Sydney Harbour secrets

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If you’ve taken a ferry in Sydney, you’ve no doubt floated past small islands speckled throughout the harbour. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to set foot on them and explore for yourself? With names such as Pinchgut and Spectacle Island, here’s a guide to spotting the islands and discovering the mysteries and occasional dark history that surrounds them.

Fort Denison

Formerly known by its Indigenous name of Mattewanye, and then Pinchgut Island, and Rock Island, Fort Denison has a grisly past. In 1788 Thomas Hill was sentenced to a week on the island in iron chains with nothing but bread and water to sustain him as punishment for stealing another inmates biscuit. The pinch in his gut led to the renaming of the island. Later in 1942 Fort Denison became the centre of attention again as it took a hit from a misfired torpedo from the USS Chicago, while it was attempting to defend an attack from a Japanese Submarine. The sub then torpedoed the HMAS Kuttabul, killing all 21 Allied naval personnel, before escaping through The Heads of the harbour. 

Spectacle Island

First named Gongul, by the Wangal Aboriginal people, and then later Dawes Island, then Spectacle Island due to its curious shape of two small islands joined by a narrow isthmus which has now been filled. This island is one of the few islands in the harbour that has actually grown in size quite significantly due to waste from the nearby Balmain Colliery. Spectacle Island was a storage facility for explosives in 1865, and continued this role throughout both World Wars. The island now hosts the Training Ship Sydney, a unit of the Australian Navy Cadets, and is home to more than half-a-million individual items, used in Australia’s maritime history. Such items in this storage facility include the casing from torpedoes and missiles, various swords and arms that were surrendered to the Royal Australian navy and perfectly preserved uniforms from the 19th century.

Goat Island

In the Dharug language, it was named Memel, meaning the eye, by the Eora people of Port Jackson.

Remember Water Rats? Well Goat Island was often used a set for the TV series, and has since played host to concerts from Midnight Oil in 1985, Green Day in 2000, and a secret Foo Fighters concert that was performed for 300 people in 2011.

In 2016 the State Government announced its intention to return it to the Aboriginal people.

Cockatoo Island

Originally named Wareamah by Indigenous Australians and proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010, it has served many roles such as a prison, a reformatory school for girls and a naval training centre, as well as a naval and ship building facility. During its time as a prison, in order to deter those considering the swim to freedom, the inmates were often threatened with circling sharks as a result of bucket loads of blood and guts that were thrown into the ocean from the local abattoir.

Since 2007 it’s now a stop for some of the Parramatta ferry services, with the option for camping (BYO tent) or “glamping.” Activities such as the Haunted History Tours, and kayak hire, as well as a fire pit and cinema with free entry for campers, will make it a weekend to remember. It’s also a great and often overlooked vantage point to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Plan Your Next Trip

Although all islands but Cockatoo Island are inaccessible by public ferry, you’ll have a chance to play tour guide, next time you roll past on the ferry with an out of town friend or family member, while you head out to many of the wonderful destinations on offer such as Manly, Watsons Bay or Taronga Zoo.

Plan your trip with Trip Planner or download one of our handy travel apps.



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