April 2020: Due to the Covid-19 health crisis travel on the Camino is not possible. We need to keep safe, and we need to keep those who live and work on the Camino safe. The Camino will not disappear, it is just temporarily inaccessible. Keep your Camino dreams on hold until such times as it is safe to travel. Read more
The decision to walk the Camino really goes back to a choice I made some four or five years ago, which stemmed from a catch-up with someone I hadn’t seen for around 16 years. I had coffee with a young woman who had been the girlfriend of my youngest son in their mid teens and spent a lot of time in our home and rapidly became part of the family. She was kind enough to say that I had been an influence in her life and that she remembered two things in particular. The one relevant to this story being my suggestion she always trust and follow her instincts/intuition.
I was surprised. I didn’t realise that I had held that view all those years ago. This made me wonder how much I was following that advice myself and I committed to, not only following my instincts, but trusting them 100 per cent even if it seemed odd to do so. Tackling the Camino came from that commitment.
I had never heard of the Camino until I inadvertently selected a movie called The Way, having received a copy long before it was released in Australia. As I watched, I found myself thinking “I wonder if I could do that” and by the end of the movie resolving to do so. Now, this came as an awful shock to me as I have spent my entire life, including childhood, avoiding any physical exertion. I was 60 years old. I was an entrenched couch-sitter…
That was in November 2011.
And so began the training.
Day 1: Lesley and her brother Peter outside the Pilgrims Office at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port
Oh, how well I remember the exhaustion after my first ‘long’ walk on 3rd December, 2011. I headed off, out the front door, over the first hill I could see and onwards. I completed a 12k loop through Echunga (a small town in the Adelaide Hills) and back to my doorstep. When I arrived home I sat (ie collapsed) on my front veranda thinking I might just die there. I survived that expedition; in fact was called to repeat it the very next day in an attempt to retrieve a set of keys lost en route during my maiden voyage. Less gruelling this time, but unfortunately the keys were never seen again.
After that I set myself ever-expanding goals – 15, 20, 25k – and eventually walked 31k on 5th May 2012. Achieving each of these was thrilling. The time between these set goals was peppered with as many small hikes as time would allow along with countless trips up and down Mt Lofty (see Editor’s note). Oh how I loathed (and still loathe) that climb. I learnt to respect it as my fitness improved. The next test was to ensure that I could walk around 25k daily over consecutive days and my first challenge was to walk the 105k to Cape Jervis. I did this in two stages walking to Myponga in three days, then in August completing it in another three days walking and camping with my seasoned hiker friend and key support person, Lara. Lara was my hare and I her tortoise. Thanks Lara.
I scanned the internet for tips on footwear, avoiding blisters, the ‘right’ equipment, what to take, what not to take, how to get there. It was an intense time of researching, testing out various theories, comparing and purchasing. It was full steam ahead. I had a moment’s pause when I set my expensive, newly- purchased, pristine rucksack on The Couch in my lounge room. I stared at it and tried to ignore the little voice in my head that was saying “Are you kidding, you’ve lost your mind, silly idea, who do you think you are, blah blah blah”. I drowned out that voice with a reaffirmation of my ‘trust your intuition 100%’.
I found a Camino website that showed hundreds of photos of each stage of the trail and I peered at them trying to ascertain the steepness of ascents and my ability to conquer them! “Yep, yep you can do it. Geez I wonder???” Close website, go to bed, still those nagging self-doubts.
Atop Mt Mostelares with German Rita and Heike
Somewhere in the planning stage I mentioned to my California-based brother, my plan to attempt the Camino. His response was “No sister of mine is going to walk Spain on her own. I’m coming too”. Everything in my being was resistant to the idea of walking with someone else as I knew it was a very personal journey I was about to take and I was aware I was challenging myself in a very real way. At first my brother’s plan was that he cycle the Camino as I walked it and I felt that this might be a workable way of combining his urge to come and mine to walk alone. It would also accommodate my inability to say no!! In the end he planned to walk with me and I planned to be gracious. Neither came to pass. We parted company at Najera and Peter left the Camino around Day 10 after losing a lot of weight and having a bout of gastroenteritis.
I arrived in, and left, SJPDP on the 6th Sept 2012. I arrived in Santiago on the 39th day having had one rest day in Burgos. What an adventure.
On the road between Santa Domingo and Belorado, with Annett and Rafael from Germany, my greatest supporters
My body amazed me. I would often sit in the albergue and watch as my fellow pilgrims tended to their feet. I saw bloodied and bruised, tortured-looking feet—feet with big, black, sore toes and toes that had lost toe nails. Yikes! I would take off my two pairs of socks (I swear by the two pairs of socks to prevent blisters) and my half size larger than normal Birkenstock hiking boots and look at my feet and wonder how they man- aged to appear exactly as they did on the day I left. My body did everything I asked of it. I experienced no prob- lems whatsoever and still scratch my head in wonder at that.
My mind was another matter. On about the 21st day of walking I heard my nega- tive nagging voice saying “You can’t do this, it’s too hard”. I just stopped walking as I heard it and laughed. I had to remind myself—“Of course you can do it, you have done it every day for the last 21. What more proof do you need. You mightn’t love it but you can do it”. And I did.
I had ‘a moment’ at around Day 32, lying on a bunk contemplating, and it occurred to me that I might just manage to walk the entire 800k. It was a feeling of panic and fear at who I would be after completing it. One thing was certain, I wasn’t going to be the same…
Someone asked me when I landed back in Australia if I would do it again. My immediate automatic response was “No way, once was enough”. However I think walking the Camino is a bit like childbirth, you quickly forget the pain and I am definitely drawn back to do all or part of it again. It is with me every day.
I suspect the Camino never leaves you.
The impact of the Camino continues. Someone recently asked what I had learnt and of course, there are so many things, but self-respect sums it up. I renewed my faith in my fellow man/woman. My cynicism shrunk. I witnessed humanity performing at it’s best. I glimpsed how it could be if we let go of age, sex, race barriers. I saw and received extraordinary kindness. I learnt to accept graciously the large and small kindnesses that came my way. I came to understand that it wasn’t a statement about my innate weakness that prompted such wonderful support and as one Canadian woman said, “It’s just what we do for each other”.
Day 40, Fisterre
to be gracious
that descending a hill is so much harder than climbing one
you can walk two hours past the point of exhaustion and survive
human beings have a keen desire to communicate and will find ways to do so even without common language
everything in Spain is at the top of a hill
my research and preparation skills are second to none
that being a novice can be an advantage
that expectations can be exceeded
that solitude is at the back of the pack
that yellow arrows are magnificent
that the body wants to move and doesn’t need the promise of chocolate everyday to do so
that you can manage on one coffee a day
that naming my rucksack ‘Molly’ is OK and missing her company is OK too
that my Spanish is very adequate except in Gonza…
that an idea can become reality
that I love, and now treasure, my slow, sip-your-coffee-and-savour-each- mouthful start to a day
that the afternoon sun in Spain is to be avoided and the wisdom of an afternoon siesta is apparent
I’m strong and disciplined and capable
to trust intuition and instinct 100% and it will lead you through your self- imposed limits
stuff I’m not even aware of yet
that doing something that astonishes YOURSELF is wonderfully fine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Cape Jervis, the southern start of the Heysen Trail, is on the coast, south of Adelaide, and is where one can look across to Kangaroo Island, Myponga being a small village near the sea partway. The Mt Lofty walking trail, a 7.8k round trip, is very popular with locals and a good test for fitness. An equivalent site near Melbourne is the 1,000 steps Kokoda Track Memorial Walk in the Dandenongs.