Thinking about Balmoral

By Vita Forest

It’s the summer holidays and that means lots of time spent swimming in salt water.  One of my favourite haunts is Balmoral Beach, a place with so many layers of memory washing over it.

There’s the lemon scent I catch as I walk down the street where I usually park the car, from who knows what plant – it’s not a lemon tree.  This street with the sign at the entrance to the driveway of a block of apartments “Don’t even think about parking here” which causes equal parts outrage and laughter.  The flats, with the garage that at one time had its door raised to reveal a private gym, and another time, another year, a stall of random items for sale including a couple of Margaret Atwood books.  One day I bought The Blind Assassin.  The next day I bought Alias Grace.  A street I walk along and wonder, which house would I live in?  If I could?  Or would I choose that low-maintenance apartment with its shady verandah looking out over the beach?

There’s The Baths.  Years ago, we used to have our initial swimming carnival for high school there (before moving onto to the more serious North Sydney Olympic pool for the finals).  It was a fun day out, with those who wanted to participating in the races, diving off the floating blocks into the often choppy water, while those who didn’t, sunbaking on the slatted wooden jetty or splashing about in the shallows near the sand.  In recent years, Max and Lucy have floated there on giant doughnuts or blow up boats or snorkelled under the jetty looking for fish and crabs and the rumours of seahorses living in the waving kelp.  In recent years I have returned here to swim, simplifying my routine by swimming without goggles or a cap.  Perhaps that is why I don’t do Freestyle anymore – too much water gets in my ears.  Instead I keep my head out – all the better to see where I am going and to pause every now and then to look up at the bush on the headland or the clouds floating in the blue sky.

Further south, there are large fig trees that grow on the grass behind the sand.  Some of them are like pavilions with branches extending over the beach itself.  It was under one of these that I used to sit with Lucy as a baby, her body lying between my legs, her feet kicking into the air as she gazed up at the twinkling brightness of the sun through the fig leaves.  It was here that her feet were first dipped into salt water, tiny toes flaring up at its coldness.  It was here I rocked the pram covered with a muslin cloth, groggy with lack of sleep, and watched Max play on the pirate ship in the playground.

Heading north, there’s the island attached to the promenade by an arched concrete bridge.  It was here we drank cheap champagne on one of our last days of high school.  It was here I have stopped with innumerable friends on innumerable walks up and down the beach in summer and winter, sunshine and rain.  It was here a month or so ago, I sat on a rock and drew a fig tree growing out of a crevasse between two boulders of sandstone, its roots clutching and wrapping around the rocks.  It was on that occasion that I saw the young bride and groom, she in a backless white gown that showed off the tattoos on her tanned shoulders.

It’s to this place I have come in summer, either early or late, to avoid the harshness of the midday sun.  And so I never see Freya, who I work with, who only goes there at the hottest time of the day.  She is young and invincible and lies in the sun to get a tan, something I never do.  Me in my long-sleeved rashie seeing if I can still swim a kilometre.

I can.


This week

By Vita Forest

Sunday sunrise at Curl Curl

This week I have been


  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  • Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit


  • At Bombo
  • Programs for school including one on Poetry incorporating David Chapelle’s short film of Sergei Poluntin dancing to Take me to Church by Hozier.  I am excited!

EXPERIENCING Sydney’s extreme weather this week – storms and heavy rain on Tuesday, crazy-high temperatures on Friday and Saturday.

VISITING the water to cool off on the weekend… Murray Rose/Redleaf Pool in Woollahra and Curl Curl Beach.

WALKING AND TALKING with Saskia at Curl Curl after a swim.

BUMPING into an old student and family at Curl Curl (it was all happening at Curl Curl…)

MISSING outdoor sketching due to the extreme temperatures.


  • time to relax.
  • time for yoga.

