Cockatoo Island: From prisons and war games to culture and camping
Cockatoo Island, a former industrial area, is littered with rusted maritime warehouses, dry docks and century-old cranes -- and is a UNESCO protected site.
It’s also one of the city’s hippest venues.
Its waterfront camping grounds have lured thousands of campers over the last few years.
Its cavernous halls have played host to music and arts festivals, black tie balls and even a slice of Hollywood razzle-dazzle when Aussie actor Hugh Jackman dropped in to film part of "XMen Origins: Wolverine."
Today, if you’re hankering for a Moscow Mule with a view, the island even has its own “It” bar -- a pop-up cocktail den constructed from four recycled shipping containers.
Convicts, warships and wayward teens
The island is light years away from it’s bleak past.
In 1839, it housed an Alcatraz-style prison for convicts, followed by a reformatory school and college for naughty teenagers and orphans.
During most of the 1900s, the island’s use was purely industrial -- used as a major shipbuilding yard to construct submarines and warships for World War II.
After the dockyard ceased operations in 1992, It was so ignored that a group of indigenous activists from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy camped there for months, and claimed the land under terra nullius -- as the First Fleet did.
An isle of art and culture
The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust was established in 1999, and it exploded back onto Sydney’s radar for the Cockatoo Island Music Festival in 2005 -- a three-day shindig featuring rock bands, campers and 20,000 revellers.
It was the first time public ferries stopped at the "mysterious" island.
It officially opened to the public in 2007 and while its walks and heritage attracted inquisitive history buffs, it wasn’t until Australia’s largest contemporary visual arts event came to town that the island’s true potential became apparent.
“Until the Biennale of Sydney first used the island in 2008, the island itself was possibly Sydney’s best-kept secret, welcoming just over 8,000 visitors each year,” says the Biennale’s chief executive officer, Marah Braye.
“We delivered 8,000 visitors in the first three weeks.”
Numbers swelled dramatically during last year’s 17th Biennale, with free ferries, immersive videos, large sculptures and complex installations drawing 157,000 people.
Stay the night
The campground launched a permanent row of luxury Safari Bow tents in 2008, making the most of uninterrupted water views and taking the dirty work out of camping.
Classical campers drag along their own tent and pitch up for AU$45 a night.
Luxury accommodation in 1916-built heritage houses has free-standing bathtubs, kitchens, barbecues and flat-screen televisions to go with harbor views.
To stay at these self-catering digs, you need to bring food and booze across on the ferry. Or, you could simply wander down to the Island Bar for a beer and bruschetta.
The Island Bar
The Island Bar is plonked a couple hundred meters from the wharf and spills out of four re-fashioned shipping crates. The bar’s Astroturf lawns, umbrellas and French Riviera-striped deckchairs seem absurd against the backdrop of lonely warehouses and rusted machinery.
But in the age of industrial chic, it makes a strangely evocative backdrop.
On Sundays, the crowd dons designer sunglasses, chugs down jugs of Aperol Sour and plays impromptu rounds of bocce. It’s the closest thing Sydney has to Capri.
Even seasoned cocktail mixologist, Marco Faraone, says he wasn’t expecting the bar would be so popular.
“We really didn’t plan to be so busy,” Faraone says. “Since we opened, we now have a turnover of about 2,000 people a week. We’ve also been told by Sydney Ferries that Cockatoo Island has become the busiest (ferry) wharf west of the bridge.”
The bar will make a comeback next summer –- potentially with a new feature.
“Next summer, we’re putting in an application to have a pontoon with a shark net and a lifeguard, so people can have a swim,” says Faraone. “The water is fantastic.”
Sydney Ferries run regularly on the
Woolwich/Balmain and Parramatta RiverCat route. On weekends services are
reduced -- so plan ahead.
Guided tours of the island are available on Sundays for AUD$18, but it’s easy to spend a couple of leisurely hours strolling solo (or with an audio tour for AUD$5) around the sites and cliff top walks, picnicking or having a bash on the tennis courts.
The bar closes on April 30 –- it’s going to be a seasonal, summer fling, so get in quick for last drinks. Muscle your way to the front of the ferry and disembark first to avoid bar queues.