I’m writing this account up in the Indian restaurant next to the Harp Hotel in Wollongong on Easter Monday Night, although the account is of Easter Sunday.
Having gone to bed comparatively early on Easter Saturday night1, I woke early the next morning, before dawn. I needed a cup of coffee, and Sean had left his coffee making apparatus and fresh ground Jasper coffee out on the bench. I boiled the kettle and made myself a fresh cup and started writing up my previous day’s experiences. As I did so, the sun came up to reveal the view from the lounge and kitchen to the south: the golf course and park and bushland shrouded in mist. It is a beautiful view that makes Murray and Iryna’s home very special.
Sean woke and joined me and was writing up his journal at the table when Murray joined us. Then Josh appeared and finally Iryna who busied herself making us a light breakfast of hot cross buns, yoghurt and juice. We bade farewell and headed off at 9am into another sunny day – already warm and humid. I was wanting to take the most direct route through to Port Kembla along Shellharbour Road, but Josh and Sean wanted to go to the old town of Shellharbour on the shore. As a result, we wandered a bit out of the way through suburban streets, and missed the opportunity to walk most of the way along a creek path.
We arrived in Shellharbour at 10am and were looking for somewhere to stop for coffee and a bite extra to eat. The first trendy cafe we stopped at was crowded with bright young things. (Mind you, these days everyone looks young to me – and perhaps I look old to them; in fact, a mother told her child today to “let the old man” use the drink fountain first before she had a drink.) After we had divested ourselves of our packs and poured ourselves water from the jugs and used the bathroom, we went to order our food and was told that, due to the crowds, it would be a 45 minute wait. We couldn’t wait, so we trudged on down the street to a burger joint on the corner by the shore, where they made us coffees and egg & bacon sandwiches, and they even had baklava for “dessert”! I brought out a little bag of Easter eggs that Cathy had given for me to share with my companions. This was our Easter feast!
We headed down onto the foreshore, where dozens of families with young children of all cultures were enjoying their Easter Sunday morning. We made our way around the headland, and the rocks, and the beach to find the start of the NSW Coastal Cycleway. The sign at the start said “24 Wollongong”. We followed this more or less for most of the rest of the day, although we shaved off some of the more windy bits by taking direct streets to shorten the journey.
Along this section, my daughter Mad rang for a chat. She was feeling the need to talk through her feelings about Grandpa, as I think his death was finally sinking in and she was beginning to grieve. We talked for about an hour of our memories of Dad, and I also described all the things I was seeing along the way.
We made our way along the shore to Pur Pur Point and Reddall Reserve – all the way packed with picnicking families. After a stop for a drink at the kiosk, we crossed the Windang Bridge, over beautiful cobalt coloured waters flowing from Lake Illawarra, and entered Windang itself.
We were instantly transported in a different world. From here on in to Wollongong we were walking alongside a six lane highway. The shops and houses along the side of the road were old and shabby. The landscape was scrubby. We were entering, according to the signs, “Australia’s Industry World”, and the exhaust from the stacks in the steel works were always on the horizon to prove it.
We stopped at the Lake Illawarra Hotel and ordered a beer each before finding out that there was no food being served today. So once again, on with the packs, and off onto the road. Because we were still following the bike path, it was not awful as such. There was plenty of room to walk away from the road and even a bit of shade on the Western side. We eventually made it to the southern business area of Port Kembla at about 2:30, and stopped to eat at the first establishment that presented itself – KFC. Josh thought that the “Family Pack” might suit the three of us, with 10 pieces of special fried chicken, mashed potato with gravy, two packs of fries, coleslaw, and a bottle of soft drink, thinking that this would do the three of us nicely. But when Sean arrived, he announced he was not very hungry, leaving Josh and me to eat the whole lot. Which we didn’t, of course, although we did eat all but two pieces of the chicken, which went into my back pack (and later on into our hotel room fridge for hobbit second lunch).
After this, I told the others that I needed to walk alone for a bit. By 3:30pm I had entered the industrial section of Port Kembla. I recalled this spot quite well from 2014 when I road my motorbike up here with my brother Gary and his mates on the way to the Christian Motorcyclist’s Association National Run at Stanwell Tops. We had been riding along the Hume for most of that day, and then had come down the escarpment into Port Kembla, arriving in peak hour traffic on a very warm afternoon. I remember it as being very unpleasant – vividly enough to recognise the very intersection where I was stuck at the traffic lights in the heat.
Anyway, that intersection was at the gates to the Port Kembla Steelworks, and from here on the bike path is right on the edge of the six lane Five Islands Road which skirts past the steelworks and railway. If you are on the south side you need to push through some bushes to get to the stairs which take you down to the path, but Josh and Sean walked on the north side, closest to the steel works, and they seemed to have the easier going. I stopped for a “tyre change” – a foot-refresh and new socks – and as I was sitting on the edge of the busy road across from the steelworks, a couple walked past hand in hand. “Nice place for a stroll”, I joked, but it didn’t coax a smile from them.
A most interesting feature of this route is the overpass at Cringila Station. According to Google Maps (and, Gaia Maps, for that matter), one should be able cross right over the bridge to the other side of the railway. This is not possible, as there is a gate at the other end saying “authorised personnel only” and “trespassers will be prosecuted”. So, it is necessary to descend down to the path on the north side and to proceed along Five Islands Road for another 500m or so to Springhill Road, another six lane road that leads eventually into Corrimal Street, the main street of Wollongong.
About half way along Springhill Road, I received a phone call from Ken, my older brother. He and my other two brothers were with our mother discussing funeral plans for our father. Despite the fact that my feet were very sore and my legs were aching, I found that this conversation took my mind off all other things, and before I knew it I was in the centre of Wollongong. I went straight around to the Cathedral, where the 5pm mass was still in progress. I walked in just during the consecration, and was able to receive holy communion on Easter Sunday after all. Again, the service was fully spoken with no hymns, but the building was beautiful, the pews crowded and the priest conducted the mass very well. Although I was hot and sweaty when I arrived, and not a little teary from the thoughts and family conversations that had transpired during the day, I was finally here. The Catholic Womens League ladies were distributing Easter eggs at the door, so I took one for myself and one for each of my companions.
I then made my way around to the Harp Hotel where we had two rooms booked. Rooms were about $100 a night – the same for Sean and I to share a room as for Josh to have his own. The Harp is a fairly seedy sort of joint, but the service has been good (we needed an electric kettle replaced as soon as we arrived, and it was) and each room has an ensuite bathroom and air conditioner. I checked in and collected the keys, and had just enough time to deposit my pack in Room 11 and to get back downstairs as Josh and Sean were arriving, both quite exhausted from the day.
After settling into our rooms (Josh, who has room 12, pointed out that the room next to him is number 14 – there is no number 13!) and showering and generally restoring our humanity, we went around to the foreshore looking for the Illawarra Brewery. As it turns out, there is still a bar and restaurant in the location, but the actual brewery has relocated up the road a bit. No matter, they still had an excellent range of beers, including two of the local brew. I ordered the IPA and the others had the Brown Ale. We did not feel like a big meal after the KFC lunch, so I ordered nachos and wedges, which was more than sufficient.
We had walked about 26kms today, which is not a very long day, but I was nevertheless physically and emotionally exhausted. The physical exhaustion comes from still having a partially bung back calf tendon and blisters on my feet, whereas the emotional exhaustion, which I think is actually the greater, comes from the inner grief and the deep and passionate conversations I have had today with family members.
Tonight was an “ear-plug” night – to keep the noise out from the Karaoke down in the bar. But this ended about midnight, and when I woke once during the night, all I could hear was the birds nesting in the trees outside.