Eucalyptus on the Camino and Two Australians add to my Alice in Wonderland moment. The Australians are my own vintage give or take a year or two and I ask where they are from – and refrain from rolling my eyes heavenward at Australia. I think to myself well naturally you’re from Australia, your accent is a geographical chant, and ask civilly – but where in Australia? Americans always do likewise, as if we, the rest of the English speaking world didn’t know! When I’m asked I always reply Glastonbury – and to a good ear the next question arises: but you have a slight, er, um, as they hesitate – ah yes, I say, you are right, a slight Australian twang about my vowels... Cutting to the chase is my modus operandi, I want to get to the main point with as little flimflam as possible. It's one of my many irritating traits, I know!
Their answer floors me: Townsville. I drop my momentary prickles, Townsville! Floods of memories rise up. I lived there for years, went back last August to stay with the dearest of friends, ached leaving it again.
Townsville, where I lived as a child and rescued Blueboots the legendary Strand lifer whose not too kind owner walked him up and down the old Strand for years, giving children pony rides on a back scarred and raw with sores from a badly fitting saddle. I saved and begged and scrounged and rescued the twenty-two year old Blueboots for a tenner. Loved him passionately, dreamed, hopelessly, the poor tired creature into my Prince Hal – Pat Smythe was every horsey girls heroine at the time. When we moved south my mother refused to let me bring Blueboots, sold him back to his abuser on my last day away at school. I never forgave her for betraying the poor soul. Thirty-five years later the Fates brought me back to Townsville to James Cook University to write my thesis, and I fell in love with the Tropics all over again. I loved the clouds! Full of dark promise, heavy, and rich; dark promise like the dark mystery of my subject. The name Townsville brings to my mind’s eye a circular memory, a sense of completion, an etheric Camino pathway as it were, right here in a eucalyptus forest.
Oh, I say in surprise and delight, it’s my most favourite city; I lived in Mundingburra! Their response stops me right there in the eucalyptus forest, we used to live in Mundingburra too.
We exchange names and I, who am thrilled at the coincidence, tell Sue I lived in O’Reilly Street and she responds with we lived in O’Reilly Street too; my Alice in Wonderland Moment takes on the Cheshire Cat’s Grin.
They lived at number 26, I lived at 33 on the opposite side of the road. When? we ask simultaneously, and discover we lived in O’Reilly Street Mundingburra during the same years, and through the horror of the 1998 cyclone. Their side of the street suffered terribly, the park behind them flooded and all the even numbers of all the houses went under water. 33 O’Reilly was high set, and the street on the odd-numbered side was higher too, the flood waters only reached my carport, came up to my waist. The cyclone coincided with a King Tide, Townsville was cut off, declared a National Disaster Zone, cars were washed away, people drowned, outside communication was severed, residents were told to remain indoors for days – though on the fourth day a friend and I managed to get to the Strand to leave food for the stray cats. The old Strand itself was destroyed. Driving through the streets then was like driving through a war zone. The weir at the end of O’Reilly Street was flooded, the swollen Ross River a constant, terrifying, booming roar I could hear from my bedroom for weeks as it thundered over the weir.
Townsville population runs around 170,000 over forty odd suburbs. I lived in one of those suburbs and count close friends on less than the fingers of one hand. The odds are low, but do Sue and Tony happen to know them? They certainly do, attended the funeral of a mutual friend only weeks before, now live in a marvellous skyline apartment complex and neighbour to another mutual friend, have links with the House of Prayer, the best little sanctuary in Oz and the affinities, for me, simply grow curiouser and curiouser. But couples are couples, and my excitement is singular and solely significant to me. As aware as I am of this I still allow my affection for that past time and loved place to interrupt their walk.
We reach O Pedrouzo and the yellow arrow, rather shabbily painted, points right to a bar and to the continuation of the path through the forest. The next milestones show a kilometre marking that doesn’t accord with my reckoning of the distance to O Pedrouzo. Tony looks at his map, O Pedrouzo is back there. They are headed for Amenal where they have pre-booked a hotel; about now we are standing in the forest at San Antón. Oh.
