An Australian pilgrimage trail in honour of St Mary MacKillop and her co-founder Fr Julian Tenison Woods.
An Australian pilgrimage trail in honour of St Mary MacKillop and her co-founder Fr Julian Tenison Woods.
I “slept in”, waking at 7:45am. It was wonderful just to lie in bed for a while. I had woken in the middle of the night, as usual, but instead of working on my journal, I caught up with the fact that Prince Philip had died a hour or so earlier. I have always liked Prince Philip, but as one journalist pointed out, the fictional version of him presented in the Netflix series “The Crown” did a lot to ‘humanise’ him, and so public opinion is probably a lot more sympathetic and appreciative now than it might otherwise have been.
I was planning on getting moving at 10am, but I did not wish to carry my backpack with me today. I discovered that Hamilton has a taxi service, and asked the front desk at the motel if they would look after my pack for me. So I arranged that I would just take a day pack with me today and come back by taxi in the afternoon to collect my pack when I was ready to go to the Station to catch the bus to Skipton.
Thus freed from anxiety on that point, I had another shower (luxury!), ate most of my remaining food for breakfast, put on my spare set of hiking clothes (so that I wasn’t all smelly now that I was heading back into civilisation), and headed off. It was a couple of kilometres into town still – my rough estimate was that I would still find myself walking about 10 kilometres today, as Alexander MacKillop’s grave is on the other side of town. My first port of call was the Catholic Church, the hub of the St Mary MacKillop Parish, aka “The Border Parish”, in which I had been walking ever since I entered Glenthompson. It is bounded by the South Australian border on the West, the Portland parish on the South and the Horsham Parish on the North – “the size of Belgium”, the parish priest told me later. As we have often found on our pilgrimage, the Church was on top of a hill. This habit of building churches on hilltops is all very good, but when weary pilgrims are making it their destination at the end of a long day of walking, it can sometimes be the final straw. In my case, I was still fresh and energetic.
When I arrived, the church was shut and there was no sign of activity. I was just taking a few photos when a man came along and opened the front door. I went up to him and introduced myself. Chris was there to help set up the Church for Divine Mercy Sunday tomorrow, but was keen to show me around the church. The old church (in Gothic design complete with high steeple – just like the Anglican Church and the Presbyterian Church further down the road in town) had been converted into the narthex of the new church which was built off to the western side. The sanctuary of the old church was now a blessed sacrament chapel, and a small corner at the entrance had been converted into a bit of an info-display on Alexander MacKillop. Chris, though, was eager to show me their Mary MacKillop chapel, which was a side chapel of the old church. The gothic window that formed the main focus of the chapel looked down toward the altar of the new church. A small tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament was on the sill of this window, and Chris informed me that there was a relic of St Mary in the Chapel too (but he wasn’t quite sure where). Soon another (older) gentleman arrived. Ted went and fetched the key to the tabernacle, because the relic of St Mary was kept in there. He brought it out and handed it to me. It was hard to identify what it was at first, but Ted said he thought it was a hair from her head. There were many other devotional artworks in the chapel, including a painting of Mary with Julian Tenison-Woods, and a printed hanging showing scenes from Mary’s life. I signed the visitors book and I asked both Chris and Ted for their phone numbers should we need to be in contact when we (or I) return to complete the pilgrimage in the future. They encouraged me to knock on the door of the presbytery – Fr John, the retired priest, would be there at least, they thought.
I did as suggested. In the back of my mind, I was aware that tomorrow would be Divine Mercy Sunday and that the plenary indulgence would be available for those who had received absolution, so I thought I would take the opportunity of confession if I had the chance. It would also be appropriate to finish the pilgrimage in a state of grace. I rang the doorbell and received no reply. After ringing again, I was about to leave, when a voice hailed me from the front gate. Fr Paddy, one of the two co-pastors of the parish, was coming up the path. I introduced myself briefly and was immediately asked to come in for a cup of coffee. We spent a good half hour talking about my pilgrimage and about the parish, and many other issues of the life of the church coming out of the COVID-19 experience. At the end of our chat, I asked Father Paddy if he could use the parish stamp to stamp my pilgrim passport and if he would hear my confession. Both of these he gladly did, and sent me on my way with his blessing and the encouragement of all burdens now having been lifted.
I walked from the Church down into the town, which is quite busy and has a large shopping precinct. I was in search of the site of the Victoria Hotel where Alexander MacKillop died at 6am on Saturday 19 December 1868. He had been working on a property near Dunkeld and had apparently developed some kind of stomach haemorrhage. His wife Flora was reported to have been with him at the time of his death, and he was buried in the Roman Catholic section of the (old) cemetery the next day. The Victoria Hotel was demolished many decades ago. I found reference to the address, which put it on the Western corner of Thompson and Gray Streets. Today it is a branch of Elders and several other shops. I have read that there are remains of the stables out the back of 77 Gray Street, but I didn’t go exploring. I had hoped to get a post office stamp in my passport, but the post office was closed – despite the advertised time being open until 12:30pm on Saturday. I walked up Gray Street towards the Anglican and Presbyterian Churches, which are also both in the Gothic style with magnificent spires. I had hoped to get inside the Anglican Church, as they have a particularly nice icon of St Mary of the Cross in a little chapel there, but unfortunately the church was locked up. Perhaps they are still being overly cautious with the whole Covid-19 nonsense…
Then I turned my face toward the hill to the northwest where the old Cemetery was located. It was time to finish this leg of the pilgrimage. There was a light rain, and the cold wind had picked up. There is a lovely line of oak trees on the side of the road leading up to the heritage cemetery. Finding Alexander’s grave was actually quite easy, and there is a seat next to his grave for visitors (and pilgrims) to rest on. I don’t know how many other visitors to his grave have thought about what they were doing as a pilgrimage. I feel a great deal of sympathy for Alex. He is described as a “failed seminarian”, by which is usually meant that he studied for the priesthood but wasn’t ordained. I was ordained, but didn’t keep going in my calling as a Lutheran pastor. Perhaps I am a “failed seminarian” too? Mary, his first child, was born when he was 30. My first daughter was born when I was 32. He died when he was 56 – a year older than I am at the moment. What must he thought of his life at that point? What must his wife Flora have thought, or his daughter Mary (who was 26 years old and already professed and had begun her religious order 2 years earlier)? The point I read into this is simply that we don’t know why God put us upon this earth. Without Alexander McKillop, as hopeless as he was in many ways, there would have been no St Mary MacKillop. That’s worth keeping in mind.
Note, by the way, the “McKillop/MacKillop” thing. Something I had never known until I read the sign at Alexander’s grave was that he spelled his name “McKillop” and it was Mary who changed the spelling to “MacKillop”. The headstone has “MacKillop”.
I rang Cathy to let her know that I had completed the journey. It reminded us both of an old song we used to sing at Lutheran youth group meetings:
“One more step along the world I go,
One more step along the road I go;
From the old things to the new
Keep me traveling along with you
And it’s from the old I travel to the new;
Keep me traveling along with you.
Round the corners of the world I turn,
More and more about the world I learn;
And the new things that I see
You’ll be looking at along with me
And it’s from the old I travel to the new;
Keep me traveling along with you.
Give me courage when the world is rough,
Keep me loving though the world is tough;
Leap and sing in all I do,
Keep me traveling along with you
And it’s from the old I travel to the new;
Keep me traveling along with you.
My studies on pilgrimage have alerted me to the fact that the word “travel” is cognate with “travail”. This journey – in fact that whole MacKillop-Woods Way – has had its fair serving of “travail”. My youngest daughter has inherited from me a problem with anxiety. I guess I didn’t realise how great it was in me until I saw it in her. Among the many things that pilgrimage continues to teach me is that you can overcome anxiety by just doing what you have to do each day. I’ve been watching the BBC series “The Road to Rome” while on this journey. In the final episode, the Jewish pilgrim and the Muslim pilgrim have a conversation about what they have learned from pilgrimage. They both observed the simplicity of having just one thing that they need to do or accomplish on any given day, namely, get to the next point along the pilgrimage. Nothing else is important, and nothing else matters.
This is most certainly true, and something I realised a long time ago. While a walking pilgrimage – and especially doing it on your own as I have just done – is a far cry from a deep contemplative experience (it is an experience above all else of the physicality of your body and of the earth beneath your feet), it does focus the mind like no other experience I have ever had. You have one job, on goal, one focus, and that is to reach your “telos”. I have tried to extend this into my daily living, not expecting too much of myself in any given day, nor being anxious about the next day, or the day after that, but just being focused on today. I have not always succeeded. I need to admit that I was very, very anxious about this journey. Around 13 March, I came down with some violent fevers that laid me low for about two weeks and which was later diagnosed as Ross River virus. I was deeply worried that I would be too weak to do the journey. Right up till the last day (yesterday) I didn’t think I would make it. But here I was, at Alexander McKillop’s grave, at the end of my pilgrimage (for the present).
I walked back into Hamilton, passing by the footy ground which was packed with locals watching the match. Lots of children going to their sports groups, netball groups etc. etc. Here was the life of the community. I was astounded by this as I reflected that all this life and vitality had been put on hold for an entire year during 2020, but it has bounced back stronger than ever.
