Jan 022018




“There is no song more agreeable to the heart, than the slow even breath of the pilgrim, learning to bless and be blessed by the mystery.”

Stephen Devine


The Camino wrecked me for an ordinary life.

I’d pretty much failed that test anyway, however walking 32 days straight for more than 900kms – for all its agonies and ecstasies – left me with one giant impossibility: I never wanted to come inside again.

No matter how beautiful the home, no matter precious the objects in it, no matter . . . (fill in your story), none of it compares to a wild sky loaded with stars at night, a gentle creek at dawn, a farmyard restless with feeding time, a surprise eclipse stealing the midday sun.

Even when life is at its most desperate discomfort – the heat of late summer paddocks, an endless rain hammering frozen fingers, a bed not forthcoming at the end of a long day’s walk. These are small prices to pay on the pilgrim’s road, even as they loom large at the time – because no matter what the external circumstances, when one is outside walking the soul is soaring. And we all know that when the heart is happy, life is good.

Writing too disrupted my life.

The longing to write that took root in my heart became a crescendo, and despite the crescendo still I ignored it. It was like having a symphony orchestra show up in your kitchen and acting as though you were listening to music through the speaker on your phone.

One day the cymbals in that orchestra shattered all I thought I knew and I walked out of my life. I had no idea what I would do, exactly, but I knew that I wanted to write and I did not want to die wondering.

Some time later I hit the pilgrim path to Santiago de Compostela and vowed to make no decisions until the day came when one more step, just one more, would take me off the pilgrim road to . . . deep down I knew. I knew I would write.

And there we have it.

Walking. Writing. Walking and writing.

They teach fearlessness. They teach commitment. They teach endurance. They command us to wake up.

Walking and writing both, rattle our bones and shatter our self-importance until we pay attention to twin human realities that define the soul willing no longer to settle for less:

* the longing to share our story

* a hankering to walk the turning wheel that is the world outside our door.

Wherever, you are – cities, factories, apartments, farms – walk. Walk when you can. Step it up, step it out. Let your eyes take a wander with your spirit, tune your ears into life broadcasting all around you. And one day, one day, shove a pen and small piece of paper in your pocket, and begin.

Walk while you write, write while you walk. Rest and write. Walk.

And as you begin to write your story, you will learn a profound pilgrim lesson: as within, so without.

Walking, writing: so many mysteries, revealed.


Stephanie DaleWritten by Stephanie Dale, author, journalist & traveling writer; founder of The Write Road and Walk and Write.

Stephanie Dale is an award-winning journalist and author with a fondness for walking and writing. She is a passionate advocate for the visibility and voices of everyday people and focuses on supporting new and unpublished writers to write and keep writing. The Write Road is dedicated to empowering people to tell their stories, their way.

 January 2, 2018  Tagged with: , , , , ,  Comments Off on Why walking and writing wrecked me for ordinary life
Jan 022018


“Turn your face to the sun, and the shadows fall behind you.”



The unknown is good for us.

I know, right? It’s terrifying! At times, anyway. Even those of us uncommonly drawn to the Unknown, and its life partner Change, suffer moments of holy f***, what am I doing here! Or, its sadder counterpart, ‘why me?’

Walking and writing are leaders, both. Where one leads us through the landscapes of the physical world around us, the other leads us inwards, through the landscapes of our own interior. The knowable unknown. The unknowable known.

Journeys, either way.

It’s no surprise to me that many (most?) of the people walking The Camino, the mystical road across Spain, are women and most of them around or well over 50. The children gone, their lives shaped by this and other losses, the longing to walk the turning wheel of life becomes greater than the need to ‘stay home’.

It’s equally no surprise that most people who come along to The Write Road writing workshops and courses are women around or well over 50.

Whether walking or writing, the interior is calling.

Whether walking or writing, there are a hundred, a thousand, a million reasons to ignore the call. As many reasons as you need, actually.

And then, whether walking or writing, take one step towards the longing and what you most fear will come to pass: everything changes. It has to. Because, whether walking or writing, you have opened the door to an inner strength that previously held no sway, has been silenced, has been patiently biding its time for the light.

Walking and writing lead us into the unknown and for this reason they change lives. They change lives precisely because in one moment a decision was made to step forward, rather than hold back.

Courage, either way.

And that’s why the unknown is good for us. It makes us brave. It brings us to life. We have no choice but to surrender. No choice but to meet what’s right before us in this moment. No choice but to call on all the personal resources we’ve gathered along the way through this life and put them to work on our own behalf.

Through walking and writing, we meet beauty.

We meet life.

As it is. As we are.


Stephanie DaleWritten by Stephanie Dale, author, journalist & traveling writer; founder of The Write Road and Walk and Write.

Stephanie Dale is an award-winning journalist and author with a fondness for walking and writing. She is a passionate advocate for the visibility and voices of everyday people and focuses on supporting new and unpublished writers to write and keep writing. The Write Road is dedicated to empowering people to tell their stories, their way.

