Winter Walking in Canberra: Ice Age Tuggeranong

If you happen to be in Canberra and you see two elderly people going out for an early morning walk determined to cover twelve kilometres in temperatures around minus five degrees, please, please, please…. stop them! If necessary, call the people in white coats.


Frosty parkland on the path to Chisholm

Emmy and I left home at half past seven amid a white-out colder than the heart of an immigration minister. The grass of Tuggeranong’s parkland crunched under our feet. Trackside puddles were frozen solid, criss-crossed with stalks of grass trapped in the ice. Lake Tuggeranong lay flat and dead still. A few orange bars of light from the rising sun stretched across the water. They drew wisps of frigid steam from the lake. It was like another planet: cold, still, grey, completely deserted.


The first streaks of morning sunlight raise steam on Lake Tuggeranong.


A couple of Lake Tuggeranong’s swans with a white crust of frost on their plumage.

We were heading for Chisholm shopping centre about six kilometres away. Most of the asphalt path ran alongside a floodway – a kind of broad concrete channel designed to carry rain water out of the suburbs and into Lake Tuggeranong when it rains. Good idea, except for one small fact: it hardly ever rains in Canberra, at least not heavily. For most of the year the channel is dry. Kids on skateboards swoop up and down its sloping sides, keeping a wary eye out for Canberra’s guardians of child safety.


The floodway (with water in it… we had good rain a week ago.)


Cold? Nah!

But this morning there were no defiant shouts of fun. We walked like explorers in the remains of an abandoned civilisation, or time-travellers thrown back into a prehistoric era. I was reminded of Alan Weisman’s remarkable book The World Without Us in which he visits places abandoned by human inhabitants and imagines what will become of our planet if (better… when) humankind becomes extinct. If you like our planet, it’s not all bad news. Gaia will endure. Canberra on a winter morning is proof of it.

After an austere cup of tea in a deliciously warm takeaway at Chisholm, with chips, pizzas and burgers steaming in stainless steel pans in the display counter, around 9.00 am we headed home. At the Gowrie playing fields we stopped for a few minutes to watch children playing footy with the intensity that only children have, while quiet groups of parents stood on the sidelines hugging themselves against the cold. Further on, cars were filling the broad parking area of the C3 Church. The faithful jumped from the warmth of their cars and sprinted for the warmth of the church. The warm inner glow and the warm outer glow go together.


At last, civilisation! (Correction… Chisholm shopping centre.)


A quiet hot drink in a Chisholm takeaway. Hmmm… smell those chips!

That goes for walkers too. We like our comforts, though we have to get used to deferring them. It was 10.30 when we arrived home and we rushed to the temperature control button on the gas heating system. After three hours and 12.5 kilometres it was a relief to pull off our insulated beanies and insulated gloves. Soon the kettle was boiling and we cupped our hands around hot drinks.


Learning to be Australian. Sunday morning footy (rugby league) at the Gowrie playing fields.



A short walk through the streets of Sumenep

Two friends head home after mid afternoon prayers at Sumenep's Grand Mosque

Two friends head home after mid afternoon prayers at Sumenep’s Grand Mosque

The plan was to walk seven kilometres through the streets of Sumenep, leaving my hotel room in the mid afternoon and returning at nightfall as I had done two weeks earlier in Jogjakarta (see “A twenty-first century walk along Jogjakarta’s ancient axis”). It was a very modest target, or so I thought. But when I stepped into Trunojoyo Street the plan unravelled immediately. In the end I managed just three kilometres in three hours.

Before I tell you why, let me step back a little and paint some context. If you squint and look hard at a map of Indonesia you might see Sumenep (pronounced /SOO.m’n’p/) at the eastern end of Madura, the flat, dry island that stretches out snoozing in the tropical sun off the north coast of east Java. Indonesia’s economic boom has been looking in another direction and hasn’t noticed Sumenep yet. Its economy still relies mostly on fishing, the production of sea salt, some cattle farming and small orchards. Pilgrims visiting the royal burial ground of Asta Tinggi on the outskirts of town, and the nearby holy tomb of Sayyid Yusuf, also contribute. A bit of revenue comes from support operations for oil drilling in the Kangean islands further east.

There are a few new cars and motorbikes in the streets, of course, but unemployment – or more accurately, gross under-employment – remains endemic. Consumer goods that are everyday items elsewhere in Indonesia may be luxuries in Sumenep. I went into a supermarket looking for chocolate (my weakness). I couldn’t find any on the shelves but staff led me to a locked, glass-panelled cabinet. Behind the glass there were KitKat bars, and Indonesia’s Silver Queen chocolate bars, even a lone packet of Australian TimTams. But no-one could locate the key so I had to peer longingly, swallow hard, and move on.

Burn marks left by cigarette butts n the table in my hotel room. I'm surprised the hotel hasn't burned down.

Burn marks left by cigarette butts on the table in my hotel room. I’m surprised the hotel hasn’t burned down.

I stayed at the Wijaya I Hotel, which was once Sumenep’s premiere hotel. It may still be. (You’ll find it mentioned in Lonely Planet guides). My VIP room cost Rp.135,000 a night, around $10.00 US. The hotel was a fairly typical small town hotel, but even by small-town standards the label “VIP” was way over-the-top for the quality of the room I was given. It had no towel or soap. It had no hot water or toilet paper. Its Formica-topped table was covered in black welts from cigarette butts that had burned out along its edge over many years. But I don’t want to sound sour, so let me be even-handed. It did have an air-conditioner (with the reassuring buzz of a diesel tractor), a small table-top fridge (that kept my drinks nice and warm), and a tiny TV set (with exotically snowy pictures from its three channels). And when I moved in I was given an enthusiastic welcome by a family of mosquitoes.

The bathroom in my VIP hotel room. You flush the toilet by bailing water into it from the adjacent tub.

The bathroom in my “VIP” hotel room. You flush the toilet by bailing water into it from the adjacent tub.

I have to confess that despite these comforts I was quite pleased to leave the room and stride out into the mid afternoon heat. But in the hard streets of Sumenep I was tripped up by a problem that sabotaged my grand walking plan. The people were much too friendly… in fact so spontaneously hospitable and curious that my progress slowed to a crawl. Again and again I was waylaid and invited to chat, and the chat always included the compulsory ceremony of group photographs using mobile phones.

A large black akik opal ring, typical of the rings currently fashionable (for men) in Indonesia.

A large black akik opal ring, typical of the rings currently fashionable (for men) in Indonesia.

My first stop was about a hundred metres from the hotel. I walked past a street side workshop where an artisan was squatting on the footpath trimming coloured stones (akik) with a small circular saw. Beside him a display counter was loaded with opal-stone rings. Customers could choose a raw stone and have it shaped, polished and fitted to their preference, or they could choose a ready-made ring. There is something of a mania for akik rings in Indonesia at the moment. They are especially popular with men who believe they confer protection and special powers on the wearer.

A tray of akik rings on sale in Sumenep.

A tray of akik rings on sale in Sumenep.

Surprisingly, the young akik salesman, Dayat, didn’t want to sell me a ring. He wanted to talk religion. Madura is one of the most strongly Islamic regions of Indonesia. Its brand of Islam is conservative and closely bound up with the power of traditional religious leaders called kyai who rule with iron authority over mosques, religious schools and social life. On the two nights of my stay in Sumenep I was blasted out of bed at 3.30 in the morning by an hour of high-decibel dzikr chants and sholawat songs hammering on the doors and windows of the neighbourhood from loudspeakers in the local mosque. As far as I could tell the neighbourhood slept sweetly through the half-musical cacophony, but being unused to it, I couldn’t. Nevertheless, as my head cleared and I relaxed into the rhythms of the incantations, I felt – as I always do – a powerful affection for the music of Islam. It is an ambience as public, as comforting and as beautiful (yes… beautiful, even when distorted by screeching, tinny, pre-dawn loudspeakers) as Islamic architecture, dress, food, etiquette, calligraphy, decoration etc.