I was hoping for a good pub meal with some really nice beer. Sadly, my experience of pubs along the way had been less than positive. It is as if the entire Western Victorian region has never heard of the craft beer explosion that has been happening in the rest of the country. I looked up “craft brewery” on the internet and was directed to a place called the “Blue Malt Restaurant”, which was supposed to have a wide selection of craft beers available. When I checked into the restaurant and was shown a table, I looked around and saw a distinct absence of anything that indicated beer (or any other alcohol for that matter). The menus offered milkshakes and tea and coffee. I went to the counter and asked whether this was a licensed establishment and was given a positive answer. When I asked after beers, I was told “Carlton Draught, Great Northern, Furphy” etc. Nothing else? I was told this was a beer establishment? “It used to be.” Ah. Thankfully the waitress went and fossicked around the back and found a couple of bottles of Coopers Pale Ale. It would have to do. I did have a very nice Asian style Pork Belly and stir fry to go with it, though.
It was raining hard outside now, and the temperature had really dropped. I looked up the local taxi phone number and called them, and then waited (anxiously) outside for 20 minutes until they arrived. But thank goodness, the taxi came as promised and drove me out to the Bandicoot Motel to get my backpack and then dropped me at the Railway Station where I would catch my bus ($20). I was a little perturbed (no, really perturbed) to discover that the waiting room at the station was closed, even though it was only 3/4 of an hour before the bus was due to leave. It was raining and windy and cold, so I sat around the back under the shelter to stay dry. When I heard movement inside the office at about 4:15, I saw that the bus had pulled up and there were people inside the building – but they refused to open the door. I called out that it was cold out here, and they just said that they were not opening yet! It turns out that a senior bus driver was training a young women driver, and that the whole buying tickets and packing luggage and driving thing had to be done by this one young woman and that the older experienced driver was still training her. Nevertheless…
It was good to get on the bus ($18 to Skipton) at 4:45pm. The journey would take just a little over 1.5 hours. Along the way, I could see that the highway had a very good firebreak “path” all the way along the road to Dunkeld and would have been very comfortable walking had I decided to take that route instead of Mills Road. From there on, I was just happy to be able to sit back and relive the journey of the previous five days.
Arriving in Skipton, Cath Kavanagh was waiting to pick me up. She took me back out to their farmstead, where John and their daughter and grand-daughter were introduced to me. I was shown to the “bus”, a home-made mobile home in which John and Cath had travelled around Australia. They had made up the bed with two doonas and had the electric blow heater to warm the room up. Inside their home, they had a couple of wood fires going which warmed the whole building. The outside temperature was falling rapidly, and the rain was falling just as hard. We had a wonderful evening together over dinner, and talked till about 9:30pm, much later than I have been used to being up over the last week.
It was really nice to get to bed under those doonas later in the evening and to fall asleep listening to the rain. I was deeply thankful that my pilgrimage was over and that this cold snap came when I had somewhere warm and snug to sleep.
I won’t continue this journal into the next day, other than to say that I went to mass in Skipton with John and Cath, and I was also able to meet up again with John and Helen Casanova from Westmere. I also was able to meet Fr Eugene who helped put me back in contact with John and Cath in the first place. It was a good way to spend Divine Mercy Sunday, and a good way to end the pilgrimage for now. I will return, of course, to Hamilton at some stage in the near future to continue the pilgrimage down to Portland. From there, hopefully, Josh and Sean will be able to join me again as we push on toward our goal: Penola!
St Mary of the Cross, pray for us.
Merciful Jesus, I trust in you.
The completion of the pilgrimage from the Bandicoot Motor Inn to Alexander McKillop’s grave was 6.75km. In all, according to my iPhone, I walked 12.3km on this last day of the pilgrimage.
According to my recording of the whole walk from Skipton to Hamilton (on Gaiagps.com), I walked 141 kilometres on the actual route. Again, according to my iPhone, I walked a total of 157.7km from Monday morning to Saturday night.
The total distance from Fitzroy (October 2019) to Alexander McKillop’s grave is 337.86km. Interestingly, the route by road (according to Google Maps) is 311km via Ballarat).
The rain woke me at about 2am. It had begun as I was falling asleep, but it was really heavy now. I looked at my weather app and saw a large band of heavy rain sweeping all the way from South Australia through Victoria. Thankfully it appeared to be almost over. I was snug and dry and warm inside the tent. This time I was too tired to do any writing and I just rolled over snd went to sleep again.
When I woke in the morning the rain had gone, but it was cold and still very wet outside. I lay in bed longer than usual, but the got up and sat in the camp kitchen with a mug of tea while writing my journal and charging the phone and battery.
I had decided to avoid the highway by following the railway line again today until it crossed the highway, where a side road (called Mills Road) began which ran north and west parallel to the highway all the way to Hamilton. I was looking forward to a quieter country road for a change.
The other big question today was whether I was actually going to make it all the way to Hamilton (as planned) or not. There were two main difficulties. First: the distance. I had walked about 30km on Wednesday with a full pack, and it had almost done me in. As I read it, the distance between Dunkeld and Hamilton was even further and I was even more tired now than then. Secondly: the rain had left the tent wet and I needed to dry it out before packing, which would mean a late start. I looked at the satellite map and there was what looked like a grove of trees (pine?) about 20km along. I decided that I would take enough food and water to last me all day plus the following day, so that if I decided to camp out overnight I could do so. I would aim for the pine grove and make my decision when I arrived there. I could do a Belloc and just sleep for a bit and then get going again.
The sun came up and a small wooden platform near my tent offered a dry space for me to dump everything from inside the tent as I dealt with taking it down, drying it out and packing it up. I have a little joke about this process: what has the outside inside when it is moving and the inside outside when it stops? The answer is a pilgrim with a tent in his backpack. The process of getting the tent dry enough to pack up took a while, and it wasn’t until 9:45 that I started going – very late if I had 7 hours walking to do.
I stopped at the Mobil Roadhouse to get some Powerade. I picked up two small bottles, one for each breast pocket. “That’s be $13.65”, the cashier said. What? Surely not. “We’ve got a special on for two 1litre bottles $8.” How much is just one 1litre bottle? “$7.50.” !!? So I bought the two litre bottles and filled up my smaller water pouches and drank the 1/2 litre left over. I also decided to grab one of their $2 coffees, as it would be chess as per than anywhere else in town.
Then I went to the little general store and bought three bananas, tomato, a mandarin, and a pack of two kabanos sticks. My pack was feeling very weighed down now along with the two litres of water as well. I went looking for breakfast. I almost bought a savoury muffin from one of the trendy cafes to eat on the way, but remembered the bakery a few blocks off the main road and thought it would be cheaper, faster and simpler there. Wrong. The bakery was full, with a line up of customers being served very slowly. I asked one of the staff who was making coffee if they had muffins or pies? “We only bring out the pies later and we only have cruffins – a cross between a croissant and a muffin.” I waited in line a little longer, already weary of the weight of the pack on my shoulders. After five minutes in which the line of customers had progressed not one jot, I simply said out loud that I just wanted a “cruffin” to go and could not wait under the weight of this pack all day. They gave me a muffin shaped croissant filled with soft chocolate cream and charged me $6. I took it and ate it as I left town in the railway line, and it was like ashes in my mouth as I went.
While I made my way out of town along the railway line, I soon shifted back onto the firebreak along the highway which was smoother going. A couple of kilometres out of town on the north side is a pull-over stop for motorists to get a good view of Mt Sturgeon. I crossed the road to get a few photos of the scene myself, and then returned to my “path”. At the Penhurst-Dunkeld Road, I shifted back to the railway line track, and followed this all the way to the start of Mills Road. It wasn’t always easy going, and I swapped sides fairly regularly. Also I was not wearing my gaiters at first, and stones were constantly getting in between my feet snd the sole of my sandals. I couldn’t recall having this problem yesterday and realised that the gaiters actually reduced this problem. So I put them back on.
I was relieved to get to Mills Road. At last, I thought, I get to leave the highway behind for good and can enjoy the country peace and quiet. Big mistake. A sign at the beginning of the road should have warned me: “Mobile speed cameras operate in this area.” It turns out that this road was the locals’ alternative to the highway. So the traffic was as heavy as the highway, although without the big trucks – but also without the generous verge (there was no verge at all in some places) or the nice firebreaks to walk on. A large section had been recently resealed, without lines painted yet, and there were many loose stones on the surface and on the side. I was anxious that a passing car could throw up a stone and do me some serious damage. I had walked about 15km and was becoming tired. I knew the grove of trees was coming up. I finished listening to my book, and so just began just praying the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) in rhythm to my strides. On and on and on… I thought about sitting down on the narrow side of the road for a rest, and once attempted to do so, only to find myself sitting on an ant nest. I jumped up and kept going.
Eventually the grove of trees came in sight. Sadly they were not pine trees, which would have left a cover of soft pine needles to relax upon, but a small plantation of eucalyptus trees. The ground underneath was just a mass of sticks and bark. Also, it was fenced off on private property. Nevertheless I needed to rest, and there being nowhere on the road to do so, I let myself into the grove through a gate. Going in as far as I guessed necessary to be invisible from the road, I dropped my pack off my back, unrolled the blue foam, and sat on it to think. I first dealt with my feet, lathering them with voltarin anti-inflammatory cream. My blisters seemed okay, but I could feel hotspots in other locations on the balls and arches of my feet. I got out the strapping tape and bound my feet up a bit to give extra muscular support. Then I called Josh and talked over my options. In the end I decided to push on. I could not reasonably stay the night in this location and no other option was offering itself to me. I looked up the nearest accommodation on the internet and found the Bandicoot Motor Inn about two kilometres out of Hamilton on the highway. Rooms started at $104. So I made the booking. Now committed, I ate a good deal of my food, poured out most of my water (goodbye 2kg), packed up and headed off again.
