Endings are hard. The end of a pilgrimage is, I think, especially hard. John Cooney said to me the other day that he always found arriving in Santiago a bit of an anticlimax at the end of the Camino. I can understand why many go on to Finisterre after Santiago – they just can’t stop. I guess I could go down to the lake tomorrow morning and throw my sandals in…
Actually, we still have a bit of a journey to go. When we arrived in Bairnsdale this afternoon there was a wedding just finishing at St Mary’s, so we didn’t want to bust into the party. Instead we went down to the station (it closes on Saturday at the odd time of 16:40, and we arrived at 16:10) and bought our tickets for the train journey back home tomorrow. I am rather looking forward to this, to travelling back along the path we walked in reverse. We followed the train line for much of the way here. It really is the lifeline of Gippsland. There is an odd symbiotic relationship between walking trails and trains too. When we were not actually following the line, we were often walking on trails that used to be railways. On the first day we walked along the Waverley line, then along the Ringwood-Belgrave rail trail, then along the Puffing Billy line for a few days, before meeting up with the Sale/Bairnsdale line at Garfield and practically following it to Moe. Then there was the Yallourn Rail Trail, and from Traralgon the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail before we met up again with the Bairnsdale line at Stratford and virtually followed that through to here. When we start up our pilgrimage again, we will be on another rail trail for three days to Orbost.
But for the moment, this is the end of the line. Fitting then that we had our final meal at the Grand Terminus Hotel near the station. A very good meal of lamb cutlets. Reasonable price – in fact I thought it was very cheap when I paid the bill. As we were walking away, I realised the problem – our drinks had not been added to the tab. Sean thought I should take the attitude “the Camino provides”, but I went back and paid for them. I didn’t want to end the pilgrimage feeling guilty. As Arthur Dent said, I would be “all cross and wouldn’t enjoy it”.
We are staying tonight at the Presbytery at St Mary’s in Bairnsdale. I had arranged this with Fr Peter Bickley, a long time acquaintance like John Cooney through the Sale Diocesan Ecumenical Affairs Commission. Peter has been chairperson for as long as I have worked for the Archdiocese. When we began planning our pilgrimage, Peter was parish priest here, but he was shifted at the end of last year to become the dean and parish priest of the Cathedral in Sale. Thankfully, his successor in Bairnsdale was also an acquaintance – Fr Michael Willemsen. Fr Michael kindly honoured Fr Peter’s offer of accommodation. As it turned out, when we arrived, Fr Michael had already left for the overnight stay in Omeo where he is saying mass this weekend and won’t be back till tomorrow afternoon. However, Fr Peter was back in town as the celebrant of the wedding we saw this afternoon as we arrived. He was watching the Adelaide vs Richmond match on television in the lounge room when we arrived and were shown to our rooms by Fr Siju, one of the assistant priests of the parish. We had half an hour or so to catch up and talk about the pilgrimage and other news before Fr Peter needed to leave for the wedding reception. Before he did, he kindly granted us a pilgrims’ blessing.
Earlier, on our way back from buying our tickets at the train station, Sean and I had gone into St Mary’s to sing the Regina Caeli at the Lady Chapel, to pray the commemoration of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, and to give thanks to God for the safe conclusion of this, our first leg of the MacKillop-Woods Way pilgrimage to St Mary’s shrine in Sydney. St Mary’s is a very suitable place to end this first leg of our pilgrimage; in fact, it would be a suitable place to which to make a pilgrimage full stop. It isn’t an official shrine or anything, but the building itself is something of a tourist Mecca thanks to the work of an itinerant artist many years ago. It is sometimes called the Gippsland Sistine Chapel and you can see the source of the inspiration. It isn’t Michelangelo, but it is impressive. The Church is currently undergoing extensive renovations at a great cost. The building is aging in all departments, from its floor to its walls to its ceiling and the frescoes themselves.
