Cockatoo Island: Week 136

A dilapidated tank in the Docks Precint: Cockatoo Island- Sydney, Australia

The year was 1839. Thousands of miles from home and only 20 minutes from the shore of Sydney proper, a group of convicts arrived on Cockatoo Island. These weren’t the newbies condemned to the fledgling Australian colony for stealing bolts of cloth; they were the secondary offenders, the ones that took to salvation like a cat baptized in the Parramatta River.

Whatever their infraction (and it didn’t take much to be a serial offender), they were punished with long hours at the Cockatoo Island quarry. Stone by stone, the prisoners built the guardhouse that watched over them and the various other official buildings needed to run an isolated penal colony.

In fact, the prisoners built their own jail and until it was completed they slept in locked wooden boxes. Even less beguiling were the isolation chambers they dug themselves around the Military Guardhouse.

Mess Hall where convicts ate their daily ration of 1lb beef or mutton, 20oz bread and .5lbs of vegetables. Cockatoo Island: Sydney, Australia

Bill Day, a misunderstood soul, once found himself in an isolation chamber for spearing a fellow inmate with a piece of timber. Years down the road, an official investigation would declare the chambers inhumane, but unfortunately for Bill that hadn’t happened yet. He might have counted himself lucky for receiving any sort of nourishment, but then food had a nasty habit of attracting hordes of giant rats.

“In the morning I found my visitors had gnawed their way through my jacket and carried off every particle of eatables. Also they had eaten through the toes of my boots to gain entrance.”

Because the Sydney Harbour is blessed with deep water that runs right up to the shore, it wasn’t long before convicts began construction on a dock. It took ten years to make and once it was finished the island slowly transitioned into a shipbuilding complex.

Faint Store in the Docks Precint. Cockatoo Island: Sydney, Australia

By 1913 Cockatoo Island was the dockyard for the Royal Australian Navy and employed about 4,000 men during its peak. Following the fall of Singapore during WWII,  the island became the major shipbuilding and dockyard facility for the South West Pacific and only ceased operation in 1991.

Nowadays Cockatoo Island is World-Heritage-listed and open to the public. It’s also the only place where you can go camping or even glamping (deluxe pre-assembled tents) in the Sydney Harbour. The prices range from $45-$310 and as audacious as that sounds, people claw each other to pay that much to camp there New Year’s Eve.

Yes, the view is that good. However if you are not lucky enough to win a spot for NYE, you can always enjoy the historic walks and the Island Bar year round. I definitely recommend soaking up the view with a pizza and a bucket of drinks, it’s what the convicts would have wanted.

How to get to Cockatoo Island: Harbour City Ferries daily service from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, and other inner harbour wharfs

About: The Island Bar

International Fleet Review: Week 134

A page from the Sydney Mail, published on 8 October 1913, shows crowds watching HMAS Australia at her moorings. (Royal Australian Navy)

One hundred years ago the HMAS Australia sailed into the Sydney Harbour. It was a momentous occasion for the fledgling country and thousands of people gathered to see the new Australian Fleet Unit.

In order to mark the 100th anniversary of that occasion, the navy orchestrated an International Fleet Review with helicopter displays, 21-gun salutes, and a military band rendition of current pop songs.

“WHO LIKES PINK?” the singer caterwauled as she stomped her feet and clapped her hands. She was the rare kind of artist that could transform a bad song into an overwrought opera.

“Oh YEAH,” a female audience member replied, her enthusiasm captured on a stranger’s iPad. She was in her mid 20s and dancing in front of the stage in baggy clothes and a baseball cap. I wondered if she really did like the music or if she was the singer’s friend in civilian clothes.

The Opera House steps were packed and all the best views had been claimed for hours with tripods and cameras. Barret and I had an hour to kill, but the food and bathroom lines were so ridiculously long that it just wasn’t worth leaving our cramped spot- besides, the band was now covering the best of Justin Beiber.

While the pebbly texture of the steps pressed into my ankles and my feet lost circulation, I reflected upon the simpler times when one could rock up to the quay on a horse and buggy ten minutes before the ships entered the harbour. Not that I knew what it was like to find a good spot so easily, but I can imagine. How different these public events must have been when people didn’t need plastic wrist bands to get close to the action.

The only reason I was even allowed to enter the cordoned off zone around the Opera House was because I had won tickets to a graphic novel festival. Once the lecture ended, I was urgently ushered out of the Opera House but allowed to stay in the area with the military band (now covering Miley Cyrus).

International Fleet Review 2013: Sydney Harbour, Australia

My spot wasn’t worth that kind of auditory torture until a bunch of disgruntled tourists and amateur photographers decided to break past a barricade. With minutes until the start of the fireworks there was suddenly a void of people right up front on the balcony railing- the part of the steps that people were allowed to watch the show. Sensing my opportunity, I rushed forward and set my tripod up right behind the balding head of a 5’7” man. A few minutes later the gate crashers were kicked out of the restricted area and stuck at the back of the crowd.

Yes I had a better view, but halfway through the show I noticed a dark dome-shaped smudge in the bottom corner of every image.  That’s when I hoisted my camera above the crowd and produced my next series of pictures at crooked angles. It wasn’t my finest hour of photography, but the night wasn’t really about my photos or anybody else’s. It was about Australia, how much the country has matured within the last century, and about how much better fireworks look in the Sydney Harbour than they do anywhere else in the world. Not even Prince Harry could distract the crowd from that.

About: the International Fleet Review

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