Friday, 26 May 2017

Derwent River Walks: The Colours of New Norfolk

[Continuing a series featuring short walks along Tasmania's Derwent River]

[The Derwent River at New Norfolk] 
Any time of the year is a good time to try the short walks around New Norfolk. But could there be a better season than autumn, when the poplars and willows colour up; the winds calm down; and the broad Derwent seems in no rush to get to the sea?

I planned to do a circuit walk, so left my car at Tynwald Park, just on the Hobart side of town. An inviting gap in the golden poplars revealed a pedestrian bridge over the Lachlan River. This led to the Bicentennial Track, which follows the river upstream. I sampled the track for a while, then walked across town to access the New Norfolk Esplanade.

[Autumn colours in Tynwald Park] 
A 1km trail goes right along the southern bank of the Derwent. There I paused to chat with an angler (no, the fish weren’t biting) and to photograph some of the deciduous reflections in the beautiful, calm waters.

[Steep steps on the Derwent Cliffs Walk] 
I continued along the Esplanade north-east to the start/finish of the Derwent Cliffs Walk (it can be walked in either direction). I climbed steep stairs around some riverbank cliffs, before topping out some 20m above the Derwent. The sandstone cliffs offered great views both up and down the river, and was the perfect place for a scenic drink break. A few ducks were feeding busily on the river, and some lapwings “ack-acked” along the bank. But otherwise all was calm and quiet.

[Ducks on the Derwent River] 
As I continued downstream from the cliffs, I met the first of several dogs being walked around this popular track. Much of the well-made, multi-use track is also suitable for prams and bicycles. The cliffs had finished on my side of the river, but large cliffs still dominated the far bank. A popular walk to Pulpit Rock can be accessed via the Boyer Rd opposite this track. I’ve heard the views are great: that’s one for next time.

[The view from Derwent Cliffs] 
As the track curved around the river bend it flattened out. Now there was water on both sides of the track, the river itself to one side and some billabong-like ponds on the other. Waterbirds, honeyeaters and other smaller birds chatted and flitted all around. After a very leisurely hour and a quarter I was soon back at Tynwald Park, walking again alongside the tiny Lachlan River rather than the mighty Derwent.  

[Alongside the Lachlan River] 
I decided I still had time to drive to the Peppermint Hill Lookout for a view over the town and valley. Finally I wanted to walk across the main bridge over the Derwent. On such a calm, fine day, close to the peak of the valley’s autumn colouring, it was a perfect way to round off my visit. But as usual I’d found plenty of reasons to come back for more.

*This series was prepared for the Derwent Estuary Program and Greater Hobart Trails

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 8: Further In

On our last day’s walk up to Santiago it rains. As pilgrims we’ve learned one camino mantra well: it is what it is. As Tasmanians we’ve also learned to embrace “atmospheric” weather, recognising that rain begets rainbows. And sure enough, as the sun tentatively lifts above the horizon, a beautiful bow arcs its promise across the sky.

[A promising start to our final day] 
Santiago is a city, and like all such it sprawls untidily. If we feared that would mean an anticlimactic last day slogging through suburbia, we are pleasantly surprised. Using some clever rerouting and a less-than-straightline approach, the way manages to get us close to the centre via relatively quiet and greenish paths.

[Approaching Santiago de Compostela] 
When we eventually reach the inner city, where concrete, stone and cars dominate, we’re within sight of the cathedral spires. Still, that last kilometre is slow, and the grand Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela proves surprisingly coy for such a huge edifice. We trudge up the narrow lanes of the old city, craning our necks to see our end point. Each of us is simultaneously bone-weary and elated. Lynne is limping, but the rest of her is buoyant. So too are Tim and Merran.

There’s a false “summit”, of course, when we walk into the side courtyard of the cathedral. But a minute later it’s clear that we’re coming into the main cathedral square. Multi-coloured marquis tents and stalls crowd the central area. Everywhere else there are people, laughing, embracing, wandering, crying. A woman in a wheelchair pumps her fists in emphatic jubilation. From one corner of the square comes the sound of Galician pipes. And the tune? Thrillingly, it’s Aires de Pontevedra.

[Pilgrims embracing in the Cathedral Square, Santiago]  
The four of us embrace, hardly believing that our camino is over. For some time we just stand there, smiling, laughing, searching for words that won’t come. Instead we walk around in front of the cathedral just trying to take it all in. I’d read a few accounts of pilgrims feeling a sense of anti-climax here; of their arrival at the cathedral being a let down. It’s far from how we’re feeling right now. (Perhaps in the next hour and a half, while we stand in a long line waiting for our official compostela, we’ll come a little closer to that.)

* * *

And now that we’ve completed our pilgrimage, what was it all about? What have we taken home from the journey? And did it serve any spiritual purpose, or somehow bring us closer to God?

[Happy Pilgrims: Lynne and me outside the Cathedral(photo Tim Dyer)] 
Before this journey began, I would certainly have said that you don’t need to go on a pilgrimage, or enter a church, or climb a sacred mountain in order to draw near to God. Nonetheless I was stunned by the beauty of some of the magnificent church buildings we visited along the way. And the quiet inside them certainly allowed for a sense of the holy. I was humbled along the whole journey to experience landscapes and cultures that have been profoundly shaped by long exposure to the Christian faith. And on our final day I was both thrilled and gobsmacked to witness the 53kg incense-filled botofumeiro whooshing through the aisles of the Cathedral in Santiago during our Pilgrim Mass.

