Ur­ban es­capees are flock­ing to this con­vict prison turned glamp­ing hotspot


Breath­ing fresh air, fall­ing asleep un­der moon­lit skies, and wak­ing up to a spec­tac­u­lar dawn – there’s noth­ing quite like camp­ing, right? But I’m not in some re­mote, wilder­ness lo­ca­tion, in fact, far from it. Look­ing ahead I watch the bright lights of Sydney’s high­rises twin­kle on the evening wa­ter, the Har­bour Bridge looms in the dis­tance, and ev­ery so of­ten the loud horn of a com­muter ferry punc­tures the seren­ity. This is camp­ing, but not as you might know it.

I’m on Cock­a­too Is­land. Nes­tled on the Par­ra­matta River, smack bang in the mid­dle of Sydney Har­bour, and reached via an easy 25-minute ferry ride from the city’s busy Cir­cu­lar Quay ter­mi­nal, this is both the largest is­land in the famed har­bour and the only one where you can stay overnight. But that’s not its only claim to fame – it’s also home to the world’s first ur­ban water­front camp­ground, which is why I’m here.

Hark back to the camp­ing trips of your youth and, if your child­hood was any­thing like mine, these ex­cur­sions weren’t usu­ally plea­sur­able. Kit­ted out with back­break­ing packs, we’d hike to some mos­quito-rid­den camp­ground and struggle to as­sem­ble our patch-worked tent with clumsy mis­matched pegs. Din­ner was a lack­lus­tre af­fair of tinned burgers or baked beans and, come night-time, our bed was a damp sleep­ing bag laid out on un­even earth.

Hardly the stuff of week­end get­away wish lists.

But that’s def­i­nitely not the case here. While the idea of rough­ing it Bear Grylls-style ap­peals to my in­ner ad­ven­turer, in re­al­ity there’s a lot to be said for crea­ture com­forts. That’s why my friend Ben and I booked Cock­a­too Is­land’s “glamp­ing” pack­age.

Per­fect for the time poor (read lazy) and those who don’t have the in­cli­na­tion to schlep a tent and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing gear around, this op­tion means that ev­ery­thing is or­gan­ised ahead of your ar­rival and you don’t have to lift a fin­ger.

Rock­ing up at the counter we’re given the key to our digs for the night and a few ba­sic in­struc­tions be­fore walk­ing the short dis­tance to the shore­line to in­spect our pre-erected sa­fari tent. We’re in luck with the lo­ca­tion, scor­ing a tent di­rectly by the wa­ter­line. In­side are two camp­ing beds topped with mat­tresses and clean, white linen. Tow­els are neatly laid out ho­tel-style, as are plush toi­letries from Ap­pelles Apothe­cary.

Each tent also comes with sun loungers, a handy Esky, cush­ions, throw rugs, lantern and ac­cess to hot show­ers and com­mu­nal al­fresco kitchen with fridges, mi­crowaves, and 10 bar­be­cue ar­eas. Af­ter stow­ing our be­long­ings we set out to ex­plore.

One of the best things is there are vir­tu­ally no bar­ri­ers on the is­land – vis­i­tors are free to wan­der, to en­ter what­ever build­ings pique their in­ter­est, and to stum­ble upon what­ever ex­hi­bi­tions or events are tak­ing place, whether it’s a con­tem­po­rary art in­stal­la­tion, per­ma­nent photo ex­hibits, or the pro­jected his­tor­i­cal videos that run daily, all of which are scat­tered among the rem­nants of the is­land’s con­vict and ship­build­ing past – from crum­bling guard­houses and con­vict work­shops, to dry docks. These relics and the un-mu­seum like way they’re dis­played are a ma­jor part of the is­land’s ap­peal.

Undis­turbed un­til 1839 when it was cho­sen as the site for a pe­nal es­tab­lish­ment, con­victs were put to work here quar­ry­ing stone and build­ing prison bar­racks, and a dock­yard, which marked the start of the is­land’s ship­build­ing his­tory.

Thirty years later, the prison was closed and its com­plex be­came an un­likely home for a girls’ school.

