Tuesday, October 20, 2020

How the west was swum: a water-lover’s guide to western Sydney’s best swimming spots | Life and style


In a city that is so wildly addicted to the ocean, a lot can be said for looking in the opposite direction. Where the unpredictable rawness of the ocean amplifies feelings, the steadiness of freshwater encourages a more patient and soothing state of mind. Both are important, yet we often align ourselves with only one.

The region can be broken into two areas – Sydney basin and the Blue Mountains. Sydney basin, or greater western Sydney, is home to about half of the city’s population and the majority of its cultural diversity. More than anywhere else, swimming is the perfect access point to the community.

The Blue Mountains are closer to the city than most people realise, and yet are completely removed from the urban way of life. There are 1.03m hectares of unique and ancient wilderness within an hour of Sydney’s CBD. Water carves the sandstone tablelands to form deep gorges, slot canyons and waterfalls. We’ve selected our favourite places to represent the variety of landscapes and experiences that are possible here. All wild swimming locations carry risks, so always be mindful of changing conditions, submerged objects and slippery rocks, and check for warnings before you set out.

Cabarita swimming centre

Cabarita Park, Cabarita Road, Concord

Cabarita Swimming Centre, one of the city’s newest facilities, with views out onto the Parramatta River in Concord.

Cabarita swimming centre, one of the Sydney’s newest facilities, with views out on to the Parramatta River in Concord. Photograph: Dillan Seitchik-Reardon

We find swimming laps in a public pool a meditation of sorts. There’s regularity and rhythm, momentum and consistency. Unlike swimming in the ocean, a river, lake or any other natural environment, there is little more to think about than the line at the bottom of the pool – and that frees your mind to wander.

Cabarita swimming centre is a place you can easily get caught up in that kind of introspective moment. Set on the edge of Cabarita Park, the pool is immersed in the Parramatta River with views on to the neighbouring yacht club. Cabarita is one of the few heated saltwater pools in the city, with eight flawless 50 metre lanes stretching out like the deck of a cruise ship. Originally built more than 60 years ago, a huge refurbishment in 2008 gave the pool a major upgrade that included new wet-edge gutters, tiles and filtration equipment. The filtering system uses water from the river, which is heated and treated before being pumped into the pool at a balmy 26°C. This system makes for consistently clean, clear water.

This pool is used almost exclusively by the local community (though of course everyone is welcome). You’ll find regulars punching out their kilometre in the middle of the day, friendly groups of older men catching up for a chinwag and a few slow laps, and the odd closure for a swimming carnival midweek. You rarely have to share a lane with more than one other swimmer – no matter when you come.

Distance from CBD: 15km/30 minute drive

Kid-friendly: Yes

Dog-friendly: No

Facilities: Hot showers, change rooms, swim school

Public transport: From the city take a T9 train from Town Hall station to Burwood station. Then bus 466 from Burwood station to Cabarita Park.

Granville swimming centre

Enid Avenue, Granville

Granville Swimming Centre an old school, Art Deco pool in Granville, Sydney.

Granville swimming centre is an old-school, Art Deco pool. Photograph: Dillan Seitchik-Reardon

With the coast about an hour away, water culture in Sydney’s west is built around a handful of year-round public swimming pools. Granville is our favourite because it is easy to get to on public transport and equally close to South Street, a major hub for all things delicious. Having opened in 1936, Granville is one of the last remaining old-school pools on the map. The humble single-storey building with polychromatic brickwork is a good example of interwar Art Deco architecture and complements the ultra-modern community centre on the same site. It is nice to see development that respects the history of place, while remaining relevant to the next generation.

The heated Olympic pool is inviting in all seasons and the atmosphere is mercifully laidback. Granville is never empty of people but tends to be just quiet enough that we always manage to grab a free lane. Eating is a big part of this swimming experience – probably the main motivation for us. We push ourselves a little further here, because each lap feels like a banked credit to be spent on the ensuing indulgences at nearby South Street – a world tour of cuisine, from Indian diners and Lebanese pastry shops to Filipino buffets.

Distance from CBD: 21km/30 minute drive

Kid-friendly: Yes

Dog-friendly: No

Facilities: Change rooms and showers

Public transport: The best and easiest way to get here. This swim centre is 50m from Granville train station with regular service from the T1 and T2 lines.

Lake Parramatta

Illawong Drive, North Parramatta

The swimming area of Lake Parramatta, ringed in by red and yellow buoys.

The swimming area of Lake Parramatta, ringed in by red and yellow buoys. Photograph: Dillan Seitchik-Reardon

On the way here, it’s hard to imagine you are about to arrive at a place so idyllic. You’ve likely come through the buzzing commercial centre of Parramatta and popped out on the north side. Suddenly you are transported to a natural reserve spanning 73 hectares.

The water is a small portion of the reserve, with expansive bushland surrounding it. Also known as Hunts Creek, the reservoir is a manmade dam built in 1856 that once served as the local domestic water source. Nowadays, it is a huge heritage-listed recreational site, offering walking trails, public barbecues, undercover picnic tables, a playground and water sports (swimming, kayaking and boating).

In 2015 the council reopened the lake for swimming with a specially sanctioned area, about 100 metres wide and 50 metres across. Colourful yellow and red buoys mark the depth of water at, respectively: 1.8 metres, four metres and eight metres at the deepest point. Lifeguards patrol the swimming area over summer at certain times and they’ve gone to a lot of effort to make it accessible and safe. It’s a family-friendly area but lifeguards advise this is not a beginner swimming spot because the dark water does drop off quite suddenly. This doesn’t deter groups of teenagers accessing the riverbank from the opposite side to jump off the rocks. It’s not a high jump (one to two metres), but with any leap into water carries risks and unknowns – so it’s always safer to abstain.

