One More Time
The dew on my face and arms felt like sweet kisses. The light breeze carried the dampness which had eased the heat of the night. I pumped the pedals of my bicycle in a steady rhythm. Kookaburras’ laughs echoed through a stand of stringy gums as I left the paved road and travelled into the bush along a narrow path through the bush grass. The packed hard clay was covered in loose white powder that rose in puffs as my bicycle tyres made tracks through it. The low sun glinted on the toffee brown river, and moisture glossed the pale olive leaves of the gums, surrounded by their tan and beige curling skin, as if they were the first sunburn victims of the hot season. The black bush ants crawled over and around the detritus of the gums, collecting treasure and returning to their great hills on the bush side of the track. The wending track led to the curve of the Ovens where a wide bank of sand sloped gently down from the stands of wattle, stringy bark and black boys; what amounted to the last of the bush left behind the golf links. The main point of coming here was the water hole that spread out at this curve of the river. It was called the ‘Golf Links’ locally and most of the kids in a five kilometre radius knew it was a good place to go on the river, you could sit and sunbake on the wide bank of sand, and the water was free of dangerous currents.
Dismounting my bike and lying it down upon the sand, I removed my t-shirt and shorts revealing a o bronze-coloured bathing suit with patches worn thin from sun-baking on last year’s river sand. Familiar as the scene before me was, it was mid-November and months since my last early autumn swim here. The lack of mechanised sounds was newly sacred. I held my breath and stilled my whole body as if I might be able to melt into the atmosphere. Here there was the faint buzz of a dragon fly over the sun dappled water. I could hear the water’s slap slosh against the huge carcass of a river gum that poked its’ limbs into the air mid-stream. A huge Gum on the opposite bank supplied the limb for an old rope swing, that was being attacked at that very moment by the sharp beak of a magpie. Its’ mates were gargling with glee higher in the tree, observing with reddish brown eyes the laughing Kookaburras.
I gasped as I entered the cool river, but it wasn’t enough to deter me. The volume of water allowed a good depth where the sand bars dropped away , but the current was lazy. I stretched my limbs in the yellowish water; its colour was due to clay and the valuable sand quarried from further downstream. The lethargy of what had seemed an interminable warm night washed away, I struck out towards the huge tree using my best version of the Australian Crawl. Another dragon fly darted in front of my face and away. With around thirty strokes I reached the half-submerged tree and, at first slipping and banging my knee, found a foothold on a knot just below the water and clambered onto it. The breeze was just occasional puffs now, so I could settle against the remains of an upright limb and be as still as possible without freezing.
Slowing my breathing I waited; then I had a heart quickening thought. Checking around me, I looked for any active snakes that might be sunning themselves or swimming toward the log from the high approximate bank. After looking around for a while I settled again. The gum platform was wholly in the shade, not a popular landing spot just yet, though I was waiting for an Azure Kingfisher to do just that. To see the sapphire breasted and smallest local member of the Kingfisher family was my goal before heading home for breakfast. Stilling every muscle, I fixed my eyes on the closest bank – the spherical opening into which I had seen one of the feathered fishers disappear the previous week. My right leg with which at knee height I straddled a hideous knot was becoming numb when I saw it. It flitted over the lower log far to my left just within the line of peripheral vision. I turned only my head and focused. Its black beady eye was like the dot of an exclamation mark on the sunny stripes of its’ head. Its wings became blurred like a hummingbird’s as it hovered, darted and hovered again, the rising sun making a jewel of its sapphire-bright breast. I leaned closer for a better view, shivered and huffed ;it was gone. I felt the smile on my face all the way back to the gritty shore. When I arrived home, tea and toast with apricot jam tasted so good when consumed with my memories of that delicate and delightful creature.
Three hours later after showering and chores and the ritual of sunscreen, which was seldom reapplied, I met two of my friends, Tricia and Teresa at the intersection closest to the river path, with towels, drinks and excited chatter.
When we arrived on the sand the boys, Tricia’s brother Michael( known as Mick), his friend ‘Michael W known as Mike, and Peter, Tricia’s boyfriend were already hollering and yahooing. They had climbed the opposite bank and were taking turns swinging on the rope far out into the middle of the “waterhole” between he banks. We girls chatted and splashed in the shallows then struck out towards the opposite bank. Traversing the hard packed clay to reach the tree was slippery when we were dripping but sliding back towards the water was more amusing than dangerous. It surprised me how close the limb used for the swing was to ground and the water. A person had to run and swing with all their might, letting go at the perfect moment, or they might crash into the bank. I watched the four of my friends swing until they were getting tired before I got up the courage for a go.
I ran and pushed my legs forward so hard it felt like my hips and waist would separate. I felt keenly the lack in my short, slight frame. For a second the sight of the water frightened me.
Should I let go?
The heavy rope grazed my hands. I released one hand which went in front of me, and then the other. The water stung my outstretched arm like a Chinese burn, as I plunged under the surface. Then I was up, breathing, laughing with more relief than pleasure, as I determined to try again. This time I would swing out further, and let go both hands at once. The others were laughing and calling out advice. One of the two Michaels said, “That was bloody awkward.”
