Day distance: 36.52. Total Distance so far: 101.5km
Seán was back on deck this morning feeling much better than the day before. Whatever it was that had ailed him had passed on. The day began fresh and cool with the sun shining already when we finished packing up in the Tin Chalet. We walked around to see if our host Jill got home safely last night. Her rustic house is surrounded by gardens with chooks and guineafowl and geese ranging around the yard. We were greeted at the gate by Raffles, her large and playful German Shepherd dog, and chatted with Jill for a while, meeting her other animals, especially the two large Clydesdale horses. Paul came over from picking a bag of apples from Jill’s orchard, and we fed a couple to the horses. As Jill opened the gate to let the car through, the biggest horse bolted through and Jill had to chase after her, so in the end our goodbyes were rushed.
Nevertheless it was 8:45am by the time we got going, and we were still on the other side of Goongerah, which, although sparsely populated is about 7kms from one end to the other. We passed by the school and CFA and Community house and then out onto the open highway in brilliant sunshine. Paul went on ahead of us to park the car at The Gap – our lunchtime destination at the junction of the Bonang and Bendoc Road – intending to spend the day riding back down the Bonang Highway to Sardine Creek and up again.
Seán and I passed the old roadhouse which is now the Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) base, where we had called in last October for advice on our journey. It was pretty quiet (compared to last year when there was a crowd around the fire outside), so we walked on by without calling in. The road was newly surfaced; I was amused to see sticks and pieced of bark covered over by bitumen or line markings – nature incorporated into industry… The sealed road ran out about 9kms north of Goongerah (at the 80km from Orbost mark), just as we entered the southern-most end of the Snowy River National Park. From then on till just out of Bendoc we were on unsealed road.
The road through to The Gap was fairly gravelly – you would want to be careful with a vehicle, but it was not unpleasant walking. We were surprised to discover the Old Bonang Highway interesecting with the road we were walking. Looking at the maps, we saw that the OBH diverted from the NBH again just outside Goongerah. We could have taken that as an alternative to walking on the main highway. But the traffic was not a problem. We were probably overtaken by a vehicle every 15 to 20 minutes. At one stage a convoy of a minibus and six additional vehicles went through, which was the most we saw at any time. Otherwise the road was like a nice broad walking trail which cars occasionally used. There were signs warning of logging trucks, but we saw none. They are virtually extinct in that area today thanks to the work of the GECO people and other environmentalists. The Snowy and Errinundra National Parks have been greatly extended, and have changed the character of the area. There are still plenty of forestry management vehicles going up and down the road, and road work plants as well, but it is a lot different today from what it was in the past. The settlements up here have diminished accordingly. But for the eco-tourist, there is much to see and much to do.
The road was a steady and gentle rise of 550m all the way from Goongerah to The Gap over 17kms. It was a long way up, but really quite easy on the knees. Alternative tracks through the bush would have been very much more challenging and longer too, but walking on the road meant an easy trek. Although we were focused on the road in front of us, as we looked out at the surrounding forested peaks, we could see that we were coming to the top.
We met Paul at the picnic ground at the bridge over the Bonang River at The Gap. It was a really pleasant spot, cool and lush with the little river flowing past. We ate our Kransky and tomato and cheese and cucumber and apple and carrot washed down with a cup of tea from Seán’s flask. A chance to rub the feet with lanolin and tea-tree powder, and we were all refreshed to get going again. We were now at about 700ms above sea level and we had yet another 200ms to climb.
Thus far, I have to say that the road from The Gap to Bendoc has been the most pleasant of the whole trip. Again traffic was sparse, and the unsealed road was solid beneath our feet. Josh, our absent vicarious pilgrim, has been joking about us walking through “Mirkwood” – and indeed the forest has seemed endless for the last three days. But this section above all seems to fit the bill, with many ferntrees and creeks and mountain ashes and trees covered with moss. The road from The Gap to Bendoc is very much on the shady side of the mountain, cool and pleasant.