Distance from CBD: 25.8km/37 minute drive

Kid-friendly: Yes, but under supervision

Dog-friendly: Yes, but on leash

Facilities: Parking, toilets, public barbecues, undercover picnic tables, water taps, walking trails, paddleboat and row boat hire, playground, cafe.

Public transport: From the city take the T1 train to Parramatta station. Then walk to bus stand A4 (at the station) and get on bus 600, 601 or 706. Get off at the stop at Church Street, just after Barney Street and walk 13 minutes north to the lake.

Jellybean Pool

77 Bruce Road, Glenbrook

A lone female swimmer enjoys an unusually quiet moment at the Jellybean Pool in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.

An unusually quiet moment at the Jellybean Pool in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Photograph: Dillan Seitchik-Reardon

Given its proximity to town and easy access (a few minutes’ walk in), on a warm, sunny weekend there’s nothing secluded about this place, a natural pool named for its shape and sweetness. Hordes of people flock to Jellybean Pool to float in the water and laze on the banks under gum trees. It can feel like you’ve arrived at a music festival, trying to find your own patch to lay out towels. But the crowds are always a sign of a good thing (it’s popular for a reason) and Jellybean Pool has plenty of redeeming features.

Drive past the info centre and park your car right down at the pool, before descending further into the gorge via a steep staircase, where a riverbed lies at the base. A sandy beach meets your feet, as a wide, bean-shaped lagoon bends with the landscape (roughly 20 metres wide and 150 metres long). The pool is surrounded by the high, bush-covered walls of Glenbrook Gorge, which is dotted with large sandstone boulders to perch on. The water here is blissfully cool on a hot summer’s day, with a lively scene of swimmers splash around, chatting in the shallows or floating on colourful inflatable lilos. The best spot to enter the water is from the sand at the base of the stairs. Entry is shallow and gradual and a little sludgy underfoot, but suddenly drops off into unexpectedly deep water.

Swimming across to the other side will grant you access to a glistening slab of flat rock in the sunshine, which hits the pool until late afternoon. If you like more seclusion, bush-bash your way downstream. There are plenty of small, clear pools and cascades. If you keep going you will eventually reach the Nepean River. It’s a typically magical Blue Mountains setting, and in easy striking distance west from the city.

Distance from CBD: 63km/one-hour drive

Kid-friendly: Yes

Dog-friendly: No

Facilities: Toilets and water up at the national park information centre, but nothing at the pool.

Public transport: Take the Blue Mountains line from Sydney Central station and get off at Glenbrook station. The pool is a further 2.3km walk south from the station.

Erskine Creek

Jack Evans track, Blue Mountains national park

A man with a watermelon floatie stands on the rocks at Erskine Creek.

Erskine Creek is a little off the beaten-path, but the 2km downhill hike is rewarded by the seclusion of the swim. Photograph: Dillan Seitchik-Reardon

Erskine Creek at Jack Evans Track is one of the closest Blue Mountains swims to the city, yet also one of the most secluded. Be sure to pack a picnic lunch so that you can remain in the gorge as long as possible during the day. The deep gorge is typical of the region, formed over millions of years as the small creek slowly carved through layers of sandstone during its journey to join the Nepean River downstream. The result is a narrow valley where the creek meanders among boulders and beaches, as small waterfalls spill into deep pools. Like many of our favourite places, it’s a little off the beaten track, but the extra effort yields enormous rewards.

From Nepean Lookout car park, you can take a quick 500-metre side trip past the locked gate to the namesake lookout. Otherwise, locate the trailhead near the large information signs in the car park. Jack Evans Track is well-built and easy to follow. It cruises through open woodland among scribbly bark gums and grass trees for a couple of hundred metres before emerging on a rock shelf with dizzying views of the gorge and Erskine Creek below. From this vantage point, it’s then about 2km of steady descent to the valley floor, the ease of which is only slightly tarnished by the knowledge that you will have to return the same way.

The track ends at the bottom of the gorge, where you will find a big, slow-moving pool. It’s at least 100 metres long and perfectly swimmable. However, we prefer to continue another 600 metres downstream, just past the next bend. There is not a defined track from this point on, so you have to find your own way among the trees and boulders. Look for a series of small cascades with clear water. Deep pools are nestled among the large boulders like ancient spa baths. Below, the creek pours into a clean, wide basin. It’s an ideal place to spend a whole day drifting in the lazy circles of an eddy. If you are quiet enough you may even spot a platypus.

Distance from CBD: 74km/1.5 hour drive

Getting there: Access to Erskine Creek is easiest and best from Jack Evans Track. To get to the trailhead, enter Blue Mountains national park at Glenbrook and follow Oaks Trail Road past Jellybean Pool, over the causeway (can be closed after heavy rain) and up the hill. At the top of the hill, it becomes a well-maintained unsealed road which is suitable for all types of vehicles. Follow signs to Nepean Lookout for about 11km until the road dead-ends at a locked gate and car park. The Jack Evans trailhead is in the car park, marked by a large information sign.

Kid-friendly: Only if they can walk about 2km of steep track.

Dog-friendly: No

Facilities: None in the gorge but toilets are along the access road at Euroka campground and Red Hands Cave.

Places We Swim Syd Cover

Public transport: Take the Blue Mountains line from Sydney Central station. It’s a 1.5km walk south-east from the station along Bruce Road to the park entrance. The Jack Evans trailhead is too far from the park entrance to be reached by foot (13km each way). Driving or cycling to the trailhead are the only viable options.

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