Saturday morning at Refleaf pool, Woollahra





    U is for… Unconscious

    By Vita Forest


    How much of what Nicola did was unconscious?  Was it an unconscious decision to apply for that job?  In that other world she thought she lived in, Nicola didn’t have to do that.  It had not been part of her plan.  They had more than enough money for a comfortable life and she had time for contributing to her children’s life, to her family’s life, to the community.  But somewhere down deep, a tiny hand had tugged at her shirt tail and told her to put in the effort and apply for that job.  Told her that even though she didn’t have to, she should.  Called back to her from the future that it was an absolute necessity.

    And she got the job.  Started building her career again.  It was good to feel useful, to be good at something, because she was unconsciously beginning to get the message that she wasn’t good at being what Joe wanted anymore.  That little hand again, tapping at her side, pointing out the way he winced as she spoke (shrill), the way he sneered at her achievements (small), the way he stayed out more and more (Important meetings).

    Was the swimming unconscious too?  Was the building up of her strength and stamina just something that she happened upon?  Afterwards, she would charge up and down the pool, screaming into the water, as her fingers clawed and her feet thrashed and her whole body beat out her frustration.  Up and back, up and down, back and forth, following the black line on the base of the pool, hypnotised by that thick black line, her world reduced to getting to the end, then slapping the side and doing it again.  Turning herself into a warrior.  Strong.  Flexible.  Resilient.  And smelling a little of chlorine.  But it gave her a place to go.  It gave her something to do.  Something regular.  Something calming.  Something slightly more wholesome than turning to the drinks cabinet (which was also tempting).

    Nicola liked the way swimming made her lungs burn, her arms ache, her temples beat in time with the blood pounding around her body.  She liked the way the water blanketed and obscured the noise of everything outside the pool.  She was a fish, a dolphin, a stingray, communicating through clicks and squeals.  There was no language.  No words.  No betrayal, just survival.  And that was unconscious too.  Nicola could go through the motions, let herself be carried by the water, by her body, by her routine, until the time came to emerge from the pool and get back on land.  Among the living.  In that new life that she had had no inkling of, except in her deepest unconscious.

    That place that seemed to know everything.


    J is for… Joy

    By Vita Forest


    Pip is lying under the edge of the big fig tree, head resting on her bag, trying to keep cool, trying to study, trying not to think about Sam.  Speaking of Sam, a shadow falls across her body and she squints up into the sun.  Hallowed by the heat haze is a very Sam-like shape, hair sticking out in all directions, long arms hanging by his side, skinny jeans, even in this heat.  Sam.

    She sits up and shades her eyes with her hand, “Hi.”

    “Hi,” he answers, “Wanna come for a swim?”

    Pip looks down at her book then up at this silhouetted vision again.

    “Sure, she says, “I’ll just grab my things. Whose coming?”

    He shrugs and grins at her, “Just us I think.”

    She looks down as she packs up her bag so he won’t see her blush.



    The bus is hot and old and crowded, no air-conditioning.  The windows are pushed open as wide as they can go.  They hang off a pole together near the door, taking big gulps of the breeze that blasts through the bus every time the doors open.  At the Junction, a lot of people get off and then they move to a seat.  Pip is very aware of the entire right side of her body pressing into the entire left side of Sam’s.  Shoulder to shoulder, tricep down to elbow, hip to knee.  Does he do this to every person he sits next to?  Or is it just her?  They chat merrily away, like they usually do, but Pip feels the heat rise to her face and concentrate along that line of contact down her right side.  Sam holds her gaze for just a moment longer than is necessary, or is she just imagining it?  Perhaps today is the day.  The bus barrels down the hill and Pip grips the top of the seat in front of them, Sam grabs her elbow as the bus swings around a corner.  Their eyes meet.

    Today could be the day, thinks Pip.


    They leap off the bus and run down the hill to the sand.  They peel off sticky clothes and run to join the hordes in the water.  Pip sinks underwater as a wave crashes over her.  She feels her body relax and cool in the thrumming silence.  She rises up again above the water into the heat and the light and the noise.  Sam is there beside her, hair slicked back by the sea water, grinning at her.  She takes a deep breath and watches the waves driving in toward them.  There is time, she thinks, time to find his hand underwater.  Time to pull him toward her, time to wrap her arms around those shoulders, those shoulders of his! Time to lean in…


    Sam grabs her shoulders and pulls her down as the wave crashes over them.  She splutters and coughs and finds his hands underwater.  She grips them tightly.  They rise to the surface again.  She looks at him.