A Korean girl walks briskly towards us, she overshot O Pedrouzo too, misled by the false yellow arrow. She and I trudge back together, the yellow arrow was painted by the barman, leading us to the last bar in town, his. The town itself is left, and left by a long chalk and a long walk. She is kind, the young Korean girl, concerned that my venerable self will find the municipal albergue, walks with me through the town to where I sent my mochila and, buen Camino, we wish each other as she leaves me to find her own privately run albergue.
To my dismay my mochila is not here. The brusque hospitalera tells me they refuse to receive mochilas, their reason is lost on me and I begin to fret. I am told to go back to a café where my mochila might have been dropped off. It wasn’t. I sit down, quite stunned. What on earth can I do? I feel like weeping and three kind Italian men make every fuss of me and phone everywhere and then walk with me to the private albergue of Porte de Santiago and voila! the kind hospitalero there had accepted my errant mochila. The men chuckle when they see my red and white polka dot ribbons, and more, that my mochila is a Ferrino. One of them has a Ferrino, the best, he smiles.
The hospitalero asks if I am staying, and out of my mouth pops, thank you so much for all your help, but no, I think I want to go on to Amenal, and I think I’d like a taxi.
I stand at a loss as I say this, why not rest here? As the words form and fall into being the snorer who only snores a leetle is signing in with her daughter. I suspect my answer is a response from somewhere very deep inside me, from a place of body wisdom that knows more than I do how exhausted I am after thirty-nine days on the road. The thought of a hotel in Amenal, where Sue and Tony have pre-booked, beckons. A real night’s sleep ...
I only have tomorrow to walk – into Santiago. The hospitalero runs to the street to call me a taxi, I reach over the desk to stamp his official sello in my credencial, I want to remember this place, his kindness; the Italians are sitting in the lounge, surprised I am leaving. The taxi driver is young-ish (anyone round here is young compared to me) and speaks enough English. We reach Amenal, it’s only 2 kms along the road, but there are no rooms. I dread going back to the albergue and a dorm for my final night on the Camino. My taxi gallant takes my life in his hands – I make phone call for you he says and I don’t care where it is he is offering to drive me, it will be perfect.
And so I come to Lavacolla. Once upon a time there was a pool here at Lavacolla where all pilgrims ritually washed the dust off their heels as well as their clothes, and symbolically their soul, to prepare for the great walk tomorrow. I pause, amazed at how appropriate, how symbolic a place, I have been brought to for my own last night. My taxi driver has a hint of the angel about him, this is his choice for me, an hotel close to the airport and opposite the small lane way that will lead me on to the Camino tomorrow. I am offered a perfect room, at peregrina precios, and find my window faces that very laneway. I tip my taxi driver and thank him just as the storm of all storms bursts overhead. The whole of Nature is washing me in preparation! Waving goodbye I race back inside, shower and make myself ready to go down to eat what will be the best meal I‘ve had in Galicia: organic cidre, langoustines, filet mignon, steamed vegetables, homemade crème caramel and a bottle of local mineral water, all for €15, a real extravagance.
The torrential rain over Lavacolla, the washing place, is a fitting baptism for my walk into Santiago tomorrow. I wash the ribbons on my boots, on my backpack, on my walking stick and on my hat in preparation. After walking 700 kilometres my dear uncomplaining feet have a little moan on each little toe. Fleece for them tomorrow. Tomorrow, too, I can crack open my tiny phial of hairspray, my lippy, the red and white polka dot Alice band bought in Burgos. I spend a couple of hours writing up my journal; so many complexities woven into a day. I note down that passing through St Eulalia a sung “welcome” greets me, an old pilgrim song, as I walked past a box with a speaker wired up on a fence; I’d stood in front of the contraption and burst out laughing at its ingenuity.
Tonight I feel my epic pilgrimage has expiated every sin possible to commit in one lifetime and, having resisted the desire to murder a snorer or six, am glowingly confident I will have earned my right to wear a scallop shell in whatever form of jewellery I find when I reach Santiago! The storm has blown past, the sunset, as I look from my window, glows over Santiago, is a glory. I am blessed, cosy, safe and dry and I settle down to sleep the sleep of the just.To be continued – but it isn’t The End!