Tuesday, 26 February 2008

"The Res", Macedon, Victoria

Roger Deakin's story-telling in Waterlog (see post below) inspired me to think of some of the more unusual places I've swum in Australia. Many of my father's maternal family, the Coggers, lived around the Mount Macedon area 60km outside Melbourne, and his sister Elizabeth returned there in retirement. We went to visit her in January 1982 - a rather hot summer. My cousin was also around. He took us to a number of local 'hotspots'.

My aunt lived a short walk from "The Res", which I believe was off Nursery Road. I suspect it may not have been legal to swim in this, one of the water reservoirs of the Macedon area. It forms part of drinking water catchment. Nevertheless, it was a great place to slip into, thanks to a bit of local knowledge about its existence.

I’m not sure of the name of this particular waterhole – we just called it “The Res”. According to maps I've looked at, it was probably a small dam on Middle Creek.

We spent a few afternoons down at The Res, and I recall swimming out to a dock or platform a hundred or two metres from the bank.

On February 16, 1983, bushfires, known as the Ash Wednesday bushfires devastated Macedon, and many other parts of Victoria and South Australia. When we revisited in September 1984 you could clearly see "The Res" where trees had previously hidden it. That strange smell of dampened ash was STILL in the air that much later.

Below: photo by Peter Smith from The Melbourne Age - the Mount Macedon bushfire from melbourne, 60km away.

[My aunt's house was spared, one of few in her street - the capricious fire just glanced off it, and moved on]

Monday, 25 February 2008

Summer in Sydney. New York Times article

Photo: Tony Sernack for The New York Times

From New York Times . A lovely piece of travel writing. Click on the link and have a look at the slide show of pictures - beautiful!

From this article I have kearned that Sydney, with a population of about 4 million has 40 public 50m swimming pools (not counting the ocean rock pools and harbour pools), and LA and New York have two each! No wonder I'm frustrated when travelling to the other great cities of the world at not being able to find somewhere affordable to swim. Lately I have been doing some investigation into Rome, where I will be visiting this coming May/June. I can go to a couple of private health and fitness clubs as a day visitor - for about €30! That's rather a lot for a swim! I've found one public pool listing for Rome, so hope to check it out.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on the glory that is Sydney rock pool swimming. (One quibble is that some of the other lovely rock pools on the Southern Beaches around Cronulla were left out....oh, well, you can see some of them here in my pics: Shelly Beach, Cronulla and Oak Park, Cronulla

Rock Pools: Sydney’s Rock Pools

Published: February 24, 2008
NEARLY every day for 14 years, Denise Leith, a writer and university lecturer, has risen before dawn and headed to the beach at Newport, a pleasant, residential suburb 19 miles north of downtown Sydney , with fruit stands, pharmacies and small shops along the main road, within the sound and smell of the sea. She walks to the south end of the long beach and after donning her cap and goggles plunges into a 50-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 as swimmers navigate their way through the salty water and must sometimes grab a chain railing to avoid being swept out to sea when the tide is high and the water particularly rough. Some days it is like swimming in a washing machine, Ms. Leith says, others like swimming in Champagne.

As she goes up and back, up and back, she gazes down on rocks, seaweed and dappled-sunlight sand. “I swim with the fish,” she said recently. “For months we had 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, she doesn’t have to worry about sharks or riptides.

Rock pools, so-named because they have been hammered out of rocks at the ocean’s edge, are one of Sydney’s defining characteristics, along with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, though not as well known.

I began coming to Sydney every winter — the Australian summer — some 20 years ago and started taking swimming lessons, eventually replacing my 10-mile runs with a mile 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’t feel terribly comfortable in it. (Those riptides can be killers, literally.)

Then I discovered the rock pools. I could have the sensation of swimming in salt water — 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 for distance 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 give swimmers 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 low tide, 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 in the 1800s, when Victorian-era morals banned daytime swimming at the beach, a concept 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 all sizes and shapes, from 50 meters long (roughly 55 yards) and many lanes wide to much smaller boutique pools.

Sydney today has some 40 traditional public 50-meter pools (New York and Los Angeles each has two!), which may explain how swimmers from Australia, with a population around 20 million, were able to haul off 15 medals at the 2004 Olympics in 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 — an Australian, Mina Wylie, won the silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle behind Fanny Durack, another Australian. Mina was taught to swim in a rock pool built in 1907 by her father, himself a champion distance and underwater swimmer.

TODAY, Wylie’s Baths, in Coogee, about six miles south of downtown Sydney, is one of the most popular rock pools in the area; it is open 365 days a year, and charges a small fee (http://www.wylies.com.au/). As with most rock pools, it has its own club of locals, men and women of all ages who swim there regularly and compete on Sundays. Sometimes the surf is so fierce that the waves crash over the edge, making it almost impossible to maintain lane etiquette as competitors bump into each other. On the wooden deck, partly shaded, the most popular activity on a recent Sunday seemed to be parents’ changing diapers.