 January 2, 2018  Tagged with: , , ,  Comments Off on Walking and writing are great acts of courage
Jan 022018

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

Ursula K Le Guin

Pilgrimage has taught me many things and chief among them is this salutary lesson: There is no ‘there’.

Twice I’ve set on Very Long Walks – once, 900kms along El Camino, the mystical pilgrim road across Spain from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela (where – disputed fact – the head of St James is buried in the great cathedral built atop sacred pagan ground); and then, two years later, 1500kms across Italy and through the Balkans, Rome to Tirane, the then-broken (and perhaps still broken) capital of Albania.

And twice this lesson has been my saviour and my guide.

There is no ‘there’.

It is as true for the writer as it is for the walker.

There is no ‘there’.

What does this mean?

There is no destination.

There is no destination because the destination is irrelevant if you don’t pick up your foot, right here, where you are now, and put it in front of the other one. And then pick up the next foot and put it down in front of the other one. Repeat ten million million times. Or pick up your pen and write a word, then place another word directly after that one. And so on. Ten thousand thousand times.

Walking and writing are sublime journeys.

Both will transform you for this simple reality alone, the fact of putting one foot in front of the other, one word after another, over and over and over again. Both will disrupt all you think you know about life and your place in it. Both will frustrate and delight; immeasurable, colossal life in your hands.

Both will reward you will the immense satisfaction of the journey complete, a voyage of discovery well-earned and hard-won.

At which point, having marked the moment, you will set out again, your heart aflutter with frustration and delight at the unknowable unknown journey ahead, your eyes on the horizon of another ‘no there’, your heart packed and ready to roll towards the light calling you home. Again.



Stephanie DaleWritten by Stephanie Dale, author, journalist & traveling writer; founder of The Write Road and Walk and Write.

Stephanie Dale is an award-winning journalist and author with a fondness for walking and writing. She is a passionate advocate for the visibility and voices of everyday people and focuses on supporting new and unpublished writers to write and keep writing. The Write Road is dedicated to empowering people to tell their stories, their way.

 January 2, 2018  Tagged with: , , , ,  Comments Off on Lesson #4 of the pilgrim road
Sep 072017

Walk and Write Stephanie Dale on pilgrimage in Croatia

“The longing is the path.”

Anna Davidovich


There’s nothing like a long walk to get to know the voices in your head. It’s hilarious really . . . until you realise those voices are shaping every moment of every day of your life.

Some years ago, I walked across Italy and through the Balkans. I was heading to Istanbul – imagine that, walking from Rome to Istanbul (I sure did! imagine it, that is) – but the thunderstruck, snowbound mountains of Macedonia pulled the journey up short in Albania.

I was in my late 40s – 49 to be precise – and in the end I walked a day for every year of my life. That’s 49 years of being hammered and tonged through life on Earth. That’s 49 years of voices clammering for attention over 49 days.

I had 20kgs on my back, far too much for a woman of my stature and age and condition, but there was nothing wasted in that weight – hell, I wore the same clothes for 49 days! My feet were like concrete at the end of every day. My shoulders ached a good deal of the way. My physical state was nothing compared to the mental and emotional exhaustion of the clamouring voices.

49 years of incessant blah blah blah for company – other people’s opinions and judgements and stories and ideas rattling their way through my body, shaping my own opinions and judgements and stories and ideas; my own stories and judgements shaping their world in turn; our interconnected lives a riot of reaction and response.

For 49 days I buckled under the weight of the voices – because on pilgrimage, the only thing you are actually ‘doing’ is putting one foot in front of the other . . . for as long as it takes – the voices that are usually silenced, snuffled, smothered by the busy-ness of everyday life had finally found their moment to shine.

The writer, friends, is also on pilgrimage.

I was following my son’s lead, walking with him for the middle leg of his own, much longer, pilgrimage – from Canterbury to Jerusalem (I mean really, imagine that – 7000kms, 16 countries).

My son led me through countries and landscapes I would not have ventured into on my own, particularly ‘the Balkans’. Once we entered Bosnia, the voices in my head had me convinced I’d tread on a landmine and lose a limb. I peed on flat rocks to avoid treading on unturned dirt and ignored the small splashes on the legs of my trousers. As for Albania – my body was a frozen riot of death as we entered this unknown dark state.

My head was a double riot because of an email my son had received from our couchsurfing host in Albania’s capital, Tirane, an American Fulbright scholar. She had said we should stick to the highway in Albania, which is flat and straight and safer than the mountains. She had said that if we avoided the mountains, however, we may miss out on an ‘adventure’, because ‘Albanian hospitality in the northern highlands is unmatched’. She said that according to the Kanun, the ancient northern Albanian code of customs and ethics, a guest in one’s home takes the form of God and that people would treat us like royalty. Those who break the custom of hospitality would be killed, she added. My son liked the idea of being treated like God.

