A summer lesson

I was standing outside our Swan Hill motel looking up the street towards the Swan Hill Resort. It was New Year’s Eve. In fact midnight had come and gone so it was actually New Year’s Day 2013. I was waiting for my daughter to get back from the party celebrations at the Resort. I hoped she would be along any minute now.
Once upon a time I would have been out taking in the New Year’s partying but the world doesn’t shake for me anymore on New Year’s Eve. I watched the local fireworks show and had a cold beer as car horns sounded and people in nearby motels and houses momentarily went mad. Then just as suddenly as it had started, it ceased. The sounds of restless crickets and cicadas emerged out of the silence.
The streets were quiet. Surprisingly so. The cops cruised past and gave me a glance and drove on. I suppose they figured a middle aged bloke standing alone on the street dressed only in shorts and a T-shirt was no immediate threat to the community. I could feel the warm concrete of the footpath under my feet. The sun had been gone for hours, but nothing in Swan Hill ever seems to cool down in summer.
I was reflecting on the day. In fact I was reflecting on the past few days as I waited. The family had followed the Murray Marathon down the river from Yarrawonga to here; Swan Hill. A 410 kilometre odyssey. Our daughter was in one of the teams. They paddled every day, racing other teams. Each girl probably paddled anywhere between 15 and 25 kilometres a day and each team covered anywhere between 70 and 100 kilometres in a day. Some girls paddled in excess of 100 kilometres over the 5 day journey. At speed. Remarkable effort.
We took in some of the most beautiful and rugged country whilst following the paddlers on their gruelling expedition. The mighty Murray meanders through parched bushland and across brown grazing basins. We travelled through a good part of the Barmah Forest, along fire tracks, over grotty little bridges and through farmers’ gates. We took in towns like Echuca, Tocumwal, Cobram and Swan Hill. And some of the broad sandy beaches that we came across on the banks of the river were astonishing; astonishing in their remoteness and landscape. We also stood knee deep in smelly Murray mud waiting for our girls to reach the checkpoints, and swept persistent flies from our mouths, ears and eyes. The flies being attracted by countless carp carcasses tossed high up onto the banks of the river by fishermen on the hunt for trout or cod.
As we waited on the banks I imagined how this countryside would have provided the perfect camouflage for Ned Kelly and his contemporaries. Locating anyone in this place would be like trying to find a paper clip in a hay stack. There’s something mysterious and foreboding about it; something untouchable but palpable.
The Murray Marathon itself has a certain quaintness and innocence that I quite like. There are those who partake in the racing, and others who are quite happy just to paddle the 410 kilometres at their own pace. There are kids as young as 15 or 16, and couples, dressed in their “his and hers” paddling paraphernalia, who are well into their 60s. There are kayaks and canoes and paddle boards, and other river going contraptions. Most paddlers are seated in their vessel, but some kneel and others even stand as they propel their craft along. But the most obvious aspect of the event was the camaraderie amongst those involved. We heard the encouraging banter out on the water, the polite applause for each person or pair who crossed the finish at the end of each day, and the stories of how various crews went to the rescue of those in trouble, whether or not they were engaged in the competitive aspect of the marathon. It was a refreshing experience.
I heard a door open and close in the house next door to our motel, then footsteps; slow and deliberate. A figure leant across the balustrade of the first floor balcony in the darkness. I couldn’t make out any detail. There was a rustle of paper, a scratching sound, a small flame, and then the red glow of a cigarette broke through the night. The figure was about 20 metres away from me, above my head. I watched as the red glow of the cigarette brightened and dimmed with every drag the person took. Watching another person smoke can be quite hypnotising. Each drag was followed by the nonchalant sound of a smoker’s exhale, like an elderly whale that’s battling asthma.
“Pretty low key New Year’s Eve mate.” The voice above me said. It was a male voice; croaky, tired, and resigned. The line was delivered with that unrushed country drawl.
“Yeah” I said
Moments passed. The cigarette glowed and dimmed, glowed and dimmed. For some reason I felt the urge to add to the conversation.
“I’m waiting for my daughter to come back.” I said. I looked up the road. Still no sign of her.
“Waiting for your daughter, hey?” the bloke muttered. I heard him shuffle on his feet. He took a big drag and exhaled the final, cigarette ending puff. I heard the “ppfffffffffff” and imagined a long stream of smoke leaving his mouth and wandering across the hot roof tops of the town.
“I’ve spent my whole fu*!ing life waiting for my kids.” He said. Then he was gone.
It was typical country wisdom, delivered from the hip and aimed straight between the eyes.
Just then my daughter came sauntering down the road with one of her friends.
“Have you been waiting out here for me?” she asked somewhat incredulous, and obviously embarrassed.
“Yeah” I said, “get used to it.”

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Dips, you are the King of Pathos. Thanks for the heart warming start to my day.

  2. Dips, felt like I was reading an excerpt from a terrific book. A real skill to take such a simple (dare I say mundane) thing as a person smoking and make it riveting reading!

  3. Cheers boys.

    Peter B – I don’t know about Pathos but my ancestors were kings if Donegal.

  4. You’re not very well read Dips. Pathos was one of the Three Musketeers (with Aramis and Annete Funicello).

  5. Pamela Sherpa says

    Patho is an area on the Murray Valley Highway about half an hour out of Echuca.

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