An ode to our oceans, pools, rivers, and waterfalls – those fluid expanses that embrace us with their gentle, infinite strength


We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Country on which this adventure takes place who have occupied and cared for the lands, waters, and their inhabitants, for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.


The Weight of Water

I’d like to start with words that aren’t mine: words that were sent to me via email by my oldest friend, in the middle of lockdown when the chance that we might never see each other again was acutely, terrifyingly possible.

‘So much magic can be pinpointed to watery memories… maybe something dissolves in water that makes these magic things more possible – maybe this sort of magic is soluble.’

Clare and I had been visiting New Zealand when the world stopped. It was the middle of March 2020, and gatherings of 500 people had just been banned, rendering my job (organising a 2000 person event in the centre of Sydney) null and void.

I hadn’t thought too much of it as I boarded the plane to Christchurch on the evening of the 13th of March, my mind was occupied with the joyful promise of reuniting with a person that I love.


the bodies that hold us, winnie stubbs, we are explorers, film, wild swimming-10, beach


Over the next few days, as reality as we knew it crumbled around us, Clare and I were suspended in a surreal, sepia-toned bubble in the hills of Hurunui. This mountainous region of New Zealand’s South Island is known as one of the country’s adventure hubs, but for Clare and I, this was a place of unthinkable stillness – an oasis in a burning world.

We spent our days hiking slowly up mountains and eating mustard-loaded sandwiches in the weak New Zealand sun, gradually metabolising the fact that everything we thought we knew about our future was suddenly uncertain.

World’s Ripped Apart

On the 16th of March, we booked early flights home and said goodbye at Christchurch airport: crying at the gate and hugging repeatedly ‘one last time’ before setting off to our far flung homes. 

That morning, we’d walked down a sloping amber hillside and swam in the icy waters of the Hurunui River.

The water stung our skin and trapped the breath in our lungs, and for the moments we spent embraced by its power, all our other worries fell away.

I had to isolate at home for fourteen days when I returned to Sydney, and on the day of my freedom, I woke before dawn and walked through the sleeping streets of Paddington to Redleaf – the harbour pool tucked below a park in Double Bay.

Redleaf had been my swimming spot for years – the place I’d come to rinse my mind after a busy afternoon at work, or on weekends before the city woke to the day. It had been my home on Sunday mornings before brunch, and the perfect place for midnight swims after hours spent pressed up to strangers on sticky dancefloors.

It had been my happy place, and even when the rain came and turned the waters a disconcerting brown, a swim at Redleaf made a day better.

The Remedy

For the following few weeks, I’d swim there every morning – sometimes with my partner and sometimes alone. When it was the two of us, we’d practise yoga on the boardwalk before jumping into the water and walking home feeling ocean-kissed and alive. The Sydney sunshine, like an older sibling in the face of family turmoil, stepped up its game. For weeks on end, we woke to perfect blue skies, and our morning swims made us feel as though the joy of being alive was still ours for the taking.

Then, one sunny Saturday morning, even that had to stop – signs pinned to the steps read ‘Beach closed until further notice’ and black and yellow barriers blocked the gaps in the railings. 

Maroubra, Coogee, and Clovelly were the first beaches to re-open, and Sydney rejoiced.

My housemate drove us to Coogee the moment we all logged off from our online offices, five of us wrapped in towels, windows open to the evening air.

It was twilight when we got to the beach, and the gradient of the sky was a palette of pastels: apricot into powder pink into gentle baby blue. The moon that hung above the city was fingernail thin; a determined, immovable presence above an unsettled society. And as we floated on our backs and let the waves wash over us, the existential dread that had bubbled in our brains for weeks began to dissipate, if only for a moment.


the bodies that hold us, winnie, we are explorers, film, wild swimming-3, ocean


I’m not alone in my lockdown love affair with the ocean, and on the day that the five kilometre radius rule was introduced, my heart bled for the people now barred from accessing this infinite resource of happiness – the ultimate reset. I was living in regional New South Wales at the time, and my fondest memories from a chapter characterised by lockdowns and solitude can all be pinned to waterfalls, swimming holes, and the ocean.

I swam in the rivers of Bellingen and in the waterfalls that cascade through the Koonyum Range. When I lived alone in Byron Bay – a place known for its energy but for me defined by loneliness – I swam at Little Wategos every morning, and though I missed the people I loved, the ocean’s sparkle was unrelenting. Now, I’m back in Sydney surrounded by my closest friends, but still my daily dips are my most reliable companion.

The Water That Runs Through Us

This isn’t a guide to the best swimming spots in Australia and New Zealand, nor even Sydney, because a superlative can’t be applied to something so personal.

There are times – in the ocean pool at Bronte at 8pm on a winter weeknight, when I’m alone aside from the lights of planes passing overhead – that I’m certain that this particular corner of coastline is the most magical place on earth. Hand in hand with that certainty, is the knowledge that Clare would just as resolutely assign the same title to the Irish Sea off the coast of Dublin, or the tidal rivers that wind through the Devon hills – wherever she’s finding her aquatic fix.

With that in mind, I’m inclined to believe one of the most poignantly esoteric lines ever exchanged via email: that this sort of magic is soluble.


the bodies that hold us, winnie, we are explorers, film, wild swimming-8, friends, swimwear, togs