The Jesus Trail, Day 4: Arbel to Capernaum, and home to Jerusalem through the West Bank

According to the Jesus Trail guidebook (Walking the Jesus Trail by Anna Dintaman and David Landis), the path from Arbel…

…follows the Israel Trail blazes on a steep but beautiful route down a cliff face. […] Be careful as you descend. There is a bridge with handholds in the rock to assist you in the steepest section. The path can be slippery when damp, and park authorities do not allow hikers to descend in wet weather.

This put the wind up us. We were not reassured by the history of the cliff. According to the historian Josephus in his Jewish War (written around 75 CE), the troops of Herod the Great winkled Jewish rebels out of their holes in the Arbel cliff “by lowering down his soldiers in large baskets on ropes to pull out the rebels, causing them to fall to their deaths.”

For us, clearly discretion was going to get the better of valour. Still suffering from the exhaustion of the previous day’s walk we decided to take a taxi from our overnight accommodation, past the cliff-face descent, down to the edge of the Sea of Galilee / Kinneret. Please forgive us, dear reader.

At the town of Tabgha we joined a throng of tourists and wide-eyed Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. According to all four Gospels, at Bethsaida, about seven kilometres north-east of modern Tabgha, Jesus turned two fishes and five loaves of bread into a meal sufficient for five thousand people. There was even food left over.

In the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes visitors light candles before a Greek-style icon of Jesus. They also pray, prostrate themselves on the floor, and (of course) take photos. A picturesque, Byzantine-style mosaic representing fish and loaves lies stamped into the floor in front of the altar. The image has been turned into a hundred different souvenirs snapped up by tourists in the adjacent gift shop. We too invested. We bought the image on a set of table mats that (hopefully) will help us feel more thankful as we tuck into our regular meal of grilled salmon and bread rolls back in Canberra.

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A Byzantine-style fish and loaves image on the floor before the altar of the Church of the Multiplication of Fishes and Loaves in Tabgha.

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The faithful prostrate themselves on the floor before the altar.

No more than two hundred metres down the road stands the lakeside Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. It commemorates the moment recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 16 verses 16-18) when, after his resurrection, Jesus spoke to his friend and follower Simon Peter, telling him “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus was making a play on words. “Peter” is derived from the Greek word “petros” meaning “rock”. (Peter’s Aramaic name Cephas is also taken to mean “stone” or “rock”.)

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Hammering home the metaphor, a large rock fills the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, believed by many to be the first leader and the founding “rock” of the Christian church.

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A sign at the front door of the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. As a die-hard religious sceptic I interpret the sign to mean “Don’t try rational explanations, please, just have faith”.

The relentless crowds inside the beautiful but simple church have compelled real worshippers to shift outside. Under trees beside the church there is a small open-air chapel where we saw priests conducting a Catholic mass for a congregation of about 25 devotees. Nearby, visitors crowded a small, pebbly beach and looked out across the calm of Kinneret towards the Golan Heights on the opposite shore. Some removed their shoes to stand ankle-deep in the holy water, dextrously recording themselves with selfies as they did so.

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We have arrived. I stand outside the Church of St. Peter in Tabgha, and below…

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… Emmy stands on the pebbly shore of the Sea of Galilee, near where Jesus is said to have walked on water.

The final leg of our walk took us three kilometres along a picturesque, neatly paved, lakeside path to a park built around several small religious buildings on the long-abandoned site of Kfar Nahum (Capernaum), the village where Jesus is said to have based his ministry. We had reached the end of the 65 kilometre Jesus Trail. After subtracting the taxi rides in Nazareth on the first day, and Arbel on the last day, we had walked somewhere between 50 and 55 kilometres. We had seen much of the beauty and diversity of Israel, as well as its disturbing divisions. And our ancient bones, muscles and brains had survived the rigours of the walk. We felt pretty satisfied with that.

