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.
We had our monthly JCMA Text Group meeting today. Sometimes we choose a genre to focus on, and sometimes a theme. Today was on the theme of “Journey”, as a number of members of our group (including myself as SCE blog readers will know) had been travelling. I chose J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem “The Road goes ever on and on”, and included Michael Leunig’s “How to get there”.
Helen brought along a poem that is included in the Union of Progressive Judaism prayer book by Rabbi Alvin Fine, “Birth is a beginning”. It is read in Progressive synagogues at the Yom Kippur evening service. It seemed to encapsulate a great deal of my own reflections on pilgrimage and living life as a pilgrimage. I reproduce it here:
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness –
And, often, back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage –
To life everlasting.
Distance home to Boronia by car: 538km (6hrs 20min driving)
It is a fact often overlooked that in the centuries before the transport revolution, when people went on pilgrimage, their journey was only half finished when they reached their destination. They then had to turn around and make their way home by the same means by which they had arrived. We, on the other hand, have speedier means of transport to bring us home; nevertheless, it was still a 7.5hour drive (including breaks) for Paul. Seán and I were immensely grateful for his kind willingness to do this. Especially given that we left Eden after a rather full morning.
The day dawned sunny but still very windy. We rose early and breakfasted with the Sheppards before going around to the Hall. We wanted to have a good look at heir collection and displays before mass, as afterwards there was to be a morning tea and we wanted to make a timely start for Melbourne. The parish has made a good set up, with lots of informative displays, especially focusing on Flora MacKillop who died in the shipwreck of the Ly-ee-Moon 30 May 1886 – almost 131 years ago – at Greencape, off the Port of Eden. I was particularly struck by an original portrait of Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney and Australia’s first Cardinal. Moran visited St Mary in Sydney a few days before she died. When he left, he expressed the opinion that “I consider I have this day assisted at the deathbed of a saint”.
Following our time in the Hall, we went down to the church – Our Lady Star of the Sea – for the 9:30am mass. The altar of the church had been designed to incorporate the prow of a whaling style ship pointing out of the front. Striking indeed, but it struck me as the most effective way to prevent ad orientation celebration of the mass that I had yet encountered! The Vicar General, Fr Tony Percy – and his Labrador dog William the Conqueror – were visiting the parish to fill in for Fr James, the parish priest, who was away at the time of our visit. Fr Tony asked me to say a few words about our pilgrimage before the mass, and then spoke about St Mary during the homily. He also remembered Fr Paul Gardiner SJ, the postulator for St Mary’s cause, who died a few weeks ago. I remembered that Fr Gardiner was the priest at Penola on Palm Sunday 2014 at the end of our first Aussie Camino. On that occasion he blessed the hiking stocks that I still use and have used all the way on this part of the journey.
After the mass everyone present posed for a photo together with us in front of the altar. This is one of my favourite pictures of the whole journey. We also met Hilaire Alba, an artist who had painted a portrait of St Mary MacKillop which was installed in the church, and who had just finished work on an Our Lady of Lourdes grotto outside in the grounds of the Church which is to be consecrated in the next few weeks. We all went up to the hall for morning tea, and while there, a reporter from the Eden Magnet came to get a more in depth story on our pilgrimage for the next editio of the paper. His name is Zach Hubber, and he is studying to be a teacher at ACU in Canberra. In the meantime he is working part-time as a journalist. He asked very intelligent questions, showing an understanding of what pilgrimage is all about. [His final article can be viewed here. It also turned out, when I returned to Melbourne, that Zach is the nephew of Brenda Hubber, who works next door to my office in the Cardinal Knox Centre as the Archdiocesan officer for Migrants and Refugees.] Zach took photos of us outside the Hall, also with the two Sisters of St Jospeh, Sr Brigid and Sr Bernadette. (Sr Brigid, by the way, grew up in the Towamba Valley, near Burragate. She returned to Eden some years ago to care for her centenarian mother before her death.)
Now it was time to say goodbye. It was just after 11am, and we thought we might catch an early lunch at the famous Boydtown landmark, the Seahorse Inn. Back in November 2014, when I first travelled through this area on my motorcycle with my brother and a mate from the Christian Motorcycle Association gathering in Stanwell Tops, we stayed at Boydtown Caravan park. We asked the proprietor whether there was somewhere to eat nearby and he said that there was a hotel down the road which we could reach by walking out onto the beach and turning right. We followed these directions, but when we got onto the beach, there were no signs of civilisation. Strongly doubting that we had heard correctly, we none-the-less turned right and walked about 200m down the beach – to come face-to-face with the most incredible country pub I have ever seen. You can read about the history of the Seahorse Inn here.
So the Inn was always on my list to visit when we were in Eden again, and I was glad to find that Seán shared this desire. I believe that Paul had been there before with his ice Frances, but was agreeable to the visit. We entered the bar and enquired about getting a light lunch, but the kitchen was not to be opened until 12noon, which was a bit of a wait and we were eager to get on the move. However, they had Grand Ridge Pale Ale – from Mirboo North – on tap, and neither Seán nor I could pass this up, despite the early hour of the day, so we each had a schooner (Paul, as our driver, was restricted to a coffee). We then headed back out to the car to get under way. But as we did, Seán spotted the old ruined Anglican Church on the hill – a feature about which I was completely ignorant uNeil then, but for which Seán had been on the lookout. The ruins were on the top of – yes, you guessed it – another bloody hill, and a big one at that, and Seán was half way up it already. Well, it looked like we had another bit of sight-seeing to do yet. In truth, I needed little encouragement. Paul resigned himself and followed after us. It was quite a struggle to get to the top of the hill on which the red brick ruins were perched. From what I can gather, the church was never actually used, and burned down in bushfires in 1926. The surviving ruin has a rather picturesque and gothic appearance, although the effect is rather spoiled by the wire mesh fence erected around it.
By the time we finished photographing the church, it was after 12 o’clock, and Paul decided that since we were still here we might as well return to the Inn and have lunch. I am very glad that we did. Seán and I both ordered the mussels in broth for $17, expecting that we would probably get half a dozen each. Instead we each received a mound of mussels in their shells – I counted about 2 dozen each. They were fresh and delicious. As a result of this generous lunch, I found myself falling asleep in the back seat of the car for the first hour of our journey home, waking only when we arrived in Orbost. From here on we were driving driving past places where we had walked last year. It was a strange experience knowing that we were covering in one day the distance that had taken us 25 days to walk. We stopped in Nowa Nowa at the Mingling Waters Cafe (a great spot to stop – it is a tourist attraction in its own right apart from the excellent food) for afternoon tea, and in Sale at MacDonalds for dinner. I mentioned that I had been listening to John Cleese’s autobiography – read by the author – and Paul suggested that I put it on for us all to listen to as we were travelling. It provided good humour and also an interesting accompaniment on the long journey home. We got into Melbourne at about 8:30pm, and dropped Seán at the train station, before heading around to my place to unpack. I thanked and farewelled Paul – who is leaving next Wednesday for Italy and his 6-week bike tour from Sicily to Lake Como – and that was the end of the pilgrimage for 2017.
Personally, arriving home is one of my favourite parts of going on pilgrimage. The familiar, seen through eyes grown accustomed to the unfamiliar, is immensely comforting. Nevertheless, no matter what level of nirvana or spiritual enlightenment one may have achieved on pilgrimage, day-to-day concerns instantly impinge themselves back into your life. In my case, I arrived back to find that my wife had gone to be with a friend whose husband had had a heart-attack, my youngest daughter was out with friends, and – of course – remembering that my oldest daughter had recently moved out of home. As a result, my homecoming was like that of the man in the fairy-tale: the first one to welcome me home was the dog.
Later, I tweeted: “Well, I’m back”. I thought I was quoting Bilbo Baggins from the ending of The Hobbit, but a quick bit of research proved that the quote comes from Sam Gamgee upon his return from seeing Frodo off at Grey Havens. But in The Hobbit, I found the following verse from Bilbo:
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
Distance: 30.84km. Total Distance from Orbost: 252.34km. Total Distance from Fitzroy: 690km.
I woke before dawn on the last day of the 2017 leg of the MacKillop-Woods Way to make a visit to the facilities outside. Coming back into the hall, I thought I saw large spiders on the door, but they were in fact moths. Back inside I crawled into my sleeping bag again, but heard rustling from the others which indicated that they were both awake too, so we switched on the lights and began to get packing. There was a sense of excitement about completing the walk, but also a kind of resignation: aches and pains had to be borne and overcome just for this one more push over the mountain.
And the walk into Eden from Towamba is one of the longer days on the Way, and also one of the more challenging, as there is a rise of over 300m to climb up to Nullica Hill before coming down the other side. My small blisters from the day before had been reabsorbed on my toes but the little one on my right heel was still there, so I bandaged my feet up with sticking plaster to be on the safe side and determined to walk in my shoes rather than change to my sandals half way through the day as had been my practice so far (I think it was my sandals that gave me the blisters yesterday).
The morning was fine – no sign of the predicted rain or wind – and we were packed and on our way at 7:45am. Paul dropped us at the Towamba turnoff on the other side of the river and headed off toward Eden for a day of cycling. The school bus passed us on the road, as NSW was back to school today following the Easter Holidays and Anzac Day. Within five minutes Paul was heading back in our direction, waving the key to the hall at us as an explanation for his unexpected return.
