Winter Walking in Canberra: Lake, Hills, Suburbs

We managed to squeeze this walk into the last days of winter at the end of August. It took us from home, along the eastern shore of Lake Tuggeranong (the path we take at least once a week), up to the summit of the adjacent Urambi Hills, through some rough farmland into a small valley under the wall of Lake Tuggeranong Dam, then into the centre of Tuggeranong suburban township. The loop was 13 km in length and took us four hours.


Our route on the second-last day of winter. The dam wall that creates Lake Tuggeranong is in the middle of the map with Athllon Drive running north-south along its length. Urambi Hills are top left. Tuggeranong town centre is at the bottom right (kilometre 12).


See that hill on the skyline straight ahead? That’s where we’re headed. It’s about five kilometres away. I took this photo at the one-kilometre mark of our walk looking north-west across the lake (see map above).


And looking back from the summit of the hill this is what we saw. I took the previous photograph from the far shore of the lake just left of the centre of this picture.


It was a tough climb to the top of the hill. In my left hand I am gripping my walking poles, and with my right hand I’m trying to stay upright by clinging to the hilltop trig point. Time for a rest and drink.

Like all the lakes of Canberra, Lake Tuggeranong is an artificial lake. It has plenty of problems, especially blue-green algae, pollution and an infestation of European carp. It is too polluted to swim in. But it is also a haven for black swans, ducks, swamp hens, ibis cranes and other birds. And, well… it simply looks good (from a distance), don’t you agree?


The inside wall of Lake Tuggeranong dam…


… and the outside of the dam wall as we approach it along the valley below it, about ten kilometres into the walk.

The Urambi Hills Nature Reserve is still working farmland used for grazing cattle. In a few places the walking is quite steep and rough, and we had to use our walking poles. But there were cockatoos, magpies and kangaroos to entertain us. Spring wattle spread a dusting of bright gold across the landscape.


A simple but effective trap keeps kangaroos and cattle from straying into the streets of suburbia, but it allows people and dogs to pass through.


Come on in (but don’t forget to shut the gate).


Farmland walking, among grey-green gum trees, light ochre earth and the yellow frosting of wattle. I love the colours of the Australian landscape.


A rough descent.


Not another gate…!


No worries.


A selfie at morning tea.

The last stage of the walk took us through the streets of Tuggeranong town centre. Basically it’s lots of low-rise blocks of apartments, some government offices and the Hyperdome shopping mall, oh… and a secondary school, arts centre, library, medical centres, various sports halls, gymnasiums, a swimming pool, a police station, restaurants and fast-food outlets, car servicing workshops, coffee bars, petrol stations, a bus terminal and…. need I go on? Tuggeranong – it’s got everything.


This is Canberra, capital of Australia, so….


As walkers emerge from Urambi Hills and stagger into the centre of Tuggeranong this is what greets them on the footpath. Hmm, even without foot pain it’s tempting to drop in…


… but just down the street there is a much bigger temptation. This one wins.

This is the last of my reports on winter walking in Canberra. Canberra can feel pretty bleak in winter, a bit like this skeletal tree reaching into the cold sky from the crest of a hill on the Urambi track. But right now, if you look closely at the tree, it is full of spring life. So I’m going to keep a watch on it, and I’ll report back on it in a future post. Like Canberra, the tree is far from dead. And its beauty sorta creeps up on you.










Winter Walking in Canberra: A two-banana walk to Weston Creek

You can measure a walk in steps and kilometres. I have a Garmin Vivofit wrist band that does this, as well as a Runkeeper GPS tracker app on my mobile phone. These devices are pretty accurate. They tell me that this morning Emmy and I walked 16,247 steps over a distance of 12.67 kilometres. But somehow this is not precise enough for me. I find it more scientific to measure a walk in terms of bananas consumed and bottles of Diet Coke drunk. By this measure today’s walk was a two-banana, one-Coke walk. It took us from home along Lake Tuggeranong through the parkland of Kambah and the suburbs of Weston Creek to Cooleman Court shopping centre.


