I love the part in the “Life of Pi” movie where the hero explains how he came to be called ‘Pi” from the French word for swimming pool (piscine). Swimming pools have always been an obsession with me too: from the rough ones built into the Clarence River bank at South Grafton when I was a kid when immersion in water was a necessary counter to the cruel humid summers. To the sparkling unreal turquoise of the first modern pools I experienced in Sydney visits as an eight-year-old. And then there were Wylies’ Baths on the Pacific Ocean at Coogee when I lived there as an adult. Timber ramparts reach out from the cliffs like a modern-day fortress. You pay $6 to use the facilities and lounge on the timber decks with spectacular views, or descend down a timber staircase into the waters for a swim from the cement. In summer a masseuse sets up her table on the timber floor of the upper deck. Downstairs there are shallow paddle pools for the kids, but it’s all quite natural as well. No chlorine or even sand. And you find shade underneath the timber deck and buy food and drink and make a day of it.
We live at the northern end of the beach in Coogee. This was once the “poor cousin” side of Coogee Bay, with dilapidated buildings and a rusting dome on top of the Coogee Palace. It’s now a favorite place to dip and swim for young and old alike. At high tide on these early summer mornings, the smell and taste of salty sea and brine is as invigorating as the fresh feel of the 21 degree waters on the skin. For a long while these baths were privately owned as part of a men’s only baths.
We downsized from a house to an apartment in 2011, after our children had grown up and left home. Moving into a smaller space without storage was difficult, but we’d found a flat in walking distance to the sands of Coogee Beach. My husband likes pointing out the little bit of our building that he can see through the trees, when he is in the ocean. He has decided that this will be where he has his ashes scattered—in the sea—after his passing. I find it hard to think forward to the next cup of tea. But I love this place too.
The Gateway to Giles Baths
The arch by which you once entered the original baths building has been retained by the council. On the wall inside this arced structure is a sombre list of the names of Coogee residents who were killed in the Bali Bombings of 2002. Eighty-eight
Australians were killed, out of a total of 200, including twenty from Sydney’s Eastern suburbs. Five of them belonged to an amateur rugby league team called “The Dolphins”, who were celebrating the end of the footy season.
The young women in the photo at Giles Baths (above) are reading the names of those killed in the Bali Bombings.
Giles is now unenclosed and open to all today. Surprisingly, there are “women only” baths on the southern side of Coogee Bay, next to the larger “Wylies” public baths.
A Happy Childhood
As a kid, I lived in a treasured place and time. It was the forties and fifties in Brighton-le-Sands. Life was simpler then. Kids could—and did—play outside all day. The crime rate was lower, we were happy with simple things, and only came home when the street lights went on. The streets were much safer places and were the venue for many games.
Back then, we drank water from the tap or from a hose, not from bottles, and nobody knew about the dangers of lead poisoning, or asbestos, let alone worrying about fluoride. We ate white bread, biscuits, cheese, real butter and bacon, untrimmed beef or greasy lamb chops, and we drank whole cream milk without any health issue qualms. Those were the days when we knew and trusted all of our neighbors, when we either walked or rode our one family bicycle everywhere we went.
The main roads were always busy, even in those days. But hardly anyone in our street owned a car, so it was virtually traffic-free. A lorry or a delivery van might interrupt our game every half-hour or so, but there was no speeding, as drivers all knew there would be kids in the suburban streets, and so drove accordingly.
Lambs in Spring
The humid scorching heat of the sub-tropical climate engulfed us; the sun’s rays tore at our skin with ruthless intensity and sent us kids scurrying towards water, even if it was only to the hose in the back or front yard. Sometimes Mum would pile us into the jeep and head for the primitive baths, set in the river bank at South Grafton, a good three miles from our place.
Don‘t go near the river! was a constant ringing in our ears back home. You’ll drown and no-one will hear your cries! There are bull-routs in the reeds at the water’s edge! The Clarence River was just below our backyard
Water, cool and exhilarating in summer, warm and nurturing in winter. All of us five kids learnt to swim at an early age. We splashed around in the creek on Dad’s bush paddock, where we dipped in amongst the gum trees with their roots spreading out from the banks to give us a foot-hold as we jumped in, scattering the frogs and snakes, then felt the clay bed squelchy beneath our feet.
Moree, with a population of about 8,000, is situated in the north-west of NSW on the Mehi River and at the junction of the Gwydir and Newell Highways. It is famous for its Artesian Spa waters, which were discovered accidentally in 1895 when a bore was sunk in search of irrigation waters. Instead, mineral water heated naturally to 45 degrees spurted upwards flooding the area. For years I had wanted to return to this town, so loved by my father.
This time it will be different; the baths are in the same place, but housed in a brick building instead of the original timber one. Still the waters are hot (35 and 40+ degrees) and soothe the tired traveller from the city. I notice that the Aboriginal citizens seem to be integrated somewhat into the community, and I remember the Freedom Ride in 1965 when Charles Perkins and other students from the University of Sydney, where I was studying at the time, took a bus to Moree and shamed the town for its racism, which included barring Aborigines from swimming in the thermal pools. I was glad to see that this blatant discrimination was no longer evident.
Downtown I was fascinated by the hundreds of long hauliers and road trains passing constantly along the highways and through the middle of the CBD carrying every imaginable product, animal, mineral and vegetable up and down the countryside, as far away as Victoria in the south and Darwin to the north. There is no shortage of accommodation, and it is less expensive than in the city; I counted nineteen motels, many with thermal-type names, a couple of hotels and bed-and-breakfast joints. There are several delightful caravan parks which have their own spring baths for their residents, as do many of the motels in the town.
Just before I leave, I visit the Gwydir Carapark on the outskirts of the town, where “grey nomads” take the waters, their heads bobbing above the surface like seals at play. On the way back into town, I point out the double rainbow that has appeared over the Fishalot Cafe to a friendly Aboriginal lad, who wants to know where I am from; he seems bored, despite his shiny bike and junk-food-laden pockets; I suggest that he might like to travel one day and he says: “Where?” The scene reminds me of the Buddhist idea that phenomena, both good and bad, manifest like rainbows and clouds, and then dissolve back into space: they call it “karma”.