[Inside Igreja Matiz, Ponte de Lima, Portugal] 
But for me it wasn’t in those settings, not even in that concluding Mass, that I felt closest to God. Rather the still small voice of God seemed clearest on the journey itself. More than anything the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other helped me sense that God was as close as my next step, my next breath.

Walking everywhere, every day, became a discipline; an act of obedience. We submitted to the way, moment by moment, regardless of the difficulties. And there were some. At times I was brought low by rain, by heat, by blisters, by muscle strains. I felt befuddled by language barriers, and sometimes by my own mental state. Just because it’s a pilgrimage doesn’t mean the pain is accompanied by a compensatory choir of angels!

These hardships, according to Quaker writer Parker Palmer, are not accidental but in fact integral to pilgrimage.

Challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for the true self to emerge.

Control is always illusory, but that illusion shreds more readily when you’re far from your everyday props and routines. And, as 16th century Spanish mystic John of the Cross put it, God may be the closest when we feel we have lost control. Reaching the end of my resources did nudge me towards a greater dependence on God, even if through gritted teeth, and after the kinds of “frank” exchanges that sometimes pass for my prayers.

Getting beyond that grumpiness was important. Australian pilgrim and researcher, Lucy Ridsdale, pondered

whether walking pilgrimage might be transformative, by way of enabling a deep shift from an attitude of entitlement towards the world, to one of gratitude, as one’s fundamental orientation. 

When things didn’t go to plan, it was tempting to grouch, and reach into the bottomless bag of entitlement that comes with being well-off westerners. But we found that the graciousness of locals, the flow of the walking, and the pilgrim mantra “it is what it is”, all helped us to become more real, more present to the moment.

If God could tone it down to a still, small voice, we might do the same with our demands. We could instead take pleasure in the simple things, like water, food, conversation, a soft bed under a solid roof, and coffee (of course). We could smile at the wag of a dog’s tail, admire the skill of long-gone builders, enjoy the symmetry of a ploughed field, savour the fragrance of ripe fruit, or rejoice in the colour of tiles. And just once or twice we could laugh at Merran breaking into an exuberant twirl mid-walk.

[Merran does a twirl between Lynne and Tim] 
In all of this we began to identify with early 20th century pilgrim and writer, Hilaire Belloc, whose robust conclusion was that

the volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience.

For me as a Christian, that intensity was magnified by the fact that Jesus himself was a pedestrian and a wandering teacher. Walking past vines, sheep, shepherds, and widows in black; watching fields ploughed or harvested; smelling crops of corn or mustard, was like inhabiting Jesus’ parables.

[Ripening fields in Galicia] 
And now it’s over, except … There’s that question, the one that almost every pilgrim asks you. “Will you be going on another pilgrimage?” While I wouldn’t rule that possibility in or out, for me there’s another thought that lurks behind it. And that is the notion that life itself might become an ongoing pilgrimage.

[A mysterious doorway into an abandoned building] 
I can’t help thinking of a mysterious doorway we passed on our last day. A narrow leafy path leads up to the doorway of an old abandoned building. Beyond the entry I can see a winding staircase that leads further up. I half expect to hear the voice of Aslan saying

Come further up, come further in!

Friday, 21 April 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 7: Gravitational Pull

By now we’ve begun to feel the gravitational pull of Santiago. Our bodies would love it if that meant we could amble gently downhill to our destination. But pilgrimages seldom work that way. Santiago is the literal as well as metaphorical high point of the Spanish section of our camino. So our path climbs, albeit gently and through some delightful patches of forest.

[Forest delights in Galicia] 
Rain is threatening, and we keep wet weather gear handy. We’re now deep into our second week of walking, and our feet and other parts are in various stages of distress. An old ankle injury is causing Lynne some pain. She had considered catching a bus to give her leg a rest, but instead has bound it up and soldiered on. She is one determined pilgrim! And in truth she will not be the only pilgrim to limp into Santiago.

[Pilgrim legs: strong but sore] 
After leaving the delightful woods of Reiris, we walk through quiet rural lanes that are lined with autumn-tinged grape vines. We have a brief stint on that constant companion, the unpleasantly busy N550 road. Then, as we approach the picturesque village of Tibo, the threatening clouds finally open up. Rain pours down unstintingly for several minutes, causing us to run for shelter in a small barn.

[Threatening clouds on the approach to Tibo] 
The deluge soon passes, and it isn’t long before we’re entering the tight, cobbled lanes of Caldas de Reis. Again there’s a beautiful mediaeval bridge to cross, and another forest to climb through. Happily our way fits snugly between the N550 and a railway line, with only the dull hum of traffic and the occasional whoosh of a train reminding us we’re on the fringes of a busier world.

[The smelter on the outskirts of Padron] 
The town of Padron is clearly a part of that world. Its aluminium smelter hogs the riverfront and belches smoke skyward. This seems at odds with its historical significance in the story of St James (Santiago). Legend has it that Padron was the first land sighted by those bringing St James’ body from the Holy Land to Spain. Of course Australians can’t ride their high horse here: the site of Captain Cook’s arrival at Kurnell has long been blighted by an oil refinery and fuel depot. Historical significance, like ecological significance, guarantees nothing.

Padron is our last overnight stop, and we leave so early that we need torches to find our way through the lanes. At one point we miss a waymark and find ourselves stooping to go through a dark tunnel. It seems wrong because it is. 

[Wrong way, go back: Lost near Padron] 
We retrace our steps and soon find a pilgrim shell marker. But today not even navigational errors and sore ankles can dampen our enthusiasm. We prefer to think of the words “last leg” in a positive way.