Dayat, the youthful akik salesman, turned out to be an amateur sociologist and theologian. He stumbled into an apology for the tarnished reputation of Islam.

“Some people say the Bali bombers and other Muslim terrorists are not real Muslims, because they act contrary to the peaceful tenets of our religion. But Islam is a community and extremists have come from that community, so they are Muslims.”

He looked at me with agonised earnestness.

“As a Muslim I am ashamed of the reputation my faith has acquired for indiscriminate violence (kekerasan membabibuta was the phrase he used). I’m truly sorry.”

Inwardly I thought Dayat was being much too tough on himself and his religious community. Much (not all… but much) of the “indiscriminate violence” he was apologising for was frustrated, blind retaliation for innumerable instances of equally indiscriminate violence visited on Muslims in many parts of the globe by the ruthless forces of Euro-American power. This doesn’t excuse indiscriminate, violent retaliation, of course, but it helps us to understand it without having to put up with the gormless rhetoric of moral outrage and cultural superiority that marks so much discussion of “terrorism” in Europe, America and Australia. Unfortunately Dayat had adopted some of the premises of this rhetoric.

With Dayat, the akik salesman who felt ashamed of the violence committed in the name of Islam.

With Dayat, the akik salesman who felt ashamed of the violence committed in the name of Islam.

I took my leave and walked on towards Sumenep’s Grand Mosque in the centre of town. Built in the late eighteenth century with the tiered, pyramid-shaped roof characteristic of Indonesia’s pre-modern mosques it is fronted by a massive, multi-level gateway painted in an attractive combination of white and bright yellow. In front of the gate I fell into conversation with two young women, visitors from Pamekasan about 50 kilometres away in central Madura. Rennie, aged around 25, was wearing a full length black shift with her head swathed in a close-fitting, black hijab scarf. She radiated a forbidding aura of nun-like severity. Her younger friend Ita was also dressed in irreproachable Islamic style but her clothes were more colourful, even a bit trendy. Both were under the watchful guardianship of Ita’s older brother.

Sumenep's Grand Mosque with its traditional pyramid shaped, tiered roof.

Sumenep’s Grand Mosque with its traditional pyramid shaped, tiered roof.

They wanted to take a photograph of the tall, grey-haired foreigner doggedly plodding the streets of Sumenep with a rucksack on his back. They used their mobile phones, of course. When I suggested a reciprocal photo on my camera, Rennie glanced around nervously and declined, presumably out of religiously inspired modesty. But Ita had no such scruples. She handed my camera to her brother and simply commanded him to take a photograph of her and me. When Rennie saw the image her resistance evaporated and she solemnly but very willingly joined us. Moments later, looking at the images, she even let out a delighted laugh, although her chaperone was frowning.

I pose with Ita (left) and Rennie (right) in front of the big entry gate leading to the Grand Mosque.

I pose with Ita (left) and Rennie (right) in front of the big entry gate leading to the Grand Mosque.

Religious bigots take note. If you allow smart-phone technology and social media into the fortress of your ideology, sooner or later they will escape your control and bite you where it hurts. Eventually (though not always immediately) new media will subvert your messages. As Marshall McLuhan – the Canadian pioneer of media studies – famously said “The medium is the message.” Mobile phones, their cameras, their photos and Facebook are not the ultimate as tools of female emancipation, but for many women they are an unstoppable beginning.

It's got everything. Pak Sariman's iced fruit confection, just Rp.5,000.

It’s got everything. Pak Saniman’s iced fruit confection, just Rp.5,000.

I was feeling thirsty and noticed a drinks stand in a side street beside the mosque. I sat down behind it on a rough bamboo bench. Pak Saniman, the proprietor, picked up a dessert bowl and with a few deft flourishes of a ladle lifted diced pineapple, mango, avocado, water melon and jackfruit from a colourful row of fat jars. This was followed by some squares of sweet bread and a psychedelic landslide of green rice-flour noodles. Cloudy sweet syrup was poured in and diluted with a bit of coconut milk. To complete the concoction pebbles of ice were added. All this cost Rp.5,000, about 30 US cents. Pak Saniman had been at his stand since nine o’clock in the morning. It was now around 5.00 pm. As I slurped up the refreshment he told me he had almost emptied his jars of fruit and was about to go home. He had Rp.150,000 (about $12.00 US) in his pocket. The early weeks of Muharram (the first month in the Islamic calendar) are usually very profitable, he said, but when the rainy season begins in November business would drop off. With a gleam of pride he told me his fruit drink stall had put a daughter through nursing school and was paying the bills for another daughter to complete secondary school in distant, trendy Surabaya.

I take a selfie with Pak Sariman (left) and another customer Muhammad Hayat (centre).

I take a selfie with Pak Saniman (left) and another customer Muhammad Hayat (centre).

Hmmm... every walker should try this. Delicious.

Hmmm… every walker should try this. Delicious.

Looking warily left and right I crossed Sumenep’s main street in front of the mosque and headed into the town’s park-like central plaza. I sat down on a concrete bench to watch children driving battery-powered mini cars and motorbikes around a circular pathway in the park. I was joined by Lisa, Layla and four friends, secondary school girls from Sumenep. They demanded (with perfect politeness, of course) that I pose with them for photographs. Smoothing down her blouse and pulling at her headscarf Lisa asked a question that her friends had been whispering to her.

“Which are prettier, the girls of Australia or the girls of Madura?”

My answer produced a dazzling row of smiles and demands for more photos.

With Lusi, Layla and friends. Note the mobile phones in their hands.

With Lisa, Layla and friends. Note the mobile phones in their hands.

I walked a little further and stopped in front of the Labang Mesem, the Gate of Smiles. This is the entrance to Sumenep’s royal palace. Night was now approaching with its usual tropical swiftness, but a young man emerged from the gate and invited me in. He was neatly dressed in a batik shirt, immaculately creased trousers and polished black shoes. His name was Inong and he worked for Sumenep’s tourism service. Inside, the front reception hall of the palace was already brilliant with light from the many bulbous colonial-style lamps that hung from the airy ceiling among carved, gold-embossed wooden posts. A group of university students were rehearsing a ceremony to be held there the next day. I tried to sneak around the edge of the hall, but I was spotted.

“Photos!” someone cried.

The rehearsal came to a sudden halt and a more immediate, more urgent ceremony got under way. Smart phones appeared. I estimate that in the good-natured ten minutes that followed at least 30 photographs were taken, each one accompanied by laughter and calls for more.

Photo-time in the front portico of Sumenep's palace.

Photo-time with local university students in the front audience hall of Sumenep’s palace.

It was hard to get away but eventually I arrived back in the street to find that night had fallen. I circled around through some back streets and went down a grimy alley behind the Grand Mosque.

“Good evening, sir!” a voice called in English from the streetside shadows. “Please come and talk with me.”

I was in front of a motorbike servicing workshop. Engine parts lay scattered on the oil-blackened floor. To one side, on a bamboo bench, sat Pak Romadon waiting for his bike to be fixed. He had once worked in Bali where he used his English every day, but in Sumenep very few people knew English, he told me, so he grabbed any chance he could to practise with foreign visitors.

A thought-provoking conversation in English with Pak Romadon.

A thought-provoking conversation in English with Pak Romadon.

Our conversation roved far and wide and eventually settled on the Suramadu Bridge, the 5.4 kilometre bridge finished in 2009 that spans the Strait of Madura and connects the island with the city of Surabaya. I asked Pak Romadon whether the bridge had brought changes to the previously stagnant economy of Madura.

“Yes, it has transformed the city of Bangkalan,” he said.

