One With The Lot

I knew I shouldn’t have eaten it. The hamburger. The bloody thing nearly killed me.

I was on Tavira, a minute island just off the south coast of Portugal. It was September 1987. I say just off the coast because a couple of good torpedo punts from the mainland would land on the island’s beautiful sand. I caught a small ferry out there one morning. It was more of a punt than a ferry but it floated and we made the journey.

Being a young bloke (I was 23 at the time) on my own with only a backpack and a pipe for permanent company, I hadn’t bothered checking out the facilities on Tavira much at all. When I got there I discovered that “facilities” were in short supply. Basically it had a camping ground and a few “restaurants” on the beach. The restaurants were a series of tents lined up along the foreshore selling cervezas, agua minerals, coca-cola, chicken, burgers and some seafood.

So I booked into the camping ground. It cost me 50c Australian per night. As I was living on twenty Australian dollars per day equivalent, this left me plenty of room to indulge in the cervezas. Once I got into the camping ground I realized I had something of a quandary; no tent. No matter. I lay my grass mat out on the ground, sat my backpack on it and made this little set up my home.

I momentarily thought about rain. Then I stopped thinking about it.

A group of German students on their summer holiday had set up just across from me. There were eight of them. Seeing me sitting on the sand having a quiet pipe by myself they invited me over for a lager. I think we ended up having about 620 of them. I spent the next week with them. We swam, sat and chatted on the beach, ate in the little restaurants each night (strictly the chicken or squid as it was considered the safe food), and drank cervezas. Some of my new German friends also spent many hours smoking a strange smelling grassy substance which caused them to become very mellow. Most of them were medical students, something that would be a huge benefit in the days to come. I didn’t mention the war once.

A couple of the blokes in the German crew had purchased an old Peugot in Germany and driven it to Portugal. It had literally died as they pulled into Tavira (the township), so they parked it on the street, took off the plates and walked off. It could still be there today. Back then the Portugese moved very slowly. I suspect they still do.

One night I arrived at one of the restaurants (it had become our local because it was closest to our camp) after a beautiful day of lazing on the beach. Jose, the owner, was running around as usual.

“You try the squid” he was saying, “Beautiful squid caught this morning. Cerveza?”

I’d eaten the squid most nights. It was sensational. But I’d been away for some months and had a yearning for red meat. The little voice inside my head, the sensible one, the one that warns of danger, must have been out at the time because it remained silent.

“No” I said, “Give me a burger mate.”

Nothing happened for a few hours. I downed a few cervezas and sat on a small wooden stool talking. It would be the last formed stool I would see for the next umpteen days.

It started as a little rumble, like something in the intestines had slipped; a sloppy gear change if you like. Then there was the pain; immaterial to start with but gaining in urgency every second. I knew I had to escape to the sand dunes post haste. It was ugly.

I staggered back to my little camp and collapsed on the grass mat. I knew what was going on. It would come again. Any moment now. I dashed for the toilets. Standing at the door of the toilets with their hands out were the money collectors. It cost five cents to use their little rooms. But I was running that fast when I reached them that I broke their tackles like Ron Barassi in his prime and hit the cubicle. Their protests to me after I left the dunny were met with a pathetic groan. In the coming days they saw me sprint past regularly; perhaps six or seven times a day. They didn’t even bother holding out their hands. I got free dunny use.

After a day or so I apparently fell into delirium. The days and nights blended together. I recall a bloke lifting my head from time to time to pour water down my throat, I sensed people around me in deep conversation, perhaps debating whether or not I should be taken to hospital or whether or not they should just shoot me then and there. I remember waking one night and going for a swim. I had no idea what time it was but the whole place was silent. I swam in the cool calm water for what seemed like hours, oblivious to the fact that I was probably shark bait. It was most likely the first time my body had felt water for four or five days. And I remember one of the Germans waking me at dawn one day.

“Hey, wake up.” he was saying as he shook my shoulders. “I’m leaving. See you in the next world man.” Then he dropped me back on the sand.

