From East Ballina to Eden: which NSW ocean pool is your favourite?
By Helen Pitt
Bondi may have its iconic Icebergs ocean baths.
But I am lucky enough to live in Coogee which has four magnificent ocean pools, which like the 100 or so across NSW, from East Ballina in the north to Eden in the south, are all sacred spaces.
The four Coogee pools are so varied I often select one to match my mood or the time of day I can swim.
For early mornings I prefer McIver’s Ladies Baths. Sunrise swims here became a heart-lifting ritual for me in the wake of my mother Grace’s death.
I love arriving in the pitch black, and making my way down the steep steps to submerge myself in the healing waters.
I’ll swim a couple of laps in the dark, then watch the gold orb of the sun’s glow and the occasional frolicking dolphin on the horizon. When the sun’s rays beam onto the sandstone cliff face, I feel I could be in a spot as remote as Kakadu. But no, I am in the city of Sydney.
I’ll breaststroke with a sorority of swimming sisters, sometimes silently or chatting with these lovely older women who have become my new adopted mothers. It is easy to see why Indigenous women have been coming here for centuries. It is a sacred female space.
It is Australia’s only coastal pool to remain strictly the domain of women and children after the NSW government granted the baths an exemption from the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1995.
McIver’s Ladies Baths.Credit:Chris Chen
I love the rush of post-swim endorphins, the outdoor shower, and the way my curly hair feels after the saltwater. I’ll lather lotion on my skin while gazing out the changerooms’ roller door window to the ocean. I often think, there is nowhere more beautiful on this planet than this place. If I could build my perfect coastal home – this very simple, basic but beautiful structure would be it.
For later in the day I prefer the old-world glamour of Wylie’s Baths. It doesn’t get as much morning sun as the Ladies’ Baths, so its water is cooler as the chalkboard noting the water temperature always tell you. Its wooden structure provides more shade making it more appealing for daylong visits.
The 1907 construction of the Baths coincided with Sydney’s emerging interest in seaside pools at the turn of the century. The Baths were one of the first mixed gender bathing pools in Australia.
A sunbather at Wylie’s Baths.Credit:Chris Chen
Its rickety old bathing pavilion retains an other-worldly feel which has been immortalised by artists such as Arthur Streeton and Jeffrey Smart, and more recently cartoonist and regular swimmer Matthew Martin and local painter Alex Snellgrove. Its cafe with good food and coffee can help keep you there all day too, with the occasional dip into water to check on the resident starfish and octopus. It is a pool to come to if you want to linger longer.
The Ross Jones Pool next to Coogee beach is where I swim when I am in a hurry or when the ocean is too choppy for pleasant open water swimming.
Coogee’s Wylie’s Baths.Credit:Chris Chen
I look longingly at the waves from here, and remember my dad Allan teaching me how to body surf. However cold the water, I am warmed by that memory of clinging to his shoulders for safety. I love watching young children learning to test the waters here with their parents and am reminded of my dad’s mantra: “never turn your back on a wave.”
Since 1947, when it was forged from the rocks at the south end of the beach, and named for a local alderman, locals have swum at this pool at the foot of the Coogee Surf Life Saving Club.
Author Helen Pitt swimming at Coogee’s Ross Jones Memorial Pool with its trademark turrets.Credit:Chris Chen
Its concrete turrets, make it look like a sunken castle at times. On hot summer nights, people come here to submerge themselves when they can’t sleep. It’s common to see Islander families here with picnic food and boom boxes on sticky summer nights swimming while they await the southerly buster to cool things down.
A dip at the Giles Baths Rockpool – at the north end of the beach is my favourite end of day indulgence. It was once a male only domain in the day when Sydneysiders caught the tram to Coogee Pier, and men would peel off to the south to swim and women head to the north to the ladies’ baths or Wylie’s. This natural rock pool is known by old timers still as the bogey hole, a British term for a natural pool associated with a water spirit. We locals call it Ölüdeniz, after the blue lagoon resort town in Turkey, because the water is so clear and beautiful.
Swimmers in Ross Jones memorial pool at Coogee.Credit:Chris Chen
Ocean pools are my happy place. When I think about them I smile.
Being near them is good for my mental and emotional health. I learnt this after my husband William’s death, the sea was a comfort and a tonic.
I remember when I moved back to Sydney in 2009 after a decade of living in California’s wine country, friends met me at the airport, took me for a coffee and then straight to Maroubra’s Mahon Pool. I’d never been there before and it seemed like paradise. Diving into that ocean pool washed off all my hours of travel.
I vowed to live by the sea in Sydney on my return. The fact that nothing stops the tide; it was rhythmic and reliable even in the face of death, soothed me. It made me feel as if life could be trusted and that I could be confident in the world again without him.
Perhaps too because his ashes are scattered in San Francisco Bay on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, each time I dive into the waters on this end of the same ocean, it is like a morning hug or chat with him.
As the country that gave the world the Australian crawl swim stroke, ocean pools are our sacred spaces. Dive in. You’ll never regret a dip.
This is the foreword to Ocean Pools, by Chris Chen and Marie-Louise McDermott. Available now through Thames & Hudson, $59.99.
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