A few hundred yards away, within sight, well, partially, is another venerable Sydney institution — a pool for women and children. Built in the 1800s, it was long known as the “‘nun’s pool.” Today, Muslim women in scarves are more often seen, along with pregnant women and older women. If a women-only public facility seems an incongruity in a country that prides itself on its egalitarianism, note that it has an official exemption from antidiscrimination laws. [Note: McIvers Baths - click for my pics]

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 except Thursdays, it is home to the Bondi Icebergs Club, which was founded in 1929 by a small group of friends.

To become an Icebergs member you must swim three of every four Sundays for five years during the winter (May to September Down Under). It is a true test of dedication, for while outsiders might think that Australia is the land of endless summer, in winter the ocean water is teeth-chattering cold. And on opening day of the winter swimming season, it is tradition that lumps of ice are tossed into the pool to test the hardiness of the competitors.

Today, there are over 350 Icebergs, including women, who have only been allowed to join since 1994. But you don’t have to be an Iceberg to enjoy the pool — there is a small entrance fee — or the wonderful restaurant upstairs. There is also a smaller rock pool at the north end of Bondi.

From Bondi, you can walk along a well-maintained cliffside path, with spectacular views, just over two miles to Bronte Beach and its rock pool, where the serious swimmers 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 the waves come crashing over the sides. There are an expanse of grass and towering evergreens at Bronte, making it a popular spot for picnics.

A bit farther south is Clovelly,[my pics] which, unlike other rock pools, is open at the ocean end. It is trapezoidal in shape, starting at a small beach, and the sides are concrete, which may not sound attractive. But it, too, has produced national swimming champions (faded sepias are inside), and because there is no barrier to the ocean, it is a popular place for snorkeling.

For Sydneysiders, beaches and rock pools are divided categorically by the Harbour Bridge. There are those in the eastern and southern suburbs (Bondi, Clovelly, Wylie’s, Bronte, among them), and the Northern Beaches, which became more accessible when the Harbour Bridge was finished in 1932. (For a full rundown of Sydney’s rock pools, including history and location, see www.nswoceanbaths.info/pools and http://www.australiantraveller.com/.)

Among the first rock pools you come to heading north is Fairy Bower (named for the fairy penguin rookery there). It is quite small, not adequate for laps or exercise. But the surroundings make it worth a visit.

It is near Manly, which is a reduced version of Miami Beach, with open-air restaurants and bars on the beach, and Shelly Beach, a picturesque strip of sand tucked in a cove. The ocean was a pristine aqua when I was there in January, and the waters held a scuba-diving class, board surfers, ocean kayakers, a lone long-distance swimmer, sailboats and children frolicking closer to the shore. It is an idyll.

Back on the road and going north, beyond Newport Beach a few miles, is Bilgola, a tucked-away beach, where the writer Thomas Keneally has a hillside house. The rock pool there has a section for children, while older swimmers can do laps.

“I grew up with a backyard pool, and this is more fun,” said Lisa Gaupset, a 41-year-old television graphic designer , whose 4-year-old daughter, Lara, and 12-year-old son, Jesse, were in the pool with her while her oldest son, Kristian, was surfing. It’s ideal for families, she noted, because the older kids can go surfing.

The most northern of the Sydney rock pools is at Palm Beach the wealthy enclave 25 miles north of downtown, where movie stars and moguls vacation. It is 50 meters long and where the legendary 77-year-old John Carter is now teaching a third generation to swim.

While my Australian-born wife swims in the open waters from the edge of the rock pool to the North Palm Beach Surf Club and back, at least a mile, I churn out the laps in the pool. On a recent day, with only a wisp of white clouds in the piercing blue sky and the blazing sun over my left shoulder when I turned at one end of the pool, I went up and back 66 times, lost in thought, mesmerized.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

The pool at the Paris Ritz

Apart from swimming, and swimming pools, one of my favourite things in this life is Paris. And if, by dent of income-earning necessity, I can't be in Paris, I like to read about Paris, in anticipation of one day, again, being in Paris.

For various reasons I have never swum in Paris, although last time I was there, I should have been more brave and ventured into the world of the Paris public pool.

Adam Gopnik, a writer for the New Yorker, lived in Paris for five years and wrote a regular column called 'Paris Journals'. His book Paris To The Moon: a family In France, chronicles those years, from moving there with his wife, Martha and son Luke, to experiencing the birth of their daughter Olivia. It's one of my favourite "Paris books" , amongst a very crowded long-long list of the "how I lived in Paris" genre. Mind you, I love 'em all, from Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, through Janet Flanner to Sarah Turnbull. Gopnik seems to have the "young ex-pat family" niche covered.

