Destinations

Ghosts and glamping on Cockatoo Island

Judy Skatssoon

Sydney Harbour is sparkling on this summer’s day as the ferry makes its way from Circular Quay to Cockatoo Island.

We are on our way to a night of “glamping”, one of the many ways to enjoy this heritage-listed outcrop in the middle of the harbour.

Cockatoo Island has previously been a convict-era lockup, a girl’s reformatory and a naval dockyard.

Since then it’s functioned as an arts venue, a prime viewing spot for the New Years Eve fireworks and a film set (parts of Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken were filmed here), as well as a landmark tourist destination.

They call it glamping because it’s camping with an element of luxury. Which means our tent is fitted out with comfy beds, crisp white linen, towels and a selection of hotel-style shampoo, moisturiser, conditioner and apple-scented body wash.

We’re also provided with a lantern for when it gets dark and super-comfy fold-up chairs that we immediately set up outside our tent.

But the best thing is the location, location.

It’s absolute waterfront and we’re soon relaxing in our chairs enjoying a cold beer purchased from the cafe (you’re not allowed to BYO).

Campers can bring a picnic along or make use of the camping ground’s excellent barbecue facilities, but we decide to go to the Island Bar for an early dinner.

For a Sunday afternoon the bar is busy, with funky music, a hip young vibe, groups of girls with selfie sticks and a killer view of the Harbour Bridge.

We share a rocket and smoked salmon pizza – simple, fresh and exceedingly good – washed down with a jug of the cocktail of the day, a yummy citrusy vodka-based concoction called the Able Seaman.

When we’re done we find an intimate corner of the island and watch a splendiferous, blazing sunset before setting off to go exploring in the last remaining hours of light.

The bar has closed and the revellers have caught the last ferry back. Apart from the mewing of seagulls and the lapping of waves silence and serenity reigns.

As we ramble around the sandstone ruins, empty heritage buildings, hand-hewn tunnels and now silent industrial structures I begin to sense them – the ghosts of Cockatoo Island.

You can’t see them but you can feel them all around.

Convicts left for weeks in coffin-like sandstone solitary confinement cells. Souls who drowned trying to swim to freedom across Sydney Harbour’s shark infested waters.

Little girls locked up in the Biloela reformatory on a bluff at the top of the island for no crime other than being orphaned or abandoned. Listen carefully and you can almost hear them crying.

It’s only when darkness falls and we can no longer see our way that we head back to our tent.

I’m up early the next morning for a run and it could be my own private island.

When I get back my partner has the contents of our breakfast pack – bacon, eggs, sausages – sizzling on the barbie. Buns, butter and jam are laid out.

The day is bright, the harbour’s busy and the ghosts have vanished.

We’ve got just enough time before getting the ferry back to do a self-guided audio tour of the island – just to make sure no corner has been left unexplored.

The combination of natural beauty and layer upon layer of history is what makes a stay at Cockatoo Island so appealing, as well as the sense you get of being removed from the hustle and bustle of city life, even though though it’s just a short ferry ride away.

FACTS ABOUT COCKATOO ISLAND

* Originally part of Wangal country. Little is known about indigenous use of the island but it was probably used for fishing and canoe-making.

* From 1839-1869 used as a penal establishment for reoffending convicts, including outlaw Frederick Ward who escaped by swimming to Balmain and later becoming known as Captain Thunderbolt.

* Became a girls reformatory and industrial school 1871. All girls were relocated by 1888.

* Used between 1957-1991 as a shipbuilding complex and the dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy.

* Received UNESCO world heritage listing in 2010

GETTING THERE

*Cockatoo Island is a short ferry ride from central Sydney.

STAYING THERE

* Visitors can stay in a heritage holiday house or apartment, or take advantage of glamping or standard camping options. For rates and booking details go to www.cockatooisland.gov.au.

* The writer was a guest of Cockatoo Island and the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.

 



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