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Bondi s a legend
Bondi's a legend

Six o'clock in the morning and Bondi Beach is stirring. Well, perhaps not "stirring". That word implies a slow, even reluctant, arousal from slumber; the busyness I'm observing underneath a sunrise of moody grey clouds warrants a description that's far more active.

Dogs are being exercised, surfers are catching waves and joggers are ploughing steadily across the massive half-moon of sand that is Bondi Beach. One kilometre long, and in parts up to 100m wide, before it slips under the Pacific Ocean.

At its southern end, a Mercedes convertible pulls up outside the Bondi Baths where the famous Bondi Icebergs swim. A few swimmers are already ploughing up and down the two sea pools as ocean waves heartily slap the concrete perimeter walls.

"Boot camp" conscripts and yoga practitioners will soon arrive to do their thing on the lawns above the beach. And in a couple of hours time, the shops along the main drag, Campbell Parade, will open and the multitudes will arrive with their towels, eskies and boogie boards. Many will be locals. Many more will be tourists flocking to pay homage to surf and sun at Australia's best-known stretch of sand, which attracts both backpacker visitors and millionaire residents. Residents like casino mogul James Packer and cricket captain Michael Clarke.

But like so much of prime Australian real estate, it has humble origins and was a working-class suburb that has been gentrified.

In 1809, 81ha of what is now Bondi Beach was granted by Governor William Bligh (he of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) to a roadbuilder, and it was onsold to Edward Hall and Francis O'Brien. After Hall sold his share to O'Brien, it became known as the "The O'Brien Estate".

O'Brien allowed people to cross his land to get to the beach but as beachgoing became increasingly popular in the 19th century, he must have been getting fed up, because he threatened to restrict public access.

The dispute was resolved in the public's favour when the NSW government in 1882 established an area of Bondi Beach as a public reserve. A win for people power.

Actually, it may be hard to believe considering its popularity and unchallenged acceptance today, but sea bathing during daylight hours was banned in early Australia because of prevailing modesty standards. In NSW, for example, it was forbidden to swim at a public beach between the hours of 9am and 8pm.

By the turn of the 20th century, the law was changed and as swimming increased in popularity, Bondi Pavilion was built to house changing sheds and Turkish baths - and a ballroom. Today, the magnificent Georgian Revival-style building is a community cultural centre which hosts art shows and classes. The day I visited an outdoor concert was scheduled for the evening, and the pavilion had hosted a festival of short films the previous month. Every November, Bondi Beach holds Sculpture by the Sea - the inspiration for the similar exhibition at Cottesloe Beach.

While we're comparing Perth's most famous beach with Sydney's, supporters of ocean pools would well know of Bondi Baths but there are also a couple of ocean pools set among the rocks at the opposite, northern end of the beach - a children's paddling pool and the Wally Weekes sea pool. Both were well patronised the afternoon I arrived.

But I opted instead for a swim in the sea, wading a fair way past a series of decent-size waves before I got into even waist-deep water. I could imagine how it might become tricky swimming here.

But then this is where Bondi Rescue, the television series based on the professional lifeguards who patrol the beach 365 days a year, was filmed.

Many believe Bondi Beach was the first place in the world to have surf lifesavers, while others claim Bronte, a couple of kilometres down the coast, deserves that honour. Certainly, the sign over the Bronte Surf Lifesavers' Club makes that claim.

Whatever the truth, there were no reality TV shows 74 years ago to witness the heroics of lifesavers. Etched on two plaques outside the Bondi Baths is the story of how 35,000 were at Bondi Beach on February, 6, 1938, when three huge waves swamped the beach and dragged hundreds out to sea.

Lifesavers at their weekly surf competition leapt into action. Using seven lifesaving reels set out for their competition they pulled about 100 from the water, almost one-third of whom needed resuscitation. Five died and the day became known as "Black Sunday".

Interestingly, there have been no reported deaths due to sharks at Bondi Beach since 1937. The result of the shark net laid 150m out to sea, perhaps?

And, like ocean pools, perhaps something else for WA to consider.