It’s a beautiful life.



I’ve written about this bloke previously. Probably ten years ago. But I had reason to think of him again recently. A character who drifted into my life all ghostly and mysterious then left like a breeze through an open window. I only knew him for about a week or so in 1987 and yet he stays with me. It could be because he was a vivacious personality or it could be because he helped save my failing health (I didn’t know how ill I was initially so he may even have saved my life), or it could be because we were on the same adventurous plane, travelling kindred spirits.


I recall my parents seeing me off at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne in April of 1987. My big adventure. Itinerary largely unknown, though I knew I would spend time in Ireland if nowhere else. Time away was also largely unknown. I was armed with a backpack containing some jeans, shorts, t-shirts, a coat, a windcheater, and a sleeping bag. I had American Express traveler’s cheques in my money belt, a passport, and some English Pounds to see me through the first week or so in London. A lamb to the travelling slaughter you might say.


I had no concept as to how hard this separation was for my parents. They saw me off bravely. A few hugs, a ‘take care’ here and a ‘be careful’ there, and they watched me hitch up my backpack and step out on my own. But I learned years later that they were petrified. Lamb and slaughter came into their minds as well. They waved as I disappeared blissfully through the departure gate and into oblivion not knowing when I would return. They’d officially let me go.


I now know how difficult it was for them because I’ve farewelled two of my children on their own adventures recently. In fact, we saw our youngest off just a week or so back. The ache in the heart is counter-balanced by the excitement of seeing your children grow, almost instantly, into themselves. We let them go. It’s exhilarating and frightening but we must let them go. I think of my own journey’s hardships and tribulations juxtaposed with the sheer joy of traveling freely, the people, the places, the pubs and conversations and the experiences that remain glued in my memories, and I feel dread and delight that our youngest may well experience something similar. I hope, somehow, someone up there is watching over him.


Someone was certainly watching over me.


The decision to go to Tavira was at the last minute. I’d been in Lisbon for a few days and loved it. It’s like walking into an oil painting of grand but decaying buildings that once dripped in wealth, power, and confidence but are now frayed like old curtains. Pride and grandeur remain but age has wearied them. I was heading to Lagos but was told its full of Poms and money and that Tavira was the go. So, I got on the overnight train. The fact that camping in Tavira was only 80 escudos per night (about 65 cents Australian!) might have swayed the decision too.


After two days of idyllic sun and sand and beach and evenings of the most magnificent calamari fresh from the boats with wine and beer under the stars and new-found friends from Austria and Germany I suddenly hit a wall. Well, a hamburger anyway. Never eat a hamburger in a foreign country that doesn’t value refrigeration and where the washing of hands is not a habit always adhered to. I was as crook as a dog.


‘At one stage yesterday, I was hoping I would just die as my stomach ached, my head thumped and I was visiting the toilet every half an hour.’ Diary note 6th September 1987. Tavira, Portugal.


I had nothing left to give. Dehydrated, feverish and with a headache that would stop an elephant, I spent three days in the fetal position on the sand. Fortunately, the German crew looked after me as much as they could. Every three or four hours one of them would come over, lift my head, and give me a drink of water. Day and night. It was extraordinarily good of them.


But one bloke in particular took me under his wing. I wish I could recall his name. Think it was Wolfgang. Wolfgang would come and sit with me and smoke his joints and suck on a bottle of wine and talk shit for hours. Often, I would doze off and wake and he’d be asleep against the tree. He spoke of his haphazard trip down to Portugal whilst on his university holidays and the car he abandoned before getting on the ferry to Tavira. He wondered if the police might track him down about the car and send him home. He told me he was studying medicine in Berlin and about his girlfriend who was with him and who he wanted to marry and about his mates and life in Germany. He kept telling me I’d feel better soon and gave me a few big red tablets which didn’t seem to do much. His presence was like a shadow. I thought at times I was delirious and Wolfgang wasn’t actually there with me but was a spirit that seemed to float above the rest of us. But he was there and as the sun rose like a burnt orange, I’d see him in deep slumber under the trees not five feet away.


I would wake up at two in the morning because my sleep patterns were shot and I’d stagger to the beach and plunge in just to feel the cool water on my aching body and reassure myself I was still alive. Things moved and slithered around me in the water, the skies were clear and the moon looked at me like a giant, caring eye. I could see that it felt my pain. Then I would stagger back up the beach to my camping spot and slump on the sand and wish it would all go away.


One night, it must have been about 3am, as I wobbled up the beach, I saw a cigarette lighter flash in the night and there was Wolfgang sitting amongst the dunes toking on a big fat joint.


‘Hey man,’ he said.


I raised my hand and went on my way.


The next night, in the depths of everyone else’s dreams, I awoke sensing that someone was hovering over me. Wolfgang was swaying in the gentle night breeze, his black wavy hair falling over his face and his skin wet from a recent plunge is the sea. He bent over and lifted my head off the sand, cupping it in both his hands and bringing my face close to his. His eyes were wild and lively like he was holding back a big secret.


‘I have to leave in the morning,’ he said, ‘see you in the next world man.’


He gently lay my head back down and retreated into the night. I never saw him again.