The early 1900s marked the be­gin­ning of a ship­build­ing boom pe­riod for the is­land, dur­ing which it con­structed hun­dreds of ves­sels and re­paired thou­sands. Through­out World War II the is­land was the main ship re­pair fa­cil­ity in the south­west Pa­cific and both the Queen Mary and Queen El­iz­a­beth were con­verted to troop­ships here. But in 1991 the dock­yards closed, mark­ing the end of its work­ing life. Af­ter be­ing off-lim­its to the pub­lic for more than a century, in 2007 the is­land was opened to the pub­lic in its new­est in­car­na­tion: tourist at­trac­tion.

Home to hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tion, Cock­a­too has also be­come a hotspot for cul­tural events, reg­u­larly host­ing the likes of the Bi­en­nale of Sydney.

It’s now a prime view­ing spot for the New Year’s Eve fire­works and is reg­u­larly used as a film and TV set, with the likes of An­gelina Jolie’s Un­bro­ken and X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine both mak­ing the most of its strik­ing in­dus­trial ar­chi­tec­ture as a cine­matic back­drop.

Hol­ly­wood and heavy­weight art fes­ti­vals aside, day-to-day ac­tiv­i­ties on the is­land in­clude per­ma­nent his­tor­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tions, ten­nis (courts can be rented by the hour and of­fer views to Sydney Har­bour Bridge), basketball, ac­tiv­ity trails for kids, and sea­sonal Haunted His­tory tours. It’s one of these spine-chill­ing walks we find our­selves agree­ing to as a pre-din­ner ac­tiv­ity.

Hear­ing eerie tales of con­victs im­pris­oned in cof­fin-like soli­tary con­fine­ment cells, es­capees drown­ing in shark in­fested wa­ters, and sight­ings of Cock­a­too’s res­i­dent spec­tre, George, leave us han­ker­ing af­ter a stiff drink to calm our nerves. Speak­ing of, you can’t take your own al­co­hol on the is­land, but it can be pur­chased from the on-site So­ci­ete Over­board cafe. While it’s ad­mit­tedly rus­tic, given the mil­lion-dol­lar wa­ter views you won’t be com­plain­ing.

If you pre­fer the DIY ap­proach, you need to bring your own uten­sils, cut­lery, plates and food. But a va­ri­ety of bar­be­cue and break­fast packs – cater­ing to vegie and meat eaters alike – can be pre-or­dered with 48-hours’ no­tice. Again, be­ing lazy, I mean “time poor”, we went for the lat­ter.

Af­ter din­ner we parked our­selves by the blaz­ing fire pit to stave off the evening chill. Re­flect­ing on the spooky sto­ries we heard ear­lier – and fu­elled by one too many beers – we de­cide to re­trace our steps and head back to some of the old­est build­ings on the high­est point of the is­land.

Nav­i­gat­ing by the light of the lantern, the sand­stone ru­ins, empty her­itage build­ings, and now si­lent in­dus­trial struc­tures look en­tirely dif­fer­ent sil­hou­et­ted against a starry sky. Dar­ing one an­other to spend a few min­utes alone in the soli­tary con­fine­ment cells, it isn’t long be­fore we’re suf­fi­ciently ter­ri­fied and scut­tle back to the warmth of the camp fire be­fore head­ing back to our tent to bunker down for the night.

The next morn­ing I’m wo­ken early by the steady splash of a pad­dle and the cry of seag­ulls. Bleary-eyed, I un­zip my tent and gaze out at the flat har­bour, a kayaker passes me­tres from my front door and the rem­nants of a pink sun­rise are re­flected on the rip­pled sur­face of the wa­ter.

Board­ing the ferry an hour later, I re­flect on how few Syd­neysiders have done this (I later poll most of my lo­cal friends and none have) de­spite the fact it’s less than 30 min­utes away. While Sydney is so close, the is­land feels like it’s a world away from the hus­tle and bus­tle and a night here has al­lowed me to switch off and get my na­ture fix. So for any­one want­ing to get away from it all – with­out go­ing far – Cock­a­too Is­land re­ally is ideal.


So close to the city, yet so far from manic city life, glamp­ing on World Her­itage­listed Cock­a­too Is­land in Sydney Har­bour is the per­fect get­away. IS­LAND GET­AWAY


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