The road begins climbing out of the Towamba River valley almost immediately. There are some lovely last views of the valley on the way up the hill. The road alternates between sealed and gravel, but everywhere is wide enough for two cars to pass. The traffic was quite light, despite the fact that we were back walking on a business day. The road serves only as an access road from Eden to Towamba – there are no other places along the way, so everyone coming and going are locals. It is about 30kms to Eden, and after 7km from Towamba at Mitchells Creek until about 11km at Ben Boyd Road the road does the whole 300m climb in one constant hit. It isn’t as steep as Big Jack Mountain Road, but it is steeper than the Bonang Highway at any point. So we really felt it in my knees by the time we got to the top. Then the road levels off for a while as the road goes along a ridge in which it is possible to see views on both sides of the road. To the south is the very large Mount Imlay at over 800m.
Early on going up the hill, you pass a track called The Snake Track; we had considered it as an alternative route that would take us down to Boydtown on the highway (where there is a caravan park at which we originally thought we might stay until we found out how expensive the cabin was). It is 5km further to the highway than along the Towamba Road, and while both tracks have an overall descent of about 100m, Snake Track has 594m of climb to 691m of descent, whereas the main road is 361m climb to 469m descent. In other words, don’t be tempted to take it. In any case, just the name of it should be enough to put you off taking that route. Out of interest, we didn’t see one live snake on the whole trip, although Paul claims he drove over one on the Bonang Highway on the first day.
We stopped for a rest where Ben Boyd Road joins the Eden Road from the North (it exits the Eden Road again toward the South a kilometre or so further down the road). I checked my feet and all seemed well blister-wise – the bandages were working. I noticed that we were back within phone range, so I rang Cathy, Josh and my parents (in that order) to check in with them after the three days that we had been out of contact. Michael Sheppard, our host for our stay in Eden, also rang to ask if we were still on target for 5pm, which I confirmed.
After eating some fruit, we got going again. The temperature began to drop and the sky darkened quite suddenly – much like it had a few days earlier on our way to Bombala. So I stopped again to put on my wet weather gear – and it almost instantly brightened up again. That’s how wet weather gear keeps you dry when you are walking: after you go to all the trouble of putting it on, the sun comes out.
I took so long putting on my gear that I became separated from Seán by quite some distance. As I came up to the point where the road passes Nullica Hill (about 2kms from where we had stopped earlier on), Paul drove up the road. He was bringing an offering of coffee (a large flat white for me and a large double shot latte for Seán) and cake which he had picked up from a cafe in Eden. But had he not passed Seán further up the road? No. How odd. So I rang him and found that he had stopped too, and I must have walked right past him. This was the second time on the road that we become separated, and then walked right past one another when we were trying to catch up again (the other time was just before we got to The Gap on Day 3). It happens very easily, and if you don’t have phone contact can be a worry. I thought about this later and realised that one piece of equipment we should have brought along is a whistle each for us to blow to locate each other. Paul in fact confirmed that when he goes bush walking with his friends, they each take a whistle. Good idea.
Anyway, Paul went off to collect Seán and when he got back we sat down to our coffee and cake and the rest of our lunch which Paul had brought with him. It felt a little like cheating to be drinking a coffee brought up from our destination before we got there, but what the heck! I was surprised that it was still quite hot, despite having been made 10 miles away. We ate quickly because it was now starting to rain lightly. After packing our leftovers back into the car, Paul drove off and we resumed our walk. Almost immediately we noticed that we were on the other side of the hill, and caught a glimpse of what we thought might just have been Eden through the trees. In accordance with tradition, we stopped to pray and give thanks to God that we could see our pilgrimage destination. But we might have been mistaken.
About 7km from the Princes Highway the sealed road began again and we continued our slow descent down the hill. After a while we came to another turn off, this time for the Nullica Short Cut Road. It is a short cut to Boydtown, not to Eden (if you are heading to Eden it will increase your walk by 1.6km including a good stretch of the Princes Highway), but it does avoid a very big hill after crossing Nullica River. At this stage the phrase “Not another bloody hill” was becoming well and truly entrenched in my conversational repertoire. There comes a point when you really can’t face another degree of “up”.
Finally, finally we made it to the highway. In fact, we were making very good time – it was 3pm, and by my reckoning we had only 4kms to go (I was wrong on this – even by the main road we had 5.5kms), and so I rang Michael Sheppard and texted Paul saying that we would be at the Mary MacKillop Hall in about an hour’s time at 4pm. As it turned out, I was quite wrong about this. The main reason was that we wanted to do the last few kilometres into Eden on the Bundian Way, which we had located on the map along the foreshore around the bay into Eden.
So we were now on the Princes Highway, and in case we had forgotten why we chose to walk the long way around from Orbost to Eden, we were now definitively reminded: traffic. Lots and lots of traffic and very little room to walk on the side of the road. The bridge over the Shadrachs Creek – single lane in each direction – had no space for pedestrians. This was somewhat surprising given that the bridge is the only way to cross the Creek from the Eden Beachfront Caravan Park (where we caught our first glimpse of the Tasman Sea) to the township of Eden. When you walk a lot, you become aware how very little consideration road-makers and town planners ever give to pedestrians. Having successfully crossed the bridge without being hit by passing cars and trucks, we walked in the bush for a bit to avoid the road. It was then that we came to a track which I thought was a driveway, but which seemed to be leading somewhere. In fact, it led down towards the shorefront, and became a rough track through the bush down to the beach of Quarantine Bay. I think we had found a section of the Bundian Way which had not yet been developed or signposted. When we walked down onto the beach, I dipped my hand into the waves and made the sign of the cross. We had made it from Melbourne to the Eastern shoreline of New South Wales.
On the other side of Quarantine Bay Road, we found the proper start of the recently developed initial section of the Bundian Way. We could tell that the development was recent, because the fresh wooden information boards had no information on them yet. The track was well marked though, and there were seats along the way and many well situated lookouts over the bay. Also a circular stepped structure which appeared to have been designed for indigenous educators to tell stories to school students and other visitors. Seán called it “The Dreamtime Globe Theatre”. This little section of the Bundian Way is winding and interesting with many good views of the bays (you can see the Seahorse Inn at Boydtown from one lookout) and of Eden itself. Discounting our earlier possible sighting of Eden from Nullica Hill, we now knelt down and said an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be in thanksgiving. I am actually very glad that we could finish our pilgrimage on the Bundian Way. This trail is obviously of great significance to the local community and the original custodians of the land. It is far more ancient than any Christian pilgrimage path anywhere in the world. We might have been the first people to ever walk this section of the MacKillop-Woods Way, but thousands of generations of aboriginal people had walked this trail from the coast to the highest mountain on the Australian mainland.
We came out onto Bungo Beach at the bottom of Ida Road Drive. Which. Is. A. Hill. A very big hill. “Not another bloody hill,” I exclaimed. From the beach it is a 60m climb over 0.75km up to Mitchell Street, the main road into Eden. The sun was setting as we walked down the street entering into Eden. We passed the National Timber Workers Memorial to our left, took note of the location of the VLine bus stop which we will make use of next year, and took a selfie outside the Halfway Hotel. Seán then spotted the Tourist Information office, and suggested that we should go inside to get a stamp in our pilgrim passports. The wind had been blowing hard against us as and it was with some relief that we entered the shelter of the office. When we explained who we were, the lady behind the counter recognised us from the newspaper story in the Magnet and happily obliged with giving us a nice Eden whale stamp. Another visitor to the office also recognised us and made the usual expected exclamations about how far we had come and gave words of encouragement. I bought two souvenir magnets for the fridge at home – one had a map of Victoria with Eden on the far right and the other matching one was a map of southern NSW with Eden on the bottom. They may a good pair, covering all our journey, and I decided to get three extra sets, one each for the other pilgrims, including Josh.
I now received a text from Paul saying “Where are you? There are people waiting”. Our final journey into town had taken us more than twice as long as I had anticipated, but it was just after 5pm when we struggled up (yes) another hill on Calle Calle Street until we could see the white spire of the Church in the distance. On the way we passed the Catholic Primary School – but oddly with a big “sold” sign outside. I wondered what the story behind that was? Just past the War Memorial we saw the open doors of Mary MacKillop Hall, the official pilgrimage destination for St Mary of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese.
Inside, waiting for us out of wind, was our driver and fellow pilgrim Paul, Michael Sheppard and other members of the Mary MacKillop Hall Committee and two resident members of St Mary MacKillop’s order of the Sisters of St Joseph, Sr Bernadette and Brigid. Tea and scones and cake too! All were very welcoming. The hall was clearly filled with a great deal of information about St Mary’s life, but at this point we were too exhausted to take it in. After the refreshments we said goodbye to the Sisters until tomorrow (when we would return to the Hall for a closer investigation and to the Church for Mass) and Michael took us around to his home where we would be staying the night. Michael and Judy’s home was well set up for welcoming us – we each had beds and a bathroom to share downstairs in their home. We showered and changed into fresh clothes and, feeling somewhat restored, we went upstairs to sit and relax and talk with Judy and Michael for a bit. They then drove us around to the Great Southern Hotel for dinner. Other members of the Mary MacKillop Hall Committee joined us – Michael and Bernadette, Ray and Chris, and (just to make it easier for us to remember names) another Michael! The locals also gave us a lot of helpful information for the next section of the journey and asked us to keep in touch with them as our plans took shape so that they could assist us further. It was really wonderful how they all welcomed us and we had great conversation, laughter and food for the evening. We were one of the first to arrive in the bistro and the last to leave.
