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An Unsuspecting Island Escape

The first time I booked Cockatoo Island for camping, I was told that if I wanted privacy and quiet, I would be better off going on a Friday or weeknight as most Saturday nights they fill up with scout groups, families and are generally crowded. This didn't sound appealing to me at all – I’d only selected this spot for the convenience of a quick escape so close to home.

A few months passed and after a crazy few weeks in the office I was dying to get away for a night and spontaneously booked the island for a Saturday night anyway. I thought, even if I had to cram into a spot between families, I will just take my camera, grab bottle of wine, and escape to a quiet corner of the island until they had all gone to bed.

I perused the campground map online after booking. The camping side of the island is made up of a section of large pre-erected family tents, next to them, smaller two and three person pre-erected tents, and closest to the wharf, a large grassy area for people bringing their own tents.

I set off in the morning with my hiking backpack, stocked with the necessities. One of the benefits of Cockatoo Island is that it is fully equipped, so you can pack light on food, drinks and cooking gear. You can even hire camping gear from the office! Alcohol isn't allowed to be brought which saves a lot of pack weight, but you need to budget to buy it on the island.

This all meant however, that I had more room to be able to comfortably pack an inflatable mattress and pump, rather than the shitty sleeping mat I had previously used.

I took the ferry from Circular Quay (for which you only need an Opal card), and sat nervously on the 10 minute trip. I had planned to arrive right on check-in to try to score a sweet spot, if that was possible. To my surprise, when I arrived there was only myself and two other groups checking in. I settled a little as the campground didn't look busy yet… I had this. After a quick run through of the grounds by the front office, we were directed to our camps. To my surprise, I was the only one directed to the campground – the other groups had pre booked tents!!!

I smugly paraded to the large grassy waterfront area and took my pick of spots to set up.

Once set up, I spent the afternoon by the water sipping cold beers from the kiosk and watching the ferries roll in. I expected my camp area to fill up but it became more and more evident that the large majority of Cockatoo Island campers were clearly not interested in lugging all their gear as well as a tent over on the ferry, which was fine by me!

As well as having a magical view from all corners of the island, Cockatoo Island has some incredible history.

In the early 1800’s Cockatoo Island was utilised to house convicts from the overcrowded Norfolk Island. After building the prison, convicts built a dock and workshop to service the Navy. In 1870 the prisoners were relocated and the island became an Industrial School for Girls until 1888 and then reverted back to a gaol until 1908. The island became the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard in 1913 and went on to become the major shipbuilding and dockyard facility for the South West Pacific in WWII, producing the impressive NAVY Destroyers HMAS Voyager, HMAS Vampire and later the HMAS Success.

The island closed in 1992 and reopened to the public in 2007 after extensive restoration. Finally, in 2010, Cockatoo Island was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Many of the buildings and wharfs were demolished when the dockyard closed, however a few buildings remain, with gorgeous history within the walls.

My father is a boilermaker and walking around the old machinery within the heritage buildings evoked nostalgic memories of the smell of my Dads’ clothes when he would come home from work.

It was also the perfect place to try some architectural photography for the first time!

After a quick stop for another bevvy at the Marina Bar and picking up a bottle of wine, I headed back to camp for some sunset shots. This campsite was really growing on me...

Seeing as I had only been joined by one other couple on the entire BYO tent campground, and the family area is located pretty well out of earshot, I consequently had an entire waterfront picnic table and BBQ to cook dinner on all to myself. This last minute getaway had turned out to be far more serene than I had originally expected.

After a cosy nights’ sleep on my new air mattress (thanks Kmart), and a relaxing coffee looking over the harbour, I packed my little utopia back into a single backpack and took the ferry home in the morning sea breeze. I think it’s safe to say I will be coming back…

  • Cockatoo Island is located a 10 minute ferry ride from Circular Quay.

  • Unpowered sites cost $45 per night ($50 on the weekend) with glamping packages starting from $89 per night.

  • The island houses 2 cafes/bars as well as toilets, showers and offers a range of camping supplies for hire.

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