Sydney has one of the worlds premier harbours, but did you know there’s eight islands on the harbour waiting for you to explore?

Steeped in history, the tiny islands within one of the world’s premier harbours are spectacularly undervalued and largely ignored. But Xavier Jefferson has found that the Sydney Harbour Islands are about to experience a renaissance.


Steeped in history, the tiny islands within one of the world’s premier harbours are spectacularly undervalued and largely ignored. But Xavier Jefferson has found that the Sydney Harbour Islands are about to experience a renaissance.

Eight islands remain in Sydney Harbour. They were the lucky ones, so to speak. Originally there were 14 in total, but Glebe, Berry, Darling, Garden and Bennelong Islands were all reattached to the mainland by man. And the 14th was originally separate to the smallest – Spectacle Island – but is now connected by a sandy shoal.

Which leaves eight. Beginning from the Manly end of Sydney Harbour and heading towards the Bridge, they are Shark, Clarke, Fort Denison, Goat, Cockatoo, Spectacle, Snapper and Rodd Islands. And it’s the largest of these – Cockatoo – that forms the foundation for what will be a renaissance in harbour island life.


In March 2008, the Sydney Harbour Trust will open the campground on Cockatoo Island for the first time. Laying claim to being the world’s only city centre campground, it will be on the northern apron of the island – and will possess harbour frontage the envy of every traveller on the planet.

In total 135 sites will be available to campers, with a maximum of four campers on each site. The Sydney Harbour Trust has also built a campground kitchen facility with a toilet and shower block. And – in the most modern of touches for a campground – will feature internet access.

The opening of the campground is just the latest stage in the total restoration of Cockatoo Island into a useful harbour island. As late as 1999, the site was largely derelict and left to vandals with boats. When the island was entrusted to the Sydney Harbour Trust to manage in 1999, it was saved from being just another waterfront development.

The first colonial use of Cockatoo Island in 1838 was to house the least desirable convicts from Norfolk Island. The housing, silos and buildings erected by the convicts remain largely intact and are therefore one of the more important heritage sites for convict history in Sydney and Australia.

Its second use in 1871 was as a reform school for boys and girls. Established by Australian Founding Father Henry Parkes, the boys’ reform school was a naval college and an unqualified success (their incidence of recidivism was just one percent). The girls’ school was less successful: the housing mistress was dismissed and the school was closed in 1888 when semi-naked girls were found taunting the reformed boys. The boys’ college was closed in 1911.

During this time the islands became the centre of Australian shipbuilding, and it would remain that way until the island dockyards ceased in 1992.

During WWI, 4000 men were squeezed onto the island to work on creating Australia’s growing merchant and military navy. In WWII the island served as the only place in the South Pacific for wounded ships to come for repairs. Many American ships were patched up at Cockatoo before being sent on home to San Francisco. The island was also used for a short time, 1931-’34 for aircraft building, design and maintenance. In fact, Charles Kingsford Smith managed to arrive on Cockatoo Island with an injured aircraft unnoticed in March 1932, on the day the Harbour Bridge opened.

Wandering around the island today, the blend of convict construction and industrialisation is mesmerising. The layers of history can be seen most vividly in the turbine hall where the convict created walls form the foundation for corrugated iron walls in which the apprentices worked. The relics of the shipbuilding industry, too large to be removed, are strewn across the island and form an impromptu industrial sculpture garden.


In Easter 2005 more than 20,000 people crammed onto the island to be part of a concert, and many camped overnight. This was the seminal moment from which today’s campground was built.

Three years on, 2008 will be the year for Cockatoo Island. The campground opens in March with room for 540. Boutique self-catering accommodation in eight of the restored buildings will open later this year. The accommodation will range from one to four bedrooms. In total 30 rooms will be available to the public.

The second café (the first opened in 2007 when the island was opened to the “unaccompanied” public) will also open in March, as will the new bar. A cliff-top walk across the tops of the largest structures on the island will also be completed and opened by the end of March. Ferry services will be extended and made more frequent. Offices will open on the island and a host of cultural events will be staged there. The most exciting and high profile, Sydney Biennale in 2008 will use Cockatoo Island as one of four major installation and staging areas.

It’s the mixture of convict heritage and industrial “sculpture” and relics that make the island a gem in the harbour. It’s the perfect backdrop for contemporary art shows, music concerts and even corporate shindigs.

The rejuvenation of Cockatoo Island gives back to Sydney some of the shine that perhaps was lost after the 2000 Olympics. In five years, Cockatoo will be a thriving destination for travellers, artists and all those pursuing creative expression.

Details // Cockatoo Island
Campground // $45 per site per night, you can also rent a host of equipment to arrive unburdened. Tent hire $20 per night, camp chair/mattress hire $5, a package for two people including mattress, chairs and site is $75.
Tours // The best way to see and understand the island is on one of the three guided tours: Historical, Naval and Convict.
Ferries // $10 return from Circular Quay, the number of ferries stopping is expected to increase in the coming months with the opening of the café, bar and campground.
Eating // The cafés will operate from 7am – 8pm, the bar will open till 11pm weekdays and midnight weekends.


The most famous and visible of the harbour islands, Fort Denison has been maintained for public access since 1992. Now a museum outlining the history of the island, its iconic Martello Tower is only accessible on a guided tour. Other than that you can catch a ferry, wander around and have lunch at the café – but no private craft or water taxis are allowed to land.

The island is also quintessentially Australian and, surprisingly, some of the history is quite amusing. The island was fortified in the 1850s to protect Australians against marauding Russians during the Crimean war. They never turned up.

