The islands of Sydney Harbour stand like lookouts
on one of the world’s most attractive waterways -- reshaped by the demands of
war. But where there used to be 14
islands dotting the busy harbour, only eight have avoided the growth of
Australia’s biggest metropolis.
“Some people may not
be aware that some of the coastline’s bulging headlands were originally
islands,” explained Ian Hoskins, the official historian at the North Sydney Council and author of the book Sydney Harbour: A History.
The best known of
Sydney’s vanished islands is Garden Island, which was
used as an offshore farm to feed a fledgling penal colony in the late 18th
Century and is now one of Australia’s most important navy bases.
In 1942, after a military dry dock for naval boat repairs joined the island to Sydney’s southern shoreline, Garden
Island witnessed an attack that brought terror to a nation in fear of invasion.
A Japanese midget submarine sank the moored accommodation ship Kuttabul, killing
21 Australian and British sailors during WWII. The northern part of this historic treasure is now
public parkland, only reachable by ferry and peppered with
historic buildings and naval installations. It is a popular picnic spot too.
Other islands that lost
island status when developers joined their landmass with the mainland include Darling
Island, which became part of the mainland in the late 1840s and later became
the base of Darling Harbour, a popular
restaurant and entertainment hub in the suburb of Pyrmont. Little Bennelong
Island, a tiny hummock of land, was appropriated by the mainland in the
1820s and now makes up the tip of Bennelong Point, home to the Sydney Opera
House. And Glebe Island, an industrial area in the suburb of Balmain,
joined the mainland in the 1860s and now acts as a cargo storage area for
freighters. In the case of Glebe Island, developers filled the gap between the
island and the mainland with rocks to create a connecting causeway.
“My favourite island is, in fact, not an island,”
Hoskins said. “[Berry Island] is so easy
to get to and is joined [to the mainland] by this isthmus of lawn, but once
you’re there, it is this wonderful angophora forest. There are various Aboriginal sites and you can see
grooves in the rock where they would have sharpened spears… and you can look
out through the Sydney red gum trees and get a sense of the pre-European
The islands that remain
Through the mist on a damp day, a Captain Cook tour boat ferried soggy tourists to Fort Denison, a rocky outcrop of an island that once housed
an early convict prison. To boost Sydney’s maritime defences during the early
years of colonization, the tiny island was
flattened and Australia’s only
Martello-style fort was built, similar to those that dotted the coast of
Britain in the mid 19th Century, with very thick sandstone walls to absorb
cannon fire. The highly recommended Fort Denison Cafe and Restaurant serves Australian cuisine with a Mediterranean twist and
for those with very deep pockets, the island affords a front row seat to arguably the world’s finest New Year’s
Eve fireworks display. Only
reachable by boat tour, Fort Denison is one of Sydney’s gems, with spectacular
views of the opera house and the old coat hanger bridge that spans one of the
world’s most photogenic harbours.
Even on a damp day, visiting is a treat.
“It is quite an iconic image for Sydney
Harbour,” explained Bernie Courtenay, the Captain Cook cruise boat skipper. “It
was a little island when the First Fleet [of settlers] arrived here [in
1788]. They had no use for it
except as a place of isolation for reoffending convicts. During the 1840s,
because of fears of invasion by privateers and foreign navies, they decided to
fortify the island. You can [still] walk
around Fort Denison and quite imagine yourself back in Crimean times.”
The other slice of real estate that has been radically
altered is Cockatoo Island, which was a
shipbuilding hub until the early 1990s. Today, it has been reborn as a cultural
haven, with cavernous warehouses that host concerts and exhibitions, including
the spectacular Biennale of Sydney, a visual arts festival. Visitors can bed
down in dedicated luxury campgrounds or in heritage holiday homes,
and Sydney’s largest island at 17.9 hectares is reached by ferry, water taxi
and private boat. Or, for the intrepid, this island is one of the only ones in the harbour that can
be reached by kayak.
Other smaller dots on the west side of Sydney Harbour,
such as the private island of Snapper and the navy base of Spectacle Island,
are not generally open to the public. But they can be seen by ferry on the Balmain
West-Birchgrove Service from Circular Quay. Quaint summerhouses dating back to
the 1920s bring visitors to Rodd Island, a former
biological research station nestled in Iron Cove near the Sydney suburb of
Rozelle. Today, the 0.5-hectare island
can be reserved for weddings and
other functions, is a popular picnic site and can be reached by water taxi.
Shark and Clark Islands, located off the
harbourside suburb of Darling Point and Rose Bay respectively, became dedicated
recreational areas as early as the 1870s and are now great places to watch the
boat traffic in Sydney Harbour. The island’s picnic areas offer stunning views
across Sydney Harbour, and it is a priceless feeling to sit on a tiny speck of
land in the middle of one of Australia’s busiest harbours, watching the ferries
and pleasure boats glide past the diamond-crusted waters.
“Most of us feel like
we want to go and sit on an island and get away from it all,” said Judy
Bennett, a commentator for Captain Cook Cruises. “People go to Shark Island for
weddings. It’s very romantic. There aren’t too many people out there.”
Goat Island, located just
west of the Harbour Bridge, is known as the “Eye of the Harbour” as it commands
magnificent views of Sydney’s greatest natural treasure. It is also a place
revered by Aborigines, who conducted spiritual ceremonies on the rocky outcrop
until the early 19th Century. The island has had a varied career
over the years, serving as a convict stockade, explosives store, police
station, boat yard and film set. Relics of Goat
Island's convict origins remain, including a seat carved out of stone by
Charles Anderson, an inmate who was sentenced to be tied to a particularly
large slab of the island for two years.