The wide brown land is baking today. Fire warnings abound, as all creatures great and small look for caves and cool. Tomorrow, rain and storms are predicted, along with icy southerly blasts. A change, they call it at the weather bureau.
Spring is exiting stage left, but she is not going gentle. She is burning and raving, raging, hurtling to her end, free of fear or doubt. “Adios”, she calls over her shoulder, kicking up dust as she leaves me behind.
When that dust settles, I look down and see the rose, a shock of crimson, past its prime and out of place. This is a lonely path. I chose it because no-one ventures through these ravaged gullies where thousands once excavated for gold, and trees whisper of disappointed avarice. The foot-width trail, made by kangaroos through spindly burned gums, yields wonders sparingly, demanding a walker return over and over to its flinty surface before it reveals a snuffling echidna or a native orchid.
So how did the rose get here?
I want to pick it up and see if there is still any scent to be had, but something stops me. Its stem is short. Was it worn in a lapel to a dance where things did not go to plan? Was it nestled in the upswept hair of a girl as she swayed and dipped across a polished floor? And what befell her, that her rose ended here, at my feet?
The forest is silent. It broods. Would it yield up a body to me if something terrible had happened? We are remote enough to speak of shallow graves.
There are no marks in the dirt to speak of struggle, no indentations or footsteps in dried clay, no signs to tell me how a cultivated, blood-red wonder has been transported to the goldfields rough, its petals in danger of being crunched into the quartz by my boots.
A shard of sunlight finds the rose, exposing it as dry, its stem withered. Done.
“Rose…” I whisper into the eucalypt-scented silence.
I walk away, straining to see or hear something that might explain it, but there is only the creak of a trunk against the branch of a neighbouring tree, and the scrunch of my feet. This forest does not give up its ghosts, but they are out there. Somewhere to my left, the thump-thump of a wallaby; overhead the shriek of a cockatoo; somewhere very close, the slither of grass parting at ground level.
Feet on earth. Marking out time. The scrunch. The rhythm. The passing. On.
To the cemetery.
Coming out of the forest into grazing land, there it lies, framed by grandfather eucalypts and pines, introduced and indigenous standing sentinel around the bones of other grandfathers. And children.
I walk through the creaking metal gates and up the central avenue, passing the century-old plinth where only one word of the inscription remains intact – SACRED; past purple thistles rising out of the earth and marble crucifixes crumbling back into it; past the granite stone for Laurel, “Giver of love and joy”; and past the holly bush that has grown on the still-tended grave of an infant who would now be a woman more than a century old.
On the high ground, under a row of whistling pine trees, there’s a slab of red stone for Norman, who died almost twenty years ago. Neighbour Norm, a flirtatious bear of a man who used to joke that he joined the Progress Association to ensure there was no progress, and whose inscription tells me that the greatest of all is love. To Norman’s right is a matching stone for his grandson Michael, whose life was taken by depression over a decade ago. I’m glad Norman went first.
I plant myself between them, looking over the field of the dead to the young eucalypts planted across the road. They will be harvested for commercial use. Their fate is known.
Norman, Michael and I sit on the hill. Norman reminds me to feast, to laugh and to love well. Michael reminds me to relish the days of sun, because the dark ones can claim us. The eucalypts speak of the honour of usefulness, and the imperative of remembering that the end will come.
Except of course, the end doesn’t come. Why do we assume “it” ends when we do? “It” goes on. “It” keeps turning, and feet keep walking, roses keep growing, and we keep remembering.
The sun is high and the pines smell like Christmas.
Time to move. The road is waiting.
I walk back down the central path toward the eucalypts.
Some of them have been burned.
Their trunks are charred black, but at the base of one tree, silvery grey leaves have sprouted, thick and determined.
At various times since Sinning Across Spain came out, I’ve been asked about preparations for walking the camino. What did I do before I left? What would I recommend?
I’m loathe to suggest I’m in any way an expert, but I’m happy to share my experiences. Sometimes we fools who learn by trial and plenty of errors can be useful to others. Please remember that time has elapsed since I walked, and I’ve no doubt others can provide more up-to-date advice, so do take all of these suggestions as just that – suggestions. Everyone does it differently, and you will find your own way. That’s part of the joy.
The simplest way to go about this seemed to be to annotate a section from the book, so here we go, from Chapter 3, Flying Sola.
For the Camino Francés I’d read two guidebooks cover to cover…
The guidebooks of the Confraternity of St James are no-frills and concise, and can be bought via their website.
The CSJ are the English-language experts on all things camino, and their site has pointers to lots of other great information, including history, discussion forums and getting the credencial. No matter where you look, do start with them.
