Contemplative community leader Sarah will keep us in a “spirit of pilgrimage, attentive to the voice of the country and to our own truth.”
My training on Canberra’s trails in wind, sun and rain has stood me in good stead for this pilgrimage. I carry just under 8kg and take a route that challenges me with both steep and gradual ascents.
Campers on the trail lug packs weighing over 10kg, well beyond my carrying capacity. Our group will sleep in warm huts and eat meals cooked for us by experienced guides. The luxury version of this popular trail!
The scenery changes from alpine plateau and glacial lake to rock-strewn mountainside and temperate rainforest. I hope my innerscape will settle from frenetic to serene over the same period.
One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things
I’ve never been a fan of zoos. Animals confined to small spaces in foreign climates and fed alien foods break my heart. But if you have to have one to save a species then the Western Plains Zoo is a good compromise.
We had a perfect spring day to cycle from one paddock to another. A baby hippo galumphed after his mother. The Galapagos tortoises heaved themselves up to their favourite food, mulberry leaves grown in a plantation owned by the zoo.
The otters played like the kittens I’d left at home. The cheetahs lazed in the sun and the giraffes came over to meet us.
When I enter the embrace of a forest my jaw slackens and my heart rate drops. Birds swoop and flit among the leaves overhead lifting my spirits skywards. Whenever I need a rest, I search out trees. Solid and grounded they teach me how to be still. Light filtered through the newly budded chestnut leaves deep in the Massif Central of France on the Via Podiensis. I was tired after a restless night and looking for a picnic place. I unbuckled my pack and pulled out the quiche I’d bought for lunch. Nestled in a notch of an old chestnut tree I had time to soak in the stillness of the forest. Last year’s leaves cushioned me. This year’s leaves glowed in the mid-morning light. Small birds broke the silence, busy collecting nesting materials and greeting each other. I’d started the day on rote, gathering my clothes and packing my bag mechanically. For some reason I’d slept fitfully, despite having the room to myself. After visiting the bakery, I’d dragged out of town and up the hill. Now I had time to let myself be still. I had nowhere to be, no appointments, no obligations. I could just sit and learn from the forest. In normal life I rarely allow myself to be still. Household chores, work colleagues, clients, phone calls and the minutiae of daily life don’t admit stillness into my day – unless I schedule it in. The trees go nowhere. They are grounded and not uprooted by the winds of life. When I returned home to Australia and my usual rounds, I worked hard at putting their lessons into practise. Stacking stillness and meditation onto an existing habit helped. Straight after I dress and feed the dogs in the morning, I sit at the window and let myself just be. The day can begin when I am calm and ready to deal with the commitments and difficulties it has in store for me.
We live in pandemic times. There has been no Camino for me this year. The world has been in ‘lock-down’, we have been ‘sheltering in place’, the latter being a more inviting term for staying home from work and play.
Many of my neighbours have discovered or rediscovered the small pleasures of home: planting a vegetable garden, baking bread and cakes, walking and cycling as a family.
Some, whose work has consumed them until now, have learned the joys of home and family. Instead of hurrying through the morning and coming home worn out, they have slowed down to child time, listened and been heard, seen and been seen by spouse and children.
A suburban walking path passes our house. It’s just a dirt track along a paddock fence. Kangaroos and sheep graze among candle barks and yellow gums within arms-length. When Canberra was in lock-down and everyone was forced to stay home whole families walked by. Small children pointed out lambs from atop their father’s shoulders. Older children wobbled along on their bikes. Mothers with babies wrapped to their chests thrilled to joeys climbing into their mothers’ pouches.
It has been a time of coming home, of being simple and free. For many it has been a gift, a reassessment of their lifestyle and priorities. A lot of my clients now work from home for part or all of their week. At first this was to avoid infection with COVID-19, now it is because their homes have become oases of delight and contentment.
A batch of apple muffins, a possum-sampled pumpkin, wattle in the front garden
It seems to me that we need to leave home to value it. The going out sharpens our appreciation of the coming in. When I came home from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port after the last pilgrimage I wrote in my journal:
“I’m home. I’m at home. This work, this landscape, these birds and trees, the kangaroos grazing over the fence, are where I am at peace. I am no longer restless. I went out to explore the world, to challenge myself, to consider my life, to see how others live their lives. This place brings me peace and joy. It is emblematic of the peace I have found in myself, my life, and my work, and it has taken more than a thousand kilometres to find it right back here where I began.”
I thought I’d cut the contents of my Camino pack to the bone – until I climbed the first mountain out of Valcarlos. On my bunk in Roncesvalles, aching and exhausted, I agonised over what to throw into the huge box of rejects at the back door of the monastery.
In Pamplona I sent ahead a box of discards, large and small: the heavy sleeping bag, thick coat and extra undies went onto Santiago.
Next Camino I almost got it right:
small backpack <32 litres
light sleeping bag (these two items the heaviest of all so worth concentrating on keeping light)
sleeping bag liner – great for warm albergues
two pairs hiking trousers, one that I could convert to shorts
two hiking shirts
two quick dry knickers
three pairs socks
rain poncho – worth investing in a good one
light fleece coat – LIGHT! after a few hundred metres I was overheated in my down coat, even in snow and sleet. The poncho will keep you warm in wet conditions, too
one pair well-worn-in boots (I walked in late winter/early spring each time, so didn’t wear sandals)
minimal bathroom gear: shampoo for hair, body and laundry; comb; tooth brush and paste; moisturiser for face and hands, which dry out so quickly when outdoors all day; tissues for bathroom stops and drippy nose; deodorant
crushable hat. Mine has a reinforced front to keep the rain off my glasses
light gloves and scarf for cold mornings
my phone holds wallet, camera, map, accommodation info, plane and train tickets, and allows occasional contact with the outside world
lightweight journal and pen – my most precious cargo!
passport and Camino credential,
daypack which folds into itself, back to almost nothing
some nappy pins for the clothesline or to finish drying socks attached to your pack
minimal first aid kit – both Spain and France have pharmacies! I take one or two pain relief pills, and a few band aids
Of course the most important things to take don’t go in your back pack. A sense of humour, kindness, patience and a positive attitude top every packing list. And if you don’t have self-awareness and a love of solitude, stillness and silence when you start, you will find them by the time you reach Santiago de Compostela!
My hometown Gilgandra hugs the banks of the Castlereagh River. The river runs underground for most of its course, for most of the time, but at Gilgandra surfaces to form a permanent waterhole.
Of course the Aboriginal people of this area flocked to the waterhole, especially in dry times. The waterhole was a meeting place for the major groups to the south and west, the Wiradjuri and the Wailwan. Their word for a long waterhole is Gilgandra or Carlginda.
On the plains nearby, wheat and oilseed crops flourish where indigenous women ground and made flour of stands of native grasses in centuries past.
On a visit home last week I strolled along the river banks admiring the ancient eucalypts, no doubt witness to many a camp and celebration. The river flows at present, thanks to generous recent rains.
Around watercourses and swamps birds nest and flowers bloom, flourishing after the long drought. Such a miracle that seed and wildlife survive years of scarce food and water.
So we humans might flourish again after this period of slowing down and turning inward. Poverty of contact and an opening out of time might help us value a slower, more reflective mode of life.