Oct 12, 2017

Tears For The Tigers

I remember the first time I felt it. It was late July and the Tigers were playing the Suns on the Gold Coast. For the Richmond of old, this was a danger game. Vivid in my memory were the two home games we had relocated to Cairns for cash. We lost them both. Friends still taunt me about the time Karmichael Hunt kicked a long goal to sink the Tigers in Far North Queensland. I didn’t need reminding. But this iteration of Tigers felt different. As they chased and harassed and didn’t give in, they seemed imbued with a spirit I had never seen.

Bugler's 20-year-old Richmond Tigers football jumper

The season to that point seemed a metaphor for the 37 years I have barracked for the Tigers. Getting thumped by Adelaide and St Kilda were low points. Perhaps not as low as the late 80s when my love of football took off. My first memories of the Tigers were of finishing in the bottom three and of a ‘Save Our Skins’ sticker I had, replete with a cartoon Tiger covered in blood as seen through the scopes of a gun. The losses felt like a reminder that the Tigers were still a long way from the top.

In 1995 I turned 15 years old and the Tigers finished 3rd. Despite the media focusing on Carlton, I was convinced this was it. I took a train to Melbourne and with my brother Daniel, watched Geelong destroy my hopes in the Preliminary Final at a wet, cold and windy Waverley. In 2001 we made another Prelim and the Lions taught us a lesson at the Gabbatoir on their way to their first flag of a three-peat. So when the Tigers won their first few games this year, I wasn’t convinced. I had been burned before and I was an adult now. I knew there were no fairy tales from Tigerland, only false dawns.

My cynicism was proved correct as we faltered with three consecutive losses by less than a goal. But I wasn’t particularly upset. I was inured to this. Six ninth-placed finishes since the top 8 began in 1994 tend to harden a person. When Carlton finished ninth and were gifted a finals spot due to Essendon’s transgressions, of course it was Richmond who had to play them in the Elimination Final. And of course we lost. The predictable ridicule only further ingrained the sense that I shouldn’t retain hope for Richmond.

Nosebleed view as the Tigers win the 2017 AFL Premiership

Ultimately this is a love story. I fell for the Tigers when Jeff Hogg patrolled our forward line. David Honybun was another childhood favourite. My teenage crushes were Matthew Richardson, Joel Bowden, Matthew Knights and the Gale brothers. Despite the teasing, I was a member and a regular attendee of the MCG when Greg Tivendale, Aaron Fiora, David Bourke and Matthew Rogers donned the yellow and black. I was lovestruck and there wasn’t a damn thing Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls could do about it. But as I matured and became an adult, I was forced to tell myself that my Tiger love was in fact a puppy love. I let my membership lapse. I moved away.

The years passed and I thought I had grown up. But as I watched Jason Castagna and Daniel Rioli ramp up the pressure on the hapless Suns before nailing 3 goals each, I felt something stir. At first I denied it. My cerebral cortex took over and I went about my life. But the next week against the Hawks, there it was again. Even as we lost to the Cats at Kardinia Park, I couldn’t help but feel this was an aberration. We went to Perth and beat Fremantle by over 100 points. Jacob Townsend kicked 6. There was no denying this feeling but I said not a word. We iced our home-and-away season with a win over St Kilda and there we were in 3rd place.

I have converted a reluctant Mrs Bugler to the Tigers. We sat in our lounge room and watched the Tigers play the Cats in the Qualifying Final. I could see it on the field – these Tigers weren’t burdened by history. This was a new breed. When Dustin Martin palmed off Tom Stewart on the half-back flank and bounced his way up the wing I knew I was watching something I had never seen before. I could feel it. In an act of catharsis that can barely be described, the Tiger Army roared out the weight of emotion they had carried for a generation. I sat in a lounge room thousands of kilometres away and did the same. At this point, every Tiger on field and off could feel it.