Bangkalan is at the other end of Madura near Surabaya. It was once as quiet and as isolated as Sumenep is now, but the bridge has transformed it into Madura’s biggest and most commercially dynamic city.

“But the bridge has not yet touched us here in the east of the island,” Pak Romadon said. He paused, then added “…except negatively.”

“What do you mean?”

“The bridge has made it easier for Surabaya’s drug dealers to access the young men of Sumenep,” he said. “Sabu-sabu (crystal methamphetamine) has become a real problem since the bridge opened.”

He looked up and down the dark alley only metres from the city’s grand mosque.

“It’s even here,” he murmured. “That’s all the bridge has done for us. So far.”

It was now completely dark. Reluctantly I left Pak Romadon and headed to the Wijaya I Hotel. I had fallen far short of my walking target, but somehow it didn’t matter. Sumenep had spoken, and it had a story worth hearing. Plus… I had taken quite a few photos.

An Italianate mausoleum in Sumenep's Asta Tinggi royal burial ground

An Italianate mausoleum beside a traditional Madurese rest pavilion in Sumenep’s Asta Tinggi royal burial ground.

A twenty-first century walk along Jogjakarta’s ancient axis

This will be a short walk – around ten kilometres – but I sense it is going to test me to my septuagenarian limits. I’m in Jogjakarta in Central Java, Indonesia. I’m planning to walk from my hotel, the Novotel, in General Soedirman Street, down the main axis that runs north – south through the centre of the city to the alun-alun square in front of the sultan’s palace. That’s the half way turn-around point. I’ll find a shady place to rest there, maybe a drinks kiosk or eatery. Then I’ll start back, retracing my steps for part of the way, stopping to rehydrate with a big ice-laden Coca-Cola at the McDonalds restaurant in Malioboro Mall. Then I’ll veer off across the Code / River through the Kota Baru neighbourhood to emerge on General Soedirman Street not far from the hotel.

This is where I'm headed, the front portico (pagelaran) of the sultan's palace in Jogjakarta

This is where I’m headed, the front portico (pagelaran) of the sultan’s palace in Jogjakarta

That’s the plan. The challenge is (1) to survive the afternoon heat (it will be over 30 degrees and very humid), and (2) survive the ultra-dense unpredictable traffic, the narrow footpaths cluttered with vendors’ stalls and parked vehicles, and the relentless crush of people. More than a test of stamina, the walk will be a test of concentration. The important thing will be to stay focussed, well hydrated and take it slowly. If I bomb out – if I succumb to the conditions – I can get home by taxi or becak pedicab, or even by horse-drawn andong carriage (hmmm… that last option is a temptation). And the hotel is right opposite Bethesda Hospital. So I think I’ve got my safety nets fixed up.

But wish me luck anyway.


I walked from the lobby of the hotel in the afternoon warmth of Tuesday, October 6th and crossed busy General Soedirman Street. I turned right and headed towards the small pillar-like monument at the north end of Jogjakarta’s two-kilometre-long main street. The temperature was a sliver above 30 degrees and it was quite humid. But the sky was very hazy and this filtered the harshness from the sunlight.

Instantly I stepped into an obstacle course, or so it appeared to my wary eyes. The tiled footpath was densely packed with parked motor bikes and, in some places, cars. Here and there I was forced to go around them by stepping into the traffic boiling past on the street. But I couldn’t just look left and right. I had to look down to check that my feet were not straying into the drainage ditches that flanked the path here and there. At the same time I had to keep my eyes raised, looking intently ahead to avoid the sharp edges of the awnings on street side stalls. They came at my tall body more-or-less at forehead height.

I stooped under a cloth awning propped up by bamboo poles. It stretched across the footpath to the edge of the street, so to avoid stepping around it into the street I had to duck my head and go straight ahead under it. I found myself in a small tent-like eatery where two ladies were standing at a table hammering and grinding spices, mixing them with crushed chilli peppers and carefully blending them in a concave mortar stone ready for the evening’s cooking. As I manoeuvred past my foot caught on a low plastic stool and toppled it towards an iron brazier that was smoking on the footpath. There was no danger, no emergency, no damage, but the two ladies grabbed the chance for a chat. I was pressed down onto a stool, a glass of tea appeared in my hand, and we exchanged introductions. They were Ibu (Mrs) Putri – wearing a red tee shirt over a practical calf-length skirt – and the older Ibu Sungkono – wearing a dark floral blouse over an ankle-length brown batik sarong.

Ibu Putri and Ibu Sengkono in their streetside eatery.

Ibu Putri and Ibu Sengkono in their streetside eatery.

They had plenty to complain about but their complaints came with bright smiles. Their main beef was the celebration of Jogjakarta’s 259th birthday the following day.

“It will suck customers away from us into the centre of town,” Ibu Putri said with a resigned laugh.

I pointed out that the tee shirt she was wearing was stamped with a message promoting the anniversary celebration. She laughed again.

“The sultan wants us to support the celebration,” she said. “So of course we do.”

I left the tiny eatery and a few minutes later crossed the Gondolayu Bridge over the Code River. (Gondolayu means “the smell of death”… what a great name for a bridge!) To the left I saw a jigsaw puzzle of flimsy houses lying stacked one above the other up the bank of the river. They were painted in a kaleidoscope of bright colours. I recalled that a visionary Catholic priest, Father Mangunwijaya, had bustled past his more conservative colleagues in the neighbouring Catholic catechism centre and decided something had to be done about their demoralised, crime-ridden neighbours. He cajoled and inspired them to take pride in their settlement. New, healthier houses were built, trees and gardens planted, and paths repaired. The favela revived and to further lift spirits, the residents were given paint and encouraged to brighten up the whole precinct. Father Mangunwijaya died fifteen years ago, but his vision stuck. Today the riverside suburb is no estate agent’s fantasy, but its residents take pride in it and no longer see it only as a place to escape from.

The colourful favela on the banks of the Code River

The colourful favela on the banks of the Code River

A quarter of an hour later I was standing at the intersection famous for its small obelisk known simply as The Monument (Tugu). Built by the first sultan of Jogjakarta in the late 18th century, it is one of a series of landmarks connecting Jogjakarta with the guardian mountain Merapi to the north, and the realm of Nyai Roro Kidul, guardian queen of the southern ocean. This fragment of an ancient geography is alive and well. In fact as I stood pondering the Tugu I heard a clattering behind me. Chairs were being set in place for a ceremony to be held the following day (Jogja’s 259th anniversary) to formally open a new commemorative site. One corner of the intersection had been demolished and replaced with a flat, polished stone platform. On it stood a series of tiny models lined up to represent the sacred axis that fixes Jogjakarta’s place, and the sultan’s authority, in the world. From north to south in a straight line… mountain, tugu, palace, royal hunting lodge, sea.

Jogjakarta's Tugu landmark (Wikipedia image)

Jogjakarta’s Tugu landmark (Wikipedia image)…

... and beside the Tugu a model of Jogjakarta's sacred axis. Krapyak Fort, the palace and the Tugu are visible here.

… and beside the Tugu a model of Jogjakarta’s sacred axis. Krapyak royal hunting lodge (bottom), the palace (centre) and the Tugu (top) are visible here.

I turned into Prince Mangkubumi Street and headed away from the Tugu along the two kilometres of arrow-straight thoroughfare that leads south to the palace. Halfway along its name changes to Malioboro and it turns into Jogjakarta’s famed shopping precinct. On both sides of Malioboro Street vendors jam the footpath, selling mostly batik clothes and touristy tee-shirts, but also antiques, jewelry, fake watches, traditional sweetmeats and garishly coloured drinks. In places the footpath is scarcely a metre wide. It is difficult to squeeze through as shoppers stand haggling or trying to prise the vendors away from their mobile phones.