Our route from Lake Tuggeranong to Weston Creek. It took a little over three hours.

As always we were on the road at around 7.30 am. The temperature was minus-2 degrees, the sky cloudless, the air rigidly still. Have you ever noticed how slowly the sun rises in winter? It lays cold planks of sunlight across the landscape that somehow don’t move. It refuses to rise above the tree-tops. It is constantly sparkling among branches and flashing between tree trunks as you walk through parkland. It took us three hours to reach Weston Creek and as we approached Cooleman Court the sun was still yawning and stretching out along the ridge of the shopping centre’s roof.


My plastic-man shadow points across Lake Tuggeranong to the Tuggeranong town centre.

Lake Tuggeranong is oriented more or less north-south. From the familiar path along the east shore we looked down the rolled-out length of our shadows across the water to Tuggeranong College and the Hyperdome Mall. Their tranquil upside-down images were sliced by the scalpel of a rowing boat as a lone oarsman replayed last night’s Olympic races on the smokey water.


Ibis cranes enjoy the morning sun on the shore of Lake Tuggeranong.

Just off the north end of the lake we came upon a Lao Buddhist social centre, the Wat Lao Buddhanimit, a small but exotic-looking building with an orange-tiled Lao-style roof and brick fence posts topped with lotus buds. Buddha was reclining in the yard looking into the frosty sun and the grey silhouettes of Australian gum trees. He looked pretty much at home.


The Lao Buddhist temple and community centre.


Buddha wakes up to the icy sunlight of a winter morning at the Lao community centre.

Further on I paused to grind my teeth as we passed a children’s play area. A sign warned that the skate bowl was “inherently dangerous and may result in injury to the person and/or property loss or damage.” Regular readers of this blog will have noticed I have little patience with the excesses of the “risk management” industry and their groupies in insurance companies, the legal profession and the crowded ranks of gormless parents (see for example: ). By nagging us incessantly about risk avoidance – even the tiny risks of a playground – they are doing damage to the resilience of Australian children. And it’s not just children. My special bête noire is the warning screen that precedes many television programs, programs that some anonymous individual thinks may put you at risk of being discomforted by reality. You’ve seen them.

“The following program has content that may concern some viewers.”

(This is not a sarcastic exaggeration… it is quoted here verbatim from several ABC television programs.) Last time I saw this dumb announcement I almost threw a shoe at the TV set… but I thought better of it and threw a sock instead. The TV was not damaged and I felt a little calmer.


Watch out kids! Death awaits you in this playground.

Not far from the mortally dangerous children’s playground we came to the battered remains of a woolshed. Originally built in the late 19th century it has been partially rescued and turned into a picnic shelter. It is a low-key but exotic reminder that Canberra has sprawled across what was once productive farmland. Right beside the woolshed lies a community garden. Crusted with frost, its many small plots were full of kale, cabbage, broccoli, silver beet and a multitude of little-known vegetables like Japanese komatsuna, daikon and bekana cabbage. The garden is a tribute to the determination of local people, many of them recent migrants, to fight back against the urban neutering of farmland fertility. As they turn the soil they have found old horseshoes, and the metal parts of horse-drawn ploughs and carts.


The remains of a 19th century woolshed now a picnic shelter popular in summer…


… and the adjacent community garden where horseshoes and metal parts of horse-drawn ploughs and carts have been dug up.

A little over seven kilometres into the walk, across Drakeford Drive from the Kambah Shopping Village, we stopped for a rest at the side of a football field. I ate the first of my bananas and sipped water. Then it was on to the nearby intersection where we would strike left up Namatjira Drive towards Weston Creek. On the other side of the intersection I saw a large box-like building with the word Eternity staring in large letters from its featureless, grey wall. From a distance I thought it might be a factory, perhaps manufacturing washing powder or perfume. But it is in fact a church in the pentecostal-charismatic mould. According to the church’s web site “It has been said many times that Canberra is a city without a soul. Our goal is to change this.” Sounds noble and generous, doesn’t it, especially when you don’t bother to define the word “soul.”