    Today is the day.


    This week

    By Vita Forest


    This is week I have been

    • READING The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (not even half way, it’s a hefty tome).
    • WRITING Lil’ green bug
    • HONING ideas for costumes and choreography for the senior dance group at school.
    • WATCHING reruns of The Adventures of Merlin with my daughter Lucy. We love it!
    • VISITING Kiama with Lucy for a mother/daughter weekend away with lots of
    • SWIMMING at two rock pools and two beaches and
    • WALKING around the Kiama Coast Walk to the Little Blowhole (it performed well for us, unlike its bigger relation).

    Here and now

    By Vita Forest

    Collaroy Rockpool

    Collaroy Rockpool

    Last week was fairly typical February weather in Sydney – the kind of weather that drains me of energy.  High temperatures and high humidity, what my mother calls “stinking hot!”

    After such a week, it was tempting to stay home and do not much.  But on Sunday Max and I ventured out with Briony on an expedition to the Northern Beaches of Sydney to get us some surf.  We ended up at Long Reef (Briony’s favourite).  But after we had parked the car, picked our way down the road, and walked over the reddish sand hills, we arrived to find a sign planted squarely in the sand saying “Beach closed”.

    The water sparkled and the day was hot, but there was no safe spot to swim, the waves were big and dumpy and there were dangerous currents – so we were told by the lifeguard.  Perhaps they would open the beach in half an hour or so.  Or not.  The surf would be rough all over.  Cyclone Winston from Fiji you know?  (The butterfly effect of it being felt on Australia’s East coast as big seas and rough surf).  But maybe Collaroy might be better, though it could be weedy.  And it did have a rockpool.

    We decided to chance Collaroy rather than standing in the sun, staring longingly at water which may or may not be safe in thirty minutes.  So we trekked back to the car over the hot, heat-hazed sand and drove north.

    It certainly was weedy at Collaroy – the breakers rolled beach-ward green and prickly with the stuff.

    But there was a rockpool…

    The pool was divided up with lane ropes, the central section home to the local swimming club, while each side was free for more leisurely swimming.  We walked past the swimming club’s sausage sizzle, and leapt out of the way of a swell of water rising so high, it carried an esky out from under the serving table.  Swimmers bobbed breast stroke  up and down the lanes, trying to swim straight, as the water rolled through, showing who was really in control.

    As Max and I waded in, a thuggish 4 year old wearing goggles and a floaty on his back, tried to cut off my progress, but I would not be thwarted.  The relief of the cool water!

    Collaroy rockpool

    Collaroy rockpool – later than our swim with a higher tide and comparatively calm water.

    We moved over to the far side of the pool closer to the sea.  There was a row of kids clinging onto the chain link loops of the fence on the side of the pool.  This was in order to catch the waves that were rushing in, smashing on the rocks, then crashing over into the pool.  There was surf in the pool, its forced diluted somewhat by the rocky headland, but still strong enough to knock a grown man into the pool.  (He emerged unharmed, cap still wedged on his head.)

    Max and I sat on the ledge while Briony watched from the safety of the water.  We would follow the heave of a wave from out at sea, then wait as the crest rose over the headland and smashed, bubbling foam over the concrete barrier, carrying us forward with it.  We yelled and laughed as we surrendered to the power of the water – the danger of it, the lack of control.


    Look at those waves!

    It’s times like this that I am happy I am still agile, still fit, still able to heave myself up out of a pool and into the way of a churning wave, into the path of a roaring sea dragon.  It reminds me I am alive.  It cleans out the cobwebs, all the tiredness, stiffness and lethargy of the last week gone.  Everything  brought  back to the here and now, sitting beside my son on a concrete barrier and waiting for the water to carry us away.




