MWW2019 – Day 9: Woonona to Stanwell Tops (“What a difference a good path makes”)

During the night, Wollongong was hit with a sudden thunderstorm, which woke me up at about 1:30am. The heavy rain continued on and off until dawn. I was awake half the night with anxious worry for the coming day – the weather apps predicted showers through the day as well as overnight. But when dawn finally arrived, there was no sign of the previous night’s clouds. The sun was shining, and it was warm and humid. I got up immediately and showered and prepared to go around to the Cathedral for 6:45am Morning Prayer and 7am Mass.

Morning Prayer was led by the parishioners. I enjoyed this greatly, and cannot think why all parishes, and especially all Cathedrals, do not follow this practice. There were a fair few present for Mass when it started at 7am, and Josh slid into the pew beside me. Fr Anthony Ha announced the opening hymn “By every nation race and tongue”. At last! An easter hymn I could get my teeth and put my heart into. As there was no accompaniment, Father began singing, but I immediately took the lead with the pace and pitch and timing (the six beat bar on the last “alleluia” is always tricky) and Josh provided backup. Fr Anthony had already arrived at the altar at the end of the second verse, and there was a decided dropping off, but we pushed on with the third verse. Why stop when you’re having fun?

Fr Anthony led the Mass with the same enthusiasm and natural authority of the day before, this time comparing the “two ex-Lutherans, Josh and Sean, who are doing the MacKillop Woods Way with good intention” to Mary Magdalene, who had met the risen Jesus and found a new direction in her life. His facts were a little garbled, but his point was excellent. He offered the Mass for my father, Les, and (contrary to strict rules, since my Dad was not a Catholic) included his name in the Eucharist prayer for the departed faithful. I really appreciated that. This was, for me anyway, my father’s funeral mass.

After mass, Father Anthony introduced us to members of the congregation. Josh was talking animatedly to a parishioner whom he seemed to have known all his life – and it turned out that he did know her. Both Trudy and Josh were surprised to see each other in the Cathedral that morning. However, Josh and I both wanted to go to confession, given that we will be completing our pilgrimage in the next few days, and when we looked around, Fr Anthony was disappearing back towards his house. So we gave chase and caught him on the back veranda as he was divesting himself of his chasuble. When we explained we wished to make our confessions, he immediately came back to the Cathedral for us. I went first, and then Josh. While Josh was in the box, I went to pray in the special Mary MacKillop Chapel that I had missed yesterday – Sean had seen it and drawn my attention to the relics that were in the chapel.

Then Josh’s friend Trudy offered to drive us back to the hotel – but as it turned out, she found a park that was no closer to the Harp than the Cathedral was. But it was right next door to the Lutheran Church, a dark brick 70’s affair that was wedged between an oversized Salvation Army centre and legal firm, but nevertheless quite central in the city. We found Sean having his morning coffee in the cafe under the Harp Hotel. Josh and Trudy joined him, but I went back to my bedroom to have breakfast, start packing and to talk to Cathy on the phone.

Sean went off to the station when they were finished, but Josh came up and had breakfast in my room as I finished putting the last bits into my back pack. I put on my toe-socks again from yesterday, and my heel gel stockings. I had been wearing my sandals with the new heel inserts, which made them quite comfortable and easy on my left ankle which is still giving me heebies. But today I took no pain killers and no anti-inflammatories, so it must be getting better. The blisters too are not growing and are settling down.

Josh and I headed out to the train station with about 10 minutes to spare. Sean was waiting for us. I am very thankful that all I have to do to get on and off the train is use my iPhone wallet to access my MasterCard – no registration or separate Opal card needed. I wish we had this in Melbourne. We travelled all the way through to Stanwell Park, and had a 50 minute window to walk the 1km to Doran House in Stanwell Avenue to drop off our backpacks, put tomorrow’s lunch in the fridge, put on walking shoes and gear, and get back for the return train to Woonona. Doran House is a large establishment, an old Christian Brothers house, which has bedrooms everywhere, upstairs and down. It is right next to the beach too, so (as I write this) I can hear the waves crashing against the shore. I had hoped to go for a swim tonight, but the day turned out differently to what I expected.

