles include the toilet).
The shower itself is an eco-friendly solution. One where you find the temperature you want, hit the button to wash down before it turns off after less than 30 seconds. You then soap up, hit the button again and rinse off. It is a massive water savings solution and the last time I used one of these was when I was camping in the outback. They make sense and reduce the water wasted of people standing under streaming water for minutes on end. The drawback is it can get chilly between sprays. The bathrooms are airy, with a cliff face protecting one side and open spaces between cubicles around 2 metres high, covered with a sloping roof.
There is a well-equipped camp kitchen. Given that the sites are all unpowered, there will be a line for the charging station if the campground is full. We didn’t think ahead and when the group of 200 campers showed, we lost our chance.
There are communal BBQs both in the camp kitchen as well as around the island. Since the camp kitchen was full when we were ready to cook, we went wandering and found another BBQ and picnic bench closer to the wharf. It felt like we had a million-dollar dining experience as we dined on our BBQ pack of chicken skewers, spinach wraps, tzatziki, hummus, and salad. There is a fire pit that is lit by the rangers at 7.30pm at night (weather and fire ban permitting), so bring your own marshmallows and roast them at will.
Where to Eat:
There are two options for eating on Cockatoo Island: Societe Overboard and Marina Café although, during our midweek visit, only Societe Overboard was open. (Marina Café should have been open, based on their website listed hours, given it was beautiful weather and we were there around 3 pm, but you know, I guess it’s ‘island time’ as they say.)
Societe Overboard is located adjacent to the Visitors Centre and offers great coffee and limited breakfast and lunch options.
My suggestion is to bring a picnic with you. Electric BBQs are plentiful and you have access to the campground kitchen until 4.30 pm as well (if you’re a day visitor). Campers have access at all times. The camp kitchen also has fridges, electric barbecues, a microwave, a toaster and boiling water supply. There are vending machines around in the campground and around the island as well, offering a variety of snacks and drinks, including chips, chocolate bars, soft drink, water, sports drinks and coconut water.
There are plenty of spots to sit and enjoy the views with a packed lunch, especially if you decide to picnic on the lawn with city views.
If you are camping, you can bring your own food to the island for your overnight stay.
We decided to take the easier (although more expensive) route and pre-ordered a BBQ Pack #2 (chicken wraps) from Societe Overboard for $50, which we picked up when we arrived. A bit pricey, considering what you get, but we did it for convenience sake, given our plans afterward.
Other BBQ packs are available, including breakfast packs and all must be pre-ordered 48 hours in advance.
For breakfast, we headed back to Societe Overboard and had a bacon and egg roll with coffee (flat whites) where Rich enjoyed reading a newspaper in the morning sunshine while I had a quick work session.
Things to Know Before Staying on Cockatoo Island:
- There is no alcohol to be brought on to Cockatoo Island unless you are a guest staying in an Apartment or House on the Upper Island. (They will check.) If you do bring alcohol on to Cockatoo Island, it will be confiscated. You can purchase wine, beer, and cider at the cafés but they must be consumed within the café areas. Unless you are a camper and you can take your drinks back to your campsite or to your accommodation. Know though those quantities are limited for purchase. For more information, click here.
- You cannot bring portable BBQs or cooking facilities and there is no lighting of fires. There is, however, a huge fire pit that is lit by the Rangers at 7.30 pm every night (weather and fire ban permitting of course), so you can still roast the marshmallows and have a chat around the fire at night.
- Animals are not allowed on Cockatoo Island with the exception of guide dogs.
- Bikes and scooters are allowed on the island, but skateboards and skates (roller or blades) are not.
- You cannot fish from Cockatoo Island.
- You cannot fly drones from Cockatoo Island (or in any National Park in Australia).
- Ferries stop running around midnight and resume again around 6.45 am. In case of emergency, there is 24-hour security and dialing 000, you need to let them know you are on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour (apparently there are other Cockatoo Islands). The water police will then collect you and take you to the mainland where help can be reached.
- The tents can be secured with the provided padlock and key.
- There are lockers for hire near the entrance from the wharf, complete with a power supply to charge your devices. A medium sized locker can easily fit two big backpacks.
- The Visitor’s Centre is open from 10am-4pm every day.