The highly-fancied Giants held no fear for me in the Preliminary Final. Only twice in my life had I seen the Tigers advance to this point, but this felt different. Much different. I recall talking to another Tiger tragic in 2008 and we were both enamoured by Trent Cotchin. The intervening years have done nothing to temper my feelings. The evidence was on display at the MCG as the Tiger captain attacked the ball, the man and contests at warp speed. More than that, his team-mates followed him one and all. The Giants were mere fodder dressed up as high draft picks.

Celebrations as the Tigers win the 2017 AFL Premiership

I tell myself that I am a mature adult, but in Grand Final week I was regularly in tears. Just thinking about my love was enough to stimulate emotion. If I had to speak of them, I had to concentrate on ensuring my voice didn’t choke. Recalling a lifetime of Tiger memories inevitably set me off. And I knew I wasn’t alone. I’ve spent many hours in the arms of fellow Tiger tragics over the last month and we could all feel it. We told each other that we were just happy to be in the Grand Final. I said to many people, all I wanted to be able to do was cheer my team instead of having to pick my least-hated. But it still felt different.

My Tigers rode that feeling all the way through to the dais. Nobody could deny them. Even the Crows could feel it. My brother called me at half-time. He was at the game with his son, another Tiger tragic. We spoke of the Crows sitting in their rooms ruminating on that feeling. The emotional cauldron of the MCG had crystallised into a singular feeling and the Crows were up against it. More than that, they had to go back out and face it.

My favourite times on the football field were when it was late in the game and you knew you had mentally beaten your opponent. You looked into the eyes of your team-mates and you could see your feeling reciprocated. With 15min to play in the Grand Final it was evident on the MCG. My beloved Tigers spent that 15min feeling immortal and I’m sure they didn’t want the game to end. I watched CEO Brendon Gale in tears hugging his brother Michael and his mother. Both men were Tigers I had fallen in love with as a child. I watched Matthew Richardson crying on the boundary. My love for Richo has never dimmed nor faltered. Coach Damien Hardwick set the tone of 2017 by pouring his heart out to his players. This method speaks to me on an entirely different plane and I love him for it. Hardwick sat in the coaches’ box and looked so proud of his players.

Zar and Wes - the next generation of Tigers

I remain surprised at the depth of feeling I have for the Richmond Football Club winning the 2017 AFL Premiership. I have been repeatedly moved to tears before, during and after. The Age‘s Caroline Wilson said that people congratulated her and she accepted those congratulations without question. I too was congratulated for nothing more than supporting the Tigers. The number of calls and messages this humble fan fielded certainly surprised me. But then I thought of this feeling and I understood why people were so pleased for me.

The win was a beautiful reminder of the wonders of sport. For sheer unadulterated joy, I have never felt anything like it. Another Richmond fan, media commentator Waleed Aly, compared the premiership to his marriage and the birth of his kids. I had some role in my wedding and the birth of my kids. I made life decisions based around them, planned for them, and ultimately they occurred. Mrs Bugler and the mini-Buglers mean much, much more to me than the Tiger flag, but I had some control as to how they were included in my life. The Tigers came from the wilderness. I had no impact and no control of their destiny. All I could do was sit in my lounge room, thousands of kilometres away, and ride the wave of feeling as it grew larger and exploded with joy on the MCG.

Carn’ the Tigers.

Apr 3, 2017

Walking Through Timeless Landscapes

As I hiked, an indigenous man asked me if I felt something in the landscape. It was a loaded question in that we were both aware his forebears would have walked through the valley for generations. As an interloper to the Northern Territory, mine had clearly not. Nevertheless, I knew enough of Luke to call him a friend and understood his curiosity was devoid of prejudice.

Our differing ethnicities was not our only point of difference relevant to the conversation. As a Christian, Luke holds a strong belief the landscape was created by a higher being. The elegant walls of Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park certainly rival any structures made by sentient beings and it is easy to see the magnificence of God’s creation in its red rock canyon.