For years I’ve misinterpreted that last interaction. I took it to mean that after we live our lives and reach the end we may meet again as old souls in the after death waiting room. But I was wrong. I’m convinced now that he thought, without his care and attention, I might just die there on the beach. He was wishing me a quick and painless passing.


See you in the next world man,’ because you’re not long for this one.


When morning came, I packed up and left like something had possessed me. Hunched over, still feverish and stripped of any body weight I might have been carrying I felt the need to move. Wolfgang had given me a subliminal message. Get up man because death is right behind you!


I jumped on a train via Lagos and across the border to Seville in Spain. Bedraggled, sick and walking from memory I had no plan other than to be somewhere else; to outrun whatever was behind me. An English-speaking Brazilian bloke with whom I was sharing the train carriage took one look at me and said,


‘You need a good feed.’


The thought of food nearly made me throw up but there was nothing inside to throw. He got me off the train in Seville and we found a small hostel in which to lay our heads. Two other English blokes were in the room too and agreed to come with us to a local Italian restaurant where they bought me a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine and watched me eat it. It stayed down. I was back.





‘It’s fantastic to be home again, the weather is great, the air is clear, all is familiar and comforting and the family and friends are close again – I think I’ll just sit around and lap it all up for a few weeks.’ Diary entry 11th February 1988. Melbourne.


Safe travels Liam. I’m sure you’ll meet some wonderful people.



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. Great yarn, old mate.

    I occasionally think about some of the people I met when backpacking and wonder what they are doing now. I actually inadvertently found one of them on Facebook, but decided against contacting him. Let the memories stay as they are.

    And yep, when your children start travelling it is nerve-wracking but exciting at the same time.

  2. Cheers Smoke.
    When I think about some of the weird Cats I met and some of the crazy cars I got in whilst hitchhiking it’s a wonder I made it back!

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Enjoyed this, Dips – the piece gives the expression ‘crook as a dog’ an enhanced meaning, as well as being insightful in general terms.

  4. Dips excellent read – interesting- philosophical and plenty of meaning – never been os I admit I regret that and yes having dropped off my son who was on his way to China I was v v nervous and scared

  5. Colin Ritchie says

    Ripping read Dips! It brought back so many memories of my first trip overseas in the early 70s. That feeling of excitement, adventure yet all tempered by that feeling of trepidation, the unknown, and the unexpected. But it is the people you meet on the journey that are remembered, no matter how fleeting that stirs the soul. Like anyone who has travelled and lived overseas those experiences can only change one’s outlook on life for the better, and it certainly did mine. It certainly is a beautiful life. Thanks Dips.

  6. Cheers gents. Hope this brought forth some good memories of the people you’ve met on your journeys..Here or away. Doesn’t matter. The great cathedrals and buildings, impossibly beautiful villages, stunning views are all magnificent. But often its the people who stay with us. A few of them anyway.

    And the great pubs…………………

  7. DBalassone says

    A special special read, Dips. Stopped me in my tracks. As well as being a gripping tale, it makes you reflect on your own journeys (time and space)…thanks for this mate.

  8. Brilliant and powerful stuff. Thanks for sharing.
    I often reflect on my extraordinary naivety as a younger man. How could I be so smart and stupid at the same time?
    Michael Jordan’s college basketball coach told him “good judgement requires experience, and experience requires bad judgement”. Jordan made it the preface to his autobiography. He credits those early missed shots with his strength in the clutch with the Bulls.

  9. John Harms says

    Superb Dips.

    I’m very pleased that bloke was there.

    So much to ponder in this. The kindness of a stranger and what that says about what goes on the human heart (at times).

    Given the week we’re in, imagine if you were waving Liam as he left on a troop ship. I think about this. Theo at Puckapunyal or Canungra?

    And, yes the intersection of trepidation and excitement ring true.

  10. Thanks Damian. Appreciate the comment.

    JTH – waving our sons off on a troop ship. Ghastly thought. I’m sure it won’t come to that. I met some idiots whilst away but most people were good at heart. At least as far as I could see.

    PB – love that quote on judgement. I’m going to use that. Its painful but sometime s we have to let our children make the wrong call. I’ve grappled with that, and still do.

  11. Rick Kane says

    Just beautiful Dips, a poignant reflection on the basic wants and needs that connect us all. For every moment and person that helped us through, we have been that person in that moment for others. Without fuss or fanfare. Just because. Care for each other outweighs bad intentions and by a fair margin. This I believe. Common decent humanity is our engine. So, thank you for such a touching moment.

    And here’s a song about letting go of our kids …

  12. Thanks RK, appreciate that.

    What a beautiful song. Thanks for the link. Brings the odd tear to the surface.

  13. Daryl Schramm says

    Greetings from Conwy, Wales. Marvellous read Dips. I never travelled in my youth. Something I have always regretted. Have made up for it somewhat in the past decade and a half though. I now suspect I might not have survived had I ventured earlier.

  14. Greetings Daryl.

    Never been to Conwy. What took you there?

    What’s over the next hill? That’s what still gets me out on the road

  15. Love it Dips. Thank you.
    It fascinates me that two people can live through the same experience but see it differently.
    I admire your perspective.

    I never did the gap year/ backpacking thing.
    Suddenly my Steph (a.k.a. Bud Oon) has turned 18, finished school, and is off to Europe for her own version of your trip – she departs next month.
    Very happy for her.

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