My mind was full of it . . . the mountains . . . Albania . . . Macedonia . . . strangers . . . fear . . . lives on the line.

And this was the moment I truly understood the power of story. And the unpower of giving credit to the riot.

The fear and anxiety were all made up, products of my head. They had zero substance outside of me. For weeks I had been entertaining made up stories. Fairy tales. I had been giving power to imaginary sagas based on . . . ? Fictions, that were living in my body, defining my life, shaping my experiences, creating what I see around me and all round doing their best to sabotage my fabulous walk from Rome to Istanbul.

In that moment I learned to ask a question: am I safe now? Errrrr, yep. Now? Ummm, yep. What about now? Sure am.


The writer faces the same challenges.

Set out on the book writing journey and, not only will your writing lead you to and through places you’d never go on your own, the unmet voices will start up. Their demands will be simple at first: there’s dusting to do (even for women who ‘don’t dust’), the car needs washing (for the first time all year), the garden needs a water (even though it rained yesterday).

Make it to your pen and paper and the voices will begin to get nasty, usually with variations on the following themes:

* you’ve got better things to do (you’re wasting time)

* you didn’t finish school (who the hell do you think you are?)

* who’d want to read it anyway? (I am not worthy of being a writer)

* what I want to write is so bland (only special people with talent should do this).

These voices are standing between you and a deep, deep longing in your heart to write. Like a woman on pilgrimage through foreign lands, you have a choice: go nowhere, do nothing. Or face up, stare the voices down, pick up your pen and paper – and write.

Do it. Do it anyway. Dance with the voices. Invite them to dinner. Entertain them. Ask them questions. Get to know them. And learn to ignore them and get on with your heart’s desire (which, if you are reading this, is to write).

Because here’s what else: every moment of every day in every single thing you do, these voices are shaping your life. They are keeping you small. They are making sure you will never ever ever even try. To do. The one thing. You long to do. More than anything else.


And here’s another what else: step forward despite the voices to pick up that pen, and you will get brave.

Very, very brave.


Stephanie DaleWritten by Stephanie Dale, author, journalist & traveling writer; founder of The Write Road and Walk and Write.

Stephanie Dale is an award-winning journalist and author with a fondness for walking and writing. She is a passionate advocate for the visibility and voices of everyday people and focuses on supporting new and unpublished writers to write and keep writing. The Write Road is dedicated to empowering people to tell their stories, their way.

Walk & Write The Camino

 September 7, 2017  Tagged with: , , , ,  Comments Off on The Voices in Your Head – why writing can make you brave
Apr 212014

Stephanie Dale Vatican

Rome! I am in Rome!!! I am in a gorgeous city that is warm and friendly and pulsing with the ages. I cannot remember ever being more pleased to be anywhere. Perhaps that is freedom’s colossal high, truth’s freewheeling zenith. Nowhere else to be but here. And it is my good fortune that ‘here’ is Rome.

Getting here took the best part of the day, most of it in slow-mo through security at Gatwick – until the announcement of our flight’s imminent departure compelled us to jump the queue and sprint a mini-marathon to Gate 105.

Puffing and laughing in our seats at the back of the plane, I remind Ben of his furious vow never to fly with me again, after I made him hurry to beat the crowd through immigration on a flight home from New Zealand half his lifetime ago. As it turned out, that was our last flight together, until now. We laugh so hard with the memory our eyes fill with tears. In an act of culinary desperation we stuff our faces with Toblerone for breakfast, taking turns to stare out the window, snow-struck by the white mountains far below.

Rome! Fiumicino Airport might have been forgetful had I not lost 250 Australian dollars to a wheeler-dealer at the exchange counter. The ride in from the airport might have been forgetful had I not insisted on taking the train (robbing Peter to pay Paul for the backgammon board) only to end up having to get a taxi to our room near the Vatican anyway.

The taxi drops us into the traffic on the outside of the vast cobbled plain that stretches to the Vatican steps. From there we lug our packs up the hill on the Vatican’s western flank, to the same apartment where Ben stayed when he walked in from Canterbury six weeks ago.

We dump the bags on our beds, grab the cameras and head straight out for lunch at the little deli on the corner, sitting in a basement at the foot of a small set of narrow wooden stairs, at a table with a red chequered cloth and a mound of white bread. And there the journey begins. We order wine. I order vegetarian antipasto, which comes, eventually, loaded with chunky cured meats. Ben orders spaghetti bolognaise and I can’t believe he’s come all this way for a spag-bol. We practise filming as we wait. We film the elderly waiter as he goes up and down the stairs, bringing food for all the guests but us. We raise our glasses and film a toast for the road ahead. We interview each other for the camera and laugh at our self-consciousness and our Australian-ness, stark against the ease of the Romans. The Romans!

