Bondi Surf Bathers' Life Saving Club claims to be the world's oldest, founded in 1907. Members invented the life-saving surf line and reel, and perform around 5,000 rescues over the summer period.
Bondi – Long Read

Permanent holiday mood all year round

Photo by John Warburton-Lee

Bondi – Long Read Permanent holiday mood all year round

Hello Bondi, an Australian icon that is a magnet for visitors from all over the world, drawn to its famous beach and surf culture. But among the tourist-packed main street and the masses baking in the sun lives a community of creative, chilled-out and long-term locals who enjoy the permanent holiday mood all year round.

Andrew Stone
Andrew Stone Travel Writer

“How Far Can You Wear Your Underpants from the Beach?” That is the question Australian filmmaker John Biggins posed in an amusing 2010 ‘short’, filmed at Bondi Beach.

We have all been there. You forgot your bathing costume, so you swim or sunbathe in your underwear. After all, no one really notices – or at least that is what you tell yourself. But where is the line of social acceptability? Is it OK to stride without trousers to the gelato stall, or march off the beach in bra and knickers for a coffee?

The film is tongue-in-cheek but it harks back to a time at Bondi when even swimming costumes were considered shocking. A Victorian-era ban on swimming during daylight hours was only overturned after a few locals started publicly defying it in 1903. In 1907, even bigger protests greeted a proposal to make male bathers wear skirts. Yes, skirts. As late as 1929, the local Waverley Council was still declaring Bondi to be “a gentlemen’s resort”, banning games including cricket and leapfrog and saying: “The beach is reserved for surfers and others who can conduct themselves with decorum.”

These attitudes lingered until the 1950s, when a beach inspector escorted 20-year-old showgirl Bettine Baker off the beach for wearing a bikini “with red and white glaring stripes” while “sunbaking”. He took her to a policeman who “just grinned and said he had noticed me some time before,” Baker told a local newspaper. “The whole business is so old-fashioned and narrow-minded it’s not even funny.”

Men in skimpy “budgie smuggler” trunks

It is hard to imagine that today, when I look at the vast amount of bare flesh on show, sizzling in the sun. A 1950s bikini would seem positively modest compared to the ones barely clinging to many women, never mind the topless ones, while the men in skimpy “budgie smuggler” trunks also leave little to the imagination. I wonder what the ever-growing but fully-dressed Chinese tour groups make of it as they paddle, shoes in hand, smiling for the camera in front of the constant backdrop of surfers bobbing “out the back” (beyond the break). Do they not feel the urge to strip down to their underwear and join in?

Journalist John Pilger, one of Bondi’s most famous sons, wrote in A Secret Country: “The beach is Australia’s true democracy. We Australians did not derive our freedoms from bewigged founding fathers...there was no antipodean Gettysburg… We have found our freedom by taking our clothes off and doing nothing of significance.”

“In many ways, it is the ultimate example of genuine egalitarianism that people talk about in Australia,” says surfer and film producer Marcus Gillezeau. “Things get stripped away completely when you’re on Bondi, no one has many clothes on and you have no idea who you might be sitting next to. A couple of years ago I was with my family on the beach and realized [X-Men actor] Hugh Jackman and his family were sitting next to us. No one paid any attention to them and there were no paparazzi. You don’t get many places like that in the world.”

Bondi is a true melting pot

A former squatter and social activist, and producer of the multi-award winning documentary movie Storm Surfers 3D, Gillezeau is a life-long Sydney native. He owns an apartment at Bondi and worked with his wife and business partner Elle out of Bondi offices until recently, in part for the buzz of the place. “Bondi is a true melting pot,” he says. “You find yourself among third-generation Greeks, Italians, Russian kids, a big, vibrant Jewish population and a whole tribe of ultra progressive people in the arts.”

Part of the reason for the social mix is that new immigrants made their homes here because it used to be cheap. And it was cheap because it was neglected and crime-ridden. “When I was about 12 years old, I went down to Bondi the first time,” says Gillezeau. “As soon as it got to six o’clock you realized it was a scary place full of people dealing drugs who were potentially going to beat you up.”

