Thursday, 31 August 2017

Back to the Arthur Range 2: O is for ...

“The track went up and down in see-saw fashion, one moment reaching the heights of a sharp peak; the next plunging down to a mountain lake. To do that sort of walking, carrying a 50 lb. pack, there have to be compensations, and there certainly were. I doubt if I have ever been in more breathtaking country.”

- extract from a letter I wrote after my 1982 Arthurs trip.


[One of my 1982 photos showing the Arthurs' skyline]
In the same letter I reported that we had only one day of rain in a whole week on the range. If the first day of our 2017 trip has me questioning my wisdom in coming with Mick and Eden this time, those earlier words show that it wasn’t solely a case of amnesia.

On day 2 we wake to cloud. Showers are scudding by, and there’s a swirling wind up where we’ll be going today. We move slowly, timing our eating, toileting and packing up around breaks in the weather. Apart from anything else it’s so good just being in this stunning place that hurrying somehow seems out of order. Anyway I’m a little stiff and sore after yesterday, so slow is good.

But after breakfast the degree of purpose grows, especially when a drying wind gives us a chance to pack up semi-dry tents. That done we have a quick look at the maps before hoisting our packs for the climb out of Lake Cygnus. Today is not a long day, just 2½ to 4 hours of “reasonably easy walking”, according to Chapman. That’s if you don’t do side trips to various peaks. And by the look of the cloud levels, we probably won’t be tempted to do that.


[Lunch between Mt Hayes and Square Lake]
That initial climb is tough first thing, but that’s the reality of most days on the Arthurs. By the time we reach the ridge it’s cold and wet, and a keen breeze is whistling around the rocks. Somewhere above us is the cloud-shrouded bulk of Mt Hayes. We have to “sidle” around this, “descend steeply” from it, then “traverse” towards Square Lake. Take these innocent sounding words, mix them with showers, cold, thick cloud and a stiff breeze, throw in a rough and rocky track, and you end up with tough walking conditions. Even in the rarest, fairest of weather, this is not an easy walk.


[Christmas Bells brighten a moody Square Lake]
We shelter behind rocks in a saddle beneath Procyon Peak and have a quick lunch. The sun almost shines a few times, and we get glimpses of Hayes and beyond. But by the time we’re slowly climbing back towards Square Lake, it’s raining again. The ascending traverse from Square Lake to Lake Oberon is slow. Navigation is always tricky in clag. I remember that we have the mother of all “steep descents” to reach that lake, but by the time we reach it, the thick cloud disguises it. There might be a degree of mercy in that. As we peer down, there’s just a swirling grey abyss. A dark cliff blends into the mist on one side, and on the other there’s just menacing mist.


["Seriously, down here?" Eden descends towards Lake Oberon]
It becomes one of those tracks that you start to follow, decide must be wrong because it looks impossible, and look around desperately for a better way. Of course there isn’t a better way, and as though to convince us, we get a few glimpses of Lake Oberon way below us. Mick lets out an “Ah hah”, exultant that we’re getting close to this iconic place. Not wanting to get ahead of ourselves, we quickly re-focus on the immediate task. How do we actually get down?

We talk about taking off our packs, and roping them down. Instead we put on our scrub gloves, to give us better grip on the cold, wet rocks. Then slowly, one at a time, each of us grips, grunt and bum-slides a little further down. We are keeping close to the improbable security of the cliff, which has water dripping from it. At the end of an already taxing day this is wearing, and scaring. In conditions like this we could easily fall and be seriously injured.


[The cloud lifts, and there's Lake Oberon!]
When Eden, who is out front, let’s out a “woo hoo”, our mood suddenly lightens. It’s not the bottom – far from it – but it’s the end of the worst section. As if to reinforce that, we come to an unexpected section of boardwalk, which takes us on a circuitous route through wet forest, then onto rocky knolls, and finally down to Lake Oberon.


[A tiny creek in the Lake Oberon basin]
We’re all glad, but Mick is ecstatic. Like generations of those who love wild Tasmania, he has always admired Peter Dombrovskis’ photograph of Lake Oberon. As we set up our tents in the well-sheltered campsite, he admits that this is something of a pilgrimage for him. And despite – or even because of – the wild weather that’s followed us down here, he’s not at all disappointed with the reality of this place. Oh yes for Oberon!

