We made a good early start on our eighth day of walking from Fr Bernard’s presbytery in Traralgon, calling in first to the Church to sing the Regina Caeli in front of the icon of our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and then to say the prayers in commemoration of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop at her image. Traralgon city centre has some impressive buildings, in particular the Post Office, but as it was only 8:15am, it wasn’t open and so we were not able to get a stamp in our pilgrim passports.
The morning was crisp and cool, but the sun was shining and continued to shine all day with clear blue skies. In summer this would normally have meant very warm weather, but today there was a cool breeze blowing, and so the conditions were almost perfect. The country air out here is fresh and clean – a real tonic to inhale deeply as we walked.
We were looking for the start to the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail, on which we will be walking for the next few days, and which we would walk today as far as Cowwar. We found it a couple of kms out of town along the main road lined with agricultural, building and machinery businesses. The beginning did not look very auspicious; just a track on the top of the old mound where the railway used to be. About 1km up the track however, we discovered the “official” start to the trail began on the outskirts of town rather than from the main road. From here on the trail was good gravel, straight and level. The walking was effortless today, and the surface very clean. I was wearing my sandals and thick white cotton socks (my preferred footwear on this journey – gives real freedom to the feet – the socks don’t have to be white, they just are) and by the end of the journey my socks were almost as white as they were when I left.
The land around us was flat, green and broad, with cattle grazing in the paddocks under the shade of gumtrees. To the north were the towering mountains of the Alpine National Park, up beyond Walhalla and Licola. Against the blue sky they were blue-purple silhouettes, growing fainter with distance till the highest and most distant mountains were almost indistinguishable from the sky itself. It would be nice one day to walk in them thar hills, but not today.
The trail crossed numerous billabongs and creeks, inc lauding the Latrobe River. In many cases the old trestle bridges had been preserved and were utilised now as bridges for the trail. These cannot be appreciated from the trail itself – you have to go down alongside the creek or river to see them properly.
There are two townships on this part of the trail. The first, about a third of the way to Cowwar, is the town of Glengarry. As we came into the town, you see what looks to be three churches in the street – the first is the Anglican Church and the third is Collumbkille’s Catholic Church, but the one in the middle is the old Mechanics Institute which is being restored.
As we approached the Main Street, we saw the first of a number of veteran, pre-WW1 motor cars coming up the streets. We saw many more of these throughout the day – and motorcycles too – as there was a rally on nearby. This added excitement and colour to the day. Whenever we came to a road crossing on the trail, we would be sure to see one or two of these putting along. Perhaps we can add “veteran car” as an option for travelling the MacKillop-Woods way!
In Glengarry itself, there are a couple of attractions. On the trail is the old Glengarry Station house, nicely preserved and available for lease (according to a sign in the window). This two roomed building with running water would make a nice bunkhouse or B&B along the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail – It is a wonder this has not be considered by some enterprising person already.
The other attraction, and one not to be missed by the hungry pilgrim, is the bakery. Already in Trarlgon rumours were heard of this prize-winning establishment. The reputation was well deserved. The pastie I bought was perhaps the best I have ever had (and that is saying something for one who was raised in South Australia), and the lamb pie was filled with chunks of lamb and vegetables. While sitting at the table outdoors, a fellow joined us and we began a conversation. I asked if he was a local, to which he ummed and ahhed a bit and then said he was from Mirboo North – a town in the Strezlecki Ranges to the south from here (perhaps most famous today for the Grand Ridge Brewery and as a motorcycling Mecca – the roads around the town are great riding). In any case, he has a little food shop there, and he was coming to the Glengarry Bakery to pick up his consignment of pies and other goods for his shop. That is high recommendation indeed! In our conversation, we mentioned the Aussie Camino from Portland to Penola and it turns out that he himself is a South Australian – he used to be a butcher in Mount Gambier. Time was when he could remember back in the 80’s sending goods along the railway from Mount Gambier to Kalangadoo – the route that the Aussie Camino now takes.
The next town along the trail, about two thirds of the way to Cowwar, is Toongabbie. There is not much here in the way of provisions for the pilgrim, but there is a general store near the trail which provides some takeaway food, some basic groceries and liquor. I thought about buying a bottle of wine here, but decided against it on the basis of the existence of a very good pub at Cowwar. This turned out to be a mistake, as you will see. Nevertheless, I did grab some milk, weetbix, can of soup, packet of corn chips, some salsa and some chocolate (all considerably adding to the weight in my pack – but I am getting used to it now). John Cooney, our host in Cowwar, had said that there would be some food at the Old Presbytery when we arrived, but had not specified what, and I did not wish to be without the wherewithal to survive for a few days. Again, my planning could have been better in this regard.
