Distance: 30.84km. Total Distance from Orbost: 252.34km. Total Distance from Fitzroy: 690km.
I woke before dawn on the last day of the 2017 leg of the MacKillop-Woods Way to make a visit to the facilities outside. Coming back into the hall, I thought I saw large spiders on the door, but they were in fact moths. Back inside I crawled into my sleeping bag again, but heard rustling from the others which indicated that they were both awake too, so we switched on the lights and began to get packing. There was a sense of excitement about completing the walk, but also a kind of resignation: aches and pains had to be borne and overcome just for this one more push over the mountain.
And the walk into Eden from Towamba is one of the longer days on the Way, and also one of the more challenging, as there is a rise of over 300m to climb up to Nullica Hill before coming down the other side. My small blisters from the day before had been reabsorbed on my toes but the little one on my right heel was still there, so I bandaged my feet up with sticking plaster to be on the safe side and determined to walk in my shoes rather than change to my sandals half way through the day as had been my practice so far (I think it was my sandals that gave me the blisters yesterday).
The morning was fine – no sign of the predicted rain or wind – and we were packed and on our way at 7:45am. Paul dropped us at the Towamba turnoff on the other side of the river and headed off toward Eden for a day of cycling. The school bus passed us on the road, as NSW was back to school today following the Easter Holidays and Anzac Day. Within five minutes Paul was heading back in our direction, waving the key to the hall at us as an explanation for his unexpected return.
The road begins climbing out of the Towamba River valley almost immediately. There are some lovely last views of the valley on the way up the hill. The road alternates between sealed and gravel, but everywhere is wide enough for two cars to pass. The traffic was quite light, despite the fact that we were back walking on a business day. The road serves only as an access road from Eden to Towamba – there are no other places along the way, so everyone coming and going are locals. It is about 30kms to Eden, and after 7km from Towamba at Mitchells Creek until about 11km at Ben Boyd Road the road does the whole 300m climb in one constant hit. It isn’t as steep as Big Jack Mountain Road, but it is steeper than the Bonang Highway at any point. So we really felt it in my knees by the time we got to the top. Then the road levels off for a while as the road goes along a ridge in which it is possible to see views on both sides of the road. To the south is the very large Mount Imlay at over 800m.
Early on going up the hill, you pass a track called The Snake Track; we had considered it as an alternative route that would take us down to Boydtown on the highway (where there is a caravan park at which we originally thought we might stay until we found out how expensive the cabin was). It is 5km further to the highway than along the Towamba Road, and while both tracks have an overall descent of about 100m, Snake Track has 594m of climb to 691m of descent, whereas the main road is 361m climb to 469m descent. In other words, don’t be tempted to take it. In any case, just the name of it should be enough to put you off taking that route. Out of interest, we didn’t see one live snake on the whole trip, although Paul claims he drove over one on the Bonang Highway on the first day.
We stopped for a rest where Ben Boyd Road joins the Eden Road from the North (it exits the Eden Road again toward the South a kilometre or so further down the road). I checked my feet and all seemed well blister-wise – the bandages were working. I noticed that we were back within phone range, so I rang Cathy, Josh and my parents (in that order) to check in with them after the three days that we had been out of contact. Michael Sheppard, our host for our stay in Eden, also rang to ask if we were still on target for 5pm, which I confirmed.
After eating some fruit, we got going again. The temperature began to drop and the sky darkened quite suddenly – much like it had a few days earlier on our way to Bombala. So I stopped again to put on my wet weather gear – and it almost instantly brightened up again. That’s how wet weather gear keeps you dry when you are walking: after you go to all the trouble of putting it on, the sun comes out.
I took so long putting on my gear that I became separated from Seán by quite some distance. As I came up to the point where the road passes Nullica Hill (about 2kms from where we had stopped earlier on), Paul drove up the road. He was bringing an offering of coffee (a large flat white for me and a large double shot latte for Seán) and cake which he had picked up from a cafe in Eden. But had he not passed Seán further up the road? No. How odd. So I rang him and found that he had stopped too, and I must have walked right past him. This was the second time on the road that we become separated, and then walked right past one another when we were trying to catch up again (the other time was just before we got to The Gap on Day 3). It happens very easily, and if you don’t have phone contact can be a worry. I thought about this later and realised that one piece of equipment we should have brought along is a whistle each for us to blow to locate each other. Paul in fact confirmed that when he goes bush walking with his friends, they each take a whistle. Good idea.
Anyway, Paul went off to collect Seán and when he got back we sat down to our coffee and cake and the rest of our lunch which Paul had brought with him. It felt a little like cheating to be drinking a coffee brought up from our destination before we got there, but what the heck! I was surprised that it was still quite hot, despite having been made 10 miles away. We ate quickly because it was now starting to rain lightly. After packing our leftovers back into the car, Paul drove off and we resumed our walk. Almost immediately we noticed that we were on the other side of the hill, and caught a glimpse of what we thought might just have been Eden through the trees. In accordance with tradition, we stopped to pray and give thanks to God that we could see our pilgrimage destination. But we might have been mistaken.
About 7km from the Princes Highway the sealed road began again and we continued our slow descent down the hill. After a while we came to another turn off, this time for the Nullica Short Cut Road. It is a short cut to Boydtown, not to Eden (if you are heading to Eden it will increase your walk by 1.6km including a good stretch of the Princes Highway), but it does avoid a very big hill after crossing Nullica River. At this stage the phrase “Not another bloody hill” was becoming well and truly entrenched in my conversational repertoire. There comes a point when you really can’t face another degree of “up”.