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Back to the Arthur Range 1: A is for …

I feel it deep in the pit of my stomach, although I’m not quite sure what to name it. I eventually decide it’s apprehension. Unlike Mick and Eden, the two other walkers in the party, I’ve previously been to the Western Arthur Range in Tasmania’s south-west wilderness. It might have been 35 years ago, but I know what to expect. I remember it as one of the hardest, most epic walks of my life: a rite of passage to an aspiring bushwalker.


[The old H-frame pack, as used in 1982] 
That 1982 trip was only my second proper expedition into the Tasmanian wilds. I was still in my 20s and had only rudimentary gear. I also had barely a clue as to how you prepare for such a walk. Into my old H-frame pack I threw whole potatoes, zucchinis, carrots and onions, plus fresh steak, some cans, and more clothes than I could possibly use. It’s a wonder I survived.

Youthful ignorance notwithstanding, I at least had the sense to be a little apprehensive before we left, especially when the serrated outline of the range reared up at us we neared Scotts Peak. I remember naively suggesting that the track must sidle around the peaks, rather than going over them. A tart “Nup … up and down the whole lot” quickly set the butterflies flapping.


[Surveying the Western Arthur Range from McKays Track] 
Afterwards my main responses to the trip were a peculiar mix of vertiginous joy, stunned awe and fear. We had walked through a landscape that shouldn’t exist in this “wide brown land”, on a route so steep that it hadn’t looked remotely passable.

But back to January 2017, and my renewed acquaintance with both the Arthur Range and my apprehension. The source of the latter is not just my time-eroded knowledge of what’s ahead, but also the nagging thought that my now 60+ year old body is not going to like this. Add a very ordinary looking weather forecast, and you’ll forgive a few butterflies.

We start promisingly. The weather is cool, the cloud patchy, and there’s a strong breeze. That’s better than par, this being the south-west. We make good progress, soon breaking out onto the white quartz of McKays Track. Our path meanders across the wide buttongrass plains that lead to Junction Creek, and the moraine by which we’ll access the range.


[Buttongrass and track near Junction Creek] 
All the way the Arthurs loom ever larger, and the amount of mud increases. By Junction Creek we’re lightly marinated in mud, but the creek is flowing swift and clear, and we clean off a little as we cross to the southern side. With plenty of daylight left, we find some good campsites and put up two tents and a tarp. Mick has chosen to combine a tarp with a bivvy bag as an experiment. As he fiddles with the setup, we offer helpful comments like “What could possibly go wrong?” But we do give him a hand with some of the guy lines, and eventually he looks set.

By morning the clouds have thickened, and they’ve flattened the top of the range. As we reach the toe of Moraine A, showers are scudding by. The track onto the range looks brutally steep, an off-white ribbon winding through tawny buttongrass pocked with quartzy outcrops and bands of scrub. As we climb, the showers come and go. We put on our rain jackets, climb, sweat, take off our jackets, stop, rest, moan a little, eat and drink a little, then repeat the process for the next couple of hours.

It’s plain hard work, ‘though there are some sweet moments. The piping and chipping of the honeyeaters, and the bright glow of the wildflowers that thrive in this harsh environment, are somehow encouraging. And although it’s a couple of weeks after Christmas, nobody has told the Christmas bells. Their beautiful scarlet and gold bells are continuing the festivities, and they too lift my thoughts beyond my aching body.


[Christmas bells and quartzite rock on Moraine A] 
We pause briefly beneath an inadequate rock overhang for a quick, wet lunch. Looking up, it appears we don’t have too far to go. But appearances do what they often do on a bushwalk, and by the time finally top out, we’re exhausted. We flop down in patchy sun on the flanks of Mt Hesperus to rest and drink. When Mick discovers we have a phone signal, it turns into a longer break. Our mobiles are quickly out and we’re checking in with home. I would normally see mobile calls as an intrusion on a wilderness experience, but this time it feels important to talk to Lynne. We’ve had a tough family time over Christmas. Our 12 year old granddaughter from Launceston has had a serious fall, and has broken bones in both her ankle and her jaw. She and her family have had to spend weeks with us in Hobart, with numerous hospital visits, some surgery, and a lot of anxiety.