Looking into the setting sun at the bottom end of Malioboro. I'm about halfway through the walk.

Looking into the setting sun at the bottom end of Malioboro. I’m about halfway through the walk.

At the bottom end of Malioboro – now about two hours into the walk and not far from the palace – I swerved away from Jogja’s old pre-Islamic axis and headed into the strongly Islamic Kauman. This is the crowded neighbourhood around the city’s main mosque where the kaum Muslim, the “orthodox” Muslim community, live. In its quiet alleys women are hooded with hijab scarves (called jilbab in Indonesia) and wear long tube-like shifts. The men wear the black peci fez caps or the white embroidered takiyah skull cap. Arabic dominates in names and signs and there are little shops selling religious books. The tiled, pyramid shaped roof of Jogjakarta’s old mosque rises modestly over the neighbourhood. As I approached it twilight was starting to spread its pastel blue across the sky. Presently the maghrib call to prayer would roll gently over the neighbourhood. It would draw unhurried eddies of worshippers from their houses and, for a short time, would still the shouts of the children playing dusty soccer in front of the mosque.

Jogjakart'as old mosque rises above tghe alleys of the Muslim Kauman neighbourhood

Jogjakarta’s old mosque rises above the alleys of the Muslim Kauman neighbourhood

I turned away from the mosque and walked a few metres to the spacious, bare, sandy alun-alun square. On its south edge stood the low profile front portico of the palace, and ahead of me the two rather battered but still sacred banyan trees in the centre of the square. A small group of teenage girls, all wearing hijab scarves, were being coached in sprinting techniques. They lined up with their backs to the palace, crouched, and when their coach (a head-scarfed woman) shouted “Go!” sprang up and ran towards a finishing line stretched between the two sacred trees. Something deeply symbolic is going on here, I thought, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.


Athletics practice on the alun-alun square in from of the palace. The girls are running towards the square's two sacred banyan tress (top image).

Athletes practice on the alun-alun square in front of the palace. The girls are running towards the square’s two sacred banyan trees (top image).

It was time to start back. I walked from the alun-alun to one of my favourite places in Jogjakarta, a nearby strip of cubicles and stalls selling magazines and books. I stopped to chat with my friends, stall holders Ibu Paimin and Ibu Mini. I asked after a particular title. Ibu Mini frowned for a second, sitting among half a dozen metre-high stacks of books under magazines hanging like dense washing from wires above. She pondered for no more than five seconds then her hand groped behind her and her fingers ran down a pile of books like fingers on a vertical piano keyboard. With scarcely a backward glance she extracted the book I was looking for.

I pose with my favourite bookseller, Ibu Mini. She says her name fits her stature.

I pose with my favourite bookseller, Ibu Mini. She says her name fits her stature.

My backpack was considerably heavier and my wallet somewhat lighter as I left the little book market. Night was falling and I hurried north along Malioboro towards its big shopping mall. I was thirsty, and only a Coke from McDonalds would quench that thirst. There, half way along the ancient axis that would be commemorated in a ceremony the following day, stood the golden arches of McDonalds. I almost ran up the steps into the dazzling glitz of the mall. Shamelessly I jostled ahead of other diners through the glass doors of McDonalds.

“A large diet Coke, please,” I said. “No… make that two.”

Smiles with those fries?

Fries with those smiles?


An hour later, back at the hotel, I noted that the walk had taken almost four hours (too many stops!) and I had covered 10.54 kilometres. I felt good, but as I prepared to take a bath I noticed that my black inner shirt, and my long-sleeve outer shirt, were crusted with big streaks of white salt, the dried residue of my perspiration. Hmmm, I would have to replace that somehow. Extra-salty French fries at McDonalds, maybe?

Mister! Can we practise our English with you?

Mister! Can we practise our English with you?

From Canterbury to Dover: a leisurely last course in our walking banquet

I take a selfie on the road to Dover

I take a selfie on the road to Dover. The mirror helps cars, and walkers, negotiate the narrow roads.

An army marches on its stomach. Walkers do too. We found that breakfast was a key element in our daily routine. The morning of Thursday September 3rd began with breakfast at Augustines B&B in Canterbury. Over the preceding month Emmy and I had experimented with breakfast. We tried small continental breakfasts – a croissant with butter and jam, some yoghurt, and a cup of coffee or tea. We also tried the mountainous full Scottish or full English breakfast – fried eggs, fried bacon, fried mushrooms, fried potatoes, fried tomatoes, fried sausages, baked beans, buttered toast and the piece de resistence, black pudding (fried, by the way). The continental breakfast did not give us enough ballast to hold course for more than an hour or so before we had to drop anchor and eat. The full English/Scottish, on the other hand, sent us straight to the bottom of the harbour. It’s difficult to set sail from down there. So we hit on a compromise: muesli (or cornflakes) and fruit with scrambled eggs and button mushrooms. This was the tasty combination that Louise – our very attentive hostess at Augustines – served, garnished with chatter that lifted our spirits in readiness for the day ahead.

The dreaded full English breakfast. Top left: black pudding. Bottom right (under the tomato): fried spud

The dreaded full English breakfast. It’s got everything. Clockwise from top left: black pudding, bacon, egg, mushrooms, tomato, potato (under the tomato) sausage, baked beans.

The more digestible option: scrambled eggs with (in this case) oatmeal cakes and cherry tomatoes.

The more digestible option: scrambled eggs with (in this case) oatmeal cakes and cherry tomatoes.

With our stomachs comfortably laden we rejoined the Pilgrims Way in the suburbs of Canterbury. It unrolled in front of us east towards Dover. We were heading away from Canterbury Cathedral, of course, so we were walking the Pilgrims Way in the “wrong” direction. But we were also walking the North Downs Way in the right direction towards its endpoint on the coast.

We walked across many kilometres of empty, silent fields. The solitude was blissful.

We walked across many kilometres of empty, silent fields. The solitude was blissful.

Sweet, juicy blackberries picked and eaten trackside.

Sweet, juicy blackberries picked and eaten trackside.

More trackside bounty: apples for the taking.

More trackside bounty: apples for the taking.

The path took us through rich farmland. We gathered wild blackberries (juicy and sweet) and apples from trackside orchards (tart but edible). We tunnelled through fields of head-high corn and graduated into a wide-open, bare expanse of newly harvested land. Between Canterbury and Shepherdswell – our stop for the night – we must have walked at least eight kilometres over tree-less fields filled only with stubble punctuated with the occasional hedge. Fortunately the sky was hazy and a friendly breeze fanned us. For hours we enjoyed one of the greatest rewards of walking – the profound pleasure of being utterly alone.

In the village of Shepherdswell we had dinner in a tiny pub, The Bell Inn, at the side of a village green scarcely bigger than the pub. A small group of men and women, children too, and dogs, clustered at the bar which was within arm’s reach of the dining tables. I made a complimentary remark about a flea-bitten pile of hair on the floor that looked something like a spaniel. This triggered an outbreak of friendliness. The dog’s life story was told to us in great detail. In its twilight years the animal’s last pleasure was to come to the Bell Inn, sit under a bar stool and sigh heavily from time to time. How I envied it. But it was deaf and nearly blind, so when the time came to go home, its owner almost literally had to tap the creature on the shoulder. It staggered to its feet and crashed into the bar, then looked around, identified the door and zig-zagged towards it. Behaviour possibly adopted from human models.

In the Bell Inn, Shepherdswell. Two dogs kept us company as we ate at the table on the left.

In the Bell Inn, Shepherdswell. Two dogs kept us company as we ate at the table on the left. The deaf and blind spaniel is snoozing on the right. Note the little girl in her pyjamas standing at the bar (partly obscured by the gentleman in the grey suit).

