On practically every section of the MacKillop-Woods Way that I have walked so far, there has been a day (or at least a part of a day) in which I have walked alone.
Back in Passiontide 2014, when walking the first Aussie Camino with Luke Mills from Portland to Penola, I was the last to leave the hotel in Mount Gambier the day we were headed for the little township of Kalangadoo (yes, truly, that is what it is called). Back then, that was almost a 40km day; Luke has split it now into a two day walk stopping at Bush Haven Cottages in Wandillo Forest. Anyway, I headed off all bushy eyed and bright tailed, and walked straight past the rest of the group having hobbit second breakfast in the MacDonalds. The result is that I walked the whole way to Kalangadoo that day on my own, for the most part thinking that the rest of the group was ahead of me, when really they were an hour or two behind.
In Easter 2016, the day that Josh left to go back to Launceston for the start of the new teaching term, Sean had such bad blisters he needed to take a day off. The priest we were staying with in Moe took him to the hospital and then transported him to the next parish in Traralgon, while I walked all the way via Yallourn North on my own.
In Easter 2017, Sean was not feeling well on the second day in the bushy end of Victoria, so I walked from somewhere in the middle of the forest to Goongerah while Sean and Paul went ahead to set up camp at the Jill Redfern’s Tin Hut.
I didn’t have a full day on my own on the third leg, but because Josh had gone ahead and Sean was lagging behind, I walked most of the third day to Murrah Hall on my own, and next morning I was the only one to walk from the Hall back to our hosts, south of Bermagui. I remember that morning well – walking in the fresh early sunrise with no pack on my back, literally dancing in the middle of the deserted road…
Finally, on the fourth leg, there was the half day walk at Milton where I injured my leg, and the day my father died, Good Friday, when I walked alone 31km from Nowra to Gerringong. A day of weeping.
I remember each of these days very well. They were days of great introspection. I remember the music I listened to on my iPhone to keep me travelling along: eg. The entire playlist of Iron & Wine to Kalangadoo, and Preisner’s Requiem for my Friend and Mozart’s Requiem on the way to Gerringong. I can’t remember what I was dancing to on the way to Bermagui that morning, but I suspect that it was my Ukulele playlist (including Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Over the Rainbow and Ingrid Michaelson’s You and I). Each of them were very simple days – little to distract me in terms of sightseeing. I wouldn’t say that when I walk on my own I am “deep” in thought, but the thoughts flow freely and without focus. Recalling what St Bruno said about a bow becoming useless when it is kept taut all the time, these days of walking alone are precisely the kind of days when the taut string in my brain is able to go loose for a bit. And in that lies recreation.
This long introduction is by way of saying that yesterday (October 8) was my “walk alone” day for this leg. It was not planned as such, but turned out that way due to a confluence of the weather, a slightly shorter day’s walk and the pressure for me to get my marking done for my uni class (there should be a rule about taking work with you on pilgrimage, but at the same time, it is better to go on pilgrimage and take your work, if that is the only way you can possibly manage it!). I still had about nine essays to go. The weather had deteriorated: it hardly got over 10 degrees all day, the wind was blowing, and regular showers were coming through, some of them quite heavy. Our weather apps were telling us that most of the precipitation would pass over by 2pm. The other constriction was that we had to get to Linton by about 6pm to catch the 6:12 Mount Gambier to Ballarat coach back to Smythesdale at the end of the day. And we had about 20km to walk (just over 18 on the trail between Smythesdale and Linton, but add on the couple of kms we needed to walk from Woolmunda Park to Smythesdale). I figured I could do that easily in 5 hours, if not less, and so I did not have to leave until 1pm. Sean, on the other hand, was eager to get going, and so he set off into the wind and rain at 9am in the morning.
Which left me on my own safe and warm in front of the fire in our cottage with my ipad and essays and a pot of tea… Perfect marking conditions. Under these circumstances, my progress was rapid, and by 1pm when I finally set off, I had only two more essays to mark. Because I had had lunch already, I made the decision not to carry any pack with me. I stuffed my poncho into the pocket of my pants, my phone/headphones/battery/wallet into the other pocket, my pilgrim passport in my shirt pocket, put my hat on my head, picked up my hiking stocks, and I was off…
…into fresh wind but glorious sunshine! I felt truly unburdened. Well, not quite, life never is; there were still those two essays left to mark, and there were the many cares of my family and friends for whom I am praying along the way, but let us just say that the bow was unstrung. I did not end up needing the poncho at all, as the only rain I experienced was a short sun shower at the end of the day in which the rain drops were practically floating on the wind. The wind was indeed brisk and cold, and, for the first part of the walk, in my face, as it was coming up from the south.
I covered the walk into Smythesdale fairly rapidly (in fact, I kept up a good pace of about 5km/hr all day, and did not stop for a rest at any point). Smythesdale is a pretty little town with a number of historical buildings from its gold-digging past. I popped into the post office store and received a stamp in my pilgrim passport. I had no need to explain what I was doing as Sean had already been along earlier and done that at length.
The track from Smythesdale is in an L-shape: the first section heads south-west to Scarsdale. This section has small holdings backing on to the trail on both sides and is reasonably sheltered. At Scarsdale, I visited the corner store which doubles as a post office, where Belinda was happy to add the Scarsdale stamp into the passport. Again, no need to explain. Sean had stopped here for a cup of coffee, however I fear it was not up to his usual standards (which are, admittedly, fairly high when it comes to coffee). Just on the south side of Scarsdale back on the trail, there is a shelter, a toilet and a water fountain, where I was able to have a drink – but that is the only drink of water I took on the whole trip. I was pretty well hydrated from a number of cups of tea while doing my marking earlier!