Back at the Sheppard’s home, we did not stay up but went to bed and fell asleep almost immediately.
Distance: 16.58km Total: 221.15km
I woke just a bit before dawn and went outside to see pink skies. Red in the morning… and all that. I had slept fairly well, but Seán said he hadn’t got any sleep at all because his air mattress was too thin.
We all got going quite quickly, so that after a quick breakfast and a cup of tea Paul was driving us back to the point 15kms from the Towamba turn-off the other side of Burragate. Seán was feeling a little seedy – he blamed it on mixing beer with wine last night, and so was moving fairly slowly. I was keen to move as fast as possible to avoid the rain. A few spots began to fall just as Paul dropped us off, and so to save bother I pulled on my wet weather gear trousers and poncho, and put my iphone inside its waterproof protective cover (a snap-lock plastic bag!). As usual, this worked like a charm to ward of the rain. Interestingly, as we walked back to Towamba, we noticed puddles in the potholes on the road, and were told that over one millimetre of rain had fallen to the south of us. However, despite a few drops, we were completely clear of rain for the rest of the journey, getting into Towamba just after noon.
Or rather I did. Seán was quite some distance behind me. After the end of Big Jack Mountain Road in Burragate (a village which had a number of interesting features to divert the avid photographer – such as the line of novelty post boxes) we became separated once more. I moved along at a nice pace, but after a little while one of my toes began to hurt, so I stopped for some footcare. I wore my sandals only on today’s walk, on the idea that if it rained, they could easily dry out (much more easily than my shoes). However, I think this, in addition to the strain on my toes coming down the mountain yesterday, led to a small blister on one of my smaller toes on my right foot and another small blister beginning to form on my heel on the same foot. After applying bandaids to the affected areas and putting on an extra sock, I set off again.
There was still a lot of mist around in the valley which actually hung around all day. I couldn’t quite work out why, as it was quite warm and also rained a little. About 7kms from Towamba, Paul road past on his bike. We took some pictures of each other, and then he road on to Rocky Hall while I kept on toward Towamba. It was a welcome sight to come over the hill and see Towamba in the misty valley ahead.
Along the way, I had been listening to the piano music of Dustin O’Halloran and Joel Beving, which really suited the countryside and the misty/rainy weather. I have a little rechargeable bluetooth speaker which connects to my iPhone, and on which I can play my music out loud as if I had a soundtrack going to my walk (I was always rather keen on the idea from the Amy McBeal show about everyone having their own soundtrack to their lives). Yesterday I listened to Penguin Cafe Orchestra walking through Rocky Hall and Andrei Krylov in the forest coming down the mountain. On Sunday I had listened to the hymns of Katherine Jenkins and Maddy Prior. (Other artists on my pilgrim playlist over the last week have been Loreena McKennit, Iron & Wine, the Bryan Ferry (Jazz) Orchestra, Lenka and Angèle Dubeau.)
Around 11:30am I crossed the river into the village of Towamba and climbed up the hill to the Hall. On the way, I passed the Anglican Church (now used ecumenically) and a little cottage next to it (which had just been sold – although no one I spoke to knows how much for). At this point, Tony and Joy Ovington drove past in their ute and stopped to say hullo. The Anzac Day march had gone off well, marching from the Church to the Hall. Many of the folk were just finishing up there with morning tea and scones, so if I hurried I could share in these bounties. Also, they warned, the weekly spinning group is up there under the verandah. That was intriguing.
Walking up the hill I met a man and his son walking down from the Hall. The son was wearing his great-grandfathers medals from the Second World War. We stopped and chatted a little and then I kept climbing up the hill. I passed a little cottage with a sign out the front “free tea and coffee”. I thought “I bet Seán can’t resist that.” I pushed on up the road, and walked up the drive to the hall to find it all as Tony and Joy had said. The next hour or so was spent happily chatting to the locals and all who had come from the march and for the spinning group. Among the people we met were a pentecostal pastor-couple from Pambula, Rob and Robyn Nelson. We fell to talking and exchanging information about the area and possible places to stay along the MWW which we had missed (including: The old school house in Craigie, The Old Nurses Home in Delegate, and the Rocky Hall Preschool – which is used five days a fortnight and is available as accomodation on the other days). We swapped information and plan to catch up again next year as we head north from Eden.
Also among the folk there was Kaye, who was working in the “library” in the hall, sorting donated books. After an hour or so, it began to rain in earnest, and I thought it strange that Seán had not yet arrived. I expressed some concern and Kaye offered to drive me off to look for him. Just as we were heading past the little cottage with the “free tea and coffee” sign, Kaye said “Is that him?”. I looked back to see Seán exiting the house with a large something under his arm. “Yes, it is”, I answered and we turned around and bade him get in out of the rain. He had been to visit Vickie, the resident of the little cottage, and she had loaned him a fold up foam mattress to use as a bed. “And she is an artist and she has invited us to come back at 3pm for a cup of tea”, he announced. Of course, had we been just a minute earlier, we would have driven passed and missed him and then been totally mystified as to his whereabouts.
Back at the hall, one of the spinning ladies kindly offered us her lunch which she didn’t feel like eating – corned beef and veggies! Seán and I heated this up in the microwave – it was delicious. Seán then had a bit of a lie down on his new bed and caught some sleep while I worked out our finances for the journey. In all to this point it has cost us around $1000 in total, which is about $50 a day for Seán and me each, or $33 a day if you count all three of us. Not bad – but due to a lot of generosity in terms of accomodation.
At 3pm Seán and I went as promised to visit Vickie. She is an artist who is currently working on several portraits of aboriginal subjects. She has not been painting portraits for long, but she has a real knack for it. Her studio was warm, light and comfortable with a couple of hanging swing chairs to sit in as we watched her work on her current project. We then went inside for a cup of tea and an Anzac Plus biscuit, that is, a traditional oat Anzac biscuit with added nuts and fruit. The house itself is an original hand split timber building of two main rooms which has been extended over the years. She has peeled back the coverings of the walls to expose the original timbers – and often the original wall paper too. She has many of her artworks on the walls, but honestly I was more interested in the walls themselves which was a part of the history of the town. She is an authentically artistic spirit – even her cupboard of preserves and biscuit tins was arranged in an artistically pleasing way! Vickie was keen to talk about a number of spiritualist topics – angels and Kabbala mainly and her own philosophy which she has written up in a book (a copy of which she gave to Seán). I think I disappointed her a little, in being to conventional in my thinking. As we were leaving, she called us back to show us her sheep in the back yard. But as she did so, once again my attention was diverted to a new work of art – God’s sunset over the valley. The light was again utterly sublime and lighted up everything from the trees to the face of the mountain on the other side of the river. My heart lifted at the sight in just the same way as it did when I saw the rainbow over Florence a few weeks ago.
Back at the Hall again, Paul was already cooking up the beef curry. We spent an hour or so talking, drinking beer, and (at least in my case) writing up my blog before we had dinner. Just as we were finishing dinner and talking over the last half bottle of wine, there was a knock at the door and we had a visitor. I had met “Arch” (his surname is, apparently, Bishop, hence the nickname) at the morning tea after the march this morning. Living nearby, he had decided to come around for a chat. We shared our last glass of wine with him (the camino spirit?), and told him what we were doing. In return, he offered to demonstrate his own line of business: story telling and recitations of Australian poems. So he delighted and amused us with four renditions, including the Dyslexic Cinderella, the man who went to see the Pope, The Three Christmas Visitors, and a love poem of his own composition. It reminded me of the time on my third Aussie Camino when the husband of the director of the Mary MacKillop Centre in Penola recited The Man From Snowy River and other poems at the final dinner. We also looked at the map of Eden together and have discovered a short section of the end of the Bunian Way which will bring us into Eden by a more pleasant route than the main A1 Princes Highway.
It was ten o’clock when Arch left, and it was time for us to hit the sack. Tomorrow is the last day of this leg of the journey. My little blisters need rest and we need to get up early in the morning. One more day…
Distance: 31.59km Total: 204.57km.
Today was, without a doubt, one of the most pleasurable and scenic days ever ofn the whole of the MacKillop-Woods Way thus far. With the possible exception of the coastal walk over Cape Bridgewater on the Aussie Camino. The last day of the walk into Bairnsdale over the Mitchell River Valley was the best part of the first leg of the pilgrimage, but today’s walk surpasses that. The section from The Gap to Bendoc was really lovely, but again today surpassed it for sheer beauty. When I was a kid, my parents took me and my brothers for a holiday to Melbourne, and we visited the Fitzroy Gardens (coincidentally right next to where I now work at the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne). We were there in winter and the gardens were shrouded with mist. It was so quintessentially alien to my experience of the South Australian Mallee that I concluded, as a child may be excused for concluding, that this is what heaven must look like. Today I changed my mind. Heaven looks like the Towamba River valley around Rocky Hall/New Buildings. I have long thought that if I could move anywhere in Australia in my retirement, it would be to the village of Evandale south of Lanceston in Tasmania. Again, I’ve changed my mind. I want to live at Rocky Hall. I refer you to the pictures of today’s walk. And in doing so, I rest my case.
