FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Cockatoo Island

Posted in Australia, Sydney by folkestonejack on April 19, 2019

The highlight of our day trip to Australia was a visit to Cockatoo Island, a remarkable island in Sydney Harbour packed with a fascinating history that has seen it used as a prison, naval dockyard, industrial school and film set. The dockyard closed in 1991 but was opened to the public in 2007 following remediation work by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. Today, it is one of Sydney’s newer sights and clearly still one of its best kept secrets if its relatively low position in the Tripadvisor rankings is anything to go by.

Administrative Building ‘Brindabella’ (1930) forms the entrance to Cockatoo Island for arrivals by ferry

The island is just 21 minutes by ferry from the crowds and bustle of Circular Quay, yet we hardly saw a soul for most of our three hour long wander around the island. There is no charge for admission and maps are freely provided in the visitor centre, though you can rent an audio guide for a fuller experience. It’s a very photogenic place so a camera is a must, especially to capture the dark and brooding silhouettes of the restored cranes that you can find around the island.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a visit to Cockatoo Island is that it has been left in a state of apparent industrial abandonment since its last use as a commercial dockyard. Although there has been plenty of demolition (around 50 buildings disappeared between 1991 and 2010), mass disposal of industrial machinery and site clean up you can still get some sense of the past life of the island as you wander the vast industrial turbine hall, machine shops and workshops thanks to the informative panels located throughout.

If my sense of imagination failed anywhere, it was at the slipways as I simply couldn’t fathom the scale of the ships that were being launched here until I saw some pictures in the excellent museum in Biloela House. Some of the largest vessels built in the world (in their time) were launched here, such as the 12,037 ton Empress of Australia and the 18,221 ton oiler HMAS Success. To be fair, my impressions might have been affected by the relatively small wooden vessel currently sitting on the slipway.

The mess hall in the convict precinct (c. 1847-51)

The upper level of the site holds the historic convict precinct. The first convicts, who arrived in 1839, were set to work constructing their own prison from sandstone quarried on the island. As galling as this may have seemed, it was preferable to the wooden boxes the convicts were locked in each night until the work was complete. The prison was soon home to the worst of the worst, a combination of hardened criminals and repeat offenders.

There are so many fascinating stories to be uncovered on the island, but my favourite would have to be about how the sheep on the island had come to learn that the four o’clock end of shift siren was the signal for the workers to go home. Apparently, the sheep would make their way down the steep steps from the top to raid the bins for goodies!

Today, Cockatoo Island offers a wonderful slice through the history of Sydney and Australia. It’s also an interesting place to stay (options include luxury camping and heritage houses) and an occasional film set (recent films shot here include Wolverine and Unbroken). I loved every minute of my time on the island and would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different in Sydney.


Twenty four hours in Australia

Posted in Australia, Sydney by folkestonejack on April 19, 2019

It is quite possible that I will only spend 24 hours in Australia in my entire life, so I figured that I would have to make the day count. Unfortunately, almost every museum and attraction was closed as we were visiting on Good Friday. At first I thought this was a disaster, but in fact it was the making of the trip as it forced me to look a little harder at the options.

I found three sights that made for a pretty splendid day in Sydney – a morning on Cockatoo Island, a walk through the Rocks to the Pylon lookout at midday and an afternoon walk around the coastal perimeter of the botanic gardens. The forecast was for a full day of cloud, but this luckily proved far too pessimistic.

The classic view of the Opera House from the Pylon Lookout

On our arrival by train from the airport last night we had seen the magnificent sight of the Harbour Bridge lit up. Up close in daylight it looked a little less romantic, mainly on account of the curved mesh fences, barbed wire and fumes from the passing traffic. However, as a feat of engineering it was indisputably impressive. I wouldn’t like to have been one of the workers on the bridge during its construction – the description of showers of molten metal that shredded overalls sounded quite terrifying.

The south east pylon of the bridge has been a tourist attraction since 1934, a couple of years after the bridge opened. It’s not hard to see the appeal when you step out onto the terrace at the top and take in the wonderful 360 degree view of the harbour, the bridge and the railway line that crosses it. In the past there were other attractions to draw visitors to this spot, including a roof top cattery that was home to a pair of white cats owned by the manager of the souvenir shop!

Our walk back through the mass of people gathered at Circular Quay and on to the Opera House looked like a bad move at first, but the crowds soon thinned as we entered the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Our walk was broken up by the little visual treats of the gardens, like a fallen Dracaena draco tree and a nineteenth century replica of a Greek monument. It was quite lovely, especially with the bonus of sun. Plenty of folk were out sunbathing in the grounds.

On the whole it was quite relaxed – although a long queue had formed to get a photo in Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a seat carved from sandstone in 1811 by convicts for the then governor’s wife. It looked like a popular coach tour stop and a tick-box photo. No-one really seemed to be looking at, or appreciating, what they being photographed against!

HMAS Hobart (DDG 39)

On turning the corner a superb view of the naval base at Potts Point opened up, including two Royal Australian Navy destroyers HMAS Hobart (DDG 39) and HMAS Brisbane (DDG 41) plus the Canberra-class landing helicopter dock HMAS Adelaide (L01). There was another warship beyond, but I figured that I had already stretched my luck with a walk through the blazing sun to see this much!

The return walk took us back through the gardens with a brief stop off at an exhibition about Plants with bite in the Calyx. I squeamishly passed up on the opportunity to pay 5 dollars to feed a live cricket to one of the plants, but enjoyed the atmospheric display. Finally, our walk took us past Government House (usually open to visitors on Fridays, but not on Good Friday) and back towards Circular Quay.

Our 24 hours in Australia had come to an end. My travelling companion reckoned that was more than enough time to spend in the country, but if I never make it back this way I have at least seen a tiny bit of what the country has to offer and just how different it feels to New Zealand.