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Sydney’s winter warriors

Meet the locals who scoff in the face of chilly mornings and longer nights – and learn why they embrace the cooler season in Sydney...

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Nicki Vinnicombe, a swimmer at Bondi Icebergs, resting her arms on the side of the pool wearing a yellow swim cap
Photograph: Daniel Boud

The cold doesn't worry these locals. Sydney's ice queens and kings are living their best life despite the chill, and you could to if you followed these 39 cool things to do this season. Make the most of the cold snap and glide into a season of ice skating and whale watching. We've also got tips for where to warm up with mulled wine or how to book a hot scrub at these best spas

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Sydney’s winter warriors

Biggles, Oz Whale Watching tour guide, standing on a boat by Sydney Harbour
Photograph: Anna Kucera

Biggles

Oz Whale Watching tour guide

While you can observe humpbacks, a few southern right whales and the odd minke off Sydney’s coast in the warmer months, the very best time to see these majestic ocean giants is in winter. That’s when Biggles, a tour guide of six years with Oz Whale Watching, really shines. This passionate environmentalist, with more than 20 years of whale-watching experience, is a font of knowledge. “The first to leave the south are last year’s cow and calf pairs, then the juveniles, which will usually overtake them by the time they get to Sydney,” he says.

These flighty young guns are followed by the main body of the pod, where you’ll see more fireworks as toey males show off for the attention of female whales. By August, there’s two-way traffic, as the crew slowly make their way back south to feed once again. “No two trips are the same,” says Biggles. “It’s incredibly visceral stuff when they start playing up, because these things are massive – up to 45 tonnes. Because you’re dealing with wildlife it’s something worth doing multiple times.” OG

Achilles Running Club runners Stephen Green, a vision impaired runner, and Julia Wenner, his guide, running in Sydney Botanic Gardens with the Opera House in the background
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Stephen Green and Julia Wenner

Vision-impaired runner and his guide

They’ve crossed finish lines together at Sydney’s Half Marathon, City2Surf and the Mother’s Day Classic – and now their goal is to complete the New York Marathon in November. “The main thing is to get to the start line,” says Wenner, who meets with Green every Sunday at the steps of the Art Gallery of New South Wales so they can train together, tethered at the wrist, for around ten kilometres. “I kept seeing people in yellow shirts here in the Botanic Gardens and it’s such a nice thing to do, to enable people who couldn’t run outdoors without help to do what I love the most, which is running outside,” she says.

Wenner is a volunteer with Achilles, a charity that pairs sighted runners with blind and vision-impaired runners so they can compete in fun runs around Sydney. “It’s quite a complicated process,” says Green. “We use the tether, which is extremely helpful, but there’s a distance between us, there’s turning right and left, signalling, and I have problems with depth perception, so if the course is undulating it’s very easy for me to trip over or lose my balance. Achilles – the club, the guides – it’s been a lifesaver. There’s no way I could get out there and run without them.” EJ

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Nicki Vinnicombe, a swimmer at Bondi Icebergs, standing on the side of the pool wearing a yellow swim cap and blue swimming costume
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Nicki Vinnicombe

Volunteer director and assistant starter at Bondi Icebergs

When Nicki Vinnicombe first joined a swimming club in the late ’80s she could barely swim. “The first time I hopped in the water I thought I was going to die – it was only 30 metres,” says the 62-year-old swimmer who grew up in South Africa. After moving to Sydney in 1987 she was wholly unprepared for the rigours of our ocean swimming culture, but swimming clubs provided a community for the recent migrant. After joining the Bondi Mermaids, Vinnicombe signed up for the Icebergs in 1995 – the first year the winter swimming club, which was established in 1929, opened applications to female members.

Now a card carrying Iceberg for the last 25 years (having long ago competed in the requisite three Sunday swims out of four for five consecutive years), Vinnicombe is still racing every weekend over winter, saying the mood at the famous pool on Sunday mornings is akin to a carnival with 480 swimmers trying to get their three wins in a season. The competitive spirit is a big part of what gets you in the water, says Vinnicombe, but wearing double caps and thongs to the pool edge also helps when the water is 15 degrees. “You’re nutting it out together,” she says. In addition to her voluntary roles with the club, she also swims across the Bondi Bay on Saturdays, and is a member of the summer club, the Bondi Diggers. Clearly not all mermaids have tails. ELT

Cristian Speranza, Sydney Film Festival volunteer, handing out film festival guides inside the State Theatre, Sydney
Photograph: Cassandra Hannagan

Cristian Speranza

Sydney Film Festival volunteer

Nineteen-year-old film student Cristian Speranza is buzzing to learn all the ins and outs of Sydney’s annual film festival. “I want to be involved somehow, meet cool people, watch cool films, and to get a peek into the industry,” he says. It’s his first year as a volunteer, and as he lends his time and cinema ushering skills to the 66th festival he’ll be bursting with information about this year’s program. “I’m excited to get people interested in movies, telling people what’s on and being able to guide them into new independent films,” says Speranza. “I’m hoping to get put onto the Ritz Cinema – a local cinema I really love.”

Winter’s a cool time of year for Speranza, who likes to counteract his nights in the darkened theatres with soccer (“I’m Italian! It’s a big part of my life”). The Rosebery-based teen is a keen movie maker himself, interested in documentary filmmaking. One of the main perks of volunteering over 12 cold nights in June is the handful of free tickets he’ll be given to the festival’s 250 screenings. “I can’t wait to see Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, and that Scorsese documentary about Bob Dylan.” When you’re at the festival, give Speranza a wave (though you might not spot him): “It’s all about being subtle,” he says. “You have to make sure you’re not getting in people’s way during a movie; you’ve got to be like a ninja.” EJ

Embrace Sydney's cool season

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