So we left Bombala this morning, returning the key to Sister Therese at the Convent. By 8:30am we were on our way in Cathcart. I had a goal today of surpassing our planned walk to New Buildings by at least 5kms, as we know that rain is coming tomorrow on Anzac Day and every kilometre further that we walk today would be one kilometre less that we have to walk tomorrow in the rain. As I said in yesterday’s post, you could spend an hour easily in Cathcart just going from building to building and reading the green and white information shields posted on the buildings. But despite the charm of this little village, we could not stay. Pilgrims need to get moving.
I went to switch on my audio Divine Office for the morning (what Josh calls my “prayer wheel”) and discovered that all my downloaded prayers had disappeared. As there was no internet access out that way, I decided instead to pray the rosary, which I had not yet done on this journey. I remembered in my prayers my family, Rachel, Oliver, Tom and Nigel, to whom I had dedicated this section of the MWW pilgrimage.
Four flat traffic infested kilometres outside of Cathcart we eventually came to the junction of Big Jack Mountain Road. It was with great relief that we turned down this gravel track heading south west toward the rim of the Monaro Grasslands. It really is rather strange, as there is a kind of “rim” of mountains around the edge of the plains, and then a great and constant descent. At the top of the rim we passed a couple of signs declaring the border between Bombala Shire and Bega Valley Shire (Eden). It was then that the descent began – and it went down in a serious way.
The first kilometre or so was sealed, but I think this was only because of the necessity of providing the needed traction on the slope. After that, the slope relaxed a little and the road returned to gravel once more, but it was still a demanding descent. The balls of our feet and our front toes did all the work, assisted by our walking stocks, in the attempt to stop us from sliding forward. Walking actually took, on average, a bit longer than it would on level ground, or even on an uphill incline, as we could not stride out the pace. But the scenery was fantastic. We were very high up at the start – over 800m, so we could see mountain peaks all around us. In some places the forest was quite dry, but in others it was covered with fern-trees and crossed with fresh water streams. We were passed by only three cars in the couple of hours we were coming down the mountain, all going up. Otherwise, the road was all ours. Occasionally we would get a glimpse of the mountains around us, which would give us some perspective on our elevation. Very occasionally, between the trees, we would get a glimpse of the valley below us. At one point the road enter the South East Forests National Park. The sides of the road were made of large granite rocks, occasionally looming in little cliffs above us. Small creeks ran down through the rocks and under the road in various places. The other feature of the walk down the mountain is audible – bellbirds piping away for all they are worth in every direction. It is a unique Australian bush sound, as unique as the sound of a magpie in the morning or a kookaburra laughing at you from a gum tree. This background music accompanies you all the way down the valley to Towamba – and perhaps (we will find out) beyond.
In all, we descended about 550m over 6.5kms. As we came nearer the bottom – that is, under 300m – we began to hear the sound of rushing water. The Towamba River comes out of the mountain alongside Big Jack Mountain Road and flows right through the valley to Towamba and beyond. For some reason the road to Eden doesn’t follow the Towamba River after Towamba but goes over the hill. Perhaps it is more direct, but one would have thought the river valley was the natural route. The river bed is very rocky and, at least at the moment, the river is quite shallow. After getting to the bottom, we saw, in many places, properties on the other side of the river that were accessed by fords or causeways rather than bridges. Yet the flood meters over these causeways indicate that at times of the year the river must rise to a depth of as much as two metres. Even a rise to a depth of 1 metre would, I think, make the river almost impassable as the current is very strong. Because the road through the valley crosses the river a number of times on causeways or very low bridges, any pilgrim following this trail would be well advised to check before hand the level of the river. I think that the current time – late summer or autumn before the winter rains would be best. Spring, with the melting snow, would be right out, and Summer would be too hot on most of the road. (Paul just told me that according to Tony Ovington in 2003 the river filled to 12 metres above the causeway entering Towamba!).
So you get to the bottom of the mountain, and there is the Big Jack Rest Area. Which we did. There is a picnic table, grassed area, access to the river and toilets. The word “serene” comes to mind. We sat down and had our lunch – a little early – here. I took my shoes and socks off and sat on a rock on the edge of the river and soaked my feet in the icy water. Setting off from there the first thing I noticed is that, although there was still bush either side of the road, that bush is quite densely populated (for this part of the world, at least).
The landscape down the valley into Rocky Hall was completely different from what I expected. Firstly, I expected it to be flat. It wasn’t. In fact, while slowly descending, it is up and down all the way to Towamba, and in some places, the incline was really very steep, even if the hills were not very high in general. The other thing that I wasn’t expecting was the sheer unadulterated glorious beauty of the combination of the river, the open pastureland, the Australian native forest and the autumnal colours of the introduced species. The afternoon light was shining from behind us over the mountain, so everything we looked at was in full sunlight, highlighting the brilliant colours. Every step brought a new vista into view, and I was stopping continuously to try to capture something of it with my iphone camera. Alas, not successfully.
Seán quickly lagged behind me as he was far more intent on taking photos than walking. Occasionally we came across odd sculptures that the locals had created on the road side in front of their houses, such as a strange wooden mushroom formations and a collection of decorated dressmakers mannequins. A few kilometres down the road from the bottom of the mountain, I came to Rocky Hall. The main building in Rocky Hall is the Rocky Hall Hall (sic). As I walked past, I noticed that there was quite a bit of activity going on inside the hall, and cars parked around the outside. I approached the main entrance and found a man wearing a beret (good taste) and a woman having a smoke. I said hullo and asked what was going on. “It’s our sewing and textiles group”, the lady (Sarah) answered. And inside was a hive of industry. We met Therese who was weaving cloth on an antique loom and Joy Ovington, the wife of Tony with whom we had arranged our accomodation in Towamba at the hall. Some of the ladies were quilt making, the beret-wearing gentleman was doing an embroidery of Leonardo’s Last Supper, and there was a large quilting-sewing machine out the back. I explained to everyone what we were doing, and some had read/heard about our pilgrimage already through the media. In addition there was a visiting photographer from the Shire Council who was taking photos of the group for Volunteer Week. By this time, Seán had also arrived, and the photographer asked to take our picture. We took a pose with a metre or so between us, and he said “Come on, a bit of affection perhaps?” Putting my arm around Seán, I said that this was the closest that we had got on the whole pilgrimage – “Usually there is up to a kilometre or more between us!”. Joy made us a cup of tea and we had rhubarb slice offered to us as well. It was fun talking to each of the artists and looking at their work. I expressed my fascination with the countryside and they all agreed (naturally) that it was heaven. “I may be headed for Eden, I said, but this is paradise!” There were pictures of the establishment of Rocky Hall on the wall of the Hall, and also some ecclesiastical furniture in the corner. “Yes, it was used as a church for a while,” one of the ladies said.
We got going again, although before long we were talking to more locals over the front fence of their lovely stone house. They had recently moved there, having found the house for sale on the internet. I will start keeping on eye out for properties for sale in Rocky Hall myself, I think. More scenic views to die for on the way out of the village. If there was snow on the mountains, it would have been almost indistinguishable from some alpine sight in Europe.
Paul caught up with us in the car a few kilometres out of Rocky Hall. While Seán was filling up his water bottle, I climbed up Cemetery Road to the spot after which it was named, ie. the Rocky Hall Cemetery. I thought to myself “Most people have to wait for the resurrection before they get to Paradise…”
The aim at this stage of the day was to get as far as possible before dark. The forecast for tomorrow is for rain, although not until later in the morning. So, I figured that the further we could get today and the earlier we can start in the morning, the less likely that we would be walking in rain. Seán was not keen, but I would not be deterred. So I pressed on toward “New Buildings”, the next little locality. Seán found out that “New Buildings” was named after the “new pub” built there a century or so ago and of which there is now only a few bricks left. Still, New Buildings is important because it is there that the road from Wyndham comes down to the river, and a handsome white wooden bridge connects Big Jack Mountain Road to the rest of the world. If you are walking this way with a back up driver as we are, check that the bridge is open and in good repair, as they were advertising bridge works. It is a long way via Eden or Cathcart to come back into Towamba.
The sun was setting now, and as I made my way out of New Buildings, a car stopped and a white bearded man kindly offered me a ride – the second time this has happened on the trip. I turned down the offer, although he warned that I would soon run out of light, assuring him that our driver would be along soon. Beyond New Buildings, the road leaves the Rocky Hall valley and enters another section of wooded land. It was just before this section ended that I came around the corner to see the car parked on the side of the road with Paul reclining on the grass reading. “Sleeping on the job?”, I called out. I asked him to go and to pick up Seán before returning to pick me up. “Tell him we can start from where I finish in the morning.”
So we were soon covering the next 16kms/10miles to Towamba in the car, to the Community Hall where Paul had earlier dropped all our gear. The hall consists of two sections – an large mud brick hall and stage set up, and a smaller section with a kitchen and large dining or lunch room. Out the side there was a small building from which we could hear music emanating. We went around to find David running the local radio station. We chatted for a while about the station and local life before heading back in to settle into camp in the hall.
