How Australia’s largest swimming pool was built on a natural mineral spring at Helidon


Posted September 14, 2019 07:00:00

For a time in the 1960s, a natural spring at the foot of the Great Dividing Range in southern Queensland was home to Australia’s largest swimming pool, and legendary concerts featuring the Bee Gees.

Nicknamed ‘the Gold Coast of Toowoomba’, the natural cold springs at Helidon were a popular swimming spot for people who did not want to travel hours to the beach.

“We loved making the trip down to the Helidon Spa on hot, steamy Saturdays and Sundays,” former local Janine Chipperfield said.

“It was so good — though a little scary since you couldn’t see the bottom — to leap into that huge, spring-water swimming pool, float around on the old inflated tractor tyres, and sunbake on the prickly grass.”

The natural springs were well-known long before white settlement.

The Helidon mineral waters had a place in the Dreamtime. Traditional owners called the mineral water Gooneel Goong, meaning “water from the moon”.

In the late 1800s, entrepreneurs thought to bottle the water, sending it as far as London and San Francisco, where it won medals for its drinking quality.

But in the 1960s, the focus moved to recreation.

Owners of the land charged a shilling entrance fee for swimming in the natural springs.

It became so popular the decision was made to seal the 3,400-square-metre pool with concrete.

“It was gigantic in comparison to swimming pools of today,” said Toowoomba musician Col Zeller, who frequented the pool in his youth.

Regular gigs by the pool

The Helidon Spa was advertised as the nation’s largest swimming pool, bigger than three Olympic-sized pools, holding 3.4 million litres of bubbling spa water.

“There would be hundreds of people in it, all playing different games because there was so much space,” Mr Zeller said.

“I don’t know what the cleanliness of the water would have been like because there was no such thing as filtration and chlorination and all the rest.

“You just dived in and hoped for the best and if something went floating past you — so long as it was a human — you didn’t worry too much!”

Mr Zeller visited the Helidon Spa through his childhood years and when he joined a rock band as a teenager he got regular gigs performing by the poolside.

“Our band was called Chapter III and we backed many of the artists who played at Helidon,” he said.

The Spa became a popular venue for families as well as teenagers who were not old enough to attend concerts in licensed venues.

Summer concerts at the pool would regularly draw thousands.

Mr Zeller described it as “a mini Woodstock”.

Johnny O’Keefe, John Farnham, Col Joye, and even the Bee Gees played at the pool’s edge.

“You can see my arm in the photo of the Bee Gees,” Mr Zeller said. “I’m the drummer.”

“They played Helidon just before they left for England to become huge stars.

“Maybe there really was something in the water.”

When they weren’t on stage, the artists would often cool off in the pool.

“The Bee Gees were just regular kids like we were,” Ms Chipperfield said.

“So much so that when Robin Gibb was being particularly annoying one afternoon, I just up and pushed him into the pool and huffed off!”

Joan Webster lived at the Spa in the mid-2000s and was the last person to bottle the water commercially.

She wrote a book about the history of the Helidon Spa and said over the decades, the health properties of the spring water that filled the pool were touted far and wide.

“It’s due the sandstone of the area,” Ms Webster said.

“The water was a very acquired taste, but people were convinced it had healing properties.

“This is where the company that eventually became Kirks started.

“The water won many awards and was even served to the Queen when she visited Queensland in 1954.”

Pool makes way for housing estate

Nowadays, Helidon Spa bottles are found in museums, not on supermarket shelves.

“I believe salt contaminated the water,” Ms Webster said.

“The springs have all been capped and it’s all been put into the history books.

“The area is still called Helidon Spa but there’s no spa anymore.”

The park changed hands several times and the pool lay dormant for years, eventually being filled in.

Today, there are few reminders of the nation’s largest swimming pool at the site, which is now a housing estate, save for several slabs of blue painted concrete poking out of the grass in a paddock.

“It’s a little bit sad, knowing that this generation won’t experience what we all did,” Ms Webster said.

“There were paddle boats and they dug another dam where they would have water skiing, and you could even get your boat licence there.”

“Ah, those were the days,” Mr Zeller added.

“I suppose they can take away the pool and all the rest, but they can’t take away the memories.”

Watch The Pool on ABC TV Sunday September 22 and 29 at 7:40pm, or on iview.

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Topics: history, regional, lifestyle, human-interest, 20th-century, water, helidon-4344, helidon-spa-4344, gatton-4343, toowoomba-4350

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