Meanwhile a menu had been scratched on a small blackboard. I ordered Chicken Masala at £9.80 (a bit over twenty Australian dollars). It took some time to prepare so I was anticipating a gourmet treat. When the meal arrived the chicken was “pulled” or shredded chicken in a brown barbeque-style sauce lying on a bed of greyish rice. Cautiously I lifted a forkful to my mouth. There was not a trace of any masala taste in the chicken and the rice was hard – not quite crunchy, but hard. And yet it was an Indian dish, because it came with a big crinkly pappadam glistening with oil.

Chicken masala, English country style.

Chicken masala, English country style.

The lady who had cooked the dinner emerged from the kitchen combing her hair and adjusting her horn-rimmed glasses.

“Everything all right?” she said stopping at our table and looking down at my plate with unmistakable pride.

“Mmmm, delicious,” I said. And indeed within minutes the chicken masala had disappeared, chased into my alimentary canal by a pint of cider. To be honest, once I had got over the initial shock and redefined the meal as not chicken masala but gastronomic Spakfilla, I quite enjoyed it. Walking does that for you… it gives you the gift of hunger, and the hungrier you are the less liable you are to quibble over little details like flavour and authenticity. What a relief to be free of all that and just eat.

The following day was our last day of walking. We faced a downhill stretch of just twelve kilometres into Dover. The weather was warm, hazy and still. The walking was easy, mostly through farmland and stands of straggly trees. As we neared Dover the North Downs Way joined with a tree-shaded branch of Watling Street, the old Roman road that, almost 2,000 years ago, reached from Dover into the interior of the Roman province of Britannia. Today the segment we trod is no more than a track with none of the Roman paving stones still evident. We could hear a whispering roar just beyond the skyline and as we neared Dover it became insistent and intrusive. It was the sound of heavy traffic on the A2 highway, the asphalt Watling Street of the twenty-first century that carries much of Britain’s trade to and fro across the Channel through Dover’s busy ferry terminal.

Dover Castle above the Victorian villas of Dover city. Our B&B was a similar building in the same street.

Dover Castle above the Victorian villas of Dover city. Our B&B was a similar building in the same street.

After dropping our backpacks at our B&B accommodation on Maison Dieu Street we headed for the waterfront. Dover city has little of the hyper-buzz of the terminal. In fact – just between you and me – Dover feels dispirited, even a bit seedy. We stood in front of the dingy Good Luck Chinese Restaurant debating whether to dine there. We decided its name was probably a warning to prospective diners and moved on. But, as we discovered the following day, Dover is redeemed many times over by the medieval castle on the brow of the hill high above the city. There is much to see there. The castle’s tall central keep, called The Great Tower, was built by Henry II in the late years of the twelfth century. Today it houses a truly remarkable and very accurate re-creation of the royal chambers of the time, including a blazing open fire and the king’s bed.

One of the beautifully restored royal chambers in Dover Castle.

One of the beautifully restored twelfth century royal chambers in Dover Castle.

On the Dover waterfront, within sight of the famous White Cliffs, we found the official endpoint of the North Downs Way etched into a stone paver. We were pleased to have arrived, but a faint sea breeze of regret also ruffled our hair. Emmy and I walk because we enjoy it. We don’t push ourselves hard, we have no big targets, we don’t talk much, we like resting almost as much as moving. But when we walk, every step brings the anticipation of something new, maybe something unexpected, maybe something challenging, and always (sorry… usually) something enjoyable.

Walking is something you can do on your own, in your own way, in your own time, and without too much fuss. And when you stop after a day’s walking – after the aches and pains, frustrations and fatigue have ebbed away – you get that fabled high, that mild sense of well-being that can last for days. We like that.

On the Dover waterfront I reach the endpoint of the North Downs Way.

On the Dover waterfront we reach the endpoint of the North Downs Way.

The emptiness at the end: we spend a day in Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral's main tower seen from a neighbouring narrow street.

Canterbury Cathedral’s main tower seen from a neighbouring narrow street.

It was still raining as we walked into the pilgrim city of Canterbury through its medieval West Gate. Canterbury is not a big city (it has a permanent population of around 50,000 which rises to around 80,000 during university term time) so it didn’t take us more than fifteen minutes to stroll through its narrow streets to the city centre. But in the space of that fifteen minutes a miracle happened. The rain-filled clouds that had sagged above us all day – in fact for the previous two days – suddenly shrank away to the edge of the sky. We walked through Christchurch Gate into the yard of Canterbury Cathedral and stopped in astonishment. The ancient building was glowing tall, spiky and golden in a flood of warm sunlight pouring over it from a clear blue mid-afternoon sky.

Of course there are annoying, cynical academic types who will say this was not a miracle. Britain’s weather is very changeable and what happened was a routine meteorological event. It had nothng whatever to do with our arrival. Religion, they will say, is an alchemy of symbols and rhetoric that can transform the mundane, the trivial, the impossible, not to mention the downright bleedin’ obvious, into a mind-blowing miracle.

We arrive in steady rain at the medieval West Gate of Canterbury city...

We arrive in steady rain at the medieval West Gate of Canterbury city…

... and fifteen minutes later, Canterbury Cathedral bathed in sunshine against a blue sky. A miracle, just for us.

… and fifteen minutes later, Canterbury Cathedral bathed in sunshine against a blue sky. A miracle, just for us.

But what do they know? The pilgrim sees with the sharp vision of hope, the rationalist sees with the narrow, picky vision of evidence-based science clouded by an excess of data, cushioned by the comforts of hindsight, and aware that scientific “truth” is never final, perfect or uncontestable.

In the spirit of imperfect scientific enquiry I decided to attend the daily ritual of Evensong. So towards half-past five that afternoon Emmy and I entered the cathedral and stood on the gleaming flagstone floor looking up open-mouthed at the vast vault above us. The tourists had been cleared out and a resonant silence filled the airy interior. We went up several wide stone steps into what is called “the quire.” Here several rows of dark wooden pews lay lengthways on either side of the stone floor. They were slightly raked one behind the other like seats at a tennis court. Vergers in long, swinging black robes paced up and down solemnly ushering worshippers to their seats. We opened a little wooden gate at the end of one pew, squeezed in and took our seats in carefully nurtured silence. Around 100 people were in attendance.

The Quire in Canterbury Cathedral where Evensong is held, with ranks of pews left and right.

The Quire where Evensong is held, with ranks of pews facing each other left and right, and the lectern for scripture readings bottom centre.

A river of mellow organ music flowed gently into the quire in intricate melodious eddies. We couldn’t see the pipes or the organist, the music was just there, part of the ambience. At precisely 5.30 everyone stood up and twelve all-male choristers (in a bizarre touch they are officially called “lay clerks”) filed in wearing long white smocks with split sleeves draped over black full-length cassocks. The procession forked into two groups of six, each entering a pew that faced the other across the floor. A priest – a woman – welcomed visitors and extended a special word of welcome to newly arrived pilgrims.

The Evensong service got under way with a contrapuntal “responsory” in which the two halves of the choir spoke musically to each other. The bass, baritone, tenor and counter-tenor (falsetto) voices danced slowly and delicately around one another in an elaborate, gravely beautiful musical gavotte. This was followed by versicles intoned by a choir member in a high, half-spoken half-sung monotone and responses intoned in similar style but with extended contrapuntal elaboration by the rest of the choir. The cathedral itself seemed to sing an ethereal third line of counterpoint in the faint resonances it sent back from its walls and windows.

O Lord, open thou our lips.
And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Then came the first reading, the opening verses of Psalm 14.

The fool hath said in his heart “There is no God.”

I sat up and paid attention. This was getting personal.

They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. No not one. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there were any that did understand and seek God. But they had all turned aside, they had all been totally corrupted. There is not one that doeth good, no, not one.

