Most first time overseas visitors to Sydney arrive with a prepared have-to list of their must do’s. It’s a penny to a quid they’ll have on their lists, explore The Rocks and Circular Quay, wander Darling Harbour, walk the Sydney Harbour Bridge, visit Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, stop by the Zoo, take a Harbour cruise, tour the Opera House, and show up at Bondi Beach. If I’m gonna be in Sydney for a few days during any of my travels back Down Under, I never prepare a Sydney must-do list. It’s easier to take care of the must-do Sydney attractions from the plane window rather than tootling around the city for a few days. Because most international flights to Sydney Airport approach runway 16 from the north, I try to make sure I’m sitting in a window seat on the left-hand side of the plane. If the wind is coming from the right direction and the air traffic controller has stipulated a western or northwest flight approach path, then below you will be a panorama of the Harbour Bridge, the iconic Opera House, most of Sydney Harbour, the skyscrapers of North Sydney, and the Sydney skyline. And that’s your must-do list taken care of, as well as having the most impressive plane window view ever.
If the wind is coming from the right direction, and if the air traffic controller has stipulated a western or northwest flight approach path, you’ll get the most impressive plane window view ever. Before and below you is the Harbour Bridge and iconic Opera House, most of Sydney Harbour and the skyscrapers of North Sydney, and the Sydney skyline; the tourist destinations on everyone’s must-do list.
I always do a final confirmation before the plane begins its descent into Sydney. As the cabin crew start collecting the leftover remnants of breakfast, I’ll ask one of them if they wouldn’t mind checking with the captain to find out what runway we are assigned and if the wind direction has caused a different approach than the north. If I need to change seats from the left-hand side to the right-hand side of the plane, I’ll do a quick scan to find any vacant right-hand side window seats. If I’m out of luck, I’ll try to assess who would swap their seat if I told them a frightening story of extreme wind shifts.
I’ve seen the right-hand side of a plane hit with a down-draft so enormous that it caused a massive, ear-popping, stomach-churning drop; the people sitting in the right-hand side window seats shot out of them and hit the ceiling, and then landed across the aisle, one row up, on other passengers lap. And I’ve seen people who must have had the baked beans and omelette for their breakfast blowing yellow-red liquid all over the place as they used their hands to try and funnel the vomit into the back of the seat pouch in front of them.
When the First Fleet of 9 transport ships and 2 small warships arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788, it didn’t take long to figure out the area wasn’t suitable for settlement; so the 850 convicts and their Marine guards and officers moved to Sydney Cove in Port Jackson. And in time, the cove became known as Sydney Harbour. Originally the harbour was dotted with 14 islands, and the British named the large island with the flocks of noisy sulphur-crested parrots perched in its red gum trees Cockatoo Island.
Today the island looks nothing like the uninhabited, rocky, tree-covered island it was in 1839 when the 9th Governor of the colony of New South Wales, Major George Gipps, decided it to be a perfect location to build a prison for convicts who had re-offended in the settlement. Cockatoo Islands had its slopes cleared of trees and its upper parts levelled for the building of the convict prison. As the Sydney settlement grew from a colony into a city, the prison became an industrial school and reformatory for girls, and later a prison barracks. The islands sandstone foreshores were blasted with gunpowder to construct a dry dock for shipbuilding and repair; then came a naval shipyard. Nowadays, Cockatoo Island is about 232 yards long and 30 yards wide; it’s the largest of the remaining eight harbour islands and is one of 11 Australian convict sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
On my last trip Down Under, I landed in Sydney and spent a few days as a tourist in the Harbour City. I idled the days away, wandering around Barangaroo, enjoying fish and chips at Watsons Bay, and gazing in awe at the wood escalator sculpture at Wynard Railway Station. Activities you’d have trouble doing looking out a plane window. And then, I was inspired by the spirit of adventure and decided to go on a 2-hour Saturday night dusk Haunted History Tour of Cockatoo Island. Cockatoo Island is a commuter ferry ride from Circular Quay. When Saturday afternoon arrived, I made my way to Circular Quay to catch the F8 ferry service; it was a little after four when I stepped onto its gangway. I didn’t know it at the time, but it came to be that I was practising a canny sense of long-sightedness in leaving for Cockatoo Island some 2 hours before the start of the tour. As the ferry made its way under the iconic bridge, I looked for bridge climbers; I wondered how many tourists would have on their must-do list, take a ferry ride under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