Time for a quick snack and drink.


A grim-looking Eternity beckons near the intersection of Sulwood Drive and the Tuggeranong Parkway. But the location is perfect… the intersection is an accident hot-spot.

Between 1932 and 1967 a former soldier, petty criminal, alcoholic and late-life convert to Christianity by the name of Arthur Stace wandered the streets of Sydney by night chalking “Eternity” onto footpaths and walls. It is estimated he wrote the word more than half a million times. The people of Sydney – whose lives revolve around making money, shopping, sport, drinking and loafing at the beach – eventually noticed it and (characteristically) registered it as a trademark. Today the word has acquired mantra-like status in some corners of Australia’s Christian community. Canberra’s Eternity Church used to be known as the Parkway Church (named after the adjacent highway) but a few years back it changed its name, choosing to surf on the unique history and spooky overtones of “Eternity.” The church is popular, so it was a good marketing move.


Wattle on fire, an early sign of spring.

The last leg of the walk took us through the leafy suburbs of Chapman and Stirling down to Hindmarsh Drive and across to the Cooleman Court shopping centre. There we enjoyed a leisurely drink before catching a bus to Woden, then another south to Tuggeranong and a final walk of two kilometres back home. I felt quietly pleased. Sure, it was only a two-banana walk, but it had taken us through varied environments: suburban footpaths, beautiful tree-filled parks, lakeside pathways, farmland, even a modestly testing hill.

And at the end of the walk there were no distress signals of any kind from any quarter of my ageing body.


At Cooleman Court shopping centre I measure the distance we have travelled.


Winter Walking in Canberra: A bush track in the south

The Murrumbidgee River Corridor runs along the western edge of Tuggeranong in Canberra’s southern suburbs. The bush reserves along the river host several picturesque walking tracks. This morning Emmy and I walked the track that runs south from Pine Island Reserve along the banks of the river to Point Hut Crossing. We rested in a small quiet park there before returning to Tuggeranong around a loop that passes through grassy farmland. We covered just under 12 km in three hours. For this post, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.


The bottom end of the loop, at Point Hut Crossing, is not far from the Lanyon Market Place shopping centre on Tharwa Drive.



We left home shortly after 7 a.m. and crossed Lake Tuggeranong as the rising sun bounced off the newly completed stage one of the Southquay apartments.



Stranger Pond was dead still (and cold).



Canberra’s bureaucrats are wagging their fingers in your face as you venture into the mortal danger of suburban bushland.



August 1st, but already beautiful wildflowers are blooming in profusion.



Native fish are under threat in the Murrumbidgee. If you catch one “release the fish unharmed.”



Cold but beautiful sunlight creeps into Point Hut Crossing park.



We’re heading back through empty farmland.



A lone kangaroo raises its head from breakfast. This (believe it or not) is an urban kangaroo… we’re still inside the boundaries of Canberra city!



Picturesque walking as we approach the suburbs of Tuggeranong.



Suburbia laps down to the banks of Stranger Pond…



…and back in Tuggeranong we pass through a construction site. Is this the future of the bush tracks we have just enjoyed?













Winter Walking in Canberra: The Great Lake-to-Lake Trek

It was (would you believe) my birthday present to myself. What on earth was I thinking?

Emmy and I would walk from our home near Lake Tuggeranong in the southern suburbs of Canberra, to Lake Burley Griffin in the centre of the city. The route I had figured out meandered through nature reserves and suburban streets, side-swiping Parliament House before crossing Lake Burley Griffin along Commonwealth Avenue. We would be walking over a variety of surfaces, from streetside footpaths, to bicycle paths, to muddy tracks, to gravel access roads in reserves and parks. It was mostly fairly flat, but Waniassa Hills would set our jugulars pulsing. There were just two clusters of shops along the route, Erindale and Red Hill, so we decided to carry all our water and food with us.


