Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Another day in paradise at Balmain's Dawn Fraser Baths

When I was swimming around Cockatoo Island on Sunday morning, the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt was on my mind.

Captain Thunderbolt aka Fred Ward was imprisoned on the island for stealing horses. In 1863 he escaped by swimming the 600 metres or so to shore. He emerged from the water at a place in Balmain that became known as White Horse Point.

Some say the name was inspired by Captain Thunderbolt's girlfriend Mary Ann Bugg, who was waiting for him on a white horse. While the romantics would like this to be true, the name is more likely to have been inspired by the white horses that appear on the Parramatta River when the southerly winds are up. An alternative explanation is a rock resembling a white horse rearing up that used to be prominent on the point.

If Captain Thunderbolt had scrambled ashore 19 years later, he would have noticed a new addition to the point: Balmain's new tidal baths. For the first year of the baths' existence they were named after their location at White Horse Point. In 1883 they were renamed the Elkington Park Baths after the park above, which honours a former Balmain mayor.  Also known as the Corporation Baths, in 1964 they were renamed after local champion Dawn Fraser, who learnt to swim there.

When swimmers gathered at the 130-year-old pool on Sunday for the annual 2.5km Dawny to Cockatoo swim there was a carnival atmosphere similar to the early days. Just like the swimming tournaments of the 1880s and 90s a band was playing as patrons enjoyed the after-swim barbeque and fresh fruit from Harris Farm. 

We were just missing the novelty events that were a feature of the start of the season carnival during the last two decades of the 19th century.  As well as a 'handicap race of 750 yards for all comers', club members could join in events like 'hands-tied behind the back', 'swimming in clothes', 'diving for objects' and 'underwater distance diving'. There was also a 'smokers' race' and the annual duck hunt involving swimmers catching ducks released in the pool.

Renovated and heritage-listed in the 1990s, in recent years the Dawn Fraser Baths have returned to their glory days. They survived many years being surrounded by heavy industry, polluted waters and threats of closure. They have emerged with a new lease of life into an era when the harbour's waters are cleaner than ever;  when art exhibitions and film festivals have replaced ship-building, prisons and industrial schools for girls on nearby Cockatoo Island.

As the Lizards, a group of 50 to almost 80-year-old men, who spend their mornings in retirement at the pool say: "It's the best place in Sydney; it's paradise!"

Dangling my legs over the edge of the wide timber boardwalk and looking up at the vista of jacarandas, towering palms and magnificent fig trees, it's hard not to agree.

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