We spend the afternoon walking around the streets, laughing in the heat of the day about the burning in our shoulder blades from the daypacks, knowing that it’s going to get one hell of a lot worse. We return to our room and collapse on the beds, rolling about laughing as we kick off our shoes with tell-tale groans because our feet are hot and tired and the walk hasn’t even begun. And we breathe in the simple pleasure of our small apartment, because come Saturday, September 22, two days from now, when day equals night and the sun turns on its heels for its southbound run, even the simplest of comforts – a clean bed, or any bed; a hearty meal, or any meal – will no longer be ours for the asking. For me, the madness is about to begin. For Ben, the madness is about to begin again. It is a privilege to be sharing this walk with my son. He has a grace and ease about him that is uncommon in our world. The first leg of his journey was a quintessential rollercoaster ride of challenge and fun, filling him with the lightness of being that comes to those who meet life as it presents itself. His is a steady eye and an open heart. This is the gift of the road.

Late in the afternoon, we decide to experiment with night filming at the Fontana di Trevi, the city’s famous Trevi Fountain. We ask around for the bus and board with the workday crowds, oblivious to systemic demands that we buy a ticket first, shrugging with the nonchalance of the stranger who doesn’t know and shouldering the free ride. We roll off the bus into the crowded evening, following our senses with the grace of tumbleweeds into the breezy, fluid night.

As far as I know, the only picture I have ever seen of the Trevi Fountain is in the opening credits of an American sitcom I liked to watch as a kid, ‘ To Rome With Love’. I was captivated by the notion that children could have a dead mother and I’d watch the kids on that show like a tiger in the grass, wired for proof of the impossible. In the opening, the children are sitting on the edge of the fountain. In my memory of the opening, the fountain is big and round and white and dramatic and there’s a busy road running around it. So I’m somewhat surprised to find the Fontana di Trevi is: a) neither big nor round; b) doesn’t have a road in sight; and c) packed with tourists jostling in the dark for viewing space. Of course, that was before I knew that the building behind it, the Palazzo Poli, is, depending on who you ask and what you read, considered part of the fountain.

Here in the company of Neptune rising, sea horses galloping and the berobed virgin who found the source of the gushing water in the first place; in the presence of stone waves, tritons and chariots; among tourists crushed alive with the night and locals fishing coins from the water with long magnetic poles; in the heart of a city that hasn’t missed a beat for three millennia, my world stills and I tilt my head to the night, listening ham-radio curious for the ones who walked this way before. Before me. Before you. Before.

I look to the night sky and come face to face with the colours of antiquity: a gold half moon, crisp and poised on its tip, egged on by an audacious indigo sky. Longing rises within me like sap to the warm sun, and I glimpse the obsessive fervour of the artisans, the crazed desire that commanded them to reproduce the ethereal, to give it form, to make it solid, to arrest God and celebrate their genius – or go mad in the trying. Face to the heavens, I smile at the enormity of the challenge before them: to find that blue on Earth!

My Pilgrim's Heart Australian editionExcept from My Pilgrim’s Heart, by Stephanie Dale

Mar 302014
Station Beach, Great Ocean Walk

Station Beach, Great Ocean Walk

Where to stop
Do you need a map?
Logistics – where to stay and how to get to and from the track
Is the GOW difficult?
GOW: the forest’s own voice

It’s not easy to find information about the Great Ocean Walk, the 106 km track that hugs Australia’s southern coastline known to drivers on the tourist trail as the Great Ocean Road.

The Great Ocean Walk – Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles – can be walked easily in five days, though some do it in six or seven.

Where to stop

My friend Caroline and I divided our walk into five legs: Apollo Bay, Blanket Bay, Aire River, Johanna Beach, The Gables Lookout, Gibson Steps.

At day’s end, we needed road access for the car – this determined our daily destination.

The following distances are close estimates:

  • Apollo Bay to Blanket Bay – 22kms
  • Blanket Bay to Aire River – 20kms
  • Aire River to Johanna Beach – 14kms
  • Johanna Beach to The Gables Lookout – well, I took a guess at this one and by our reckoning we were 5kms out – the 20km guesstimate was at least 5kms short
  • The Gables Lookout to Gibson Steps – 20ishkms.

In hindsight, Caroline would have extended the Johanna Beach leg to Melanesia Beach, thus shortening the walk to The Gables Lookout the following day. For me, I enjoyed the short day to Johanna – and loved the surprise of a ‘plan’ going awry, tipping us from jagged hills into undulating forest at the closing of the day.

The second half of that day was the most wild and beautiful of the walk.

When planning your GOW, your daily destinations will depend on your accommodation and transport options (see below).

Do you need a map?

We didn’t carry a map – though others we met on the track did. The GOW is well marked with little blue signs along the track; it is well worn and impossible to lose.

Only once did we wonder where to go, and that was a few moments’ confusion at the Gellibrand River, where common sense told us there was no bridge at the river mouth and so we wandered up the sandy track towards Princetown, there to find a picnic spot with the little blue sign pointing us west.