Tony Ovington came around to meet us, and explained that we could set up our gear in the main hall because the Anzac Day march morning tea would use just the kitchen and lunch area. The set up here is fairly good. There are toilets and hot showers, a well set up kitchen with gas stove and oven, big fridge and microwave, plates and cutlery and glasses and cups and a few pans (not many of the latter though – we used what we brought). Electricity of course. The only thing missing was beds, so we had to use our blow up mattresses.
We cooked sausages and potatoes and veggies (the latter Paul made to his own recipe) for tea, washed down as usual by a few beers and red wine. We were down to our last few bottles, but realised that I had brought just enough to last us until tomorrow. We made a rather early end to the day, as we intended to do a dawn start in the morning.
Distance: 28.73km. Total distance 172.98km.
I slept quite comfortably on the floor in the end room in the Bombala Catholic Presbytery last night, using the cushions from the couch as my bed. Seán and Paul had the bedrooms. I was woken at 5:30am by a digital alarm clock in the office next to my room. I stumbled out of bed to switch it off and was just falling asleep when it went off again. I pulled the batteries out to make sure that I could get back to sleep. Instead of counting sheep, I ran over my homily for the morning in my head. It soon put me to sleep – I hope it didn’t have the same effect on the congregation when I actually preached it!
So we were up and going by 7am, getting breakfast, packing for the day, doing washing etc. Seán had decided not to walk the 9kms we missed yesterday, but to do a sightseeing tour of Bombala after the service. I packed all my gear to do a full day’s walk. After breakfast, I went over to the church just as John and Anne Vincent were arriving to get things opened up. I will admit that I was surprised to see the interior of the Church – it is really quite beautiful. There was nothing distasteful about the space, and in fact it was quite suited to prayer and meditation. It was very warm in feeling and conducive of meditation and devotion. They had recently renovated the sanctuary, as a result of ground shift due to seismic activity. The main material was a local wood, with the altar, the pulpit, the chair and other pieces of furniture all carved from the same material. The high altar, quite attractive in its own right, was still in place and a small pulpit had been built around the lectern.
Sister Teresa began the service by asking me to say a few words about our pilgrimage. Then, after the Gospel, I was asked to give the reflection. It felt both familiar and strange to be back in the pulpit after so many years: it was a role that one the one hand immediately felt right (a natural fit you might say) and wrong (what am I doing here?) at the same time. I feel the same conflict when someone says to me “Why haven’t you been ordained like the Anglican convert clergy?” I know at least one person who is convinced that I have a vocation to the priesthood. I will tell you that that person isn’t me. That is a conflict that is somewhere deep in my heart and needs to be worked out at some stage. Probably if you asked most people with a vocation to priesthood why they are drawn to it, they might say something about the love of the eucharist and the desire to serve God’s people by administering the sacraments, but I would honestly have to say that the main attraction of ordination for me is the chance once again to publicly proclaim the Gospel – to be an evangeliser. But there isn’t much of a role for official lay evangelists in the Catholic Church – it is very much (and properly) understood that the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the sacraments belongs together.
In any case, here is a short précis of my homily (aka “reflection”) on today’s gospel from John 20:
Beside feeling very honoured to be among the Catholic community of Bombala this morning (and the congregation was of a decent size) for the service of the word with Holy Communion, I and my companions were very impressed with the physical building of St Mary’s. It is not often that I enter into a Catholic Church building and find everything within it a) tasteful, b) conducive to prayer and devotion. The sanctuary had recently been redone in wood – the old concrete sanctuary being cracked like some of the walls from seismic activity in the area. The wood used, both for the flooring and the altar and the rest of the sanctuary furniture was all local, and carved by a local artist in a nice simple gothic pattern. The walls had been repainted a light cream colour which reduced the effect of the brown brick and actually complimented it. The original works of art around the altar and the stain glass windows and the 3-D relief stations of the cross are all of high quality. The church lacked a pipe organ – but that would have been icing on the cake. One particularly welcome feature was a recently installed stain-glass window of Mary MacKillop with the children of Bendoc.
After conversation with parishioners (unfortunately no church hall for a cup of tea), Paul drove me out to Aston Creek on the Bendoc-Delegate Road to drop me off where I finished yesterday at about 10am. As we approached the spot, we noticed on the south side of the road, hidden by bushes and on a rise, a little cemetery marked by a white cross. I probably would have missed this had I walked past in the rain yesterday, but this morning I took the time to explore it. We have visited a number of cemeteries on the Way, and I always stop to pray for the dead when we do. This was my first opportunity on this section of the walk. It was a pioneer cemetery, but still with some more recent graves in it. The oldest grave that I could find was of a bachelor medical doctor – a member of larger Scottish family in the area – who was born in 1811 and died in 1846. The epitaph reads “Be Ye Also Ready” – which would seem to confirm a death that was not only early but unexpected. Sobering thoughts for a pilgrim!
The walk into Bombala was through countryside that continued to amaze, especially with the bright autumn colours of the leaves (in particular the poplar trees) and the pretty creeks with yellowing willows on their banks. The road rises and falls between 770m and 690m, leveling out to 700m in Bombala. For the first time on the walk, a car stopped and offered me a lift! The kind couple from Delegate were astonished when I told them that I was doing this on purpose! The traffic continued to be quite light. Granted it was a Sunday, but as with yesterday, vehicles came past every 5 minutes or so.
As I entered Bombala I passed the High School which had the motto “Come let us reason together”. How very odd that a secular school should have a motto from the scriptures, I thought (Isaiah 1:8). A left over from a previous more faithful time, perhaps? I was listening to Mandy Prior’s hymns on my bluetooth speaker (on loud blast) and singing along, when I came across a couple in their garden and had to switch it off in order to greet them. They turned out to have been at St Mary’s for the morning service, so we were able to have a more extended conversation. They told me about plans for the establishment of something called “The Bundian Way“, following a 360km ancient aboriginal pathway from Mt Kosiuszko to Eden. I’ve since looked it up, and it goes down the mountain by crossing the Monaro Highway south of Bombala. It is very intersesting indeed, seeming to intersect with the MacKillop-Woods Way at Delegate and Craigie, but bypasses Bombala itself (which is a must on the MWW due to the association with Mother Mary!).
I lingered a little in the Main Street of Bombala which has many interesting features, before walking over the bridge (past the pleasant river-side road-stop, made stunningly attractive by the autumn leaves) and over the railway bridge past the restored, but disused, station. On the south side of the river is the old Olympia theatre (now gym) and a cafe with the distances to Melbourne (530km) and Sydney (520km) on it! From the railway station (the Old Josephite Convent is just down the hill to the right/east) I walked up to the old Court House, an imposing building overlooking the town from the hill, and finally up to St Mary’s and the Presbytery behind it.
Seán was waiting for me when I arrived and ready to go. I quickly hung out my washing to dry, ate the rest of the ham sandwiches that Sister Theresa had made for me last night (washed down with a mouthful of red wine) and an apple, strapped up my sore muscles behind my knee, and we set off again, this time for Cathcart. Climbing up the hill to presbytery and down again to cross the river adds about two kilometres to the treck, so while the gazetted distance from Bombala to Cathcart is 16km, it actually took us closer to 17.5km. This road is quite challenging for a number of reasons. Firstly, the traffic is greatly increased – a vehicles about every two minutes on average. Although it is a C grade highway, it nevertheless leads down to the popular destination of Pambula on the coast, and so a lot of the traffic was not local. It then links to the Monaro Highway in Bombala, giving a through way to the south or north to Canberra. But this alone would not have been a problem if it were not for the fact that the road itself often has hardly any verge. So we had to constantly keep an eye and ear out for traffic and switch to the other side of the road as it approached. The other challenge was the rather large hills that needed to be climbed, often with very steady and not very gentle slopes. According to my apps, the overall ascent for the 16km stretch was 232m with an overall descent of 164m, with two high points of around 820m. Still, the scenery continued to be stunning. The white wooden bridge over the Coolumbooka River is particularly attractive. At the top of the first 820m hill, outside the Yarandilla property, it is possible to see Mount Delegate in the far distance on the horizon, which we passed three days ago coming out of Bendoc.
Paul caught up with us on his bike coming down this hill. He had parked the car at Cathcart and ridden down the escarpment to Wyndham and back up again. He was headed back to Bombala and passed us again about 1.5kms from Cathcart. That is quite a ride – about 100kms and from an elevation of 820m down to about 250m and back up again.
We finally entered into Cathcart as the sun was setting at about 5:15pm. Along the way, I passed the first of a series of little green tin shields on which someone has painted a whole lot of historical information about Cathcart localities. The first one was marking a property as the first butchery in Cathcart (no date). The second one was attached to a decaying wooden church prominent as you enter Cathcart from the west as we did. This one proclaimed the old thing to have once been the Catholic Church, built in 1880 and closed 90 years later in 1970. It is now being used as a hayseed. As Josh commented in a text “Poor church, she lived long enough to see the Novus Ordo and die.” Yes. Sad. Seán got the best line though: “We’re 47 years late for mass!”
