Traveller’s Tale: Top Things to Do on Cockatoo Island, Sydney inner banner

Traveller’s Tale: Top Things to Do on Cockatoo Island, Sydney

Sydney's early history is well documented, but one of the lesser known chapters is that of Cockatoo Island. This long silent harbour stronghold has a new lease of life as a recreational precinct, and regular contributor Susan Hinchey spent a day delving into its fascinating backstory.
Things to do on Cockatoo Island
Things to do on Cockatoo Island, Sydney. Image: Destination NSW

Contestants on Australian Ninja Warrior may have struggled to navigate spinning logs, dangling cargo nets, and a warped climbing wall — but then, Cockatoo Island’s inhabitants have always done it hard.

Just a short ferry ride from Darling Harbour or Circular Quay, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is the largest island in Sydney Harbour and our version of ‘Alcatraz’. Originally a convict gaol for second offenders (where bushranger Captain Thunderbolt was held before becoming the only successful escapee), Cockatoo Island later became an Industrial School for Girls, then a Commonwealth Naval Dockyard. It was the main ship building and repair facility in the Pacific during World War II, and one of the country’s biggest shipyards for much of the 20th century.

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Following decades of decline, Sydney Harbour Federation Trust took control in 2001 with a mission to revitalise the island. Buildings were re-purposed for accommodation and new life was breathed into the ageing infrastructure. Off limits to most Sydney-siders for more than a century, today this amazing harbour vantage point is open to the public and hosts the world’s first inner-city waterfront campground. It’s also now a venue for large-scale events, a film and television production set (the first two seasons of Ninja, and parts of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and X-Men Origins: Wolverine with Hugh Jackman were shot here), and a top spot for viewing the New Year’s Eve fireworks. But perhaps most importantly, its rich history is finally being shared.

Things to do on Cockatoo Island
Things to do on Cockatoo Island, Sydney. Image: Susan Hinchey

While guided tours are available, I’ve opted to do a self-guided walk around the island. For a small fee, I obtain an audio headset and numbered map from the helpful staff at the Visitor Information Centre. The walk has 26 marked stops and begins near Cockatoo Overboard — one of two cafes on the island. I follow the audio prompts around the northern foreshore and through the idyllic campground. ‘Glamping’ options are provided (or you can BYO tent), along with showers, toilets, and barbeque facilities. I stop to take in one of the best views in the world, lulled into a relaxed state by the sound of water lapping against the old sandstone seawall.

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The trail and guided commentary lead me up the western escarpment to the Convict Precinct, and here I begin to feel the presence of the ghosts of Cockatoo. The guardhouse, mess hall, solitary confinement cells, and workshops retell the tale of the 550 prisoners who were incarcerated here: how they built their own barracks, and were used as cheap labour to construct the Sydney docks. I hear tragic stories of those who drowned trying to escape to the mainland.

Things to do on Cockatoo Island
Things to do on Cockatoo Island, Sydney

At the top of the island, historic residences sit acropolis-like on a flat plateau. These former cottages of colonial coxswains and superintendents have been revamped as overnight accommodation, and there’s even a tennis court for guest use! A set of steps leads down an 18-metre cliff face to what’s known as the Ship Design and Industrial Precinct — home to the massive Turbine Building. At the time of its construction in 1946, this cathedral-sized hall, with its exposed steel ribs and soaring ceiling, was the largest building in the Southern Hemisphere. It stands empty today, but the cacophony of hundreds of boilermakers, turners, and fitters still seems to echo in time and space.

Reaching the Sutherland and Fitzroy Dock, I take a break at Marina Cafe to enjoy a cold drink and admire the multi-million-dollar mansions along Balmain’s foreshore.

From there, the dimly lit Dog Leg Tunnel leads me through the very bowels of the island. This eerie 180-metre underground passageway was carved out of rock in 1915 to move goods from one side of Cockatoo to the other. It was also designated an air-raid shelter during WWII.

Things to do on Cockatoo Island
Things to do on Cockatoo Island: Dog Leg Tunnel. Image: Susan Hinchey

I wrap up the day with a walk along the aprons of the now silent slipways, unique steam-driven cranes and industrial relics passing in my wake. Cockatoo Island may well be a modern ninja’s battleground, but those of the past undoubtedly faced its greatest challenges.

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Do you have a traveller’s tale to share? Please contact us.

Do you have any tips for things to do on Cockatoo Island? Leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Susan Hinchey

About the writer

Susan Hinchey is a freelance travel writer who, even as a teenager growing up in country New South Wales, knew she wanted to see the world. A couple of years out of high school Susan embarked on an eight-week European Contiki tour. Since then she has visited Alaska, Canada, Thailand, Vanuatu, Fiji, Greece, parts of North America, and Britain several times. Susan’s go-to getaway is a camping trip anywhere along the Australian coast. Her favourite travel moments have included sailing the Mediterranean and visiting Denali National Park in Alaska.



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  1. Hey. I just love the way you write about what you see and experience. I live nine hours away from Sydney, but my imagination connected with your words. I felt I was on that tour with you. Great writing Sue.

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