The Aussie Camino

Guest post by Luke Mills

History of pilgrimage

Luke Mills on the Aussie Camino

There are many different reasons why people travel – health; to broaden the mind by seeing other places and other cultures; for holidays; while working for multi- national companies; and for sport. People today, both young and old, are travellers. It is only within the last fifty or so years that the terms globe-trotters, and jet-setters have been coined. A pilgrimage has a different objective. It is a journey with a religious purpose, to visit holy or sacred places called shrines associated with a saint where people can feel near to the saint either through relics or miraculous stories.

It is as well to remember that Australia has no history of pilgrimage. Australia is not a country that people associate with pilgrimage, For pilgrimage to become part of the Church’s witness in a particular country one needs saints and a kindling of the desire to visit places associated with their lives. Although there are many Aboriginal sacred sites and Aborigines go “walkabout” to reach them that is not pilgrimage in the Christian sense when pilgrims are intent on honouring those who lived and died for the faith. There is no tradition of Christian pilgrimage in Australia as there is in countries such as Spain, France, ltaly and the Holy Land. With the canonisation of Mary MacKillop in 2008, the tradition of pilgrimage has begun to take root in Christian consciousness.

In April 2013 Luke Mills, Steven Murphy, Anthony Mills and Michael Dillon from St Francis Xavier College set out for the journey to where it all began. This was a first ever – there is no record that any other pilgrimage has ever been undertaken before from Portland, Victoria to Penola, South Australia.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are two meanings of the pilgrim. A pilgrim is one who travels to a sacred place as an act of

religious devotion. A pilgrim is a person who regards life as a journey future life. It is this sense of pilgrim that Bunyan used in his book, Pilgrim’s Progress; and that Vatican ll was promoting when it put forward the idea of the Church as a pilgrim people who are moving together in the same direction towards their heavenly home.

Pilgrimage was derived from the Latin ‘peregrinus’ meaning stranger, one who travels in foreign lands. We do this from

choice today but a pilgrimage could be imposed on a person. A stranger in foreign parts suggests banishment and exile. Peregrinatio pro Christo gives the sense of being a stranger for the sake of Christ. Pilgrimage was a journey undertaken as a penance. In the Middle Ages pilgrimages were penitential. Travelling to shrines in those days was very hard and dangerous. There was no penance as a reason for our pilgrimage which just shows how the concept of pilgrimage has changed. ln more modern times a pilgrim follows in the footsteps of others, to sites and shrines associated with miracles, or with the life and death of Jesus or a saint, and to deepen faith.

Pilgrimage is closely connected with shrines. Shrines are a focus of religious devotion. They are signs of God and of God’s intervention in history. They are not places that one hurries into and out of again. Pilgrims go to shrines in order to feel nearer to a saint, or to Jesus Christ if one goes to the Holy Land. A shrine is above all a place of prayer. But it is also a focal point for people of all cultures and faiths.

Mary MacKillop and Pilgrimage

St Mary MacKillop

Mary MacKillop was a traveller. Her work took her all over Australia and New Zealand. Almost a hundred years before Vatican 11, she urged her Sisters –Remember we are but travellers here (1867). She did not mean that they were to be travellers in the sense of packing their bags and moving on. These words have been inscribed on her tomb in the Mary MacKillop Memorial chapel in Sydney. They are a reminder to all of the reality that we are pilgrims, only passing through this world where we do not belong. She wrote to her mother, Flora MacKillop:

Our pilgrimage in this world must have an end. Then, but not till then, shall we have our rest and reward. (16 December 1866)

Obviously, the image of life as a journey, where there is no permanence and where there is need for endurance, was very meaningful to Mary MacKillop.

The Aussie Camino

Luke, Steven and Michael work together in a Catholic senior school and were discussing a movie they had seen called ‘The Way’ starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. This real-life Hollywood father and son team play the same roles in the story. When the son is killed in a freak storm the day before commencing ‘El camino de Santiago de Compostella’ the father flies from the U.S. to France to identify the body of his son. He is handed his son’s backpack and ashes, he then becomes determined to complete the camino in honour of his son. Although it is a fictional story it could be based on any number of stories of pilgrims who make the journey through northern Spain. Along the camino he meets many pilgrims who also have made personal commitments- some spiritiual some secular.

The movie struck a chord with us – Why are there only caminos in Europe and the Holy Land? Why can’t we have one here now we have a saint of our own? Our destination of Penola was the obvious choice. Although Mary travelled widely throughout Australia and New Zealand this town is widely accepted as the birthplace or her order; the Sisters of St Joseph. Penola is a small town with a population of only 1300. It is 383km from Adelaide and 412km from Melbourne and although it has been made famous for its wine growing and its association  with  Mary  MacKillop many Australians would not have visited it since it is not on the main highway between the two large cities.

