I asked my friend if she wanted to come swimming in the Yarra/Birrarung – near the city – as dawn broke last week.
“It’s safe, they test!” I said. She paused, and for a second I thought she would join me in this foolhardiness. Then she replied: “That’s like saying drinking your own piss is safe.”
For years the Birrarung has been used as a dumping ground. Its reputation is that it’s filled with filth, carries E coli and acts as a winding ashtray, flushing the cigarette butts and industrial chemicals out into the bay.
It’s not the sort of image that makes you want to jump in.
But a group of hardy swimmers have been doing just that since lockdown.
Nearly every day, the Yarra Yabbies meet at Deep Rock, 4km up-river from the CBD.
The full group is more than 100 strong. During summer, when the river hits 27C, it’s filled with Yabbies doing laps, floating on their backs, relaxing in the river.
But during the depths of winter, when it’s 4.6C on the bank and 6C in the river, only the true believers gather.
Some are there for the fitness, others for the laughs – there are plenty – and for a few, it is about coming to commune with nature before day breaks.
“We all have busy lives, and this, this is weirdly where we can be in the moment,” says Marie Louise Zeevaarder. “Because once your feet hit that water, you’re not anywhere else but here.”
When I decided to take the plunge, I resolved I wouldn’t google E coli beforehand lest I chicken out.
As I met the Yabbies on the bank at 7am, my first question was obvious – was it safe? Was I about to meet my maker, Yarra-style?
“It’s always the first question, isn’t it?” says Donna Wheatley.
“I think the river has a reputation from the 80s of industrial waste, dead bodies, shopping trolleys. The work of the River Keepers has really turned that around,” she said.
If you swim north of Dights Falls, above where the Merri creek flows into the Birrarung, it is normally safe. Swimmers are advised to check the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) updates, which are carried out weekly in summer. The Yabbies also do their own testing.
“Sometimes it’s better than the bay,” Wheatley says.
Donella Connors has been in every day for the last year. She puts her head under and has caught nothing but good vibes from her swims. I thought she must be lucky and made a mental note to swim next to her.
Knowing I was new, the Yabbies took great care to make sure I made it out alive. There are some rules: if it’s rained heavily 48 hours before, the water is a no-go; if it’s your first swim you’re allowed to swear.
The uniform for seasoned winter swimmers is a pair of togs – but I grabbed some neoprene boots and gloves (for about $50) and did not regret it.
Entry is everything. I was in a hurry to get in and get it over with – but Meg Elkins showed me to stand thigh-deep for a minute – painful but important. Once the shock subsides, you’re good to go.
And go we did. Eight women swimming up the Yarra in the morning light – the sound of my own voice – “oh my God”, “oh my God”, “oh my God” – jumping off the 400,000-year-old rockface. It appeared I too was there to pray.
I come from a long line of proud swimmers – the evening before my godfather told me to stay in as long as the group did, so I earned their respect.
But wild cold swimming is about the quality, not quantity, of your shock.
You swim as long as you can – and as the Yabbies repeated to me: “listen to your body”. You get out when you get completely numb. I didn’t last as long as the pros but I scrambled out exhilarated, almost high with euphoria.
“Your body goes into collapse, then you start to feel a tingle that comes over you,” Elkins says. “It’s like a vibration that’s going all over your body; you can feel the blood flow coming in.”
The brown colour isn’t pollution but clay particles. Zeevaarder says there was a day in summer it was so clear they could all see their feet.
If you’ve got good heart health the benefits of cold water swimming are huge – it floods your brain with endorphins, boosts your immune system and lowers stress.
Wheatley suffers from PTSD – she’s been a Yabby for a year now and says she has never felt better.
“When I first joined, I was really struggling, like in very intense therapy and suicidal,” she says.
“When I compare this time of year to last year … how my treatment’s going … the river, the cold, the nature and the community have really helped me with my journey with PTSD.”
After the swim everyone has their own process for getting warm. Fran Cusworth is the most thorough – a hot water bottle, a cup of tea and a tub of warm water to put her feet in.
Others have Oodies, ugg boots and long puffers that look like sleeping bags.
I brought a towel. I had regrets.
The Yabbies were started by two mates in lockdown who – perhaps a little bored – decided to jump in. The group grew – there’s a WhatsApp full of members – but with no other social media, they recruit people by meeting them along the banks, asking them to join, inviting them in.
“I was jogging down here,” Holly Jones says. “And I saw the group swimming. And they were very friendly and said, ‘Come and join us’. And I was like, no, no.”
Then on her birthday, celebrating 10 years free of cancer and the completion of her PhD, she decided to take the plunge.
“It was really beautiful,” Jones says.
“The river is always changing. It’s always different. I am always celebrating the water.”
Underneath the exhilaration of the swim though is a much stronger current – the Yabbies are about reclaiming the river, seeing it as a living thing, and learning to love it again.
Loretta Bellato – a Yabby all year round but strictly summer swimmer – is from the Centre for Urban Transitions at Swinburne University and has big plans to make the river fully swimmable by 2030.
“We’ve used it as a sewer and a dumping ground,” she says. “We need to move towards a beneficial relationship with the river and recognise it as a living entity.
“When people start swimming in the river they start to realise there is a much stronger connection to nature and they need to start advocating for it.”
New developments are a continuous threat to the health of the river and towards the Yarra Valley it’s too polluted to swim, as chemicals run off from the surrounding farms.
Bellato wants to see the full river – right to the CBD – swimmable and, with a coordinated effort, she knows it’s possible.
“My wish is, when people do start to swim, it actually inspires them to start thinking about how they can live in more sustainable ways – and actually start to take action, not just sit back and wait for the government to improve our city.”