Postscript

Exhaustion was still clamped around our legs like manacles, so we decided to return to Jerusalem direct by taxi. Our driver took us around the northern curve of Kinneret and down the eastern shore, squeezing between the lake to the west and the beetling presence of the Golan Heights to the east. We went south through the town of Beit She’an and, unchecked, through a border crossing into the Israeli-occupied West Bank. We were on Highway 90, which is forbidden to Palestinians except with special permits. It runs the full length of the occupied West Bank. In the northern sector it sticks close to the Jordan River. The countryside left and right of the road has largely been de-populated (for “security reasons” say the Israelis). Ethnically cleansed is a more accurate term. The former population of Palestinian Arabs has been uprooted and shifted west, mostly to the major urban centres of Nablus, Ramallah and (further south) Hebron. In the northern sector the eerily empty landscape is filled with low hills of tawny grass, punctuated here and there with market gardens and plantations of dates, olives and bananas. In places there are derelict houses of the former Arab population, and once, we saw rows of stumps marking (according to our Jewish driver) a destroyed Palestinian olive grove. Here and there the highway passes squalid Bedouin communities, their tents filled with goats and surrounded by litter. The highway curves around the Palestinian town of Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea, and heads west into Jerusalem, passing signs pointing left and right to the prosperous Jewish settlements of Ma’ale Adumim. On this Jews/foreigners-only route, Palestinians are rendered almost invisible in their own land.

The occupied West Bank and Gaza are the conscience of Israel… and it is a very ugly sight.

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The Jesus Trail, Day 3: Kibbutz Lavi to Moshav Arbel

We stepped from the friendly ambience of the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel into the mild warmth of a clear Thursday morning. Our path took us across the central installations of the kibbutz: chicken runs, cow sheds, a petrol station, yards full of agricultural machinery, stables, workshops, offices, staff houses…

We walked along a well-defined path into neat fields, curving towards the low prominence of the Horns of Hattin. The big hill has a couple of lumps in it like protrusions growing on the head of a young bull. Everywhere in Israel visitors are either ogling history or trampling over it. Here you can do both. In 1187 Crusader forces clashed with the Muslim army of Saladin in the open country under the Horns of Hattin, right where we were walking. Saladin routed the Crusaders, putting an end to European Christian power in the Levant until Napoleon turned up at the end of the 1700s.

We reached a T-junction in the path, with an innocently inviting turn to the left and an equally inviting wriggle of pathway to the right. Both options were marked with trail blazes, so we consulted our map. The path to the left looked shorter. No-brainer… we turned left.

A gently rising staircase took us upwards and around the contours of the hill. A vast panorama opened up beneath us: the distant white roofs of factories and glasshouses glinting in the sun, shimmering villages and townships, green and yellow fields, a busy highway with insect-like cars creeping along it. We gulped big breaths of clean air and stopped for a selfie or two. How good it was to walk free and strong with the world spread out below us.

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I pose on the heights between Lavi and Arbel, innocently (or arrogantly?) unaware that our old age is about to be tested on surfaces rougher than we’ve ever walked on before.

Hmmm… within an hour that sentimental froth had been whipped away from us. The path turned nasty. REALLY nasty. A trap snapped shut… there was no turning back. For the next four hours we had to struggle forward over the most difficult walking terrain we have ever encountered in the ten years of our walking careers. It wasn’t a long distance, but it was slow going and harrowing while it lasted.

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Here is our “path”. Yes, it is an “official” pathway. Note the trail marker on a rock bottom left.

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Emmy comes up a slope, balancing precariously on the rocky surface.

The track ascended and descended steeply, sometimes precipitously. Over considerable distances (at least it felt “considerable” to us) the surface was boulders and rocks. Not a “path” at all. Yet it was the path, marked at regular intervals with official trail markers. We couldn’t leap from boulder to boulder as young walkers might have done, or mountain goats. In places we had to wobble forward, inch by tiny inch, testing every step with our poles, maneuvering among the crevices, crawling, or sliding on our bums in places. Being old, we were fearful of a fall or a sprain. At one point I slipped on to my back between two rocks. I couldn’t fold my legs under me, or find support for my arms on the smooth surface of the stones. Emmy couldn’t get close enough to help. It took me five minutes to get upright. The combination of old age and boulders is not a good one.

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Maybe over that crest the path will smooth out and it will be easy going again. Totally alone, we had no help but hope.

When we emerged from the grass and stones above the village of Kfar Zeitim, we were aching, dehydrated and exhausted. In the distance we could see our destination, the hamlet of Moshav Arbel. Behind it, through a gash in the hills, we could also see the burnished steel of Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee.

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Kinneret visible in the distance, and our destination, Moshav Arbel, visible centre-right. We still have around two hours of walking (trudging? plodding? staggering?) ahead of us.

Another hour brought us to a highway leading east towards Arbel. As we drooped along the shoulder of the road a car skidded to a stop beside us.

“Need a lift?”

A miraculous flash of energy teleported us instantaneously into the car where we met Corinne, the young driver. In ten minutes she had whisked us to our accommodation at the Arbel Holiday Homes. We thanked her profusely, but we couldn’t find words to tell her how deep our gratitude really was. Corinne didn’t care. In the spirit of true generosity she simply gave us a cheery wave and drove off.

