Melbourne and beyond: Part 1: swimming in the city

Swims and paddles I had – and those I’d like to have had – in Melbourne and Victoria: city rivers, beaches and lidos, suburban and country rivers, and ‘just down the road’. The area holds so many possibilities that there are three parts to my Melbourne story.

On a whistle stop trip around New Zealand and parts of Australia there were – inevitably – many swims I would have liked to have done but couldn’t for various reasons: time, transport, other things to do, other people. I could easily go back and spend a week or three exploring swims and dips at many of the places Anita and I sped through.

cityscape view along river at sunset
River Yarra from Domain Parklands

Melbourne has been rated the most liveable city in the world year after year, for its vibrant culture and environment, among other things, but although there is still much to enjoy, it has dropped down the ratings for the first time this year. Anita’s brother Mike and his wife Penny, with whom we stayed, have seen the city becoming more overcrowded and polluted, with congested roads and transport infrastructure that can’t cope, and housing and schools that can’t keep up with demand.

For a swimmer, there are many possibilities in Melbourne and around, in the city, the outskirts and further afield. I had swims in lidos and from the beach, and dangled my feet in the river Yarra and in a fountain, but I didn’t manage any river swims.

Outdoor swimming pool, with swimmers
Fitzroy pool, morning

Melbourne has several wonderful lidos and outdoor Olympic swimming pools. I swam in the wonderful Fitzroy Pool twice. The first time I arrived rather cold and tired after a longer than expected early morning jog, but the water was warm and the staff friendly. The second swim there was very welcome at the end of a very hot day on which Penny took us to a crowded Melbourne zoo, round the University area and to Lygon Street (Melbourne’s Little Italy). She dropped me off, I swam as the sun set, then got the bus back.

Outdoor swimming pool with sun setting
Fitzroy pool at sunset

No photos allowed, and no diving either, despite the  ‘Aqua profonda’ sign at the deep end. The sign was an iconic symbol of the 1994-5 campaign to save the pool, and appears in the mural outside – one of many examples of outdoor art in the city.

Blue, white and green patterned tiles and building entrance
Mural at entrance to Fitzroy pool

The great Yarra river flows 150 miles from its source in the Yarra ranges, through the Yarra Valley, winding its way through plains to Melbourne, then to Port Phillip Bay.  It was an important meeting place and resource for the indigenous Wurundjeri for 30,000 years before the Europeans established Melbourne in the early 19th century.

The city reaches of the river are supposed to be too polluted for swimming – though in the early 20th century they hosted the largest swimming event at the time, the Race to Prince’s Bridge. No one swims there now. As one article asks: What happened to Australia’s city river swimming tradition? However, there are plans to revive the race  and to establish a river baths.

Decorative bridge over river
Morell Bridge, River Yarra

I was very tempted to give city swimming a go, when walking back after a long hot day admiring the magnificent English elm trees in Fitzroy Park, the Royal Botanic Gardens and beside the river. This is a particular treat for those who remember them before Dutch Elm disease wiped these stately trees out of England in the 1960s and 70s. It was still warm, even at sunset, and I considered slipping in from the bank by the Morell Bridge. But I was worried about what people might think – and that the scullers whizzing up and down might run into me. Apparently it is also illegal!

stone memorial by river; foot dangling in river, sky reflected in river, and bridge
Victoria Rowing Association WWI memorial, 1930, River Yarra; Swan Bridge and River Yarra

On a return visit the next day I dangled my feet in the water from a jetty by Birrarung Marr park, appropriately enough near the site of the old State Swimming Centre. And during an earlier walk round the Botanic Gardens I cooled my feet in the fountain in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden – which I hope the pioneer women wouldn’t have minded.

Tall trees in park with cars; Formal garden with water and trees
Elms in King’s Domain; Women’s Pioneer Gardens fountain, Melbourne
Tall colourful sculpture, with woman
Angel by Deborah Halpern, Birrarung Marr park, with Anita

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