The island’s Tower (traditionally a small defensive fort) is reportedly the last Martello built in the British Empire, however the three eight-inch muzzle canons installed before the completion of the tower were never functional. The windows the canons were stationed before were too small to load and hit passing ships (any ship would have sailed on passed during loading). Further, the recoil of the gun was far too powerful for the room. The tower did come under fire once – friendly fire from the USS Chicago responding to Japanese midget subs.

In 1900, a visiting ship’s fourth officer, Charles Lightoller, hoisted a Boer flag atop the tower in a prank aimed at making Sydneysiders believe a raiding party had taken the fort. Lightoller was blamed and accepted full responsibility. His more famous later posting was aboard the Titanic, where he was the most senior officer to survive that ship’s fatal journey of 1912.

Fort Denison is the perfect destination for “wowing the tourists”, with unique perspectives of the Bridge, Opera House and the PM’s residence at Kirribilli House. A tour and lunch is the perfect way to take in the city and harbour. The lunch is enjoyable but not fine dining by any stretch of the imagination.

Captain Cook and Matilda Cruises run the only services to Fort Denison from Circular Quay or King St Wharf. The $17 per adult cost includes the National Parks landing fee. The tour is an additional $10. Tailored Events Catering manages the café.


Just offshore from Rose Bay, the harbour’s most easterly island is said to resemble a shark. (Perhaps if you squint?) It’s one of the favoured picnic spots in the harbour, with a small pavilion uniquely positioned before some lovely vistas back towards the Bridge and Opera House. Often used for weddings, Shark Island was also once the starting point for the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Although that start line has moved further west, Shark Island remains one of the best vantage points from which to see the ships begin their long voyage.

The island can be reached via a “tinny” or even a quick kayak across from Rose Bay (permits required from Cadmans Cottage in the Rocks – check out Matilda Cruises run a daily ferry service ($16 for adults return) to the island from Circular Quay and Darling Harbour.

As early as 1879 it was set aside as a reserve, however it was turned into an Animal Quarantine station and naval depot store until 1975 when it was handed over to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and became part of the Sydney Harbour National Park.


Smaller than Shark, although the two are often confused, Clark Island is named after First Fleet officer Ralph Clark, whose vegetable patch on the island was a failure due to his crops being stolen. The island lies opposite Darling Point in Sydney’s east. Closer to the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, it’s naturally a popular spot for weddings and corporate bashes.


Probably the least known “open to the public” island, Rodd has a lot more colourful history than its two picnic island sisters, Shark and Clark. Named after local solicitor and landowner Brent Clement Rodd, it was used as a laboratory in the hunt for a rabbit-killing agent in 1888. When Premier Henry Parkes posted a 25,000-pound prize for the person who found an agent that could be used for rabbit genocide, Louis Pasteur sent his nephew Dr Adrien Loir. Armed with Pasteur’s chicken cholera, Dr Loir spent six years on the island, eventually developing a strain that would kill rabbits – and probably anything else it came into contact with. Parkes judged this a failure and withheld the prize. The laboratories were eventually demolished and Dr Loir’s residence converted into a dance hall, which is still standing today along with two houses and a gazebo. Rodd has the most structures of the three picnic islands. Located in the middle of Iron Cove, past the Bridge, the island is surrounded by the suburbs of Rodd Point, Drummoyne, Leichhardt, Russel Lea and Haberfield.



The largest harbour island, Goat is still a functioning shipyard on its western side. On the eastern side it’s condemned and therefore not open to public access until the Sydney Harbour National Park finishes repairs and restorations.

It’s a shame; Goat is the island closest to the Bridge and therefore the island with the most astonishing views of the harbour icons. It’s also rich in heritage buildings and reportedly better convict structures.

Goat housed the ammunition dump for a growing Sydney colony once concerns were raised with the amount of explosives being stored in the heavily populated Rocks. A stone bench carved by convict Charles Anderson, who was sentenced to be chained to the rocks for two years, can still be seen.

Some historians claim the island was used as a bacteriology station during the bubonic plague in 1900, however this hasn’t been confirmed. The island has also been used for rock banks. The sooner the island is opened for the public the better.


The smallest island in the harbour, it lies derelict today. Like Goat, there are plans to reopen the island in 2009. Reportedly the island was a favourite with gamblers and couples in the ’30s. It’s now an island of derelict shipyard buildings.


It’s certainly a conundrum. How could these wonderful islands in the middle of one of the world’s most noted harbours not attract more use? They’re certainly not hidden, and five of the eight are maintained for public use: Shark, Clark, Fort Denison, Rodd and Cockatoo.

The problems are numerous: public consciousness, easy access and no single body looking after their maintenance, development and promotion.

A concierge at a hotel in Sydney responded to a holidaying family when informed they’d just had lunch on Fort Denison: “I hope it wasn’t too boring.” It beggars belief. The island in the middle of Sydney Harbour boring? To Sydneysiders, the islands are relatively unknown and perhaps passé. Cockatoo’s revitalisation along with several other islands will surely change that.


Contacts // Harbour Island Life
Four organisations are pivotal to a Harbour Island Experience // the Sydney Harbour National Park, the Sydney Harbour Trust and the Sydney Ferries.
Sydney Harbour National Park //
via Cadmans Cottage in The Rocks, 02 9247 5033, www.nationalparks.
Sydney Harbour Federal Trust // Building 28, Best Ave, Mosman, (02) 8969 2100,
Sydney Ferries // 131 500,
Matilda Cruises // 02 9264 7377


Reader responses: AT Reader John Glebe from Rose Bay in Sydney recalls a time when his father worked on the Cockatoo Island Graving Dock at the beginning of World War II. click here for more

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