The proprietors of Arbel Holiday Homes, Ben Konowitz and his wife, greeted us warmly and ushered us to a simple but comfortable cabin. I started to tell Ben of our sufferings. With a glimmer of Jewish humour and the slightest of smiles, he waved my lament away.

“You’re walking the Jesus Trail,” he said gently. “You’re supposed to suffer.”

The Jesus Trail, Day 2: Cana to Kibbutz Lavi

A jostling crowd of pilgrims and tourists jammed the front door of the Cana Wedding Church. (Cana is often mispronounced /kay.na/. It should be /ka.na/.) Emmy and I elbowed our way in and took a seat in the back row of pews. Under its bright red dome the church hosts a spacious nave and a light-filled transept. As we took in the ambience, a church functionary tried to shoo the crush of selfie-snapping visitors out.

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Christian visitors from southern India milling around in the Cana Church courtyard…

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… and inside the church tourists mingle with devout worshippers.

We were about to witness what the Cana Wedding Church is famous for. At the front of the nave, standing in a semi-circle before the altar, stood seven middle-aged American couples. One of the grey-haired ladies was wearing a bridal veil and holding fast to the hand of her slightly stooped, somewhat paunchy husband. They were all there to reconfirm their marriage vows. A Catholic priest appeared and launched into a short service. With sing-song enthusiasm he read from the second chapter of John’s Gospel.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there, and both Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Whatever he says to you, do it.” Now there were six stone water pots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. Jesus said to them, “Fill the pots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it to him. When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.

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Middle-aged couples from the United States reconfirm their marriage vows.

The best wine is well-aged wine and is drunk later in life. That was the message of the priest’s brief sermon on marriage, interrupted with giggles as the couples exchanged their renewed vows and wedding rings. The twenty-minute service wound up with a chaste kiss (“…just a very brief kiss!” warned the priest, but he was grinning as he said it.)

In the alley outside, the souvenir shops were doing a brisk trade in (what else?) wine. I sampled some. It was very red and very sweet, like sherry or rich port. I was deep in the narrative and reached for my wallet. Then I remembered, wine = weight. A day of walking lay ahead of us. There are certain trials that no amount of wine, however old and rich, can make smooth. I chose light luggage over a light head.

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Some of the walk to Kibbutz Lavi was tough. Here Emmy picks her way over grey rocks between grey, rock-hard cactus plants.

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The temperature hovered around 25 degrees. It wasn’t uncomfortably hot, but we had to stay well-hydrated

May 8th took us from Cana to the prosperous orthodox Jewish kibbutz at Lavi, a distance of about sixteen kilometres. We would be crossing an unmarked but nevertheless real apartheid boundary between Arab towns of Cana and Tur’an, and the Jewish territory of Lavi. Our route took us over open, empty countryside and through the Beit Keshet Forest. This so-called “forest” was sparse and degraded, struggling to live right beside a military base complete with barbed-wire fences and guard towers. But we felt at home… the forest was populated by large clusters of Australian ghost gums with their messy leaf litter and whiff of eucalyptus perfume. Even… could that be a dingo!? It was in fact a jackal. It darted on to our gravel path, stared at us for a split-second, then vanished. Again, we were completely alone, surrounded by sweet silence and sweet solitude.

Around midday we reached the Golani Junction, a major meeting point of the north-south and east-west highways in northern Israel. The trail took us past a McDonald’s restaurant and into rough farmland. The ground was stony and splotched with rock-hard dry mud well trampled by cattle. Large grey cactus plants leered over us. We reached a barbed wire fence hanging over boulders. This was a crossing point, but it took us a good ten minutes to find a way through the swaying, razor-sharp confusion of wires.

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We had lunch in a roadside Arab restaurant. “We want a light, simple lunch,” I told the waiter. “OK, OK, no problem… very small meal.” And this is what we got. On my plate: chicken schnitzel with sesame seeds, chips and rice. Then clockwise from the left of my plate, savoury rice, gherkins, olives, roast slices of eggplant, hummus, flat bread, fresh salad, and various relishes. Emmy has chicken kebabs on long steel skewers. And after eating as much as we could, we were invited to shift to another table for….

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… explosively strong Turkish style coffee and various sweetmeats.

By mid-afternoon we could see the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel, a substantial grey concrete building atop a high hill across neatly tilled fields. But somehow, the road we were on circled around the hill. It was an hour of plodding, culminating in a steep, hot climb to the kibbutz entry gate, before we reached the haven of the hotel. The welcome was warm and soon we were stretched out on a soft bed in a modestly luxurious room feeling the fatigue ebb away.

We enjoyed a smorgasbord dinner in a large dining hall with scores – perhaps hundreds – of American Jews in tour groups, mixing it with kibbutz staff. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial, brightened by the excited chatter of children. We felt comfortably at home. A wide range of Jewish styles was on display, from smooth shaven young men sporting crew-cuts and wearing shorts and t-shirts, to figures with corkscrew side-locks wearing black kippa skull caps and creamy prayer shawls under their dark jackets and waistcoats. Many women hid their hair under colourful turban-like headcloths, their modest dresses reaching down to their ankles.

It was Independence Day, which is always the day after Memorial Day. Everywhere there were Israeli flags: on the tables, hanging from the ceiling, decorating the food bars. The atmosphere was mildly exuberant and there was a special range of foods on offer: plentiful, very varied and delicious. Thinking with regret of my decision that morning not to buy a bottle of wine in Cana, I corrected my mistake and bought a mini bottle of red. The Jewish gentleman at the next table lifted his eyes from the mountain of roast meat and eggplant on his plate to point at the bottle and congratulate me on my taste. “Yes, it’s not bad,” I admitted. “Not bad!!??” he bristled. “That’s from the Gamla Winery in the Golan Heights. It’s the best wine in the world!”

I wanted to argue the case for New Zealand Pinot Noir, but my neighbour had headed back to the food bar and was busy heaping a second (or maybe a third?) helping of meat and eggplant on to his plate.

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On the way to Kibbutz Lavi, still managing to look cheerful. Little did we know… (see next post)

The Jesus Trail Day 1: Nazareth to Cana

Nazareth is the starting point of the so-called Jesus Trail, a 65 kilometre, four-day hike down to the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Two thousand years ago Nazareth was a tiny village where, supposedly, Yeshua ben Yosef (better known as Jesus) grew up. With a population nearing 80,000, it is today Israel’s biggest Arab city. Most people there are Muslims, but about 30% identify as Christians, mostly Catholic.

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“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single selfie.” I’m in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, bringing Lao Tze’s ancient aphorism into the 21st century. Behind me tourists take pictures of the cave where Mary was told of her divine pregnancy.

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Our accommodation in Nazareth, the basic but very welcoming Villa Nazareth.

Airily throwing aside our burden of years (we’re now both on the wrong side of 75) Emmy and I signed up for the Walk as independent walkers whose baggage would be transferred by Abraham Tours from lodging to lodging along the way (see: https://abrahamtours.com/tours/jesus-trail/ ). The first leg, from Nazareth to Cana, would take us sixteen kilometres into the journey.

We checked in to the basic but squeaky-clean first stop, the Villa Nazareth B&B hotel among the twisting alleyways of Nazareth’s old city centre. We had some preliminary reconnaissance to do. Our guidebook mentioned that the walk out of Nazareth began with a steep flight of 405 steps. On our first evening in town we walked through the ancient stone passageways to the foot of the steps and peered up. One glance and our elderly legs began to tremble. Our knees sent painful signals clambering up our fragile nerve-paths to register a warning… “You’re very old, don’t risk that climb!”

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The exterior of the huge Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth…

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… and inside pilgrims, tourists and devotees of Mary swarm through the spacious, second-floor of the basilica.

Back at the Villa Nazareth I had a word with Razie, the ultra-helpful receptionist: “Could you arrange a taxi to take us to the top of the steps tomorrow morning?” Razie managed to look both surprised and not surprised. “Of course,” he said. “Very sensible.” Then he nailed me with a friendly but stern glare. “You should take a taxi right to the edge of Nazareth,” he said. “Almost every day we have to deal with walkers who get lost in the tangle of streets around the top of the steps. There’s a lot of construction going on up there, the way is not clearly marked. It’s very demoralising to get lost before you’ve even started.”

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Above and below: the narrow streets and alleys of old Nazareth

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I tried to look as if we didn’t really need to by-pass this initial obstacle, but inwardly I snapped up Razie’s advice and immediately ordered the taxi. The following morning, Tuesday May 7th, beyond the edge of Nazareth city, a short walk took us into a sparse, scraggy, rubbish-strewn forest. We were utterly alone. The weather was clear and warm but with a cooling breeze. The feared 30+ temperatures didn’t eventuate. The path was well-marked with frequent white and orange trail markers on trees and rocks. We strode forward confidently, jabbing our walking poles into the stony ground, scanning the rocks and trees ahead for the trail-markers that would take us down to the waters of Galilee. We were on our way!

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These trail markers – called “blazes” – appear about every 150 metres or so (usually) and will guide us 65 kilometres down to Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) on the Sea of Galilee.

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Israel’s forests are quite degraded. Some people treat them as rubbish dumps.

Around mid-morning we walked into Mash’had, a quiet, almost deserted, little town of multi-floor stone houses. Under Israel’s apartheid-like patchwork of segregated communities Mash’had is labelled “Arab-Muslim”. Like most towns in Israel it lays claim to a special connection with the distant past. Jonah (called Yunus by Muslims) was born into history there three thousand years ago. He got eaten by a giant fish and survived. In the course of time, story becomes history, so Jonah’s grave in Mash’had is proof-positive that he really did survive a three-day sojourn in the belly of the fish.

Heading out of Mash’had we stopped for a drink at an open-air café in the garden of a big, stone villa. The lady of the house apologised she couldn’t keep us company, and after putting cool drinks before us, she tugged at her hijab scarf and leaped into a car. “You here… at home!” she called, revving the car and disappearing into the streets of the town.

From the garden we looked across to the town of Cana spread out as dense and white as a ragged lace curtain along the opposite slope of a small valley. This was our destination for the day, but crossing the valley turned out to be an ordeal. The “path” was a rocky ditch that dipped and zig-zagged among olive trees, tall tough grass, and herds of goats. But we got there. After threading our way through narrow alleys around Cana’s famous “Wedding Church” we checked in to our ultra-simple but very welcoming accommodation at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse.

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Australian gum trees are everywhere in the forests along the Jesus Trail, and here we have a bottlebrush thriving in the garden of a villa in the Arab town of Mash’had.

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Sammy, our affable host at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, enjoys the apple-flavoured tobacco of his hookah.

The strong aroma of fresh apples hung in the warmth of the late afternoon air. Sammy, the affable proprietor of the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, was sitting on the balcony-verandah, his mouth clamped over the mouthpiece of a hose that led to a hookah on the floor. Thick clouds of sweet-smelling smoke tumbled from his mouth accompanied by cheerful gurgling from the hookah. Between each puff, Sammy’s face broke into its trademark mile-wide smile.

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This sign, on a wall in Nazareth, accurately sums up the disaster that overtook the Arabs who had legally lived in their homes and farmed their lands in Palestine for a thousand years. There is fault and ill-will on both sides in the Palestine-Israel dispute, but far more than any other issue, it is this clear, unresolved injustice that keeps the enmity alive.  

But at eight o’clock the smile suddenly froze and disappeared. It was May 7th and across the small town of Cana a siren sounded, marking the beginning of Israel’s Memorial Day commemorating soldiers who have fallen in the country’s wars. Understandably, most Palestinian Arabs, like Sammy, do not celebrate this day. As in many public events in Israel, Palestinians are excluded. The state actively lobbies to discourage the small but growing number of Israelis who, on this grief-laden day, try to hold a joint Israeli-Palestinian grieving for the thousands of lives lost, Palestinian and Jewish. This year they held it by torchlight in a park in Tel Aviv. Arabs and Jews who took part were subjected to spitting and abuse from a crowd of racist ultra-right Jews. They were aided and abetted by the government which tried to stop Arabs from the occupied territories from crossing into Israel to attend the commemoration. Israel is a Jewish state – the official line runs – so reconciliation and inclusion are not (officially) on the agenda.

More on Cana’s famous wedding in the next post.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Lao Buddhist temple and community centre.

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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: https://walktenthousandmiles.net/2012/04/16/review-across-europe-alone-on-foot-aged-eighteen/ ). 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.

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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.

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

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… 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.”

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Time for a quick snack and drink.

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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.

Two_bananas_wattle_blooms

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.

Two_bananas_Coke_at_Cooleman

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

 

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.

Lake-to-Lake_early_morning_Erindale_Drive

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.

Lake-to-Lake_map

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.

Lake-to-Lake_Erindale_Centre_interior

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

Lake-to-Lake_Erindale_Centre_exterior

… 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.

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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.

Lake-to-Lake_kangaroos1

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.

Lake-to-Lake_bush_path

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.

Lake-to-Lake_with_Laperouse2

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.

Lake-to-Lake_croquet

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.

Lake-to-Lake_wind_on_Commonwealth_bridge

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.

 

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: https://walktenthousandmiles.net/2011/08/08/i-misjudge-the-cumbria-way-and-pay-a-painful-price/.

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.