Despite my sanctified surroundings, I slept badly overnight. I woke around 3am quite sore from sleeping on a relatively hard surface and then tossed and turned for the next two and a half hours before I decided to get up. It was fairly pointless rising so early – given my lunch appointment was only 7km away, I didn’t need to leave until about 10am. But I spent the time writing up my account for yesterday, and by the time I had finished, dawn had brought light back to the world.
I can’t say exactly how I spent the next three hours, but it was largely in arranging and sorting out my gear. I’m not obsessive compulsive or anything. I just take a while, when first starting out, getting to know my pack and where everything is. I like to have a kind of mental inventory so that when I am on the road I can reach what I need without having to unpack everything. I was growing concerned at how heavy my pack was. I don’t think I had over packed, but I certainly had more food than I needed. My strange breakfast included a sachet of instant “gourmet” porridge left for me by Rosemary and the last of the Easter lamb roast from Sunday’s picnic heated up in the microwave with a few pieces of Turkish bread.
I left the church at 9:30 and headed off toward Westmere, 7 or 8 km along the Highway. Today’s traffic was different to yesterday’s: generally less busy, hardly any holiday travellers, but a LOT more trucks, semi-trailers and B-doubles. Being passed by one of those as I was walking on the verge was like having an office block hurtle past at 100km an hour. So I tried wherever possible to avoid proximity to the road and find a clear space to walk further out. This was possible about 50% of the time. There was not much “scenery” except for a large body of water known as “Chinaman Swamp” on the side of the road heading into Westmere. All through the day there were large clouds of smoke on the horizon where farmers were burning off the stubble. My aunt (who lives north of here) is highly critical of this practice, both because it denies the return of necessary nutrients to the soil but also because these paddock fires often get out of control and end up damaging surrounding properties. My mother tells me though that one reason is to kill off weeds.
Speaking of Mum, she rang to tell me that Lake Bolac was in the news because a local indigenous sacred site had been desecrated. Apparently some “place stones” had been moved by a local farmer (see here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-04-06/victorian-aboriginal-site-lake-bolac-eastern-maar-damage/100051462). More on this later.
John Casanova rang as I was passing the Swamp and we arranged that we would meet at the bottom of Casanova Road on the other side of Westmere in an hour. That gave me time to get into the little village and briefly check out the grain silos, the old station house, and the rest of the small village including the Anglican Church, which (John told me later) has recently been sold.
Just as I was arriving at our meeting point about 1km the other side of town at 11:30, I could see a red car slowly rolling down the road toward me. The rendezvous was perfectly timed. John was born in 1929, and, as one of four members of the local Streatham Historical Society, might well be considered their oral history exhibit. When we arrived at the weatherboard farmhouse – similar to many large old homes in the area – I asked him “Has this been your home all the way?” His answer was “Yes, and I’m glad you didn’t say ‘all your life’ because I haven’t finish my life yet!” Once inside I was introduced to Helen, a quiet and gentle woman who prepared lunch while John and I talked about all things under the sun. She turns out to have been quite a long distance walker herself, having participated in many Right-To-Life walks from one place or another in regional Victoria all the way to Melbourne. This dear couple had a deep passion for their faith, a strong commitment to their local community and great pride in their children, especially their daughter who took final vows in the Missionary Sisters of Charity in 2004 and their son who is a priest in Wagga Wagga (in the order of Christ the Priest). They have 10 children in all, 35 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren – the most recent arrived just last week. John played a recording of a piano composition written by his grand daughter. Lunch was simple – sliced mutton with mashed potatoes and salad and ice cream for dessert.
[I need to be be more brief. I’ve just returned to this narrative now during my break between “first and second sleep” early on Thursday morning…]
John returned me to the road at 2:30. The morning cloud cover had evaporated, and the sun was quite fierce, even though the cool southerly breeze (which has been my constant friend and companion) was still blowing. There was 13 km to go to Lake Bolac, and I was still getting used to the weight of my pack. I could have got by on two sets of clothes rather than three, as I have worn the same clothes each day for walking (who is out here to smell me?). The bulk of the weight is my tent (1.75kg), my mattress (580g), foam sleeping mat (doubles as under sheet for tent) and my sleeping bag (1kg), plus food, water, clothes, medical kit, toiletries, mallet and trowel, phone (+ charger, battery, etc) and spare set of tyres (sandals). I haven’t brought wet weather gear as I have found that it weighs too much and I have rarely used it. Besides, unless a long downpour is expected, it is more comfortable to get wet and dry out at this time of year.
I was a bit alarmed when I turned back to look at John and Helen’s home and saw billowing black smoke behind it. Then I realised that this was just another controlled “burning off” in a nearby paddock. Looking around, there were many other clouds of smoke on the horizon. While this practice may be “controlled”, I must say it would concern me having all this fire activity around my wooden home!
