Unravel the layers of Australia’s vast history at Cockatoo Island / Wareamah – an extraordinary place on Sydney Harbour that features a UNESCO World Heritage-listed Convict Site.
With historic landmarks, award-winning accommodation and a range of fascinating tours, there’s no better place for adventure and inspiration.
A storied past
Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour. For 60,000 years prior to European settlement, it was a meeting place for Sydney’s First Nations peoples – the Wallumedegal, Wangal, Cammeraygal and Gadigal peoples – who know it as Wareamah.
From 1839 to 1869, the island was a penal establishment where convicts endured harsh living conditions and backbreaking work. In 1871, the prison buildings were repurposed for an industrial training school for girls and a reformatory for young women. During this period, a nautical school ship, known as the Vernon, was moored off the island. Sadly, the experience of the girls was often in cruel contrast to the privileges afforded the Vernon boys. Cockatoo Island also has a remarkable history as a shipbuilding and ship repair facility and contributed significantly to Australia’s maritime affairs between 1857 and 1991.
Today, the remnant prison and dockyard structures provide visitors with a window into Australia’s colonial and maritime history. These include Fitzroy Dock (both the earliest graving dock commenced in Australia and the only surviving example of a dry dock constructed by convicts) plus the cathedral-like Turbine Shop and a series of landmarks constructed from convict-quarried sandstone.
Step into history
The best way to experience the island’s incredible history is to embark on a guided tour. Accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, visitors get to explore the island’s labyrinthine precincts and hear stories about real-life characters, including the convicts and shipbuilders who once worked or lived there. If you’re up for a fright, book the adults-only Ghost Tour – you’ll hunt for ghosts after dark and explore historic buildings rarely open to the public. Plus, the guide will share spine-tingling paranormal and macabre tales, including reported hauntings.
Prefer to explore at your own pace? Pick up a self-guided Audio Tour handset and map from the Visitor Centre. Alternatively, look out for the turquoise “Hello” signs, which invite you to engage in lively and informative text message conversation with some of the island’s most iconic objects.
Snooze with a view
For those seeking a unique overnight experience, Cockatoo Island boasts a scenic waterfront campground as well as historic accommodation that blends heritage character with modern comforts.
If you love the great outdoors but want a hassle-free stay, select the basic camping package for a pre-pitched tent. Desire a little luxury? Book a deluxe or glamping-style premium package to unwind in a tent furnished with amenities for a cozy night. Best of all, every camper gets to watch the sun rise and set on Sydney Harbour and wake up to the gentle lapping of waves against the shore.
Meanwhile, the island’s holiday houses and apartments include two Federation-style dwellings from 1916. Set among lush gardens on the upper island, they each sleep up to 12 guests. There are also three Harbour View Apartments, which offer expansive views encompassing the Harbour Bridge, and the Garden Riverview Apartment, which features a tranquil outdoor entertainment area.
Where to eat
If you need a pick-me-up, you can refuel at one of Cockatoo Island’s family-friendly waterfront cafés. Cockatoo Overboard is located near the Visitor Centre on the Eastern Apron while Marina Café & Bar is situated in the historic Docks Precinct. Both venues offer kids specials and adults can relax with a cold drink while soaking in the harbour views.
Dreaming of an idyllic picnic with friends and family? Pack lunch and head to Biloela Lawn on the upper island for a panoramic view or visit the Northern Apron Park and take advantage of the free BBQ facilities.
How to get there
Travelling to Cockatoo Island is part of the adventure! The F3 and F8 services operate to the island daily, departing from Circular Quay and Barangaroo as well as from wharves along Parramatta River. This is convenient for day trippers and those seeking a longer sojourn. You can also visit Cockatoo Island by water taxi, private boat or kayak.
Cockatoo Island / Wareamah is managed by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. Visit cockatooisland.gov.au.
A world away at North Head Sanctuary, Manly
Just a short drive from Sydney’s iconic Manly Beach, North Head Sanctuary is a coastal haven where nature and history converge. Situated right on the peninsula and bordered by dramatic cliffs, the expansive views of Sydney Harbour are nothing short of epic.
Meander down a series of walking and cycling tracks to discover historic military fortifications from World War II, including North Fort, as well as the scenic Third Quarantine Cemetery, which dates to 1881.
To learn more about North Fort, book the ‘Defence of Sydney Tour’, which runs on weekends. Accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, you’ll have exclusive access to a 200-metre-long network of underground tunnels as well as the Plotting Room – a once-secret wartime bunker.
Australia’s Memorial Walk is another attraction for the history buffs – a paved walkway with jaw-dropping ocean views, it’s a great way to pay tribute to Australia’s service people.
North Head is also an amazing place to connect with nature. On your strolls, keep an eye out for native wildlife, including diverse birdlife, echidnas and a population of endangered long-nosed bandicoots. Plus, drop by the Hanging Swamp to encounter a chorus of frogs.
Travel to Sydney
Rex flies to Sydney. Book your flights here and check out the route map below.