Ultimately, although it weighed more, I decided to carry John Brierley’s guidebook, because I enjoyed his snippets of history and spirituality, and I also loved the topographical diagrams and photos. I annotated it with extra info from the Confraternity’s book. I also used Mr Brierley’s guide when I walked from Oporto along the Portuguese route.
For the Mozárabe, I carried Alison Raju’s guide from the Confraternity. Back when I walked, it was very hit and miss, as it hadn’t been updated for a few years. I was glad of my Spanish, because I had to ask directions often between Granada and Mérida. It was pretty accurate once I joined the Via de la Plata. I think there is a newer version now – and as far as I know, it is the only English language guide.
The web is an astounding resource, and these days there are literally hundreds of sites, bulletin boards and discussion groups about the camino. If you want to dream in advance, simply Googling “camino” will help you find the sites or blogs that resonate.
If you speak some Spanish, the equivalent of the CSJ site is probably Mundicamino and I heartily recommend it, as it has amazing detail about every pueblo and waystop. It’s worth a look even if your Spanish is very basic, because the layout is so clear.
The other site I particularly enjoyed was a camino planner that lets you get an idea of timing your walk – for the roads from Seville, Roncesvalles and Le-Puy-en-Velay. When I was prepping for the Francés it was helpful to give me an idea of how many days I’d need. And it is fun. That said, the road kept reminding me that plans were futile, and to submit to its will.
…grilled camino veterans…
I guess that’s what you are doing by reading this! Nothing beats chatting to someone first-hand, and if you live in Melbourne, feel free to check the EVENTS AND MEDIA pages in case I’m going to be doing a talk near you. I’m always happy to natter afterwards. There are camino organisations in most states, and they have regular meet-ups, where much of the information will be more recent than mine.
All that said, I would just keep reminding you that it’s YOUR camino, and in my opinion there’s no right or wrong way to do it if you are going with an open heart and respect for fellow pilgrims – and as you will know from the book, even that can fail you when the camino tests you! There is a lot to be said for the path of the fool with open eyes and ears, but the road will have its way.
…downloaded Spanish podcasts…
I studied French and Italian from school age, so when I was preparing for the Francés I decided to take a few basic Spanish lessons – only a term, as I couldn’t afford more than that. They were wonderfully useful, and if you have either of the other Romance languages, you will find many similarities. Mind you, the differences and peculiarities are intriguing enough to make you want to learn more! I also downloaded many free podcasts from the web, and when I was walking, walking, walking my training paths, I loved to listen to them. I’m sure you could get by on that road without a word of Spanish, but if you can learn some, please do. It will enrich your experience ten-fold – and again, it’s fun!
For the Mozárabe, I’d definitely recommend a good grounding in some Spanish basics. It is now over two years since I walked it, and I’m sure that there may be more facilities, but it’s still unlikely you’ll encounter a lot of English speakers between Granada and Mérida, at least. I gather there are still not many walkers along that road, so you can’t rely on other pilgrims.
…replaced my heavy boots with lightweight Merrells…
That’s them in the photo up the top of the page – their work done. They were such stars.
I’d always hiked in much heavier, all-leather boots in Australia, and had never done more than one or two hundred kilometres in a week. The camino roads and distances demanded something lighter, and for me, more breathable. Some people walk in heavy boots, some in runners, some even walk in sandles and Tevas. I considered myself lucky to find the Sirens, as they performed magnificently on both roads. I didn’t blister and I was happy to get cold or wet feet occasionally rather than have them become swollen and overheated.
Again, a disclaimer: boots are highly personal. No feet are the same, and you must devote time and energy to getting the right boots. Don’t buy the first pair that feels good. Test them when your feet are hot, with different socks and at varying times of the day. Do make sure there is enough ankle support for you when you are carrying an extra 8 to 12 kilos on your back.
The other indispensables, for me, were my walking poles. As you will know from the book, they became an extension of my body, and I can’t imagine making the trip without them. They offer stability and support, as well as letting you test terrain. They’re also washing lines, shoulder-stretchers and coat-hangers. I’d never used them before the camino, and now I can’t countenance hiking – or distance walking – without them. And they are not necessarily expensive. Mine were about $20 each from Ray’s Outdoors.
…and sourced a smaller backpack…
SO personal. Like the boots. Try many. Test and re-test. Load weights into them. Stand and move in a pack for at least fifteen minutes before you begin to form an opinion. Go back several times. The fact that I am completely obsessed by the Aarn does not mean it will work for you, but it is super-light and fits my body like a glove, and they are two vital considerations.
