The rain woke me at about 2am. It had begun as I was falling asleep, but it was really heavy now. I looked at my weather app and saw a large band of heavy rain sweeping all the way from South Australia through Victoria. Thankfully it appeared to be almost over. I was snug and dry and warm inside the tent. This time I was too tired to do any writing and I just rolled over snd went to sleep again.
When I woke in the morning the rain had gone, but it was cold and still very wet outside. I lay in bed longer than usual, but the got up and sat in the camp kitchen with a mug of tea while writing my journal and charging the phone and battery.
I had decided to avoid the highway by following the railway line again today until it crossed the highway, where a side road (called Mills Road) began which ran north and west parallel to the highway all the way to Hamilton. I was looking forward to a quieter country road for a change.
The other big question today was whether I was actually going to make it all the way to Hamilton (as planned) or not. There were two main difficulties. First: the distance. I had walked about 30km on Wednesday with a full pack, and it had almost done me in. As I read it, the distance between Dunkeld and Hamilton was even further and I was even more tired now than then. Secondly: the rain had left the tent wet and I needed to dry it out before packing, which would mean a late start. I looked at the satellite map and there was what looked like a grove of trees (pine?) about 20km along. I decided that I would take enough food and water to last me all day plus the following day, so that if I decided to camp out overnight I could do so. I would aim for the pine grove and make my decision when I arrived there. I could do a Belloc and just sleep for a bit and then get going again.
The sun came up and a small wooden platform near my tent offered a dry space for me to dump everything from inside the tent as I dealt with taking it down, drying it out and packing it up. I have a little joke about this process: what has the outside inside when it is moving and the inside outside when it stops? The answer is a pilgrim with a tent in his backpack. The process of getting the tent dry enough to pack up took a while, and it wasn’t until 9:45 that I started going – very late if I had 7 hours walking to do.
I stopped at the Mobil Roadhouse to get some Powerade. I picked up two small bottles, one for each breast pocket. “That’s be $13.65”, the cashier said. What? Surely not. “We’ve got a special on for two 1litre bottles $8.” How much is just one 1litre bottle? “$7.50.” !!? So I bought the two litre bottles and filled up my smaller water pouches and drank the 1/2 litre left over. I also decided to grab one of their $2 coffees, as it would be chess as per than anywhere else in town.
Then I went to the little general store and bought three bananas, tomato, a mandarin, and a pack of two kabanos sticks. My pack was feeling very weighed down now along with the two litres of water as well. I went looking for breakfast. I almost bought a savoury muffin from one of the trendy cafes to eat on the way, but remembered the bakery a few blocks off the main road and thought it would be cheaper, faster and simpler there. Wrong. The bakery was full, with a line up of customers being served very slowly. I asked one of the staff who was making coffee if they had muffins or pies? “We only bring out the pies later and we only have cruffins – a cross between a croissant and a muffin.” I waited in line a little longer, already weary of the weight of the pack on my shoulders. After five minutes in which the line of customers had progressed not one jot, I simply said out loud that I just wanted a “cruffin” to go and could not wait under the weight of this pack all day. They gave me a muffin shaped croissant filled with soft chocolate cream and charged me $6. I took it and ate it as I left town in the railway line, and it was like ashes in my mouth as I went.
While I made my way out of town along the railway line, I soon shifted back onto the firebreak along the highway which was smoother going. A couple of kilometres out of town on the north side is a pull-over stop for motorists to get a good view of Mt Sturgeon. I crossed the road to get a few photos of the scene myself, and then returned to my “path”. At the Penhurst-Dunkeld Road, I shifted back to the railway line track, and followed this all the way to the start of Mills Road. It wasn’t always easy going, and I swapped sides fairly regularly. Also I was not wearing my gaiters at first, and stones were constantly getting in between my feet snd the sole of my sandals. I couldn’t recall having this problem yesterday and realised that the gaiters actually reduced this problem. So I put them back on.
I was relieved to get to Mills Road. At last, I thought, I get to leave the highway behind for good and can enjoy the country peace and quiet. Big mistake. A sign at the beginning of the road should have warned me: “Mobile speed cameras operate in this area.” It turns out that this road was the locals’ alternative to the highway. So the traffic was as heavy as the highway, although without the big trucks – but also without the generous verge (there was no verge at all in some places) or the nice firebreaks to walk on. A large section had been recently resealed, without lines painted yet, and there were many loose stones on the surface and on the side. I was anxious that a passing car could throw up a stone and do me some serious damage. I had walked about 15km and was becoming tired. I knew the grove of trees was coming up. I finished listening to my book, and so just began just praying the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) in rhythm to my strides. On and on and on… I thought about sitting down on the narrow side of the road for a rest, and once attempted to do so, only to find myself sitting on an ant nest. I jumped up and kept going.
Eventually the grove of trees came in sight. Sadly they were not pine trees, which would have left a cover of soft pine needles to relax upon, but a small plantation of eucalyptus trees. The ground underneath was just a mass of sticks and bark. Also, it was fenced off on private property. Nevertheless I needed to rest, and there being nowhere on the road to do so, I let myself into the grove through a gate. Going in as far as I guessed necessary to be invisible from the road, I dropped my pack off my back, unrolled the blue foam, and sat on it to think. I first dealt with my feet, lathering them with voltarin anti-inflammatory cream. My blisters seemed okay, but I could feel hotspots in other locations on the balls and arches of my feet. I got out the strapping tape and bound my feet up a bit to give extra muscular support. Then I called Josh and talked over my options. In the end I decided to push on. I could not reasonably stay the night in this location and no other option was offering itself to me. I looked up the nearest accommodation on the internet and found the Bandicoot Motor Inn about two kilometres out of Hamilton on the highway. Rooms started at $104. So I made the booking. Now committed, I ate a good deal of my food, poured out most of my water (goodbye 2kg), packed up and headed off again.
I saw by the map that I could cut off a section of Mills Road by detouring down to Strathkellar and taking Strachans Road. This really was a quiet country road, and, looking at the map, I could have joined it about 6 or 7km back had I stayed on the railway line instead of following Mills Road. Nevertheless it too eventually joined up again with Mills Road, and I walked this for a few more kilometres before turning back toward the highway on Robsons Road. At this point my random playlist in Spotify started playing a Dixieland style rendition of the Old Rugged Cross, and I switched over to the complete album of these jaunty old-time hymns. After the Old Rugged Cross, there was What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Nearer My God to Thee, and Amazing Grace. Singing along, my pace picked up, as did my spirits. Back on the highway, there was a bike path leading into town. Then the “Hamilton” sign came into sight and finally the motel where my room awaited me. “Tell me there is a giant Bandicoot outside?” Josh said on the phone. “You won’t believe it, but there is!” I replied. “Take a picture and send it to me!”
That last 9km was worth all the effort just for the hot shower, a full meal, a glass of beer and soft sheets on a warm bed. My feet were throbbing with pain, but I could now rest at last. The pilgrimage still had some kilometres to go, but for tonight I could rest free of anxiety.
Before going to bed, I unpacked my damp tent and hung it out to dry on the curtain rails. I watched a little more of the BBC program on the Via Francigena. The celebrity “pilgrims” on their path to Rome were complaining of having to walk 13km. “I’ve never walked so far in my life!” one man exclaimed. I’d just knocked off 31.5km with a full pack… I admit that I was a little self satisfied, but very grateful to God that I had made it.