I’ll never forget that. The sun was low on the horizon and behind his face. All I could see was his wild hair silhouetted against the glare. A moment in time.

His words didn’t fill me with confidence that I would ever recover.

But recover I did; very slowly. When the German crew left they figured they couldn’t just leave me on the beach and so they very kindly put me on a train heading for southern Spain. They probably assumed I would find civilization there.  I only got as far as Lagos (still in Portugal) because I didn’t have the energy to go on. I spent a few days in a pension trying to come good but could barely eat. I survived on bottled water with a multi vitamin dissolved in it, and the odd banana.

Finally I got to Spain and went to a youth hostel. A few Australian blokes were there and, after taking in my shabby appearance, asked if I was OK.

“No.” I said. “Food poisoning”.

“What you need” said one of them, “Is a bloody big plate of pasta.”

We went to a local eatery and I ate enough to fill ten men. And it stayed down. Or should I say, it stayed in.


It’s widely recognized that when you have a near death experience (yes that may be an exaggeration but it makes this story sound better) you have clarity as what’s important to you. And when the German medical student was pouring water down my throat as I lay in a dazed stupor on the sand, he later told me that I often asked “Who won the footy?”

I have no recollection of it. He had no idea what the bloody hell I was on about.

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 read, Dips

    If there’s one thing my travel has taught me, that is to be wary of German travelers.

    I say this after waking up nude by a caravan park swimming pool in a Texas border town that was strewn with a dozen sleeping Germans… also nude.

    No doubt the local tequila downed the previous night across the border (along with the worm the size of an adult witchetty grub) was a contributing factor.

  2. John Butler says


    Not fun being sick far from home. It happened to us in the US.

    Which forced us to deal with their health system. I’m never complaining about ours again.

  3. Litza – what is it with Germans and nudity?

  4. Great story as always, Dips.

    I seem to recall many of the publications that were discreetly passed around under the boys’ high school desks being of German origin.

  5. David Downer says

    Super read Dips – from paradise to purgatory!

    I’ve found German tourists (of the middle age variety at least), have a penchant for wearing black socks with shorts – and are generally oafish wankers.

  6. Hmmm, it seems burgers in Portugal have a similar effect as mushrooms in Bali. Luckily though, not for the days and days you endured Dips. The Almanac is the better for you surviving that episode.

    Agree about the Germans. In most footy clubs I’ve come across, there is always at least one bloke, and maybe a handful, who loved getting their gear off at every opportunity.

    I reckon in German sporting clubs, the odd one out would be the bloke/s who keeps his clothes on!

  7. I didn’t realise it was my German heritage speaking to me, insisting I remove my kit, all those times.

    On the topic of wild evenings, Litza, I think I spotted the remnants of one yesterday afternoon.

    I took the kids to Edinburgh Gardens and we wound up in the grandstand at Brunswick St so they could run around and I could watch a bit of cricket. Here is an inventory of items two benches back from where I chose to sit. I am trying to work out what happened:

    One suit coat, crumpled up on the floor.
    One pair suit pants, crumpled up on the seat.
    One orange kerchief
    One condom (unused) on the bench
    One condom (unused) on the floor
    One plastic container of service station sandwiches (empty)
    One yoghurt and muesli bar wrapper
    One soft drink can
    One small eucalypt branch, about the size a bushie would use to blow flies away. It had had half its leaves dipped in red paint.

    I need Cracker to fill in the scenario for me.

  8. Andrew Fithall says

    JTH – Did you see my keys anywhere?

  9. JTH – sound to me that a bloke tried very hard to get lucky, fumbled with the condom once too often (whereupon the target of his affections left) so he chucked the condoms down in disgrace, decided to eat the sandwich, yoghurt and muesli bar and drink the softdrink and walk home naked, leaving his suit behind (must be German).

    The eucalypt branch is a decoy – obviously the left overs from a welcome to country ceremony.

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