MWW2019 Leg 5: Day Seven (7 October 2019): Ballarat to Smythesdale

After breakfast at St Alipius’, Sean headed off before me to go and find a coffee shop, while I completed marking an essay. Just before I left, Fr Justin was up, so I had the opportunity to say thank you for his hospitality and to make arrangements for our return on Wednesday night. I have left about 1.5kg of stuff behind in the bedroom which I don’t think I will need. After last April’s disaster, I brought along far more medical supplies and ointments than was reasonably necessary, including an ice/heat bag that weighs quite a bit.

St Alipius’ Church was not open as we left, so I still have not had the chance to see inside that. It is almost 2km to the Cathedral, and I found Sean was not far ahead of me as I came up Sturt Street. He must have been taking many photos as he went along. He chose today to go to the Europa Cafe, on Fr Justin’s recommendations. As we had coffee, I marked another paper…

We then headed into St Patrick’s Cathedral, visited the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the statue of St Mary, and the baptismal font. All of these were new(ish) since my last visit. We had hoped to get a Cathedral stamp in our passports but the office was not open yet. With all the visiting, it was 9am before we left the Cathedral to start heading out of town.

The route out of town depends on what you want to see. Originally we had planned to walk up to Lake Wendouree and skirt the Southern and Western sides of the lake up to the start of the Ballarat-Skipton Rail Trail up near the Flaxmill Swamp on the other side of the golf-course. But there seemed little point in this, as it is not an objective of the MacKillop-Woods Way to walk the whole trail. That being said, a morning walk along the lake is a lot more pleasant than the walk along Sturt Street, and is only a block to the north of the main road. The other thing to take into consideration is the Avenue of Honour along Sturt Street, which begins with the Arch of Victory just past the Ballarat High School. In the end, I decided to take the route up Drummond Street North, down Mill Street past Nazareth House (which has many happy memories for me an my family as a place of our annual weekend Anima Education retreat), onto the Lake, past the Church of St Therese Little Flower, and back down Gilles Street North onto Sturt Street at the start of the Avenue of Honour.

We also had to buy lunch again, as I had left what I had purchased the previous evening behind in the presbytery fridge. We stopped at a little grocery liquor store on Drummond Street before heading to the Lake, wondering if there were any other shops further on, but I need not have worried. It seemed to take forever to get out of Ballarat, which is experiencing its own suburban sprawl. It was about 9km from the Cathedral to the entrance to the trail, and where there once would have been countryside between Ballarat and Cardigan there is now a new growing suburb called Lucas (after the name of the Textile Company whose female employees planted most of the trees in the Avenue of Honour). Quite soon, there will be no open area at all left between Ballarat and the rail trail trail. In the middle of this new development is an enormous shopping centre, and on the road a new KFC. Future pilgrims may wish to take their time leaving Ballarat and have an early lunch here, as the rest of the way is only another 15km. On the long walk along Sturt Street, Sean and I were playing a game of “spot a cat”, as he remarked that we had seen only dogs thus far on this leg of the pilgrimage. The first one to spot a cat (confirmed sighting) would get a free coffee from other one. It turned out that I bought Sean a coffee at a take away at the end of Sturt Street, as he saw a kitten sleeping in a window of one of the houses we were walking past.

Once on the trail, everything becomes very simple. You just need to walk this gently declining gravel track until you arrive at your destination. For us, that was Woolmunda Park Cottages, about 1.5km out of Smythesdale. It is the only commercial accommodation on the trail that we are aware of, although there is a good camping ground in Smythesdale itself. The surrounding landscape is generally flat and open for the most of the start, but becomes more wooded and occupied as you head south. The trees vary between gums, wattles and pine on the side of the track, and many small farms and large housing blocks back onto the trail.

One feature of the track that takes the guesswork out of how far you have yet to walk are markers telling you how many kilometres you have to go to Skipton, with secondary measurements to the next official settlement. The first marked you meet after joining the trail declares that you are 51km from Skipton and 6.3km from Haddon. After passing through Haddon, the next marker says you are 44km from Skipton and 6.5km from Smythesdale. Also marking the way are signboards for the old stations. The railway was closed in 1977 and, other than raised embankments, there is no visible sign of the old sidings or platforms any more.

We resumed our game of “spot a cat”, this time for a beer. Again, many dogs about (one came bounding up to slobber on me from where his master was working on a fence along the trail), but nothing feline. Towards Smythesdale, there is a large area of bushland on the western side of the trail which is fenced off with security warnings forbidding entry. This turned out to be an enormous land fill area. What is it about these country shires finding perfectly good bushland that could be used for conservation and recreation for waste management? Past this, I could see our destination on the right. I was walking ahead of Sean at this point by about one kilometre. Just over the fence was a barking and bounding black and white border collie, and nearby: a cat! Unfortunately, as I approached with my phone to take a picture, it ran off, so I could not confirm the sighting later on.

Woolmunda Park Cottages, up Wethling Lane, will be our depot for the next two nights. We plan to use the local bus service to shuttle back and forth. This will have the added benefit of tomorrow being a “day pack” day again. After dropping our gear in Cottage No. 2, the owner of the Park, Cheryl, drove us into Smythesdale to collect groceries for the next two days meals and lunches. She also gave us a dozen eggs. In the end, we probably have too much food, but we will make a good go of it. Tonight we ate pepper steak pies, with mashed potatoes, eggs and salad. We even had soup for first course. There is a wood combustion heater in the cottage, so we washed our clothes and hung them on the clothes horse in front of the fire to dry.

I spent some of the evening marking papers, but very soon the weariness overcame us and we headed for bed. We don’t have wifi here, or a very good internet connection (3G one bar), so I won’t upload the photos until I get back to Ballarat.

UPDATE: The photos are here.

Here’s the map, though. The journey was 26.5km and took us 6.5 hours. We took the yellow trail in the end…

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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