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Close to the marrow: walking on despite fear and falling in love with the Bibbulmun

Lucy Ridsdale (aka Wildgoose), Perth, WA

13 December 2016

My love of walking, and by walking I mean adventurous journeying on foot, started in 2001. I was living in France and heard an interview on the radio with a man who had just walked the Camino de Santiago. A strange knowing arose in me. I am a pilgrim, I said to myself. Immediately afterwards, my thoughts caught up: if you’re a pilgrim, you need to walk a pilgrimage. You’d better do that one in Spain! So it was that a couple months later I found myself facing the Pyrenees with a 10 franc canvas rucksack, a woollen poncho against the weather, and work boots to walk in. I knew nothing about the Camino and didn’t even have a map, the only guiding notion being that if I followed the yellow arrows I would eventually arrive in Santiago, some 800 kilometres to the west. I was twenty-two.

The journey changed my life, or maybe better said, the journey gave me the beginnings of my adulthood. About a week in I came across a Spanish saying in one of the hostel books: el túrista exige, el peregrino agradece – the tourist demands, the pilgrim appreciates. The words struck me and gave a flavour to that first long, profoundly joyful, mythic, wonder-filled journey I made on foot. For fifteen years these words have ploughed my soil, breaking up hard-baked certainties and turning the sod of a cultural legacy of entitlement. Seeking to shift my own inner pivot from entitlement to appreciation has been an undercurrent for all that time and is part of the responsibility I feel as a citizen of these times.

Not long after I moved to Western Australia in 2005 I heard about a friend of a friend walking the Bibbulmun Track and again something inside me said quietly and simply: I will walk that track. I felt like a foreigner to the sandy coastal plain on the other side of Australia from where I’d grown up, that I was a guest here, though perhaps a guest who wanted to stay. Knowing on an intellectual level that I was on Nyungar country, it felt right to ask permission of country, somehow, if I wished to make my home here. I hadn’t visited the south-west at all and it felt exciting, other-worldly, and deeply good to set out to get to know it on foot.

Again (you might be sensing a pattern here) I did a bare minimum of research and though I did carry maps this time and sent food parcels ahead, when I stepped onto the Track in Kalamunda in the late spring of 2006 I truly had no idea what I was in for. Like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, I began with a reasonably uncurated and cumbersome amount of gear that I had only stuffed in my backpack for the first time that morning. The longest back country hike I’d done to that point was an overnighter in year nine and as I clambered down the granite edge of the Darling Scarp – the first real sniff of the wild country of the Track – it dawned on me that any time I took a step without looking could be the time I step on a snake. It was a harrowing first day in which I got lost following – in my defence – Waugal-like markers into an ornamental garden near Mundaring Weir, and then panicked, started hurrying and was brought down by heat stroke. I was frightened, and fear was a companion for most of my solo walk. By the end of the first week I had a nightly routine of psychological preparations against the army of fears that marched into my imagination as the daylight disappeared. A walker I met on this stretch told me a long time after that she’d secretly believed I wouldn’t make it.

But make it I did! The deceptively simple yet powerful magic of walking is that by continuing to put one foot in front of the other you will arrive. And as the minutes and hours and days passed under my boots I began to realise the truth of that, and with it came a feeling of strength, joy and a fierce determination to keep going. What a wonder it is to walk through new landscapes, to wake up and not know who and what you will meet that day. My heart fell in love with the Jarrah woodland, Karri forests, the magnificent coastal paths by the Southern Ocean and I felt porous to country, seen in my seeing. A shy intimacy began to grow that was a fruit the very vulnerability that almost stopped me.

Nearly ten years later, some memories of that journey are hazy – half-hidden by and sometimes indistinguishable from those of a second end-to-end that I walked in 2010. In every respect my second walk was easier – it even felt like a kind of homecoming, as the landscapes were familiar to my eyes, my feet and my heart. This second journey had a very different flavour as I was undertaking it as part of my Honours research in sustainable development. Picking up the thread of my first Camino in Spain, I was exploring whether walking itself could facilitate a shift from entitlement to gratitude and I was reading and thinking specifically about this as I was passing through the glorious country of the southwest. It was another stunning and wonderful journey, but while my first Bibbulmun walk is less present as tangible memories and clear images, I know that it sits closer to my marrow. Like falling in love for the first time, it never leaves you.

If anyone reading this desires to undertake a solo end-to-end and feels that fear is an obstacle, I would say, oh go for it! Yes, it is a big thing to wrestle with: the walk in its own right and the fear that can accompany it. However the quiet inner strength and freedom that comes from doing so is a reward that remains and grows, and there is great support available from the folks at the Bibbulmun Track Foundation.  You can do it!

Interested readers can find Lucy’s Honours thesis “Pilgrimage and the Alchemy of Transformation – finding a way from entitlement to gratitude” at:  http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/5031/ and my 2015 presentation for the WA Trails and Outdoors conference “The medicine of long-distance walking for the 21st century soul” at: https://wildgoosewalking.wordpress.com/.