Mpaara Hike at Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

My distinct lack of faith provided me with a different perspective. I could also see the magnificence of the landscape, but could not see the handprint of the many gods believed to exist. Instead, in my mind I could see the epic scale of erosion that had taken place over many thousands of years. The work of water and wind was evident throughout the National Park. As we walked the path, I was acutely aware of the tiny fragment of geological time I was spending in the gorge. The walls had stood thousands of years before me, and would continue to stand long after I am forgotten.

We were taking a group of indigenous students on a hike. Their excitement about going camping was palpable as they hurriedly investigated anything and everything they could find. One of the beauties of hiking is that it stills the mind. The regular cadence of steps smoothes the peaks and troughs of emotion and even teenagers find a level of calm and introspection. Conversations become slightly deeper and more thoughtful. Barriers and facades are deconstructed.

Hiking through Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

Two of the young men we drove from Alice Springs to Palm Valley had family that still lived in small communities near to Finke Gorge National Park. It was gratifying to watch them walking beside the oldest river in the world and see them as the latest in a very long line of family with a connection to this land. I hope they felt this too.

Rangers had spoken to us about the Red Cabbage Palms growing through the valley. A remnant of an earlier time, the nearest relatives to this species are over 850km away where rains fall more regularly than the arid Red Centre. I pointed this out to the fellas, but was met with a level of apathy anyone who is accustomed to teenage males will be familiar with. I, nevertheless, remained impressed by this stroke of natural fortune.

Overlooking the Finke River as it flows through Palm Valley

Our ambulatory efforts were rewarded when we reached the top of the escarpment overlooking the Finke River. The ranges on the opposite side were rich with the intrigue of caves, colour, flora, and the evidence of historic waterfalls. I tried my best to explain how the river flowed through underground aquifers and only peered above the surface occasionally on its long journey. Eyes glazed at my descriptions of the density of underground soils with the water taking the path of least resistance. My knowledge of hydrogeology is significantly limited, but I was still amazed at the ability of water to flow into this waterhole on display far below us.

I was perhaps more responsive when the educational experience flowed in the other direction. One of the guys pointed toward some dark clouds threatening beyond a ridge and said “kapi pulka” – big water in his native Luritja. Finke Gorge National Park straddles country shared by Luritja and Arrernte people. Other indigenous groups also hail from nearby. A discussion ensued about water – “kapi” for Luritja and Pitjantjatjara but “kwatye” for the Arrernte more common near Mparntwe/Alice Springs. Sources of “merne” (food) were pointed out, both floral and faunal.

We spoke about school, family, football, people, home, music. People told stories, asked questions. We compared native spinifex and invasive buffel grass. As the only non-indigenous person around, the metaphor was not lost on me. Some of the fellas walked faster, as though in a hurry to see if something better was up ahead. Others needed encouragement and goading as though right where they stood was good enough.

Standing atop the escarpment of Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

There are a few places I have been in the world where despite seeing countless pictures, I was still enthralled and amazed when I finally laid eyes on them. Uluru is definitely one. I have been three times in my lucky life and each time I have been enraptured. There is just something about being there.

I felt lucky again on that day in Finke Gorge National Park. Not many people from Burramine South get the chance to walk through Palm Valley. Fewer still get to share the experience with people who have a deep and historic connection to the land. It was a beautiful and poignant question from Luke. Did I feel something in the landscape as we hiked through it? Yes. It made my soul feel good and my spirit soar.

Mar 11, 2017

An Ocean-less Barbarian

It seems an odd place to contemplate surfing, but oddly enough the last few weeks in Alice Springs I’ve spent yearning for the ocean. The dry heat makes one think wistfully of powerful waves crashing hard on rocky shores underneath grey skies heavy with the threat of rain. The monotony of endless sun and blue skies makes one think longingly of being curled up in front of a warm fire as the ocean sings its powerful and endless song. On another day with no cloud and temperatures soaring, I finished a book I won’t forget for some time – Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan.

Surfing a beach break at Cape Le Grand, Western Australia

For those more erudite than I, it would have been no surprise that Barbarian Days was such an incredible read. Finnegan has won an number of awards throughout his successful career as a journalist. For 30 years he has been writing for The New Yorker on topics such as apartheid South Africa, immigration and drug trafficking in Mexico, wars in Mozambique and the Sudan, economic affluence and poverty in modern USA, and, of course, surfing.