[Wildflowers near Mt Hesperus]
My usual role in this sort of situation is to be positive, to look for solutions, to jolly everyone along. But a couple of days away from it all has helped me to realise that deep down I too have been anxious about my granddaughter. And I’ve added to that anxiety by taking on this physical challenge in the Arthurs. I get to say this to both Lynne and my daughter, and it feels good to better understand the source of those letter A feelings that have inhabited my stomach.



[Massed flowering of Tasmanian purplestar] 
Our calls complete, we don our packs and meander around and over Mt Hesperus. From there we angle steeply down through a burned-out area. The fires have been kind to some of the plants, and especially the Tasmanian purplestars, which are flowering more profusely than I’ve ever seen. We then sidle around Lake Fortuna, giving it more than one “could we camp there?” glance, before finally reaching the steep descent to beautiful Lake Cygnus. 


[Finally ... Lake Cygnus] 
By the time we get to the lake we’re exhausted again. I take small comfort from the fact that my 30 and 40 something-year-old companions are just as spent as me. Trying to set up tents when you’re in that state makes for comical scenes. After a certain amount of muted hysteria, we get our shelters up. Then it’s a quick meal and some vague chat about tomorrow. While apprehension and anxiety have both accompanied me today, I'm happy to add achievement to the lexicon. And then I succumb to the call of the sleeping bag.

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.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 6: Celtic Air in Pontevedra

There are place names that you automatically associate with a tune. It will always be a long way to Tipperary, just as there will always be a track winding back to Gundagai.


[A cross marking the pilgrim route through Galicia] 
But a tune associated with the Galician city of Pontevedra? That might stump most, or at least those outside Galicia. Here’s where my inner Celtic-folk-nerd comes to the rescue, thanks to many years as a folk music radio host. So back in Arcade I’ve been preparing for our walk into Pontevedra by listening to one of the quintessential Celtic tunes for this region. (Galicia shares some of the same music and culture as places like Ireland, Scotland and Brittany). The music in question is the traditional pipe tune called Aires de Pontevedra.

The beautifully uplifting air was originally written for the gaita, a Galician mouth-blown bagpipe. It has become so popular that there are now versions played by folk musicians all over the world. Scottish highland bagpipes, Irish uilleann pipes, fiddles, flutes, accordions and guitars have all had a go at it.

For me one of the definitive performances is by Galician piper Carlos Nunez, a native of nearby Vigo. You can watch a live version here https://youtu.be/LG9tp1_UQFs

The Aires becomes my ear-worm as we climb out of Arcade into cloud-shrouded hills. Gone are the desiccated corn fields and eucalypt plantations of the lower lands. We’re now walking through lush forest with a distinctly Celtic feel to it. Showers come and go, ferns cover the forest floor, moss climbs the tree trunks and spills onto the cobbles.


[Climbing out of Arcade, Spain] 
The pilgrim network comes in handy today. We’ve been told that there’s a new route into Pontevedra for pilgrims. Instead of traipsing through the industrial outskirts of the city, we amble along the bosky banks of the Rio Gafos. We’re almost into the heart of the city before we have to hit the pavement.


[Walking through woods beside Rio Gafos] 
The Celtic air holds sway over the city too, with showers frequently passing over. We dodge them as best we can, and explore the old town with its narrow cobbled streets and lively food trade. 


[A Pontevedran rainbow] 
During one downpour we retreat to a bar and find our American friends Karl and Bill ensconced there. Ever knowledgeable about their surrounds, they tell us that the Church of La Pegrina opposite us is shaped like a pilgrim shell, and has long been a waypoint for pilgrims on their path to Santiago.


[An 'atmospheric' morning at Pontevedra's Pilgrim Church 
Although we leave Pontevedra early in the morning, the sun should be well up. But the Galician weather has remained “atmospheric”. The streetlights struggle to penetrate the fog as we wind through the cobbled lanes and over the old Burgo Bridge, near the site of an ancient Roman bridge over the Lerez. 


[Leaving a foggy Pontevedra] 


[The Burgo Bridge over Rio Lerez ]
Just before we leave the city, it seems fitting that we find a statue dedicated to a musician. The late accordion player Luis César Dios Rodríguez (better known here as “Diosino”) was one of Pontevedra’s musical heroes. It’s a touching tribute, but I can’t help chuckling at the thought that any accordion player in Australia would ever earn a nick-name that translates as “little god”!