I saw by the map that I could cut off a section of Mills Road by detouring down to Strathkellar and taking Strachans Road. This really was a quiet country road, and, looking at the map, I could have joined it about 6 or 7km back had I stayed on the railway line instead of following Mills Road. Nevertheless it too eventually joined up again with Mills Road, and I walked this for a few more kilometres before turning back toward the highway on Robsons Road. At this point my random playlist in Spotify started playing a Dixieland style rendition of the Old Rugged Cross, and I switched over to the complete album of these jaunty old-time hymns. After the Old Rugged Cross, there was What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Nearer My God to Thee, and Amazing Grace. Singing along, my pace picked up, as did my spirits. Back on the highway, there was a bike path leading into town. Then the “Hamilton” sign came into sight and finally the motel where my room awaited me. “Tell me there is a giant Bandicoot outside?” Josh said on the phone. “You won’t believe it, but there is!” I replied. “Take a picture and send it to me!”
That last 9km was worth all the effort just for the hot shower, a full meal, a glass of beer and soft sheets on a warm bed. My feet were throbbing with pain, but I could now rest at last. The pilgrimage still had some kilometres to go, but for tonight I could rest free of anxiety.
Before going to bed, I unpacked my damp tent and hung it out to dry on the curtain rails. I watched a little more of the BBC program on the Via Francigena. The celebrity “pilgrims” on their path to Rome were complaining of having to walk 13km. “I’ve never walked so far in my life!” one man exclaimed. I’d just knocked off 31.5km with a full pack… I admit that I was a little self satisfied, but very grateful to God that I had made it.
The sky was quite clear overnight, and it was very still and quite cold. In my location south of the railway, the highway was far enough away not to wake me with the sound of the occasional truck going through. More prominent were the sounds of crickets and barking dogs. I did wake in the middle of the night as now seems usual and again used the time to write up my journal before going to back to sleep. I was quite warm in the tent. I have noticed that the combination of the blue foam under mattress and the Mountain Design sleeping mat produces very good heat insulation as well as reasonable comfort (Nb. I’m only 73kg – not everyone will find such arrangements “comfortable”!).
When dawn came, I could see large drops of water a few inches above me on the inside netting of the tent. If you have ever wondered about the expression “dew fall” in the second Eucharistic prayer, and why it is likened unto the Holy Spirit, I’ve observed that it can be as wet as rain, that it often comes after a hot day, and that it doesn’t so much “fall” as suddenly appear soaking everything. Under these circumstances it was hazardous to stay in bed, so I got up. As I said, it was cold outside, so I just put my cold clothes on over my warm thermals. I’ve been wearing the same clothes every day for walking, without changing. They are pretty smelly, but just as a falling tree makes no sound when there is no one in the forest to hear it, so there was no one to tell me I stunk. I paid some attention to my blisters, but they seemed to be settling down. Today would be sandals again.
The Roadhouse opened at 7am, so I went up and had coffee and an egg and bacon sandwich while charging my phone, checking emails, writing my journal etc. On the way back to camp, I went into the Anglican Church and said Matins. The sun was up by now, and streaming through the east window at the back of the church.
Back at St Thomas’, I noticed the dew drops had fallen through onto my sleeping bag. So, since the sun was now up, I took down the tent and draped the sleeping bag, tent and fly cover over the bushes in the garden in full sun to dry out. I had done a little washing of socks and underclothes last night too, but of course they were still as wet as when I had hung them out. Of course everything I had stowed under cover in the toilets was unaffected by the dew, so I was able to pack my backpack without any problems.
In all, it was 10:30 before I got going. My plan today was to walk along the railway line instead of the highway. As far as I could see, there was a track of sorts on one side of the rails. I started at the old Glenthompson station house and headed west. In general this plan worked quite well. I was always on the lookout for snakes, but didn’t have any such encounters. If the trail got difficult or overgrown on one side I just swapped to the other. Only very occasionally did I have to walk on the tracks themselves to get through an otherwise impassable section. While this track isn’t used often (I saw no trains in the two days I followed the tracks), walking on the tracks is not only unsafe (and probably illegal) but also uncomfortable. But it was a great relief to get away from the noise of the Highway. On this section too the Grampians loomed larger and larger on the horizon so that, as Josh commented, there was finally “something to look at”! I continued listening to my text books for my studies, including a book on the significance of “place” in interdisciplinary studies. This perfectly complimented my thoughts as I pushed along the trail. Within a few weeks I need to produce an 8000 word essay on pilgrimage and the philosophy of place, so this was a kind of immersion study.
I stopped for a bit of a lunch break along the way, eating biscuits that had been left for me in the Streatham church washed down with “milk” made from my drinking water with a generous squeeze of condensed milk. Sweet and refreshing! I expected to get to Dunkeld in the mid afternoon so I had not packed much food. I had Easter eggs, muesli bars, nutrigrain and wild apples as well to munch on. The temperature was predicted to hit 29°C but only reached 27° – and even then, thanks to the cool breeze and cloud cover it felt much cooler. My weather app told me the “feels like” temperature was under 20°.
I arrived at Dunkeld at 2:30pm. I had done minimal research into accommodation, and checked into the first Caravan Park I stumbled upon on the Highway. There is another one further off the main road closer to Mt Sturgeon (the southernmost peak of the Grampians which towers over the town), but I wasn’t walking further than I needed to. I checked in, paid $15 for an unpowered site, and was shown to a site which would be “nice and quiet”. It was, but it also had ants nests everywhere, so I shifted to another spot of my choosing. The only drawback was that the ground there was rather dry and hard, and I broke a tent peg trying to hit it in (I have a lightweight plastic mallet that does a good job). I later scrounged a spare peg from the park office (they had an ice cream container of various pegs). Having set up the tent, I showered and changed and then left all my gear in the tent and set off on a little exploration of the town.
As it was now 4:30, so I went directly to the post office to get a stamp in my pilgrim passport. I was pleasantly surprised to find the old original weatherboard post office still in service, even if it was looking a bit dilapidated. The jovial postmaster was more than happy to give me a stamp when I told him what I was doing, and threw in a fridge magnet and a postcard of the post office in earlier days. I asked what the chance was of this building remaining open or whether it was likely to close and move down to the local Mobil roadhouse as had happened in Skipton and Glenthompson. His answer was that that would ever happen because “I own the building and I’m not retiring yet!” He said they had plans to do an inside and out renovation, although it would take a while. I asked whether he had considered a “picture stamp” like some other post offices have. He said they did have such a stamp for a while, but found a stack of extra work from people just wanting dozens of stamped postcards (“which they went and resold afterwards”).
Looking around the rest of town, I noted that the Uniting Church and Anglicans had joined forces in a cooperative parish (the parish church was, appropriately, a combination of two church buildings). I noted a bakery where I thought I would get breakfast in the morning. I then found the Catholic Church and saw that it was open, so I went inside and began saying evening prayer. I had hardly started when I heard bolts sliding on the front door! I made a noise, which saved me from spending another night in a church! The fellow who was closing up invited me to sign the visitors book, and I went on my way. I was looking now for somewhere to have dinner. There are half a dozen eateries in this town – largely because of its popularity as a tourist destination, but only a little general store. The Royal Mail features annually in The Age Good Food Guide, and the menu was priced to match. Across the road was the Sturgeon View Cafe with food for half the price. I discovered they had 4 Pines beer (bottles) as an alternative to the ubiquitous Carlton offerings, so I decided to stop and eat there. I ordered the mix grill, and was not disappointed when they reported that the pork spare ribs had not arrived but they could add extra rissole, sausage and bacon! I sat outside as it was a pleasant evening. After the meal, I needed to write up my journal, so I went inside (the mozzies were coming out), and ordered a glass of wine and then a cup of coffee to finish off the meal.
The wind was picking up a bit and the first drops of rain were falling as I returned to camp. I made a cup of tea in the camp kitchen and wrote up some of more journal while recharging my phone and battery. I went to bed early, but stayed awake for a while watching some of the BBC program on the Via Francigena on my iPhone. I was pretty weary though, and so I switched off, rolled over and, as the psalmist said, sleep came at once.
The distance from Glenthompson to Dunkeld was 18.93km, which I walked in 4hrs and 23min. My iPhone tracked me at 23.1km for the whole day.
I slept better last night. I woke at about 1:30am, but instead of fighting wakefulness and trying to get back to sleep, I decided to get up and sit in the camp kitchen (at the Lake Bolac Foreshore Caravan Park) with a cup of tea and write some of my journal. This was a good strategy, because by about 3am I was tired again and went back to sleep until the sun rose about 6am. There had been a heavy dew so the grass was wet around the tent – as was the tent itself. The easiest solution was to take all my gear into the camp kitchen and do my breakfasting and packing there. Once the sun was properly up and shining real heat upon the cold earth, I took down the tent and hung it up to dry. The tent was still damp when I was ready to go, so I decided to roll it up anyway and dry it out later when I stopped for a break.
I left at 8:30am and went first to St Bernard’s, where I asked God’s blessings on my journey for the day. I was rather anxious as I had 28km to cover — the longest I had ever attempted with a full pack. The day started cool and cloudy, but became sunny and warm around 10:30am. Thankfully the cool breeze remained. Rather than head back through the town, I set out on a delightful gravel back road West from
the church. It was only three kilometres until it rejoined the Glenelg Highway but it was delightful while it lasted. This is what a pilgrimage should be like!