I put on my game face and struggled up the bank.
One morning in late December the whole group arrived together. After about ten minutes in the water, we were overwhelmed by the stench of rottenness. If a person launched out on a trajectory across the stream to the area below the rope swing, lifting their head for a breath midstream, a foul gas made them want to choke.
“What the hell is that stink?” my school mate Richard who had joined us for a ‘stinking hot day’ swim remarked. The group now standing on the clay ledge hidden beneath the water under the tree, looked like they were walking on water if you shut one eye and watched from midstream. The earthy smell of wet clay and floating gum leaves was a dead second to the stink. Dead was appropriate because the boys couldn’t resist wading upstream in the shallows, and discovered the bloated carcass of a reddish brown cow. The flies had turned her eyes into a dance hall, and the white wriggling mass around her gut was evoked by their rough descriptions of the flies’ activities.
“How long do you reckon it will take for the stink to stop?” Tricia asked.
No one replied. Combined with the hunger evoked by half an hour’s swimming, and five turns each on the rope swing, the smell of the rotting cow was turning stomachs.
“Let’s come tomorrow early before it gets too warm”, suggested Peter ,” It shouldn’t stink too much then.”
We decided to go back to Tricia’s place, change and go to the local Olympic pool. We spent two hours that afternoon swimming around in the sanitised blue pool. We ate pies and something called redskins – tacky raspberry toffees named with political incorrectness. We tried to get comfortable on the prickly buffalo grass of lawn, but unless you could get comfortable on the warm concrete it was useless. The ‘buffalo’ stood up to the wear and tear of hundreds of feet, but the leaves poking through your towel gave you an irritable red rash on your back.
The next day when I called Tricia, she told me that her mother had “gone ape” when she heard about the dead cow. Michael had told a colourful tale of how far he had swung on the rope swing that day, and how great it was. Then he described to their younger sister Tessa, in graphic detail, the death and the smell of the unfortunate cow. Tessa objected to the story, and informed her mother that Michael had seen a dead cow in the river swimming hole.
When their mother heard she said, “That water hole is pretty still isn’t it? That cow could have died from a disease and there it is sitting rotting, right by where you’re swimming. It’s unsanitary, that’s what it is.”
Michael could see where this was going so he tried to convince his mother it would all be OK. “ It’s not right where we’re swimming Mum, it’s about 300 metres upstream on a sand bar.”
“So, it’s upstream from where you’re swimming? That’s it, you cannot go there swimming until it’s been removed.”
That was part of the beginning of the end of swimming in that great Waterhole in the Ovens River. When the other mothers found out, and that took about an hour, swimming at the waterhole was considered the most dangerous thing for your health next to building the Panama Canal before inventing a vaccination for Yellow Fever. It was the most horrifying thing imaginable. We were relegated to the sanitised, safe local pool.
This meant – no early morning swims – you had to wait until the pool opened. It meant a regulation swimming costume at all times. There was no thrills like seeing Kingfishers diving for food, or watching canny Kookaburras find a young snake mid- morning. There was no swimming between the hot and cold patches that occurred naturally in the river, floating with the sun on your face, or cooling down by dogpaddling in the shade of an old gum. No chance of swimming in the river during the early or late stages of a freak summer storm, endangering your life, as you watched charcoal clouds with purple lightning blow south. The pool shut before you could watch Venus appear on the horizon, its reflection in the water. And the danger of jumping or diving from the high board couldn’t match the thrill of that rope swing. At the pool, it was warm to hot concrete, and the freezing deep end; and the boastful, rough bombings of the Yarrunga boys who owned the territory around the diving board. It was a long summer where swims were restricted to around two hours before three o’clock when the pool was in full sun, and the long rides home meant you were hotter than when you started out.
It was the summer when I turned sixteen that put paid to the Golf Links though. There had always been the odd beer bottle down there, and the remains of a fire now and then. Evidence of hijinks by older teenagers who could drive or were the kind that got that creepy bloke who hung around the railway pub bottle shop to buy them beer or ‘brandivino’.
The summer of 1979 was a hot one. We began to enjoy the golf links around November that year. We went for a walk between 11 and 12pm on the 31st of December, and the temperature gauge on the local radio station showed 31.5 degrees Celsius, lit by the glow of the nearby street lights. One thing I loved about those hot summers were the freak storms that came over the mountains to cool things off. When you rode your bike home the evening one was coming in, you could feel the radiant heat from the footpaths and the buildings on one side of you , and the gusts of wind a few degrees cooler , smelling of damp dust, promising the rain that hadn’t hit you yet, on the other side. You were a moving object between two forces of nature, it was weird and wonderful.