As soon as the ferry cleared the bridge, it headed toward the shore and made a stop at Luna Park. And that caused me to experience a slight mental shiver. When I first checked the Sydney ferry services timetables, the Cockatoo Island ferry didn’t stop at Luna Park. Could I possibly be on the wrong ferry? I hurriedly set off to the gangway gate in the hope of finding a track-it ferry service map displaying a ferry’s journey in real-time. As I bumbled toward the gangway gate, I began a soft melodious,
Will I ever return
I started frantically pushing on the real-time Sydney ferry services interactive display panel. A timetable appeared, and I breathlessly traced the names of the ferry stops with my finger. And I discovered I wasn’t on the Cockatoo Island ferry but a ferry that made stops in and around the harbour and further afield; so many that I began to have a shake in my boots panic. Then I saw it, buried among the too many stops to count was Cockatoo Island. I had jaunty spring to my step as I stepped ashore at Cockatoo Island and was delighted that I had over an hour to wander and explore the island before the Haunted History Tour.
The first landmark I came across was a crowd control, steel barricade fence blocking off the Eastern Apron. The Apron is an area of grass, concrete, and relics of the islands shipbuilding days. It’s nestled against the dramatic backdrop of a sheer cliff face and provides one with a breathtaking harbour view. A large sign on the fence had an arrow labelled with, Entrance This Way, and another sign had written in generous letters, Tickets This Way. I approached a uniformed attendant who was standing by the entrance.
Me: ‘Scuse me mate, how come you gotta pay to go into the island?
Our Haunted History Tour small group headed off as the sun started lowering itself toward the horizon. As we walked past the glamping tents, I wondered why my fellow tour members were here. Was it because Cockatoo Island was the site of so much hardship, death and dying that they were hoping for a spine-chilling ghostly experience, or were they like me, hoping to gain a deeper meaning of the island’s history and culture.
Torchlight guided us through the Dog Leg Tunnel. We looked through the dusty windows of darkened buildings, and our guide told of ghostly activities as he shone his torch on the outside of buildings. It seemed as if the noisy island glamping campers wandering about exploring their overnight island spooked the ghosts because our group didn’t have any paranormal experiences. Families and young adults often spend the night on Cockatoo Island at the glamping ground in a pre-erected or BYO tent or spend a night or more at one of the Federation-style heritage houses or apartments. I never imagined teenagers and adolescents skateboarding in a Dog Leg Tunnel could be so rowdy. Or was it possible what I thought were weekend visitors were the supernatural?
The Haunted History tour guide ushered us onto the back lawn of one of the Federation-style heritage houses; it was once the home to Cockatoo Island’s medical officer. He began telling a story of a little girl aged 5 or 6 in a white dress; just as he was explaining that Minnie was the second child of Gother Kerr Mann, Superintendent of Cockatoo Island from 1859 to 1870, I felt a haunting vibration. I began walking to the edge of the clifftop that overlooked the Eastern Apron. I looked down. All I could see was the One Electric Day festival. I became spellbound, marvelling at how Vanessa Amorosi could jump down off the speakers, mix with the crowd, then jump back up to continue her set. I thought it somewhat comparable to Cregg Rondell, lead singer of the Boy Hits Car band, climbing a stack of speakers and diving 68 feet into the cheering crowd below.
The sun had reached the horizon, and the light was draining away and fading as I sat at the Cockatoo Islands dock waiting for whatever ferry was going to Circular Quay. I looked back toward the silhouetted sandstone walls of the convict settlement and stared off into the darkness. I tried to focus on the outline of the islands original century-year-old steam crane. Through the still air came the faint sound of whistling steam escaping from a boiler and the thumping of pistons and the grinding of sprockets. Or maybe it was just Minnie enjoying the warm evening, playing and singing, on the back lawn.