Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ladies-only at lovely McIver's Baths

It only costs 20 cents to get into McIver's Baths, a lovely sea pool nestled in a protected curve of the coast at Coogee. There's no turnstiles or reception desk at this peaceful place so making a contribution relies on honesty and trust.

Reserved for women and children only, no men are allowed at this pool. This custom goes back to the early nineteenth century when the pool was thought to have been a traditional bathing place for Aboriginal women. From the late 1820s white women also bathed there, and since the 1860s it has remained a women-only bathing area. A few times in its history, organisations and individuals have applied to have the baths open to men but each time they were unsuccessful. A key objector to Randwick Council's 1946 proposal was the Mother Superior of the Brigidine Convent at Randwick. She said the nuns at her convent, any country nuns vacationing there and the 100 boarders at the Brigidine school would not be able to visit the baths if they were opened for mixed bathing.

The baths are named after Robert and Rose McIver, who began operating them in 1918 and developed them into the form they are today. With Mina Wylie, Bella O'Keefe and others, Rose McIver established the Randwick and Coogee Ladies Amateur Swimming Club in 1923. In the 1970s and 80s renovation work was completed, and in 1994 the pool was heritage-listed by the National Trust.

Today the pool attracts all types of women but is particularly popular with Muslim women, Pacific Islanders, older women, mothers with babies and young children and lesbians. The day we popped in for a dip the ladies at McIver's were lounging on the steep, grassy slope above the pool, reading, relaxing and enjoying the sun. Others stood in the water and chatted. One goggled and capped woman swam laps up and down the 20-metre sea pool, dodging the less energetic bathers floating and relaxing in the crystal clear water. A group of Samoan women hung on to the pool wall and enjoyed the wash of the waves gushing over their bodies like they were in a spa. My nieces jumped in and swam about, declaring later that McIver's was a very nice, peaceful pool, protected from the wind and big waves. They would come back again even though at nine and 11-years-of-age they weren't so sure about the naked bosoms of some of the patrons, but maybe the spirits of the Aboriginal women who first discovered this bathing beauty would lure them back.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Wild waves at Wylies Baths

Visiting Coogee's Wylies Baths last week with three of my nieces, I was reminded of the 'marine biologist' episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza proclaimed: "The sea was angry that day, my friends ... like an old man trying to send back soup to a deli."

Swimming in the turbulent waters of the 103-year-old pool was a bit like being in a washing machine. It was exciting and scary standing on the wall dividing the sea from the pool as powerful waves spilled over the top of us. Sometimes we were able to defy the force of nature and hang on to the poles. Other times the strength of the breakers would push us back into the safety of the pool. It wasn't an ideal day for swimming laps in the wild waters of the 55x35 foot pool. But the regulars weren't put off and continued their daily ritual of stroking through the swell.
Outside the water, the atmosphere was much more chilled with sunbakers stretched out on the hot concrete surrounding the baths. Others relaxed on the timber balconies above or found a shady spot under the stairs to read a book.

Henry Alexander Wylie, a champion underwater swimmer, established Wylies Baths in 1907. With the help of his two sons, he cut the pool out of the rock at the southern end of Coogee Bay. It was one of the first baths in Sydney to offer mixed bathing. Near the entrance to the baths is a sculpture of Henry Wylie's daughter, Mina who won a silver medal in swimming at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Mina's father and brothers were also good swimmers and were famous for their exhibitions of 'trick and fancy swimming' at Sydney swimming carnivals.

During the 1970s, 80s and early 90s regulars were concerned that a big sea would knock over the baths and its facilities if the council didn't undertake urgent major repairs to the complex. After a long campaign the baths were restored in 1994 and re-opened in 1995. Today they are a heritage-listed local icon. They attract lots of characters who swim and hang out at the pool all year round.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Enjoying a rural pool with a view

There is something special about a pool with a spectacular view. And that's what we experienced at Christmas time at my sister and her family's property at Borambola near Wagga Wagga in the NSW Riverina.

The family's 12x4 metre pool sits in an elevated position overlooking paddocks and rolling hills. It has salt-chlorinated water and is decorated in deep green tiles with a striking black border. Keeping a watchful eye over the space and adding a stylish edge is Molly, a sun-worshipping, life-like sculpture wearing nothing more than sunglasses and hat.

Unlike suburban and town pools, which are surrounded by development, there's nothing but the wide expanse of land beyond this pool. When I perched on the edge of the pool marking the boundary between the water and the land, I felt like I was on top of the earth. Gazing out over the dry landscape, semi-immersed in the watery world of the pool, the countryside seemed awe-inspiring and majestic.

Over our five days at Borambola, adults and kids alike had fun playing games, lolling about and swimming a few laps in this beautiful pool. Diving in was a great way to start the day and end it too. And at any time it was lovely to rest on a noodle and take in the view.