I smell the smelly smell of something that smells smelly.
On a super hot afternoon while dad and I were returning from a boat trip downriver, we spotted three blokes on the riverbank decked out in army camouflage and carrying large backpacks. On closer inspection they were undressing to swim across a creek entering the river. Dad pulled up and asked what they were up to – it turned out they were in the middle of an army exercise. He offered to boat them across the creek.
After much deliberation between the army men, they would be breaking the rules by accepting such an offer, they accepted it anyway. Even dad, who to me as a little boy was a big bloke, seemed much smaller when those army men boarded our boat. They were humungous men. They smelt sweaty and dirty. Afterwards I was left with many questions not about the army men but about what might be up that creek.
The Dyball’s old fibreglass canoe leaked like a sieve. But it was the only vessel available for me to further explore the creek by paddling up it. My boyish curiosities needed quenching.
On another super hot day not long after, I borrowed the Dyball’s leaky canoe. As I paddled out from the shore, the acrid smell of hot, dry, chalky fibreglass swirled around within the hull of the old thing before flying sharply into my nostrils like little pieces of shrapnel.
While paddling from the expanses of the river towards the shadows at mouth of the creek, I became overwhelmed by the pungent essences of mud and mangroves. The old canoe creaked as I back-paddled; the bilge water already lapped up around my buttocks. I cupped a few handfuls out, but for every drop of water removed it was apparent more were leaking in.
So I hankered down and started paddling. On my first stroke into the creek, my bum rose off the fibreglass seat formed into the canoe, and when it landed back down my weight squeezed a spurt of water out from a crack on the front edge of the seat all over my thighs. The water smelt so stale I nearly vomited. I was in a diabolical conundrum about whether to waste time washing the stinky water off my thighs at the peril of taking more water into the canoe, or putting up with the smell and getting on. I reluctantly opted for the latter.
The creek quickly narrowed. At spots I was forced to lie down in the canoe’s smelly bilge to pass under overhanging tree boughs. Over the bouquet of mud and mangrove and the stench of stale water, I detected a hint of cow manure. The abstract smell of trespass also entered my nostrils as the creek became a canal through farm paddocks.
Another abstract smell followed – that of fear – when I spotted three doe-eyed cows on the edge of the creek. It was the closest I had ever been to such beasts and in my ignorance I wondered from whereabouts a rampant bull might charge. I paddled on, ducking low into the canoe again to pass under a log bridge.
Then all the smells were overpowered. For as I rounded the next bend, there, pressed into the muddy banks laid a calf which had come to its final rest. The reek of bloated, rotting death slapped me in the face so hard that I let out a scream loud enough to startle all the cattle herons in the paddock into flight.
Somehow in my panic, in a creek narrower than the length of the Dyball’s old canoe, I still managed to turn around. I scraped a fibreglass patch off from under the bow – a botched repair job of years gone by – and as I started paddling the Dickens out of there, I noticed the water was literally bubbling into the canoe.
Do you know what? I didn’t smell, let alone sense anything else at all as I paddled around the bend, under the log bridge and low boughs, through the mangroves and mudflats and out of the creek into the river. I returned to land in a canoe resembling a barely-floating bathtub, which seemed to be carrying more water than was in the rest of the river.
I returned the Dyball’s canoe and tried to forget the whole unpleasant experience and for the rest of the afternoon, no matter what I did, I could not get the smell of the bloated dead calf out of my nostrils.