Five years ago on Easter Monday 2016, I and my friends Sean and Josh set out on the first “leg” of the MacKillop-Woods Way from St Mary’s birthplace in Fitzroy toward her tomb in North Sydney. We reached Bairnsdale that year. Walking another “leg” each year, we arrived at Mary’s shrine in April 2019.
In October that same year, we embarked on a new leg of the MWW toward Penola where Mary MacKillop took the religious name Mary of the Cross, and founded the religious order of the Sisters of St Joseph. Leaving Fitzroy on 1 October, we arrived in Skipton on 9 October, 2019. Our intention was to continue the journey in October 2020 (after Joshua and I had walked the Camino de Santiago in April). Well, as we all know, all pilgrimages were cancelled along with everything else in 2020. A lot of other things changed in my life in 2020 too, quite unrelated to Covid-19…
So it is only now that I have had the chance to hit the road again. My friends, who were also chafing at the bit during lockdown, have made other plans for how they were spending these holidays, but they encouraged me to take the opportunity to continue our pilgrimage n my own while I had it .
So, after staying at the Snake Valley pub last night, I drove to Streatham where I had pre-arranged access to Saint Columba’s Church for accommodation tonight. Regular worship ceased in this handsome little church, built in 1968, 13 years ago due to lack of parishioners. The population in many rural districts has greatly decreased in recent decades. Streatham used to have a small convenience shop too, but that has also closed.
A local Catholic, Rosemary, was kind enough to arrange some supplies and leave the keys for me to access the church. I was able to leave my backpack with my tent and all my bedding and most of my other gear at the church so that I just had to take a day pack with water and food for today’s journey.
I then drove back to Skipton where I left my car in the care of the folk that we had met at the Skipton church when we came through in October 2019. Leaving from Skipton, I had hoped to get a post office stamp in my pilgrim passport, but then realised it was Easter Monday and that the post office would be shut. However in fact I noticed that the old post office had been permanently closed. So I thought to go up to the BP Roadhouse which was the only establishment open in the town on this holiday. There I was delighted to discover that the post office had moved into the Roadhouse, and as a result I was able to get a post office stamp after all.
I then hit the road. And I mean the road literally, because my route was the Glenelg Highway. Sean and I had been over and over the route for this leg, and there was simply no getting around the fact that, if we were to go via Hamilton and Alexander MacKillop’s grave, the only possible way of completing it was to walk on the highway. There are no alternative routes with any semblance of directness. There are some scenic alternatives, and Sean tried to convince me to take them, but overall they would have added about 50 km extra to the entire journey, making it impossible to get from one town to another in a day and to do the whole trip in 5 or 6 days. As it was today was a still a 30 km journey, and if I’d been carrying my full pack it would’ve been too much for me. Even with just a day pack, I was very grateful to arrive at Streatham in one piece after 6 1/2 hours of walking.
There have been times before on this pilgrimage when we have had to walk along the highway. Most notoriously there was the whole day that we had to walk along the verge of the Princes Highway on our way from Bodalla to Moruya in NSW. This was not quite as bad as that. The Glenelg Highway has very broad verges on both sides of the road – in some cases about 50m wide. But in most situations these verges were filled with very long grass or scrubland, and we are still on the inside of the end of snake season. Only just last week I went for a walk near Melbourne and in the first half hour I saw both a tiger snake and a brown snake which had come out to enjoy the spate of unseasonably warm weather. Nevertheless on today’s walk there was still many sections on which the local farmers had cut the grass along the road frontage of their properties, allowing for walking on these areas (wearing gaiters so that my shoes and socks don’t fill with grass seeds). For the record I didn’t see any legless lizards today. But there was still about half the journey where I had to walk right alongside the road. Under normal conditions this may not have been too bad, but this was Easter Monday, and the holiday makers were heading back to Melbourne. I would estimate that there were around 50 cars heading to Melbourne for every one vehicle heading to the other way. But about 1:30 in the afternoon the holiday traffic subsided making the rest of the journey both safe and enjoyable. Indeed it was quite pleasant at times. Nevertheless it has to be said that this section of the McKillip woods way pilgrimage could be the equivalent of the Meseta on the Spanish Camino (https://www.walkyourcamino.com/meseta.html). It is all open farmland, mostly flat, with no facilities, water stops etc between the towns at the start of the day and at the end. I am not recommending to either Sean or Joshua that they attempt this section. Sean is keen to try a more picturesque route to the south via Camperdown and Port Fairy. Of course doing it that way would miss out on going to Hamilton to Alexander McKillop‘s grave, but Sean does not seem that as a priority. It is enough that I have done it!
An unexpected pleasure today has arisen from a local contact. John Casanova is a local Catholic patriarch who had heard from Rosemary that I was coming through. He and his wife Helen live near Westmere. They have one son who is a priest with the Christ the Priest order and a daughter who is a Missionary Sister of Charity in Ireland. John was hoping to catch up with me as I walk through their vicinity tomorrow. He rang me this morning and we chatted about many things as I walked along including how we got through the Covid-19 lockdown. He said to me “Do you know of a parish in Melbourne called St Philip’s Blackburn North? I’ve been watching their online services all year and I watch Father Dillon’s morning mass every day.” I was delighted to be able to inform him that St Philip’s is my own parish and that the fellow he would’ve heard singing for Sunday masses all last year was none other than myself. Later in the day, John rang back to extend his invitation to catch up to include lunch with them. So this is something very much to look forward to tomorrow, especially as the day is somewhat shorter than today’s walk was.
I arrived in Streatham at around about 4:30 and made myself comfortable in the church. There is no shower or bath but I was able to have a “face washer bath” in the basin which was very refreshing. I’ve spent most of the evening talking on the phone to my wife, my mother, Joshua, and Sean. Rosemary had left a microwave in the Priest’s vestry, so I chopped up my two Kransky sausages with a tomato and some mushrooms and a packet of chicken soup powder to cook up a nice hot stew for dinner. I said vespers in the church, and rolled out my sleeping bag and mattress, and I thought I might have an early night. It was only 8:30 though, so I watched the first episode of the new program on the ABC about the Via Francigena. It seems to have been made by the same group who made the program about the Camino de Santiago that aired last year (at about the time I should have been walking it myself, which was a bit poignant). By the time I had done that, I felt tired enough to sleep. I switched off the light illuminating the crucifix on the wall above me, and closed my eyes. Day one accomplished.