From the beauty of the man-made sanctuary, let us turn to the beauty of the sanctuary not made by human hands, namely God’s own creation through which Sean and I walked today. Last night at the Lindenow Pub, Sal advised us that the better road to walk to Bairnsdale would be on the north side of the Mitchell River Valley rather than on the main road into town. Despite it being hillier and slightly longer by a couple of kilometres, we decided to take her advice and are glad we did on every level. The full distance of the new route was 21kms by Google Maps, but 23.8 by the GPS. Our planned route was to be only 17kms.
We left Lindenow rather later than usual because today would be a shorter day. Sean went off in search of a coffee as is his want, and surprisingly he found a city-style cafe that had just closed down the day before. The gay couple who ran the cafe had sold the business and were “taking a gap year”. Despite no longer being open for business, Sean managed to talk his way in and to get two takeaway cups of coffee out of them, one for him and one for me – the last coffees they were to make in their cafe. Despite the closure of their business, they had actually sold it to new owners, so the chances are that future pilgrims may be able to get their dose of caffeine there still.
We left Altar Ego after a good breakfast – I had made a couple of sandwiches out of the toast bread to take along today as there were no towns between here and Bairnsdale. We went via St Claire’s Church where we sang the Regina Caeli and prayed the Commemoration of St Mary as well as a collect from the Itinerarium for pilgrims. There were bees buzzing in the blossoming gum trees in the yard of the church, and in the other trees on the road out of town.
We very soon found that the main road on which we had planned to walk (the C601 Bairnsdale – Dargo Road) was very busy indeed and quite unpleasant to walk on. So we were glad to turn off on our revised route onto Windmill Road which became Settlement Road towards the end. This straight piece of sealed road is largely a connecting point for the vegetable farms and so carries farm machinery, tractors, utes and trucks, but not in high volume. It was relatively quiet. We walked past alternating fields of dairy cattle and vegetable plots (I recognised potatoes, corn and carrots).
About four kilometres out of Lindenow, you reach a cross roads in which Settlement road takes a left hand turn to the north towards and across the river (the other two roads are Thatchers Road leading south and Soldiers Road continuing East). The Mitchell is crossed via a one lane bridge, and then Settlement Road climbs up the northern embankment of the Mitchell River valley. Two kilometres after the cross roads, you take a right hand turn to the East into the Wy Yung – Calulu Road, which takes you all the way along the northern ridge for about 11kms through Ellaswood to the C603 Bullamwaal Road at Wy Yung. You then take the Bullamwaal Road south into Bairnsdale.
This was an extraordinarily beautiful route, which transformed what would have been merely the last final section to our destination into a hike worthy in itself of venturing out on such a sunny day. Again, the road was not very busy. It seems to be a favourite with motorcyclists leisurely taking in the scenery and young fellows in four-wheel drives going very fast to wherever it was they had to be. But most of the time it was quiet and peaceful. The scenery was astounding, whether looking north to the mountains (it appears that this side of the valley was in the foothills), or looking south over the valley. By Jensons Road, which we went down a short way, it was possible to see the tower of St Mary’s in the far distance, and the lakes on which Bairnsdale is situated.
We stopped for our lunch on top of a hill in Ellaswood, just outside a farmhouse in the shade of some pine trees. We had climbed up onto the verge of the road to get a view of the valley. Before long, the lady of the house came out to see where the voices she could hear were coming from. When we told her that we were walking, she offered to get us both a cup of tea, an offer we gladly accepted. When she returned with two mugs, we introduced ourselves properly and explained what we were doing. Gwen and her husband run beef cattle on their farm over looking the valley, right next to a vineyard that stretches out over the bluff (nb. Added footnote from Sunday – I’ve just had a glass of Lightfoot & Sons Chardonnay in a cafe in Sale – and it turns out they are Gwen’s neighbours – we should have Calle in and got a bottle or two – it’s good stuff). She also filled Sean’s water bottle for him. It is kindness like this that is a gift when you are on pilgrimage.