It was great to have a pack that didn’t need extra rain coverage. The Aarn has an interior sack that is waterproof, so when it rains, you have only to make sure there is nothing problematic in the outer pockets. No flapping or billowing is a fine thing in blustery conditions.
There it is. A pilgrim’s whole world, on a sunny walking afternoon in autumn in the Bierzo.
And no, I don’t use a camel back. I carry bottles. That one was a beauty – hard clear plastic, so I could see how much was left. I’m a guzzler, so visual monitoring of my water allowance is important. And you probably don’t need to have a vase on your pack, but it made me happy!
…I rehearsed saying por favor and buenos días as I hiked favourite sections of Victoria’s Great Dividing Trail…
I guess the most common question I’m asked is how much walking I did before I set out. Again, this is personal. I walk every day in my normal life, for at least an hour, and regularly walk 25 to 35 kilometres on one or both days of a weekend, so I knew that distance and stamina were not issues. I did need to walk with the pack to learn how my body adjusted to carrying it for hours on end, and how best to pack it. My advice is to do as much as you possibly can in the lead-up to the walk, but not to panic if you haven’t achieved your goals in that area. Life takes over. The main thing is not to go at the camino as though it is a competition. It will teach you what is best for you, and the main advice I can give, based on my own painful experience (!) is to listen to your body, to slow down when it tells you to, and to stop if need be.
Also, remember that you are the expert on your body. I had knee problems on the Francés for the first and only time in my life. I exacerbated them by not stopping or slowing down until I was literally brought to my knees in Burgos, but I also made a critical error before I left. I was told by a man in a hiking store that I should have insoles, and so I bought a pair. I have never used an insole in my life, yet I listened. When I returned and went to my osteopath to check why this had occurred, he was aghast at me putting an insole into my boot, because my feet fall evenly and I have no need of them!
That said, I think they served, finally, to slow me right down, and that was a good thing. But it was painful, and I should have listened to my own history and body, instead of giving over to a well-meaning expert.
Which is what I would implore you to do with all of this well-meaning advice. Take what sounds right. Discard what is not you. Walk like a snail. Listen to your feet. And stay open to the road.
I’m not going to list the contents of my pack, as this post is already getting too long, but remember there’s a packlist chapter in the back of the book.
Do remember that you absolutely don’t need to buy the most expensive things on the market.
I’m always on a tight budget, and there’s no room for glamour or vanity on camino anyway. There are shops along all the roads, so you can buy almost anything you’ve forgotten or might suddenly need.
The only times I didn’t skimp on price, or on legwork, were when I was sourcing boots and pack, and luckily my feet liked reasonably priced boots!
If you have other questions, feel free to leave them here, or on the Facebook page where I’ve been posting snippets and photos of camino news. Also, if someone has better information than mine about any of this, do leave your thoughts for others. I’m happy for this post to stay up a while so that discussion can be facilitated.
As always, thanks for visiting, reading and contributing. I hope that your road is headed somewhere fulfilling, and I wish you my favourite wish, over and over…
Buen camino, peregrinos, amigos, compañeros.
On Sunday 14th October, Melbourne’s Sunday Age and Sydney’s Sun-Herald will publish an article of mine in their Sunday-Life magazine. I hope you enjoy it.
On Monday 15th October, if you are in Melbourne, Channel 31 are screening a show called Behind the Words at 7.30pm, and I recorded an excited chat for it around the time of the book’s release.
Not something to proclaim without thought, but there most definitely are things in which I do have faith.
I believe in the power of forgiveness to transform, in the ache to be better, and the impulse to serve.
I believe in the wispy promise of mornings like this one, when the fog lifted itself to reveal a fierce, determined sun.
I believe in confession with all my heart, telling the true story of ourselves, eye to eye with another human being.
I believe our stories shape our lives, so the more honest we are in those stories, the more freedom we will gain.
I believe in personal accountability, staring down my self in the personal mirror that is an unflinching and constant observer.
I worship in churches where silence prevails: barren plains, rocky hilltops, burnt-out forests and squelching paddocks. Places where the hush of humility has fallen.
I believe in kindness. I believe in kindness. I believe in kindness.
And in the goodness that wants to prevail.
I know there is nothing more sacred to me than the act of putting one foot down on a dusty road, and then putting down the other.
Again and again.
For as long as it takes.
Turning up and doing the work.
And I know that the work never ends.
I know there is beauty in effort.
I believe in betterment via example.
I know snails are gurus.
I know that via example!
