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Published by: ax-is on Feb 26, 2008
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February 24, 2008Rock PoolsSydney’s Rock PoolsBy RAYMOND BONNERNEARLY every day for 14 years, Denise Leith, a writer and university lecturer, hasrisen before dawn and headed to the beach at Newport, a pleasant, residentialsuburb 19 miles north of downtown Sydney, with fruit stands, pharmacies and smallshops along the main road, within the sound and smell of the sea. She walks to thesouth end of the long beach and after donning her cap and goggles plunges into a50-meter pool.It is not your typical pool — no lane markings, no chlorine and far from placid.It is a rock pool, built into the ocean; the surf crashes over the side asswimmers navigate their way through the salty water and must sometimes grab achain railing to avoid being swept out to sea when the tide is high and the waterparticularly rough. Some days it is like swimming in a washing machine, Ms. Leithsays, others like swimming in Champagne.As she goes up and back, up and back, she gazes down on rocks, seaweed anddappled-sunlight sand. “I swim with the fish,” she said recently. “For months wehad a bluefish we swam with. There was an octopus living at the end of the pool.”“It’s more interesting than the ocean,” she said. And, she is quick to add, shedoesn’t have to worry about sharks or riptides.Rock pools, so-named because they have been hammered out of rocks at the ocean’sedge, are one of Sydney’s defining characteristics, along with the Opera House andHarbour Bridge, though not as well known.I began coming to Sydney every winter — the Australian summer — some 20 years agoand started taking swimming lessons, eventually replacing my 10-mile runs with amile or so in the pool. But I always swam in a regular pool, never the open water.I loved the sound of the ocean, the breaking surf, the vastness, but still didn’tfeel terribly comfortable in it. (Those riptides can be killers, literally.)Then I discovered the rock pools. I could have the sensation of swimming in saltwater — that churning surf — but there was always the wall to touch at each end,where I’d flip and start back. I’ve gradually gained more confidence swimming fordistance in the open sea, but I still return to the rock pools.Just about every Sydney beach has one, usually at the southern end, to giveswimmers some protection when the southerly winds bring cold air and big seas.Most have changing rooms and showers, and are free for swimmers. Serene at lowtide, choppy at high, they are, in many ways, the original infinity pools.Each pool has its own colorful history. Some were built by wealthy individuals inthe 1800s, when Victorian-era morals banned daytime swimming at the beach, aconcept hard to fathom in a country where going to the beach seems to be required.Some pools were built by convicts, others during the Depression. They come in allsizes and shapes, from 50 meters long (roughly 55 yards) and many lanes wide tomuch smaller boutique pools.Sydney today has some 40 traditional public 50-meter pools (New York and LosAngeles each has two!), which may explain how swimmers from Australia, with apopulation around 20 million, were able to haul off 15 medals at the 2004 Olympicsin Athens — second only to the United States.But it might be said that the beginning of Australians’ love affair with swimming
was at the rock pools.In the first Olympics to have women’s swimming — Stockholm in 1912 — anAustralian, Mina Wylie, won the silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle behindFanny Durack, another Australian. Mina was taught to swim in a rock pool built in1907 by her father, himself a champion distance and underwater swimmer.TODAY, Wylie’s Baths, in Coogee, about six miles south of downtown Sydney, is oneof the most popular rock pools in the area; it is open 365 days a year, andcharges a small fee (www.wylies.com.au). As with most rock pools, it has its ownclub of locals, men and women of all ages who swim there regularly and compete onSundays. Sometimes the surf is so fierce that the waves crash over the edge,making it almost impossible to maintain lane etiquette as competitors bump intoeach other. On the wooden deck, partly shaded, the most popular activity on arecent Sunday seemed to be parents’ changing diapers.A few hundred yards away, within sight, well, partially, is another venerableSydney institution — a pool for women and children. Built in the 1800s, it waslong known as the “‘nun’s pool.” Today, Muslim women in scarves are more oftenseen, along with pregnant women and older women. If a women-only public facilityseems an incongruity in a country that prides itself on its egalitarianism, notethat it has an official exemption from antidiscrimination laws.Sydney’s most famous beach is Bondi. At its southern end is Bondi Baths, an eight-lane, 50-meter saltwater pool built into the cliffs. Open every day exceptThursdays, it is home to the Bondi Icebergs Club, which was founded in 1929 by asmall group of friends.To become an Icebergs member you must swim three of every four Sundays for fiveyears during the winter (May to September Down Under). It is a true test ofdedication, for while outsiders might think that Australia is the land of endlesssummer, in winter the ocean water is teeth-chattering cold. And on opening day ofthe winter swimming season, it is tradition that lumps of ice are tossed into thepool to test the hardiness of the competitors.Today, there are over 350 Icebergs, including women, who have only been allowed tojoin since 1994. But you don’t have to be an Iceberg to enjoy the pool — there isa small entrance fee — or the wonderful restaurant upstairs. There is also asmaller rock pool at the north end of Bondi.From Bondi, you can walk along a well-maintained cliffside path, with spectacularviews, just over two miles to Bronte Beach and its rock pool, where the seriousswimmers do their laps as the rising sun sparkles off the water. A favorite“sport” for many here seems to be hanging on tightly to the chain railing as thewaves come crashing over the sides. There are an expanse of grass and toweringevergreens at Bronte, making it a popular spot for picnics.A bit farther south is Clovelly, which, unlike other rock pools, is open at theocean end. It is trapezoidal in shape, starting at a small beach, and the sidesare concrete, which may not sound attractive. But it, too, has produced nationalswimming champions (faded sepias are inside), and because there is no barrier tothe ocean, it is a popular place for snorkeling.For Sydneysiders, beaches and rock pools are divided categorically by the HarbourBridge. There are those in the eastern and southern suburbs (Bondi, Clovelly,Wylie’s, Bronte, among them), and the Northern Beaches, which became moreaccessible when the Harbour Bridge was finished in 1932. (For a full rundown ofSydney’s rock pools, including history and location, see

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