Here is the Parks Victoria mud map we used to plan our walk. The red dots are the spots you can get your car in.

Great Ocean Walk mud map

Logistics – where to stay and how to get to and from the track

Here are the accommodation and transport options for the GOW – we spent a lot of time exploring the best, most efficient, most fabulous, most delightful way of doing the walk (see #4).

1. what we did

We rented a room in Apollo Bay via Airbnb.com – and then offered our host extra cash ($250) to drive with us each morning to our daily destination (Point B – where we would leave our car) and then drive us back to our daily starting point (Point A).

This option gave us showers, warm beds, a kitchen, daily supplies from Apollo Bay – and up to three hours a day on the road.

2. camping on the track

There is a string of campsites along the GOW – some accessible by car, others out there in the wilderness. To camp ‘out there’, which would be heaven and require no driving for the entire length of the track, means carrying all your food and bedding, some water (other water can be accessed and boiled for drinking) – this option is only for those willing to carry 15-20kilos on their back.

3. boutique accommodation and shuttle transport

There’s loads of private boutique accommodation options along the GOW – and a shuttle service that will drop you off and pick you up each morning. This sounds great and possibly is – if the shuttle service timetable works for you.

In our case, the shuttle would make no commitment in advance as to where we would start walking each day – our itinerary would depend upon the destinations of other bookings. This meant we might do our last leg third, our first leg last, our second leg third, etc.

This is why we paid our Airbnb host the extra cash, so we could walk the track consecutively from start to finish. The cash we paid him was less than the cost of the shuttle.

4. the ideal solution!

Here’s how Caroline and I would do the GOW again: We would pay Josh, our Airbnb host, to set up our camp each day at pre-determined destinations – thus eliminating the need to carry camping gear and food.

Josh would also bring us daily supplies from Apollo Bay – ice for the esky, wood for the fire (Blanket Bay and Aire River), food and/or takeaway dinners and wine for sunset.

He would then return the following morning and move the camp to the next day’s destination.

This solution eliminates the need to get in a car at all, leaving the walkers free to surrender to the wilderness as they find it.

On the last day, we would organise a shuttle to collect us from the Twelve Apostles and return us to Apollo Bay, where we would pick up our gear from Josh’s (the point at which we’d left our car). This option would cost us around $500 each – all accommodation and transport covered.

Find Josh here.

Is the GOW difficult?

Like all walks – pilgrimages – the degree of difficulty will depend on your attitude on the day.

Some days or hours or minutes are hard slog whether you’re on the flat or climbing hills. Other days or hours or minutes are a breeze as you scamper up hill faces and mind your footing on the way down.

The GOW has beach walking – though surprisingly little of it. As well, there are almost always high tide options, so if wandering along the tideline is not your thing, you can (mostly) escape the sand and stay high.

Some of the track is wide and undulating, other parts are narrow and foresty, other parts are wide open hill tops, and still others a rollercoaster of cliff faces.

The last two days will put you well beyond the reach of cars, which means you are truly alive to the wilderness. It’s a glorious feeling.

Overall, the track is not difficult. It has its challenges. All that’s required are Lessons One and Two of the pilgrim’s road:

#1. Keep going.

#2. This too will pass.


Parks Victoria Great Ocean Walk

GOW: the forest’s own voice

A wilderness puts a human in her place.

Her rightful place.

A living creature among other living creatures, their world shaped by the world in which they find themselves.

There are many reasons humans choose to walk long distances. For some it is a challenge to be measured and timed and achieved, perhaps even weight to be lost and fitness expanded. For others, the destination is irrelevant, perhaps even a disappointment: it is the being out there that is the point.

A long time ago I lived with a hunter. He taught me my place in the forest.

I am the wind, carrying the secrets of the ice from the south
I am the garden, defying the odds to live on a wall of ocean rock
I am the spiked grasses, growing on the civilised track where I am not wanted
I am the path, now sand now dirt now stone now needles of pine
    now white, now red, now brown, now black, now yellow
I am the twisted gum grown ancient and not as tall as I might
I am the fossil embedded for all time in the rock
I am the blue waves crashing, slowly, elegantly, challenging the voice of thunder
I am the bare hills of golden autumn grasses
I am the woolly creek, snaking the valley far below
I am the old man’s beard and bracken and banksia
I am the bright blue cove, beautiful and treacherous
I am the seed pod cracked open and broken, ready to be scattered anew.

I am the crow calling
I am the pig rooting
I am the feral cat running
I am the bullants mating
I am the wallaby grazing
I am the deer marking the tree with my tine
I am the snake warming her shiny black skin in the sunshine
I am the echidna, hiding her face in the bracken thinking I cannot be seen.

I am the mermaid on her rock,
wind and ocean one and the same to me
water can claim me as her own, it is all same to me.

