MERCURY SERIES - Saltwater Sanctuaries
The Illawarra’s history is etched into the uneven surfaces lining the walls of Wollongong’s Gentlemen’s Baths.
For swimmers bobbing over the gentle green waves, watching the horizon rise and fall over the sea wall, it’s easy to picture what it might have been like to swim between the rock pool’s weathered walls in eras past.
Imagine how men – and only men at first, because it was forbidden for both sexes to swim together – might have carefully picked their way over sharp rocks to cool down at the bogey hole, then known as Clarkes Hole, during Wollongong’s colonial days.
Perhaps they followed the example of the Dharawal people, who might have been swimming at the rocky beach for eons, deriving the name ‘‘bogey hole’’ from the indigenous word for safe or sheltered bathing place.
Swimming along the edges of the rocky rectangle with your feet grazing the sandy floor, you can imagine the public’s joy when officials at the Harbours and Rivers Branch of the state’s Public Works Department signed off on a £20 plan to shape the jagged boulders into a right and proper Gentlemen’s Baths in 1881.
On a sunny day, as kids laugh, shout and splash around the edges of the pool, you can almost hear the excitement of the city’s first swimming carnival crowds in May 1896, who might have cheered as fit young men – and even some women by that stage – raced to show off their prowess in the sea.
Perhaps there were titters over a performance from risque young swimming star Annette Kellerman – an early pioneer of women’s one-piece bathing suits – at the baths’ 1902 carnival.
Present-day Wollongong Swim Club president Col Bruton said the pool and his club had been closely linked since 1894, making it a vital part of the region’s swimming history.
‘‘The swim club’s first project was to turn Clarkes Hole into a swimming pool,’’ he said.
‘‘They turned it into a pool with a fairly smooth bottom so they couldn’t get their feet cut.
‘‘They built it 33 yards from one end to the other, so that three laps were just about 100 yards.’’
The efforts of those early swim club members have paid off for generations.
Now, from the moment the first rays of sun hit the ocean in the morning until the last light disappears over the escarpment at night, the North Wollongong tidal pool plays host to a steady stream of city visitors and residents.
It stays busy well into the evening in summer, especially after the doors of the neighbouring Continental Pool close at 7pm.
‘‘A lot of the older fellas, and women as well, tend to congregate there, particularly on fine and balmy days,’’ Mr Bruton said.
‘‘Many people would sooner swim there than in the Continental Pool. It’s got a pebbly beach, but don’t worry about that – it will toughen your feet up.
‘‘I think people like the pool because it takes them right back to nature and it belongs to the community; it’s always been a community asset.’’