It was still a grim place as recently as 20 years ago, says book publicist Jaki Arthur, who has lived in a 1930s Tamarama apartment, just south of Bondi, for a decade. “The buildings were in disrepair and the water was dirty with a sewer outlet emptying right into the water,” she says. These days, alongside the second and third-generation immigrant families, you find a mix of cashed-up finance professionals rubbing shoulders with young families and an arty, media set, some of the latter hanging on by their fingernails as rents and real estate prices spiral out of reach.

“When the water became decent and good for swimming, it became a more fun place to be,” says Arthur. “Now it’s absolutely pristine, the water is so clear, the sea life is back and there’s no crime. What better place to bring up kids?”

Bondi’s status as the closest ocean beach to the city center is also key to its appeal. That and the fact that it is easy to live a full but also very casual social life here, dropping in impromptu on friends, or as likely bumping into them on the street and dropping everything to catch up together over a coffee. Coming from London, where you have to make an appointment to catch up with mates three weeks ahead, and then fight across the city to meet them, it is still a minor revelation to me that you can actually live like this.

Ripped in the open-air gym

For visitors, Bondi is all about the beach and its surrounds. A walk along the sand is a social study of bronzed guys and girls flirting, families playing and arguing, with every imaginable body shape on display. To the south, beyond the concrete promenade’s day-glow graffiti art, I watch the kids (and the old-enough-to-know-better grown ups) hurl themselves around the skate bowl, seemingly oblivious to the awesome view of sea, surf and sky. At the north end, the Speedo-clad, bull-necked body-builders get ripped in the open-air gym.

But zoom in from the clichéd picture and the characters spring into focus. I see a bearded hippie setting out a stall of flowers and cards bearing messages of love and a sign advertising “Nothing for Sale”. A big-bottomed, 50-something peroxided blonde in tight cut-offs roller-blades joyfully along the promenade. A dreadlocked dude pedals his Harley-style bicycle along Hall Street.

The people of Sydney have been coming to Bondi to have fun since the 1890s, when the new tram service first connected it to the city center. Its route passed through some of Sydney’s poorest neighborhoods, delivering day-trippers almost to the edge of the sand. By 1906, the Bondi and North Bondi surf life saving clubs had been established in response to the growing popularity of “surf bathing”.

Its decline started during World War II when the beach was covered in barbed wire and obstacles to deter a feared Japanese invasion, while families moved away to safety. A Japanese submarine actually bombarded the area in 1942. Post-war rent freezes and low housing prices attracted the wave of European immigrants who fled to Australia to escape the misery of countries torn apart by the years of warfare. Many were Jewish and Bondi still has many synagogues and a kosher butcher.

It wasn’t love at first sight

I first came to Bondi myself in 2003 but, much though I adore it now, it wasn’t love at first sight. My first thought on seeing a deserted, wind-blown, mid-winter Bondi was: “Is this it?” The beachfront was a car park and beyond the four lanes of traffic behind it, a grisly jumble of cheap 1980s blocks crowned the ugly main drag. It compared poorly, I thought, to the elegant row of Norfolk pines along Manly Beach on the other side of Sydney Harbour or the cute Victorian tree-lined terraced streets of the inner city and harborside suburbs, such as Paddington and Balmain.

I have never got used to Bondi’s swathe of concrete and cars, but there is much to love when you look beyond them. I like to rest my chin on the edge of the glorious Bondi Icebergs pool (see photo report), tasting the salt tang of the surf breaking against the walls and gazing the length of Bondi’s sandy crescent. Or stand on the headland beyond looking out for pods of playful dolphins or migrating whales. Simply magical.

My favorite walk is along the coastal path south that takes in the scrolling panorama of perched houses, cliffs, sea swell and sky. A sunrise run, barefoot up the sandstone steps, past the Icebergs and along to the beach is now a ritual. What better way to start the day than with lungfuls of ocean air, a post-run plunge into cool surf and a breakfast flat white and bircher muesli at the Bondi Pavilion. My daughter has grown up with the sand between her toes and every night, as she goes to sleep, the sigh of the surf in her ears. Lucky? She has no idea.

A lot of things have changed for the better too. Sydney’s recently relaxed licensing laws have created a profusion of great little speakeasy-style bars as well as cafes and restaurants that can now serve alcohol. It is a great improvement on the shabby, slot-machine-plagued megapubs that dominated the area for so long.

