A fisherman’s lament
Conditions were perfect for a fishing trip: I had just lost both my jobs. But it wasn’t all good news. I had also been fined $1200 for speeding at the wheel of a tour bus.
Once again, Hollywood was no help. I want to see a sequel to Speed where Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves traipse around trying to contest the traffic violations from the first movie.
I wrote a letter of appeal to the Expiation Notice Branch. It took them five months to respond. I don’t know what they were doing during that time, but one thing they weren’t doing was running their reply past a copyeditor. The prose was so garbled it took me an hour to figure out if I’d gotten off or not. I had not.
I was in Adelaide when I got the news, visiting for the holidays. After the initial howling period, I packed my dad’s old truck with fishing rods and camping gear, muttering about revenge.
“What are you going to do,” asked my dad cheerfully, “catch $1200 worth of fish?”
I sighed. “If only it was really their fish to begin with.”
Revenge is so complicated these days.
While the fishing wasn’t particularly meditative in those first few days, the driving was. If you drive fast enough (or too fast, according to the bus-fines people), it feels as though you can outrun anything. You can crest a hill and experience a brief moment’s peace as a vista unfurls before you. Then of course it all catches up with you, which is why you see people like me pacing around in country towns, trying to scarf down two or three custard tarts at once.
I had two weeks left to run before they took away my licence, and I was going to drag out every minute of the drive back to Melbourne. The plan was to catch my meals along the way. At the last minute, my mum – either misunderstanding the nature of the trip or not sharing my optimism – had slipped a giant salami in with my things. In the days to come it would ride next to me in the passenger seat, like a talisman that I could nibble at.
I drove out through the Adelaide Hills. On the road to Strathalbyn, mist drifted across paddocks and gathered around lone red gums. Parrots burst from the roadside scrub and flew away. I called my friend James and told him that, since leaving the city, my thinking was becoming clearer. I could finally see a path forward: I would dedicate the rest of my life to winning back the bus fine.
There was a moment’s silence. “How long did you say you’ve been out of the city for?”
“Maybe keep going for a bit.”
From the Wellington ferry I called him back, thinking maybe he’d misheard some of the finer details. Normally James is one of the best people to complain to. Sometimes he gets so riled up on your behalf that you end up trying to talk him down. But this time he wasn’t biting.
“Listen,” he said. “Where are you now?”
“Crossing the Murray.”
“Is it magnificent?”
The Murray looked sick and sluggish this far downstream, as though it was using all its strength just to make it to sea. A distant jetskier buzzed around on top of it.
“I drank from it once,” I said.
It was on my first ever fishing trip. I was 14 years old. On one of our afternoon excursions I’d found myself standing waist-deep in the river, a dreamy kid in possession of one great fact: this was where our drinking water came from. Even though it was the colour of milky tea, I bent down and drank from it, almost defiantly, rather than wade ashore for my drink bottle.
“Like you were defending your one big fact,” said James admiringly.
“I became violently ill.”
Once ashore, I drove south-east along the Coorong, as mallee dwindled into salt flats, and the dirt on the shoulders of the road changed from light brown to bone white. I made camp between the north and south lagoons.
Fishing can take you to the most beautiful places – fresh beaches at dawn, with pink skies and wheeling gulls – and promptly ruin your enjoyment of them. All that fussing about with knots and bait; the hassle of catching something, the anxiety of not. Sometimes I think the perfect fishing trip would be to arrive at such a beach with your friends, only to realise that no one has brought any fishing rods. Then what? This is what we’re too terrified to find out, which is why someone always packs the rods.
From the fishes’ point of view, my trip was a great success. I imagined them lining up in the channels and gutters of surf beaches, awaiting my arrival. I was like an idiot prince, making all the stops, throwing them the best bait money could buy.
Huge onshore winds made even that difficult. (“If only he’d throw it out a bit farther!”)
I kept trundling along the coastline. The truck was not capable of any great speeds. On the bitumen, it could manage 80 kilometres an hour and wandered all over the road. But I loved the world-weary calm with which she endured me getting bogged on beaches, and the roaring spirit with which she got us out.
At 42 Mile Crossing I tried to tangle with the famed mulloway, but spent most of the time trying to untangle my line. I staggered around in the face of the wind like a drunk. My casts were lucky to make it past the shoreline.
At Wrights Bay campsite I became something of a pariah. I had grown so sick of watching my tent battle in the wind that I had abandoned it to its fate and gone to the local pub. When I came back, the tent was still standing (or leaning), but several people came over to complain about the flapping. I spent the afternoon lying spread-eagled in the tent, trying to pin it down from the inside, thinking, This again.
Morale was low, the salami was running out.
I met someone in the nick of time. After taking the back roads into Canunda National Park, I set up camp, and was sitting in my folding chair on the dirt road so I could watch the sun go down. I saw the silhouette of another person coming up the road towards me. My heart softened at the sight of him: he kept turning around to look at the sunset as though it was trying to tell him something. Just as I had my fishing rods, he had a large camera hanging from a shoulder strap.
