Swimming pools - and why Australia has a much better version



In Newcastle, NSW, David Whitley goes all gooey for Australia’s magnificent ocean baths

The man’s belly is so big that he can technically get changed in full public view without indecently exposing himself. The paunch offers a perfectly adequate modesty screen, yet he graciously sticks to the changing rooms anyway.

Elsewhere, kids are going for a splash inside inflatable ducks, women in their mid-30s are donning swimming caps with their mothers as they return to town for a few days and would be muscly lotharios are cautiously dipping their toes in the water to test the temperature.

There are few places as joyous for slice of life people-watching as Australia’s ocean baths. It is something that Australia does indisputably better than anywhere else in the world, to the point where ocean baths could be up there with kangaroos, barbecues, surfing and utes in the national psyche.

Don’t, whatever you do, confuse them with mere swimming pools. Ocean baths are on an altogether higher plane. Swimming pools are generally about turning your back on the sea and opting for something different. Ocean baths are all about embracing the sea’s majesty, revelling in its splendour whilst being protected from its worst excesses. The surf crashes feistily into the rocks, but no-one’s going to get swept away by the current.

Many of the big Sydney beaches – Manly, Bondi, Coogee – have their own ocean baths, often inexplicably ignored by those who want to stretch out on the sand. But this particular scene is unfolding at the fabulously 1920s Newcastle Ocean Baths. The art deco façade gives way to a giant pool, concreted into the rocks along the coast of New South Wales’ second city.

At the far end, thundering arms plough on remorselessly, doing laps with dedication and zeal. But aside from that sealed-off section of fierce professionalism, hardly anyone else is pretending to have a swim. They’re all just cooling off or pootling around in the sunshine.

There seems to be a sense of camaraderie too. It’s often unspoken, but people seem to know each other. They’re from disparate walks of life, but they grow to recognise the people they regularly see down at the baths. Once you’re down to your swimming costume or trunks, it doesn’t really matter what you do the rest of the time. It’s fabulously egalitarian like that.

Newcastle does such baths particularly well. They’re lined up along the coast, and each has its own feel. Some are more protected from the elements than others, but the most gloriously violent has to be Bogey Hole.

At the other end of Newcastle Beach from the Newcastle Ocean Baths, Bogey Hole is smaller and more natural-looking. It has been carved out by the sea over time, as the cave behind it indicates. And the sea is doing a roaring job of making itself felt. It doesn’t just lap against the side of the pool, gently tossing a little spray up into the air. It absolutely belts itself into the side, throwing its fury high and knocking anyone stupid enough to stand on the side right back into the pool.

While swimming, every wave becomes a shower. It’s a totally different spectacle – and a more viscerally exciting one – but does an excellent job of proving that a day spent ambling between Australian ocean baths is rarely one wasted.

by David Whitley


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