For one thing, the humidity did not let up. All day, Josh complained of “swimming in my own perspiration”. This was most acute when inside a building, like the cafe where we had coffee in Woonona. Out on the trail, it was usually more bearable. The crowds of holiday makers were thinner today – the families with children were still about, as school holidays were still in progress, but the rest had gone back to work. This was true also in Victoria, where, back home, Annie Carrett (aka “the boss’s boss”) had sent out a notice to all staff in the Archdiocese that my father had died. So I spent a lot of time replying today to text messages and emails for prayer and condolence – and even phone calls. Mum said that she has been having much the same experience. It is quite overwhelming to learn at times of such distress how many real friends I have, and the genuine care that my colleagues show for one another. It is moments like these that make me glad to be working for the Church.

Another great blessing to discover today is the new “Grand Pacific Walk” – a cycle and walking pathway from Clifton to Stanwell Park along the Lawrence Hargreave Drive. I had been concerned when planning this section of the trip that there was no walking space on the side of the road at the northern end of the coastal road. This concrete paved track, opened in December last year, made all the difference to our day. Not having our packs made the walking easy. We walked along more beach fronts and over more headlands as we headed northwards from Woonona back to Stanwell Park. We planned to stop for lunch in Austinmer, so we called in at the little newsagent/post office for a stamp in our pilgrim passports. The girl in the office was more than happy to do this, and said that she gets several people a week making the same request. It seems that some people just collect post office stamps. We did not end up eating in Austinmer because the cafes and restaurants there were a) crowded and b) not licensed. Josh looked up and found that Coledale had an RSL club and we decided to walk the 2kms further to that establishment. Still in Austinmer though, I climbed a narrow headland to find a concrete park bench looking south the way we had come, painted yellow and green. This was so unusual that I wanted to take a photo of it, and stepped backwards to get the whole thing in. Imagine my shock when, having taken the photo, I realised that I was just a foot or so from stepping back over the cliff edge. Scary.

In any case, the view seemed to reach all the way back beyond Port Kembla to the Kiama cliffs. I love the opportunity to view our progression this perspective. Looking north, we could see the Stanwell Tops Bald Hill Lookout and I could see my final destination for the day. Josh, who has a thing about cliffs etc., decided he didn’t want to do the Sea Bridge walk and so planned to take the train from Scarborough to Stanwell Park. Sean walked as far as Stanwell Park, but decided not to come with me up to Stanwell Tops.

First we had to have lunch though, and again we found out that the RSL club was not doing food today. So we went across the road to a bottle shop where I bought a bottle of red wine for dinner tonight, and Josh bought three beers (the last bottle of Karmeliet for himself, and a bottle of Duvel each for Sean and I), and then next door to the Mr & Mrs Smith cafe, where Sean and I ordered the Beef Burger with Sweet Potato chips and Josh had the Nasi Egg with pork belly bites (very un-Indonesian, I said). Here we noticed two friendly dogs strung up to the guy at the table next to us – both, according to their owner, had a bit of dingo in them. The dog owner, who did not tell us his name, nor we ours, told us that he was a barrister in Sydney who lived down here in Coledale. Josh kept wondering if the guy was someone we ought to know – someone famous, but was never able to put his finger on the identity. We had a good conversation, however, and were surprised when, without us as much as mentioning that we were Catholic, he raised the Pell trial as an example of the deterioration of what passes for justice today – especially in Victoria. He expressed the interesting observation that all his colleagues in NSW thought George would get off on appeal, whereas all his VIC colleagues had the opposite opinion.

It was already 2:40pm, so from Coledale I really started pushing ahead. At Scarborough passed one of the most spectacularly placed cemetaries we had come across on the journey – on a headland looking out to sea. The Scarborough Hotel has been opened again as a very family friendly pub. Sean and I dropped in only to use the conveniences, but it looked like the kind of place that would make a good pilgrim stop in the future. Not so the poor old Imperial just a few hundred metres up the road in Clifton, which is derelict, but surely would now profit from reopening with the new Grand Pacific Walk starting right outside. Josh caught the Scarborough train to Stanwell Park as planned, and Sean fell behind as I powered on toward the Sea Bridge. I remember this engineering feat well from my visit in 2014 with my brother on the CMA national run. In fact, seeing the paragliders soaring around the peak of the Bald Hill lookout, reminded me that I was about to come full circle (so to speak) returning to the place where I had visited five years ago and conceived of this pilgrimage.

Passing the Sea Bridge and Coalcliff, I came over the hill and saw Stanwell Park in front of me. And Josh standing on the walkway. I did not expect that he would have ventured out over such a precipice, but he was gesticulating downwards. I thought he meant that he was afraid of the height, but as I drew closer he more emphatically pointed behind me and downwards. There below me on a grassy ledge was a deer stag. I managed to take a few pictures before he disappeared into the brushwood. Later, the waitress at the pizza restaurant informed us that the deer in the area are so plentiful that they are being culled, since they are causing a lot of problems on the roads.