We began that summer with picnics, canoe paddling upstream, and four hour sessions in the water until we couldn’t get the wrinkles out of the skin on our feet and hands. There was the odd day we didn’t go down to the Golf Links, but they were days on which we woke earlier and did the paper rounds we’d taken over from some boys we knew. Sometimes we couldn’t be bothered, and though I hate to admit it now I read a fair few Mills and Boon novels in the afternoons that summer, and Thomas Hardy to balance things out. My first foray into science fiction as well with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think that’s why I never feel like Mills and Boon are much more than a way to waste life’s most valuable commodity.
We noticed more than one ashy fire site with half-burned branches, and a lot of beer bottles that summer. Unfortunately, some person unknown had dropped some broken glass in the sand, and one afternoon we had to wrap one boy’s foot in a towel, while another dinked him home on a bike. His mother took the injured boy to the local emergency department, and while he wasn’t allowed to come back (I think he was reluctant anyway) we didn’t tell our parents. It was some time before they found out.
We were annoyed by the glass, and I by the intrusion into what I liked to think of as one of my special places. Still I wondered what it would be like to sit around a fire by the river. When I did years afterwards in non- bushfire season it was fun. The tall solemn shadows of trees contrasted with the liveliness of leaping flames creating a circle of light on those seated at the fire; the breezes gusting causing a kind of musical chairs to avoid the smoke; and smoked toast and burned marshmallows eaten from the end of gum twigs make a bush camp fire one of life’s rustic pleasures.
One evening in 1979 around the end of January, we stayed late enough to find out what was with the intruders and their activities. It was one of those hot days when we’d only come to swim around 4 pm. By 7pm the sun was lowering over the river, and hunger and sand rash were beginning to niggle. There was a roar behind us, and we heard the sound of tires drumming on the bush track, cracking branches, and making Magpies flutter away.
Two aged Ford vehicles pulled up; one a beat up ute and the other a sedan. One of the blonde Yarrunga louts got out, a stout yobbo who I remembered from his braggadocio by the pool, with him was his mate, the brother of another girl I knew from school. Two dark-skinned boys from the big local Italian community got out of the other ute. They called out to us and we waved as country kids do. I had started to wear glasses late that year, after six months of struggling to see the blackboard and headaches, so at first I didn’t recognise one of the Italian boys as a crush of mine, a raven haired and broad-shouldered member of a family who lived around the corner from my house. When they came down on the sand, we expected them to come into the water though we didn’t want them there. Mick, Tricia’s brother had come across from the rope swing, and said hello to the blonde boy who grunted and waved. Then they opened the boot of the sedan, sat on the bonnet of their respective vehicles, and downed about three long necks each, dumping them into the remains of a recent fire. The blonde boy’s mate got a box of matches out, and two of the others staggered around looking for dry branches. Mick who was already close to six-foot and had a bad temper, and an easy confidence that was rare amongst his peers, approached the blonde boy and his voice carried into the water. “Lighting a fire here in the Summer is a dickhead move.”
Mick had expressed this point of view when we had suggested a fire, and the only fire we had was out at Boweya, on his Uncle’s farm.
There were some rude gestures, a bit of muttering and some more beer drinking but the tension remained. As they drank, they got louder, and were standing on the bonnets of their cars throwing bottles and smashing them against a blackened log sitting in ash. I had already thought about going home but was afraid to go past them to my bike, leave on my own. By then I had realised that dark-eyed raven-haired ‘boy’ was the someone I had admired for a while from afar. He was one of two boys that were quieter but were intently drinking. It was sunset and the shadows were long when the blonde boy walked down onto the sand , dropped his shorts, and mooned us. This was followed by uproarious laughter, and whooping. They were impressed with themselves.
Mike W said “Ignore him. “ Richard laughed which seemed to encourage them. We did a few more rope swings. Then I said to Tricia, “I’m seriously cold. I’m going to get my bike and go home.”
She nodded and followed me to the shore. I was stepping out of the water when the blonde boy and the two Italian boys mooned us. We decided later it was unlikely we could ever “unsee” their pale bottoms backlit by the lowering sun. I looked away, grabbed my faded beach towel, t-shirt and footy shorts, and went to my bike. Mick was on the sand yelling at them as I rode away. Behind me was the rattle of metal, and the sound of rustling in the bush grass, looking back I was relieved to see Tricia and Richard coming behind me on their bikes.
I heard a rumour that Mick and Damien his cousin went down there the next week and “had words” with the ‘mooners’. But Richard’s parents were joined by other parents all talking about the trouble down at the Golf Links, and apparently where we swam was 50 percent private and 50 percent crown land. We started going out to Boweya to a pleasant dam on Mick’s uncle’s property.
The next November when I went exploring around town on my bike, taking the longer rides I always did when school was winding down for the year, there was barb wire intersecting the track to the Golf Links. A sense of loss came over me as I realised that it was attached to a fence that was built to keep us out. Searching for an access point, I came away with scratches on my calves and disappointment weighing on me. It was a place where I had relaxed, had adventures, pondered life and communed with nature. It was a loss I felt keenly for the years that remained in Wangaratta. I had watched the first activities of the Azure Kingfishers there when the apricot rays kissed the river, and longed for those moments just one more time.