Finally, finally we made it to the highway. In fact, we were making very good time – it was 3pm, and by my reckoning we had only 4kms to go (I was wrong on this – even by the main road we had 5.5kms), and so I rang Michael Sheppard and texted Paul saying that we would be at the Mary MacKillop Hall in about an hour’s time at 4pm. As it turned out, I was quite wrong about this. The main reason was that we wanted to do the last few kilometres into Eden on the Bundian Way, which we had located on the map along the foreshore around the bay into Eden.
So we were now on the Princes Highway, and in case we had forgotten why we chose to walk the long way around from Orbost to Eden, we were now definitively reminded: traffic. Lots and lots of traffic and very little room to walk on the side of the road. The bridge over the Shadrachs Creek – single lane in each direction – had no space for pedestrians. This was somewhat surprising given that the bridge is the only way to cross the Creek from the Eden Beachfront Caravan Park (where we caught our first glimpse of the Tasman Sea) to the township of Eden. When you walk a lot, you become aware how very little consideration road-makers and town planners ever give to pedestrians. Having successfully crossed the bridge without being hit by passing cars and trucks, we walked in the bush for a bit to avoid the road. It was then that we came to a track which I thought was a driveway, but which seemed to be leading somewhere. In fact, it led down towards the shorefront, and became a rough track through the bush down to the beach of Quarantine Bay. I think we had found a section of the Bundian Way which had not yet been developed or signposted. When we walked down onto the beach, I dipped my hand into the waves and made the sign of the cross. We had made it from Melbourne to the Eastern shoreline of New South Wales.
On the other side of Quarantine Bay Road, we found the proper start of the recently developed initial section of the Bundian Way. We could tell that the development was recent, because the fresh wooden information boards had no information on them yet. The track was well marked though, and there were seats along the way and many well situated lookouts over the bay. Also a circular stepped structure which appeared to have been designed for indigenous educators to tell stories to school students and other visitors. Seán called it “The Dreamtime Globe Theatre”. This little section of the Bundian Way is winding and interesting with many good views of the bays (you can see the Seahorse Inn at Boydtown from one lookout) and of Eden itself. Discounting our earlier possible sighting of Eden from Nullica Hill, we now knelt down and said an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be in thanksgiving. I am actually very glad that we could finish our pilgrimage on the Bundian Way. This trail is obviously of great significance to the local community and the original custodians of the land. It is far more ancient than any Christian pilgrimage path anywhere in the world. We might have been the first people to ever walk this section of the MacKillop-Woods Way, but thousands of generations of aboriginal people had walked this trail from the coast to the highest mountain on the Australian mainland.
We came out onto Bungo Beach at the bottom of Ida Road Drive. Which. Is. A. Hill. A very big hill. “Not another bloody hill,” I exclaimed. From the beach it is a 60m climb over 0.75km up to Mitchell Street, the main road into Eden. The sun was setting as we walked down the street entering into Eden. We passed the National Timber Workers Memorial to our left, took note of the location of the VLine bus stop which we will make use of next year, and took a selfie outside the Halfway Hotel. Seán then spotted the Tourist Information office, and suggested that we should go inside to get a stamp in our pilgrim passports. The wind had been blowing hard against us as and it was with some relief that we entered the shelter of the office. When we explained who we were, the lady behind the counter recognised us from the newspaper story in the Magnet and happily obliged with giving us a nice Eden whale stamp. Another visitor to the office also recognised us and made the usual expected exclamations about how far we had come and gave words of encouragement. I bought two souvenir magnets for the fridge at home – one had a map of Victoria with Eden on the far right and the other matching one was a map of southern NSW with Eden on the bottom. They may a good pair, covering all our journey, and I decided to get three extra sets, one each for the other pilgrims, including Josh.
I now received a text from Paul saying “Where are you? There are people waiting”. Our final journey into town had taken us more than twice as long as I had anticipated, but it was just after 5pm when we struggled up (yes) another hill on Calle Calle Street until we could see the white spire of the Church in the distance. On the way we passed the Catholic Primary School – but oddly with a big “sold” sign outside. I wondered what the story behind that was? Just past the War Memorial we saw the open doors of Mary MacKillop Hall, the official pilgrimage destination for St Mary of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese.
Inside, waiting for us out of wind, was our driver and fellow pilgrim Paul, Michael Sheppard and other members of the Mary MacKillop Hall Committee and two resident members of St Mary MacKillop’s order of the Sisters of St Joseph, Sr Bernadette and Brigid. Tea and scones and cake too! All were very welcoming. The hall was clearly filled with a great deal of information about St Mary’s life, but at this point we were too exhausted to take it in. After the refreshments we said goodbye to the Sisters until tomorrow (when we would return to the Hall for a closer investigation and to the Church for Mass) and Michael took us around to his home where we would be staying the night. Michael and Judy’s home was well set up for welcoming us – we each had beds and a bathroom to share downstairs in their home. We showered and changed into fresh clothes and, feeling somewhat restored, we went upstairs to sit and relax and talk with Judy and Michael for a bit. They then drove us around to the Great Southern Hotel for dinner. Other members of the Mary MacKillop Hall Committee joined us – Michael and Bernadette, Ray and Chris, and (just to make it easier for us to remember names) another Michael! The locals also gave us a lot of helpful information for the next section of the journey and asked us to keep in touch with them as our plans took shape so that they could assist us further. It was really wonderful how they all welcomed us and we had great conversation, laughter and food for the evening. We were one of the first to arrive in the bistro and the last to leave.
Back at the Sheppard’s home, we did not stay up but went to bed and fell asleep almost immediately.