Travel Story Glamping in Sydney Harbour: the world’s first urban waterfront campground

For a room (or tent) with a view, it's hard to go past Sydney Harbour's biggest island (and the only one where you can stay overnight): historic Cockatoo Island.

It’s a time-warp island in the stream of Sydney’s ceaseless activity. Cockatoo Island is both a chunk of the harbour city’s history and an exemption from its frenetic present.

This 18ha wedge of colonial history and industrial archaeology has been many things. Aboriginal Eora people called the island Waremah. As a 19th prison for “the worst of the worst” convicts and re-offenders, Cockatoo Island’s reputation was, as one tremulous commentator wrote, “enough to send a thrill of horror through every honest member of society”.

Escapes were rare because few of Her Majesty’s prisoners could swim well enough to risk the half-kilometre or so to the mainland. And if they could swim, well, the guards’ horror stories about the sharks lurking in the channel were enough to make a man more greatly appreciate his life in chains.

The prison closed in 1908, with the island then becoming a “home” for so-called wayward girls. As the biggest island in Sydney Harbour — it sits west of the Bridge at the mouth of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers — Cockatoo also had a long, parallel career as a dock and shipbuilding yard, a role that ultimately dominated the entire site. During World War II it was the major naval dockyard in the South West Pacific for Allied warships.

After almost 150 years of shipbuilding, the island’s cranes, slipways and forges fell silent in 1991. A decade later, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, a self-funding agency, took ownership. Following extensive remediation works, Cockatoo Island re-opened to the public in 2007; in 2010, along with 10 other Australian convict sites, it joined the UNESCO World Heritage list.

These days you can camp — and very elegantly — on Cockatoo Island’s leafy shores, from where you can gaze at skyline towers, patrician mansions, bridges, boatsheds and parks. Harbour Sydney, plus all who float on it, is arrayed before your moated retreat, delightfully close and sanely distant.

Where metal hulls once rang and rivet guns hammered, here we are today at leisure on a broad harbour-side park in an up-market tent city with wi-fi. Our well-spaced, lockable, two-person safari tents are kitted out with flooring, toiletries, an Esky, battery lighting, deckchairs, shade awnings and stretcher-beds with mattresses and good linen. We’re just 20 minutes from Circular Quay and (as Manly long ago used to boast of itself) a thousand miles from care.

I awake to the sound of a kingfisher’s gargle-and-chortle guffaw in a nearby tree. Pulling the tent flap aside to catch the joke, I see a city-bound RiverCat ferry bowling past, its pre-stressed commuters considering, I imagine, with some envy our midweek morning sleep-in. There’s a suitably flash ablutions block nearby — this is glamping after all — for a good hot shower, and then it’s off to the marvellously-named Societe Overboard Cafe, for my heart-starter toast and coffee.

Cockatoo Island is the world’s first urban waterfront campground and also the only Sydney Harbour island where you can stay overnight. The best way to explore it is via a self-guided amble using an audio tour headset available from the visitor centre. I wander past a quartet of massive, upright, metal forges known as “beam-benders” which, staring seawards, look curiously like the Industrial Revolution version of Easter Island’s famed moai standing head statues. 

I wander amid the island’s stone and metal giants — foundries, granary silos, cross-island tunnels, vast hangars and docks. On a central sandstone ridge sit the old convict barracks and their claustrophobic dungeons. At its peak the island was home to 550 men — who firstly had the pleasure of building their own barracks, plus guardhouses and the superintendent’s elegant stone mansion, and then forging their own cell bars.

Despite (or because of?) this grim past, kids seem to love Cockatoo Island. I see squads of school groups camping around its open spaces. No glamping for them; just good old sleeping bag on the ground, “character- building” camping. The island also runs special school holiday programs including a Haunted History Night and Crooked Characters of Cockatoo Island tours.

I overhear a guide on a spook-themed tour, the Ghosts of Biloela, declare: “The convict ghosts wonder why we would come here. All they wanted to do was to get off the island.” I’m not confidant of her spectral source for that quote, but it works fine on an island that’s full of yarns both true and tall. The real ones include the island being a location for scenes in a Wolverine movie, with one of its dark structures becoming an ominous place called Stryker’s Lair. 

Cockatoo Island has at least one memorable escape legend, starring none other than bush ranger Captain Thunderbolt (Fred Ward). In 1856 Ward was sentenced to seven years on the rock for stealing horses. After a few years he’d had enough. A competent swimmer, he beat the sharks ashore to today’s Balmain, where his wife Mary was waiting with a fast white steed, and together they made their getaway. A great tale. But there was no happy ending for Thunderbolt Fred, who met his match during a shoot-out with troopers in 1870.

By night, the camp ground’s modern mess facilities, huge shelters and barbecues are abuzz with families. There’s a big open-air log fire with marshmallows on the go and an outdoor cinema. On a mid-summer’s weekend there might be up to 400 campers and glampers, as well as other guests renting the island’s historic apartments. I’m here on a quiet midweek night and by about 11 pm, something almost magical happens.

It’s like watching insomniac Sydney being put to bed, surrendering itself to sleep. The harbour begins to fall silent as the last water-bug taxis scoot home and the late ferry services head west for the night. The harbour waters still to a black mirror reflecting a winking red channel marker and the neon halo of the city. A cricket trills — and for a moment I think it’s someone’s phone.

There is, however, one night of the year on Cockatoo Island when the opposite is true.

Glampers, campers and those who, many months in advance, have booked the island’s apartments have the best view in the world of the Sydney New Year fireworks.

During the annual pyromaniac display the fortunate folk on Cockatoo Island not only see the fireworks close-up but get to feel the actual shock waves.

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