Icebergs

I’ve never wholeheartedly shared the hatred of a sauna window. While I will always extol the virtues of an unholy dark sweatbox (Terry T, I’m looking at you), there’s at least one room with a view that holds a special place in my heart. Sure, that huge window comes at the expense of a few good degrees of heat. Sure, one’s need for a view while sauna-ing comes precisely from the lack of requisite zone-out temperatures caused by the presence of the impractical wall-sized pane of glass. But when the product of a causal compromise looks like this, well, anything can be rationalised.

icebergs

Yes, that’s a silly commercial shot. Real sauna-cam is a tricky art to master, and one I haven’t actually gotten around to testing anyway. We (I) want to bring less, not more gear into the sauna. But I testify that this photo isn’t all too different to what the eye beholds inside Bondi Icebergs’ sauna room. Hailing from the bitter and unbeautiful southern climes of Melbourne town as I do, there’s a tendency for everything in Sydney to take on a postcard-from-paradise look. Don’t second guess, just enjoy the pretty.

Icebergs is a seabath facility perched iconically on the south side of Bondi Beach. As far as dealing with Bondi goes, it’s probably your smartest bet for avoiding tourists (you hypocritical tourist, you). At only $5.50 for entry you’d have rocks in your head not to swing by. The baths, as you can see, are filled with the same good ocean water as the rest of the beach. There’s a larger pool, perhaps just shy of 20 metres, for lap swimming, and another smaller pool for wading, frolicking and floating. Because this is Bondi, the cult of the body beautiful for which Sydney is so famous takes on parodic dimensions here. Icebergs, like the rest of the beach, will have babes in all varieties in varied states of repose. Leg spreading, phone yapping. This is ok, because Icebergs is also home to the serious group of swimmers by the same name. These folk have earned membership and the tacit respect of non-members by swimming at the baths at least three Sundays of every month between May and September. That’s Australian winter, folks. It’s still fucking cold. Icebergs (the place) maintains a good little balance between lightweight beach babes and intense sea dogs that love a regular freeze and thaw. Surprisingly the baths themselves are rarely what anyone would call busy – even in peak summer season. The only place that’s never quiet is the sauna.

Yep, the sauna really steps up. Despite all the charms of Icebergs, I’d probably never really cross the Point Piper/Bondi threshold if the rocks weren’t cooking. To reiterate – entry to this place is $5.50. That’s FULL entry. Fuck, the bitch of NARC stings me for $7.10 with concession. And all I get to see through Northcote’s window is a balding Greek grandfather chatting up a middle aged Vietnamese woman in the spa. It’s not even as good as it sounds.

The sauna at Icebergs is powered by two large conventional electric units, one at either side of the door. On my most recent visit a major flaw in the design of the room was pointed out to me during sauna chat – incidentally, is there any better subject for sauna chat than saunas? For some reason the ceiling is a foot higher above the front part of the sauna before it drops down again at a right angle for the rest of the room. This means that a good deal of the heat generated by the units rises and becomes trapped at the point before the ceiling drops to its regular height, only to escape out of the door whenever it’s opened. Which is often. As a consequence the sauna is rarely as hot as it should be for its size, considering it’s cooking on two burners.

This is mitigated by the strong watering culture I suspect is fostered by the Icebergs members. There’s a refreshing and absolute lack of signs forbidding the pouring of water on the rocks. I have never visited without some wise-guy giving them a full dousing, often with a dash of Eucalyptus oil. Once I accidentally dripped my pink lemonade bottle on the rocks, leaving the room in a stinking cloud of cotton candy – and no one minded. With the right person attending to these duties, the temperature can rise to a doable level. Although I’m sad to say I’m yet to experience a good ‘I’m getting the fuck outta here’ moment, I have zoned and dreamed, usually with an eye to the horizon hoping for a whale sighting (it happens, only not to me), or otherwise, watching the younger surfers wring all the ride they can out of the waves that wash the shore.

As an incurable non-lap swimmer my appreciation of the sea bath aspect of Icebergs only comes from using the pool as a between-sauna-rounds plunge. In this respect the pool is more than adequate – it’s deep, clean and super cold. Knowing the water has come directly from the adjacent ocean somehow gives the act of plunge-pooling an extra refreshing dimension. I have no time for diving into chlorinated water between saunas so I’m particularly grateful for opportunities to do true hot-cold cycling as the sauna gods intended.