    Swimming Meditation

    By Vita Forest

    Another hand-written post from the holidays…

    Kiama rock pool

    Rock pool at Kiama’s Blowhole Point

    This morning I did a swimming meditation at Kiama’s Blowhole Point. The water was clear and clean, magnifying the dappled base of the pool – rocks, moss and seaweed. At the end of each lap, my fingers sank into soft moss and my toes kicked against limpets. I counted my laps back and forth and watched the pelicans spiralling up in the sky and the rogue waves surprising the figures lounging on the rocky headland, momentarily flooding the pool with white water.

    Two old men greeted each other while they rested between laps, commenting on the quality of the water (better than yesterday). A woman floated on a surf-mat, fingers trailing in the water while the skin on her back sizzled. Toddlers paddled in the shallows while their parents sat up to their waists in the warmer water. A curious helicopter flew north, red against the sky. Children flung themselves shrieking into the deep water, and a girl stood Amazonian and strong, toes gripping the pool’s edge, as a wave smashed around her ankles.

    Back and forth I went, watching surfers in flippers leap off seaweed-shrouded rocks just at the right time, paddling furiously away from the jagged black basalt headland before the waves crashed again. I swam on my back north to south, and on my front south to north, keeping the worst of the sun’s glare out of my eyes.

    I looked up toward the lighthouse and reflected how so many of the views in Kiama are from the low-angle, turning humans into monumental figures against the horizon – a boy on a scooter, a couple standing on a hill, and a girl riding a horse near the showground. I looked up from my low angle in the water, up over the grass toward the end of the headland, and wondered if I’d ever, in my whole life, see the blowhole spouting water so far up into the sky you could see it from the mountains.

    Are you in?

    By Vita Forest

    Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre

    Are you in?

    Sydney, as you might imagine, has a large collection of pools.  We went to one of them on Tuesday – the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre.  It is not the closest pool, or the most scenic, but it does have other advantages.  We picked up Max’s friend Max (yes, two friends with the same name and even the same initial.  That’s what happens in real life) and I battled through the pouring rain in the car.

    It is a large indoor complex with a selection of pools to suit all swimmers.  And the water is warm.  Warm enough to stay in for nearly four hours (when the free parking runs out).  There are pools to swim laps in, dive in, sit in and play in.  And even one whose floor can be raised and lowered depending on the activity (Water polo? No problem).  We spent a bit of time on the waterslide, in one of the spas, and on the wet playground (with its warning bell sounding when the enormous bucket of water at its peak was almost full and about to tip).  But the funnest of the fun was indeed the Rapid River.

    This is an undulating circuit which careers around in a snaking loop, it starts with a great surge of water at the path’s opening which propels you forward with great speed immediately, and ends in a larger open area where you can catch your breath, swing off and hang out under one of the shower-like fountains, or keep your feet up and be carried around again.  It has jet outlets around the walls which push the swimmer forward and make it difficult to move backwards.

    We spent most of our time here because this was the best place for a monster game of tip.  Tip has evolved somewhat since I was at school.  Now they use hand signals.  It’s quite easy and quite fun.  Holding up two fingers in a Peace sign means you are not “in”.  If only one is displayed (as if you have just thought of a great idea), you better get away from there fast!  If you get tipped, you have to give the tipper a ten second getaway.  This can also be counted wordlessly, displaying the diminishing timeframe on fingers disappearing into a fist…

    There were lots of strategies; you could wait opposite a screen which showed live camera images from further down the river (when another player surged closer, you could swim on yourself), you could float by at the back of another group of revellers and hope that you might be mistaken for a piece of flotsam (like Harrison Ford did in The Fugitive), or you could slowly drag yourself the wrong way back through the current and huddle behind a bulge in the tiled wall.  And wait.  Sometimes it was a case of speed – crashing and diving through the crush of bodies, sometimes it was crouching in the stiller water like a crocodile with only your snout and eyes above water.

    I was not the only adult in the river and I was not the oldest.  All of us had silly happy grins on our faces.

    Because it was just a lot of fun.