Just before we got into Toongabbie, we stopped for a rest outside the Cemetery, which was sensibly located on a road called “Cemetery Road”. The tombstones indicated a local population going back to the 1870’s, and some of the very oldest grave markers were actually made out of wood, rather than stone. No traces of any writing on these boards remained, however. I love country graveyards, and wish that I could be buried one day in such glorious surroundings rather than in the vast impersonal necropoles of the city. I said the pilgrim’s prayer for the holy souls and we passed on our way.
The straight stretches of the Trail when it is lined with thick bush or open plains on either side often result in the effect of walking through a tunnel toward a distant and ever remote vanishing point, such that you don’t always have a very good sense of how far you have walked. This was the case as we approached Cowwar toward 4pm in the evening. About a a kilometre out, Sean spotted the hotel in the distance. We were very much looking forward to popping in for a pint at the end of our day.
Our arrival at Cowwar was marked by the old railway platform at the end of this leg of the trail. We turned down the Main Street to walk towards Church Street, and in the opposite direction coming towards us, I saw a figure in shorts and a wide brimmed floppy hat striding toward us. Coming nearer, I recognised the visage of my old friend John Cooney.
I’ve known John since I began working for the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission back in 2001. He was the VCC rep for the Sale Diocese and on the Sale Commission with Fr Peter Bickley. John also was an early member of the Jewish Christian Muslim Association, and came to a number of our annual conferences. I had stayed once in Cowwar about 10 years ago as his guest while attending a VCC rural assembly in Sale. St Brigid’s Church in Cowwar, while still having masses once a fortnight and sometimes during the week (served by a priest of the Anglican Ordinariate) has not had a resident priest for decades, and so the large many-bed roomed presbytery is now used as a retreat centre. Nearby is Rainbow Creek, flowing past a lawned picnic grounds. When planning this pilgrimage, I was overjoyed to see that Cowwar was about half way along the Rail Trail, making it the perfect place to stop and rest for a day. I immediately contacted John, an pilgrim who has travelled the Camino de Santiago several times, and was assured that we would have a place to stay.
John took us down the Main Street and into Church street around to the presbytery where he settled us in. On the way we passed the general store and post office (which is nowhere near as well stocked as the one in Toongabbie, so it probably was a good idea to buy food there), and the pub. As we neared the pub, he said: “That’s not open today, it’s only on Wednesday to Sundays”!!! Doh! There’s another piece of information I should have picked up before leaving on the trip. We had been intending to eat at the pub, as well as get our alcohol supply there for the next few days. But we need not have feared: John later sent his son Anthony over with four cans of Carlton Draught and a quiche and salad made by his wife Judy. In addition they had left for us cereals and milk, coffee and tea, bread and jam, a can of soup, and some fruit, so we really had all we needed and more.
As soon as we arrived, I went into St Brigid’s Church to sing the Regina Caeli. The presbytery accommodation is not very fancy, but has everything a weary pilgrim needs: a choice of rooms and beds (from very hard to very soft), kitchen supplied with utensils and oven and microwave and stove, good showers – even a bathtub in the laundry, the use of which I availed myself as soon as I had unpacked. I then returned to the Church to say evening prayer.
After we had had dinner, which consisted of Judy’s quiche and salad preceded by the chicken soup I had bought in Toongabbie and washed down with a glass of beer, John, Judy and Anthony called round and we sat and chatted by the gas fire in the lounge for a while. They invited us over for lunch tomorrow. I asked what time we should come, and the answer was “Lunchtime”. Cowwar time is not as precise as Melbourne time! In the mean time, Sean had been doing a bit of investigating and had gone around to the old school hall (the school also no longer in operation). There he found Mary O’Brien laying out things for dinner. He introduced himself and found that she was preparing for the the Senior Singles dinner on Tuesday night. Moreover, if we wanted to, we could join them for the grand price of $8 each for the meal. Sean has accepted on behalf of us both, so that is our evening meal sorted. Time with the locals!
I didn’t bother trying to write anything on the blog tonight. I did the washing in the washing machine, and hung the clothes on the line on the verandah. Tomorrow is going to be quite warm so there will be no hassles with drying. Sean and I were so tired that we both retired at about 8:00pm. We were going to use our sleeping bags, but Judy insisted that we use towels and sheets out of the cupboard.
According to Google Earth, we travelled 27.2km tokay – the GPS put it at 30.5kms. We did a fair bit of additional wandering around, so that is not unlikely.