The change is visible on the skyline as older blocks are knocked down or refitted for high-end apartments but I have watched lower rise Tamarama’s transformation into Australia’s most expensive suburb uneasily. Its 1930s bungalows have been steadily ripped down and tall concrete and glass boxes are taking their place. The battered old Holden estates parked overnight by itinerant surfers are fewer in number and the spanking new Land Rovers and Audis more common.

That makes it dynamic and fun

Is Bondi losing its soul? Perhaps it’s symbolic that Bondi’s only hermit, whose makeshift camp was once tucked into the cliffs below Mark’s Park, was evicted by the local council a couple of years back. It is becoming all about the real estate round here. But change is as constant and inevitable as the tides. The evolution from run-down suburb to a home for artists and gays, and then to a dormitory for a moneyed elite is hardly an unusual one. It happens the world over.

Gillezeau doesn’t think the influx of wealth will change Bondi for the worse. “Bondi is still a village. There’s a big political controversy around development plans for putting in a full-size supermarket and everyone is protesting against it including the rich. It’s also the most densely populated suburb in Australia and that makes it dynamic and fun.

“There are big dollars coming in but I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’ve seen the price per square meter go from $500 to $40,000. It attracts the people with the bucks because they can walk onto the beach and no one cares who you are. When you’re in the surf no one cares whether you run a big bank.”

The important things do not change, says Arthur. “It has become more expensive, more brash, more loud and more expensive. The local butcher has gone and one of the bookshops. But as a community Bondi’s sense of itself is still quite strong. The old men round the side of Bondi Pavilion playing chess will still be there when the hipsters have moved on.

Bondi is what you make of it

“Life here is still about sharing a beer and a barbeque with friends at North Bondi, sitting on the grass and watching the sun set. You have the picture postcard view of Bondi, which is a bit cheesy but there’s not a successful beach suburb anywhere in the world that does not have a crass piece of tat for sale somewhere.

“You have the exterior the world sees on Bondi Rescue, which looks brash but there’s a wonderful sense of community here too. Bondi is what you make of it and everyone is welcome.”

Bondi has so many temporary blow-ins – backpackers from all over the globe on gap year trips and one-year work visas, ‘Westies’ day-tripping from Sydney’s inner suburbs, as well as the Chinese tour groups – that it is easy for visitors to overlook this big community of longer-term residents.

Bondi’s reputation for being an image obsessed cultural desert (Melbourne’s better looking but vapid little sister) is not fair either, says Arthur. “Wherever there’s coffee, there’s culture and whether you want to or not you’ll overhear artists, novelists and scriptwriters talking about their latest projects. When you have the amount of cafés per capita as you do in Bondi and Tama, you end up having a cultural life whether you like it or not.” While it may lack venues with the cultural heft of Sydney’s Opera House, Bondi has its cultural achievements and openness to art and culture, she says. “In November every year we have Sculptures by the Sea with art from all over the world attracting tens of thousands of people. There’s Flickerfest at Bondi Pavilion, which is also chock full of exhibitions, classes like yoga, dancing and pottery. Every night in summer they show great moves at the moonlight cinema.”

Sculptures by the Sea is a compelling mix of beauty, inspiration and silliness in epic settings. The breathtaking views from Mark’s Park, above the beach’s southern headland, are alone worth making the pilgrimage every November, or indeed at any time.

The pantheon of surfing and surf life saving

Bondi can also claim to have been a pioneer in another kind of culture, of which Australia has become a major exporter: surf culture. “There’s an ongoing argument about whether Bondi or ‘Tama’ had the first surf club and it’s an argument that will never be resolved,” says Gillezeau, “but there’s no question that in Australia it started around here. Bondi is in the pantheon of surfing and surf life saving.

“Part of the reason is that you get great waves at Bondi for surfers of any ability. You get world-class waves, yet it’s also the number one place to go to learn to surf. It’s totally fine to learn here, which on most beaches is not particularly tolerated. For some reason it’s acceptable to drop in on someone else’s wave here or kick your board out in someone’s face without it starting a fight.”

Far from being an elite, male youth sport, the surf culture at Bondi in particular has a wide appeal that will surprise many, he says. “I was out the back yesterday on Bondi and I counted no less than six languages being spoken. There were easily as many girls surfing as boys and the age range was from six to 70.

“It’s an amazing idea that you can be doing a sport associated with blond Aussie gods but actually find yourself in the most multicultural and tolerant surf break in the world.”

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