A consequence of the “burning off” practice is that the local farmers often have made firebreaks on the highway side their fence lines by ploughing up the grass and soil. In many cases this gave me a path to walk that was away from the highway traffic but not in long grass, although the rough surface was less than ideal.
The walk into Lake Bolac was just a hard slog with little of interest. The highway skirts the northernmost point of the Lake a few kilometres out of town. Nearby is the cemetery, and I paused to pray for the faithful departed as I passed. At this point I had an unexpected call from a woman who introduced herself as Helen. She and her husband Reg had been alerted to my arrival by John, and they were inviting me to dinner! Not having other plans, I gratefully accepted.
On the way into town, I came across some parked vehicles on the side of the road, and a hand-painted sign reading “Sacred Site Desecrated”. I remembered my mother’s news story this morning. I had not expected the place to be right in my path. An indigenous man – Rob – was sitting on the southern side of the highway looking across at the site on the northern side. A four wheel drive vehicle was parked on the other side and a man with “authorised officer” written all over him was investigating the damage. The paddock I was looking at was full of stones to which I could see no pattern. Rob explained to me that the stones were in the shape of the eel totem, as the lake was a source of this food for the ancestors. The local farmer had started clearing the stones, removing the “tail” of the eel and piling them up “out of the way” (so he could “spray for weeds” according to the news story). I could see quite clearly where a front end loader had removed the stones. I asked Rob whether the farmer knew of the significance of the site, and he replied vehemently “His father did.” The implication appeared to be that there had been a generational change in the land management and the old man’s son had other ideas about what to do with “his” land. Mind you it also occurred to me that the builders of the highway had either been ignorant of the site’s significance or had not cared when the road was put through between the sacred site and the lake…
I pushed on, because it was now 4:40, and I wanted to catch the post office to get a stamp in my passport before closing. Lake Bolac is a fairly substantial town, with a supermarket, several roadside cafes, a pub and churches, although the Anglican Church had been converted into a domestic dwelling, and the Uniting Church (an historical Presbyterian construction) did not look as if it was regularly used. The town does have a post office still (in fact it looks quite new) and the lady in attendance was very happy to give me a stamp when I arrived 5 minutes before closing.
My luck (or pilgrim’s blessing) held out, because as I was passing the pub, the young woman who runs the joint was just putting the sign out and setting down the bar stools. Three other blokes drove up and came in as well, and soon we each had a cold beer before us. I later learned that the pub had had an “open again, closed again” history over recent years, and Sally, the woman who currently has the licence, had been the cook under the previous failed management. My three bar companions were travelling shearing-shed builders who had just knocked off for the day.
I did not linger, as I wanted to get to the Foreshore Caravan Park to get my tent up and have a shower before my dinner appointment. As I approached the park entrance I saw evidence that the proprietor, Frank, was less than happy with our premier Daniel Andrews. Various posters and artistic installations were indicative of this negative opinion. This was confirmed upon my entry into the office to book a site. I said to him, “Does it help if I assure you that I don’t stand with Dan either?” It did help – I got the site for $10 instead of $15. This wasn’t a bad deal. Considering you can camp on the foreshore for nothing, I was more than happy to pay $10 for the use of the shower block and the camp kitchen. Frank told me I could take any site that was vacant. I went down into the far corner of the park, where I found a fully enclosed camp kitchen that seemed no one else was using (the main one was closer to the shower block). I set my tent up nearby on soft lawn. By the time I had gotten sorted and had a shower, Reg was waiting to pick me up for dinner.
Reg and Helen live only a few hundred metres away from the caravan park on the shore of the lake. He pointed out St Bernard’s Catholic Church as we went past, a quite substantial building of a similar vintage to the Streatham church. Reg told me that after retiring from farming 20 years ago (selling the farm, although they had four sons, to make settlement easier), he worked as the lake ranger for about ten years. This included the drought years when the Lake dried up and the flood year when 13 inches of rain in a couple of days filled the lake to overflowing. He said it was a 25km walk around the lake, but in many places it is private property down to the high water mark. His particular passion were the wild apple trees growing around the lake, which he claimed to be very fine, unspoiled by chemicals and insecticide. Indeed we had apple pie after the meal made from those apples. I suggested he give cider making a go, but this received some comment about the demon drink, so I let that go. (We had orange juice, water and a cup of tea as beverages with the meal.) Our conversation hardly touched church matters (it had been nothing else with John and Helen at lunch), but concentrated on stories of our travels in Australia and Europe. At the end of the meal, I thanked them for their generosity but said I was very tired and needed an early start in the morning. Helen drove me back and, just as we were pulling up at the caravan park, I realised that I had forgotten to take a picture of them both for my record of the pilgrimage. (The same happed with John and Helen, but I snapped a selfie with John in the car as he dropped me off.)
I didn’t muck about when I got to the camp. I brushed my teeth, and hopped into bed and fell asleep before 9pm.
Today’s recorded distance was 23.6km in all, although the planned route was 20.9km. My iPhone says I walked 24.5km.