I’ve always enjoyed the chat at Icebergs. Experience behind the bar has shown me there’s nothing bitchier than a middle-aged businessman and certain Icebergs members have proven no mean exception. Last time someone was getting their speedos in a knot about never getting invited to an ongoing brunch. There’s also some high quality bullshit going on – ideas for phone apps, general theories of language acquisition, work-out tips, Indonesia in the 1970s, bifocal versus multifocal lenses, pretty girls. That’s the talk you want to hear, and there’s no shortage of it. Given its location within a premiere tourist destination – there’s a weird restaurant upstairs and god knows what goes on up there – it’s reassuring to know that Icebergs retains its culture of regulars. One can’t help feeling that these guys know they know what they’re doing. Let’s see what the board says:

The Heat/15 11
Spatial aesthetic/5 5
Quality of Chit chat/10 9
Ability and efficacy of water on rocks /10
(or use sensor to increase steam/heat)
10
Quality of fresh air access /10 10
Cool down/10 10
Lighting /10 9
Cost to value /5 5
Accessibility /5 4
Little extras /10 8
Overall feeling /10 9
OVERALL PROXIMITY TO BOILING POINT/100 90
 

Holy moly, 90. That might sound high for a place that has never pushed it, heat wise. Still, while it hasn’t pushed it, the room does get hot enough to sweat and zone. I imagine without the sauna as the warm ‘carrot’ dangling in front of swimmers doing laps in the freezing water of the Pacific, Icebergs would have very few members. It’s the unsung hero of the club, and fast becoming my personal favourite haunt in our fairer neighbouring city.

Bondi Icebergs:  ‘The Home of Winter Swimming Since 1929’

1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach NSW 2026

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The Devil’s Playground

Burke2

It’s as if I went to the local DVD store (such a visit is a worthwhile if somewhat antiquated pursuit) and requested a masculinity trilogy. This week I walked out of North Carlton’s Small Screen with Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat, starring James Cagney, and Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground. While watching White Heat I reflected on James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano – so many quirks in voice and action were lifted into that character from Cagney. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the wildly funny scene in which Meadow brings her precocious college boyfriend Noah to the Soprano household for a film screening. Noah ridiculously pitches this observation at Tony: ‘You a film buff? People say Hawks invented the genre with Scarface, but Cagney was modernity.’

When asked at the beginning of a movie night a few weeks ago whether I’d seen The Devil’s Playground, I said sure, the one  about rumspringer, the Amish meth-and-sex-loophole? Turns out the title resonated with quite a few filmmakers – as well as Schepisi’s sweet coming-of-age-in-training-for-priesthood semi-autobiography, the title was used for a silent Australian film from the 1920s, a couple of mid-century American dramas and a recent British horror film. So this week when discussing my film watching habits I’ve had to use director’s names as qualifiers. What am I doing tonight? I’m watching Schepisi’s Devil’s Playground. On the weekend I reacquainted myself with Tim Burton’s Batman (and related viewing material). And so on.

There’s much to be said for a casual delivery. TDP never feels very formal about character development. Simon Burke’s 13 year old Tom Allen faces the angst producing situations one would expect a teenager to encounter in any setting, let alone a seminary – bullying, loneliness, body shame, chronic horniness. But somehow this is never an angsty or serious film – it is so charming precisely because it avoids this cliche entirely. Burke always emerges from scrapes against arbitrary discipline and jibes with an innocent smile on his face. I still don’t know if I can tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acting, but I imagine it’s usually better to underact than overact – there’s a perceivable ease to Burke’s performance that is just so inviting. There’s a wonderful casualness to the various scenarios that’s emphasised by the charming use of vernacular. After being strangely coerced to cup the balls of another student, Burke yells ‘you’re bloody pissweak!’ when it turns out the other fellow doesn’t actually want to be pulled.

The pathos is sparing even in the face of the most dire existential crisis. For instance, the brothers in their quarters discuss the value of tradition and discipline – one of the elders sips his whiskey and points to the ceiling, asking, ‘what if he’s not really there, eh?’ Each brother nurses his doubts while furtively peeking into the swimsuits of the opposite sex. Each wonders about the dubious social capital of the divine vocation (aka being God’s boyfriend) in modern Australia. There are, incidentally, many lovely location shots of Melbourne in the 1970s (looking like the 1950s) – Werribbee Mansion, the City Baths, and what looks to me like the Napier Hotel.

There’s a decided lack of resolution that is extremely satisfying and wholly consistent with an exploration of modern faith. We never find out the cause of Tom’s bed-wetting, nor do we see its cure. Appropriately too, we never really see the bed-wetting bother the protagonist, even in the face of teasing. The bed-wetting seems to purpose the occasion of daily sheet washing, which is one of the only ritual activities featured in the visual language of the TDP. It’s all very comforting indeed, empty ritual. There’s a sort of lovely Ken Loachy lack of judgement going on. If you find the sound of pool balls being hit around the table comforting, you’ll draw extra comfort from this movie.