Cockatoo Island is a special place for me. I probably should loathe it, but I don’t, I love it. It’s like sacred ground for me. I guess the past does this to all of us – it layers tragedy, love, death and growth in one complicated and beautiful onion. It feeds us and makes us cry.
All this history made camping out there on that little island in the middle of Sydney Harbour one of the most healing things I’ve done with my family.Cockatoo Island is not where you go for the glossy history of Sydney. There are no dainty facades or pretty walkways. It holds the raw, cruel and brutal truth of what our beautiful city was built on, from convicts to early industry. We are so lucky to have this truth on display.My mum, Gordon, our two boys and I carried our overnight bags onto the ferry. It’s the same trip my father would’ve made fifty years ago. The ferry rounded the corner and we could see the cranes and huge warehouses. So, it was with a four-year-old’s urgency that we dumped our things in the tents and raced out to explore, although I could’ve lingered a little longer.We followed small railway lines down the tunnels and into the belly of the island. We shouted and followed our voices as they bounced down the rough walls of the World War Two air raid shelters and out the other end and into the light. We stuck our heads through the doorway into the turbine hall, but it felt like a room made for giants, so we lost our courage and didn’t shout for echoes. It was too big.I thought of my father arriving for the first day of his naval architecture apprenticeship, a lanky and awkward seventeen year old, walking through the turbine hall. Past the towering guts of a ship and out to the dry docks, where they drained the water out of those giant pools to repair the submarine carcasses. It must’ve inspired and intimidated the begeezus out of him – my sensitive father, who loved to build things. The guys there called my dad, Mary.
Sheep used to graze in amongst the industry then. My grandfather also had sheep and one too many sheep for the backyard, so he asked my dad to take a sheep on the ferry to Cockatoo Island. My father obeyed, took the sheep on the ferry and walked her out to the flock of sheep, but she showed no interest. She decided my dad was her flock and followed him everywhere. She would wait for him outside buildings and escort him to the ferry. He had a fluffy white shadow that baaaaa’d. “The guys there called me, Mary,” he used to tell me with a grin.
This was the era when most of the apprentices on the Island had to be separated from the workers, because lots of apprentices had been seriously injured as a result of practical jokes and one kid died.
This was the era when the guys were too blokey to wear masks, the masks to protect them from the asbestos, the asbestos that killed my father twenty years ago. The practical jokes, the asbestos and the lanky boy they called Mary have gone.
Up on the hill, where the sheep used to graze, is an old sandstone convict building. It’s beautiful and has stunning views down the harbour to the bridge. On the front forecourt is a metal plate, with a dark hole. Underneath the metal plate is a pit, it was a solitary confinement cell for convicts. The small dark hole is where the food was shoved. I haven’t told my sensitive four year old who likes to build things what the hole is for. I will one day.
Instead, we wandered down the hill, snacked on fancy hot dogs and sipped drinks while chatting to the boys about their grandad and all the things he built and how the Eora People, the local Aboriginal People, used to eat the oysters off the rocks and fish from bark canoes, back when lots of Cockatoos lived on the island. I’m not convinced they were listening the entire time…
I would’ve loved for my boys to meet their grandad, but I’m so glad they can walk in his footsteps, through the halls of giants, into the tunnels and out into the light.
The truth of our family is not always pretty, but it is beautiful most of the time.