Josh and I walked together for a while, and he told me he had made a booking at the restaurant (which was, according to Anne our host at Doran House, opened only a month ago) for 6:30pm. I indicated that if I were to get back in time for dinner, I had to get a move on, and continued ahead on my own. I reached Stanwell Park at 4:45pm, and then headed up towards the escarpment on Lawrence Hargreave Drive. But the path up the hill runs out at Chellow Dene Avenue, and there is a sign on the left hand side of the road indicating that one should not attempt to walk up the road as there is no verge whatsoever. At this point I needed to make a decision. My only imposed rule on this whole trip is to walk the whole way to St Mary’s tomb – every metre. Yes, I know I didn’t walk over Sussex Inlet, and I will not be walking over Botany Bay even if I am going to walk over Sydney Harbour, but basically, if it is possible to walk a route, I intended to do it.

So, let me say quite definitively that, as it currently stands, unless they extend the Grand Pacific Walk all the way up to Bald Hill Lookout, it is impossible to walk from Stanwell Park to Stanwell Tops. You might be able to do it via the Wodi Wodi Track, but I’m not at all certain about that either, and it would probably extend the walk significantly. It would certainly be the “long way round”. Let me also say that tonight I DID climb up to Bald Hill lookout, but I don’t really want to say how I did it, because I don’t want anyone else to emulate this attempt. Just accept that I did and don’t ask awkward questions about how. If you intend to do this pilgrimage one day, treat the section between Stanwell Park and Stanwell Tops like the section of the Princes Highway from Milton to Conjola. Don’t do it. Take alternative transport. In this case, I recommend what Sean and I are intending to do tomorrow: take the train.

So I arrived at the Bald Hill Lookout just as the cafe was packing up and it was starting to rain. It was also now definitively dusk and getting darker. I took a picture of the view southwards, tucked my phone and other electronics safely away in my bumbag, and headed off down the Otford Road. This road was a gentle incline downwards, with no traffic on it at all. It took me longer than expected to arrive at the Station, damp, and anxious that I was going to just miss the next Stanwell Park train. But when I arrived, I noticed that the next train was not until 6:33 – a full 45 minutes off. I tried to order an Uber, but “no ride [was] available”. I couldn’t walk back, dark as it now was. The rain was getting heavier. There was nothing but to wait for the train.

I answered some text messages, and rang Mum and Cathy – both said ring back later. Finally the automated train system announced the next train was approaching, but that it would not stop at this station. Nothing came. Then about 10 minutes later, it announced that the train to Stanwell Tops was approaching. Nothing. Once again, it announced an express train, and still nothing passed by. I was sitting alone on a deserted platform, and began to wonder if I had found a ghost station! This impression was not improved when, just before 7pm, a train rolled in and stopped at the station with all its windows in darkness and no one inside. The doors remained firmly shut. “Hullo?” I cried out. Nothing. “Anyone there?” I looked in the window of the drivers cabin, and it was also dark so I couldn’t see if there was anyone inside. I stood there for a while with the quiet stationary train alongside me and wondered what on earth was going on. Then the door of the driver’s cabin opened and a human being stepped out: “You need to go down to the other carriages”, he said, pointing to end of the curved platform that was beyond my sight. So I walked through the rain and finally came to carriages that were lighted and full of passengers. The doors opened and I stepped inside and I was whisked away back down to Stanwell Park.

What a relief. As I was walking down from the station to the Main Street, the other passengers told me that the train was 30 minutes late, but they didn’t know why. Later, Anne told us this is not unusual. I was so glad to arrive in the restaurant where Sean and Josh were sitting with the bottle of wine and bottles of sparkling water and two pieces of an “entree” garlic cheese pizza left for me to nibble on before the main course pizzas arrived. During the meal, I confirmed with Moya Turner at Bundeena that we were still expected. Towards the end, Anne turned up and drove us back to the House and settled us in. We each chose the luxury of one room to ourselves. I gave a donation to Anne for the use of the house, and we put the washing on. The others retired to bed fairly early, after consulting various train timetables for tomorrow. I wrote up this account while waiting for the clothes in the dryer.

It is just after 12 now, so I am going to bed.

Photos for the day are here.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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