For so many of us coastal dwellers from the Land of Oz, the ocean pools that punctuate the coastline of New South Wales are a childhood rite of passage. While grown-ups spent their summer days braving the frothy swell and crash of the ocean, us kids bobbed about in these salty shallows, coaxed out only for food, or when the afternoon chill had settled in, and our skin was puckered and waterlogged. Our parents, enjoying the reprieve from their duties, would happily leave us to games of Marco Polo, or stand at the edge with the water tickling their thighs as they gossiped their way through a week’s worth of news.
If my mum is to be believed, I swam before I walked, and took to the water without fear or pause, so it wasn’t long before these pools began to represent more than just a leisurely pastime. As an adolescent, I spent weekends with friends in Palm Beach, waking at the crack of dawn to get to Jonny Carter’s Sunday sessions, our eyes hazy with sleep and the crease of the clammy cotton sheets on our faces. He sounds like a 1960s rock and roll heartthrob, but was, in fact, a drill sergeant of a swimming teacher. He commanded us to do lap after lap until our mouths and lips were stinging with salt, and our limbs felt like they might detach from our bodies. We hated it, but also loved it because there were boys – with strands of wet hair sopping over their brows and torsos browned after the endless summer. Sprawled on the sand after each session, a feeling of wearied elation would wash over us, and I can still conjure up the briny smell, the sound of the sea, and that feeling of happy exhaustion some 20 years later.
As a keen swimmer, I have returned to these pools time and time again throughout my life. Bondi Icebergs was a favourite, but I also liked the Bronte Baths – as wild as the ocean on a stormy day. Jutting out on the rocks and tucked under cliffs, the thrill of training in these pools was enhanced by the errant waves that rocked the lanes now and then – what the Brits call ‘wild swimming’ and what us Aussies call taking a dip.
At once a part of, and protected from, the open sea, which could be daunting at times, these pools or ‘baths’ were built in either the latter part of the 19th century, or the first decade of the 20th, before bathing suits and surf culture were deeply ingrained in Australian culture.
The pools protected inexperienced colonial bathers from sharks and rips, and in some cases, the unwanted male gaze. In many locales, the sexes were segregated, so that bathers could enjoy privacy. Coogee’s McIver’s Baths, which was once a swimming hole for indigenous women, remains to this day a women’s only sanctuary.
I forged lasting friendships at many of these pools, bound by a shared passion and routine. Early mornings before work, we silently piled into cars, as yet unable to form the first words of the day, to seek out the cool, wet rock under foot, and the best wake-up-come- hangover cure on offer. These pools, and the routine of swimming became safe havens from the dull grind and stressful moments life threw my way. The rhythmic breathing and the steady pace were a meditative, or at least cathartic, release, and along with my body, I plunged thoughts into the vortex that gurgled and bubbled around me. I know now from experience that life’s biggest problems are best tackled after that rush of driving limbs and a breathless chat with a close friend at the end of the lane.
I’ve lived in Paris for six years now, and feel the loss of this lifelong routine as keenly as some phantom body part. Landlocked, as I am, the feeling of being swallowed by water – body and mind – has become an abstract concept. Here the pools are shorter in length, grimy, and pungent with chlorine, lit not by the sun but by ugly fluorescent yellow striplights. We have to wear caps and goggles, and no one sticks to their side of the lane: instead, there is some unspoken choreographed routine of zigzagging that doesn’t work out well for anybody.
Come summer, in particular, my skin itches for the salt, the Aussie sun, and the whip of the wind that produces goose bumps the moment you haul yourself out of the water. It’s only recently that I have come to realise the idyllic circumstances of my youth, and how different my memories and sense of self would be without having known the first dive, the surface cracking underneath my outstretched arms, and that cold rush of feeling so very alive.