Heading north along Erindale Drive at 8 a.m.

When I worked out the route I didn’t think too much about the distance. Big mistake. As the crow flies it is about sixteen kilometers from our home to the centre of Canberra, a manageable distance for two less-than-fully-fit elderly walkers. But my meandering route actually totalled 26.4 kilometers. I only found this out when I checked my GPS thingy as we dragged ourselves aching and grimacing into our terminus at the city centre bus station.


Our route. Highlights… Erindale Centre (3 km); great views from the top of Waniassa Hills (7 km); Isaacs Pines (9-11 km); more great views over Woden Valley (12 km); kangaroos (14 km); lunch (16 km); La Perouse (18 km); Parliament House (22 km); croquet! (23 km); crossing Lake Burley Griffin (24 km); catching a bus home (26 km).

Six hours previously, at 7.50 am, we had stepped into Canberra’s morning chill full of naïve energy. The temperature was around one degree. The sky was ivory white with a faint touch of blue and completely clear. There was no wind. Perfect conditions for walking really. But the sun came at us like a trumpet blast, dazzlingly bright and right in our eyes. It left a zebra-like stamp on the streets and parkland of the southern suburbs: stripes of white frost alternating with spindly black shadows from leafless trees.

Our first stop was the Erindale Shopping Centre where we sat down for a few minutes in the arcade to warm up. I have mixed feelings about the Erindale Centre. On the one hand it is so tacky and bland that my heart sinks whenever I walk into it (we often do our shopping there). On the other hand it is not ashamed of its commercially-driven ugliness. The people there rise so effortlessly above it that you forget the surrounds. There’s the Chinese gentleman who patrols the tubs of deep-fry fat in the Erindale Takeaway. He never fails to talk Tai Chi with me, and gives me a 20 cent discount on my weekly rehydration medication (a bottle of Diet Coke). His associate, a diminutive grey-haired lady, is addicted to ocean cruises. She talks modestly of her adventures. Travelling on her own she has seen far more of the world than I have: Alaska, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Germany, Fiji and New Caledonia. And after cruising the fjords of Alaska she returned to her regular job shovelling glistening potato chips into paper bags with a bright smile and no hint of regret.


The warm but functional and bland interior of the Erindale Shopping Centre, but outside…


… where for decades there was a big brick wall, now there is a colourful mural depicting Tuggeranong’s “timeline”.

We left the Erindale Centre and walked along cycle paths through Gowrie, turning left and uphill into Fadden. Among the grey gum trees an army of cockatoos was at war. It was a serious civil war with dive-bombing and ambushes and hand-to-hand screeching. Every morning around dawn, and again at dusk, the same war breaks out. A bit like Australia’s election cycle. The middle of the day is truce time.

About one and a half hours into the walk – seven kilometers – we found a roadside bench high up in Fadden Heights and stripped off our outer layer of clothing. The temperature was still no more than five degrees but four layers were now too many. A quick bite of Danish pastry and a swig of water and we headed up the steep slope into Waniassa Hills. We were completely alone, only a few kangaroos stared at us in shock as we laboured upwards puffing steam from our mouths.


The morning sun manages to penetrate the cool shadows of Isaacs Pines.

Then, like passengers locked in a roller-coaster, we swooped down across Long Gully Road into the pine forest of Isaacs. Isaacs Ridge cast a cold morning shadow over its western slopes and amid the thick stands of trees the temperature dropped. But the gravel path was flat and wide and we walked with new enthusiasm. A couple of kookaburras laughed at us as we passed, but we were not discouraged. We laughed back. At the northern end of the forest we paused to take in the vista over Woden town centre and beyond, through thirty or forty kilometres of crystal-bright winter air, to the snow-flecked Brindabella ranges.


Beautifully camouflaged grey kangaroos settling in for their post-breakfast snooze.