Back on the highway again, I passed a sign saying that it was 75 km to Hamilton, and felt glad that I would pass the halfway mark today (at the 65km mark). Just over 12km from Lake Bolac is the small village of Wickliffe. It has some very historical buildings and locations. It once had a pub too, but unfortunately it is now closed. The former Uniting Church/Presbyterian Church is worth a look and I would have climbed the hill for a closer examination, but my feet were giving indications that they needed attention. When I took off my boots, there was a small blister on my right heel and signs of one forming on my left heel. So I took a break in the BBQ area, unpacking the tent to dry out, having a bite to eat and getting the medical kit out to deal with the situation. I decided to change to wearing my sandals so that the blisters would not be further irritated.
Just as I had everything unpacked, the V-Line coach pulled up. Had I not been in such a state of disarray, the temptation to get on board at that point would have been very strong (I blame Belloc). As it was I knew my fate. I had to keep going on foot. Nevertheless, an unexpected blessing awaited me. I was concerned that with my change of footwear I would be forced to walk on the verge of the highway for the rest of the day. But just out of Wickliffe, I discovered a new kind of firebreak. Previously these had been made with ploughs, which meant the grass was not a problem, but the surface was uneven. Here – and for continuous kilometres ahead – the firebreaks were made with a small grading implement or bulldozer, creating a smooth path about 2.5 metres wide. It was as if the town planners had said to themselves: David is going to want to walk here in sandals: let’s make a path for him. The difference this made to my journey for the rest of the day cannot be overstated. It enabled me to walk a good distance away from the edge of the highway with all its traffic, and also not to have to be too concerned with what I might step on. Of course, I always had to look out for snakes, but that was much easier with this “path”.
The pilgrim path (aka the firebreak) took me past the 65km halfway point at 12:40. A little further on I came to a wild apple tree (just as Reg had told me about last night) bursting with fruit. It was a little tart for my taste, but they were juicy and refreshing. I ate one and took three others with me in my pockets.
It was about this point that I had my first view of the Grampians mountains on the horizon. They looked unimaginably high, and the mountain goat in me wished I could go climbing and exploring. But, as St Mary said, we are not tourists here (or at least she said something like that…). Still I was entering the Southern Grampians Shire, and at last there was something to look at! (This leg is certainly earning its moniker as the “Meseta” of the MacKillop-Woods Way!) on the other side of the track there were electricity generating windmills. I think these machines are among the more beautiful and majestic of our technological achievements (like steam trains), although I know not everyone shares that opinion. My first up close encounter with one of these machines was on the inaugural Aussie Camino in 2014. So many years and so many pilgrimage kilometres ago!
Earlier in the morning I had rung the office of the St Mary MacKillop “Border” Parish in Hamilton. This super-parish runs all the way from the Victorian-South Australian border to Glenthompson. I wanted to ask if it would be okay for me to camp in the grounds of St Thomas’ Church and if the toilets could be made available for me. When I called back at about 2pm, the secretary confirmed that a local would arrange that for me and that I was welcome to camp there. The water in the toilets, she added, was drinkable. This gave me a base for the night (I never met the parishioner who did me this kindness.)
I was greatly relieved then to arrive at Glenthompson around 3:30pm after just over 30km walking. I dropped my backpack off my shoulders at the entrance to the local roadhouse cum post office, and straight away bought two cold bottles of Powerade (there being no beer for sale in town). I just about swallowed the first bottle in one gulp. The proprietor was an amiable and chatty fellow, happy to stamp my passport and full of local information. I told him about the pilgrimage and said I’d be back later for dinner.
Heading across the road, I was intrigued by a sign advertising a cafe/catering establishment called ”The Naughtie Corner”. The word “beer” was included on the sign and, ever hopeful, I poked my nose in the door to see what the story was. A man and woman were seated at a bench in a large room that looked like a mixture between a bar, a mechanic’s workshop and my father’s welding smithy. Glen and Billy introduced themselves, and invited me to sit down with them. Billy had just gotten what looked to be a fry-up dinner for them both, and offered me a cup of coffee. The story was that they had intended the shop to be a catering centre, but a fire put paid to those plans. Glen now seemed to pursue a welding and metal jewellery making hobby. There were some terrific iron work fireplace grates (“Why don’t you take one with you?!”), and bangles made from forks. We chatted away for about half an hour – Glen offered me his left over grilled Jerusalem artichokes, which were delicious. So, no beer, but a good conversation and refreshments. Glen also reminded me that the local Anglican Church had some significant mural art on the walls and that it was always open for visitors. So as I made my way down toward the Catholic Church just south of the railway line, I popped into the Anglican Church. It was a beautiful place and I returned there for evening prayer later.
Down at St Thomas’s, I scouted around for the best place to put my tent. There were ants around the toilets (probably for the water there) so I set up my tent on the southern side of the church. I decided to leave my backpack and most of my gear in the shelter of the toilet rather than packing it into my little tent with me as usual. After washing down with cold water and a face washer, I headed back up toward the Roadhouse for dinner. I took the long way around, doing a Cook’s tour of the town. Here again was a story I had seen before: post office closed, hotel (the grand “Mac’s”) closed. At the Roadhouse, mine host told me all the stories of woe to do with failed attempts to keep the local pubs open along this old Cobb & Co route. Only the Lake Bolac and Dunkeld pubs were still going (“If you can call the Dunkeld hotel a pub…”).
I was invited to sit at a table around the back for those dining in, where I could recharge my phone and power pack. I ordered a hamburger with the lot. Rather than get on with writing up my journal, I was occupied with marking a final assignment for my ACU class. A student had been given an extension until Good Friday, but by the time I left home on Easter Sunday, no submission had been made. I was a bit annoyed this morning to find that he had finally submitted his assignment on Monday, within 20 minutes of his three day grace period! Marking on my mobile phone wasn’t fun…
Just as I was finishing my meal and had ordered a coffee, the Roadhouse manager told me they had showers out the back which I was welcome to use. So while it was a bit of a walk back to the church to grab my soap and towel, it was very much worth it for the sheer bliss of hot water and feeling clean. I was exhausted though when I got back to my camp and crawled into my sleeping bag. The feeling was very different from when I first began using the tent a few weeks ago on the Great Victorian Rail Trail. By now it feels cosy and comfortable, and before long, I was asleep.
Despite my sanctified surroundings, I slept badly overnight. I woke around 3am quite sore from sleeping on a relatively hard surface and then tossed and turned for the next two and a half hours before I decided to get up. It was fairly pointless rising so early – given my lunch appointment was only 7km away, I didn’t need to leave until about 10am. But I spent the time writing up my account for yesterday, and by the time I had finished, dawn had brought light back to the world.
I can’t say exactly how I spent the next three hours, but it was largely in arranging and sorting out my gear. I’m not obsessive compulsive or anything. I just take a while, when first starting out, getting to know my pack and where everything is. I like to have a kind of mental inventory so that when I am on the road I can reach what I need without having to unpack everything. I was growing concerned at how heavy my pack was. I don’t think I had over packed, but I certainly had more food than I needed. My strange breakfast included a sachet of instant “gourmet” porridge left for me by Rosemary and the last of the Easter lamb roast from Sunday’s picnic heated up in the microwave with a few pieces of Turkish bread.
I left the church at 9:30 and headed off toward Westmere, 7 or 8 km along the Highway. Today’s traffic was different to yesterday’s: generally less busy, hardly any holiday travellers, but a LOT more trucks, semi-trailers and B-doubles. Being passed by one of those as I was walking on the verge was like having an office block hurtle past at 100km an hour. So I tried wherever possible to avoid proximity to the road and find a clear space to walk further out. This was possible about 50% of the time. There was not much “scenery” except for a large body of water known as “Chinaman Swamp” on the side of the road heading into Westmere. All through the day there were large clouds of smoke on the horizon where farmers were burning off the stubble. My aunt (who lives north of here) is highly critical of this practice, both because it denies the return of necessary nutrients to the soil but also because these paddock fires often get out of control and end up damaging surrounding properties. My mother tells me though that one reason is to kill off weeds.
Speaking of Mum, she rang to tell me that Lake Bolac was in the news because a local indigenous sacred site had been desecrated. Apparently some “place stones” had been moved by a local farmer (see here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-04-06/victorian-aboriginal-site-lake-bolac-eastern-maar-damage/100051462). More on this later.
John Casanova rang as I was passing the Swamp and we arranged that we would meet at the bottom of Casanova Road on the other side of Westmere in an hour. That gave me time to get into the little village and briefly check out the grain silos, the old station house, and the rest of the small village including the Anglican Church, which (John told me later) has recently been sold.
Just as I was arriving at our meeting point about 1km the other side of town at 11:30, I could see a red car slowly rolling down the road toward me. The rendezvous was perfectly timed. John was born in 1929, and, as one of four members of the local Streatham Historical Society, might well be considered their oral history exhibit. When we arrived at the weatherboard farmhouse – similar to many large old homes in the area – I asked him “Has this been your home all the way?” His answer was “Yes, and I’m glad you didn’t say ‘all your life’ because I haven’t finish my life yet!” Once inside I was introduced to Helen, a quiet and gentle woman who prepared lunch while John and I talked about all things under the sun. She turns out to have been quite a long distance walker herself, having participated in many Right-To-Life walks from one place or another in regional Victoria all the way to Melbourne. This dear couple had a deep passion for their faith, a strong commitment to their local community and great pride in their children, especially their daughter who took final vows in the Missionary Sisters of Charity in 2004 and their son who is a priest in Wagga Wagga (in the order of Christ the Priest). They have 10 children in all, 35 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren – the most recent arrived just last week. John played a recording of a piano composition written by his grand daughter. Lunch was simple – sliced mutton with mashed potatoes and salad and ice cream for dessert.
