I am a day behind in my write-ups of the pilgrimage – I was so tired last night (Thursday night) that I went straight to bed at 8:30pm and Sean had to wake me at 6:30am this morning.
So – travelogue first then “inner stuff”.
We were staying at the Macalister Hotel in Maffra on Wednesday night. The rooms are cheap – $40 each, including basic breakfast of cereals and toast – but the food in the dining room is expensive and nothing to write home about (steaks at around $35, cheapest dish was flake and chips at $20). The really nice thing was the lounge area, which had a gas heater for us to dry out our clothes by, and was a comfortable place to have a cup of tea and write up my blog. When I went to bed, I had blaring Sports TV going in the outdoor area of the pub outside my window, but I didn’t really notice it once I put my earplugs in. I must have fallen asleep almost immediately.
We woke to sunshine and clear skies. Maffra is an interesting town with a lot to check out. We found the Catholic Church, a large red brick construction with an imposing double story presbytery on the side and a bell tower on the lawn in between. We knocked on the door of the presbytery, but Fr Darren wasn’t answering. We found out later that all the priests of the Diocese of Sale are on retreat this week. Maffra has many historic buildings that are worth checking out, and Sean was keen to get his morning cup of “really good coffee”. After coffee, we checked out the sugar beet museum (open on the first Sunday of each month between 10 and 2pm, so you have to be lucky). Heading down the Main Street, we came to the Maffra Motor Inn (aka the Motel), where Fr Ken of the Anglican Ordinariate and his wife Carmel are the proprietors. Ken was very happy to talk about our pilgrimage and to learn more about it. He had heard what we were doing, as he had been out at Cowwarr to celebrate the Annunciation Mass on Monday and again there only the previous morning for Weekday mass at 10am – unfortunately we missed him both times, but John Cooney told him about his guests. The Motor Inn would be a good alternative place to stay for any pilgrims coming through. Before we left, Fr Ken gave us his blessing – a very good way to set off.
We soon got back onto the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail, and the last leg took us through to Stratfort on the river Avon. The area we were walking through was largely cattle and irrigation land. I was staggered at one piece of irrigation machinery which, rather than usual 5 sections of sprinklers, had as many as 14 all in one piece. Eventually, just outside Stratford, we arrived at the point where the Rail Trail met the current working railway. At one time in the past, both railways were operating, and you can still see where they once joined.
Stratford is a really pretty little town, and the river on which it is situated is also very beautiful. I was surprised to find a large store selling Turkish ceremics, carpets and other paraphernalia – it felt like being back in Istanbul. We went around to look at the Catholic Church, and back to the bakery for lunch. There was an Historical Car club from Bairnsdale having their monthly morning tea run in town, which provided additional interest. We fell to talking with a woman at the bakery from Sale – Anne – who claimed to have been cured of cancer by St Mary MacKillop. We popped into the post office for a stamp on our pilgrim passports, and then headed out of town.
Not on the main highway though! Our route took us north on the Briagolong Road (C494), and then branching off onto the Stockdale Road. The Stockdale Road is very quiet, but there are still a few vehicles. If you like, there are horse trails on both sides of the road that you can walk on. Sean preferred this, but I was a little wary of snakes, and just walking in sandals and socks did not afford me much protection, so I walked on the road. When we arrived at the turn off to Freemans Lane (the next part of our route), I sat down to rest at a bus shelter and wait for Sean to catch up. It was then that I became aware that, perhaps for the very first time on our entire pilgrimage, we were in a spot where there was absolutely no vehicles or engines to be heard of any kind. It was completely silent except for crickets and birds.
The roads from Stratford had thus far been sealed bitumen roads, but now we turned onto a narrow gravel side road called Freemans Lane. This was absolutely idyllic. After wandering through farmland for a bit, we came down the hill into a forested area – some hardwood plantation and some natural bush reserve. I think this would have to have been one of the most peaceful sections of the whole pilgrimage. Not wanting to pass up a prayerful mood, I got my rosary out and prayed a round of the glorious mysteries for all my intentions on the journey.
The silence was broken by a kid on a trail bike just at the end of the reserve as we made our way into Munro. Munro was a “problem spot” for us in planning the Pilgrimage as there was no accomodation there and we could not locate a Catholic household to put us up for the night. John Cooney had graciously offered to meet us there and take us back to Cowwarr for the night. So, as planned, he was waiting for us outside the little Anglican Church when we arrived. We wanted to explore the hamlet a little more before heading off, and try to meet some locals. I spied a couple getting into their ute and trailor across from the Church on the north side of the Munro Hall, and went over to introduce myself to them.
They were the right people to speak to. David and Maureen are on the Hall committee and they said that they rent it out for $50 a night for functions. Sometimes cyclists come and camp on the hall grounds, where there is a sheltered barbecue area, toilets and fresh water in the rain water tank. I asked about pilgrims using the hall itself to camp in. At first they were a little hesitant – “How many people are we talking about?” – when I answered “No more than two or three at a time”, they said that that would be no problem at all. I have their details and gave them mine and will get in touch with them again once we get back to Melbourne to confirm any future plans. At the very least, Josh will be wanting some accomodation when he comes through later this year.
So John drove us back to Cowwarr. Sean and I had invited John and Judy out to dinner at the pub as a thank you for their generosity, but John had a pervious engagement leading a Men Alive scripture study group in the parish hall, and he felt obligated to that commitment. So Sean and I went around and met the Polish publican at the Cowwarr pub and ordered Osso Bucco for dinner. It was about $33 for a main serve, but it was a filling and delicious meal, with garlic bread and chips as sides.
Going back to the Parish House, I called into the Hall where the bible study was taking place. The men were just saying their closing prayers when I arrived. However, John introduced me and asked me, as they said to St Paul, “Have you any words of encouragement for us?” I did encourage them, and said how important it is a) for Catholic men to meet together and support one another and b) how good it was that they were reading and studying scripture together.
Then back to my room to bed and sleep came at once.
Now a little bit of inner stuff. As I mentioned, the silence in the post-Stratford section today was absolutely astounding. It struck right to my core and put me in a very prayerful frame of mind. I was happy to switch off my music and just let the silence sink in. All I could hear was the crunching of my feet on the gravel. Because the track was so isolated (and I was walking several hundred metres ahead of Sean) there was a real sense of being alone in the presence of the Creator.
I won’t write any more now – Sean is trying to sleep and since our present accommodation is one open plan room I need to put out the light.