Quite a few of you know about the background of Ines and I, but for those of you who don’t, we met on the Camino in 1999 and after a few months she left Australia to come and live in the Netherlands. After a year there, we decided to leave and move to Spain where we would settle down to run a pilgrim hostel. We worked for the whole of the 2001 season taking care of pilgrims.
In November 2001 we decided to have a break in Australia visiting Ines’s family and soon it became clear Ines did not want to go back. That was quite a significant moment – it meant that the dream we had of having our own pilgrim hostel was lost. We both had enormous feelings of homesickness… we wanted to live in Spain.
So what we did was look for ways to bring something of the Camino to Australia. I came across a very interesting walk from Robe to Bendigo, following the trail of the Chinese gold-seekers in the 1850s, about the same length as the Camino Francés. Also we started celebrating St James’ Day where, apart from food and drink and good company, we always had some sort of talk on a Camino-related topic.
I then won a teaching position at the Castlemaine Steiner School and finally a committee was formed to formalise the Robe-Bendigo walk, The Golden Trail. However we just did not have the same enthusiasm or passion as when we talk about the Camino de Santiago. We were part of it, but if it didn’t succeed, who really cared?
In 2007, I volunteered to walk The Golden Trail it on my own. A Melbourne filmmaker was to make a documentary of it, but because of lack of funding it didn’t happen. Which was a pity, because I was very interested in this big question: Could I have similar experiences that I had on the Camino while walking from Robe to Bendigo, that is, on a long-distance hike as opposed to an officially-recognised pilgrimage?
A few years ago Elizabeth Best (author with Colin Bowles of The Year We Seized The Day) was inter- viewed on ABC radio and asked “Couldn’t you have had the same experiences walking across the Nullarbor Plain?” And the funny thing was, Elizabeth did not answer the question. What she did was start to explain why she did the Camino.
What is a pilgrimage? And a pilgrim? ‘Pilgrim’ (Latin peregrinos and per agora) means ‘going through a field, through a land’. There is the notion of a destination – you are not just wandering around, you are going somewhere specific. And when you talk about a pilgrimage, you talk about a shrine . So if you look at the pilgrim road, there is a shrine at the end, there is a more or less fixed path and there is a religious context.
When you look at the pilgrim road on the one hand and at a hiking track, like the Heysen Trail or the Bibbulmun Track on the other, they’re essentially the same. There’s a track, you walk, you carry your stuff, you meet other people. The differences are only that one has a shrine at the end, there’s a more or less fixed trail and there’s a religious context.
So what other differences are there? Then you get much more personal… to what happens to someone on the way, the continuum between outer experiences and inner experiences. What makes someone make the decision to go on a walk or on a pilgrimage? On a pilgrimage you are recognised as someone on a mission. On the third day after I left home in 1999 to walk to Santiago, in a small village in the south of the Netherlands I was asked: “Are you on a mission?” Apparently there was something visible there that I was not just someone walking with a backpack. The outer and inner journey, ‘the way within and the way without’, to paraphrase the title of the film I was fortunate to be a part of.
Doing the Camino over 3 ½ months, I had a lot of outer experiences. Beautiful landscapes, aching knees and feet, a bottle of wine, watching soccer games on TV. A pilgrim but with lots of outward experiences. Earlier, I had been for a walking tour through the high mountains of the French Alsace, and I really pushed myself physically because I wanted the physical exercise. At the same time I had moments of inner reflection. Both ends of the continuum are always present. But I do think it’s fair to say that people on a long-distance hike tend to focus on the outer experience, looking at nature, being in the environment – whereas on a pilgrimage they are generally more interested in the inner journey. But I think someone doing the Heysen Trail or Bibbulmun Track will also have inner experiences.
Another interesting aspect is the impact a long hike has on your life afterwards – one can go back to those experiences and it’s sort of like looking at a photo album. It’s beautiful and I can get back the feeling of real enjoyment. But it was back then, you passed it and that’s where it stays. Whereas with a pilgrimage you could almost say that the real pilgrimage starts after you’ve done it. The walking is just the introductory part of it then you have to deal with your experiences in your life afterwards. A pilgrimage has the capacity to change the actual fabric of your
existence and for me, there’s a very clear-cut line before and after the Camino. Everything has changed. Have I changed as a person? I haven’t, but at the same time I have changed everything from that moment on.
When you start your Camino, you fill out a form and tick a box(es) about your reason for doing the pilgrimage: sporting, cultural, religious or spiritual. And when you apply for your Compostela in Santi-
ago, they ask you the same question: Why did you do it? I think in both cases I ticked ‘spiritual’ – because I didn’t really know and I don’t think it really matters – you could prob- ably tick all the boxes and still be perfectly truthful. Interestingly, they do make the dis- tinction between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’.
I think there is no real distinction and it’s two ways of expressing the same thing. The original meaning of religion (Latin religere) means to reconnect. For me religion means reconnecting with the world we come from, which we can call the spirit world or the world of God. When I started walking in Hol- land, I had no religious reasons in mind at all.
I was brought up a Catholic but I’m not a practising Catholic. But doing the Camino there was a very strong sense of religiosity, of trying to reconnect with a spirit being or the world of God. Although it was all largely subconscious – I wasn’t really thinking about it – it just happened to me and I started going into all the churches that I came across.
Being a pilgrim in medieval times was not just about going on an adventurous journey – it was a choice of a change of life. And you had a 50% chance of not coming back from Santiago. You could say it’s the same decision made to become a monk – a pilgrim is a monk without the monastery when he’s on the road. And can a track be a sanctuary? A refuge and a sacred place at the same time? For that to be true you need to recognise the sacredness of the place and at the same time you need to respond to the vocation of being a pilgrim, not only for that time, but from then on.
Another distinction between a hike and a pilgrimage is the notion of pilgrim hospitality. In the refugios run by hospitaleros voluntarios, payment is strictly on a donation basis. It is a human relationship, not an economic one. In our experience, many people find this very moving, even disconcerting.
So, to conclude, if I was asked if I could have the same experiences crossing the Nullarbor or walking from Robe to Bendigo, I would have said yes, if I found a sacred place on that road and I responded to the vocation of being a pilgrim. So where’s the shrine then? I believe that it can live in your heart and your soul, accompanying you on every step. But it would certainly be a much more solitary road, with no public recognition of what you are doing and no dedicated infrastructure to help you on your way.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Bibbulmun Track in WA stretches nearly 1000km from Kalamunda (on the outskirts of Perth) to Albany on the south coast.