[I need to be be more brief. I’ve just returned to this narrative now during my break between “first and second sleep” early on Thursday morning…]
John returned me to the road at 2:30. The morning cloud cover had evaporated, and the sun was quite fierce, even though the cool southerly breeze (which has been my constant friend and companion) was still blowing. There was 13 km to go to Lake Bolac, and I was still getting used to the weight of my pack. I could have got by on two sets of clothes rather than three, as I have worn the same clothes each day for walking (who is out here to smell me?). The bulk of the weight is my tent (1.75kg), my mattress (580g), foam sleeping mat (doubles as under sheet for tent) and my sleeping bag (1kg), plus food, water, clothes, medical kit, toiletries, mallet and trowel, phone (+ charger, battery, etc) and spare set of tyres (sandals). I haven’t brought wet weather gear as I have found that it weighs too much and I have rarely used it. Besides, unless a long downpour is expected, it is more comfortable to get wet and dry out at this time of year.
I was a bit alarmed when I turned back to look at John and Helen’s home and saw billowing black smoke behind it. Then I realised that this was just another controlled “burning off” in a nearby paddock. Looking around, there were many other clouds of smoke on the horizon. While this practice may be “controlled”, I must say it would concern me having all this fire activity around my wooden home!
A consequence of the “burning off” practice is that the local farmers often have made firebreaks on the highway side their fence lines by ploughing up the grass and soil. In many cases this gave me a path to walk that was away from the highway traffic but not in long grass, although the rough surface was less than ideal.
The walk into Lake Bolac was just a hard slog with little of interest. The highway skirts the northernmost point of the Lake a few kilometres out of town. Nearby is the cemetery, and I paused to pray for the faithful departed as I passed. At this point I had an unexpected call from a woman who introduced herself as Helen. She and her husband Reg had been alerted to my arrival by John, and they were inviting me to dinner! Not having other plans, I gratefully accepted.
On the way into town, I came across some parked vehicles on the side of the road, and a hand-painted sign reading “Sacred Site Desecrated”. I remembered my mother’s news story this morning. I had not expected the place to be right in my path. An indigenous man – Rob – was sitting on the southern side of the highway looking across at the site on the northern side. A four wheel drive vehicle was parked on the other side and a man with “authorised officer” written all over him was investigating the damage. The paddock I was looking at was full of stones to which I could see no pattern. Rob explained to me that the stones were in the shape of the eel totem, as the lake was a source of this food for the ancestors. The local farmer had started clearing the stones, removing the “tail” of the eel and piling them up “out of the way” (so he could “spray for weeds” according to the news story). I could see quite clearly where a front end loader had removed the stones. I asked Rob whether the farmer knew of the significance of the site, and he replied vehemently “His father did.” The implication appeared to be that there had been a generational change in the land management and the old man’s son had other ideas about what to do with “his” land. Mind you it also occurred to me that the builders of the highway had either been ignorant of the site’s significance or had not cared when the road was put through between the sacred site and the lake…
I pushed on, because it was now 4:40, and I wanted to catch the post office to get a stamp in my passport before closing. Lake Bolac is a fairly substantial town, with a supermarket, several roadside cafes, a pub and churches, although the Anglican Church had been converted into a domestic dwelling, and the Uniting Church (an historical Presbyterian construction) did not look as if it was regularly used. The town does have a post office still (in fact it looks quite new) and the lady in attendance was very happy to give me a stamp when I arrived 5 minutes before closing.
My luck (or pilgrim’s blessing) held out, because as I was passing the pub, the young woman who runs the joint was just putting the sign out and setting down the bar stools. Three other blokes drove up and came in as well, and soon we each had a cold beer before us. I later learned that the pub had had an “open again, closed again” history over recent years, and Sally, the woman who currently has the licence, had been the cook under the previous failed management. My three bar companions were travelling shearing-shed builders who had just knocked off for the day.
I did not linger, as I wanted to get to the Foreshore Caravan Park to get my tent up and have a shower before my dinner appointment. As I approached the park entrance I saw evidence that the proprietor, Frank, was less than happy with our premier Daniel Andrews. Various posters and artistic installations were indicative of this negative opinion. This was confirmed upon my entry into the office to book a site. I said to him, “Does it help if I assure you that I don’t stand with Dan either?” It did help – I got the site for $10 instead of $15. This wasn’t a bad deal. Considering you can camp on the foreshore for nothing, I was more than happy to pay $10 for the use of the shower block and the camp kitchen. Frank told me I could take any site that was vacant. I went down into the far corner of the park, where I found a fully enclosed camp kitchen that seemed no one else was using (the main one was closer to the shower block). I set my tent up nearby on soft lawn. By the time I had gotten sorted and had a shower, Reg was waiting to pick me up for dinner.
Reg and Helen live only a few hundred metres away from the caravan park on the shore of the lake. He pointed out St Bernard’s Catholic Church as we went past, a quite substantial building of a similar vintage to the Streatham church. Reg told me that after retiring from farming 20 years ago (selling the farm, although they had four sons, to make settlement easier), he worked as the lake ranger for about ten years. This included the drought years when the Lake dried up and the flood year when 13 inches of rain in a couple of days filled the lake to overflowing. He said it was a 25km walk around the lake, but in many places it is private property down to the high water mark. His particular passion were the wild apple trees growing around the lake, which he claimed to be very fine, unspoiled by chemicals and insecticide. Indeed we had apple pie after the meal made from those apples. I suggested he give cider making a go, but this received some comment about the demon drink, so I let that go. (We had orange juice, water and a cup of tea as beverages with the meal.) Our conversation hardly touched church matters (it had been nothing else with John and Helen at lunch), but concentrated on stories of our travels in Australia and Europe. At the end of the meal, I thanked them for their generosity but said I was very tired and needed an early start in the morning. Helen drove me back and, just as we were pulling up at the caravan park, I realised that I had forgotten to take a picture of them both for my record of the pilgrimage. (The same happed with John and Helen, but I snapped a selfie with John in the car as he dropped me off.)
I didn’t muck about when I got to the camp. I brushed my teeth, and hopped into bed and fell asleep before 9pm.
Today’s recorded distance was 23.6km in all, although the planned route was 20.9km. My iPhone says I walked 24.5km.
Five years ago on Easter Monday 2016, I and my friends Sean and Josh set out on the first “leg” of the MacKillop-Woods Way from St Mary’s birthplace in Fitzroy toward her tomb in North Sydney. We reached Bairnsdale that year. Walking another “leg” each year, we arrived at Mary’s shrine in April 2019.
In October that same year, we embarked on a new leg of the MWW toward Penola where Mary MacKillop took the religious name Mary of the Cross, and founded the religious order of the Sisters of St Joseph. Leaving Fitzroy on 1 October, we arrived in Skipton on 9 October, 2019. Our intention was to continue the journey in October 2020 (after Joshua and I had walked the Camino de Santiago in April). Well, as we all know, all pilgrimages were cancelled along with everything else in 2020. A lot of other things changed in my life in 2020 too, quite unrelated to Covid-19…
So it is only now that I have had the chance to hit the road again. My friends, who were also chafing at the bit during lockdown, have made other plans for how they were spending these holidays, but they encouraged me to take the opportunity to continue our pilgrimage n my own while I had it .
So, after staying at the Snake Valley pub last night, I drove to Streatham where I had pre-arranged access to Saint Columba’s Church for accommodation tonight. Regular worship ceased in this handsome little church, built in 1968, 13 years ago due to lack of parishioners. The population in many rural districts has greatly decreased in recent decades. Streatham used to have a small convenience shop too, but that has also closed.
A local Catholic, Rosemary, was kind enough to arrange some supplies and leave the keys for me to access the church. I was able to leave my backpack with my tent and all my bedding and most of my other gear at the church so that I just had to take a day pack with water and food for today’s journey.
I then drove back to Skipton where I left my car in the care of the folk that we had met at the Skipton church when we came through in October 2019. Leaving from Skipton, I had hoped to get a post office stamp in my pilgrim passport, but then realised it was Easter Monday and that the post office would be shut. However in fact I noticed that the old post office had been permanently closed. So I thought to go up to the BP Roadhouse which was the only establishment open in the town on this holiday. There I was delighted to discover that the post office had moved into the Roadhouse, and as a result I was able to get a post office stamp after all.
I then hit the road. And I mean the road literally, because my route was the Glenelg Highway. Sean and I had been over and over the route for this leg, and there was simply no getting around the fact that, if we were to go via Hamilton and Alexander MacKillop’s grave, the only possible way of completing it was to walk on the highway. There are no alternative routes with any semblance of directness. There are some scenic alternatives, and Sean tried to convince me to take them, but overall they would have added about 50 km extra to the entire journey, making it impossible to get from one town to another in a day and to do the whole trip in 5 or 6 days. As it was today was a still a 30 km journey, and if I’d been carrying my full pack it would’ve been too much for me. Even with just a day pack, I was very grateful to arrive at Streatham in one piece after 6 1/2 hours of walking.