For I am the living and I am the living dead.

If I die out here, by all means lament the passing of my selfless nature and gentle wit – by no means mourn the manner of my passing.

In truth, as I stand on a hilltop returned from the deep wild to civilisation, I don’t know whether to weep for the forest and the people for whom the land was life itself, weep for the convicts once and farmers since who cleared the land or praise them for their backbreaking work – or admire as much as I can the spirits of those who built a first world nation from this land, and from whom what is left must be protected.

With the heightened senses of the hunter, soft vision, light step, connected spirit, watchful ears, I grieve for the civilised human. For the price she has had to pay for her comfort. For her inability to read the pointed toe of the deer, smell the sow beyond the wall of bracken, decipher the marks scratched into the bark of a nearby tree.

For just a few moment, the Great Ocean Walk returned all this to me.

This and the long ago shadow of a long-legged man with a sunshine smile who taught me to wait – and let the forest come to me.

footprints Great Ocean Walk




Dec 032013



People are often surprised, reeeeally surprised, when I tell them most people walking the mystical road across Spain – El Camino – are over 50. And even more surprised when I tell them most of those are women.

The exception is during peak summer, when university students take their holidays.

No surprises there is an art to packing for pilgrimage – because the reality is when you walk 900 kms through a foreign land you have to carry everything you need on your back.

It is always always always women who approach me to ask about walking El Camino. There are many pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela; the most popular is the trail from St Jean Pied du Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain’s north western corner.

First, some facts: this pilgrim route is 900kms and takes most people 30-35 days. It is well marked by painted yellow arrows and scallop shells to lead you all the way. The trail takes you through farms and forests, villages, towns and cities. Within a day’s walk, there is always an albergue, or refugio, pilgrim refuges that offer dormitory accommodation for a small fee on a first in first served basis. For me, by far the best time of year to do this walk is late summer – this way you avoid the big crowds and you walk the turning season, summer to autumn (and because autumn is such a visible season, it is a visually spectacular time of year to walk).

Women at a turning point in their lives often look to El Camino for inspiration, almost as a rite of passage into the next stage of life . . . they are longing to do it – but are often concerned about doing it alone.

Here’s some comfort: just do it.

There are so many pilgrims on this particular road these days, you will never be alone if you don’t want to be. Pilgrims tend to walk in little bands, stretched out along the roads. There is always good company to be kept and it’s easy enough to walk a little ahead or behind if you’d like some time alone.

At the end of each night, the refugios are filled with laughing chatting newfound friends and companions, some cooking meals at the refuge, others heading out to small restaurants. Always they are keeping the company of strangers, people walking alone who have found companionship among others sharing an almost out of this world experience.

Because even though pilgrimage is a physical act, and it is the physical body that must bear the load, it is also a transformative experience. Pilgrimage has taught me discipline, presence, perseverance, motivation and acceptance. The lessons of the road changed my life forever.

Lesson #1 of the road:  Keep going.

Pilgrimage teaches you to keep going – forward. It teaches that your only obligation is to this moment, right here beneath your feet; there is no ‘there’. Santiago de Compostela might be your destination, but it is irrelevant if you do not take the next step.

Lesson #2 of the road:  This too will pass.

Everything, no matter how agonizing it appears to be, will pass. The weather is too hot? Keep going, it will pass. The weather is too cold? Keep going, it will pass. The weight on your shoulders is killing you? Keep going, it will pass. Your feet are tortured? Keep going, it will pass. Your spirits are miserable? Keep going, it will pass. You get the idea.

Pilgrimage teaches you to meet life, as it is, as you are.

“Pilgrimage is the art of ancient travel, a subpoena from the heart that defies all common sense. The pilgrim is not unlike a comet, burning off all that is futile and unnecessary until all that is left is the essential, unmalleable core. The pilgrim walks the Earth, walks the wheel, walks the turning seasons, surrendering all of who she is and all she thinks she knows and all she thinks she wants to the road and the weather.”

from My Pilgrim’s Heart

Now – how to pack for the road:

Your Pack

The first common mistake people make when preparing for a long walk is the size of their pack. I promise you, it will take all of 24 hours for you to start dumping what you thought you couldn’t live without. This is the beauty of pilgrimage – it helps us lighten life’s load. So to help you ‘think light’ right from the start, buy a small pack, just big enough to fit your sleeping bag with extra room around it; make sure it has pockets on the outside.

Your Boots

Feet are the bedrock and warranty of your pilgrimage – no happy feet, no happy walk. Your boots must be water resistant, ankle high and have a small heel. They must fit beautifully. Your socks must be warm, soft and comfortable – you will need 2-3 pairs. You must also pack a pair of light rubber flip flops, to protect your feet while showering. These, worn with your clean socks, double as slippers at the end of the day.