When we arrived at the intersection of the Wy Yung – Calulu Road and the Bullamwaal Road, I rang Fr Michael to say that we would be about another hour before we arrived and where we were. He asked if we were ringing from the Wy Yung Pub. “There’s a pub?”, I asked, my attention immediately engaged. “Yes, a very good one, make sure you drop in”, he replied. I added that this would probably mean a slightly later arrival, and we set off again with renewed energy in search of this watering hole. Not far down the road, there it was, perched on the edge of the bank looking out into the valley. This was a welcome sight! Inside we found half a dozen friendly locals and a young fellow behind the bar who cheerily pulled us a couple of pints of James Squire’s pale ale. There were two large television screens above the bar – one playing the Adelaide vs Richmond game and the other playing the St Kilda vs Collingwood game. He had an unusual foreign accent, which I mistakenly thought was Irish. We asked him how long he had been working here, and it turns out that he was the publican. He – Anthony – and his young wife Jacquie bought the pub some years back and have made a real go of it. Anthony is in fact French, and was born in Paris. Jacquie on the other other hand is from Lakes Entrance, a niece of a well known priest in the diocese who died only recently, Fr John Allan.
We rolled out of the Wy Yung pub and hit the road for the last few kilometres of our pilgrimage. I think in the end we picked the best way to enter into Bairnsdale. The road led down into the valley and over the Mitchell River, and then immediately to the left of the road, the path went along the riverfront. This was a leafy green and shaded entry into town. When we came up onto the street, we were in just the right place to enter Pyke Street and head toward the Church and Train Station.
The rest of the story has already been told. It is now almost 11pm and we plan to leave by 7am in the morning.
I wondered if I would get emotional toward the end of the journey. Perhaps if there had been some really good hymns and singing at the vigil mass tonight I might have got a bit teary, but the mass was said without any music at all. Still, as we said the prayers together and wished one another the peace of Christ, there was a deep feeling of thanksgiving in my heart for all who made the journey possible.
I am thankful to all our benefactors along the way. Those who billetted us: the Focolare Community in Wantirna South, Deacon Mark Kelly, the parishioners at St Joseph’s in Emerald, Fr Bernard Buckley in Traralgon, Fr Harry Dyer in Moe, John and Judy Cooney in Cowwarr, and Fr Michael here in Bairnsdale. I am thankful to all the establishments who gave us food and shelter: Peppermint Ridge farm, Yarragon Motel, Macalister Hotel, Altar Ego Church Stay, and countless pubs, cafes and bakeries along the way.
I want to thank all friends and family who contributed financial support to this venture. It is never cheap to go on a two week journey, even if your mode of transportation is on foot! Your support has made it possible.
Above all I want to thank my pilgrim companions, Sean and Josh. I started off planning to do this journey on my own, marking my 50 years of life and the Josephites’ 150th anniversary of their founding. But it was so much more special doing it with companions who shared the experience and will share the memories. By God’s grace we will reunite to continue this pilgrimage in the future.
And finally I want to thank my family, Cathy and Mad and Mia, who have given me leave to walk out the front door and go wandering. It was Cathy’s encouragement that first confirmed in me the intention to do the Aussie Camino two years ago, an intention which is now flowering into something completely new.
I admitted to Sean today as we crossed the Mitchell River and climbed up the hill on the other side that I am a hopeless romantic. I long to fill my life with adventure and heroism – but there is precious little opportunity for that in today’s world. As we return to daily life, the truth that we must face is that the very mundane life we lead travelling from day to day is in fact, if approached in the right spirit, an adventure, and the constancy of a pilgrim – who will not be frightened off by “hobgoblin nor foul fiend” – is required in every moment of our Christian life in community with others.
I will close this long final post with the words of a Lisa Mitchell song I heard just the other day:
Not all who wander are lost.