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 »
Aug 162012

The spotted hills of Croatia

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:  Life, the colour of roses

We load up and hit the road, hoofing out of Sibenik up a brief and very steep incline on the edge of town.

I am walking hunched over, face to the bitumen, one foot in front of the other in the afternoon sun, feeling like an Egyptian slave hauling blocks for a pyramid.

Three heartbeats later I’m flat on my back on the footpath laughing so hard I swear I nearly burst an appendix. And not because of the slave humour.

Ben had put his arm out to stop me walking into a post just as I spied it myself. What I didn’t see was the sign attached to it. Thanks to Ben I didn’t hit it as hard as I might have, but it still knocked me sideways.

Farewell Sibinek!

I grab the pole and thus prevent myself from being a total write-off, but the laughter sets in and my legs no longer hold me up and here we are, two hysterical pilgrims weeping with laughter as we roll around the footpath on the edge of Sibenik.

The thing is, people do not get us.

They Do Not Get Us.

No matter how clean and tidy and pleasant and polite we are, we are incongruent with everything that exists in this world.


So we are already ridiculous.

And something like this happens, me rolling around on my turtleshell back, Ben in tears trying to give me a helping hand, laughing our guts out in the middle of the day on the edge of a town where stony faced is the generally accepted term of engagement.

Once we have me back on my feet, heading for the spotted hills of Croatia, the pack is a whole lot lighter and my spirit a whole lot freer for the laughter.

We walk along the roadside, keeping pace with a concrete irrigation channel funneling water to the vineyards on both sides of the road.

We are in the country; we are off the tourist trail. The road is flat and not busy.

We pass through small villages whose scant inhabitants offer only cool detachment. The strange spotted hills roll along with us, as if the same hill is racing ahead to get there before us.

As the sky lights yellow and the sun dips low, we sit on the steps of a little chapel all by itself on the roadside for a feast of bread and cheese and chocolate and mandarins, watching as the sun concedes the day.

It is a glorious evening, still and bright; the white walls of the chapel are lit crimson-gold by the setting sun, the colours of roses.

Hills ablaze in the dying light

The little church at sunset, the colour of roses


Resting in the afternoon light

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: LIFE, THE COLOUR OF ROSES
Aug 142012

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 – ROME: let the journey begin!

It is past midnight by the time we get home. We’ve been out doing what the Romans do best at such hours – drinking wine and eating pizza. And now we prepare to walk into the dawn for the next one hundred days. I am being poetic. We have no idea how long the walk to Istanbul will take.

I would like to sleep but I am wide-eyed and keen with the morning’s coffee. Ben dives into his sleeping bag. I swear my son can sleep anywhere, anytime. It’s been that way since was a child. In his teens, his sleeping bag tendered the kind of companionship others might expect from a faithful dog. He took it everywhere.

We act normal, as if tomorrow will be like any other day, wide open grins and bursts of uproarious laughter giving the game away. September 22. Vernal equinox. A Saturday unlike any other. I bed down and do my best to settle. I think of the Vatican, just down the road, imposing and cold by day, a stunningly majestic apparition bobbing about in the sky by night.

This particular night it is backlit by the silver-gold half moon. If you’re going to proclaim yourself God’s spokesman for all time, then by night it’s a hard act to follow. I can only imagine what the medieval ones might have given for that lighting. I edge into restless sleep to the tune of a t-shirt I saw this afternoon outside the Sistine Chapel. It is the perfect pilgrim shirt. In three words it sums up the road ahead:

Free and Dirty.


I stretch into the morning, feeling into my body. Mind and belly a little woozy from the wine we drank at midnight. I do a body roll-call. Feet sweet. Shoulders relaxed. Heart raring to go!

I make ready to walk into a hundred sunrises. We haven’t been able to find a map to the scale we need, but we know we’re heading to Pescara, due east on Italy’s Adriatic seaboard, and from there we will catch a ferry to Split, on Croatia’s central coast. East to Pescara. East to Istanbul! East to the East. East to Byzantium. Besides, we looked it up online and have a vague idea of how to get out of Rome.

I holler into the morning: ‘Yeeeeeeehaaaaaaa!’