So, back “home” to the presbytery. First we filled up the tank of Paul’s car. I am amazed how cheaply we are doing this. Diesal is about 10c cheaper per litre than petrol and seems to go twice the distance. We told the woman at the service station what we were doing and she asked if we were doing it as a religious thing. Yes, and also as a challenge physically we answered (our bodies giving us a lot more trouble than our souls at this point). We told her we were staying at the Catholic Presbytery and she replied with a most effusive and glowing recommendation for Fr Mick. “If the Catholic Church had more priests like him it wouldn’t be in the trouble it is now”, she said.
Seán wanted to cook for us tonight, and I wasn’t complaining. The 28km I had done today had completely exhausted me. He cooked a pasta dish (with wholemeal spaghetti which I told him when he bought it that I really didn’t like), with bacon and cherry tomatoes and capsicum and feta cheese and beans in a cream sauce. It was very good. We’ve finished up all the cheap Pomeroy’s plonk and opened a bottle of 2009 red that I had bought with me. Paul then offered to do the dishes, and again I did not argue. I went to my room to try to get an early evening.
We want to leave at dawn in the morning. There is rain coming over the next couple of days and Monday will be the last fine day, so we want to walk as far as possible. We rang Tony Ovington at Towamba to tee up Paul to pick up the key tomorrow morning, so Paul will have the hall all set up for us when we finish our walk down the mountain in the morning. From what I can see, it will be a very steep descent within the first 10kms or so of Cathcart through the forest. Back into Mirkwood for a bit, before we get to Rivendell!
We will be out of range of internet until we arrive in Eden on Wednesday night. Also, the good folk of the Parish there are planning a night out to celebrate our arrival, so I doubt if this blog will be updated until much later in the week. But I will continue to take pictures and write up the story so check back on the weekend to see the rest!
Distance: 18.25km. Total distance 144.25km.
Okay. I would have liked to have achieved a lot more than that distance today, but the thing about pilgrimage is that you have to take it as it come and make adjustments in your expectations as you go along.
It had rained fairly heavily and constantly overnight, but the morning was clear. It was a big job packing up this morning at the Old School House on Lower Bendoc Road. Two differences between this leg of the pilgrimage and previous legs are 1) that we are doing a lot of our own cooking, which means less spare time, and 2) that we are carrying a lot of extra gear and therefore the morning pack is not quite as quick. Add to that that we ran out of gas half way through boiling water for a cup of tea/coffee and made the snap decision to include a visit to Delegate for a cup of coffee, and it made a very late start once Paul dropped Seán and me back at the 5km point on Craigie Road again at 11am. Still, the visit to Delegate was very pleasant – we visited St Joseph’s Church and the Tourist Information centre and gallery (the attendant didn’t know anything about this history of the Josephites in Delegate, but there was a Josephine school and convent there from the 1920s, and think Mother Mary may even have visited once – I have to recheck the information that Archbishop Prowse sent me). If anything, Delegate is more “The Shire” than Bendoc is, with very many quaint old timber cottages and shop fronts – all the more quaint because they are occupied by locals who have lived there all their lives. If Delegate were closer to any capital city it would have been bought out and gentrified years ago and filled with cafes and bookshops. We fell to talking tot he local mechanic, telling him about our pilgrimage. I observed that we are about half way between Melbourne and Sydney – that you could hardly get further away from either. “And that’s no bad thing,” he commented.
We ordered coffees at the local cafe and general store – “large” out here means about 1/2 a litre! The shop has a curious attraction: a large collection of Chip-a-chup tins of various sizes collected over 25 years by the proprietor. The gallery/tourist information centre was in an old bank. The attendant claimed that Delegate has more amateur historical researchers per square metre than any other town in NSW. And just to prove it we found on the shelves a history of the Old School House at which we had been staying. We asked for and received a stamp in our pilgrim passes. Even if we didn’t walk to Delegate, we thought that it should be included as a destination on the MWW.
Enough sight-seeing, we needed to get walking. Paul drove us back to the 5km point down the Craigie road, dropped us off and then went back to Bendoc to hand in the key for the OSH at the pub. We finished the last stretch to the main highway (only vehicle we passed was a parked 4×4 driven buy a young man who said he was from Rochester in Victoria and who was working up here for a while – he had a tiny 14 day old puppy sleeping on a cushion on the passenger side of the seat!), and then turned toward Bombala. This stretch of road had heavier traffic than anything we had experienced since leaving Orbost – a car every 3-5 minutes, but there was a wide verge on the side of the road on which we could walk. One thing about walking in the countryside – you get to smell all the smells. That’s really nice when you are walking through a pine forest for example, but pretty nasty when you are walking past roadkill on the side of the road. Kangaroos and wombats smashed to bits – some almost petrified from being out in the heat for years and looking like some kind of prehistoric fossil, but others rather more “fresh” and disconcerting (no wombat should look the way one poor specimen ended up a the bottom of the ditch).
If we were looking still for the Lord of the Rings analogy for the area through which we were walking, we were now in Rohan, the rolling grasslands of the horsemen. And indeed there were horses – and cattle and sheep and more pine plantations.
Before very long at all, in fact, after walking only 7kms, we came to the spot that Paul had designated as our lunch stop. It was a marked fireplace stop on the Little Plains River just alongside the bridge on the Delegate side. Although the “fireplace” has seen better days, the situation is a pleasant place to stop for a picnic. I took off my shoes and soaked my feet in the cold water. Paul was just starting off for a short ride as we arrived, and had returned again by the time we had finished our food, so we left together. He drove on towards Bombala where he was planning to do some riding and we set off intending to do the final 20kms into town before sunset.
Along the way, I changed the stoppers on the bottom of my walking stocks. I should have done this ages ago, and it was especially necessary now that we were walking on sealed surfaces. It is an oddly significant moment. Every worn pair of rubber ends means a certain distance of hiking covered. Not sure what that distance is, but I can remember wearing through a set on the Aussie Camino the first time I did that.
As we walked along, the sky behind us in the west was particularly ominous. At first, because we could still clearly see far into the distant western mountains behind us, I thought that we would escape any possible showers. But then there was both a sudden drop in air temperature and a pick up of the wind. I could see around me falls of rain to the south and we began to hear loud thunder rumbles. Just as I came up to the bridge over Aston Creek, I decided that it would be better to put on all my wet weather gear sooner when it was dry than later in pouring rain. I have a pair of gortex pants and a poncho that goes over everything. I changed my shoes for sandles (which will dry quicker) and tied my shoes to my backpack under the poncho. I put my phone and ipad inside snaplock plastic bags (a cheap waterproof cover – you can still operate them through the plastic). All this done, I headed off, the wind flapping the poncho like a flag.
I was perhaps 500m ahead of Seán at this stage. More thunder and wind. Then ahead of me, Paul came driving up in the car: “Get in,” he said, “The rains about to come and the information centre at the Mary MacKillop house will shut at 4pm” (it was now 3:30pm). I wasn’t quite certain about this, but did as he bade me and we drove on down to pick up Seán. No sooner had Seán got in the car, than the first large drops of rain began to fall. Paul explained that he had gone into the Information Centre at Bombala and discovered that the house next door had been the Josephite Convent and that St Mary MacKillop had stayed there in 1899 and again in 1901. But it was shutting for the weekend and if we wanted to see it we had to go now.
So I resigned myself to the fact that today was going to be a very short walk and that we would have to make it up tomorrow. Nevertheless, I am glad that Paul was thinking on his feet, otherwise we would have missed a major Mary MacKillop site/sight on the pilgrimage. The old convent was next door to the Lavendar and Platypus centre (yes, a bit of a strange mix), and the attendant directed us to the convent where we could see the room in which Mother Mary stayed when she was here. They are still setting the room up, and hoping (with the support of the Sisters of St Joseph from Sydney) to get more significant pieces with which to decorate Mother Mary’s room.
The rain really started coming down now, and Paul took us around to Queen Street where we called in on Sister Theresa rsj at the Convent. The Convent had once been a private hospital before it was bought by the Joeys, and now Sister lives there alone as the local pastoral associate. She kindly received us and made tea and ham sandwiches for us. We didn’t really need the sandwiches, as we had had a big lunch and were about to go out for dinner, but the bread was really fresh, the ham delicious and the tea very thirst quenching. We talked to Sister Theresa about the pilgrimage and other aspects of our devotion to St Mary and about the history of the Josephites in the area and about her own work with the parish and the local Catholic primary school. She was interested to hear that I was an ex-Lutheran pastor, and pulled out a copy of The Tablet which had an article on Martin Luther. She also had a copy of the Eden Magnet in which the story by Liz Tickner had been published – it was good to see it in print. We said we were looking forward to worshipping with the local congregation in the morning. I knew it would be a service of the word with Holy Communion as Fr Mick is away in Nigeria, and I jokingly said that I could preach the homily if she liked. She wanted to know how long I would normally have preached in the past, and I said 10-15 minutes. “Oh, too long – five is enough!” I countered that it doesn’t matter how long you preach as long as you are able to hold their attention.
After saying our goodbyes we went around to the presbytery on the other side of the street. Paul had already dropped off most of the gear and we sorted ourselves out with rooms. There are only two bedrooms, but there is an office in which I have set myself up with the blow up mattress. Seán did his washing and I had a shower and my first shave since Monday morning. We then got ready to go around to the local RSL Club for lunch, when there was a knock on the door. It was Sister Theresa saying she had talked to the other members of her team and they decided to ask me to offer the “reflection” after the Gospel tomorrow after all! So I have prepared a short 5 minute homily, which should do the trick!
