Sean Mooney leaves the tent and sleeping bags at home and opts for a family 'glamping' stay on historic Cockatoo Island.
'Come on, girls, pick up the pace. I want to be home in time for dinner." It's not every day that you wake to the sound of a man screaming into a megaphone just metres from your bed but today is no ordinary day. I'm not in my bed, for starters; I'm camping on the kind of waterfront land many Sydneysiders would do anything to get their hands on.
I pull back the flap on my heavy canvas tent to see the day's first rays hitting the harbour. Skimming along its dawn-calm surface are four muscle-bound men in a sleek sculling boat. Hot on their oars is a tinny piloted by Mr Megaphone. Later I meet a man who jokes that these regular early-morning training sessions on the harbour put the cox into Cockatoo Island.
Over the next few days, ferries, cruise vessels, party boats, fishing boats, kayaks and even a sole windsurfer pass near my campsite. Then there are the helicopter flyovers, as well as a queue of jumbos overhead on their way to land at Sydney Airport. This is, after all, the largest island in Australia's biggest city; secluded holiday isle it ain't. Its shores crowded with old shipyards, cranes and workshops, Cockatoo Island rises from the swirling harbour waters at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers. To the west, you can just make out the curve of the Gladesville Bridge; the Coathanger dominates the horizon to the east. To the north are the leafy slopes of Woolwich, to the south the peninsulas of Birchgrove and Balmain. It is the very definition of absolute harbour frontage in a city obsessed with such things.
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed island has served many roles for the past two centuries - convict jail, industrial school, even a girls' reformatory. Later, it was one of Australia's biggest shipyards, with up to 4000 people employed to build, repair and refit ships during both world wars. They could not have imagined that this 18-hectare industrial monolith would one day be the site of one of the world's great camping grounds.
I first stayed at Cockatoo in 2008, shortly after the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust opened the island to campers. Back then, a few tents were pitched between the water and an old cannon, former air-raid shelter and large metal "sculptures" preserved from the shipyard. These days the island's much busier, with word getting out that an overnight stay is both affordable and unmissable. Camping on the edge of one of the world's finest working waterways is a unique experience. To do so in a place so rich in historical significance is a privilege.
With 125 campsites on a patch of ground not much bigger than a football field, it can get crowded. Yet when we make our midweek visit, there are only about 20 campers plus the usual influx of day trippers arriving by ferry. Visitors usually head straight for the old slipways, wharves, workshops, cranes and dry docks on the southern shore, accessible by two tunnels that slice through the island's sandstone heart.
The plateau above has hosted convicts, soldiers, shipwrights, draftsmen and managers over the years. The people are long gone but many buildings remain, including a former prison barracks, military guardhouse, polishing and pattern shops and a timber store. Some stately island residences have been restored to become holiday homes and apartments for rent and there's a grass tennis court for hire.
The gnarled roots of great Moreton Bay figs cover scars on the plateau's cliffs where rock was blasted away to create an extra five hectares of land on the island's northern shore. Grass now grows where the steel for ships' hulls was once cut and shaped, the machines of industry replaced by an amenities block, communal kitchen and rows of tents. What the island's previous generations of inhabitants would make of it all is anyone's guess - especially of the "glamping" package we go for on this visit. The package provides you with a pre-erected heavy-duty dome tent, camp beds, sheets and blankets, towels, sun lounges, a lantern and a clever little side table that doubles as a portable cooler (ice is available from the office). It's a step up from the regular camping package of a smaller tent, thin sleeping mats, two chairs and a light. You can also hire a campsite and bring your own gear.
As the last of the day trippers depart in the late afternoon, youngsters ride scooters and skateboards along the car-free paths while adults kick back in their camp chairs with a beer. Later I'm surprised to discover that campsite rules ban scooters, skateboards, thongs and BYO alcohol (beer and wine can be bought from the island's cafe). You get the feeling that the rules are only enforced when problems arise. My children join a group playing with a pull wagon while I chat to parents and sullen teenagers in the large kitchen area on the camp ground. With eight free electric barbecues, four sinks, boiling water on tap, a huge fridge and seating and tables for up to 80 people, self-catering is easy.
The Canteen cafe is open during the day but its menu is limited. Nevertheless, it's a good spot for a cuppa and there are catering services for groups. A better bet is the Island Bar (open October to April), which makes excellent wood-fired pizza and cocktails. Check with bar staff before you rely on this option for dinner, though, as opening days and hours are seasonal. There also seems to be a bar policy that no children are allowed in after 3pm on busy days, so families might have to have takeaway.
While waiting for our pizzas, I meet a central coast family who have a hassle-free way of catching up with Sydney-based family and friends. They've told them they'll be on Cockatoo Island for seven nights and that anyone is welcome to visit as long as they bring bread, milk and the newspaper. We take long-term Sydneysiders for a tour of an island that they have often seen but never thought of visiting.
Island accommodation office managers Ken and Glennis Smith tell me many locals are unaware that Cockatoo is open to the public, although as the grounds now host elements of the annual Sydney Festival and Biennale, as well as sporting events, this is changing.
The Smiths also advise that the island's marina is open, so private boats of up to seven metres are welcome to moor for a fee. You can also drag kayaks up one of two slipways; the other serves as a surreal swimming area in the shadow of cranes and chimneys.
We try a bit of snorkelling at high tide, feeling safe inside the island's shark net, although the water is a bit murky and the slimy slipway lives up to its name. I tell the youngsters that the famous bushranger Captain Thunderbolt escaped the island in the mid-19th century by swimming to the mainland. They want to know why he didn't just catch the ferry.
Sean Mooney stayed courtesy of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust
Getting there Ferries travel to Cockatoo Island from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, Woolwich and Balmain. The Parramatta RiverCat service from Circular Quay to Sydney Olympic Park sometimes stops there, too. See sydneyferries.info/timetables/cockatoo-island.htm.
The glamping package includes a pre-erected 3mx3m dome tent, two camp beds and mattresses, sheets, bedding, towels, two sun lounges, side table/esky, cushions, throw rugs and a lantern. Sleeps two adults, with a sleeping mat for one young child available on request. From Sun-Thurs, cost is $135 a night; Fri-Sat, $148 a night.
The regular camping package offers a pre-erected 2.4mx2.4m dome tent, two camping mattresses, two chairs and a lantern. Sleeps up to three adults (a tight fit) or two adults and two young children. From Sun-Thu, cost is $85 a night; Fri, $90 a night; Sat, $95 a night.
For a camp site only (BYO tent) for up to four people, Sun-Fri is $45 a night. Sat, $50 a night.
Other accommodation options include a four-bedroom heritage holiday house that sleeps up to 10 people, costing $545 a night (midweek); $1630 at weekends. Two-bedroom apartments costs $420 a night; $1260 at weekends. Minimum stay of two nights for all non-camping accommodation.
More information Phone 8898 9774;
The Island Bar's hours are at theislandbar.com.au.