There have been times before on this pilgrimage when we have had to walk along the highway. Most notoriously there was the whole day that we had to walk along the verge of the Princes Highway on our way from Bodalla to Moruya in NSW. This was not quite as bad as that. The Glenelg Highway has very broad verges on both sides of the road – in some cases about 50m wide. But in most situations these verges were filled with very long grass or scrubland, and we are still on the inside of the end of snake season. Only just last week I went for a walk near Melbourne and in the first half hour I saw both a tiger snake and a brown snake which had come out to enjoy the spate of unseasonably warm weather. Nevertheless on today’s walk there was still many sections on which the local farmers had cut the grass along the road frontage of their properties, allowing for walking on these areas (wearing gaiters so that my shoes and socks don’t fill with grass seeds). For the record I didn’t see any legless lizards today. But there was still about half the journey where I had to walk right alongside the road. Under normal conditions this may not have been too bad, but this was Easter Monday, and the holiday makers were heading back to Melbourne. I would estimate that there were around 50 cars heading to Melbourne for every one vehicle heading to the other way. But about 1:30 in the afternoon the holiday traffic subsided making the rest of the journey both safe and enjoyable. Indeed it was quite pleasant at times. Nevertheless it has to be said that this section of the McKillip woods way pilgrimage could be the equivalent of the Meseta on the Spanish Camino (https://www.walkyourcamino.com/meseta.html). It is all open farmland, mostly flat, with no facilities, water stops etc between the towns at the start of the day and at the end. I am not recommending to either Sean or Joshua that they attempt this section. Sean is keen to try a more picturesque route to the south via Camperdown and Port Fairy. Of course doing it that way would miss out on going to Hamilton to Alexander McKillop‘s grave, but Sean does not seem that as a priority. It is enough that I have done it!
An unexpected pleasure today has arisen from a local contact. John Casanova is a local Catholic patriarch who had heard from Rosemary that I was coming through. He and his wife Helen live near Westmere. They have one son who is a priest with the Christ the Priest order and a daughter who is a Missionary Sister of Charity in Ireland. John was hoping to catch up with me as I walk through their vicinity tomorrow. He rang me this morning and we chatted about many things as I walked along including how we got through the Covid-19 lockdown. He said to me “Do you know of a parish in Melbourne called St Philip’s Blackburn North? I’ve been watching their online services all year and I watch Father Dillon’s morning mass every day.” I was delighted to be able to inform him that St Philip’s is my own parish and that the fellow he would’ve heard singing for Sunday masses all last year was none other than myself. Later in the day, John rang back to extend his invitation to catch up to include lunch with them. So this is something very much to look forward to tomorrow, especially as the day is somewhat shorter than today’s walk was.
I arrived in Streatham at around about 4:30 and made myself comfortable in the church. There is no shower or bath but I was able to have a “face washer bath” in the basin which was very refreshing. I’ve spent most of the evening talking on the phone to my wife, my mother, Joshua, and Sean. Rosemary had left a microwave in the Priest’s vestry, so I chopped up my two Kransky sausages with a tomato and some mushrooms and a packet of chicken soup powder to cook up a nice hot stew for dinner. I said vespers in the church, and rolled out my sleeping bag and mattress, and I thought I might have an early night. It was only 8:30 though, so I watched the first episode of the new program on the ABC about the Via Francigena. It seems to have been made by the same group who made the program about the Camino de Santiago that aired last year (at about the time I should have been walking it myself, which was a bit poignant). By the time I had done that, I felt tired enough to sleep. I switched off the light illuminating the crucifix on the wall above me, and closed my eyes. Day one accomplished.
I’ve just arrived at the Snake Valley Pub (aka Royal Hotel), and am having pizza and beer for dinner. Tomorrow I plan to start walking from Skipton (where the 5th Leg of the MWW ended in 2019) toward Hamilton, where St Mary MacKillop’s father is buried. The original plan for the 6th Leg was to go all the way to Portland, but I have been constricted by available time to just 5 or 6 days. To tell the truth, I am also being challenged by ill health: I contracted Ross River virus about a month ago, and am just getting back on top again. So I don’t know if I will make it even to Hamilton. I’m walking along the Highway, and there’s two buses a day back to Ballarat, so I figure if I can’t make it, I can call it a day.
As you can probably gather from this, I’m walking alone this time. Sean is doing a walk in Tasmania for a couple of weeks and Josh is joining him there. I’m doing something a bit different and carrying my tent and sleeping bag with me. The three day walk on the Great Victorian Rail Trail was a test for this. I was a bit healthier then, and a rail trail is always easier than the open road, but I’ve commended the pilgrimage to God, and it is in his hands. I received the pilgrim’s blessing (with the newly blessed Easter water) from Fr Dillon after the Easter Vigil last night. The weather looks good – 9° to 22° each day with some cloud cover (possible showers toward the end of the week.
I’ve just finished re-reading Belloc’s “The Path to Rome”, and have felt inspired and encouraged by his rather reckless approach to planning. There are many differences between walking from France to Rome in 1901 and walking from Melbourne to Penola 120 years later, but one thing in common is that, like Belloc, I am not following an established pilgrimage route. Belloc actually seemed to avoid telling people that he was on pilgrimage. He was locked up one night in an Italian town for vagrancy, and only managed to get released when he convinced the authorities that he was “a tourist”. There may have been political reasons for his closeness on this subject, but it seems clear that pilgrimage was not a familiar act to the people he met or stayed with.
In the same way, no local I have come across on my walk through Western Victoria has ever imagined that they might encounter a real pilgrim on their roads. Local Catholics, however, have been quick to show hospitality and offer assistance when they hear what we are doing. Already I have received help from parishioners in both Skipton and Streatham on this trip. Maybe too the recent publicity of the Aussie Camino on the ABC might have sparked some interest (‘Being on a Camino silences everything’: Why non-believers walk this spiritual pilgrimage in south-east Australia https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-04-03/aussie-camino-mary-mackillop-pilgrimage-on-southern-coast/100024406). Whatever the future of pilgrimage will be in Australia, I hope that the idea catches on, and that my small efforts may one day be an inspiration to others to give it a go too!
I slept better last night. I woke only at 4am, and this time because of the sound of roaring traffic. I didn’t realise that just the other side of the Yea River next to which I had pitched my tent was the Melba Highway, and 4am seemed to be the start of peak hour. In fact, I noticed today while walking, a very large number of trucks (including logging trucks) on both the Melba and the Goulburn Valley Highway. The other factor was that I was cold. I didn’t bring a lot of warm clothes on this trip – mainly due to the weight, but I also didn’t think it would get that cold over night. I believe the temperature dropped to under 10 degrees, and my light weight sleeping bag is clearly not up to scratch at those lower temperatures. I think next time I will just include thermals and a beanie. My shoulders were also sore after sleeping solidly in one position on my back on the the Mountain Designs sleeping mat that I bought especially for this trip (after my old mat displayed a leak during testing overnight in my back yard). So I tossed and turned for the next hour and a half, and finally decided to get out of bed at 5:45 and have a hot shower to warm up. The first thing I noticed was that the tent’s fly cover had lots of condensation inside. Outside there was a very heavy dew, so that my feet got wet and cold walking across the lawn in my thongs. After the shower, I made myself a mug of tea, and listened to the Office of Readings while the sun came up.
I considered my day ahead: my one task was to get to Molesworth in time to catch the 2:05 bus. While this was my only fixed point in the day, it rather locked everything else into a schedule. It struck me that this had happened yesterday too (with the need to be in range for my 2pm zoom meeting) and even the day before (the need to find a camp site in time before it got dark. So while one would think that carrying a tent on one’s back would free one from the tyranny of the clock, this has certainly not been my experience thus far on this journey.
Anyway, the issue now was what to do with my wet tent. I considered that things would be worse if it was raining, and a lot worse if I needed to sleep in the tent again tonight. So I unpacked all my gear out of the tent and then wiped it down with paper towelling from the bathrooms, and hung it on the clothes line while I had my breakfast. As the sun had not yet come up above the tree line, this wasn’t really very effective. As I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise high enough to dry it out, I just had to pack it away damp with the intention of unpacking it at home to dry out.
The packing routine again took an hour or so, with the result that it was 8:30am before I was on the trail again. As I was setting off, I thought of a riddle: Q. What has the outside inside when moving but the inside outside when it stops? A. A backpacker with a tent. The process of setting up and pulling up camp is a process of turning everting inside out like some kind of clever child’s toy.
The trail heads out of Yea along the side of the busy Melba Highway. I have often seen it in the past as I rode my motorcycle up to Yea for meetings of the Victorian chapter of the Christian Motorcycle Association but I had never realised it was part of the GVRT. A couple of kilometres outside of town, the trail veers left towards the East, and, for the first time the GVRT gives up its love affair with the highway. Until the last kilometre or two from Molesworth, the trail is in open countryside, with only very small country roads or vehicle tracks alongside. The elevation gradually rises as well, going up about 100m half way to Molesworth and then descending again, but the rise is so gradual that you hardly notice it, even with a full pack.
A long bridge spans over the Yea River as the trail turns away from the Melba Highway. All the old timber railway bridges have been replaced with solid concrete structures along the GVRT. They are very safe, and the signs say that they can take a vehicle up to the weight of 5 tonnes, but they are also very dull and uninteresting. The countryside becomes more hilly as you progress, and there are many cuttings through the hills for the railway. The debris from these cuttings was clearly used to fill in the valleys between the hills, so that the trail is level, while if you were just walking across country you would be climbing up and down all the time.