The RSL is quite a nice spot – a bar with a separate restaurant that does a simple menu with mains from $16.50 to $26. I had the seafood basket and the other two had the pork medallions. Both were excellent. The beer on tap was various, including Cascade, Toohey’s Old, and Lazy Yak, so we were happy with that. We thought we might return there tomorrow night.
Back at the Presbytery I did my washing and hung it out on the line – the rain had cleared up and a mist was coming through. There was also still a strange flickering in the dark sky like the reflection of lightening somewhere in the distance. I think we will have a clear day tomorrow. Seán is very keen to see a bit of the town after the service tomorrow, so he has decided not to do the last 9kms into town. I, however, will get Paul to drop me there after the service is finished and then I will walk back to the presbytery for lunch and we will then walk on as far as we can get to Cathcart before nightfall. The next two days, Monday and Tuesday, to Towamba is less than 50km in total, so it should all average out okay. Michael Sheppard at Eden rang tonight to ask if we were all still on target for arriving on Wednesday night, which I confirmed. He said that he would like for us to go out for tea, and that some other members of the parish might join us. I look forward to that.
Anyway, it is now midnight, and I have finally managed to get up-to-date with this blog. It will be much easier writing tomorrow night now that I don’t have to keep casting my mind back 48 hours in the evening.
Distance: 24.5km. Total distance 126km. So we have passed the half-way mark!
Having arrived at the Old School House (OSH) on Lower Bendoc Road in the dark, it was very interesting getting up this morning and seeing our camp site in daylight. The OSH is situated in a paddock with a large hill behind it, a few pine trees around it, and a small river running past at the bottom of the hill. There was a mixture of fog and smoke from burning off in the air, making it very misty and picturesque. The OSH had been built in the early 1900’s and closed in the 1950s. Today it is owned and maintained by the Bendoc Fishing Club, and they let it out for the grand sum of $3 per head per night (enquiries to Graham at the Bendoc Pub on 02 64581453). When Paul went to pick up the key from Graham’s wife Margaret yesterday, he gave her a $20 note and she wanted to give him $2 change! For this you get a lockable building with five beds, a couple of tables, a couch by the open fireplace (which has a fireplate and billy boiler), a gas stove (bring your own bottle), and a drop toilet out the back. There are pots and pans and billies there, and some wine glasses too. Enough firewood is supplied for two nights, but if you want more you either have buy your own from the local sawmill or (as we did) pick it up from around the yard. Luxury!
Yesterday had been a very long day so we took our time getting ready this morning, sleeping in until 7:30am. I heated up and ate the left-over pasta Bolognese from Monday night (which had travelled really well in the car fridge). I wrote up the previous day’s blog, and did some washing. We hooked up a washing line out near the loo for the washing to dry on. We had some visitors as we were getting ready for our walk: a couple who live nearby. The gentleman had been in the pub last night and wanted to see how we were getting on. He told us that he had actually been a student here when the OSH was operational!
Then at 9:30am, I had a live interview on ABC Local Radio (Bega?) about the pilgrimage. I had prepared for the interview, writing up notes to make sure everything was said that needed to be said, and I felt fairly happy with the way it went. However, as Paul said when I had finished, “You forgot one thing: to say how beautiful the country is that we have been travelling through”. And he is certainly right.
Picking up on a question that Josh had texted to me on the first day (“Have you entered Mirkwood yet?”), we have been comparing various parts of the countryside to Lord of the Rings locations. Yesterday afternoon, it certainly appeared as if we had entered Mordor after leaving Mirkwook, as we walked through an area where the forestry people were clearing up plantations to get ready for replanting. So the whole view was of heaps of burning and thickly smoking wood fires.
Well, continuing the analogy, today when Paul took Seán and me back into Bendoc to commence the day’s walk, I sincerely felt as if we had been transported to The Shire. We checked out The Big Log, the gold mining machinery, the quaint pub (we saw the inside last night but could now see the outside), the local hall (which, as well as the public shower and toilet block also has a good BBQ stove – we were originally planning on camping in the Hall, and you certainly could do that if you made the arrangements), and the Bendoc Union Church (it appears that they have achieved what the rest of the Ecumenical movement is still striving for…). As we headed out of town, we were greeted by two very happy little poodles. We found their owner stacking wood for winter – a very impressive wood pile indeed. He told us that he remembered one winter where the temperature got down to 14 degrees Celsius below zero! “All the water pipes froze up and the only way we could get water was by using the axe to chop ice from the rainwater tank and putting on the fire.”
Walking out of town, we passed Mt Delegate – a feature on the horizon that dominated most of the morning. The road was gravel and dusty, especially when the big trucks came along. We were passed (all coming toward us) by four log trucks and one cattle truck. Other than that, we had only three other vehicles over the 11 or 12kms from Bendoc to the OSH. The countryside on this side of Bendoc was in stark contrast to the other side. The forest had gone for good, and now we were in undulating pasture land with sheep and cattle. Bendoc is just over 800m above sea level and the OSH is at about 760m. As you go along the Lower Bendoc Road you come across the Delegate-Bendoc Road which is actually closed at the moment because they are rebuilding the bridge over the river. There is a section of the road that is sealed (I think to stop the dust from the road covering the nearby farm houses), and then you come into the valley of the Bendoc River, which is the one that flows past the OSH. There were road works – a grader and water sprayer – going on on that section of road.
Seán and I stopped at the OSH for lunch, which was very nice as it meant that a) we didn’t have to carry our lunch with us, and b) I could have a small glass of wine to wash down my bread, kransky, tomato, Brie cheese, cucumber, dolmades, and mushrooms (the latter picked from the yard around the OSH – yummy!).
It was now already after 2pm, but having achieved 12kms already, I wanted to complete another 12km if possible before the end of the day. So we set off again. Two kilometres down the road we came to a road on our left heading off to the north over a bridge. This was Big Flat Road, although, as we were to find out, there was nothing “flat” about it. The important feature of this road is that just 100m over the bridge we crossed the border from Victoria into NSW – quite a milestone for us, given that we had walked all the way from Fitzroy through Eastern Victoria to get to this point. But it was a bit of a let down to note that there was no big sign (in fact no sign at all) to say “You are now leaving Victoria / entering New South Wales”. The only sign there was to let us know that we were entering Bombala Shire. And that sign, by our GPS coordinates, was at least 40m too far on the Victorian side of the border (a cunning NSW land grab?). There not being an official border line, Seán scratched a line on the road where the border should be and I photographed him stepping over it.
Immediately we were confronted with a big climb up a hill to above 800m again. The views were fantastic indeed. The road surface was hard clay and nice to walk on, leading through pasture land and pine forests. Immediately evident in a way that we didn’t see on the Victorian side of the border were groves of deciduous trees with their leaves turning rich autumn yellows and reds and golds. This provided quite a contrast with the otherwise green landscape. There were a few farm vehicles on the road and some forestry utes, but otherwise not much. At one point a car pulling a caravan drove up to us and hailed us. They were an elderly couple who declared that they were lost. They had left the camp ground in the town Delegate and were looking for the Delegate River Camp Ground where they had planned to spend the night before heading own down the Bonang Highway to Orbost tomorrow. But that was back on the other side of Bendoc where we had come through yesterday. They had taken a left turn at Bendoc instead of a right turn. We advised them that their best plan at this time of the evening was to head back to Delegate and try again tomorrow. I still hate to think of the fun they will have towing a caravan down the Bonang Highway…
We knew we had reached Craigie when we came over a hill to find a white timber church building with a red iron roof and gothic style windows on the side of the road. A sign proclaimed it to be St Stephen’s Anglican Church built in 1884. The sign also said there would be Eucharist at 11am every 2nd Sunday of the Month. Although the interior (from what we could see through the windows) was still furnished with altar table and pews, there was no sign of any use in recent times and the paint was peeling from the timbers and the red doorway. It was, however, a very stark image on the landscape. Seán was impressed by the coincidence that this church had appeared about the same time as I had switched on the Evening Prayer audio on my iphone.
And it was indeed getting on toward evening. It gets dark quick out here. One minute there is sunlight, next twilight and then darkness. We were surprised to find that Craigie is actually a little settlement with several houses and a Community Hall. Once again, this might make a good camp ground for anyone traveling the MWW Pilgrimage without a support vehicle – although there were no other facilities. An unsealed road leads off to the East from Craigie to Mila and eventually to the Monaro Highway. This was (and is) a possible alternative route for the MacKillop-Woods Way, but we continued on beyond Craigie towards the Delegate-Bombala Road.
Craigie is about 8kms from the border. A little helpful feature we noticed was hand-made kilometre markers, counting down from 15km at the border to 0km at the main highway to Bombala. As we were leaving Craigie, Paul drove up to see if we were finished for the day. Craigie would have been a natural stopping point, but in order to make the afternoon walk a round 12kms, I asked if we could walk another two kms. I think this was, in the end, a bit far for Seán, and it also meant climbing another very high and steep hill (bringing us once again over 800m). I think I strained a muscle behind my right knee doing this hill…
It was virtually dark now, and Paul drove us back home to the OSH the way we had come. I always feel it a little defeating when we have walked so far only to have to return where we started for our accommodation. A little scary encounter was with a big logging rig (empty) coming towards us up the big hill at the start of Big Flat Road – there was just enough room for him to squeeze past when Paul pulled right over the edge of the road.