‘Hey Ben,’ I say, lest he missed the wake-up call. ‘Let’s go!’

We rise. We pack. We load up and we take a good long look at each other and smile. Let the journey begin, we seem to say. Let the journey begin.

We roll down the hill to God’s Castle where, still running high on yesterday’s brew, my biggest decision is whether or not to have another coffee. With a good two thousand kilometres to walk on four hours sleep, naturally I lean towards the affirmative. We buy cheese and salami rolls at the deli across the road and return to the Vatican concourse, propping ourselves up against a small fountain.

We sit on the cobblestones, unfurl the new backgammon board between us, and eat as we roll the dice for the inaugural backgammon challenge. We film ourselves against the backdrop of the papal palace, speaking our dream-prayers for the road to the camera.

For Ben, it is a journey continued, the minor matter of five thousand kilometres between him and Jerusalem.

For me, it is a new chapter in my life begun, the walk of a thousand incarnations, the minor matter of a showdown with myself that I hope will clear the path for the rest of my life.

Let the pilgrimage begin!

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 14, 2012  Tagged with: , ,  Comments Off on LET THE PILGRIMAGE BEGIN!
Jul 162012

It’s over.

I have two days left in the United States of America, three if you count the 12 hours I will spend in a train on Wednesday returning from San Francisco to LA, four if you count the day I spend in US air space getting from LA to JFK in NYC, airport to airport.

That leaves two precious days, one of which is already half gone; spent, like rare coin, in Starbucks.

I know, I can feel the collective shudder of the Australian nation: Starbucks?

I am tying up loose ends from the book tour: free to spend hours and hours accessing high speed free internet for the price of one drink; enjoying the company of strangers in an easy welcoming public place; now and then tuning into the always great sound track in the ceiling above me; sending thank you notes, three months’ worth; unscrambling writers’ notes scrawled on scraps of paper stuffed in my bag; making iPhone travel notes – details of hotel bookings, train schedules and, importantly, flight times.

I am, after all, leaving the US with exactly 65 minutes left on my visa; I need to get it right.

Sunday San Francisco Starbucks swirls around me. I love it here – see? I’m nostalgic already. Starbucks – as with so many American icons – make sense in the USA. It is when they colonise other cultures they are problematic; but in their own land, as an expression of their own culture, they make truly perfect sense.

Standing in the forever queue that spilled out the door, a sight that is replicated all over the country, I wondered why so many of us love Starbucks so much we are willing to wait this long for a coffee.

Or, in my case, a soy chai latte.

It’s partly the logo. She’s beautiful.

And it’s lotly the service.

My order goes like this:

Her:  Can I help you?

Me:  Soy chai latte thanks.

Her:  Name?

Me:  No water thanks.

Her:  Name?

Me:  With 3 pumps of chai.

Her:  Name?

Me:  And extra foam (that’s their word for froth. Finally I have learned to say it.)

Her:  Name?

Me:  Stephanie.

And that’s all there is to it. No attitude. Just my soy chai latte made exactly as I want it, every time, deliciously, richly, spicily, not too sweet with lashings of billowing creamy froth.

And here I sit, lamenting three months in a foreign country that feels so much like home it feels like going away, rather than moving on; as if I am leaving home, rather than traveling through; as if I belong here rather than have no right to return other than through the grace of strangers defending a border.

Oh dear, there are tears in my eyes.

I am a traveler. Moving on is my way. I have awherever I hang my hat’ kind of life. Yet I cannot wrap my bones around the notion I do not belong here. That a three month book tour is finished. Perhaps it’s the fact I signed that book deal a year ago – and spent an entire year working towards this, and three months devoted to doing whatever was asked from me: all in the name of My Pilgrim’s Heart.

Yes, that’s probably it. Not just leaving the USA, leaving an entire intense stage of a middle aged life.

Trading absolute focus for the wide open plains of a world beyond a land called Booktour.

I have my thoughts about what I will do . . . visit friends in London and soak up the Olympic city . . . watch my mother go for gold in the world tennis championships in Croatia . . . I may walk El Camino again . . . I may pay homage to the funniest year of my life and visit Hopeman, a small fishing village in the far north east of Scotland where four strong sun-tanned Australian teenagers landed overnight in 1975 . . . all the while with my eye on the true prize:  wintering at the North Pole.

