Under the cool dapple of late winter sunshine, 46-year-old Matt Hale taps the go button on his Garmin and leans into a pine-bristled trailhead at the South Para Reservoir, his Tevasphere runners sounding out a rhythmic thud-thud-thud as he settles into a comfortable pace for an eight kilometre run.
The terrain is hilly, often rocky underfoot. Moss slicks sections where crowded pines cast deep shade. The smell, inhaled with the controlled breaths of an experienced runner, is richly organic, spiced with a heady mix of pine and eucalypt.
It’s out on the trails Matt says some of his best ideas come to him, his oxygen-enriched blood fuelling the function of his brain.
These days, he feels humbled that he still has the capacity to do either—running and using his brain—following a cycling accident during a storm in March that left him with multiple facial fractures and a brain injury.
An emergency responder himself, Matt knew the branch that had crashed down on top of him had done some serious damage.
“The ambo was running around me and I thought, I’ve seen this before as a police officer. When ambos run, that’s not good,” he notes.
But by all accounts, his recovery since has been remarkable. With barely a scar visible five months on, it’s only a hint of self-perceived brain “scattiness” that gives away the recent trauma.
With a holistic approach to life which includes yoga, breathwork, daily 10-degree ice baths, a mostly plant-based diet, and the recent addition of the hobby of ‘free diving’, Matt wonders at the correlation.
“Whether it’s the ice baths, having a love of fitness in my youth and then that helping me as I get older, being on a meat reduced diet or whatever, I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s working. It’s helping me when I need it!” says the six-time marathoner.
Slowing the pace, Matt picks his way up a steep embankment to divert around a cluster of skeletal trees, fallen like giant ‘pick up sticks’ across the dirt track. Retracing the faintest of game trails, Matt climbs skilfully over an obstacle course of branches, rocks and table-top stumps to reach higher ground.
Here, he pauses, regarding the sparkling view over the fringes of the reservoir and the South Para River, which connects Warren Reservoir to the east.
As proprietors of the successful kayak, e-bike and guided hiking venture, Barossa Outdoors, this landscape is Matt and his family’s playground, and, he admits, its closest township has wooed his adventurous heart.
“Williamstown is just a place that stuck me. It stopped me from moving and if I’m being honest, I never thought that would happen. I thought I would always be transient,” Matt says, the lilt of his Northern Irish accent flecked with Scottish and Australian influences.
Williamstown is the fortunate beneficiary of Matt’s limitless imagination and sense of community, born as a result of a youth development programme to Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the early 2000s.
The experience in Nicaragua in particular, left a lasting impression on the then 23-year-old, who, back home in troubled Northern Ireland, had been unsettled and drifting from job to job.
“I resided with a family for a month, and the phrase I use about this family and their community was, ‘they had so little, but they’d give so much’,” Matt reflects.
“So that’s probably where the ‘community’ in me really started. That sense of working for your community for the greater good.”
Returning with a sharpened sense of purpose, Matt immigrated to Scotland and joined the police force. While most young officers preferred the pace of response policing, Matt shifted to community policing after just a couple of years.
“I really liked knowing my area, a finite area. Having that feeling of ownership, if you want to call it that, or responsibility. You know everybody, and you know when things are out of place,” he says.
It was policing that eventually brought Matt to Williamstown, by way of Whyalla, Oodnadatta, Coober Pedy, Lameroo and Roxby Downs, following he and wife, Faye’s immigration from Scotland to Australia and his admission into SAPOL in 2013.
He has since been reassigned to a training role at the police academy, but the family, which also includes 12-year-old Ethan and Lauchlan, seven, remains committed to nurturing the roots they have put down in Williamstown; roots that may be young, yet have proved supremely efficient in embedding the Hales into the local ecosystem, thanks to Matt’s community-mindedness and continuous string of big ideas.
A conversation with Matt is like playing ping pong in an elevator, and when the man with the bat is as exuberant and positive as Matt is, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement.
He sees Williamstown as a wellspring of opportunity for community projects.
“With the support of the Williamstown Action Group and other places, we’ve just been able to grow and grow and grow it,” Matt enthuses, as he rattles off all the ideas that have either come to fruition or have future potential.
In a few short years Matt has already had a hand in establishing South Para Reservoir Park Run, ROAR Barossa Triathlon, and an annual ‘Santa Dash’ fun run, part of Williamstown’s Christmas celebrations.
Additionally, he’s involved in engaging youth in outdoor activities and is part of the push to establish community gardens, a main street ‘light walk’, as well as improved walking links between conservation parks.
He is also a volunteer for Buddy Up Australia, which provides social connection and support for veterans and emergency responders, and coaches U12s at the Torrens Valley Soccer Club, where he is trying to build a team that metaphorically emulates the security of a house.
“Coincidentally, our surname ‘Hale’ means ‘house, building, to have a house’ in Hawaiian,” Matt smiles.
“That speaks to me. We’ve built a house where the kids feel safe to express themselves through the beautiful game of soccer.
“We’re there to enjoy it, enjoy every part of the journey and not just focus on getting the result. That’s a very small bit in the jigsaw. The parallel to the journey in life.”
Matt’s journey since that stormy morning in March has led him to an outlook of profound gratitude.
“Be grateful for what you’ve got, because it can go. It can go so quick,” he says.
While living a mindful life infused with physical activity and mental resilience is not new for Matt, having mortality brought sharply into focus has reinforced his commitment to positivity, and will likely only serve to bolster his public-spirited nature to the benefit of everyone around him.
“I guess we all travel through life knowing that death is there. It’s always there, it’s always in the background. But we’ve got so many distractions in our life that we almost live from distraction to distraction to keep us occupied,” he says.
“People say you should live every moment like it’s your last day, well if you did that, you’d be bankrupt, so it’s impossible to do.
“But we can be grateful for everything we’ve got; from the moment we get up. Savour every moment that you can!”