The path took us past the back fences of O’Malley’s well-heeled diplomatic residences before it swerved right and headed into the native bushland of Mount Mugga Mugga Nature Reserve. For two or three kilometres the path became a narrow track. We laboured around rocks and over mini-swamps through straggly stands of native bush before dropping down to the edge of Mugga Lane, the twisting road that connects Hindmarsh Drive with the Mugga Lane rubbish dump and the Monaro Highway.


In Mount Mugga Mugga Nature Reserve walkers of the Great Lake-to-Lake Trek have to hobble along a narrow rut that (after last week’s rain) was still muddy in places.

Here, at twelve noon, four hours and exactly sixteen kilometers into the walk, we stopped for lunch. Emmy bit delicately into a wholemeal roll sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and filled with an austere mixture of tuna and salad. I wolfed down a huge refined-flour cheese roll stuffed with oily fish and bacon. My God it was delicious!

We crossed Hindmarsh Drive and walked into the suburb of Red Hill. At the Red Hill shops I stopped briefly before the bronze statue of La Perouse, or to allow him his full name, Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse. He led a French expedition of discovery to the south Pacific, arriving at Botany Bay almost simultaneously with Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet of English settlers in 1788. La Perouse visited many islands of the south Pacific before disappearing at sea some time in 1788. He is commemorated in the name of the street on which his statue stands: La Perouse Street.


He’s got a compass in his hands, I’ve got a GPS thingy in my pocket. We’re mates.

La Perouse Street took us to the Red Hill Nature Reserve and two kilometres of easy walking along a dirt path. As we turned into broad, tree-filled Melbourne Avenue we could see the flagpole of Parliament House ahead of us. We were now in the home straight, or so we thought, but maybe it was wishful thinking. Aches and pains were starting to taunt us – a little niggle in the left thigh joint, a few tentative distress signals from the ball of the right foot, discomfort in the shoulder where the strap of my backpack was digging in. There was an ominous throb in Emmy’s right knee. We wanted the walk to end, but… when you walk there’s no turning back, no wimping out. We still had five kilometers to go.

We skirted Parliament House but didn’t spend too much time admiring it. Every time we paused to look we were almost skittled by Parliament House functionaries, escapees from inside the building out for their lunchtime jog. Some of them – women as well as men – were running quite fast, looks of desperation carved into their faces.


Slow down… this is croquet.

It was downhill to Commonwealth Avenue where a bizarre scene greeted us. Just below Australia’s Parliament house, next to the “heritage” 1930s Canberra Hotel, people were playing the genteel game of croquet on a carpet-flat grass square. A croquet mallet has a straight, long, handle like the handle of a golf iron, but at the bottom it plugs into a heavy block of wood. You stand with the mallet hanging in front of you, swing it back between your legs, and whack a heavy ceramic ball about the size of a grapefruit. The ball has to pass through a small narrow hurdle. It looks bizarre, but I guess it’s no more bizarre than any other sport. At the very least it is slow, and that gives it huge rarity value. But slowness is under existential threat, even in Canberra, so how can we ensure the croquet green doesn’t fall victim to the hyper-active victims of “development first” syndrome? Canberrans love their museums… so maybe it can become a central exhibit in a Museum of Slowness. What do you think?

And now we were crossing the Commonwealth Avenue bridge over the glittering expanse of Lake Burley Griffin. A cold afternoon wind was blowing off the lake pushing foam into the reeds at its edge. Then into the city centre and, with sudden eagerness, we leaped straight onto an express bus heading south to Tuggeranong and home.


A cold mid-afternoon wind whips at Emmy’s hair as we cross Lake Burley Griffin and head into the centre of Canberra.

After a day of walking I slept non-stop for almost eight hours (unusual for an old person). And the following morning, the payoff. All the aches and niggles had ebbed away revealing the mild “high” that comes from extended physical exertion. We both felt good.

“Let’s do it again,” said Emmy. “Today!”

But after 35,000 steps the previous day (according to my Garmin Vivofit wristband) for me that was a step too far.


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.

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.