Having been an Aboriginal fishing ground, a convict prison, a quarry, an industrial school, a girls’ reformatory and a naval dockyard, Cockatoo Island is these days said to be “Australia’s most unusual urban park- a heritage-listed island in the middle of beautiful Sydney Harbour.”
The island and its fascinating history can be accessed every day. As the visitors’ guide shows, there are some fine examples of convict heritage waiting to be discovered, such as the mess hall, officers’ quarters, guardhouse and barracks. It is also possible to soak up the shipbuilding days, thanks to the slipways, docks, cranes, electrical shop, drawing office (where the architects and draftsmen worked) and mould loft (where the lines of new vessels would be marked). Other relics include former residences, roads and a transportation tunnel, which doubled as a bomb shelter during the war. And as you wander amongst these old pieces of Sydney, you will catch constant glimpses of the city’s modern and internationally-renowned face: the harbour and the skyscrapers. The contrast is wonderful.
There are three ways to explore Cockatoo Island. You can pick up a free brochure and take a self-guided tour; hire a headset ($5) and follow an audio tour; or book ahead (8969-2100) and join one of the guided tours. Each takes about an hour and a half.
The Cockatoo Island Guided Tour costs $18 and departs at 11.15am on Sundays. It “features some of the best examples of early colonial history to be found in Sydney”, and will excite “anyone who is interested in the history of Sydney and the development of our fascinating maritime past.” The same tour also departs at 1.15pm- except on the first Sunday of the month, when it is replaced by the Convicts of Cockatoo, and the third Sunday of the month, when it is replaced by the Ships of Cockatoo. During the former, you learn about Captain Thunderbolt’s old home, as you “hear the harrowing stories that made up the life of our early convicts in one of Australia's harshest penal settlements.” As for the latter, it passes “through immense industrial workshops, a huge turbine hall, tunnels and an early twentieth-century powerhouse”, whilst recounting “the stories of how tall ships, battleships, ferries and ocean liners were built and repaired on Cockatoo Island for 150 years.”