Your Clothes

In a word or three: fine merino wool. It’s more expensive than ordinary materials, but the advantages are four-fold: you can wear the same day clothes for a month and they won’t stink; if you buy dark colours they won’t show the dirt; if you want to wash them out they will dry easily overnight; most importantly, they pack small and light. You can even buy fine wool underwear. For trousers, make sure they unzip as shorts, are loose enough to fit long johns underneath and have loads of zip pockets. You will also need a fleece jacket, which you wear each day wrapped around your waist or tied to the side of your pack; make sure it is soft and has zip pockets.

Your Bed

Aahhh, sleep. When buying your sleeping bag you want to find the balance between warmth, size and weight – just don’t forget its primary purpose is to keep you warm and snug. Your pyjamas will be a pair of long johns and a light merino wool top – both of which double as extra warmth under your clothes on cold days. Your jacket – remember it is soft fleece – doubles as your pillow. Your wallet and passport will be zipped inside its zip pockets.

First Aid and Personal Hygiene

Let’s keep this brief, because there is no point arguing beauty ‘necessities’: comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, small soap. Betadine, band-aids, Compeed (last I noticed can only be bought in Europe – is the Rolls Royce of blister protection). Travel towel, small and light.

Gadgets & Misc

You will need: peak cap with adjustable velcro strap (strap to the outside of your pack), pocket knife, rain poncho (to cover you and your pack), rain jacket/pants (bundle up small and light). Phone/charger – which will double as a camera (alternatively, leave the phone at home and take your camera). Water bottle (strapped to outside of pack).

Primary Pilgrimage Packing Principle

If it doesn’t fit in your small pack or in your pockets – it’s not coming with you!










 December 3, 2013  Tagged with: , , , , ,  Comments Off on LESSONS OF THE ROAD: El Camino tips
Sep 292012

What is tourism but a gathering of selves from the dust of time?

The pyramids. Uluru. Machu Picchu. Stonehenge.

Places of attraction on Planet Earth that draw thousands daily and millions annually . . . for what, if not to awaken memories cast in stone, tune into vibrations of times past, steady modern lives with the ballast of richer lives (more meaningful, though probably more violent; the price of engagement).

For me, tonight, it is the Alhambra, the ancient Arabian palace high on the hill in the centre of the Spanish city of Granada.

The moment I heard the word, Alhambra, the blood pulsed a little more ferociously through my veins, my senses tuned to new sensations, my heart fluttered, eyes brightened, smile widened.


I am of the view this is the point of all journeys, certainly my own, and judging by the sheer numbers of human beings on pilgrimage to the past, I’d say it’s not just me; we are a nation of visitors to iconic sites, peering through time, paying our respects to what has been; gathering selves in order to make sense of current time and place.

In Istanbul five years ago I felt as if I was standing at the crossroads of all time:

I am queen and slave,

conqueror and king;

I am the great stone pillars connecting earth and sky,

I am the wind and the sea and the wide flat plain.

(from My Pilgrim’s Heart)

Tonight, the near-full moon for company, it is the Alhambra.

 September 29, 2012  Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Aug 162012

I am in the altered state of the pilgrim – it’s called Delusional.

In 2007, Australian author & journalist Stephanie Dale joined her son Ben for the middle leg of his pilgrimage from Canterbury, in England, to Jerusalem. Her newly released travel memoir, My Pilgrim’s Heart, is the story of their adventures.

EXCERPT: CROATIA: Why am I doing this again?

We wake in the dawn light to the excitement of being back on the road. It takes us a good half-day’s slog to clear Zadar’s industrial corridor and then clod our way through the riot of new cement works on the edge of the city; new freeway, new footpaths, new blisters.

Now why am I doing this again?

After a week of hotels and trains and ferries my biorhythms are not co-operating. My shoulders scream as the extra weight of the computer pushes me beyond anything at all I consider acceptable, even though I’ve posted home everything superfluous, even face cream!

Right on the fringe of the habitation wasteland, we hear the most terrible meowing hastening from the weeds. My heart sinks, certain a cat is about to present itself with half its legs run over.

Rather, it is just an extremely hungry ginger kitten, starving as much for human company as it is for food. Ben opens a tin of tuna and offers it gently to a very grateful little puss.

Half an hour later we take our first rest beneath a small palm with the Adriatic Sea just metres away. I hobble over to the only sign of civilisation this side of the road, a concrete jetty, and there I lie flat on my back among the dry seagull poo.

I look vaguely at the sky and give my attention to the wind. It blows harder. I allow the news it brings of otherworlds to sink into my bones.

I shade my face with my fingers and through the gaps I watch the birds. I like to think they are swooping and soaring just for me.

I am in the altered state of the pilgrim: it’s called Delusional.

We press on. Today is agonising, of spirit as much as anything else. I feel as if I’m dragging a sack of bones along the bitumen and indeed I am – my own. It is the time of the dark moon. I should be in my hammock.

