Barrenjoey headland lies in the distance, its lighthouse prominent among the newly burnt and blackened surroundings. There are 2.5km of orange sand, the Tasman Sea and a soap opera set between us. It’s quieter at the end tourists know as Summer Bay, but I am making my way to the southern rock pool.
Palm Beach pool, nestled in a corner of Sydney’s northernmost beach, is protected from frequent cool and blustery southerly winds by a steep headland and a wide sweep of rocks. Once, I could simply wander down the locals’ bushtrack, which begins deep amid the houses on the hill and ends at a wooden staircase next to the kids’ splash pool. But I’ve come from further afield, so I park my car alongside the beach, paying a fee so small it’s un-Sydney, and wander down the crunchy sand-covered path. Looking up, I fantasise about owning one of the cliff-set mansions that count kiddies’ corner as a front yard.
A mix of lap swimmers, cautious tourists and young kids are drawn here – one of the northern beaches’ coveted 50-metre pools. Leathery sun worshippers sprawl on the large stone steps outside the change rooms, overdosing on vitamin D. Shallow steps on the inland edge let the kids feel a little braver in the deep end and readers can sit partially submerged if the day is a stinker.
If I was here early enough I might have caught the tail end of Johnny Carter’s pay-what-you-can swim school. After 65 years, Johnny’s classes – equal parts terror and delight – are the stuff of local legend. Multiple generations have spent childhood summer mornings in Johnny’s gruff lessons-at-volume, perfecting their stroke.
But for now it’s as quiet as it’s likely to get for this time of year. I leave my towel on the small patch of grass near the showers and walk around to the ocean side of the 1920s dugout. I’m level with the surfers waiting for any hint of wave, but not as far out to sea as the rock fishermen casting a line.
The cool water – best visited midweek with the sun shining and a breeze from the south – is a relief from the heat. The lack of lane markings or anyone who cares for them ensures the languid laziness of the summer day continues as swimmers keep up a gentle pace.
If the wind dies down I’ll be back at dusk, when the crowds are gone and the fading light makes me feel as though I’m the only one here.