The road continued to rise till we got to the exalted heights of over 900ms. This was likely – we thought – to be the highest altitude along the MacKillop-Woods Way. At which point I decided to celebrate by singing “Nearer my God to thee” at the top of my voice. At which point, I then heard voices in the forest – we were not alone! Were these the Elves of Mirkwood? We came to the sign which said “Old Growth Forest Walk”, which was in fact the entrance to the walk to see a particularly large tree – apparently it is about 5ms in diameter and 15ms around and supposed to be about 600 years old. Coming around the corner, we saw the vehicles that had formed the convoy which had passed us earlier on the road. A smiling face came down the track to greet us – “It’s you! We met last October at the GECO camp.” Indeed we had met there – this was one of Mirkwood’s Elves, leading a whole group of about 30 junior elves from Melbourne and Sydney on an evironmental appreciation walk in the Errinundra Forest to see the big tree. “You sing very well,” said one of the young elves. They were able to show us pictures of the Big Tree on their cracked-screen iPhones. Quite impressive, but we were not tempted to take a 2km detour from our pilgrimage. We told them about our pilgrimage – and in fact a number of them knew about the Santiago Camino, so they could appreciate what we were doing.
Wishing the “Elves” God’s blessing, we went upon our way to Bendoc. The signs at The Gap had variously given 18 and 20kms as the estimate of the distance. It turned out to be closer to 20. The road was very pleasant, but as we left “Mirkwood”, it seemed that we had entered “Mordor” – the pine plantation forestry people were cleaning up the rubbish left behind from last year for replanting, which meant endless heaps of burning and smoking waste wood, giving the whole environment a smoky hazy overview. We passed the Delegate River Camp Ground which was quite unpleasant in the smoky haze.
At about 5pm Paul caught up with us on the trail to see how we were going. We were still 6km from town. Seán and I were feeling pretty good, so we decided to keep on going into Bendoc. An interesting feature that we had noticed as soon as we had emerged from the forest at 11.7km from Bendoc was that the trees had the distance from Bendoc marked on them at every kilometre – a kind of living milestone system. This gave us encouragement on the way into town; however, the last tree that I could visibly see was the 2km marker. By the time we got to 1km out at 6pm we were in darkness.
At this point we were back in range of phone and internet. I was surprised to find that ABC Local Radio in Bega wanted to contact us for an interview. They had heard from Michael Sheppard and the Eden Magnet that we were doing this pilgrimage and wanted a live interview on radio tomorrow morning. I was able to get in touch with the office, and they said that they would call again in the morning to tee up the live interview. Liz Tickner from the Eden Magnet had managed to cobble together a story on our pilgrimage which has been published online, and I think that that started things rolling.
Being back in range, there were suddenly a whole flurry of texts and messages that I had to answer, from family and friends and – of course – from Josh, our vicarious pilgrim.
In any case, after the 6km mark, the darkness began setting in. I switched on my bluetooth speaker and played my Iron & Wine playlist while we walked along to keep us moving. I was surprised that the road continued to be surrounded in forest all the way to the very entrance to Bendoc. Paul drove out to meet us as we came in, and led us up to the Bendoc pub. This is where Graham and Margaret Beever are the proprietors – they were the ones who had set us up for accomodation at The Old School House for the night. We went into the pub to find about a dozen locals in there at the end of the day. There were a couple of rigs out the front, and obviously a mix of forestry workers and local farmers. We greeted Graham and, after pouring us all pots of Carlton Draught (the only beer on tap), he stamped and signed our pilgrim passes with the local post code stamp (the pub doubles as post office). We met Barry there who told us a lot about the surrounding area. Also, we recognised Graham from the ute and trailer with a couple of calves on it which had passed us on the way up – first heading toward Orbost and then returning later in the day with an empty crate. They weren’t calves, he said, they were fully grown miniature “Dexter” cattle, an Irish breed of cattle, and he kept a herd of 70 of these nearly extinct breed.
Graham gave us directions to the showers at the local hall. They were hot and free. Great. I didn’t have a towel with me, or soap, but there was a bit of soap left in the shower and I used my jumper as a towel. Paul had the heater going in the car so we were dry and warm when we arrived at the Old School House, 12kms along the Lower Bendoc Road toward the border of Victoria and NSW. Paul had earlier picked up the key to the OSH, and deposited most of our gear there. We paid $20 for the two nights for this accomodation, which is maintained by the local fishing club. The OSH is a lockable building with fireplace, drop toilet, beds, gas stove, rain water tank – ultimately everything we could hope for to make camping an easy and comfortable matter.
Dinner was beef sausages and boiled veggies cooked on the open fire, washed down with a bottle or so or Pommeroy’s Plonk. Seán and I were fairly knackered after 36kms of walking, and so settled down early to bed.
We walked further than we had expected that we would today, and this puts us in a good space to have a bit of a sleep in.