We walk in the noonday sun. It is too much so we stop awhile in the shade of a small tree near the water’s edge. Ben’s great. He is happy to rest when I need to. There by the shores of the Adriatic he gets internet! I harmonise effort and ease and sleep.

We walk on, the heat of the day gone now. There is a row of houses selling produce on the street. We buy tomatoes and a string of dried figs from an old bent woman dressed all in black. I leave Ben to finalise the transaction and walk on. He hollers for me to come back. He’s not paying thirty kuna for figs and two tomatoes, not when he’s just feasted on a massive plate of spaghetti bolognaise for the same price.

I want the figs. They might be so common I scrape them off my bootsoles, but figs is figs and figs is quality dried fruit and besides, I’m presuming she grew them herself – or at least scraped them off her own boot soles.

Civilisation gives way to a two lane road south, bound on both sides by low, dark green scrub. The romance of the Adriatic coastline buckles under the weight of the rubbish that keeps pace with us. I think seriously about buying a donkey.

Then wacko-the-diddleo! We make Sv Petar!

Out of the Adriatic blue, here we are. And there’s a camping ground to meet us. We pitch our tents in time to sit on the rock wall by the shore, dangling our legs over the water, watching the sun go down behind the islands on the western horizon.

Surprisingly, my feet have held up okay. Sure I have new blisters. But they are new blisters. The old ones have held steady and I can walk at sundown without feeling like my bones are poking through the skin of my feet.

This is what it’s for

It is a beautiful evening. A pilgrim’s evening. The sun glows yellow orange through grey clouds. There are only shadows and light around us, the jetty, the islands, the low slung sun. I listen to the water lapping at the rock wall and gaze into the soft lime green of the rocks beneath the shallow waters; my spirit walks the shining golden pathway on the water to the sun.

Ah yes, now I remember: this is why I’m doing this again.

Available from Amazon.com
“You won’t find Stephanie Dale in My Pilgrim’s Heart, you will find yourself.”
Leasher Robinson, Talk the Talk Ladies Book Club
 August 16, 2012  Tagged with: , ,  Comments Off on CROATIA: WHY AM I DOING THIS AGAIN?
Aug 162012

Our tents, pitched on the verandah of strangers

In 2007, Australian author & journalist Stephanie Dale joined her son Ben for the middle leg of his pilgrimage from Canterbury, in England, to Jerusalem. Her newly released travel memoir, My Pilgrim’s Heart, is the story of their adventures.

EXTRACT – ITALY: Bed is where you find it

We make it to San Cosimato and neither one of us is willing to scale the steep steps straight up the hill into the town proper to scout for bed and food.

We walk on.

We take a break for bread and cheese and chocolate among the shattered glass and graffitied walls of a roadside bus shelter.

Night is falling.

We walk on, winding around the narrow road overlooking a small river below.

We come to a rather closed looking restaurant. We ask for pasta and happily they feed us. We ask for a hotel. They shake their heads. We ask for a camping ground. They shrug. We ask for ‘tente’. More shrugs. Our fingers make the shapes of church steeples.

Tente,’ we say.

They shrug again.

Delirium takes a sharp, silent left hand turn. I don’t know what our faces look like but they’re enough for the owners to take pity on the pilgrims and offer us their verandah for the night, tiled and clean.

We pitch our tents in the dark beneath the full-bellied moon. Both of us have new tents. Neither of us has put them up before. We have no idea how they work and neither tent stands without ropes.

A half hour of madness ensues, until we each tie one end of our tent to the legs of a wrought iron table and on the other end I post my sentinels for the night, a pot of rosemary and a money plant, delighted with the symbolism of both.

My tent with its sentinels

We return to the restaurant, which is around the corner of the same verandah, and order wine. I write while Ben reads Don Bruno’s bible. We roll out the backgammon. Ben asks how I feel.

‘Very tired. Very sore. Better than yesterday,’ I say.

Pilgrim humour being what it is we roll around laughing.

‘That about sums up every day,’ says Ben.

The restaurant family who opened their lives to strangers

The family who owns the restaurant gathers for photographs with us. They are as delirious about our presence on their verandah as we are.

We film them.

Our common language is the language of joy. We laugh. I give the mother the only prize I have, a small handful of Baci chocolates. We hold hands as she receives them.

It’s not long before I leave Ben to his carafe of wine and the company of two young women who have rolled in with the night.

I lie down in my tent. The body remembers. I have walked the road to Santiago and there is nothing novel about this pilgrimage as it lives in my body.

Ben reading his bible

What is novel is a land of no hotels or rooms or camping grounds; just the earthen-tiled verandah of strangers kind enough to meet the needs of those they don’t understand, linguistically or otherwise.

I close my eyes.

Tired. Sore. Better than yesterday. 

Available from Amazon.com
“You won’t find Stephanie Dale in My Pilgrim’s Heart, you will find yourself.”
Leasher Robinson, Talk the Talk Ladies Book Club
 August 16, 2012  Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »