When doctors look in my ears they tell me I’ve spent a lot of life in water. I’ve never seen it for myself but there’s something in there that marks me.
“That boy’s half fish”, Dad’d say. “Give him a glass of water and he’s in it”. Now I’ve got the ears to prove it.
The water that flows, deep from the bottom of the wall that holds back the river is cold, very cold, and it flows fast, no time for it to sit and warm in the sun. “It’s strong, stronger than you”. That was to be remembered, to know the river, go with it but respect what it wanted to do. “Remove yourself from it if you have to. It can turn in a bend and take your life”.
Mungabareena is a reserve not far from where we lived, straight out of my bedroom window and over the hill. The name is for a big bend in the Murray that almost cuts back on itself, leaving almost an island of land, almost encircled by the river, a billabong in the waiting. Here was the ‘mungabareena’, the place where people gathered to meet, make family announcements and settle family arguments. Big time celebrations at Mungab marked the season of the Bogong moth, a short-lived delicacy, fat and juicy. Corroborrees! With all the tribes from all around to celebrate the moths’ arrival from the North to the cool of mountain springtime and the beginning of a much-salivated change in diet. All in the arm of the river.
In my time it was only white man and cows who gathered at Mungab, the occasional gypsy family travelling through, night hoons and fishermen. My family would live there of a weekend, in the hard heat of an Albury summer, returning home well after sunset and only after a good feed on cold chicken and Nan’s trifle. It wasn’t a popular spot even in summer because the river at Mungab is fast and dangerous. The crowds opted for the stiller and warmer waters out at the weir or further downstream where the river stretched its guts wide open.
I thank my Dad’s love of the river for allowing me to get to know it. He taught us about currents and hazards, how rivers flowed, where to swim out of a current and when to go with it. To think like a fish.
He’d take us on ‘little floats’ around the bend of Mungab, training us up for ‘big floats’ from a few miles upstream. The rules were, “Travel in the centre of the river on the straights and cut in on the bends so you don’t get taken under the willows”. Forced against the branch of any tree with a strong current behind you, the only way is under. “Float with your feet up and watch the surface currents”. Sudden changes in the surface current meant dead trees lying below. “You don’t’ want to get caught on them. They’ll pull you under”.
Some people thought all you had to do was float and the river would do all the rest. I knew from experience that sometimes you had to swim like mad to get away from where the river wanted to take you. And I saw lives lost.
Only a kid myself, I saw three strapping young men, laughing like heroes, floating down the river on a log, the worst thing you could do. They were coming around the bend, yahooing, laughing and carrying on. I watched as the current took them to the other side. I saw ahead of them the danger they were in and knew what was going to happen. They went into the willows and only one of them came up alive, and he was blue.
It is said by Aboriginal People, they don’t like to swim in other people’s waters. They fear with respect, the spirit of the country that’s not theirs, that it will sense them. It makes sense to me not to swim too deep in waters you don’t know. I saw these young men, they weren’t from around these parts and they didn’t know the river. They gave it little respect and it took their lives and gave one a warning.
Now I’m not too confident in saltwater, I stay in my depth.
When I’m in any new situation, territory unfamiliar, I remember the river and my Dad and listen to the people who do know, watch how they navigate and listen to their knowledge of their water.