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Escape to Cockatoo Island

Home > Sydney > Accommodation | Camping | Cultural Events | Day Trips | Historic Houses
by Gary Brown (subscribe)
I am a freelance writer and photographer from Sydney who has now had five books published on fishing. I also write for the NSW Fishing Monthly, Visit the Shire, Fisho App & Tackle Tactics. I also like to travel and experience new things to do.
Published November 16th 2014
Cockatoo Island was off-limits for more than one hundred years, but now welcomes everyone from all walks of life. It's a place to escape and have fun and wile away the hours, it has the world's first urban waterfront campground, is home to a conference centre, businesses and holiday accommodation. It's a place where people come to work, be creative, hold cultural events and even volunteer to restore industrial relics, green space, help others enjoy their visit to the island, or maybe get involved with an upcoming event.
There are great views to be had while on Cockatoo Island

This island is situated at the meeting of three waterways. The Parramatta, Lane Cove and Iron Cove rivers and is only 15 minutes by ferry from Circular Quay.

Back in August 2012 Leanne and I travelled by train in the Sutherland Shire to Circular Quay and then hopped on a ferry over to Cockatoo Island to have a look at the 18th Biennale Exhibition. For those of you that are not quite sure what the Biennale is you could go to their web site
Even though there were plenty of people on the island for the 18th Biennale Exhibition, it was not crowded

The 18th Biennale showcased more than 220 works by over 100 artists hailing from Australia, New Zealand, the Asia Pacific, the Americas, Europe, South Africa and the Middle East. Nearly half the artists (49) have created works specifically for this exhibition, including many substantial collaborative installations. Seventy-one (71) international and interstate artists travelled to Sydney to oversee the installation of their work and to participate in the opening week program of artist talks and events.
One of the creations at the 18th Biennale of Sydney

There was even a hands on section. What I picked up turned into a gun

Now, don't get me wrong it was great to go to the Island and go to the 2012 Biennale, but what really impressed me was the history of the island, old buildings that dated back to the time of first settlement and the amount of working cranes that are there.

A couple of the cranes have already being restored by volunteers. They are the Mobile Crane which was manufactured in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1912 by Davis & Primrose, this freshly restored crane was originally located at the eastern end of the Sutherland Dock. Fitted with a two-cylinder steam engine, the mobile crane was placed on rails so it could be moved into position to unload items where needed along the dock.

The crane was carefully restored and returned to working condition in 2008 and 2009 by the volunteer Heritage Restoration Team.

The other one is the Steam Crane that was built by Morts Dock & Engineering Company at Balmain and installed in 1891, this steam crane is the oldest steam crane on Cockatoo Island and is one of the few surviving steam operated cranes in Australia. With a jib length of 9.5m, it was part of the operating equipment of Fitzroy Dock for over a century.

The wooden platform was completely rebuilt in 2008 using old iron bark sourced from an original Cockatoo Island wharf. The Heritage Restoration volunteer Team completed the restoration in 2011
This is another crane that is on the list to be restored

Cockatoo Island has a long and illustrious history. The following is a brief timeline covering key events.

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 Jail 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 jail 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.


Follow your passion for maritime or convict history, or take in the island's top attractions on one of their self-guided journeys and wander around the island at your own pace learning all about the island.

You could have a spot of lunch at the island cafe, or pack a picnic lunch and bring it with you. Maybe you would like to try a game of tennis or a quick dip followed by a drink at The Island Bar.
Sit down and relax while you are having a drink or a coffee

What about hiring one of the Cockatoo Island Marine Centre's hire boats that are suitable for up to 4 adults and with fuel and all safety equipment included, they can be hired for 2 hours to all day.

Maybe you would like to stay on the island in one of the Heritage Holiday Houses, Apartments and Glamping.

If you have some spare time on your hands and you have a love of Sydney Harbour, Australian history, or just want to give back to the city, consider becoming a Cockatoo Island volunteer. You can help save Cockatoo Island's industrial relics, restore green space, help others enjoy their visit to the island, or get involved with an upcoming event.

Getting there by ferry will give you a chance to see plenty of other sites on the way

The best way to get to the island is on a Sydney Ferry, Water Taxi or may you would like to kayak over or take your own boat. Entry to Cockatoo Island is free and to get more information about what to do and where to stay on the island you can go to

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