As he came closer I said, “Salami?”
He gave it a good look. “Not for me, thanks. I’ll join you for a beer, though.”
He grabbed his chair and as he sat down I recognised the look in his eye.
“Is it love or the law?”
He flinched. “Is it obvious?”
The sun went down but the evening glow carried on. We sat and talked and drank our beers.
He pointed to my truck.
“Are you … parked there?”
He chuckled. “I’ll help you out tomorrow.”
After that first fishing trip (the one cut short by me drinking Murray water) I became obsessed. I did my Year 10 work experience on a fishing boat. I would sit in the back of the class tying knots.
At the time, I was the coxswain of the girls quad sculls rowing team. (The coxswain is usually the smallest person on the boat: their job is to do some rudimentary steering and to shout encouragement at the rowers. The rowers’ tolerance for this sort of thing varies.) At regattas, I would sit on the steps of West Lakes – while the rowers rigged the oars or whatever they did to prepare for the races – and catch almost comical amounts of bream with a handline. I was a much better fisherman then than I am now. With the wet fishing line between my fingers it felt like I was receiving transmissions from the underwater world: the gentle pull of the current, the picking of crabs, and the moment when a fish turned its head with the bait in its mouth and took off.
Even I knew I’d gone too far when, on the way to the starting line, they caught me trolling a lure out the back of the boat. The glares of all four rowers were upon me. I apologised profusely, but that too proved to be a misstep – delivered, as it was, through a megaphone at the 750-metre mark. And that, coupled with the belated onset of puberty, was the end of my career as a coxswain.
I went on fishing trips all over South Australia with my friend Tommy, who was five years older than me and could drive. We would plan fishing trips carefully around tide times and moon phases. As I got older we started planning them more around the opening hours of country pubs and, eventually, not at all.
I drove the long way out of Canunda National Park, and caught mullet from the beaches. (I would only ever catch one a day before running straight back to the truck to cook it.)
I followed sand tracks through the dunes, and began to experience the slow untangling of the mind. Like sinking into a warm bath, I was returning to the world. I no longer swung my head around at the sound of bird calls because I was surrounded by them. My thoughts, if I had any, were free to amble around. There was no one slamming them up against a wall the moment they left your head, and shaking them down.
As I crossed the state border into Victoria, I had the feeling I was being reeled in from a great distance. Slowly and inexorably. Masks were mandated on this side of the state line, which only increased the sense of foreboding. “It’s true,” I texted a friend, “they are only a minor inconvenience… if you don’t care about faces or fellowship or the possibilities of love.” Though it’s also true I would have been a lot less upset if I’d been paying better attention to my dental hygiene.
I thrashed around a little on the Glenelg River, and then followed the road to Portland. I had a dinner invitation waiting for me in Melbourne, and I was in charge of the fish. This one-mullet-a-day business wouldn’t cut it anymore.
I drove onto the breakwater and set up next to a large Lebanese family who were drinking tea, baiting hooks for the kids and playing music. The whole place had a festive atmosphere. A school of King George whiting was moving up and down the breakwater, and everyone, including me, was catching them.
That night I camped in the hinterlands, and returned the next morning needing three more fish before I could show my face at the Melbourne dinner party. The Lebanese family had gone, and the breakwater had a more sombre atmosphere. By noon I had caught two fish, but it had gone quiet. I was packing up to go home when an audience arrived. Two locals pulled up in a fancy four-wheel drive drinking takeaway coffees and complaining about tourists. I have spent many years working with men (and a few women) who talk like this: like crabs waving their pincers at each other. Not so much a conversation as a butting of shells. They glanced over my way a few times, but I was feeling soft and meaty and didn’t want to join in.
I was in a good disguise. The truck was sufficiently beaten up and I had gone long enough without showering that they couldn’t tell where I was from. I went to reel in and leave when my rod buckled under the dancing weight of a whiting, a big one. Under the gaze of the two men I tried to stifle my whooping. The missing fish! The feeding of the masses! Inside, my heart was doing somersaults. Outside, crab face.
I swung the fish straight from the water into the truck, and slammed the tailgate shut. Then I turned, gave something resembling a bow and said, “Gentlemen, I take my leave.”
Then I hopped in the truck and headed for Melbourne.
It is a mystery to me why I keep returning. I merged into the great flow of traffic. There would be no more camping trips for a while. No more driving west across the plains, arriving on my parents’ doorstep just before dinner and gathering my nieces and nephews into my arms. I would learn to love the state, which had after all given us the roads, the aqueduct and whatever else.
From the main road I caught a glimpse of the city, with its tall buildings standing like sentries, and the familiar grey cloud hanging over the bay.
I swerved off the main road and down to a little beach for one last hurrah. I baited the hooks with my last pilchard, as the fish waited for me in deeper water… but who was I kidding? I didn’t want to catch them, I wanted to join them.
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