I suppose I should have been chastened by these tough-love words, so obviously true in my case. But I was not humble enough. Inwardly I nodded, but outwardly I looked as indifferent as I could and returned to enjoyment of the music. The choir of Canterbury Cathedral is deservedly world famous. The disciplined passion of its singing is striking. Its gentle surges and passages of repose are beautifully modulated. Everything is balanced, pure, harmonious and serene. The singers are artists of the highest order.

Evensong ended with the normal Anglican-Catholic confession of faith (which I allowed to pass by me completely of course) and the singing of Nunc Dimittis (Now go forth), a simple and powerful dismissal that encapsulates the spirit of Christianity as it rose in Palestine two thousand years ago.


The following day Emmy and I returned to the cathedral to have a good look around inside and out. Again we stood transfixed in the long hall of the nave. Far above us the stone ribs of the walls bent inwards on either side and splayed like palm fronds to intertwine in an ornate pattern of criss-cross curves and circles down the length of the ceiling. Between the trunks of stone embedded in the walls, narrow stained glass windows cast glittering glances of bright blue and red light into the bower-like space of the nave.

The main nave of Canterbury Cathedral. To give you an idea of its dimensions, the tiny figure standing bottom-centre is Emmy.

The main nave of Canterbury Cathedral. To give you an idea of its dimensions, the tiny figure standing in the aisle before the altar is Emmy.

Readers of this blog will recall that several times I have complained about the misuse of churches to put a gloss of Christian respectability, even piety, on the lives of those who have participated in military murder, especially in wars of imperial aggression. (See Glazgeh: the friendly city and Santiago, killer of Muslims). Canterbury Cathedral is no different. One wall tablet commemorates eight local military personnel who were killed in the 1914 Battle of the Falkland Islands against a German sea squadron. In typical fashion their deaths are dedicated “to the glory of God”. Another commemorates the life of Major Simon Willard who, in the seventeenth century colony of New England (North America) “was made commander-in-chief of the British Forces against the hostile Indian tribes.”

Even an imperial war in southeast Asia is commemorated in this tablet.

An imperial war in distant Southeast Asia and another in South Africa are commemorated in this tablet.

I suppose you can argue that by condemning these violations of basic Christian teachings I am judging the people and events of history by values that were not current at the time. This would not be true. Nothing is more basic to Christianity at whatever time in its history than “You shall not murder” and “Love your enemies.” Christian pacifists (i.e. those who try to live by the values taught by Jesus Christ) have always been present at all times in history, but they have been ignored, or treated with contempt or ruthlessly eliminated by the hypocrites of mainstream “Christianity”. Saint Augustine (354 – 430) exhausted much of his considerable brain-power thinking up justifications for war and his thinking has been influential. Even today, as many protest at religious justifications for war and religious excuses for murder, the Augustinian nexus between the “Christian” establishment and the waging of war remains unbreakably strong.

Much of Canterbury Cathedral’s allure down the ages comes from the events of 1170 when its archbishop Thomas Becket was assassinated inside the cathedral by agents of King Henry II. Today the gory details of the murder are told with special relish. By my count we heard three times during our visit that an assassin’s sword lopped off the top of Becket’s skull leaving his brain exposed. Apparently Becket was still alive at this moment, but one of the assassins then dashed the archbishop’s head against the floor scattering his brains and blood over the flagstones. Visitors can stand at the exact spot where this happened, as I did, but I was examining the floor so closely I forgot to take a photo.

Within two years of his death Becket had been appointed a saint and his grave in the apse of the cathedral became a popular place of pilgrimage. But 350 years later King Henry VIII changed that. In his campaign to purge the Catholic faith and the Pope’s authority from England he ordered that Becket’s remains be dug up, his bones pulverised and the tomb destroyed. In later centuries, with the decline of religious bigotry, pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral resumed.

The absent tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, marked by a single candle in an empty space.

The absent tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, marked by a single candle in an empty space.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 2nd I reached the end point of the English Camino. The spot where Thomas Becket’s tomb once stood – now called Trinity Chapel at the far end of the cathedral – is marked by a single candle standing on the floor at the centre of an empty space. There are no remains, there is no tomb. As I stood there a small crowd of pilgrims pressed around me.

“There is nothing here,” one whispered. “It is empty, like Christ’s tomb.”

Faith creates its own reality. If the tomb had still been there it would have been seen as proof of Becket’s sanctity and the truths he stood for. But for some, apparently, its eerie absence under the cathedral apse is even more convincing, even though all that remains of Becket now is a mirage of stories. Perhaps (I am hoping) some pilgrims may ask themselves whether Canterbury Cathedral’s final emptiness – the absence at the heart of its magnificence – tells us something useful about the character of religious faith.


As Emmy and I walked the streets of Canterbury city we couldn’t help but notice the pervasiveness of Chaucer and pilgrimage in the city’s place names. We walked past another final destination in the pilgrimage of life, a retirement home for ladies and gentlemen called Pilgrims Lodge (at number 10-12 Pilgrims Way).

A rest home for elderly ladies and gentlemen at the end of life's pilgrimage: Pilgrim Lodge on Pilgrims Way.

A retirement home for elderly ladies and gentlemen at the end of life’s pilgrimage: Pilgrims Lodge on Pilgrims Way.

“Perfect for us,” I exclaimed. “Let’s go in and check it out. Maybe we can make a booking.”

It took just a single glance from Emmy – no more than a nano-second – and yet another of my brilliant ideas was shot down in flames.

Walking the English Camino

One of the small icons guiding walkers along the Pilgrim Way to Canterbury.

One of the small icons guiding walkers along the Pilgrim Way to Canterbury.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the first substantial work of literature in English, although most speakers of English today need a translation or paraphrase to understand it. Written late in the 14th century, it was immediately popular. One hundred years after it was written it was among the very first works to be mass-produced (on a modest scale) using the new technology of printing. It has remained a widely-read classic of English literature into the present. Basically it is a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims as they travel the Pilgrims Way from London to the holy tomb of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral about 90 kilometres to the south east.

The prologue to the Canterbury Tales describes the pilgrims as they assemble at the Tabard Inn in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames near London Bridge. More than 600 years later, on August 22nd 2015, Emmy and I dismounted from our donkeys in front of a smoke-filled hostelry in Southwark near London Bridge. The innkeeper appeared in the doorway accompanied by a mouth-watering aroma of roast goose and barley ale. I greeted him politely.

“I bid thee good morrow, master,” I said doffing my cap and bowing low as Emmy modestly primped her wimple.

Hmmm… let me rewrite that.

Emmy and I disembarked from a train at London Bridge tube station and made the short walk to our rented apartment in Southwark, just minutes from London Bridge and the high-tech landmark of The Shard. Graham, the owner, greeted us and explained the 100-channel TV set and the high-speed Wi-Fi. He recommended some nearby Spanish and Italian restaurants and listed the supermarkets where we could buy pre-cooked, plastic-wrapped meals.

A week later, having been catapulted out of London by train, we stood in a narrow lane in the village of Cuxton, six kilometres west of the regional centre of Rochester. We were facing the very modest entrance to the eastern half of the North Downs Way, a path that would partly piggy-back on the Pilgrims Way and take us to Thomas Becket’s holy tomb.

The unpretentious

The unpretentious “kissing gate” at the start of the eastern half of the North Downs Way in Cuxton, near Rochester. Note the way markers nailed to the post on the right. We’re heading in the right direction.

The pilgrim road to Canterbury fell into disuse after King Henry VIII launched an assault on the Catholic Church, its monasteries and its pilgrimage traditions in 1537. But it didn’t disappear altogether. Much of it was taken over for general transport purposes and later became asphalt highway. That’s why it is no longer possible to walk the entire length of the pilgrim path. It is simply too dangerous for pedestrians to mix it with modern traffic. Where possible the North Downs Way follows the old pilgrim path (or certain threads of the path), but whenever the path becomes highway walkers have to veer away from it and tramp over other ancient public trails and footpaths that lie like a cobweb over the rural landscape of England.