In reality I have only one goal: to stay north of the Equator for a year.

Last night I celebrated lifting my hat from its US peg with a fine wine and a tiramisu; I was fresh from the final literary event of the tour – a big crowd and a panel of San Francisco writers; anticipating a TV interview and back to back radio interviews tomorrow.

Loose ends. Or, in my case, ever and always, the absence of.


Jul 142012

Meet Claire.

Claire and I met in Flagstaff, a town in the Arizona desert which is noteworthy for several reasons:

* it’s a gateway to Grand Canyon

* it is higher than any mountain east of the Mississippi

* its cute, fabulously cheap hostel gave me bedbugs (upside: as well as my money back).

Claire rode the Greyhound bus to Vegas two days before I caught the train to San Francisco; journeys that put us in San Francisco pretty much at the same time.

Hence today’s adventure, two Aussies let loose in an iconic city on the last days of their coast to coast US tours.

You’ll note the Golden Gate bridge behind Claire in the photo above. That was an accident, of sorts.

Claire and I set out for Haight Ashbury, the only iconic thing I could remember about San Francisco. And even though I knew it was iconic for its Bohemian heritage, the bohemians themselves being the generation before me, thanks to Wikipedia we set out knowing the following:

* Hunter S Thomson called it Hashbury

* Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead all lived in the district

* it was the birthplace of the so-called Summer of Love.

What I didn’t know in all this time, and only discovered when we finally made it there – seven hours later after a small detour to the Golden Gate bridge – is that it’s a bloody intersection! That’s all. That’s right. Haight Ashbury is where two streets meet. Haight Street. Ashbury Street. Haight Ashbury.

Here’s Claire at Haight Ashbury.

If you look really closely you can see the signpost behind her. Haight Street. Ashbury Street.

As I said, it took us seven hours to get there. This was because, along the way, we crossed a street called Golden Gate . . . but before that I remembered San Francisco’s famous crooked street.

How did we travel before Google?

Lombard Street.

I asked Claire if she was happy to go to Haight Ashbury via Lombard Street.

‘Sure,’ she said. And so we set off, miles and miles out of our way on a bitterly cold sumer’s day, San Francisco fog rolling in over the city from the bay and Claire in shorts – because it’s summer, her only concession to the grey and windy day a thin cardigan.

We strolled along dirty early morning streets sharing Grand Canyon stories, walking walking walking into the wind until we hit Lombard Street.

I realised all the photos I have seen of the famous crooked street must have been aerial. You can’t see its crookedness for the gardens. I wanted to walk the zig zag but the cars of the tourists dominated the narrow brick roadway; the footpath was just a footpath on a hill, also filled with tourists. And so we walked down. Then up. Just in time to see a strong woman pushing a wheelchair practically running down the hill, her big, seriously adult daughter leaning back in the chair saying very clearly ‘Mom, I do not feel safe.’

Mom, with the wind in her hair, biceps keeping the chair under control, had no intention of stopping for a freaked out daughter. I might have felt sorry for the powerless daughter, but mostly I admired Mom’s spirit.

Here’s Claire at Lombard Street.

And so from Lombard Street we set out for Haight Ashbury . . . until we crossed a street called Golden Gate.

Of course! How could we leave San Francisco without seeing the Golden Gate bridge.

‘Do you mind if we go via the Golden Gate?’ I asked Claire.

‘Sure,’ she said.

And so we looked at her toy map. It was kinda backwards, but that was okay. And then and so the real adventure began. The one that put us five hours out of our way. The one that took us past the university, down a long long long street that ought to have landed us in a beautiful, landscaped park.

We hit the landscape bit: sculptured firs, massive pines. And, three steps into it, a wall. We dropped over. Onto a road. Across the road. Into the ‘park’. Which was really a woods. But in reality was a weird gumtree forest with a deep sandy track, like a river bed that hadn’t seen rain for a decade.

We giggled.

We giggled a lot. It was bizarre. Sudden. We asked a man with seven dogs where the Golden Gate bridge might be. While Argie, big and black, barked in our faces the man pointed down the sandy track, his directions vague and ending with something a lot like ‘actually, I don’t know’.

