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THE CALL OF THE CAMINO

CAMINO – WHO – NOW?

I’m about to depart Australia for the journey of a lifetime. I’m going to be walking the Camino de Santiago – an 800 km pilgrimage from the border of France across Spain. It will take a little over one month with daily stops along the way in different cities, towns and villages. Each night will be spent in a new location, making ‘home’ as I know it, the backpack I carry with a few possessions.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world hear the Camino’s call. They typically start their journey in one of the five locations depending on which route they wish to take, but the ending is always the same: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

According to documented history, and the subject of debate, Saint James the Great, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, is buried at this cathedral. This is where the Camino de Santiago, which translates to “The Way of Saint James” gets its name. So the Camino is definitely religious in its roots, but there are many reasons why people walk it.



My understanding is that all pilgrims are seekers. You don’t decide to walk hundreds of kilometres on a whim. There’s something one is seeking to attain. That could be to test themselves physically; to connect with their faith or spirituality; to see a different side of the world; or to have both time and space away from their regular lives. The mythos around the Camino is that you don’t just arrive at physical destinations. Pilgrims carry questions, concerns, and burdens that are resolved along their journey.

This is the plot of the book, Rebirth: A Fable of Love, Forgiveness, and Following Your Heart by Kamal Ravikant which is my favourite piece of media related to the Camino. Kamal recounts his experience of walking following the loss of his father and also gives insight into other pilgrims’ stories. From everything I read, watched, and the conversations I’ve had with past pilgrims, it’s clear that whatever the reason for starting the Camino, one comes back a different person.



MY REASONS

I’m an all-of-the-above person. When I entered my personal growth era in my twenties, I came across habits like journalling and meditation that I could pick up immediately. Then there were bigger bucket list items like travelling, which included doing the Camino. I loved weight training and valued its effect on my well-being. So although I had limited hiking experience, the Camino still had appeal for the sheer challenge it presented.

I got closer to the Camino at the end of my twenties when I did the Everest Base Camp trek. This was inspired by the documentary, Sherpa and cemented my intentions of one day heading to Europe. Nepal was both breathtaking in scenery and in a huffing and puffing kind of way. I didn’t train enough and paid the price. My trek was cut short 3 hours from Base Camp, but I still got a lot from the experience. I learned the truth in the cliche: it’s about the journey, not the destination.

I knew I would walk the Camino, just not when. With the financial and time commitments, it’s a huge trip to organise. At various times I pitched the idea to different friends including one I had met online who lived in the United States. They all liked the idea, but couldn’t give me more than a maybe. So it was up to me to keep the dream alive. I printed an appealing Camino image (from Google), stuck it on my desk at work and opened a new savings account titled Camino Cash. These were my little daily reminders that I was working towards something.



HOW IT ALL LINED UP

As I returned from Mt Everest, which involved navigating over rocks daily, things back home got rocky, too. My personal life got hit by an avalanche: I lost my job and was diagnosed with ADHD at 30. The good news was that all the work in my twenties had set me up to be rather resilient. I slowly got back on my feet – getting a new job, learning everything I could about ADHD, and eventually making the decision to study to become a counsellor. Life was better, but also busy, pushing my dream on the horizon even further back.

Oh. Then that pandemic thing happened.

Another avalanche – but this one wiped out the world as we know it. Everything came apart – I lost my job and endured the longest lockdowns in the country. However, I’m both lucky and grateful to report that out of the rubble, I was able to build an even better life.

I attained a new job that paid more and allowed me to work from home. This flexibility opened up the opportunity to work casual shifts as a youth worker once I finished my studies. This meant my spare time was taken up with more work, but I was willing to make the sacrifice. In addition to being tied to a meaningful cause, having another job meant saving for the Camino was made much easier.

At the same time, my partner reached a point in her life where she decided to take a break from teaching after ten years. Teachers don’t get the luxury of taking time off when they wish. So her decision was what made the difference – moving the Camino from column dreaming to doing it. I just had to keep on that grind – banking up money and annual leave.

To clarify, there are more accessible ways to walk the Camino. It can be completed over multiple shorter trips. Or as most decide to do, just the final 100 km stretch be walked. This is the minimum that’s required to attain the official stamp of completion. I definitely considered this to allow for more time travelling the rest of Europe. It was a tough call to make. I raised my conundrum with my mate Jimmy, who moved to Spain a few years ago. He put me back on track with a dismissive laugh: “Just do the whole thing. You’ve been talking about the Camino for as long as I’ve known you.”

THE PLAN OF ATTACK

The next step was to figure out the practical elements. I learned the importance of rest days from Mt Everest – a humbling yet helpful experience. So this time I was happy to go slow and steady. Using the awesome app, Buen Camino, my equally awesome partner split our Camino into daily chunks. The intent was to do this evenly, but there was a bit of give and take. It made more sense to have our rest days in bigger towns to allow for sightseeing. And where some stretches were more challenging due to distance, elevation, or heat, we wanted the following day to be less demanding.

