Two Let Loose on Cockatoo

“Hey! Where shall we go today?”, asked Karen.

“It’s a nice day so we could go to Manly/Bondi/Balmoral/Northern Beaches?” replied John

“Nah. Just grab your Opal card and the Go-Pro and let’s go explore…”

The day began, as many do in Sydney, on a ferry. Karen’s idea was to go visit Cockatoo Island and have a walk around in the sunshine. Great Idea.

Cockatoo Island is located in Sydney Harbour and sandwiched between the shores of Balmain and Woolwich. It was originally called Wa-rea-mah by the aboriginals and may have served as an early fishing base. Nowadays it is part Open-Air Museum and part Sundowner-Scene.

Also since 2010 it has the additional moniker of UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The best thing about the island is that the admission is free. No entry fee at all, except the cost of a ferry ride over. To fully immerse oneself in the island’s past there is a $5 Audio Guide which you can buy off of the volunteer rangers. They were also full of important tips such as walking routes and where to avoid some ‘militant pigeons’.

Armed with our 1980s style walkmans and cameras turned on we set off…

The Island...

The Island…

We quickly made our way trough the campsite. (You can ‘glamp’ on the Island if you want) and then up a small hill into the Convict Precinct – a motley collection of old sandstone buildings.



Between 1839 and 1869 the island served as a convict penal establishment for secondary punishment of convicts (re-offending criminals in the colonies), after being chosen as the site by then Governor Sir George Gipps. The convicts were used as labour to initially build large grain silos for the colony before quarrying allowed many projects around the newly expanding Sydney to be completed. The included the seawall for Circular Quay. For 10 years, between 1847 and 1857 they concentrated on building Australia’s first dry dock, Fitzroy Dock on the island.

Cockatoo’s most famous inmate was a man with an insane name – Captain Thunderbolt! Frederick Wordsworth Ward to those who knew him, was an Australian bushranger who escaped the island in 1863 to begin his infamous crime spree and win the prize for longest roaming bushranger in Australian history.

In 1869 the last prisoners were transferred to Darlinghurst prison, on the mainland, as the island was increasingly being used as a shipyard with the first ships being built the following year.


We finished walking around the old prison and made our way to the heart of the island and the beginning of the Industrial Zone. More modern looking buildings with workshops, furnaces and steel fabrication works.

Between 1857 and 1991 Cockatoo Island was one of Australia’s biggest shipyards – nestled in the middle of Sydney Harbour and protected by the various forts dotted along both sides of the harbour’s entrance, many of which we have visited including George Head and next to Watson’s Bay.

During its peak in World War 1, over 4000 men were employed in shipbuilding activities on the island. After the outbreak of the Second World War it became the main ship repair facility in the south-west Pacific. Some 250 ships were repaired on its slipways and major conversion work was carried out on famous liners such as RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth. It’s busiest period was during an 8 month period between August 1942 and March 1943, Cockatoo Island was home to 4 US Navy Cruisers – USS Chicago, USS Chester, USS Portland and USS New Orleans. The last ship, USS New Orleans famously survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 before going onto become one of the most decorated ships of the US Navy during the war.

In 1979, Cockatoo began construction of HMAS Success, the largest naval vessel built in Australia. From 1971 to 1991, Cockatoo completed 14 major refits of Australia’s Oberon-class submarines and many mid-cycle and intermediate dockings.

But it was not just ships of war that were built on Cockatoo. During the 1960s it began to take on more commercial lines of work including the tender to construct MS Empress of Australia, which on completion was the largest roll-on roll-off cargo passenger ship in the world.

The last section of the tour was set among the cranes and warehouses on the docks. The piece de resistence being the massive Turbine Room…

Movie Set

Not many places get a third bite of the cherry which is why Cockatoo Island is pretty special. And I am not talking about it’s role as a tourist hot-spot either. Cockatoo Island can boast a modern history as a Hollywood Movie Set.

Numerous episodes of Masterchef Australia have been filmed on the island as well as some scenes in the Angelina Jolie directed Unbroken.

The final act of 2008’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine was shot here with the Turbine Room and other parts of the dock facilities doubling for Colonel Stryker’s facilities on Three Mile Island that local boy Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) has his final showdown in the movie.


We had an awesome time on Cockatoo and all for the cost of a tenner each!. As we got on the boat to go home all of the hipsters and glam brigade were disembarking onto the island for the Sunset Sunday Session.


Trip Tips:

  • If you can go on a Sunday your return ferry trip will only be $2.50 on Opal.
  • Bring plenty of water on hot days so you are not at the mercy of the cartel of cafes.
  • The $5 Audio Guide is totally worth it. It provides great context to the buildings you wander around.
  • Not one of those occasions that you should ‘Catch that pigeon’ so be wary of groups of them

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