Winding down at Winton Wetlands

By John Lewis

Every life has its triumphs and traumas — and Shepparton's Michael D'Elia has experienced more than most.

John Lewis spoke to the Shepparton Search and Rescue president about where he likes to go when he's had a particularly rough day.

Winton Wetlands is a big-sky place where eagles soar, wallabies jump and silvery light can break through dark clouds at any moment.

Which makes it the perfect soul battery charger for Michael D'Elia.

When he's not solving people's housing issues as a regional manager with the Department of Justice, Michael is pulling people out of smashed cars as an emergency volunteer with Shepparton Search and Rescue.

“I just feel comfortable spending time in the bush. I probably do my best thinking when I'm sitting quietly and listening to the kookaburras and whatever else,” Michael says.

Michael speaks in a calm, quiet voice — which is just what you need if you're crushed in a car as paramedics work to save your life; or if you're surrounded by raging floodwaters; or trapped in farm machinery; or if you have a tree in your lounge room after a storm.

Mick D'Elia has been involved with Shepp Search and Rescue for years and is now president. Picture: Megan Fisher

Michael's measured tones and reasoned logic also help him in his day job — which can involve patiently explaining the intricacies of the Residential Tenancies Act to landlords and tenants, or educating business owners and shoppers on lay-by or refund laws.

“I've always considered myself a people person, and I enjoy talking to people and listening to stories — and telling stories,” he says.

But it wasn't always like this.

Michael was born in Shepparton in 1969, the second-youngest of seven children to Bruno D'Elia, vice-principal at Shepparton South Technical College, and mum Monica. When he was five, his father was appointed principal at Colac Technical College, so the family upped stumps and Michael grew up in the green volcanic hills of the Otways.

Despite his gift for calm and steady explanation, communication was not seen as part of Michael's skill set when he was at school.

“I'd been told when I was a kid that I wasn't really academically gifted; teachers would tell me that all the time,” he says.

So Michael left school at 16 and joined the army for two years.

Then he went down the tradie route and became a carpenter, which saw him work on the John Farnham Age of Reason film clip. His carpentry skills also saw him design and build the set for Kylie Minogue's I Should Should be so Lucky video.

The big skies and space of Winton Wetlands provide space for Michael D'Elia to think, and recharge his batteries. Picture: Rene Martens

Life took a dark turn for Michael when his mother took sick and died after a short illness when he was 17 years old.

He still feels her presence today — particularly out among the birds and the waving grasses of the wetlands.

“Sometimes when I'm sitting out there and I'm thinking about what do I do in this situation, or how do I help guide this person or what's the right decision for the family — it might sound strange, but as a 50-year-old I still sit there and go `what would Mum do?’ he says.

It was also his mum who pointed him towards volunteering when he was nine years old. She suggested he join St John's Ambulance and learn first aid. It led to a 14-year commitment to first aid work.

It was also his first experience of the adrenaline rush involved in dealing with life-and-death situations.

“I remember as an adult being in charge of four young people on duty at the MCG during a Richmond-Collingwood game when we had 12 full arrest heart attacks. I performed CPR on seven of those people,” he says.

Michael D'Elia says "I've always considered myself a people person - I enjoy talking to people."

Today, Michael speaks glowingly of the support he has received from his wife of 26 years, Donna — "she is the most loving, caring person you will ever meet. She just helps everybody — she's known affectionately around Shepparton as Momma Don,” he says with pride.

He then recounts another period when clouds gathered over his family, which includes daughters Jessica and Stephanie.

Three years ago Donna suffered meningitis from an ear infection which saw her airlifted to the Alfred Hospital for neurosurgery.

“That was probably one of the hardest times I've ever worked through. She got really sick for six to eight weeks and we all felt we could lose her — it was a really testing time,” he says.

Whenever the tough times arrive — either through family crises, work stresses or the nagging memories of a crash rescue trauma — Michael knows the value of creating positive experiences.

So a loving family, a social session with his beloved Mooroopna Cricket Club and a ride on his Triumph motorcycle all play vital roles in keeping Michael's motor running.

Then there's the wetlands.

Ever since a workmate told him about the place a few years ago, Michael spends time among the birds and the trees on the old Lake Mokoan during his travels around northern Victoria.

He describes the first time he discovered the place.

“I'd had a particularly difficult day and I was coming into the area and I thought, `you know what — how about I pull over and just stop?'.

“So I got out of the car and had a wander and sat down by a tree. And you know, it's been one of my go-to places more than anywhere else, ever since. After a hard day, you don't want to bring that grumpiness home. Just relax a little bit and chill.”