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The Ocean that Beckons at Bicheno

Nov 21, 2018
Article by Tabitha Horsely Noonan

The girl stood on the edge of the bay, cold water moving closer in quiet, steady sighs. She knew this place and it knew her. Her’s was not a life lived in separation; divided by ‘inside and out’, ‘land and sea’. She was strong. And her strength made the sea a friend, not a foe. A being to be respected, yes, but not to be feared. She dived beneath, let the salt close over her and felt the sinews of her arms pull against the water as it surrendered to her stroke. Wauba.


We’re coastal people, my husband Carl and I. Carl is an especially keen free diver, spear-fisher and ocean swimmer and I’m often with him in the water, snorkeled and finned. And I’m always on the lookout for cute beach-side cafes, gorgeous aqua water and underwater wildlife. Enter Bicheno: town of dreamy beaches – clean, clear waters, white sand, lovely locals and the classic orange-lichened rocks that Tassie’s East Coast is famous for.

We’re addicted to this place. Ready to move there. Carl’s already joined the Bicheno Wild Ocean Swimmers Club whose members swim every morning of the year in Waubs Bay. The informal group is also known as the Bicheno Coffee Club because of their tradition of celebrating birthdays with coffee and cake (and sometimes a cheeky Tasmanian whisky) on one of the headlands mid-swim.

The matriarch of the club is veteran Australian swimming champ Shane Gould, but the first couple of times Carl turned up for the morning swim, Shane wasn’t there. Turns out she had been in Fiji filming this year’s season of Australian Survivor.

Cold water swimming is Carl’s latest fad. Water temps get down as low as 10 degrees in Bicheno and he was swimming in 14-degree water without a wetsuit this June … like a mad man. Not even the locals who swim yearround are quite that crazy. He’s been following Wimhoff, AKA The Ice Man, online and espousing its many health benefits, and let’s just say I’ve heard the word “vasoconstriction” one too many times.

All this ocean swimming stirred the story-hunter in me, and I started delving into the namesake of Bicheno’s Waubs Bay. That’s how I met Wauba – first at her memorial in the town she called home and later in the small scraps of information I found online.

Wauba Debar was the most famous of the many teenage Aboriginal women kidnapped by sealers and whalers during Tasmania’s colonisation. They managed to survive in this way when most of their kinfolk were massacred.

Though most likely forced into her marriage, Wauba had the strength and determination (and, who knows, perhaps even love) to rescue her husband and a second sealer when their ship was wrecked offshore. Wauba made the 2km return swim out from Waubs Bay in incredibly rough seas – not once, but twice – to rescue the men.

We know very little else about Wauba and how she connected to the place I hope to call home. And I wonder how she would respond if she knew that this magical place is now named in her honour.

To know that, to this day, other swimmers are steeling themselves for the icy embrace of the same ocean that enveloped Wauba in her mission to save the very men who kidnapped her is a facinating thing.

Illustration by Kevin Hetebry

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