Steven and Luke began the task of planning a camino that would be challenging but achievable, it was also important to determine an appropriate the commencement point. Mary travelled widely but her last teaching post as a lay teacher was in Portland, from here she was called by her mentor and co-founder priest Fr. Julian Tenison-Woods back to Penola where they first met a few years before. It was at this time on March 19, 1866 that Mary wore her black habit for the first time and declared herself Sister Mary. ‘It seemed obvious that we too should start from this same point’ says Luke. And although her path is not recorded she would have passed through many of the same towns as the Aussie Camino. Every day was planned with an average of 31km to walk each day.

‘We wanted to make it like the camino in Spain with a guide book a passport for each stop.’ said Luke. ‘Unfortunately we didn’t have passports because there would be no one to stamp them. However we made up a guide book of all the maps which included a reflection for each day.’

Every day began with a lively “Buen camino!!’ in the main street of each town,.

Another important part of the camino was to ‘bookend’ it by visiting the Mary Mackillop Museums in Penola and in Melbourne. ‘This provided a certain structure which we wanted to achieve,’ Luke recounts.

With maps in hand we set out for our destination each day which would include eight hours of walking. Each day was long but spectacular as it was planned to be both a spirtitual and religious experience. It was important to have a camino that recorded the places of Mary MacKillop but also appealed to people who have a sense of awe in creation. This was certainly the case as the camino includes walks along cliff tops, beaches, sand dunes, goat trails and farm tracks. Only about 10km of the whole camino was on major highways.

‘I wanted to stay in the local pub (hotel) of each town and meet the local people. At the front bar of every small hotel in the country you are likely to meet very colourful characters that are only too happy to share their stories. This was certainly the case and whenever anyone asked if we were walkers we said, ‘No, we’re pilgrims. We are on a camino.’ Needless to say we were met with curious looks but a little bit of humour and good spirit we were able to enter into a lively discussion about what our journey was all about. I don’t think there would be many front  bars  in  Australia  that  would  be discussing Mary MacKillop so it was certainly a moment of revelation for many of the local people along the way.’

Luke goes on to say ‘This was a terrific week. The three of us got well and although we were tired at the end of each day, with a shower a hot meal and a good sleep we were ready for the next day. The peace and solitude combined with the steady rhythm of the feet and walking poles provides many moments of reflection. In this busy life often we don’t get a chance to really talk with one another, but after spending eight hours on the road we were able to reveal very personal experiences of each others’ lives. I really enjoyed it and I hope to do it again next year’

Steven Luke and Michael on arrival at the Mary MacKillop Museum Penola

After 217km and 7 days of walking the three weary pilgrims were met by the director of the Mary MacKillop Museum; Clare Larkin and Krystyna Moore a representative of Cobb and Co. We left a tour of the centre until the next day as we were concerned by the smell of our pilgrims’ clothes which we used everyday. We convened for dinner with other members of the Penola community all of which were interested to hear our story. Where else but at the local pub? This time we could claim the Royal Oak Hotel does have significance since it was once owned by Mary MacKillop’s uncle.

Buen Camino!

The Aussie Camino

The following is an excerpt of an account from a pilgrim Daryle Cook who came on a camino with me.

Map of the Aussie Camino

Undertaking a pilgrimage is more than a great walk. It is a time to visit your inner self; your own mortality, spirituality, weaknesses and inner strength. All within the context of Mother Nature’s best and the shared compassion of others undertaking their own pilgrimage. It is a chance to walk alone, meditate or share. It is in this context that 22 pilgrims set out to walk the 200+ kilometres of the new pilgrimage trail known as the Aussie Camino, fashioned on the great pilgrimage trails of Europe.

Easter Monday and day one of our pilgrimage starts with Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne, followed by a meeting of the pilgrims, registration, distribution of pilgrim passports with our first stamp, and a drive to Portland to stay overnight.

Day 1

We follow the Great South West Walk leaving Portland via the southern suburbs. Taking the signs to Cape Nelson Lighthouse, we enter Discovery Bay Coastal Park. Here we walk beneath wind turbines before entering the bush tracks, which meander along the elevated coastal heathland to Cape Nelson.

The path follows the cliff top sometimes on the very edge of a sheer drop to the pounding ocean. Other times through waist-high shrub, with wind-stunted trees giving the impression of walking through a bonsai forest. After 7km the path drops down a steep sand dune to put us on the beach right at the peak of the tide. The next 5km sees us walking in each other’s footsteps like penguins. With a headwind and soft sand, it was a real test of our mental stamina and most of us walked solo. Trewalla Camp provides an excellent place to enjoy a hot drink and rest before tackling the last 6km into Cape Bridgewater.

Day 2

Our group starts every morning with a reading from Saint Mary MacKillop and a joining of sticks – wishing each other “Buen Camino” before heading off, each at their own pace. It’s quite humbling to stand 135m above the ocean and look over Bridgewater Bay in the morning sunshine, to see Cape Nelson• Lighthouse in the distance, and know we have walked the Bay perimeter – the very edge of a two- million-year-old volcanic crater.

Today’s walk is spectacular and dramatic in its variation. We follow the cliff edge with huge rolling swells sending up giant plumes of white water against black cliffs. After 6km we enter the moonscape environment of the Petrified Forest, flanked by wind turbines.

