My dad died this morning.
But I am going to keep walking until I get to St Mary’s tomb.
In a way that is probably selfish. Mum would like me to be home, but she has given her blessing to me to keep going. My older brother says there isn’t much for me to do anyway. Well, there is. I need to be with Mum and my brothers at this time. But I have also found that I need to be with myself too.
Today, perchance, I was going to walk alone anyway. Last night Josh and I covered the three kms from the Nowra train station at Bomaderry, so that this morning I could catch the train from Berry back to Bomaderry and start walking from there.
I got up really early, and least the Old Convent about 7am. I walked around the town a little bit, taking photos. I love the fact that the Princes Highway, which was diverted from the Main Street of Berry two years ago, is still sign posted – and there wasn’t a single car on it when I crossed the street. Lovely.
I was going to eat breakfast at the bakery, part of the reason I left so early, but I was horrified at the cost of the food, and so headed straight for the train station. I tapped my phone on the Opal Card reader (I wish we could do this with Myki in Melbourne) and sat down on the station to wait for the 8:09am train to Bomaderry. I had only just sat down when my phone rang. As soon as I saw that it was my older brother ringing, I knew what the news was. Mum had gone up early to the Nursing Home, and entered Dad’s room to find that he had died. The nurses had not noticed this yet, so she must have arrived very soon after it happened. Mum had been with him yesterday before going to the Maundy Thursday service, and had rung each of us brothers to let us know that the end would not be far away. One of my younger brothers was on the way up from Mount Shank to see Dad, but had only gotten as far as Penola – St Mary’s town – when he heard the news. My other brother is coming home on Sunday with his family.
After talking to my mother on the phone, I sat and starred at the railway in front of me. It was so quiet, and still. No one else was on the platform or came on while I was waiting . I was the only one catching the train. I wept for the first time today while sitting there.
In Bomaderry, I had breakfast at the station bakery. More weeping. The chemist shop wasn’t open on Good Friday, so I went to the IGA to get some bandages for my feet and blisters. I spoke with Fr Denis, my episcopal vicar and friend about my plans for completing the pilgrimage and for leave afterwards.
Then I set off on the road to Shoalhaven. I had estimated that today would be 28kms, but in the end it was closer to 31kms. The first section was quite nice (once I got away from the industrial plant on the south side), and there was a wide, mown, grassy verge on which to walk. There was a constant stream of traffic coming towards Nowra from the North (this continued all day), but relatively little going in the same direction as myself. There was one or two spots – a bridge and a corner – where there was no verge, but thankfully the sparseness of the traffic from Nowra meant crossing these sections was not the same hair-raising experience as walking the Milton section of the Princes Highway.
Because of my blisters, I tried wearing my sandals to walk, which was okay, but then I couldn’t put the heel support in for my left foot, which put a bit of a strain on my sore ankle. In the end, I opted for the shoes, with one heel support in each shoe. This solved the groin pain in my left leg that I have been having for the last few days, which was obviously due to the shoes being different heights. But it did mean that I had to be constantly rebandaging my feet to avoid the blisters (now one on each heel) from growing and being painful.
I met a bloke on a bike coming the other way. He introduced himself as Matt Sweeney, and took a bit of the wind out of my sails by saying that he has done the Appalacian Trail a dozen times, the Camino de Santiago about forty times, and cycled around the world about a hundred times. I exaggerate, of course, but he was obviously very experienced. He asked me to connect with him on facebook (his moniker is ”The Aussie Crawl”) but I don’t do Facebook…
I continued on my way, dodging spiders on the one side and cars on the other. It was a nice day, but I was actually getting a bit warm. Mt Coolangatta (this is the original Coolangatta) was looming up on the left hand/north side, and so was Coolangatta Village. I was getting very weary already, and had barely done 12kms, but I saw a sign saying that Coolangatta Winery Estate had a restaurant and decided to treat myself to some fancy seafood. Alas, they were not doing meals today. So I pushed on a little bit further and came, as planned, to Shoalhaven, where I had a very good lunch at the Bowls Club: Beer battered blackfish with chips and salad and a bottle of 50 Lashes Pale Ale for $25. Not bad. I also ordered a glass of ice, which I put in a small ziplock plastic bag and used as an ice pack for my feet. THAT was nice.
All along the way, I had been listening to music – for the first time really on this trip. First I started with something calm: Max Richter’s “Sleep” suite. But then I went looking for Requiem’s to listen to, and remembered Zbigniew Preisner’s “Requiem for my friend”. The Lacrimosa is a real cry from the heart, and when it came on, I joined in singing with every bit of volume I could manage. It became something of a scream in the end, partly because I can’t sing that high, and partly because I was weeping my heart out.