And so we walked along the sandy track. Until we met a woman trailed by seven children on seven bicycles (it was that kind of day). We asked her if she knew where the Golden Gate bridge might be.

‘Stopping,’ she called out to the children. I hadn’t realised till that moment we’d asked while she was riding.

This is the point where, when I was walking with my son Ben across Italy and through the Balkans, that he never, ever asked directions no matter how much I wanted him to. I didn’t remember this until Claire and I had followed her clear, precise directive: ‘follow this path until you come across a sculpture; if you can’t see the Golden Gate from there, walk about half a mile on and you’ll see it.’


Off we went into the woods. We met a golf course. We walked on. Through the woods. Which was really a gumtree forest. Along a track. Which ought to have been a sandy river bed. Past a wire fenced military base. Which might have been a water supply. Or a sewerage works. High atop a hill. On into the woods. Into what might have been project housing but was probably – being premier real estate overlooking a foggy bay – military housing.

I tell Claire why Ben never, ever asks directions. ‘This is why,’ was my simple explanation.

We spy a pair of moms in a park. No sculpture. We ask where the Golden Gate bridge might be, by this time prepared for it to be anywhere at all! See? still asking directions. Round the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Round the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Round the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Both of us sniffing all the way.

Sniff. Sniff. Sniff.

Until. Miracles. There it was.

It was too cold to stop. We took the photos, me still surprised to find that, even though I know it’s red – that the Golden Gate bridge is red.

Rather than return the way we came, because the way there is never the way home (ooooo, a quote from my novel, Hymn for the Wounded Man), we walked around the peninsula. Into the icy wind. Sniff. Along the road. Sniff. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Along the road. Down the road. Into the icy wind. Sniff.

Until, civilisation.

Civilisation at last.

We orientate ourselves with the map.

We walk and we walk and we walk through San Francisco’s unfurling neighbourhoods.

We chat, as we have chatted all the way. We sniff. We chat. We sniff. We laugh and compare America notes. We sniff. It’s an icy wind thing.

We stop for ginger chai. We check our map for Haight Ashbury. We walk. We walk over a very high hill with a cathedral on the top. We walk inside, curious about beauty and tired of the cold wind. We walk on. And on. And on. And on.

Haight Street. Ashbury Street. An iconic intersection.

Here’s Claire again, this time with the intersection.

We walk along Haight Street one way, a parade of tired tourist shops selling the trinkets of bohemia past:  rainbow clothes, gothic clothes and bongs. And we walk back the other way. A young man on a street corner waylays us to sell us a Greenpeace subscription.

‘Interested in the environment, love?’ he says as we pass.

I stare. He has a sweet face. An intelligent face. He’s pleased I stop.

‘Love?’ I say.

He stares at me vaguely.


He can feel something coming. He attempts a diversion.

‘Where are you from?’

I ignore this. Something about him draws me to stand right in his face. Maybe it’s his beauty. Maybe it’s his intelligence. Maybe it’s just that I’m fed up with watching the gains women in the West have made slip backwards and I’m fed up with men in the environmental movement utterly failing to recognise that the issues are one and the same.

‘Love.’ I say. ‘Look where you’re standing. Fifty years ago this place ignited a revolution that challenged the language of patriarchy and you men in the environmental movement do not even want to understand that the issues underpinning the Earth you wanna save are the very same as treatment of women globally.’

‘Right on sister,’ he says, an attempt at humour, a face save, to me a face plant.

We – Claire and I – need food. We stop at a Victorian Punch House, an establishment specialising in rum, and order snacks and a glass each of the house punch.

Here’s Claire with our punch.

By this time we had walked seven hours. Me with my computer over my shoulder because the locker in my hostel room doesn’t work, the door to the room doesn’t close properly and the hostel doesn’t have a safe. Claire in her summer clothes on a wintry summer day.

We toast the walk. Our pilgrimage to San Francisco.

There are few people I know who would have met today’s adventure with as much grace as Claire . . . really, anyone else would have murdered us by now. At the very least abandoned us. With or without flowers in our hair.

Cheers Claire!



 July 14, 2012  Tagged with: ,  2 Responses »