I remember the inter-high swimming galas held at Ellis Park. Every year, we had to wear polystyrene boater hats and sing war cries in the summer heat – it was a sunstroke-inducing, barefoot-burning heat.
My high school was one of the few government schools that attended, and you could trust either a Roedean or Brescia girl to give you ‘the look’ – it involved quickly scanning you up and down, and then an ever-so-subtle eye roll. But this only gave us all the more reason to beat their well-to-do asses in the pool. By ‘us’ I mean the swimming team. I never swam, of course (those who follow the #20laps series will be aware of the great irony of me being involved in this whole project).
The backdrop of the stadium seemed enormous and, when we sang, our voices ricocheted loudly against it. Although attendance was compulsory, the war cries were never forced; what we lacked in privilege we made up for in decibels.
But, Jesus, it was hot.
It’s mid-December and Johannesburg has that muggy, pre-Christmas feeling: the one with afternoon electric storms and people on paid leave. As it gets closer to the 25th, the city empties and you’re less likely to be sworn at in traffic.
It’s also hot. Really hot.
The Ellis Park swimming pool complex is packed, yet the main, 50m pool is mostly empty. A section of its shallow-end is filled with black bodies – splashing, holding onto each other, and taking selfies – while the remainder of its deeper water is mostly people-less. About two-thirds of the Olympic-sized pool has lane markers, while the rest is a free-for-all.
The crowds, combined with the heat, are overwhelming. I walk to the less frenetic deep-end of the pool and gather myself. I look at the water, it’s blue and serene. A toy racing car falls from a stand above me, and plops between a lane. In the near-distance I see an elderly gentleman – he’s wearing glasses and a tweed hat, and he’s swimming a slow, head-above-water breaststroke. As he tortoise-swims closer, I call out to him and ask if we can chat quickly. He obliges and holds onto the inner ledge of the pool, his legs float below while we talk.
His name is Richard, and he’s a regular swimmer at Ellis Park.
“I usually do between 10 and 14 laps when I come here. I’ve come here for ages, on and off,” he says.
I discover that he’s the owner of Kalahari Books in Orange Grove (“For my sins; I could write a book about the book trade!”).
Richard tells me that he usually swims in the cold, 25m training pool. During the week it’s very quiet, especially in the early mornings, when he prefers to come (introvert PSA: do not come to the Ellis Park pool on a hot weekend over December. I have it on good authority that the best time to come here is in the cooler months, as the main, 50m pool is heated. You will have the Olympic-sized pool to yourself).
“I stay a two-minute drive away, it’s very local for me,” Richard continues. “Often kids, who can’t afford the R7 entrance fee, stand outside and ask, ‘Can you get me in?'”
“If you come here regularly you’ll often meet the same people, like Drew Lindsay (owner of the Spaza Art Gallery in Troyeville) and Wendy Landau (a ’50-something Quaker in Jozi’, according to her Twitter bio).”
In Transforming a wasteland to a premium sporting arena: The case of Ellis Park, Johannesburg, 1900s–1930s, Louis Grundlingh writes that the Ellis Park swimming pool was the first municipal pool to be built in Joburg. It was inaugurated by a “grand gala” in the summer of 1909, and was purportedly the largest pool in the southern hemisphere at the time. Exclusively built for use by whites by the British-controlled town council after the Anglo-Boer War, it formed part of the greater Ellis Park sporting complex – it was also part of the colonial project to transform a dirty mining town into a ‘proper’ urban development.
The swimming pool was originally earmarked to be a fake lake for boating, as the soon-to-be sporting complex sat on top of a borehole, which provided water for the nascent mining town of Johannesburg.
As Grundlingh sites C. Leigh’s Ellis Park Swimming Bath:
“There was, however, land on which two disused open reservoirs and the Doornfontein brickfields were situated – a “sort of no-man’s land” of shacks and hovels occupied by Coloured washerwomen and black people. This land, between North Park Lane and Eryn Street to the north/north-west; Bertrams Road to the east and South Park Lane and Reservoir Street to the south in New Doornfontein, belonged to the Rand Water Board and the Johannesburg Waterworks Estate and Exploration Company.”
It’s long been rumoured that the Ellis Park pool is above the source of the Jukskei River, but no one has been able to prove this (look out for a long-form blog piece about the Jukskei River and the various theories on its elusive source – soon to come). Keeping with the theory that the Jukskei’s spring starts beneath the Ellis Park pool, a journalist from The Rand Daily Mail, who was covering the pool’s grand opening, wrote: “The glittering [changing-room] tiles have almost obscured forever the bottom of what was once Johannesburg’s first reservoir for the town’s drink.”
The Ellis Park swimming pool complex (or ‘baths’ as the colonialists called it) was a hit, and in 1912 it needed to be upgraded and expanded. Grundlingh adds: “The pool was […] welcomed ‘as a boon to the public … who thronged to the baths as sightseers on Saturdays and Sundays’ …”.
Not much has changed – except the sightseers are no longer excluded by skin colour.
Kaiser has a gold-star stud in his ear, and he’s wearing a red, floppy hat. He’s 38 and he lives in Orlando West. I ask him if he’s named after the soccer team.
“I get that a lot,” he laughs. “No, I’m named after my great-grandfather, who was a fan of German history, so I’m named after Kaiser Wilhelm II.”
