Be it the intriguing history of Fort Denison or the charming camping at Cockatoo Island, every isle in the beautiful Sydney Harbour has an interesting facet for you to discover. While the mainland is abuzz with activity, the islands off the coast are serene patches of paradise that you can explore on your own or with your family and friends.
Originally, the number of islands on Sydney Harbour was 14, of which 5 (Bennelong, Berry, Darling, Garden and Glebe) are now part of the mainland. Two islands, formerly divided by a slight stretch of shallow waters, have united to form the Spectacle Island, which acts as a naval base and isn’t accessible to the public.
Now the number of islands stands at 7 – Cockatoo, Fort Denison, Clark, Shark, Rodd, Goat, and Snapper, of which the last is closed to the public for now. Take your own boat or catch a ferry to the small nuggets of history, culture, and adventure and explore what the Sydney Harbour has to offer, be it on a single day trip or a little longer voyage.
Before you go, here is a lowdown on what to see and do on each of these islands.
Cockatoo Island: At the point where the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers meet, sits the largest of the islands – Cockatoo. A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, the island was called Wareamah by the aboriginal people. Since 1839, the island was used as a prison; later, it was also used as a girls’ reformatory school and a boys’ naval training school.
Remnants of convict-built granary silos, stone barracks, and the dry dock still stand; shipbuilding workshops of later years complete with rusty machinery adds an industrial flair to the isle. Camping grounds provide the necessary amenities for a comfortable stay under the stars. If you are looking for a luxurious stay, try glamping.
Fort Denison: Originally called the Mat-te-wan-ye, this steep rocky isle was a favourite fishing spot in the early days. After the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, its name gradually changed to ‘Pinchgut’, primarily due to the poor rations of bread and water provided to the convicts destined to labour here.
Later in 1857, fortifications were completed with the building of the honey-coloured Martello Tower, a one-of-a-kind sandstone structure in Australia. Renamed after Governor Sir William Denison in 1862, the island is now well-loved for its winding staircase that takes you to the cannon, fired everyday at 1 p.m., it’s interesting museum, and it’s amazing views.
Clark Island: Just off the tip of Darling Bay is this little isle (with an area of only 0.9 hectare), named after Lieutenant Ralph Clark, of the First Fleet. He wanted to cultivate it as a veggie garden, but the fruits of his toils were often reaped off by the convicts in the area. The idea didn’t stick, but the name did!
Pack a picnic and head to the small and beautiful Clark Island for fun-filled family time. You can also hire the entire isle for a special occasion, such as a wedding. But remember, ferries aren’t available; so, you need to take your own boat or may be a water taxi. You also need to book in advance to hold a function.
Goat Island: Formerly called Me-mel by the local Cadigal people, this isle was another popular fishing spot between Balmain and McMahons Point. Interestingly, it is thought that three goats were left behind on the island to breed, hence the name. In the 1800s, it became a sandstone quarry where convicts laboured in atrocious conditions.
Stories of convicts abound; it was the isle where Charles Anderson, the tattooed seaman, was chained to a rock from which he carved out a seat. You can opt for a historical tour of the island, which was later used as a water police station, ammunitions artillery, as well as a laboratory. Now, it is home to the relics of the macabre past.
Shark Island: Off the suburb of Point Piper sits a pretty little island just right for a family picnic. Shaped like a shark, this small isle has been in use since the 1800s as an area for quarantine and a storage depot for the naval base. It was opened to the public as an excursion spot only in the 1970s.
The palm-fringed isle has a beach just right for swimming. You can also opt to relax in the sun. Make sure you don’t forget to pack in a basket of goodies for your picnic. Shark Island is also a favoured wedding destination, for which you may need to book the entire place and that too in advance.
Rodd Island: Located off Birkenhead Point, in the secluded waters of the Iron Cove, this little island was the first public recreational area in Sydney. Named after a solicitor, Brent Clements Rodd, who tried to buy it but couldn’t succeed; this isle was later used as a scientific research facility, a factory, and even an army training base.
With its remains of historic buildings, especially a dance hall, Rodd Island attracts a fair share of travellers on the lookout for an adventure off Sydney Harbour. Opt for a family picnic or book the entire place for an exclusive event. The spectacular views of the harbour from this farthest point are sure to make it a memorable time.
Each of the islands on the Sydney Harbour is a piece of paradise, waiting to be explored.
If you are planning to take your boat to these isles, make sure you are aware of the rules and regulations you need to abide by. Create a travel plan so that you can enjoy the sights and sounds on the island hopping adventure without a hitch. Also, make sure you book the place with the NSW National Parks.
A great idea is to book a place for the fabulous New Year’s Eve fireworks display at any of the islands – Cockatoo, Goat, Shark, or Clark. Access to the front-row seats to the event of the year is sure to impress you. Just don’t forget to book in advance, as the number of seats available is quite limited.