At the top of the rise, about half way to Molesworth, you come to the most remarkable and well known feature of the Great Victorian Rail Trail: the Cheviot Tunnel. Cheviot is the name of an old railway station that you pass a couple of kilometres before getting to the tunnel (a large galvanised iron shed is still there from the days of the operating railway). The tunnel is just over 200 metres long, and is built of red bricks. It was made between 1887 and 1889 and was in use right up to the close of the railway in 1978. My daughter, looking at the photos later, said that it looked just like a tunnel as you would see in a Roadrunner and Coyote cartoon. I was personally just a little disappointed – as I had expected a 200 metre tunnel to be darker and a little more “liminal” – but light streamed in from both ends illuminating all the way to the centre. Nevertheless, it was like stepping back through history for a short moment. It must have been exciting being a passenger on a steam train going through. It was built exactly at the highest point of the trail – as if the engineers had said to themselves “We can do a cutting here at this hill, and a cutting here at this one, and a cutting here too, and…nah, we’re just going to have to go through this last one.”
Not far on the other side of the tunnel, I realised that the niggling feeling on my right heel was probably a blister forming, and I needed to stop and take a look at it. Sure enough a little bubble was on the side of my heel. In times past, this would have spooked me, but after the incredibly gruelling final leg to St Mary’s tomb in 2019 (when I did several hundred kilometres on a leg that should have been in bed for all that time) I have realised that worse things can happen, and even that won’t stop me. So it was out with the sewing kit and bandages (for the squeamish, do not look at this footnote*). After a retread on the tyres, I set off again, feeling much more comfortable. I will need to think about getting new shoes for the next leg of the MWW at Easter, but that’s quite an investment. I bought my pair of Brooks Ghost 11 two years ago before walking from Ulladulla to Sydney, and they have also done Melbourne to Skipton, plus a lot of the walking I did last year during lockdown, so it no wonder they might be wearing out. I noticed that I can feel the stones of the path through the soles and that isn’t really very good.
After crossing over a fairly high bridge – which would have been beautiful back in the days when it was made of timber – the trail connects back up with the Goulburn Valley Highway, but is fairly high up above it. Along this section you can see old brick drains from back when the trail was a working railroad. The route takes a wide sweep around the little valley in which Molesworth nestles. One of the first buildings you see is a little white weatherboard Anglican Church, set apart from the rest of the Molesworth hamlet, and built in 1869. I don’t know if it is still in use. The rail trail goes South behind Molesworth, and there is not direct path as far as I can see down to the town from the old Molesworth rail siding (where there is now one of the standard drop toilets that you see right along the trail – go now if you need too, because I didn’t see any public facilities in Molesworth itself). If you keep on walking, the trail leads down to the level of the highway just past Molesworth and just before the bridge over the Goulburn River. There are two bridges – one for the highway and one for the Rail Trail. Again it is the standard concrete job. I’ve managed to find a picture online of the original bridge from an old postcard, which I will include in the pictures.
I walked out into the middle of the bridge, and decided that this will be a good spot to call the end of my journey for now. I intend to come back some time and, over four days, walk from Alexandra to Mansfield. The Alexandra section of the trail is a branch off the main trail, and I was not intending to do it originally when I was planning to walk from Mansfield to Tallarook. However, there is a short section between Molesworth and where the track from Alexandra meets the main trail which will be a gap in my journey. But I didn’t have time to walk to the extra 4.3km and back from the Goulburn bridge to the Cathkin connection with the trail from Alexandra on this trip and still catch the 2:05 bus, so I just had to let it go.
I walked back into Molesworth to have a look around. There is a “general store” – very important for hikers – but it actually is little more than a tuck shop. They do hamburgers and fish and chips and steak sandwiches and dim sims and so on, and you can get cold drinks, and coffee, and milkshakes, but there are no groceries or other supplies for sale. Next door is the public hall. This has been recently restored. The side door was open and I had a look in, but I could hear a meeting going on in the back rooms so I didn’t go in. I figured the toilets must be inside as well, as there were not public toilets in the street. Further down the road is the Molesworth Food & Wine Co., which sounds really promising, but it is only open on Thursday and Friday afternoons from 3:30pm to 10pm and then on the Weekend from 11am to 10pm. It is mainly a restaurant but I think they sell some other local produce. Of course, being a Wednesday, it was shut so I couldn’t check it out. Walking back towards the Store, I saw that there is a caravan park in Molesworth. It is located down a 400 metre driveway along the Goulburn River, so a fair distance from the Road. I walked down to have a look and it looks very nice – non powered sites are $10, but “swags” are $10 per person. I guess you could call what I was toting about a “swag”? I definitely felt like I was “camped by a billabong” on Monday night!
I walked back to the store and ordered a hamburger with the lot. They were out of hamburgers, so I accepted a steak sandwich. When it came out to me on the front porch, I found it very large (between two pieces of toast rather than a bun) and difficult to eat, but very tasty. I got my plastic knife and fork out of my bag to help chop up the steak. This was $12.50. I asked if they would be able to do sandwiches for lunch (if, for e.g., you were staying at the caravan park overnight and needed food for the next day). She said yes, but you would need to order what you wanted the night before (they close at 7pm) so she could buy what was necessary to make the sandwiches. I asked what time they open in the morning, and she said 10am, but that she would happily open earlier to deliver the sandwiches to walkers leaving at the start of the day. Little details like this are important to know when you are planning to hike the GVRT with a tent!
I ate my steak sandwich and then waited for the V-Line bus to come. I had precooked this by calling V-Line last week and paying over the phone. So all I had to do was get on, as the driver was expecting me. The backpack when under the bus, and I went inside, and soon I was whizzing back to Yea. We passed through Yea in no time, and headed on down towards Yarra Glen. I asked to be dropped off in Ringwood as there was a set down stop there (just outside Eastland shopping centre on the Eastern side – not at the Railway station). This would save a trip all the way into Southern Cross only to have to train all the way back again. I tried writing up this account on the bus, but promptly fell asleep and was only woken when the driver called out “Ringwood!”. After disembarking, I just had to go up the station and catch the train back to Boronia.
And that was it. Today I walked 17.53km on the trail, which took me 3 hours and 58 minutes. I ascended 105m and descended 107m.
Until next time.
* Blisters must be dealt with early and not allowed to develop. The sewing kit is because you need to drain the blister of fluid and keep it draining and not allow it to build up. You disinfect a threaded needle with antiseptic cream, and then push it through from one side of the blister to the other just under the skin. Then cut off the thread so that there is a little bit hanging out both sides. This makes sure the little holes don’t close up and allows any additional fluid to flow out. Then bandage the area with gauze and tape (or very high grade bandaids depending on the size). I recommend changing your socks after this, because it often happens that you get a blister in the first place because your socks are damp from perspiration.
I slept very badly last night. About midnight I woke up after a particularly bad dream, and, already in agitation, I was not comforted to realise I was alone in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. I began to have a panic attack as I recalled every horror movie about vulnerable campers and every news story about missing backpackers… it was difficult getting back to sleep and I tossed and turned till dawn. It’s amazing how relevant some passages in the psalms become when you are on the trail, such as: “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day” (Psalm 91:5).
I got up at first light, around 6:30, breakfasted and packed up the tent. I could have killed for a cup of tea or coffee. It was a fresh morning but the sun was shining brightly and I was back on the trail by 8:40am. I knew the trail would be a bit shorter today, and I had lightened my pack considerably by eating food and drinking water. I had one litre of water left, so I didn’t resort to purifying the creek water (I had brought AquaPura tablets just in case). I decided to put on the play list of my favourite songs, and I was soon skipping along and singing to the lyrics.
Today’s landscape was composed of pastures, steep sided hills with rounded tops, dams and billabongs, gum trees, occasional glimpses of the river, and the hilly range in the distance on the other side of the river valley. The trail was wide and mainly in the same black stone that the bitumen roads were made of. I was passed by three or four cyclists around 10am, but otherwise saw no one else on the trail. I haven’t come across any other walkers.
I stopped at the old Homewood Station for morning “tea” (sans tea), a lovely spot which would make a great campsite (but I’m guessing camping isn’t allowed). There’s a drop toilet and nice stone picnic tables under shady trees and pleasant grassy areas (and an artistic installation of frogs on rocks…). There’s a bit of a memorial to the old station and the original settlers.
Thereafter I just pushed on into Yea. What I didn’t realise till later is that when the trail reconnected with the river, it wasn’t the Goulburn anymore but the much smaller Yea River which flows into it. I won’t reconnect with the Goulburn until tomorrow at Molesworth. The first sign of civilisation is the golf course and horse racing course. Finally the town comes into sight, and by 1:30 I was at the end of today’s walk. The trail leads directly to the old train statio and well maintained, built in elegant Victorian era red brick. I was anxious to check into the Yea Riverside Caravan Park as I had a 2pm Zoom meeting for ACU. I got stuck in the sliding door at reception and joked with the attendant that I should eat less – “Or pack lighter!” She responded. Although I had made my booking online on Friday, she couldn’t find it on the system. After some frustration, I realised I had booked for Tuesday March 23 instead of Tuesday February 23! Once the formalities were over, I headed down to the non-powered sites where I had a full choice of anywhere I liked on a broad green lawn dotted with shady trees next to the creek. The caravan park has excellent facilities, including individual shower/toilet rooms and a camp kitchen with bbq, toaster, kettle, fridge, microwave etc. It is situated on a kind of island, where the river splits into two, with the main stream running under a bridge st the entrance and a smaller creek on the other side where I had pitched my tent. I immediately set to charging my backup battery, and dialed in to my zoom meeting while eating my lunch (the last pork pie and piece of Camembert) and setting up my tent. The meeting went for an hour and a half, but then I was free to enjoy a hot shower and a shave.