Following the coastline for the final 7km, we pass Whites Beach, before rounding another headland to look down into Descartes Bay and lines of huge surf rolling. Descending from our high vantage point we complete the final kilometre through sand dunes and bushland skirting the first lake to reach Bridgewater Lakes picnic area.

Day 3

The following morning we head off in sunshine to bypass 35km of the regular trail. Here we are remote and accommodation is limited, hence the bus bypass to a point near Lake Mombeong, where we walk into the dunes and scrubland surrounding the lake. Heading west to Nobles Rock Carpark, we head down to the beach, where a Camino scallop shell is drawn in the sand to remind us of our pilgrimage. It’s then several kilometres beach walk until

we head inland, traversing ancient historical sites of the Gunditjmara People. Huge shell middens scattered with stone cutting tools.

“Look out for the rocks, that’s our lunch stop”, our camino leader Luke Mills tells us. We see them in the distance, but it seems to take forever to reach. The rocks are now renamed “Hard Rock Cafe” on account of it being a sheltered spot, where we boil the trangia for tea and coffee. The rising tide begins to come all around our rocky shelter, so Luke’s sent out to signal us when the waves have receded sufficiently to run around the rocks to the dry sand on the western side. Luke’s efforts at holding back the tide earns him the name of ‘Moses’ Mills’. From the rocks it’s several kms along the before reaching the carpark for Nelson Beach. This leads a short walk into Nelson to stay at the Nelson Hotel.

Day 4 – Crossing the Border

Today day starts with early morning mass in the back of the pub – quite

a unique experience, but Father John welcomes us all to join him. We’ve been warned today will be a day of adventure. In hindsight I think endurance might have better described it. We leave Nelson via the highway and turn off to enter private property.1 We carry a ‘mobile stile’ – a homemade ladder allowing us to climb fences. We traverse plenty of cow paddocks and pass huge mobs of kangaroos on route to Piccanini Ponds – our access point to the beach.

Somewhere on that stretch we cross the invisible state border into South Australia. The weather is excellent and it’s boots off for river crossings and the long beach walk up to the point where the kelp washed up on the beach is too thick to continue barefoot. We reach Brown Bay Picnic shelter for a well-earned rest. It’s then a long roadside walk into Port MacDonnell that takes forever and stay at the lovely and welcoming Victoria Hotel.

Day 5

The following day is given the title “Day of Peace” and it seems appropriate leaving the southern ocean on a dead calm day. There’s a noticeable difference in the landscape, architecture and feel as we trek north, deeper into SA. Walking through low rolling, rural landscape we follow stock routes with our two mountain destinations clearly visible in the distance. The first being Mount Schank; the location for our lunch stop. Our second, Mount Gambier clear in the distance. It’s a very relaxed walk, up and down a few low hills. We walk into Mount Gambier through an avenue of trees heading uphill to the edge of the crater and the famous Blue Lake – a crater lake of amazingly pure blue water.

Day 6

Today we can take a little rest as we are only 17km which seems like a stroll. We can have the morning shopping and going to the chemist or supermarket. Tonight is BBQ night and we are all pitching in. This also allows time for a long breakfast. So we meet outside the town Hall at midday.

We head west along the Princes Highway, then north on country roads. We walk through low rolling farmland with beautifully kept properties,

along fire breaks between pine plantations and then through native bush track to reach Bush Haven Cottage. This is lovely bush setting Band B style accommodation. A quick shower and rest and we prepare the barby. This is the only night we cook but it really brings everyone together.

Day 7

The trail then follows limestone gravel roads meandering through low lying cattle and sheep country and it’s pretty much flat all the way. Arriving on the last stretch into Kalangadoo with the sun low and sending golden light on the avenue of white gums, lifts our spirits needed to make it to the pub; a cold drink and a hot meal. The pub is a real local attraction and by now they know all about the ‘Camino walkers’. With a beer at the bar it felt so good to put the feet up!

Our group ranges in age from 33 to 79, Catholic and non Catholic, and has become the most cohesive and caring group of people anyone could ever wish to keep company with.

Day 8

Walking out of Kalangadoo in the early dawn silver light … a perfect display of Australian bush. The trail starts on the road, but quickly changes to dirt track following the disused railway line. We all seemed to slow down today; no one wanting it to end and everyone enjoying their time together, supporting each other with kindness and care – the true Camino spirit. We walked past the power station and within sight of the first grape vines of the Coonawarra, and at the “Welcome to Penola” sign we gathered to walk the final kilometre as one united force.

After a cold beer, a shower and making ourselves at home in the 1870 Bushman’s Inn, we congregated for the final celebratory feast. Pilgrims and support crew, richer for the experience and more open to give and receive the kindness and pure generosity of spirit that Mary MacKillop demonstrated 149 years before.

*Please note there have been some variations on this itinerary since the article was written and some tour groups have slightly different stops and number of days. I have indicated some of the more important changes.

1 Groups no longer walk through private property. All trails are on publicly accessed roads, paths or reservations.