Kaiser has been a lifeguard since 1995, and he was taught by “the great” Pat Wilcox. I feel like I’ve heard the name before, and then I remember that another lifeguard, at a pool still to be featured, mentioned her (Pat Wilcox, if you’re reading this, I would love to connect with you).
“Pat tried to retire but so many people need her,” says Kaiser. “She took me in; she taught me everything I know about being a lifeguard. She’d help out unemployed lifeguards, she’s done so much for all of us. I can’t thank her enough; I’m so grateful to her. Flowers aren’t enough… thank you Pat – please write all that down.”
Before Ellis Park, Kaiser was a lifeguard at the Yeoville swimming pool.
“It’s very different, Yeoville. It’s kids only, with maybe one or two adults; it’s very hectic and busy. At Ellis Park mainly schools are brought in, and adults who belong to swimming clubs train here, championships are held here. White kids swim here too, I often see black and white mixing; the black kids will call out ‘Hey umlungu!’ and everyone laughs and plays together.
Kaiser loves being a lifeguard, but he has another passion, which was borne in 1998.
“I went to the gym and I saw people dancing to music while they worked out, I was intrigued. I learnt that they were doing something called aerobics, so I taught myself aerobics and I’ve been in love with it for 20 years. When I’m sleeping my wife says that I shout out numbers, ‘5, 6, 7, 8!'”
He tells me that no one will ever drown while he’s on duty; he takes his job very seriously.
“I will never let a person lose a breath of air and I won’t let an unruly person drown.”
“We mustn’t treat people like criminals,” he continues. “I’ve learnt how to work with people. Once a guy came to thank me for saving him, ‘You treated me like a human,’ he said to me.
“It’s strange, but most near-drownings happen just before closing time, it’s like a curse… it’s as if something is urging people to throw themselves in the water…”
Reflections on Ellis Park swimming pool [words Alex Halligey]
The scale of the complex of pools, so much bigger than any other we’ve been to so far and yet, as Gail, Ang and I reflected before leaving, so much smaller seeming than what we remember from high school. Like two worlds, Ellis Park, the pool level and then the raised grand stand level. In high school we always entered on the grand stand level, looking down at the sunken stage for the swimmers in the inter-high gala teams. Entering now, we quickly go down to pool level and my response is with fresh eyes, as if never seeing it before and in a way I haven’t because I never had been on the pool level.
And I see it also with an adult recreational swimmer sense, but if I look up to the shaded grand stands above, I’m transported back to high school and the thrilling roar of the entire school war-crying in support of our team. The winning or losing never seemed that important to me, but the power of being part of the 500-and-something strong shouting chorus was thrilling. Also the bus ride along then Kitchener (now Albertina Sisulu) Road to get to the stadium. Peering out the window at Kensington and Yeoville Ridge; hardware stores and bars and corner cafés – a vein of city from one secluded, highly specific world (all-girls’ school, Senderwood) to another (a purpose-built structure for competitive swimming), both walled off from the rest of the world, both singular in focus.
‘Waddi-icha, waddi-icha, dooby-de-doo, dooby-de-doo…’
The change rooms are big, spacious, well-maintained. Multiple alcoves for team changing. I swim in one of the designated lanes, diving in from the deep end. I feel very formally separated from the three or so lanes that are undivided and demarcated for recreational swimming. The many teenagers and adults and a few young children that crowd that part of the pool seem far away as I do my 50m laps on the other side of the plastic lane dividers.
Tiled bottom, water strongly blue. I discover all sorts of affordances for the competitive swimmer: big, substantial diving blocks; 15m and 35m marks labelled as such on the floor of the pool for you to see as you swim; an unadorned rope overhead at the 15m and 35m marks, and then a rope with bunting at what must be the 5m mark; a ledge, which I discover as I stop to speak to Gail, and find I can comfortably stand midway up the deep-end wall. And 50m feels like a little extra than 25m and not fully double.
I swim under the lane dividers to the metal stairs to get out at the end of my laps and walk round the pool. I pass the disused and murky diving pool, diving boards removed; the 25m training pool, lane dividers in place with no-one in it; the full paddling pool between the 25m and the 50m. I nosey into the storeroom – a long, shallow space with reels of sun-faded lane dividers and scattered Kreepy Krauly pipes. I walk through the crowded section of the grand stand nearest the recreational lanes. I sit for a few minutes. Few people seem to be lying in the sun, rather sitting and talking. Spreading my towel and lying down feels like it would be an exhibitionist act. Like Brixton, I have a sense of many teenage (and some adult) pool-date couples. Music has been pumping throughout. I’m not sure where from, but it’s somewhere in the pool area. Like a day-time club.
I pass Gail and Heather deep in conversation with the tuckshop cashier. In the changing room two glamorous young women are posing for photos, each taking a turn as model and then photographer, beautifully made up, snappy, trendy, slightly unusual outfits. I notice a scattering of clothing tagson the floor by the basin as I leave. They’re labelled in Chinese script and it occurs to me that the proximity of China Mall, the public pathways through the Ellis Park precinct, and the pool as a hangout combine for a chance to see and be seen.
For more on the history of the Ellis Park swimming pool and the Ellis Park Stadium (now the Emirates Airline Stadium) see the PDF of Louis Grundlingh’s paper
The main Ellis Park swimming pool is Olympic-sized and heated (there is also a smaller kids’ pool as well as a 25m, unheated training pool). You can find the pool complex at the corner of North Park Lane and Erin streets, New Doornfontein; R12 for adults, R7 for kids (seasonal tickets available).