BIRDS OF A FEATHER
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