Sweet-water people

“Cross the bridge, head along the bush track to the pipeline… you can’t miss it. Turn right, then keep your eyes peeled for a downhill bush track that leads to the water…”

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An intrepid band of souls, we venture away from the straggle of suburbia in downtown Heathcote, plummeting along a vertiginous track in search of water, desert explorers pinned to the mirage. Blackboys and bugs tickle, clack and sigh, moving with metronomic incessancy through a sluggish heat.

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Rocky outcrops teeter above a teeming expanse drenched in the peppermint spice of eucalyptus, the air blue with lazy oil and heady intent, the dog days of summer prickling skin and shivering spines.

The ledge of the Woronora Plateau juts imperiously over everything it overlooks, a benevolent overlord snazzy in sage-green millinery. The bitumen fast forgotten, ‘merge now’ lines are formed by bent branches and sandstone, and traffic dissipates, a lone hiker stomping into the distance; a mother with a stroller watching us drift away.

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The documentation of this area persistently refers to waterholes and rivers and creeks and billabongs – the lifeblood of the basin – but we need no paperback confirmation. The presence of the Woronora Dam Pipeline helps solidify the feeling, a steel watercourse bound by humanity. The pipeline is 27.1 km long and consists of 42 inch (1.07m) mild steel spirally welded pipes, which is of significance to The Cowboy alone…

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The Tin Lid and I are more taken with the bolts and graff:

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While our illustrious Germanic wild-swimming raconteur is chiefly interested in the etymology of this useful message:

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There is water here – we can feel it, rich in our veins, its scent like a drug that drags our conscience to the cool belly of the depths. The branches bow to it, the track snakes forward, one step in front of the other until we can see, feel, hear and taste it, a clear space that ripples and rents beneath the canopy.

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The Tin Lid rip his clothes off and bombs into the cool waters, closely followed by the rest of the mob, a splash of skin that sizzles on contact…

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A turtle bobs up to look at the long-limbed tanine-crested humans as they loll and sprawl in the cool. He dips back down beneath a lily-pad fringe; a squiggle of snake disappears fast, a ripple in time.

The Cowboy channels Huck Finn, a watery vagabond with a keen eye and braces for his pants.

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This is Goburra Pool, deep in the heart of Heathcote National Park, named, it is believed, for the kookaburras hearty laugh. In divining this lucid haven, the illustrious German – a man of exquisite idiosyncrasies and precise perfection – has channelled his ongoing quest to swim wild.

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Wild swimming answers a primal call; it seeks an elusive Eden and is driven by the urge to submerge beneath the ephemeral border that carves a line between land and water. Defined as encompassing the spiritual quality of swimming free in nature, wild swimming is often remote, adventurous and potentially frilled with danger, which is always a plus.

“You pass the lake’s edge, the sea’s shore, the river’s brink – and you break the surface of the water itself. In doing so, you move from one realm into another: a realm of freedom, adventure, magic, and occasionally of danger.”

Robert MacFarlane, Outdoor Swimming Society

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It emerged in the UK about a decade ago with the formation of the Outdoor Swimming Society, whose devotees seek to swim in nature and “connect with the wilderness, induce joy, help us to lose track of time and dream in sync with water’s breaths, currents and tides…” And while this is to be heralded, there is little chance a cold, eel-infested pond in the dank heart of Rochdale will ever get the Cowboy to float its boat.

In Australia, however…

A throttle of trail bikes revs in the distance, the mechanic chak-chak-chak resonating off sandstone cliffs to be swallowed by meaty summer air, a human rhythm that crescendos briefly above the bugs. The water is like cool tea, softly slinking over hot skin, a chilled embrace that inspires whooping joy and the bravery of fools.

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A mob of teens crash through the air to tumble shrieking into the depths. Armed with a quart of sunscreen, tepid tap water in old Coke bottles and the insistent bleep of Mum calling, echoing unheard from the cracker-crumb strewn crannies of an old sports bag, they are kings for a day, astride ancient rocks and high above the pool. They stamp, holler and splash with the pride of loose youth, not yet slumped on sofas with overly pixelated pulses and reeking of disdain.

Lazy jazz spools from a shoebox speaker, a sea eagle soars high above us, and the water lilies clasp close as the sun is shuttered by clouds.

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In the dying rays, I teach the Tin Lid the finer etiquette of Hula Hoop ingestion, and absorb rich, vivid memories of ‘how life was’.

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This is Dharawal [or Tharawal] country, the land of the original peoples of the southern and south western Sydney area from the south side of Botany Bay, around Port Hacking to the north of the Shoalhaven River (Nowra), extending inland to Campbelltown and Camden.

This sweet water has sustained the mob since the beginning, its sacred peace, brimming with life and laughter and barely hidden sustenance, a drawcard for the ages.

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Clans will always gather here, to swim, eat, laugh and love, to dip beneath this reality into the watery depths of time.

And this magical place’s dreamtime story will spool on into the future, memories unfurling with it like streamers of the past caught in the eddies of time.