Early in the book, Gopnik recounts his experiences in trying to join an American style gym / fitness club, in the face of Parisian incomprehension:

"An American gym?" Parisians asked when I said that I was looking for someplace to work out, and at first I didn't know what to say. What would aFrench gym be like? Someone suggested that my wife and I join the Health Club at The Ritz; that was about as French as a gym could get. This sounded like a nice, glamorous thing to do, so we went for a trial visit. I ran out of the locker room and dived into the pool. White legs were dangling all around me - crowded to the edges , as thpough their owners were clinging to the sides of the pool in fear - and only after I rose to the surface did I see that the owners were all hanging from the edge of the pool, eating tea sandwiches off silver platters." (Paris To The Moon, London: Vintage, 2001, p 62)

One hot August day, when Martha is nine months' pregnant, the Gopniks return to the Ritz. Read on:

"Angels Dining At the Ritz

When Martha was still pregnant, we decided to join the pool at the Ritz hotel on the Place Vendôme for eight weeks. We had, as I’ve said, thought about it once before, during our adventures at the Régiment Rouge, but had gotten scared off by all those tea sandwiches on silver platters. For four years we had been swimming at the public pool of the Sixth Arrondissement near the old Saint-Germain market, a nice place, with families splashing in one part and solitary fierce-looking swimmers doing laps in the other – though, like every French public institution, terribly overcharged with functionaries, in this case officious, functionary lifeguards. But then the same friend who had invited us there that first time invited us to the Ritz pool again, to spend a Sunday away from the August heat. With Martha pregnant and more or less immobile, we weren’t able to go away anyway, even though everyone in Paris goes away in August. (The five-week mandatory vacation is part of the inheritance of the old Popular Front of the thirties, one of the laws put over by the saintly Socialist leader Léon Blum.) Anyway, we couldn’t go anywhere, not with Martha that big, and we were cool and comfortable there at the pool. Paris is hot in August – really, suddenly hot – and not many places are air-conditioned. Even the ones that claim to be climatisé are not really air-conditioned as public places are in New York. Instead a trickle of chilly air floats someplace around the baseboards.

The pool at the Ritz hotel in Paris – they actually call the place the Ritz Health Club, in English, although I think this is designed less as a concession to Americans than as a lingering sign of old-fashioned Parisian Anglomania, like calling the Jockey Club in Paris the Jockey Club – is intended to look “Pompeian” in a way that I suppose makes a strong case for Mount Vesuvius and molten lava. There is a high domed skylight, held up by painted Ionic columns with rosettes along their pillars and bordered by a bas-relief frieze of classical figures standing around in a line, as though waiting to check out of the hotel. There is a trompe l’oeil painting of old Roman bathers looking down at contemporary French swimmers, with more colored architectural drawings of Roan temple fronts decorating the locker rooms and the showers, and, on either side of the pool, two enormous murals of Romans in togas standing around on terraces, all painted in a style someplace between Victorian Academic and New York Pizzeria.

My favourite detail at the Ritz pool is a pair of mosaics on the bottom of the pool, right where the shallow end starts to incline and deepen a little, of two comely and topless mermaids, with long blond hair – tresses, really – floating off to one side. With one hand they reach down modestly; with the other each holds up one half of the great sea of the Ritz. (Where most mermaids have fishtails that begin at their waists, these mermaids have fishtails that begin only at their shins.) These are real mosaics, by the way, assembled shiny shard by shiny shard, and they probably would be a treasure if they had actually been made by a Roman artisan and dug up by an archaeologist. The line between art and kitsch is largely measured in ruin.

Martha felt cool there, and the cool matters a lot to a nin-month pregnant woman. We sat by the edge of the pool in white terry-cloth robes, surrounded by thin rich women with very high hair, who were listlessly turning the pages of magazines and occasionally going into the pool to swim. They swam like nervous poodles, with their heads held high, high high – up out the water on their long necks, protecting their perfect helmets of hair from the least drop of moisture.

We ate lunch up on the curved terrace overlooking the pool and thought, only with a little guilt, Well, this is nice. So we inquired and found that we could get an eight-week nonpeak hours, never-on-Sunday family membership for a lot less than it cost us to rent a cottage in Cape Cod every summer for two weeks – and in Cape Cod, we work all day and night, sweeping the sand out of the house and bringing up the laundry and stoking up the grill and then cleaning up the kitchen. So with a slightly nervous sense of extravagance, we decided to subscribe to the Ritz pool for the minimum off-hours “family” membership, a little joke, we assured ourselves, laid at the altar of the old Hemingway-Flanner Paris. I felt a little guilty about it, I guess – I felt a lot guilty about it, really – but I also though that Léon Blum, all things considered, wouldn’t get too mad at me. I gave it a vaguely Socialist feeling; it was our five weeks. " (p 312-314)

Friday, 22 February 2008

Redleaf Pool, Double Bay

A Sydney Harbour tidal pool, Double Bay.

Located behind Woollahra Municipal Council building on New South Head Road, adjacent to a lovely garden (Blackburn Gardens). There's a kiosk/cafe, change rooms, showers.

This pool is popular with older folk and gays, and the pintoons are allegedly renowned for a bit of "eye contact" !