Coalcliff's marvellous gift from a century ago

When it was suggested that some rock pools be reclaimed by the sea, the loudest voices of protest came from Coalcliff. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

When it was suggested that some rock pools be reclaimed by the sea, the loudest voices of protest came from Coalcliff. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

MERCURY SERIES - Saltwater Sanctuaries

Cut from shelves of rock and fed by the world's most beautiful ocean, they are a gift we and our children get to enjoy - thanks to the hard work put in a century ago.

Some of us even pause for a moment after slipping into one of the pools, look around at the escarpment, taste the clean water, and admit we cannot believe our luck.

Is it luck that some visionary thought to put in the hard work so many years ago, digging them out with picks, "borrowing" equipment for the task, taking a few risks for their community, and for future generations?

Historical clipping of Coalcliff pool

Could it be luck that they are dotted up and down our coastline, allowing us to peer out at the sea or up at the bush, as we please?

And is it just luck that they were made so well, with the sea walls just the right height to let in the occasional wave and wash the pool clean? Probably not.

And in the case of Coalcliff's beloved pool, certainly not.

It may have been luck that the right crew of miners and surf club members were around in the years just after World War 1.

''It's rather challenging and fun - it's like doing an ocean swim but in a little bit of safety."

''It's rather challenging and fun - it's like doing an ocean swim but in a little bit of safety."

But it was not luck that they were game enough to decide to take on the job, and resourceful enough to locate some explosives to assist in the task, plus an old storm drain borrowed from nearby. And it can't be luck that the authorities did not stop them digging.

That's the kind of people we were in the early part of last century, making the most of life between the escarpment and the sea, enjoying a life in paradise, once the day's work in the coal mine was done.

Now, of course, we are somewhat different people. And if the pools were not already there, what would be the chances of such perfect facilities being built these days?

Would the land have already been sold into private hands?

In the age of economic rationalism and "budget emergencies", development applications and the law of negligence and duty of care, would any local body build them just so people can have fun?

Would people be told they don't need a pool, as they can go to the nearest major centre and use the pool there?

Would the council's risk managers be convinced that it's OK for people to swim in a pool where waves could wash them out on a rough day?

And what if they knew teenagers would one day cling to the rails at the sea end of the pool, yelling with glee as the waves crash into them, flinging themselves into the whitewash as it crowds the pool? And they would do it even if a sign said don't?

Of course, the pools would have to be built and budgeted by government - at least one level of it, and probably two. And when a toilet block can cost $760,000 (Towradgi) and a car park can cost $32 million (Heathcote MP Lee Evans' estimate for a 150-space commuter car park), we see how the cost of digging out a rock pool could be more than we might have guessed, once governments get involved.

At Coalcliff, the locals have been happy to do it themselves.

When the idea that some rock pools could be allowed to crumble back into the sea as part of a proposal to save money for Wollongong City Council, the loudest voices of protest came from Coalcliff.

That idea appears to have been dumped, but the message from Coalcliff today is clear - our pool isn't going anywhere. And if the council stops, we will maintain it ourselves if we have to.

They have done it before, when first building, then expanding and taking care of, the pool in the first half of last century.

Jennifer Dalmer is 67 and she has been coming to Coalcliff since she was born - and perhaps beforehand, as her parents regularly visited their holiday shack on the hill where the surf club is now.

She said the original women's dressing shed used to be the space under a rock overhang, with a hessian curtain rigged up and "Only Ladies" splashed in white paint.

"The ritual was when we came down here on holidays, you'd go down for a swim before breakfast. And, basically, we still do the same thing.

"We get up, we live just opposite the park, all I have to do is walk out the door, across the park and we're at the pool."

And she doesn't mind it when the sea is a bit rough.

"It's rather challenging and fun - it's like doing an ocean swim but in a little bit of safety," she said.

"You just have to make sure you don't get close to the western wall or you'll get washed out. I've floated over it - it wasn't too bad."

With her husband Jim, a life member of the Coalcliff surf club, the pool is an integral part of their lives.

"It doesn't really get cold until about September or so. It stays the same temperature. Some mornings it's down around 15 or 16. The trick is to keep swimming - if you leave it, it's hard to get back in the water.

"I don't swim all year round. My husband swims all year round, but he cheats - he wears a wettie."

But being close to Sydney, it gets busy over the Christmas period.

"If we go down and look at the pool and there are, say, six or seven people in it, we say 'who has opened the gates, and let people into our Coalcliff?"'

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