Escape to funky Cockatoo Island

From Sydney you can take a ferry to Cockatoo island, a small island that used to be a jail and is now mainly a quirky spot for art and camping. It’s been there for years, but was only developed for tourism in 2007 and is a hit with both tourists and locals since. The island is full of history since the first buildings from 1839 are still present.

Those buildings were built by prisoners. They actually had to build the prison that would hold them for the next years of their lives. Cockatoo island held 500 prisoners in a few cramped barracks. The prison had to close in 1869 because the living conditions were just too horrible and the place became a workshop for ships. In the years that followed it developed into an important wharf with houses for the workers, and now you can still visit the remnants of it.

My first impression is pretty average. The place seems spooky and mysterious. All I see is rusty buildings and old cranes. I’m not sure where to go and it feels like I’m the only tourist on site. There is a big tunnel with bad lighting that brings me to the other side of the island. Men are building something here between more old cranes and buildings with corrugated roofs. I’m starting to feel the place and I love it.


A walking tour brings me through big halls where they used to do the building and maintenance for ships. Later, during the second world war, there were about 4000 men and women present to build ships for the war. Now, a handful of volunteers is working on old machinery, trying to get it back in its old shape. Other than that, the halls are deserted. Old Christmas decorations are still on the walls. It’s eerie.

Another tunnel, with strange music that’s recreating the sound after a submarine attacked Sydney in 1942, brings me back to where I started. From here you can go up some stairs to visit the higher parts of the buildings. One side has a luxurious villa and holiday homes, the other houses the ruins of the prisoners’ barracks. There are also the old workshops where plans for ships were drawn. The old guardhouse is still there, a refuge for the guards in case the prisoners would start a riot.

Frederick Ward is the sole prisoner that managed to escape the island. He swam to the mainland where his aboriginal lover waited with a horse. He lived as a free man for a while, until he got caught again and was shot by the police. The island holds many stories and secrets. Very recently a few isolation cells were discovered. They seemed to have been forgotten.

The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust is now renovating the island and welcoming visitors. The island is regularly used for art exhibitions and is also a film location. Part of the film X-men Wolverine was filmed right here. If you wish you could even spend the night and glamp under the stars. If you’re just here for the day, you can enjoy the rich history and how it’s being transformed into something modern. This creates a cool artsy vibe and is a strong contrast to the rest of the city. O, and the views of Sydney aren’t bad either!


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