It was nice to be back to the comfort of the Old School House and the fireplace. We made curry tonight with chuck beef and a bottle of curry sauce and lots of added veggies. I typed up yesterday’s blog post, and then virtually collapsed into bed and fell asleep instantly.
Day distance: 36.52. Total Distance so far: 101.5km
Seán was back on deck this morning feeling much better than the day before. Whatever it was that had ailed him had passed on. The day began fresh and cool with the sun shining already when we finished packing up in the Tin Chalet. We walked around to see if our host Jill got home safely last night. Her rustic house is surrounded by gardens with chooks and guineafowl and geese ranging around the yard. We were greeted at the gate by Raffles, her large and playful German Shepherd dog, and chatted with Jill for a while, meeting her other animals, especially the two large Clydesdale horses. Paul came over from picking a bag of apples from Jill’s orchard, and we fed a couple to the horses. As Jill opened the gate to let the car through, the biggest horse bolted through and Jill had to chase after her, so in the end our goodbyes were rushed.
Nevertheless it was 8:45am by the time we got going, and we were still on the other side of Goongerah, which, although sparsely populated is about 7kms from one end to the other. We passed by the school and CFA and Community house and then out onto the open highway in brilliant sunshine. Paul went on ahead of us to park the car at The Gap – our lunchtime destination at the junction of the Bonang and Bendoc Road – intending to spend the day riding back down the Bonang Highway to Sardine Creek and up again.
Seán and I passed the old roadhouse which is now the Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) base, where we had called in last October for advice on our journey. It was pretty quiet (compared to last year when there was a crowd around the fire outside), so we walked on by without calling in. The road was newly surfaced; I was amused to see sticks and pieced of bark covered over by bitumen or line markings – nature incorporated into industry… The sealed road ran out about 9kms north of Goongerah (at the 80km from Orbost mark), just as we entered the southern-most end of the Snowy River National Park. From then on till just out of Bendoc we were on unsealed road.
The road through to The Gap was fairly gravelly – you would want to be careful with a vehicle, but it was not unpleasant walking. We were surprised to discover the Old Bonang Highway interesecting with the road we were walking. Looking at the maps, we saw that the OBH diverted from the NBH again just outside Goongerah. We could have taken that as an alternative to walking on the main highway. But the traffic was not a problem. We were probably overtaken by a vehicle every 15 to 20 minutes. At one stage a convoy of a minibus and six additional vehicles went through, which was the most we saw at any time. Otherwise the road was like a nice broad walking trail which cars occasionally used. There were signs warning of logging trucks, but we saw none. They are virtually extinct in that area today thanks to the work of the GECO people and other environmentalists. The Snowy and Errinundra National Parks have been greatly extended, and have changed the character of the area. There are still plenty of forestry management vehicles going up and down the road, and road work plants as well, but it is a lot different today from what it was in the past. The settlements up here have diminished accordingly. But for the eco-tourist, there is much to see and much to do.
The road was a steady and gentle rise of 550m all the way from Goongerah to The Gap over 17kms. It was a long way up, but really quite easy on the knees. Alternative tracks through the bush would have been very much more challenging and longer too, but walking on the road meant an easy trek. Although we were focused on the road in front of us, as we looked out at the surrounding forested peaks, we could see that we were coming to the top.
We met Paul at the picnic ground at the bridge over the Bonang River at The Gap. It was a really pleasant spot, cool and lush with the little river flowing past. We ate our Kransky and tomato and cheese and cucumber and apple and carrot washed down with a cup of tea from Seán’s flask. A chance to rub the feet with lanolin and tea-tree powder, and we were all refreshed to get going again. We were now at about 700ms above sea level and we had yet another 200ms to climb.
Thus far, I have to say that the road from The Gap to Bendoc has been the most pleasant of the whole trip. Again traffic was sparse, and the unsealed road was solid beneath our feet. Josh, our absent vicarious pilgrim, has been joking about us walking through “Mirkwood” – and indeed the forest has seemed endless for the last three days. But this section above all seems to fit the bill, with many ferntrees and creeks and mountain ashes and trees covered with moss. The road from The Gap to Bendoc is very much on the shady side of the mountain, cool and pleasant.
The road continued to rise till we got to the exalted heights of over 900ms. This was likely – we thought – to be the highest altitude along the MacKillop-Woods Way. At which point I decided to celebrate by singing “Nearer my God to thee” at the top of my voice. At which point, I then heard voices in the forest – we were not alone! Were these the Elves of Mirkwood? We came to the sign which said “Old Growth Forest Walk”, which was in fact the entrance to the walk to see a particularly large tree – apparently it is about 5ms in diameter and 15ms around and supposed to be about 600 years old. Coming around the corner, we saw the vehicles that had formed the convoy which had passed us earlier on the road. A smiling face came down the track to greet us – “It’s you! We met last October at the GECO camp.” Indeed we had met there – this was one of Mirkwood’s Elves, leading a whole group of about 30 junior elves from Melbourne and Sydney on an evironmental appreciation walk in the Errinundra Forest to see the big tree. “You sing very well,” said one of the young elves. They were able to show us pictures of the Big Tree on their cracked-screen iPhones. Quite impressive, but we were not tempted to take a 2km detour from our pilgrimage. We told them about our pilgrimage – and in fact a number of them knew about the Santiago Camino, so they could appreciate what we were doing.
Wishing the “Elves” God’s blessing, we went upon our way to Bendoc. The signs at The Gap had variously given 18 and 20kms as the estimate of the distance. It turned out to be closer to 20. The road was very pleasant, but as we left “Mirkwood”, it seemed that we had entered “Mordor” – the pine plantation forestry people were cleaning up the rubbish left behind from last year for replanting, which meant endless heaps of burning and smoking waste wood, giving the whole environment a smoky hazy overview. We passed the Delegate River Camp Ground which was quite unpleasant in the smoky haze.
At about 5pm Paul caught up with us on the trail to see how we were going. We were still 6km from town. Seán and I were feeling pretty good, so we decided to keep on going into Bendoc. An interesting feature that we had noticed as soon as we had emerged from the forest at 11.7km from Bendoc was that the trees had the distance from Bendoc marked on them at every kilometre – a kind of living milestone system. This gave us encouragement on the way into town; however, the last tree that I could visibly see was the 2km marker. By the time we got to 1km out at 6pm we were in darkness.
At this point we were back in range of phone and internet. I was surprised to find that ABC Local Radio in Bega wanted to contact us for an interview. They had heard from Michael Sheppard and the Eden Magnet that we were doing this pilgrimage and wanted a live interview on radio tomorrow morning. I was able to get in touch with the office, and they said that they would call again in the morning to tee up the live interview. Liz Tickner from the Eden Magnet had managed to cobble together a story on our pilgrimage which has been published online, and I think that that started things rolling.
Being back in range, there were suddenly a whole flurry of texts and messages that I had to answer, from family and friends and – of course – from Josh, our vicarious pilgrim.
In any case, after the 6km mark, the darkness began setting in. I switched on my bluetooth speaker and played my Iron & Wine playlist while we walked along to keep us moving. I was surprised that the road continued to be surrounded in forest all the way to the very entrance to Bendoc. Paul drove out to meet us as we came in, and led us up to the Bendoc pub. This is where Graham and Margaret Beever are the proprietors – they were the ones who had set us up for accomodation at The Old School House for the night. We went into the pub to find about a dozen locals in there at the end of the day. There were a couple of rigs out the front, and obviously a mix of forestry workers and local farmers. We greeted Graham and, after pouring us all pots of Carlton Draught (the only beer on tap), he stamped and signed our pilgrim passes with the local post code stamp (the pub doubles as post office). We met Barry there who told us a lot about the surrounding area. Also, we recognised Graham from the ute and trailer with a couple of calves on it which had passed us on the way up – first heading toward Orbost and then returning later in the day with an empty crate. They weren’t calves, he said, they were fully grown miniature “Dexter” cattle, an Irish breed of cattle, and he kept a herd of 70 of these nearly extinct breed.
Graham gave us directions to the showers at the local hall. They were hot and free. Great. I didn’t have a towel with me, or soap, but there was a bit of soap left in the shower and I used my jumper as a towel. Paul had the heater going in the car so we were dry and warm when we arrived at the Old School House, 12kms along the Lower Bendoc Road toward the border of Victoria and NSW. Paul had earlier picked up the key to the OSH, and deposited most of our gear there. We paid $20 for the two nights for this accomodation, which is maintained by the local fishing club. The OSH is a lockable building with fireplace, drop toilet, beds, gas stove, rain water tank – ultimately everything we could hope for to make camping an easy and comfortable matter.
Dinner was beef sausages and boiled veggies cooked on the open fire, washed down with a bottle or so or Pommeroy’s Plonk. Seán and I were fairly knackered after 36kms of walking, and so settled down early to bed.
We walked further than we had expected that we would today, and this puts us in a good space to have a bit of a sleep in.