I know we are all connected, whether we like it or not, and we owe it to this astonishing planet, and those we hope might come after, to acknowledge that fact in our actions as well as our words.
I believe in possibility over certainty.
I believe in the hope of rain on parched soil. When I smell that unmistakeable waft, I am reminded that miracles have occurred, and that they will again.
Paso a paso. Step by step.
That’s my mantra. My rosary.
And “buen camino” is the prayer I make for you.
Good road. Good way. Good path.
May it find you, especially on the hard days…
Those pictures were taken on a long walk last Sunday along the Great Dividing Trail and back toward Glenlyon, near Daylesford, in Victoria. Country that makes my heart sing. Thanks to all those who came along to the Glenlyon General Store for the Tapas night. It was a celebration of the warmth of community amid the chill of a goldfields winter night. Gracias Tania and David – and all in that humming kitchen.
I arrived at Finisterre after 1300 kilometres of marvels and mud!
The name has taken on mystical significance for me.
The place of arrival.
Of course there is really no arrival, there is only the ongoing journey – the next road that opens. But sometimes it’s good to honour a milestone, and so today, that is what I’m doing.
After the usual washing of clothes and body, massaging of legs and feet, carb-loading and journalling, I walked uphill out of the port to the lighthouse, passing this pilgrim monument on the way.
It was about 9pm.
Bright, clear and warm.
The sea and sky – the world! – seemed to stretch to forever. A trickle of other pilgrims splayed out along the road in front and behind me, but all of us walked in our own silences, suspended between ending and beginning.
We sat and watched a hot red sun turn to orange then pink, as the sea turned from deep blue to mauve below it.
I burned the list of sins, honouring the tradition of release at journey’s end, and honouring those whose courage had kept me walking.
It felt just right.
Then, as the whole world turned pastel, I walked downhill, stopping to ask a fellow pilgrim to photograph me at this distance marker.
It reads “0.00 km”.
Nowhere else to go.
Nowhere to be.
Just here and now.
I can’t remember any place ever feeling so full, or so empty. Perfect.
The world is rather a whirl just now, as I ready myself to offer up a monologue about the work, this Wednesday night in Melbourne. I’m doing things I’ve not done in years – learned lines, pondered how to project my voice, considered my own body in space.
The road will always surprise us!
But in the midst of the fear around failure that accompanies any task I care about deeply, I took myself out onto the road yesterday and walked along the Great Dividing Trail. After about two hours, I looked up at the wide turquoise sky and began to sob with happiness – that strange, inexplicable thing that can happen sometimes when I know I am in my skin and where I am meant to be, and grateful. So very grateful.
Our neighbourhood is being photographed as a record of the 2012 residents, and as part of it we had to fill out a questionnaire. One query was what we hoped to be doing in ten years time. My answer was – still feeling thankful for a body that is strong enough to carry me along a road.
May you remember to honour your milestones.
May you feel the pleasure of here and now at 0.00kms.
May you be overwhelmed by gratitude when you least expect it.
A couple of reminders!
If you have not listened to my Poetica programme, please remember you can download it:
And don’t forget to read the comments – I love the one from the man in Santiago! Feel free to leave one if you enjoy it – the producer, Anne McInerney, did a glorious job, and is leaving the ABC. She deserves all praise.
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This last weekend, I let myself walk along the hills of the Great Dividing Trail in central Victoria. Old goldfields country. Some of the path cuts through spindly eucalypt forests, where echidnas were probing the dry clay for just one more ant. Some of the path passes rolling hills and farmlands, waiting now for the autumn rains…
As I walked, I kept experiencing that weird “two places in one moment” feeling. It’s not déjà vu, and it’s not in any way a premonition. It’s just a sense that I am in two landscapes simultaneously.
It often happens to me when I walk.
At the weekend, I was beside those fields you can see in the photo up above, and I was also out on the meseta in northern Spain. Dry clear air. A wind at my back. Golden light. And the memory of how, when I actually walked the meseta, I had felt myself to be in Australia as I plodded.
It was a kind of double palimpsesto. Layers underwriting layers of experience. Layers overwriting layers of memory. Odd, but reassuring. And in Spain, a land where there are so many stories underfoot, from so many centuries of questing souls, maybe it is to be expected.
There are stories carved and hacked into the earth here, too. There are songs that sing low on the whispers of breezes that find me between tree trunks.
We are opposites, Spain and Australia, in so many ways. But we are also mirrors.
My heart seeks the similarities. So do my eyes.
Look at this and see if you don’t too…
Walk well, wherever you are. And keep your ears peeled for stories.
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