For Finnegan, writing about surfing seemed to be inconsequential compared to his more socially valid journalistic topics. Nevertheless, he produced an autobiography that managed to be at once entirely about surfing but also not. For although surfing is ever-present in Barbarian Days, it is but a canvas on which Finnegan paints his life story.

For me, the most poignant chapter of the book was when Finnegan wrote about his time in San Francisco. He wrote of his ambivalence about his desire to continue surfing. But ultimately he couldn’t resist the call of the waves despite the cold, murky water and the gnarly waves of Ocean Beach. As throughout the book, the spectacular descriptions of surfing served as but a metaphor for the phases of life. His time in San Francisco marked the end of his peripatetic days of his 20s when he searched for waves the world over. Instead, he studied the ocean and tried to understand his place in the world as he forged his career and stabilised his personal life.

A crowded lineup in Noosa, Queensland

The cold water of northern California was in stark contrast to Finnegan’s previous phase. With a friend, Bryan di Salvatore, Finnegan travelled the Earth searching for perfect waves. He wrote romantically of an unspoiled South Pacific. The warm waters of Hawaii, Tonga, Fiji, and Tahiti were devoid of surfers and resorts. He wrote of an egalitarian Australia and a laid-back Gold Coast, something we once were but are certainly no longer. They travelled to south-east Asia and found authentic experiences in Bali, Thailand and the Philippines. His search for waves spoke of his own rapture and euphoria of being young and unshackled.

My own experiences with surfing have been laced with frustration. Unlike Finnegan, my youth in Burramine South was far from the ocean. Nevertheless, it was easy to relate to his boyish joy at catching his first wave in southern California. I could inherently understand the way in which he used surfing to integrate himself into his high school community after his family moved to Hawaii. Finnegan speaks a universal language as he describes his life transitioning from childhood, to adolescence, through adulthood and beyond. His writing of surfing serves as a prism through which his life is laid bare.

Clean but small waves at Pirates Bay, Tasmania

Part of my being I’ve never understood is a desire to test myself against fear and my own limitations. As Barbarian Days progressed, it became clear that this was also true of Finnegan. He found bigger and heavier waves. He wrote of collisions with rocks and coral reefs, of being held under by breaking waves, of the fearful sound of water collapsing on itself with a thunderous crack. Even with the birth of his daughter, the desire to surf continued unabated. The psychological reconciliation of Finnegan’s risks and responsibilities was traversed without being entirely resolved.

The other psychological aspect to which I could relate was the mediative aspect of sport, particularly when physical danger is involved. The ability to live in the moment seems directly proportional to the gravity of your personal well-being. When trying to execute an intricate skill with the pressure of an enormous and angry wall of water or an equally enormous and angry opponent, clarity of thought is extraordinary. Suddenly the worries of the world beyond those immediate have disappeared. I can imagine that chasing stories through war-torn Sudan would require hours in the ocean to dissolve the recurring memories.

It was the beauty of the book that struck me throughout. It seems as though Finnegan has lived a magnificent life because of the richness that surfing gave it. The countless hours he spent conversing with other surfers about aspects of weather, swell, board shape, and all manner of intricate details of his chosen sport only added to the fullness of his autobiography. Frankly, it was inspirational and self-affirming to read of the minutiae of Finnegan’s surfing. It wasn’t the money he made, the awards he won or the clothes he wore that counted in his life story, it was the colours of the ocean, the shared experiences with friends, and the shape and motion of the waves that created beauty in his life.

Scratchy surf in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

There was no over-arching plot line flowing through Barbarian Days. No inexorable march to a foregone conclusion. Merely a disparate search for another wave. A complex tumult of emotions and experiences throughout a common theme. Although not a surfer and over a thousand kilometres from any sea, Barbarian Days left me enthusiastic about where my personal search for the perfect wave will take me.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – Amazon

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – The Guardian review