Goat Island – Conservation Kayaking

‘Conservation kayaking’, by former conservator Julie O’Connor. From Signals 103 (June-August 2013).

Centrally located in Sydney Harbour, Goat Island is managed by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). As part of the recent Sydney Harbour National Parks Management Plan, NPWS plans to encourage greater use of the island.

NPWS officers are working with volunteer organisations to preserve the botanical and biological environment surrounding the island’s buildings. During August, September and October 2012, I made three visits to historic Goat Island with a group of conservation kayakers, which offered an insight into the island’s maritime history.

Preparing for the trip.

Preparing for the trip.

On each visit to the island, we launched our kayaks from Birchgrove Park, and then circumnavigated the island from east to west. Approaching from the south-east, we passed an Aboriginal shell midden, a pile of discarded shells on the shore. This is the last dietary remnant of the Sydney Aboriginal people who used Goat Island before its colonial occupation from the 1820s. It later became a source of lime for mortar during the construction of buildings on the island.

The waters surrounding the island were a rich seasonal source of fish.  Rounding the northern tip of the island we paddled past the water police station, built in 1938 of grey sandstone quarried on the island, to a design prepared by renowned colonial architect Mortimer Lewis. From this vantage point, with its commanding view of the harbour, it is obvious why the water police were based here, and why Sydney Aboriginal people called the island ‘Me-Mel’, or ‘a place from which you can see far’.

On the western side of the island, we paddled around wharves constructed by the Sydney Harbour Trust in the 1940s and extended by its successor the Maritime Services Board. We landed our canoes at Barney’s Cut, a quarried geological feature named after Captain George Barney of the Royal Engineers, which divided the water police station on the northern tip of the island from the potential danger of the gunpowder magazine and surrounding buildings on the southern tip of the island. Sandstone quarried from this area in the early 1830s was also used in some buildings in nearby Sydney Cove.

On the way to the island.

On the way to the island.

The gardens surrounding the harbourmaster’s residence feature significant botanical species that are indigenous to Goat Island, including smooth-barked apple (Angophora costata), coastal banksias (Banksia integrifolia), wattle (Acacia longifolia, A. suaveolens, A. terminalis, A. binervia, A. ulicifolia), Port Jackson fig (Ficus rubiginosa), bangalay (Eucalyptus botryoides) and lomandra (Lomandra longifolia).

The original flora on the island supported several indigenous faunal species, including the eastern water rat (Hydromys chrysogaster), the nocturnal grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus), and several insectivorous bat species, such as the eastern bent-wing bat (Miniopterus schreibersii oceanensis), the large forest bat (Vespadelus darlingtoni) and Gould’s wattled bat (Chalinolobus bouldii). Also found were two varieties of skink (Eulamprus tenuis and Lampropholis delicata), the striped marsh frog (Limnodynastes peronii), which has been recorded breeding in a garden pond, and a number of common birds, including five species that breed on the island. It has been suggested that goats were brought to Me-Mel in early colonial times because it was a safe haven from hungry convicts. Since then, the island has been known as Goat Island. The natural botanical features on the island were mostly cleared for building and observation and to reduce the risk of bushfires igniting the island’s gunpowder arsenal.

We continued our journey around the island on foot, along the garden path sloping south-east from the harbourmaster’s residence towards what is called the colonial precinct. The most significant buildings here were built between 1833 and 1837 and include the government magazine and associated cooperage built to safely store government gunpowder supplies. The sandstone was quarried on site by convicts who lived in portable wooden bunkhouses that slept 20 men, five side-by-side on each of four shelves.

The magazine was environmentally controlled through its construction, with two-metre-thick walls, three-metre-thick buttresses and ventilation holes along its length to minimise the risk of explosions. A second magazine (1850–1853), designed by colonial architect Edmund Blacket to separate merchant gunpowder stores from government stores, was constructed behind the cooperage. It proved inadequate for storing gunpowder safely, and so in the 1920s was converted into a timber workshop and sawmill. The colonial precinct also features a neo-Georgian-styled officers’ barracks roofed with Welsh Bangor slate carried in ships’ ballast.

After the departure of the NSW Maritime Services Board, which administered the island from 1936 to 1984, the buildings and environment of Goat Island fell into disrepair. However, some artefacts – including a diving suit, photographs, ship models, prows and paper documents that relate to the history of the island – survive in the temporary museum located in the old barracks building. As a conservator I can’t help but note that the more favourable environmental conditions in the gunpowder magazine make it a more suitable museum than the barracks to house artefacts that communicate the history of Goat Island.

Staff and volunteers cleaning up.

Staff and volunteers cleaning up.

During a period of daily trips to Goat Island during 2012, kayaking conservation volunteers cleared many areas where invasive plants had overtaken the habitat of native botanical species, revealing such things as rocky platforms where local fishermen once fished. A walking track along the western shore has been cleared of asparagus fern and African olive and this now links with other tracks on the island.

Balancing public and commercial interests on Goat Island, while preserving the past, requires a sensitive response from heritage architects, conservators, conservationists and maritime authorities. Conservators and conservationists may differ in their focus, but they share values and concern for our cultural heritage and the environment.