Think of Australia's most famous ocean baths and Bondi Icebergs immediately springs to mind. Seeing striking images of Australia's most photographed pool makes me want to dive in alongside scores of lap swimmers with the exact same idea.
But head north up the M1 to Newcastle, a cool compact city on the NSW coast, and if you know where to look you'll find Australia's oldest - and arguably just as good-looking - sea baths.
Lying spectacularly at the bottom of a rugged cliff face carved into a natural rock platform lies the little-known Bogey Hole. It's one of Newcastle's most Instagrammable landmarks loved and treasured by locals yet it's easy for visitors to miss this historic hidden gem.
Best viewed from above (access is from historic King Edward Park) the hand-hewn swimming hole is equally impressive when smashed by pounding waves or when the sea is calm and languid. Convicts risked life and limb in 1819 to chisel out the private swimming hole from the exposed rock shelf south of Newcastle Beach for the then-Commandant of Newcastle, James Morisset. Local Novocastrian John Beach, who has swum at the Bogey Hole since he was a child, said you can almost sense the presence of a hundred convicts grinding and picking away at the rock, cursing the man who set them the gruelling task.
Known originally as Morriset's or the Commandant's Baths, the striking ocean pool's rich and storied past gives a fascinating insight into Australia's earliest colonial history. Fortuitously for Newcastle the Bogey Hole (which derives from the Dharawal word meaning "to bathe") became a public pool in 1863. It was enlarged seven times in size, had an iron rail built around it for safety and even had its own caretaker who handed swimmers fresh towels as they emerged from their refreshing dip.
The improvements produced "one of the finest swimming baths in NSW or Australia", gushed a report by the then Newcastle Borough Council. It featured a bottom "almost as smooth as a billiard table filled with pure sparkling sea water so clear that one could distinguish a button or pin at the bottom of the deepest part" the 1884 report said.
"It's a wonderful irony that what started life as a private pool for the settlement's commandant has now become such an import part of our city's public life," Beach said.
The downside of the Bogey Hole's hard-to-reach and, at times, treacherous location has meant over the years it has seen numerous drownings (and near drownings), injuries, crashing boulders and even a shipwreck. A car crashed through barriers in 1927 and plunged seventy metres onto the rocks - driver and passenger surprisingly walking away without a scratch.
The state government closed the unpatrolled baths on several occasions due to dangerous rock falls and damage caused by heavy swells. Safety was dramatically improved in 2016 however through significant rock stabilisation works and the erection of new fencing, signage and a sturdy steel staircase of around 40 steps.
Today the heritage-listed baths are one of Newcastle's most treasured landmarks. Local Greek Orthodox churches use the pool for a traditional blessing of the waters, teenagers flock here in summer while women dressed as mermaids have been seen swimming in its emerald coloured waters. A swim in this magnificent pool (sometimes accompanied by a dare devilish leap from the rocks) is considered somewhat of a rite of passage for young Novocastrians.
On days when the swell is small, it's like a mirror and can be so astonishingly clear you can see fish, crabs and starfish beneath the surface. On big swell days, waves crash dramatically into the pool – often accompanied by crazy youngsters hanging on to the railings for dear life. One thing's for sure, you never regret a swim at this fascinating remnant of our penal past.
The Bogey Hole, Shortland Esplanade, King Edward Park, Newcastle. Entry is free and the pool is open 24/7 however it's strongly advised not to swim when the swell is big. There are no changing facilities or toilets. See here for more information.