It’s a top rating story that has made world news – the number of deaths by drowning in Australia that have occurred since Christmas Day 2016. Consequently, there is talk of reinvigorating the push for parents to take kids for swimming lessons as early as the age of four, in order to increase their safety in the water.
I’ve had swimming lessons, but I’m not much of a swimmer. In Australia, for my generation, weekly swimming lessons in grade 6 and 7 were a standard part of the Physical Education program at school. By the end of those, I could float, tread water and swim backstroke and freestyle for 25 metres, no doubt accomplishing all those tasks with a resoundingly poor-to-fair rating.
Since that time, any time I’ve been in a large body of water, all I’ve done is frolic with my daughter (when she was a toddler), or “muck around” a bit in the waves at the beach. In other words, I’ve not had to physically exert myself to swim 25 metres for about 30 years, so whether I can swim or not these days, or how capable I am at swimming, is a matter purely for speculation.
Fortunately for me, I’ve never been stuck in a rip, or had to rescue anyone else who was.
In the little country town where I grew up, we were fortunate to have a busy community hub for young people that opened up every summer, in the form of the local pool. Given the size of the town, local council would have been unlikely to fund the building and maintenance of a man-made pool – a twenty-minute drive would bring you to various pools in the larger town up the road. However, luckily for us, a large local lake existed with no effort from council, and only required that they fit it out, to turn it into a local community pool.
So one side of the lake was given concrete bleachers, a wooden jetty was built to divide the “middle” pool – where the water came up my shoulders at its deepest point – from the main part of the lake, an ambitious, three-tiered diving tower was built, and a concreted, chlorinated pool for toddlers was created higher up the hill, in the shade of the eucalyptus trees.
When you are a kid, you take for granted everything you come across, so I didn’t think there was anything unusual about having a lake for your local pool. Of course, in the past, there was nothing usual about it, but these days we are a lot more risk averse than previous generations were, and generally in any populated area there will be a man-made, concrete, chlorinated pool, complete with lifeguards, Duty Managers, and lockers you can pay extra for, within a twenty minute drive.
In contrast to how they might have felt at an ordinary, 25 metre pool, with clear, transparent water and the depth marked at the bottom for all to see, this natural pool must have afforded the thrill of adventure to the 16 – 25 year olds who hung out at the lake in large numbers. Those who were 16-25 were my elders, and as such were afforded the appropriate respect and fear by me, a fearful kid. The local pool was definitely the only place in a small country town, where a child, or young teenager, could hang out in the same space as a bunch of older peers, and witness them all having a good time together.
There was added risk in swimming in a natural swimming hole. The water in the local lake was not clear, it was brown and murky. If you opened your eyes under water (we did!), you could see your own legs, and maybe those of someone standing quite close to you, but you wouldn’t see much further than that. And, right out in the middle of the lake, the depth was unknown. Unknown.
As a child, I found the concept that this lake went to unknown depths, absolutely thrilling. Rumour was that the lake had formed from an old mine-shaft. A bookish child, I’d read The Famous Five, and The Three Investigators, and some other great book about a girl who discovered a colony of dinosaurs still existing and living under a lake. So I knew that a mineshaft at the bottom of a lake of unknown depths signalled secret activities, shady figures, or at the very least, mystery.
Others were clearly more nonchalant than I, about the mystery in our midst. On hot summer afternoons, the pool was overrun with happy, carefree teens and younger adults, and an air of freedom and exuberance wafted across its surface in the warm, chlorine-saturated breeze.
I’m transported back for a moment, to a hot summer afternoon very much like today (it’s 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, and 37 degrees), in 1983, when I was 13.
I’m sitting in the middle of the wooden jetty that divides the middle pool from the wilds of the main part of the lake.
The middle pool is behind me. If I look straight ahead, I see some guy give a jubilant whoop as he dives from the 10 metre high, Top Tower. There is a queue of people chatting and laughing as they wait their turn to do the same, and queues at the lower towers, and still more people climbing the ladders to join them. I look a bit further to my right, along the wet concrete landing, to another diving board, this one lower than the towers. There’s a queue there too, and someone is doing a bomb off that board, just as I look in that direction. In other places on the concrete, people sit at the edge of the pool, or lie on beach towels.
Further to my right again are the concrete bleachers, which lead up to the public toilets and a kiosk, all permanently shaded by massive pine trees which drop their spikes all over the bleachers. If I’m lucky, Mum will have given me enough money to buy a Peters Drumstick – my idea back then of the most heavenly thing one could eat.
Right behind me is the Middle pool, beyond that is the concrete landing that borders two sides of this pool, and then, up some concrete steps and fully fenced in, the man-made, chlorinated toddler pool. Behind that is the perimeter fence. If you stand up near the fence you can hear frogs and birds in the wetlands on the other side of it.
To my left, I look along the rest of the jetty, built to cut the Middle Pool off from the main pool. After performing that function, continues on around the edge of the main pool for a while, running along next to the perimeter fence, creating another surface around that edge, where people can hang out. That last section of jetty, where it’s not dividing the two pools, is an unofficial hangout for older teens, so I never go that far along. Even though they are only visiting, my older cousins can read the lay of the land, and they disappear for hours, hanging out there, sunbathing on their beach towels, or taking a dip, with the sounds of the wetlands on the other side of the fence behind them.
At this time, it’s a mysterious world to me, the world of older teenagers. All I recall is that a cousin about 8 years older than me – so almost an adult in my eyes, at any point in my childhood – had an unfortunate incident where she dived in off the jetty and when she came up from under the water, her bikini top did not come with her.
One year my mother booked myself and some of my siblings – maybe it was the oldest three of us – into lessons run by Vicswim (a program run during school holidays and funded by the State government) at our local pool. The lesson attendees comprised basically our family and one other local girl, and were run before the pool was open to the public, so we had the whole quiet pool to ourselves.
One busy weekend, there was a kerfuffle in the main poole, and it turned out that an unsuspecting platypus had swum too far and found itself in the midst of a bunch of humans frolicking around in the water. The poor creature continued to paddle along, into the middle pool, where I had a good view of it. Like everyone else, I wasn’t quite sure whether to be scared of the animal, or what it would do if I got too close, so I steered clear of it.
Pic: Zoos Victoria
I imagine lots of Australians have a similar relationship to water as I have. We learned to swim as kids, and have fond memories of spending time at our local pool or beach, then as adults we only ever muck about in waist high water at the beach, between the flags. For us, water at a pool or beach has been a fun-filled place to hang out. We are probably not equipped to deal with getting caught in a rip, or assisting someone else when they are.
Despite my fair, freckled skin, and tendency to sunburn, I do love the beach when the temperature soars past 30 degrees. Not in the daytime – I’m not a total masochist. But it’s a lovely place to be in the morning before the sun has heated up, or in the evening when the hot sun is losing its bite.
But because of the publicity around this spate of recent drownings, I felt an unusual sense of concern last night, as I watched my daughter head into the waves at my local beach. It was unpatrolled, but very calm, and filled with people. What would I do if I saw her get into difficulty? There was no question that I’d rush in to help her, but would I be any use or would I just make matters worse? At Australia’s rivers and beaches there are frequently tragic stories of people who drown trying to save others.
Fortunately, she was fine, and the night will become, for us, part of our blurry, happy memories of spending warm, summer evenings in the water.
P.J. Harvey – We float, take life as it comes.