As I was hanging up my clothes and towel to dry, a chap named Jerry came over and introduced himself. He had just relocated with his wife from Gembrook, and was yet to purchase a home (hence living in the caravan park). He had family members in town (one runs the “middle pub” which he recommended me to visit for dinner – Yea is a three town pub but only has a smallish grocery shop). He also claimed that Cardinal James Knox was his mother’s cousin. The veracity of this claim was strengthened when I said I had edited Knox’s correspondence with Mother Teresa, and he said, “I bet you don’t have all the letters!” He was quite right. We only have +Knox’s business letters – although we know from St Teresa’s replies that there was another more personal correspondence.
I shopped at the local FoodWorks for teabags and fruit and milk for tomorrow. Back at camp I chatted to my neighbours for the night, who are staying for three nights in their small mobile home before heading on to a Daylesford. They were lucky that their planned trip did not clash with the lockdown.
I then headed off in search of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. I had seen it at the top of the hill, but climbed the wrong hill. Instead I found a black stray cat, which regarded me with great suspicion but responded to my coaxing and gradually came toward me – growling all the way as if she was going to attack me with all claws and teeth. Contrary to her posturing, she rubbed herself against my hand, purr growling all the time. I’ve never experienced such mixed messages from a cat. Sadly I had no food on me to feed her.
Finally I found the Church a few blocks away, and noticed that there were cars in the car park. The door was open, so I went inside to find Fr Vincent saying mass for a congregation of about 10 people. They were up to communion, so, although I was woefully unprepared, I was able to receive the sacrament. After mass, they announced that they would be playing a newly produced video of the stations of the cross produced by the archdiocese. As I have not been very devotional thus far this lent, I decided to stay for that too.
Next I headed down to the middle pub as instructed by Jerry, only to find it almost empty and no food on offer. “Haven’t seen Jerry in a while,” the publican said, “try the next pub down.” So I did and I was fed a stir fry chicken billed as “butter chicken”. It was nice, but wasn’t butter chicken. There was only Carlton Draught and Great Northern on tap but they had some bottled beers. The Mansfield Pale Ale was nothing to write home about but they had Hargreaves Hill IPA, which is excellent.
It was cold outside as I walked home in the gathering darkness. I made a cup of tea (luxury!) and crawled into bed. I hope I have a better night tonight!
I walked 18.69km on the trail today, with an elevation of 71m and descent of 54m. It took me 4 hours and 42 minutes all up.
The train ride to Tallarook took 90mins. The first half of this was just getting to Broadmeadows. The train went very slowly through the city. But thereafter it gathered speed, slicing through the countryside. On the northern outskirts of Melbourne I noticed exactly the same phenomenon that we saw in October 2019 walking from Caroline Springs to Melton: new housing estates going up everywhere. The train appears to be an important part of this expansion: quick, cheap travel to the city centre. However, one wonders what the effect of Covid will be on this. There was only one other passenger from Southern Cross station with me in my car. Even on the 7am train to the city this morning, the number of passengers was just a fraction of the pre-covid numbers. Maybe travel to the city centre won’t be everyone’s priority in the future.
Arriving at Tallarook, I walked down to the General Store in the Main Street for a cup of coffee – although the coffee was just an excuse to sit at a table near a power point to recharge my phone to 100% before setting off. I’ve brought three batteries with me to ensure that over the next couple of days I do not run out of juice for my iPhone (variously my maps, communicator, writing pad, books, Fitbit, and entertainment). I wasn’t even sure if I’d have a mobile connection all the way (answer: yes – except at the spot where I am currently camping). While I waited for it to charge, I read a book from the little community library outside the shop: Robert Morely’s Book of Worries! Why not? For instance, here’s the entry under “Torniquets”: “Can you tie one? Consider the circumstances in which you might have to.” Great inspiration for anxiety when heading out for a three day camping hike! My mother rang for IT advice, which used up a bit of the slowly accumulating power on my phone. “Where are you?” “I’m in Tallarook – you know, as in ‘Things are crook in Tallarook!”* No, she didn’t know. “What are you doing there?” “I’m walking the Great Victorian Rail Trail as far as Molesworth over the next three days.” “What do you expect to see?” That was an odd question, I thought. I reflected on it more afterwards. I’m not doing this walk to “see” anything as such. It got me thinking about a research subject I’m doing this Semester, about Pilgrimage and the Philosophy of Place. I know that pilgrimage is related to sacred places as destinations or goals (the ideas of telos and eschaton are closely related), but I’ve been wondering whether the pilgrimage route itself (e.g. the Camino de Santiago) is a “place” as such – a very long thin place. I’m more inclined to think that a pilgrim travels *through* a succession of places in order to arrive at a desired place. My mother travelled extensivelywith my father in their four-wheel drive mobile home all over Australia. I guess when they drove somewhere they were usually going to some place to “see” what was there. Being a long distance walker is a bit different. You actually want to experience the places you pass through, not just the place you are going to. I think this might be a difference between ancient and modern pilgrimage too.
Anyway, back to the story. With 90% on my battery I decided it was time to head off. I found the trail heading north out of town alongside the road. In general the trail stays pretty close to the road, sometimes veering off closer to the Goulburn River. Sometimes all three come together. At times it passes very close to working cattle farms. In fact at one point, the cattle yards are directly on the old train track, and the trail goes around them. Today I twice passed farmers herding cattle in their pens. The trail is also popular with horse riders, evidenced by horse corrals along the way, and souvenirs left on the trail! There are toilets on the trail, and sheltered picnic tables. I stopped at one near the river for lunch around 12 noon, taking the pause to say the Angelus as well. Too this point I had been just taking in the surroundings, but I had set myself the task of listening to a book for my MTh minor thesis along the way, so I put that on (about the “Nouvelle Theologie”…).
The trail appears to be fairly flat, as you would expect from a rail Trail, but in fact it slowly climbs up about 60 metres. After about 10 km, I noticed ahead a distinctive high double hill topped with a telecommunications tower. On the map, it was called Bald Cone and it rose 200m above the level of the trail. It marks the start of a high range called the Cherry Tree Range, running toward the East. But the Goulburn River turns South here, and the trail hits the Goulburn Highway which runs along it. The river has carved a wide valley, and the hills on the other side sport a series of windmill electricity generators. This place is called Trawool, and the remnants of the old Trawool station platform can still be seen. It isn’t exactly a town, but a collection of houses including a major resort hotel. And, I discovered, the Schoolhouse Gallery, which doubles as a cafe. There was a sign out on the trail advertising “Devonshire teas, cakes, coffee and cold drinks”. Lucy, who runs the show, showed me round to the garden tables, and offered me a choice of scones or fruitcake with my tea. I chose the fruitcake, and before long four large pieces of cake and a four cup pot of tea was delivered. It cost $10 but was well worth it, as the afternoon was warming up and the garden was cool and the tea refreshing. She said for $15 she could do me sandwiches as well. Had I known about this, I may not have packed so much food.
I had another 8km to go, so I pushed on. It was really feeling warm now the sun was out – but was only about 22 degrees. Thankfully there was also a good cool breeze. I don’t know how I would have coped with last week’s 30 degree plus weather. The valley along here is very pleasant, but I was becoming weary. I was also thinking about campsites. You are not allowed to camp along the trail, nor are you allowed to camp alongside the road or on private property (obviously), so camp site options aren’t des and far between. I had done done research, though, and was heading for the Wyndham Streamside Reserve next to King Parrot Creek at Kerrisdale. When I finally arrived at the bridge over the creek, I realised I would have to double back to reach the reserve from the road, as there was private property between the trail and the reserve.
The reserve is not particularly pretty. The picnic tables have been vandalised and the roads people have dumped heaps of stone at one end. There was a fair bit of rubbish about too. I set about exploring the area and followed a track back along the creek towards the rail trail bridge. There I found a secluded spot near the creek, and decided to set up for the night.
I had wondered how I would fill in my time between a 4pm arrival and dark, but actually I found that pottering around easily passed the time. I spent a bit of time finding the right place to pitch the tent and smoothing the ground. I rinsed my clothes and had a bit of a bathe in the creek. I ate my supper (inc. pork pie and half a Brie cheese) and drank the white wine I brought along. I wandered about trying to get a connection for the phone (there was no service at the spot I was camping in), and when I did, I checked in with Cathy at home. I sat for a bit. I prayed a bit. I sat a bit more and drank more wine. I then started writing this account of the day. The sun went down while I was doing this, and the wind picked up until I was feeling cold, and then I crawled into my one man cocoon and kept writing till I felt tired enough to go to sleep.
My iPhone says I walked 26km today, but the trail section was only 21.54. It took me 5 hours and 8 minutes, with an ascent of 68 metres and a descent of 76 metres.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/TSeiqq5azJkjmnuc8” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>Click this link to see the photos for today on my Google Photos.
*I actually heard one of the staff say this to a customer while in the store. The reference is to a Jack O’Hagan song by that name.