Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cockatoo Island

Our deck looks out over part of Sydney's inner harbour, and we've always been intrigued by Cockatoo Island, with its abandoned industrial buildings. It just so happens that the Harbour Trust recently opened up the island to visitors, and so when David was in town, we took a ferry and set off to explore the island with him.

At the end of the rainbow On Cockatoo island
Left: The view of Cockatoo Island from our deck; Right: On the island.

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in the harbour, and its history is fascinating. It was used as a prison from 1839, and the convicts reshaped the island extensively, quarrying stone and building silos, tunnels, and docks. The convicts were finally transferred to the mainland in 1869 because of "poor living conditions". One can only imagine how appalling the conditions were! After that, the prison was converted to an Industrial School and Reformatory for girls, and in what must count as one of the dumbest decisions ever, a training ship for delinquent and wayward boys was anchored off the shore at the same time. Sure enough, there were "unauthorized visits" back and forth, and that arrangement didn't last long.

Abandoned dock Cranes on Cockatoo island
On the island. Notice the Sydney Harbour bridge on the left. On the right, behind the cranes, you can barely see our apartment complex in the distance.

Cockatoo Island came into its own as a shipyard and a naval dock in the early 1900s, and during World War II, it was the most important dock and repair facility for the Allied forces in the Pacific, especially after the fall of Singapore. There were Japanese submarine attacks, as well as air raids, and the tunnel dug through the island by convicts was used as an air raid shelter.
Air raid shelter and tunnel
After the war, Cockatoo Island continued as a Navy facility until 1992, when it was shut down. The island was abandoned, and the massive cranes and docks and workshops just sat there and rusted. When we walked around, it was an eerie experience: what once used to be a hive of activity now lay echoing and empty, an industrial wasteland.
The turbine workshop
There are big plans afoot, though. The massive turbine hall has been used as a concert venue, and there was a already a small art exhibition in the jail facilities. While parts of the island will be preserved as a Heritage site, Sydney is seeking bids to convert most of it into commercial and retail space. I think we got to see it at a rare moment, open to the public but not yet fully reclaimed and Disneyfied. Let's see how things develop.

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