Emmy walks into the light as we head for Saint Thomas Becket's resting place in Canterbury.

Emmy walks into the light as we head towards Saint Thomas Becket’s resting place in Canterbury.

After an hour’s walking through open fields and canyons of woodland under a warm overcast sky we drew breath at the enormous, multi-lane complex of four bridges that span the Medway River at Rochester. Chaucer’s pilgrims would have crossed the Medway at this point too, possibly spurring their frightened horses over the stone bridge that was completed there in 1391.

From the Medway Bridge we set sail across the gently surging hills of Kent. Near the village of Blue Bell Hill, southeast of Rochester, we connected for the first time with the Pilgrims Way. Its broad flat surface offered welcome relief from the narrow track we had been treading. We stepped on and off the Way repeatedly as we headed towards Canterbury.

The wide,flat Pilgrims Way, a welcome sight for walkers who've been tramping rougher tracks.

The wide,flat Pilgrims Way, a welcome sight for walkers who’ve been tramping rougher tracks.

The modern iconography of pilgrimage at the Black Horse Inn in Thurnham.

The modern iconography of pilgrimage at the Black Horse Inn in Thurnham.

Everywhere there were reminders of the region’s pilgrim history. Some trackside icons pointing the way to Canterbury depicted a pilgrim wearing a cassock and brandishing a walking staff. Near the village of Harrietsham we came across a whimsical, life-size wooden carving of a pilgrim monk resting thoughtfully on a bench at the trackside. Medieval pilgrimage was a motif at the Black Horse Inn, our accommodation for the night in the hamlet of Thurnham about twenty-two kilometres from Cuxton. The inn’s cramped central room with its low ceilings, open fire-place, awkward nooks and crannies and crooked age-blackened beams was built in the thirteenth century. Dense strings of dried hops hung from the ceiling, a traditional decoration that is renewed from year to year. Perhaps medieval pilgrims in their grimy cassocks and straw-padded sandals had ducked their heads beneath this same bushy canopy.

The thirteenth century interior of the Black Horse Inn with dried hops decorating its ceiling beams.

The thirteenth century interior of the Black Horse Inn with dried hops decorating its ceiling beams.

As I tucked in to my tasty dinner of slow-cooked lamb shank and minty mashed potatoes an unwelcome echo from The Canterbury Tales turned up in my head. It came from the knight’s tale.

“The world is nothing but a thoroughfare of woe down which we all pass as pilgrims…” said the Knight.
“That’s why we are all here,” said the Franklin, interrupting the knight.
“The whole world is an inn,” our Host said. “And the end of the journey is always the same.”
“God give us grace and a good death.” This was the Reeve, crossing himself.
“Amen to that,” the Knight replied.

I didn’t echo the Amen. Rather I turned my attention to the dessert of sticky date pudding and whipped cream. Too much reading can make you gloomy.


The following morning dawned dim and rainy. I tried to be cheerful. Again my mind darted back to The Canterbury Tales. I recalled its upbeat opening lines…

“When the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every sapling and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectation. […] This is the season for travellers. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimage. They journey to strange shores and cities, seeking solace among the shrines of the saints. Here in England many make their way to Canterbury and the tomb of the holy blissful martyr Thomas.”

An hour later I was cursing Geoffrey Chaucer, the madness of religious pilgrimage and the sheer unpleasantness of walking in Britain’s summer. I skidded down a mud-lubricated trough that someone – probably a bright-eyed hiking fanatic – had labelled a “path”. A path? It was a water-filled rut. Thick slimy hamburger-patties of dirt stuck themselves to the bottom of my boots as the “path” made vertical zig-zags over steep rain-sodden ridges. I looked at Emmy and noticed a film of mud creeping up her water-proof leggings. I was no better. An unscheduled wallow in a mini-bog had left dirt all over my leggings, backpack, and even through my hair. Already I sensed I was in for one of the most trying days of walking I would ever experience.

a rain zombie haunts the Pilgrim Way just east of Thurnham.

A rain zombie haunts the Pilgrim Way just east of Thurnham.

Emmy disappears into the misty rain as we struggle towards Charing.

Emmy disappears into the misty rain as we struggle towards Charing.

As the morning passed the rain thickened. Mist crowded in on us. Kent’s fabled “outstanding natural beauty” retreated, became blurred, and eventually disappeared altogether behind a veil of mist. At times we were walking through a grey-white tunnel where the only reality was foot before foot, plus ghostly branches and the struggle to stay upright. A break for lunch brought little relief. Somehow the rainproof cover over my backpack had disappeared, probably torn off by branches during a stooping detour around a mud hole. My backpack was limp with water and my sandwiches were too. But I ate them and felt better. The walk was indeed (as Chaucer’s knight put it) “a thoroughfare of woe” but after sandwiches and a mouthful of chocolate the woe was pretty bearable. And the rain had started to ease.

Hmmm... after a day of walking through steady rain, this headline is not much consolation.

Hmmm… after a day of walking through steady rain, this headline is not much consolation.

Nevertheless it was a long, tough day. As we trudged into the Bowl Hill Inn outside the town of Charing more than six hours had passed with just seventeen kilometres to show for it. In the bar the day’s newspaper lay draped across a stool. A jumbo-size headline on the front page proclaimed “Twenty minute walk each day adds seven years to your life.”

“Yes,” I thought, “and six hours on England’s Camino – if it’s raining – can dramatically reduce your interest in that extra seven years.”

I contemplate the downside of pilgrimage along England's Camino.

I contemplate the downside of pilgrimage along England’s Camino. Apparently my medieval alter-ego had similar doubts.

** The quotes from The Canterbury Tales come (with a few tweaks) from Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful prose paraphrase The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer translated and adapted (Penguin 2009).

Walking when you’re old

A typical way marker on the Great Glen Way near Inverness.

A typical way marker on the Great Glen Way near Inverness.

A few years ago Emmy and I were expelled from a beautiful country where we had been doing quite a lot of walking. It was a nice, peaceful country with wonderful scenery. We didn’t want to leave but we were told our visa had expired and could not be renewed. We were frog-marched to the border and forced across it into the neighbouring state. We’ve now put the frontier some distance behind us as we walk into this new and unfamiliar territory. It’s called The Seventies. It lies between The Sixties where we used to live, and a remote, rarely-visited state – a bit like Bhutan – called The Eighties. We have noticed that the countryside seems to be getting more and more Bhutan-like. There is a range of very high mountains in front of us and we can’t see what’s beyond it. So we have been trying to find an easy way through.

OK, OK… that’s enough of this allegorical stuff. This post is about the challenges of long distance walking when you’re old, so let’s get down to business.

First the bad news.

Stamina  When you’re old the capacity to persevere over long distances goes into decline. A decade ago I could knock over twenty-five or thirty kilometres a day and feel no ill effects. Now I find it a challenge to walk twenty kilometres a day. I can still do it, but I usually feel quite tired at the end of the day.

Strength  Muscles start to weaken in old age so you can’t lift a heavy backpack so easily or lever yourself up steep inclines. Worse, muscles hold the bones together, so as they weaken you are more likely to dislocate a joint or suffer a slipped disc in the back.

Fragility  The bones, joints and muscles become more fragile. It is easier to injure yourself – to break a bone, to pull a muscle, to sprain your ankle or feel stress-pain in the knees. And if this happens it takes longer to recover, for tissue to repair itself or a broken bone to knit.

Less speedy  Increasingly you lose the capacity to run or suddenly move fast. So when you have to cross a road (for example) you can’t rely on speed to avoid cars. You can’t run to reach shelter if it starts to rain. You can’t ford a stream by hopping nimbly from stone to stone.