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A timeless endeavour

It’s mid-January-duco-stripping-red-raw-trucker’s-tan-Holden-seats-that-peel-thighs-as-an-ape-undoes-a-banana-HOT. The tar ripples, snaking into the distance like a strap of liquorice that writhes indecently in the sun, and while I cope admirably with such adversity (a packet of frozen peas between now steaming knees), cold water is called for.

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In this wasted fringe of the city, once the site of fellmongers yards and slaughter works and still shrouded in heavy industry – its legacy of contamination worn like a muzzle –wharfies and stevedores rumble in gangs in fluoro, a fine mist of av-gas sprinkles burning shoulders and the sun bakes an oily blackness deeper into the earth. And while Foreshore Beach is just moments away from the wreckers I am hunting through for hot-to-the-touch Kingswood parts, its sand/ sea/ sun = beach classification got cancelled a while back.

The grease monkey points west: “Best get up there doll, it’s cool and wet”. Not entirely sure I understand what he is talking about I enquire further – he goes on to describe a fertile sanctuary: “Honest love, we all get up there after a coldie at the end of the day…”

Almost louche in its reclining glory, the Botany Aquatic Centre lounges amid a sea of city green, hidden from the horror of the stained industry at the bay’s edge. With a Soviet-style entrance and solid concrete floor the centre is a throwback to a simpler time, and a paean to 70s swimming culture.

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It inadvertently celebrates the halcyon days of summers past, with sole-burning bricks that steam as the drips dry, concrete fissures that sprout lurid life, springy grass sprinkled with bindis, a Peters-ice-cream-blue kiosk doing a roaring trade in schitzies and hot chips, drumsticks and zoopa doopas – all drizzled in utilitarian institutionalisation for good measure. Can’t be getting out of hand now.

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This is a world steeped in blue and green, the surf and turf of the colour palette, with flecks of neon and soda adorning skin from chocolate to Pepto-Bismol pink in delicious contrast. Pools are lapped by grass while ancient paperbarks dip their toes in the damp, and shady groves curl out tendrils of cool, home to sprawls of families their boundaries littered with picnics, floaties and striped towels that flak and flutter in the breeze.

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I follow the trawl of tip turkeys that sidle and stalk for Jatz and hot chips, red sauce like blood on their beaks. They lead me to my plastic moulded nirvana, a place that is maudlin in its search for a frosted glass of tequila sunrise…

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Umbrellas crowd excitedly, splashes of tango, turquoise and out-of-fashion blue. They are the stars of the show, selflessly casting pockets of shade onto passing birds and their reluctant sidekicks, chained to them to prevent ‘an incident’:

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There is a rowdy scrabble of youth, from goggle-eyed babes to splashing small fry who squeak and giggle, tweens that tumble and preen, and teens closely monitoring the ride of hi-cut swimmers and low-slung boardies. They are hunting. Mostly each other.

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Beads of salty water roll from goosebumped skin and the wet bricks sweat. The kids’ pool is like a chlorinated Lord of the Flies, piggy howling in the shadows and ripe fruit smeared along the edge. A scrawny, wiry woman with a litter of kids still suckling her home-brewed homilies entreats Lozza to “ger outta the water, youse getting wrinkles!” Her age-rippled back reads Live Not to Lose and she is as yet unaware of the rusting hose coiled menacingly behind her…

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Shrouded women lead their lycra’d progeny to the water’s edge but resist the temptation, the sedate demeanour of their darkened attire balanced by a swooping cursive dialect, non-stop chatter and bawdy laughter: Asra and her toes again…

Stained creme caramel coloured brick blocks squat around the largest expanse of water, bleachers climbing high with a ‘competitive edge’. The lane markers are rolled up tight, despite the best machinations of a toddler intent on their release, and the bunting droops – it’s been a busy day.

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Credit: Awol Monk.

 

A lifeguard trundles past on rubbish duty, a message on his back reading; WHERE IS YOUR CHILD?

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I recover quickly, realising he doesn’t mean mine, and that the Tin Lid is safely ensconced in Kindy. He can, however, shed no light on what this is:

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An older woman sporting a natty zebra one-piece, straw hat with a knitted brim band and a jaunty ankle flick wanders through the generations, perusing life. She stops for a chat: Beryl’s a local, been coming here for ‘too many years my dear. But it’s always the same. It’s real and genuine and honest. Now, you enjoy your little slice love. See you next time, I’m off to the waterslide…”

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Unbound palms sprout and seed with abandon at the entrance to the water slide, indicative perhaps of the jungle that awaits. Harassed lifeguards corral the mob in human sale yards that get sprayed with salt each time another cork pops from the pipe, yelling. On and on hot steaming skin is flushed through soupy water in sun-cracked tubes in a febrile ripple of sound, flumes spewing laughter and one-piece bum-wedgies.

Eyes closed, toes exposed, it surges over me, a sluice of a time past yet vividly of the now as cool drips of water sprinkle my exposed skin, courtesy of a cartwheeler as she spins past.

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An oasis is defined as a ‘fertile spot in a desert, where water is found amid the burning desert sands, a watering place’. Beyond the oil-streaked mirage out the back of the wreckers, I was led to my oasis by a grease monkey and an ibis. I just have to work out a way to thank them…