The other variable was the availability of accommodation. We found there was a certain approach that was romanticised – of just showing up and “the way appearing”. In online groups, those who posed too many questions in preparation were criticised for their lack of faith. However, we couldn’t imagine walking 25 km to only then have to race hundreds of pilgrims to find accommodation – risking ending up in one of those crowded horror story dorms with 20 snoring people and who knows how many bedbugs. So we went ahead and booked all of our Camino stops. Buen Camino linked with Booking.com where it was a breeze to make bookings with the option to pay later and make changes if needed.

With gear, the goal was to pack as light as possible. When you’re walking 6+ hours a day, every gram makes a difference. So we followed the recommendation of carrying no more than 10% of our body weight. Our intent with accommodation was to be somewhat ‘comfortable among the chaos’ – and we took the same approach with our gear, spending the money to ensure quality products. The legends at Pady Palin helped me find the right shoes, socks, and backpack to start with. From there I added sweat-wicking merino wool tops, layers to protect me from the heat and cold, and the most comfortable undies I’ve ever worn. Big shout out to the Aussie brand, Boody.

Next, it was time to get training. Unsurprisingly, the best way to prepare your body to walk a lot, is to walk a lot. I’d always been in the habit of walking daily, between 5 – 8 km. But it was time to turn things up. We found a longer local route of 13 km and started walking it to wear in our shoes. Once the loop could be done daily with ease, we added in our backpacks. Initially cumbersome, I quickly found my groove. With hiking poles in hand, it felt good to be ‘properly’ training.



We were now ready to have a shot at a ‘Camino simulation day’ by doing the Oxfam Hike’s 33 km circuit. Outside of some of the Everest Base Camp days, this was my hardest hike in memory. In total, it took about 8 hours through various elevations, including the renowned 1,000 Steps. Where my partner had completed the 100 km (yes, 100 km) circuit previously, my goal for the 33 km was to just finish. By the end, I was wobbling like a penguin, but I was happy to have made it without any niggling pains, injuries, or issues with my gear. It gave me the confidence that I could handle the biggest days on the Camino. The question remaining was if I could back it up day after day… after day – for a month straight.

Doing back-to-back hikes is a challenge. Not just in the act itself, but in fitting it in. Six hours is hard to find when working full-time plus some like I do.  This doesn’t include the time to pack and drive to the hiking location. With the local circuit (mostly flat) becoming too easy, I started to opt for doing the stairmaster at the gym in short but intense bursts. This was until we could fit in our first big back-to-back hikes which we planned to line up with a long weekend.

We hiked 15 km on the first day, followed by 30 km on the next. I woke up feeling tender and concerned, but once we started on day two, it was clear my fitness had levelled up. I was able to find a sustainable pace, lock in and finish without any unplanned stops. I also got up the next day instead of spending it in bed like I did following the Oxfam. I was a bit slow initially, but once I started moving I felt fine…. Well – you know – apart from the daunting realisation that I’d be doing the same thing again, but for 800km. That ‘big weekend’ was a mere bite of the big month to come.


Photos from Fort Nepan and Two Bays Trail in Victoria.

CLOSING REMARKS

As of writing this, we leave in about 2 weeks. Having shared my plan with others who have completed the Camino, I’ve received nothing but assurance we’re on the right track. Part of me still feels a bit nervous – which is understandable. But I can only give it my best shot. And hey, at least this time I’ve done more preparation than just walking the treadmill at the gym!

It will be transformational – as was my last time travelling overseas to Nepal and India. That was only 3 weeks, where this time I’ll be gone for 3 months! It’s a dream come true – which still hasn’t clicked yet. So before I even start walking, I’m patting myself on the back to recognise my journey over the last decade to even get to this point. I’m viewing the Camino as both a celebration of what I’ve already achieved and a chance to get some clarity around what I want the coming chapters of my life to look like – especially as 40 looms around the corner.

While now a counsellor with a business, I originally started this blog in 2013 as a place to think out loud. I was in my mid-twenties – feeling both aimless and driven, as contradicting as that sounds. I found comfort in the following image and words which I used as the subtitle for my website and personal motto. Now in my late thirties, I’ve since built a great, full and structured life. For the most part, I’ve figured it out. But part of me misses that sense of adventure and not knowing – that transitory stage of my life.

This is where the Camino will scratch that itch – leaving me with lots of blisters in the process! I look forward to really living the moment; to the challenge; and to connecting with my partner, others, and myself. Perhaps even also exploring my spirituality. However far I make it, I look forward to learning and growing – as a friend, partner, employee, business owner, son, brother, writer, and therapist. As with my life to date, I look forward to sharing my experience. The plan is to write about the Camino in the closing chapters of my second book, Home.

I’ll also be posting updates on social media as it all happens. The intent with sharing all of this is to inspire – whether that’s to walk the Camino or take on any other challenge. Or even to just keep working towards any dreams you have on your horizon. Either way, thank you for reading. I wish you a “buen camino” – which translates to mean good path, being both physical and spiritual.

CAMINO FOR CAUSE

I’m also doing the ‘Camino for a Cause’ by fundraising for the amazing organisation, Lighthouse Foundation, where I’m a Youth Worker. Every donation goes towards making a positive difference in the lives of young people in-need. Please check out my fundraising page for more information.

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