This segment of

This segment of “path” was more like a rocky stream. Between Ardlui and Crianlarich on the West Highland Way, 30 July, 2015..

Balance  Balance becomes less secure as you age. This can be a problem when you are crossing stiles or moving over rough ground or when you are going down a steep incline or when the path is slippery. And the problem of poor balance can be exacerbated if your eyesight is also in decline because good balance seems to depend on collaboration between your inner ear and your eye.

Hydration and urination  Old people are less able to deal with extremes of temperature, especially heat. We get dehydrated and over-heated quite easily and this slows down the workings of the brain as well as the body. When you’re on your own in a remote place you don’t want to get mentally confused. You will also probably need to urinate more often (the ageing bladder seems to have less carrying capacity).

Now for the good news.

Long distance walking is low-impact exercise that you can do well into extreme old age. To be honest though, I don’t do it primarily for health reasons. The health benefits of walking are a welcome spin-off, of course, but they come second to the inner walk you undertake whenever you pull on your boots. I walk mainly because I enjoy the constantly shifting views, the peering around corners, the isolation and silence, the glimpses of wildlife, the sudden surprising sparks of thought, the guilt-free munching on chocolate. I’m pretty much in the same mould as Gu Yanwu and Patrick Leigh Fermor (both of whom have made an appearance in this blog) but needless to say I’m a bumbling Wile E. Coyote compared to these road runners.

In truth, the frailties I’ve laundry-listed above don’t amount to much. They can easily be combatted by keeping an eye on three key watchwords: preparation, caution and concentration.

Preparation  Don’t make the mistake of starting a long walk too casually. You need to know as exactly as possible what you’re letting yourself in for. I’ve failed to do this a couple of times and got myself into trouble. Afterwards I berated myself for being geriatrically unprofessional (a certain amount of professionalism is required to be a successful old person). For an example of what can happen if your preparation is careless have a look at my post of August 8, 2011:

Without over-burdening yourself you need to be better prepared than younger walkers, mainly because you’re more vulnerable if anything goes wrong (and rest assured, something will go wrong sooner or later). A check-list may be a good idea. Like an airline pilot you should do a disciplined pre-departure check:

  • well broken-in boots
  • a broad-brim hat and long-sleeve shirt
  • first aid kit
  • plenty of drinking water
  • rain jacket, water-proof leggings, waterproof backpack cover
  • lunch, plus a snack or two like a chocolate bar or a muesli bar
  • spare socks, foot talc and blister plasters
  • sunscreen and insect repellent
  • walking poles
  • maps, compass and/or GPS device
  • trowel and tissues
  • multi-function tool

Most important of all, make sure you’ve built up your fitness gradually but as fully as possible before you start your walk. Ideally you should do a couple of dry runs over similar terrain and distances to the walk you are planning. As far as distance is concerned it is sensible to cut your coat to fit the cloth available. But being “sensible” is a bit boring. Just between you and me it is also good to stretch yourself a little – maybe stretch yourself a lot. The grimace of doing so is quickly transformed into a smile when you successfully push yourself beyond what you thought was “sensibly” possible.

Caution  Be ultra-careful. There is nothing worse than pulling a muscle when you are putting your socks on, or leaving your maps behind in the grass after a trackside toilet break (I’ve done both). As you age you can’t recover so easily or quickly from mistakes and accidents. So err on the side of caution in all you do. And remember: slow is good.

But having said that, don’t get fixated on risk-free walking. Old people need to take risks as much as callow, shallow youths do. Taking risks is risky, but it is also very good for your mental resilience. A word of warning though… you should be selective about the risks you take. In particular, as far as possible your risk-taking should not inconvenience younger people, the public at large, or “the authorities”. Although some people admire risk-taking in old people, most people have a double standard. They don’t mind young people taking risks (that’s “normal”) but they may get annoyed when risks are taken by “some old fool” they think should be doing crossword puzzles with a rug over their knees in front of a heater. So try to ensure that you, and you alone, bear the consequences of your risk-taking. That way you can avoid being patronised when things go wrong.

This smug-looking walker has just scaled the heights above Invermoriston on the Great Glan Way.

This smug-looking elderly walker has just scaled the heights above Invermoriston on the Great Glen Way.

Concentration  Surprisingly, walking demands pretty intense concentration over many hours. You can’t just set your feet in motion, then daydream or rubberneck. It is mentally exhausting to walk a long distance. There are two main reasons for this. First, to avoid getting lost you need to concentrate hard on navigation. Most of the tracks I have walked have been well way-marked, but there are tricks and traps in even the clearest track. Sometimes path markers get overgrown, on some the paint may have faded or flaked, elsewhere signs, markers or landmarks may simply have disappeared. Even the path itself may disappear. And maps are not always clear either. It is often hard to match the coarse scale of a map with the immediate detail you are facing. Maps also get out of date quite quickly. GPS devices and compasses are very helpful but they have to be consulted. They can’t stay in your pocket. So even with this technology unrelenting vigilance and frequent stopping are important.

Another potentially dangerous descent on the north shore of Loch Lochy, Great Glen Way, 8 August, 2015.

It looks benign, but the gravelly surface makes this descent potentially dangerous. North shore of Loch Lochy, Great Glen Way, 8 August, 2015.

Second, tracks can be rough – stony, slippery, twisty, narrow, muddy. A lapse in concentration can bring a stumble or the potential disaster of a fall. Don’t forget, if you are carrying a backpack you will be top-heavy. So it may be more difficult to keep your balance, and a fall can very easily be a heavy crash. And tracks can be very up and down. For elderly walkers a steep descent is an obstacle to be feared. It threatens severe punishment for even a split-second lapse of concentration. But again there is good news. Concentration is an excellent tonic for the ageing brain. The more you have to concentrate the better you are able to concentrate. For old walkers a strong mind is as essential as a strong body. The ageing body is quite resilient and adaptable, but when it falters the ageing mind – stiffened by hours of concentration – can step in and push it on.

Now, as I puff and stagger towards the end of this post, I want to recommend two items of gear that walkers of any age, but elderly walkers in particular, should have. First, walking poles. Two of them. Walking poles have two main functions that are crucially important for old people. Most importantly, they help a lot with steadiness and balance especially on steep descents, but also, they take a bit of pressure off your legs by giving you a lot of extra leverage through the arms. So don’t even look out the front door without a pair of them.

Walking poles are essential to help get you through muddy patches. Near Crianlarich on the West Highland Way, 30 July, 2015.

Walking poles are essential to help get you through muddy patches. Near Crianlarich on the West Highland Way, 30 July, 2015.

Not beautiful, but an effective solution to chafing and blisters. Injinji toe socks.

Not beautiful, but an effective solution to chafing and blisters. Injinji toe socks.

Second, buy some toe-socks. These are specially made socks with a little pocket for each toe, like the fingers on a pair of gloves. I used to suffer from blisters caused by chafing between toes. My toe socks stopped this problem instantly and permanently. The brand I use is Injinji. Before putting them on I powder my toes and feet very thoroughly with fine, sweat-absorbing talc. I also powder the outside of the toe socks and put on a second pair of socks, ordinary ones, usually thin white cotton socks. So I have two layers of socks. There is a bit of slippage between them that helps prevent blisters. Since adopting this strategy five years ago I have walked many hundreds of kilometres without a single blister, or any other kind of foot problem.

Ah… the end of this post has come into sight. It lasted longer than I expected but I took it slowly and I got there in the end. Time to rehydrate with a pint of calorie-rich cider.

You have to be careful going down steep descents like this one. The pebbly surface is treacherous.

You have to be careful going down steep descents like this one. The pebbly surface is treacherous. On the West Highland Way between Ardlui and Crianlarich, 30 July, 2015.