A glory of women

In need of a little respite, the kind you can’t find at the bottom of a bottle of red, I find myself flip-flopping tired feet to the women’s baths at Coogee.

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A place so imbued with peace it remains shrouded in the echoey corners of your mind when you need it most, McIver’s Baths are a sacred watery idyll brimming with 50s kitsch queens, burgeoning bellies ripe with new life, the spiced lilt of Arabic as it curls through salty air and sun-baked skin.

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Clinging to a scarred eyrie – part cliff face, part rocky outpost smack between Coogee Beach and the nautical striped awnings of Wylies Baths – and a one-time traditional bathing place for Indigenous women, McIver’s is the last women’s-only seawater pool left in Australia.

Elizabeth Dobbie Sydney Morning Herald

Elizabeth Dobbie
Sydney Morning Herald

Built in 1886 the baths have soothed the souls of countless women, from those who come to worship the dawn to decked-out day-trippers pulling a sickie, and those of us who need a gasp of ocean rehabilitation, to fill our lungs until they ache and sink our minds into cool salty depths.

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Squalls of kids (under 13 if they are boys) frolic in the limpid shallows as matriarchs motor past under full sail, their destination a slow and steady 20 lengths. Woman bask on the rock walls, glistening with sea water and contentment. Rogue waves courtesy of a king tide sidle up and boom into the pool eliciting squeals of joy or a tut of annoyance, and the scents of tobacco and coconut, perfume, salt and the fine dust of Lily of the Valley talc mingle deliciously.

A luxurious flock migrate to this sanctuary, their chatter echoing along the rock walls and slinking to the surf. A clatter of nonnas sit playing cards at the entrance, tasty pastry chocking up their elbows; a bearded lady preens herself, splayed in her nudity; a sisterhood of shrouded beauties quickly divest themselves of their sheltering, flicking long, dark hair in anticipation of the cool, safe depths; and a zealous snorkeler, hiking boots slung over a purposeful shoulder strips down commando style. 

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The swells and curves of the female form are many and varied, a nubile tribe unfettered by responsibility and care, though there is much in evidence. The pool mirrors their form, an extended limb of land curls around the soft swell of a rock belly that is caressed by the ocean. On the flat caramel rock shelf, pockmarked by time and sluiced by the ocean, women lounge like carnival seals, splashes of vermillion, indigo and pearl and the smooth hairless planes of their bodies lending an exotic melee to this ancient coastline.

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They share their roost with time and tradition, Amphitrite‘s pool long considered a sacred space. Originally it may have been a bogey (swimming) hole or Aboriginal fish trap and it is believed that the colonial population of the greater Sydney region followed established Aboriginal practices of segregated bathing at Coogee when they developed male and female-only baths.

I can’t help but wonder what the Indigenous dreaming is here. What is evident is that for each and every woman or child who finds their way to the baths, it is the realisation of a personal dream, be it a slice of space or time, deep peace or raucous chatter, a ritual unveiling, shared stories, communal food, a sisterhood, motherhood, childhood or absolution and healing.

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The baths are named after Robert and Rose McIver, who began operating them in 1918 and developed them into the form they are today after their young daughter was not permitted into the men’s club down the road.

With Mina Wylie, Bella O’Keefe and other swimming legends, Rose McIver established the Randwick and Coogee Ladies Amateur Swimming Club in 1923 and to this day the club operates the baths and maintains their exemption from the 1995 NSW Anti-Discrimination Act.

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Overlooking Wedding Cake Island and the stretch of the coast as it winds south, the baths are a glorious exemption to the helter-skelter pace of contemporary life. It costs just 20c to enter and patrons are trusted to chuck the shiny silver into a plastic bin. There is no kiosk, no vending machine and no hot water. What there is is a library of books and a lifetime of stories, a grassy slope, sunbaked rocks and the rhythmic swell of the ocean.

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The straining of time is taught across a toned and trim reality here, a too-tight waistband, courtesy of gentle indulgence, that snags and worries. The generations slide into each other – a gentle word here, a friendly smile there – and you can almost believe the world is standing still, patiently waiting for you to jump back in, slick, salty and alive.

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