[Statue honouring 'Diosino' in Pontevedra]

Monday, 6 March 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 5: Some Rain in Spain

If we know anything about the rain in Spain, it’s that it stays mainly in the plain. Except that it doesn’t. We know that before we cross over from Portugal into Galicia. The ancient kingdom of Galicia is NOT in a plain. In fact it’s hilly and green, and one of the better-watered parts of Spain.


[A green, well-watered wood in Galicia] 
We will soon experience all that first-hand. But first we have to endure one of the (thankfully rare) sections of main road walking on the camino. Cobbles might be hard on your feet, but busy roads are hard on your mind as well, adding the fear of whizzing traffic. We put our heads down, and walk as quickly as we can to our next off-road section.


[Walking a main road in rural Spain]
We’re now noticing more pilgrims, partly because they’re easier to see on a road, but partly because quite a few pilgrims only do the shorter sections leading into Santiago. Strung out along the road we look like a modern take on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, with groups of pilgrims knotted together conversing, laughing, stopping to do repairs, sharing food, and greeting other pilgrims.

Unless you’re a recluse or a curmudgeon, a camino has a strong social element. Our short-comings in Spanish limit some of our interactions, but we’re still finding it more social the further we progress. Whether we’re walking and talking on the way, sitting and chatting over drinks; or sharing accommodation or meals together, we’re forming bonds. And inevitably we’re comparing notes, whether on blisters, food, accommodation or the reasons behind our pilgrimage.


[Getting to know some other pilgrims]
Bill and Karl are two American pilgrims we meet often. They’re are a source of great fun and amusement. Like a classic odd couple, the one short, loud and loquacious; the other tall, quiet and laconic, they bicker and bounce off each other constantly. Walking or socialising with them is like being part of a sit-com. Or sometimes like being the audience, as when quiet Karl gently unloads on the ebullient Bill after one too many nags.

Karl has been limping almost the whole time, having become badly blistered early in his camino. But he’s quietly determined to get to the end regardless of his pain or his pace. “It is what it is” he says, encapsulating something that we all end up applying to the journey. Whether it’s the weather, the distance left to walk or the pain of blisters, “it is what it is“ becomes our way of surrendering to the road; of dealing with both joys and disappointments.


[Pressing the grapes as it's been done since Roman times] 
A simple example of the former comes as we’re walking through a rural lane. We pass a friendly farmer with an equally friendly dog. He’s busy using an ancient hand-driven winepress to make wine with his own grapes. He pauses to call a greeting, and laughs when we ask if it’s okay to take a photo. His eyes crinkle as he points to the messy wine stains on his singlet, as if to say “What a picture I must be!”

One of the latter comes as we approach the coast for the first time since Porto. We’ve heard that the town of Arcade, on the Ria de Vigo, has some good swimming spots. Most of the way through Portugal it’s been warm and dry, and the thought of swimming has had a big appeal.

We lunch in the pleasantly busy old town of Redondela. It’s cool and cloudy, and we still have a long uphill road section before Arcade, where we’ll stay the night. By the time we’re into the worst of the hilly climb, the rain comes. A heavy drizzle wets the road, wets every car or truck that speeds by, making sure that we are soaked through too. There won’t be any swimming today.




[Misty and moisty in Arcade]
 
We plod on through the rain, hoping our accommodation comes sooner rather than later. Tim and Merran are ahead by maybe a hundred metres. We’re following doggedly, as Tim remains our navigator. Before too long he turns and waves, and we see a small hotel that fits the description. Feeling and looking like drowned rats, we start to climb the steps past another group of pilgrims who are sitting at an outside table. Without warning they break into “Happy Birthday”, and it’s aimed at Lynne!
 
Tim and Merran have been telling tales. Today might not be Lynne’s actual 60th birthday, but they’ve heard that the big birthday is part of the reason for our camino. It turns out Kerrie, a New Zealander living in Italy, has had the same idea – for the same number birthday – and has invited “a few girlfriends” on a camino.


[Lynne and some new friends celebrate her un-birthday] 
They’re soon buying us drinks, and we’re chattering away like old friends. The pain of the rough and rainy road, and the disappointment of our non-swim recede into the mist. “It is what it is”; accepting what we’re given. How sweet that sometimes is!