So, leaving Gerringong on the Gerroa Road, I switched to a very old favourite – in fact, it was the first CD I ever bought – Mozart’s Reqiem. The very first bars set me to wailing once again. My God, music is a powerful lance to the boil of grief…
The Gerroa Road runs along Seven Mile Beach National Park, and yes, as the name suggests, it is almost 7 miles (11kms) of straight, wide, two lane road with thick forest and bush either side. It is unrelentingly monotonous. The traffic from the north was still a constant stream, so I walked on the western side. The verge is very wide here, so there is no problems with safety. It is just boring. Nothing for it but to crank up Mozart and put the head down and walk, trying to drown out the pain in my feet and legs and heart.
My feet demanded a pit stop at about 3pm and so I turned my phone on and found that Mia had sent through a nice picture of herself and the dog in the back of the car on the way to Philip Island. She had done a little bit of the driving, but now Cathy had taken over. They were in crawling traffic.
I tried ringing Mum but got no answer. Just the answering machine with Dad saying to leave my name and number.
So I rang my Godmother, Jan, Dad’s sister. She was glad that I rang, as she had thought about ringing me but didn’t want to intrude on the first day. We had a good long talk. She encouraged me to keep going with the pilgrimage, and we are looking forward to seeing each other at the funeral. She reminded me that Grandpa Schutz had died on Tuesday in Holy Week. I could remember that, because I had preached at his funeral, and I remember making the Easter connection. Jan has three other sisters, and had accompanied Dad and Mum on a train journey last year up to Towoomba for a get together with all the siblings and their partners, which was the last time they were all together.
Josh and Sean, meanwhile, were meandering their way along from Berry on what, by their later account, was something of a gourmet food crawl. They eventually made it to Gerroa only an hour and half ahead of me. They made the decision to walk on the beach for the last section, and, had I not been concerned about whether or not I would need someone to come an rescue me, I probably would have done the same. They say the beach walking was wonderful – the sand was firm (Kingsford Smith once famously landed a plane on this stretch of beach) and the water refreshing. I should have gone that way. My feet would have thanked me.
But from the cross road where the road from Berry met the Gerroa Road, there was a firebreak on the western side, and so I walked on that until just out of Gerroa. If I had taken the beach route, I would have missed an enjoyable conversation with Adrian. I had stopped at a kiosk to buy a cold drink and to rest my feet, when a father of two boys who asked me what I was doing. He had seen me out on the road as they went past. I explained the pilgrimage – which he understood because he knew of the Camino, and he said that he had been a long distance cyclist before starting his family. He had cycled from Switzerland to Israel, and from Sydney to Uluru, among many other things. He was very keen to tell his sons “This man is walking from Melbourne to Sydney” I told him that my father had died and we talked about the need to make your life an adventure and not put that adventure off.
I set off for the last section of the walk today as the sun was setting over the escarpment and the full moon (the Paschal Moon) was rising over the ocean. I was listening now to Kathryn Jenkins singing “Abide with me”, which was just perfect. “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me”. There was a great view from the top of the hill of the Coolangatta Mountain in the distance – it was hard to believe I had just walked all the way around it. Cathy rang then as I was walking through the beautiful section of countryside between Gerroa and Gerringong, and then I rang Mum.
It was just on dark as I passed the Catholic Church on the hill outside town, with the moon rising behind it. A pity an iPhone 6 is so lousy at taking night shots. As I was heading up the street to “Billowview”, the Christian Brothers retreat house where we are staying, Josh and Sean were coming in the other direction. They bundled me back into the accommodation (a room each), sent me straight to the showers, put all our dirty washing on, and then we set off for dinner. I had passed a little family-style Chinese restaurant on the way in, so we ate there. I had braised fish, Josh had a vegetarian laksa and Sean just had veggie spring rolls. We had more than enough to eat – as travellers we did not have to fast, thank God – but we did observe the abstinence. No alcohol though. Probably a good thing, as when I got home, I dosed up on anti-inflammatories and pain killers.
We visited Brother Michael over in the “house” to get a sticker for our passports, and then returned to the rooms where we sorted our washing and our packing for tomorrow. At this stage, Sean plans to walk the first half along the cliffs with me and then take the train from the lighthouse, and Josh plans to do the opposite. Josh has offered to take the bulk of our extra gear so we can walk the cliffs without being over burdened.
I have done all my emails, and now it is late 12:30am), so I need to go to bed.