After Scarsdale, the track heads directly south into country where the eastern side of the trail is still looking into the backs of homes and small farms, but the western side looks out over open countryside towards the hills over the pine plantations and the Linton Forest Reserve. There are many high mounds of old mining tailings visible in this area, with a few ruins from the mining days as well. The trail turns abruptly west south of Scarsdale, at the point where the old railway bifurcated and the Cressy-Newtown Rail Line headed south (it isn’t there anymore, but you can see the cutting on the east side of the rail trail where it once branded off). The views into the valley towards the south at this point are absolutely breathtaking. In fact, from this point on, my heart was singing with the joy of the countryside. I grew up in a little town in the Mallee on the edge of the South Australian/Victorian border. There were mallee trees, flies and dust for most of my childhood and the only kind of hills were sand hills. So when I see green rolling hills and valleys with dams and gum trees and pine trees and cattle and sheep and creeks and bridges… well.
There is a little – no a BIG – surprise for the walker just a kilometre on after the corner: Nimon’s Bridge, an enormous wooden railway bridge of the sort that we last saw on the MWW in far eastern Gippsland on the Bairnsdale to Orbost rail trail. This spans the valley of the Woady Yaloak River, a site of very busy gold mining in the 19th Century. The Golden Stream, Golden Spur and Galatea mining areas can be seen from the bridge. You can either walk down and cross the River for a good view looking up at the bridge, or you can walk over the bridge for the spectacular views down into the valley. I went down to get a good look and a photo, and then climbed back up the embankment again onto the bridge (something that would have been a challenge with a full pack on my back!).
Soon after this, the trail enters into the Linton Forest. Here now I was fairly sheltered from the wind and the sun was shining through a sky full of white fluffy clouds. There were a couple more bridges along the way, nowhere near as big as Nimon’s, but still interesting. One was an old road bridge that once spanned the railway cutting – only the wooden struts are left now. The trail also goes past a bird sanctuary and lake. Linton Forest looks like the kind of place I’d like to explore a bit more one day. After a while the trail converges with the Linton-Piggoreet Road on the south side coming into Linton. It emerges from the forest about 1km outside Linton. This last kilometre is very beautiful again. South of Linton, the trail goes through a pine glade. At this point, I turned off onto Brooke Street, which leads into a small Avenue of Honour on Denison Street. At the memorial, I turned east up Clyde Street and climbed up to the main street of Linton which runs along a ridge. Here I found Sean wandering about sightseeing and taking photos. He had found the hotel and visited the local shire offices (Linton is in the top North West corner on the very border of the Golden Plains Shire, which has its “capital” at Bannockburn, right down in the southwest corner just a few miles from Geelong!). There are many businesses in Linton that look as if they tried to make a go of making the town into a tourist destination: B&Bs that are closed, antique stores closed, cafes closed etc. That’s a bit sad, because the town is very attractive and has many historical buildings.
Speaking of which, I arranged to meet Sean back at the pub but first went up to St Peter’s Catholic Church at the western end of Clyde Street. The church was closed, but I knelt on the front steps and said some prayers before going around the back and using the outdoor loo (which was open, thankfully!). Across the road is the old presbytery, which is uninhabited and looks fairly unused by anyone. Sean said that when he first cycled through this area back in 2012, he stayed with an old priest in this house. It is a bit sad to see it neglected. Could it be used as a retreat house, like the presbytery at Cowwar? Or a pilgrim hostel on the MacKillop-Woods Way in the future?
I went back down to find Sean in the local watering hole. Two other people were in the bar – the publican, a native of Mount Gambier named David who bought the pub 14 years ago, and a generously bearded fellow by the name of Garth. Stella Artois was the only beer on tap that I thought I’d like to try, and I had one of those before ordering a small whiskey as well (to warm the innards). We had good conversation about the area, and about other country pubs and tourism around Victoria and South Australia. David used to do Bed and Breakfast at the Hotel, but for various reasons this service is not currently available – otherwise this would have made a great place to stay overnight. But we had to get back to Woolmunda Park, and so we headed out into the now bitting-cold wind to wait for the bus to arrive (outside the closed cafe). The coach came directly on time at 6:12 and we were back in Smythesdale about 15 mins later. While we were walking back to our accommodation, the afore-mentioned sun shower passed over, leaving a full rainbow in the eastern sky over over our path. A promise for finer things tomorrow?
As we passed the spa bath, we noted that it was on and very hot, and so we decided to make use of it. As soon as we arrived at the cottage (and rebuilt the fire), we grabbed towels and the remaining three beers and headed back down. The water felt very hot when we first got in, but then we got used to the temperature. The jets of water were great on our aching backs and our feet and knees felt much better after soaking in the spa for half an hour. We were feeling very relaxed when we got back to the cottage. I could easily have gone to sleep straight away, but first we needed dinner. I cooked up the lamb chops we bought at the IGA the day before, along with mashed potatoes, broccoli, carrots, snow peas, and a fry up of tomatoes, onions and capsicum. After all this I really was tired. I managed to mark just one more essay before heading to bed for the best night’s sleep I have had on our journey so far!
Today’s journey was 20.3km which I walked in just 4 hours.
Here is a map: