the real Camino

Looking for something else completely, a tiny red notebook fell out of a pile of papers. I opened it and discovered my Camino journal, from July 2012. It was only a few pages long — but I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading it. So I decided to “re-blog” it here, with a typed out, deciphered edition.

Monday 16 July —> Really First Day.

The night in Pamp(lona) was awful, 7-yr-old epileptic above me kept me awake till I moved to bench at 4am. Then got up at 7:20 (a grand ~2 hours of sleep) and walked 5km to the supermarket & back. Bus uneventful. Arrive RV (Roncesvalles) & decided to jump straight into walking as it was already 11am – 7.5h of walking to get to SJPP (St Jean Pied-de-Port). But got lost following an unmarked trail… +3km. Then decided to go back, get my sellio (stamp) at RV, try again. 2 more false starts (+1km!) then finally on my way. I had no idea how hideously steep the RV-Lepoeder section was – over 500m from 950m to 1450m, then back down to 850m at Orisson refuge where I am now – today’s kms:

5km + 7.75 + 8.09 + 4.87 + 1.09 = 26km

1:30 + 2:05 + 1:52 + 1:06 + 15min = 6:45h

I was so upset at the beginning about getting lost & adding an hour &4km to my already “tight” schedule. There may have been a couple of tears shed. But then I got my groove on and powered up that BITCH of a hill, as Camino’s slipped and slid down past me. one guy even called out “Bon Courage! C’est haut!” but fortunately I didn’t know just how high and steep it would be… Then once at the top, it was easy, had a light lunch (totes worth the 5km walk this AM, right?) and kept walking and walking… then just as the pain was getting too much to bear, around 25km, I found this refuge. No reservations no problem. So far only other people are 2 koreans, a lovely girl who has been so nice to talk to despite my predicition that I would speak to no-one. And 3 stamps today!

Tuesday 17 July

I slept a blissful 10+ hours — 9pm, out like a happy light. Must have been lots of people around but I snoozed blissfully. Woke up at 8 and didn’t start till 9am. Joyful happy jaunt to SJPP, paused for Orange/Carrefour/Sportshop/food then off again. Best feelings of being in countryside in July! Just like the Creuse when I was a kid on summer holidays. Wicked sunburn despite sunscreen and “tent” – love my Oxfam super-scarf so much! Need to apply screen every hour at least, twice in a 6-hour midday walk is pure stupidity really! Am in an “Expensive” 33 Euro hotel as no gîtes locally and my feet are very blistered. Everyone is nice. I’m so happy and tired and happy!

7.33 + 12.8 + 6.8 = 26.9km

01:45 + 2:46 + 1:38 = 6.09 h

It’s taken hours to work out the next two days of travel due to 2 different variations (4 possible routes). But I have decided to stick to my pace of 26km/day, if my legs hold out. Eating “Type A” has been ok (and economical too, helping me avoid temptation!) thus far. Supermarkets provide my staples: apples, carrots, babybel, crisps, “salades” (carrottes rapees, nicoise…), cereal bars, and a big tube of mayonnaise + any lingering veg/fruit I can find. Not sure how I am managing goodwise really, as 6h walk burns 1300 kcal (my normal daily intake!) and I’m not eating much more. Oh yes! Nuts and raisins help. Must get more tomorrow! Blister status: 1 on each little toe and 1 on the front sole of each foot. Yay. Also: Love my water bladder. I get my 2L/day easily. Thanks James.

view from my window = inspiration for his video game! [James used to play an iphone game where he would glide over rolling hills…]+ 3 stamps 🙂

Wed 18 July. The tough day…

Oh well it wasn’t ALL tough. But definitely the toughest. Started at 8:40, and had to stop a couple of times to deal with the blisters on my blisters, but covered 11km by 12pm (not great but not AWFUL). Then at Stele of Gibraltar met a lovely couple and ate lunch with them, felt really positive — I’d not taken the shortcut at Larribar and was rewarded by the view and their company. They told me to take the shortcut from Olaïby to Arone as the “LR” (long route) was wicked. Sadly I got lost due to lack of signage, and then ended up taking the long way. Tried to do a short cut, met scary dogs… no phone… had several crying huffy panicky moments – blisters were agony but had to pull my shit together and just fucking WALK. So I did for hours… got to the gîte just in time, last bed, and also cos I shamelessly hitch-hiked the last km, in time for food-shopping. Yay! The lady at the gîte was SO lovely and I gave her my Taiwanese coin, she seemed really pleased with it (best 1NT I ever spent!). Talked to some nice (if very french) people. Not sure how I want to play tomorrow, easy 20km to Navaneux or push 25km to Abbeye? I think Abbeye. Wanna push forward but also torn that am not “enjoying” where I am because of worrying where I should be… à suivre…

11.2km + 11km + 7? 8? = 29km

3:20 + 3:14 + 1:30 = 8h

Late night notes. When I was walking I thought of how this was like caring for a recalcitrant toddler — my mind is the adult and knows that this must be done, but then has to coax, push, ignore the complaints, the “but it hurts I’m tired NOOOOO” of my body. Taking care of blisters is like working with an animal — a stupid, wounded one at that. I’m TRYING to help! But the stupid things keep slipping and pinchng and biting and refusing to cooperate or even stay still. Gah. Blisters SUCK. I need a pharmacy. All of the above reminds me of the conversation we had re: Nalia [my friends’ infant daughter] crying in the car, with Juan. It’s against nature to do these things, at least my softy body thinks so, and I can’t talk to it to explain, so sadly it just has to suffer till it understands.

Thursday 18 July [actually 19] HURTY DAY

Today was easy walking but SO painful all pleasure was impossible. Just staring at the road and wincing as my feet popped and crackled. Like walking on 2 lumps of ice shitty nails. ANYWAY. Got to Nav. by 12:20 and went straight to bed, lovely 3h nap in comfy clean sheets and duvet. Showers were “rain” but I went to supermarket and cooked pasta + sauce with grilled courgette, hummous with carrots, tomatoes and a big mushroom. SO happy to have a nice big vegetarian meal with so many colours and textures! Sharing a room with a German-Kurdish dad and his sons, discovering I actually speak decent Deutsch still — I think being in Spain has unlocked my linguistic skills. 19.6km in 5h. Total so far: 101.5. Lost my Opinel [penknife], boo, so got a nice blue one to replace it. Yay!

Friday 19 July [20th July actually… I love how it doesn’t even matter] Redemption?

So today was hard work. The pain has moved from my blisters (soles are ok but toes still fucking burn) to my heel, ankle, and long-time trouble-maker, my right knee + tibia. Shin splints? So yes, the 15km from Navaneux to Sauvelade were limping, miserable hours. It rained a little, just enough to justify the dreaded poncho, for the first hour. Then I called mama and felt a bit better, but also even more stressed as I’m basically falling apart physically and she is (unintentionally) putting a lot of pressure on me. Then I called Madaca to discover there were no beds available – hence my current location in Sauvelade. It turned out to be a blessing of course, as all unexpected decisions along the Way. Firstly, I more than needed to STOP WALKING. Second, it’s peaceful and fairly comfy. Third, the people (oh so very clicheed, but the support people provide along the Way is truly touching), the people I met and spoke with gently encouraged me (by the rigourous french standards) to do as the couple a few nights ago suggested and skip the next couple of etapes. In fact, to leave with the bag carriers and go straight up to Nagaro. A few calls later and I was set up with a ride tomorrow morning, and a bed in Nagaro tomorrow night. I will rest up, then walk two short etapes on Sunday and Monday, then meet Mummy and do Montreal and Condom with her – either 15km a day, or more if we feel like it! Perfect. I only wish I could call her to tell her the news. Today I listened to my ipod for the first time, and “Just a Ride” came on and of course made me cry but also reminded me of my own fundamental beliefs. I am not a catholic pilgrim but I am having my own “Way”,

you can’t help it, so many hours of daily introspection, it’s almost like a retreat, I guess that’s the point after all… I also have had to tell my story so many times, it forces me to generalise, simplify, find a truth that can be summed up in a few lines. Something I usually hate doing but that does need to be done, at the end of the day. So I’m learning myself that I do this kind of work, live that kind of life, have these kind of hopes, dreams, plans and beliefs. That James and I are together and apart. That I am a drifter. Continental drifter…

Today’s walk…

15.04km in 3:30 hours. Total 116.5km.

Reading Dickens’ biography… la vie est belle, finalement.

Sunday 21… yes there’s a day missing…

Yesterday I went up to Aire sur l’Adour (now it’s too late you finally learn how to say it) by taxi with 2 Belgians who then gave me a lift to Nagaro. Michel and Raymond were older guys, who had been walking for a week. I had a nice convo with Michel in the taxi, but it was a 20-30min conversation with Raymond which I found really compelling and moving. He told me to be proud of being “selfish” because “Il est plus facile de se sacrifier que de se realiser” and with the added reminder that “certains se realisent dans le sacrifice”. We hugged and swapped email addresses, I really felt a strong connection with him. It’s funny how the people I meet can all bring encouragement, love and support to each other… well not all of them, but I feel like when humans are left to themselves in safe, mutually respectful space, they do genuinely care and help each other…

Anyway, after a night in Nagarro (well first an afternoon, heavy with the mistake of eating a HUGE plate of steak and fries and apple pie and ice cream and coke (WTF) that left me heavy and sleepy) where I shared a room with Martine (who talked wisely about trust and long distance relationships)… I walked 6km to Haget. It’s a bit dull, and the weather is so perfect, but I need my feet to heal so I can enjoy walking with Mummy. The people here are less mindful but nobody can be everything to everyone.

Today: 7.45km, not sure of the time, maybe 2:20? good speed thanks to my healing blisters.

Mon 23 July – total 138km,

GPS refused to start today, but it took me 3h to walk from le Haget to Eauze, which is about 15km. I got to the gîte at 11am, showered, went shopping, ate lunch and napped, all perfect. Then visited the Eauze archaeological museum which has a fantastic treasure trove on display. At the gîte a woman expressed surprise (which I am used to for a variety of reasons) because… I was wearing a dress, and she assumed I wasn’t a walker. WTF? She is def one of the retarded type [ROSIE, NOT COOL!]. I bet she snorers. But otherwise the gite and Eauze are very nice… Sadly it’s Monday, so nearly everything is shut. Am debating another Monaco [beer and grenadine and lemonade] as it’s going to be at least 2 more hours till Mummy gets here and we get dinner. Just realised time was CRAZY good compared to yesterday. Twice the distance in only 40 min more!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After this my maman joined me on the walk so I didn’t have any introspective writing to re-discover.

Loved re-reading this. One day… I’ll be back.

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It’s not always easy to get myself to yoga. I didn’t want to go yesterday morning — it was 5:45am, James was in bed after waiting so many months to be together again, and I had slept really badly and did NOT want to get up. I also was grumpy because I knew I had to buy a 1-month pass even though I’d be banned from exercise for a week (more on this below) and then we’re going to Taiwan. But it’s so expensive to do Bikram it’s rarely not worth getting a pass.

Anyway, I went, precisely because it was my very last chance before my one-week ban commenced, and I felt meh-to-neutral all the way through. But on the last shavasana, I felt incredible. I think it’s a bit like a Rubik’s Cube or a videogame cheat code — you have to configure your body in 26 different postures, twice each, feeling crap, and then ta-dah! You feel good.

And if there was a fairly simple cheat code you could use whenever you want, to feel happy and well… you would be a fool not to use it at least a couple times a week!

Anyway — exercise ban. This morning I had an appointment to get my right knee’s common peroneal nerve injected with cortisone to try and improve my shin pain/nerve damage. It was pretty horrid, and then my leg went rather numb, but it’s wearing off now. I am reassured that my shin is aching which suggests they hit the right nerve. However despite me cajoling the specialist, the doctor and the nurse separately, they are adamant that I cannot exercise for a week and no, not even yoga.

My volunteer stint for Oxfam Trailwalker is in 10 days so I am trusting I’ll be ok to hike 11km by then. I certainly am cringing at the idea of not going to yoga for a week! But at least James and I can relax and enjoy a lazy Easter weekend.

On the 13th of March, my replacement at work will be starting! So I am very close to an end and there is bright light at the end of the tunnel. I’m a little nervous about how quickly work wants me to move on (my boss mentioned me potentially not bothering to come back from my holiday, but if he thinks I can do a complete handover in 8 business days he is quite deluded). But I’ll certainly be out of there by the end of May.

I have been debating blowing some of my savings to go back to Europe in June. I’d like to go visit my grandmother in the UK, and I would also like to walk a couple hundred more km on the Camino. It’s probably not a very wise idea but… it’s at the back of my mind. First and foremost I need to call Immigration and work out if it will affect my Australian citizenship eligibility though.

Preparing for a trek: Part 3 – What to bring

This is more of a list of the things that I find invaluable for hiking. Even though I don’t have many treks under my belt, I nearly always go on long hikes wherever I travel to, so I have a few tips and tricks. I haven’t covered off the backpack; to be honest I don’t feel I have enough experience to give advice on choosing a backpack and there are a lot of variables, but I’ll think about it and come back if I have any tips that spring to mind other than don’t get too big of a bag as you will be tempted to put more into it, and whilst 12kg seems acceptable on the first morning, even by the first night you’ll have thrown out anything you can because it will seem so ridiculously, unbearably heavy when you’re going up a mountain. Pack it, then unpack it, remove everything that you can survive 3 nights without, pack it again, wear it for a day-long hike, and then purge some more.

Clothes:

Merino everything.  No, seriously, just keep layering it until you’re warm. James taught me this and I was sceptical at first because I get rashes whenever I go near wool, but merino is different. It’s warm in cold weather, it’s breathable in hot weather, it doesn’t get stank, it washes (even in the machine) beautifully, it’s lightweight, it bundles down very small without crumpling, it’s soft, and it’s a beautiful natural fabric. I have so much Icebreaker in my wardrobe and I only wish I had more.  So ladies, find an Icebreaker outlet or shop around online, because even if you think it’s too expensive, in terms of cost per wear it is cheap (as you’ll be able to wear it daily, for years, even when you’re back home):

–       A merino travel dress: this may seem surprising as a “trekking” item, but actually it’s so wonderful to be able to crawl into it after a day of hiking, and it’s warm and soft and, dare-I-say-it, pretty, whilst generally being fairly modest when you are in more traditional parts of the world. You can also wear it to travel in as it doesn’t crumple, and you can wear it to go out of an evening without feeling frumpy, and you can sleep in it and hike in it and generally just never take it off. I have three. Expect pictures below, at a later date, of me frolicking in various environments in my Icebreaker dresses.

–       1 merino zipped hoodie

–       1 merino vest

–       1 merino long-sleeve t-shirt

–       1 wind-proof and water-proof hooded shell (I have a super lightweight one from Patagonia that zips down into its own pocket and I love it)

–       (if trekking in winter: 1 down jacket)

–       1 pair merino leggings

–       1 pair hiking trousers

–       1 pair shorts (some people go for the type of trousers that zip into shorts. I have never found a comfortable pair that looked decent but I’m sure they exist. My hiking trousers do have little snaps to turn them into capris though).

–       Underwear: unsurprisingly I have a merino sports bra that I love, which is simple and cheerful and doesn’t look sexy. It’s supportive yet comfortable enough to sleep in and it doesn’t get stinky… you’re unlikely to want to change bras much when you’re in a tent halfway up a mountain. I’m of the smaller-chested variety so I have no advice on bras for big boobs, sorry! But I’d imagine you also want something that is comfy and supportive but not crazily so – you’re not running, so you don’t need to strap them down too much. 2 bras is generally enough, one to wash and one to wear.

–       As for knickers – get something lightweight, that will breathe, won’t chafe (ohhhh the chafing… I’ll admit there have been hikes where I ditched underwear rather than chafe) and that will wash and dry quickly overnight. NO COTTON. Again, trust me.  2-3 pairs (and if camping, I don’t change them unless I need to, cos I’m gross/practical like that).

–       Socksalready covered in part one. To recap… merino! 2-3 pairs of hiking socks.

General:

–       A hat – preferably an actual hat and not a baseball cap, because the brim of the cap will not protect your ears or neck (or at least it can only protect one of these at a time, as I can testify).

–       A scarf – I am a redhead and I need a scarf no matter what time of year, but most of all in summer, to protect me from the sun. When it’s really hot, you can soak a scarf in cold water and wear it over your head and shoulders to keep cool. Other scarf functions: impromptu towel; tent for shade when you’re taking a break; extra sheet for bedding or rolled up as a pillow; folded into a handy carry bag; mask when walking through stinky, smoky or insect-infested areas; eyemask when napping; skirt or shawl when bare legs or shoulders are inappropriate; protection from burning hot pleather seats on a bus or tuk-tuk… and many more. Get a nice huge lightweight scarf and never let it go.

–       Sunglasses

–       Headband. This can be the type for warmth, or just to keep your hair out of your eyes/face/everything, especially if it’s windy and you don’t have the kind of hair that can just be tied back. Get one that’s adjustable (like this) so that it’s never too tight (headaches) or too loose (useless and easily lost).

–       Flip-flops – if you’ve ever travelled, you probably know this, but have a plastic pair of thongs stashed away. If you can bear it, Crocs are actually heaven after a day of trekking in boots. Full disclaimer: I cannot bear it, and have never fallen to the Crocs, but instead watched others enviously, and once borrowed my mother’s whilst on the Camino which is how I know just how amazing they feel.

Sleeping:

–       Silk sleeping bag liner. This is a MAJOR one. A MUST-HAVE. They are fairly inexpensive (I’ve seen them priced from 9 Euro to AUD $50 but I got mine for I think AUD $25) and they will revolutionise your experience. Their basic function is to make your sleeping bag up to 5º C warmer… which is nice… and they are much more easily washed than a sleeping-bag, so you can basically keep the sleeping bag cleaner and enjoy the “clean sheet” effect regularly. But I love them because:

  • They are soft and silky and nicer to lay in than most hostel or camping bedding
  • I find I get itchy skin from the detergent used on most sheets and the silk is a great (and hygienic!) barrier
  • When it’s hot, I can lay on the bed in just the silk liner rather than sheets (ideal when you don’t want to be naked cos of sharing a room with other people)
  • When it’s TROPICAL levels of hot I lay on top of it as it doesn’t hold sweat the way cotton does
  • I tend to get paranoid about mosquitos and bugs crawling on me (don’t judge! everyone’s been there at least once in their lives!) and I can relax when I know I’m safe in my silk bag
  • When there definitely are mosquitos around, I can hide inside my liner completely sealed off!
  • It also makes a great scarf (especially on sunburnt skin or when you’re drenched with rain) and you now know how much I love scarves
  • It can be wrapped around you under other layers for extra warmth, even when wet.

–       Earplugs. Never ever travel without earplugs. From bustling crazy cities, inconsiderate hostel room-mates, villages where the dogs bark.all.night.long, and even the startling silence of camping in complete isolation from the civilised world… you’ll never know when you’ll need them. I bulk buy them and then stash them in every pocket and bag for easy access in the middle of the night or on a long train-journey.

–       Eyemask if you’re a bit precious like me. I don’t always use it, but in my travels 80% of the places I have slept in, from tents in Bhutan to serviced apartments in Seoul, had nothing to shutter out the bright early morning light. This can be a good thing if you need to get up, but if you desperately need any sleep you can get, then I find eyemasks from Muji to be my favourite – reasonable price, soft to wear, don’t get sweaty, and block out the light quite effectively.

Toiletries:

–       Sunscreen – I love this affordable moisturiser from Nivea that’s SPF 30 and is instantly absorbed, soothing dry skin at the same time. Then bring any basic SPF 30 for arms, neck and legs, and a chapstick with SPF. If you’re in the mountains, you’ll get a lot of sun, and regardless, you’re outside all day long. This is obviously a guide for the ladies, so ladies – do it.

–       Bug spray – check online to see if strong insect repellent is available where you’re going (top tip: there’s none in Sri Lanka). Get something small and easy to apply; if it’s windy, spray into your hand and then smear it on.

–       Bite-eze or whatever it’s called – because despite everything you will get bitten by something. I have this Burt’s Bees one that I like; I think it’s mostly placebo with camphor and whatnot to distract from the bite, but it just makes such a difference when feeling assaulted by mozzies! And don’t scratch, but you knew that…

–       Body glide/ silicon anti-chafing gel. Great for ladies because bras, knickers, and thighs chafe very easily. As discussed in Part 1, also valuable for keeping your feet blister-free.

–       Wet wipes, and a ziplock baggie for disposing of them. Wet wipes are so useful but unlike toilet paper, not at all biodegradable, so make sure you have a dedicated “bin-bag” and don’t dump them in nature.

–       Travel size toothpaste and toothbrush. More ziplock bags. Lots of ziplock bags.

–       A small travel towel, mostly just as a gesture. Washing is unlikely to be a priority unless it’s really hot and you’re really sweaty and you have access to showers, and if it’s really hot you’ll dry off quickly anyway.

–       Haircare: Be prepared to have crazy hair. Maybe you’re luckier than me, but I have no idea how to avoid crazy hair when trekking. Sorry. However if you’re staying in hostels and have access to showers then it’s better to carry a little bottle of shampoo (in a ziplock, of course) and then use that to clean your underwear in the shower as well. Shampoo seems to be a superior surfactant, as it foams up quickly and rinses out easily without damaging your clothes.

Other stuff:

My friend asked me about travel guides, and whether to go for paper or ebooks. My advice is: download all the ebook guides you can find, but always travel with a paperback Lonely Planet. I find ebook guides can be frustrating and you can’t flip through them and randomly fall upon information the way you can with paper. I love ebooks but also sometimes you have no electricity and you need a book, either for guidance or for sheer sanity as something to read when you’re stranded at a remote train station for 7 hours; Lonely Planet guides are designed with this in mind and always have anecdotes, bits of history, and of course a phrasebook integrated.

If you are trekking with a smartphone (switched on sporadically, on airplane mode, so you can use it as a camera, ipod, map and perhaps even Runkeeper…) you will want to make sure you can top up the battery with a travel charger. I have an ANKER external battery, which can feed a power-hungry iPhone 5 multiple times over the course of a week.  I used my iPhone as a camera and took hundreds of photos daily during my trek in the Himalayas, as well as reading ebooks or listening to audiobooks during the long, cold, dark evenings, and even in the cold my ANKER was enough to last me for days. James used his iPhone and an ANKER and it was enough to track our trek through a GPS app.

Preparing for a trek: Part 2 – Training

As mentioned in my introduction, this is advice for people such as myself who are somewhat active but definitely don’t have the conditioning to walk 10-20km a day for several days and not suffer.

The podiatrist may have suggested this also, but it’s worth seeing a physio just to get a good understanding of any weaknesses you have. In my particular case, my deep glutes needed work, and my hip flexors were doing most of the heavy lifting. A physio will be able to give you a few exercises to help you build strength in the areas that matter, and you want to start doing them as regularly as you can, probably every other day.

Cost: a physio session is pretty affordable; around $70 in Melbourne, and then you can do the exercises alone at home. You might want to invest in a foam roller or a strength band, but they aren’t essentials by any means.

Physio exercises combined with some strength training and stretching (I find ashtanga yoga is great for both) will really help you along the way, but the real training of course comes through getting plenty of walks and hikes in. Don’t worry about speed, at least when you begin. What matters is distance and endurance, and it’s preferable to prioritise shorter walks back-to-back on consecutive days, than to worry about regularly hiking 20km. However, if you’re trekking at altitude (over 3,000m), get in as much cardio as you can, whether it’s walking at a brisk pace to keep your heartrate up, cycling, running or swimming,  because the stronger your cardiovascular system, the less you will struggle once you’re up there. Read up on how to acclimatise to the high altitude here, and visit your doctor for some Diamox (and any vaccines you may need) just in case.

Depending on how far you can currently walk without even noticing (as in you don’t feel sore the next day), you will want to ease into it. Before you build up a training plan, pull out the itinerary for your trek, and look at the distances you will be covering. A perfect example is my friend’s upcoming Peruvian trek:

–       Day 1 – 11km

–       Day 2 – 12km

–       Day 3 – 16 km

–       Day 4 – 4km

The longest day is 16km, so she’ll want to make sure she can walk 16km comfortably, but currently she doesn’t walk at all, and certainly not in hiking boots. So we want to start with gentle 4-5km walks on flat ground and gradually build up, peaking at 18km around 4 weeks before her trek, and gradually increasing back-to-back walks and hikes, so that by the time she flies out, she’ll think nothing of doing 10km several days in a row or 40km in a week. It will be a lot more challenging up in the Andes of course because of the altitude, but she’ll have a solid base.

For those of us who work full-time pretty much the only way to get more walks in on a daily basis is to walk to work. If you can plan a 4-5km path to work, this is a huge bonus. If you live closer than that to work, you may want to take public transport further away from home, or integrate a loop via a local park. Of course if you live further away, get off the train/tram/bus when you’re 5km from work. It’s perfect because you can walk in and commute home (5km a day) or both walk in and walk home (10km a day, with a nice break in between). You can walk home and then walk back in the next day – back to back walks. And if you’re too tired one day, you can make up for it the next. 5km shouldn’t take much more than an hour and so it’s generally not a huge impact on your commute. Of course, you’ll want a workplace with some facilities (showers = awesome, although hopefully you won’t work up too much of a sweat just walking) and you’ll probably want to stash work clothes at the office to change into.

On the weekends you’ll get to do the real deal: mountain hikes, huzzah. If you live somewhere with easy access to lots of mountains, lucky you! If you don’t drive (as is my case) then it can be a bit of a challenge to hunt down a mountain range with trails and public transport, but in Melbourne we have Mount Dandenong.  Make sure you scope one out and then make good friends with it, because you want to get in one big hike at least once a week. Again, start low with 5-7km and then increase slowly. You’ll probably feel you can do a lot more but the aim is to gradually build your strength, without injuring your body. Breaking boots in at the same time is a great way to slow you down. Get plenty of incline in wherever you can, if you’re going to be trekking in the mountains.

Whenever possible, carry a backpack on your hikes. When you first start, it will probably just hold your change of shoes and some water, but get used to carrying a decent amount of stuff (include fuel – I love packing a couple of sandwiches, fruit pouches and a cereal bar, as they all taste amazing on top of a mountain).  Even if you’re doing a trek where guides are carrying your gear, you will need a day pack, and it grows exponentially heavier as the day progresses.  So don’t overload your backpack but make a point of always having to lug one around on your walks. It’s lovely to walk without one, but you are unlikely to escape it on a trek, so get used to it and you won’t feel the pain so much. As for water, I personally love camelback-type water pouches as it means I don’t have to stop every time I want to grab water.

Once you start hitting the 10-15km length hikes, you’re facing a bare minimum of 3 hours out on trails. Some days it goes fast, some days it goes slow, so you may need some excitement to incentivise you. If so, I hope you have a smartphone, because that’s my secret:

1 – get an app like Runkeeper to track all your walks, whether your daily commute to and from work, to your beautiful hikes out in the mountains on the weekends. I love seeing all the kilometres add up, and checking out the maps. Seeing a bar graph and squiggly lines announcing that I hiked 16km in 4:12:55 hours and burnt 1077 kcal makes me happy, and it might well cheer you up to know that despite working 5 days a week you squeezed in 23km of walks between Monday and Friday.

2 – get some podcasts. Glorious nature is all well and fine, but when you’re trudging along the same city road for the 19th time that month… you need a little distraction. I find listening to music can affect my moods in strange ways, but listening to spoken word podcasts about travel, science, history or even just comedy makes a walking commute more entertaining. Also audiobooks work well; David Sedaris – get all of his oeuvre!

Don’t forget to taper as you approach your departure date. Once you’ve peaked in distance, slowly scale back and decrease distances a little, and concentrate on getting plenty of back-to-back walks in so you’re used to walking on tired legs. I find getting ready to go travelling means I’m too busy and stressed to get many hikes in and if you’re flying long haul you will probably be wiped out anyway. Relax and try to enjoy the excitement of what’s coming!

 

Preparing for a trek: Part 1 – Your feet

Disclaimers (optional reading but required for any piece of advice anyone puts out on the internet): I’ll start with the disclaimer that I am not a professional ANYTHING, and this is not professional advice so much as a list of things that worked for me. It’s the result of experience, consultations with a couple of physios and podiatrists, and learning from other people such as the magnificent, extremely well-travelled James. This advice is also written with a certain demographic in mind: mine, ie. a not hugely fit, not massively experienced traveller in her late twenties/early thirties, who wants to go trekking but who also isn’t used to living rough and has a couple of idiosyncrasies such as a dislike of being cold, itchy, sunburnt or in significant pain. With all this humbly in mind, I have been asked for advice in the past, based on a couple of short treks I did (two weeks alone on the Camino, partially documented here and here, and 5 days in the Himalayas with James, briefly mentioned here). I also have done a fair bit of hiking and travelling so again, not an expert, but more experienced than many of my acquaintances. So, please accept my disclaimers and I apologise if you are much more knowledgeable than me and would like to correct anything I get wrong.

Now let us begin, hopefully a good 3 months before your trip. I’ve broken it down into three sections: Your feet Training, and What to bring. And, because I’m a bit of a Type A kind of girl, I’ve also put together an 18-week training plan. I may come back and add in photos later, but my priority is to get all this up first.

Part One: Your feet (also the most important advice of all).

If you’re preparing for your first trek, before you consider ANYTHING else – the question is: Do you own a good pair of hiking boots? Because if you don’t, you want to get a pair and start breaking them in as soon as possible. Good doesn’t necessarily mean expensive, but they need to be the right size and a comfortable, fairly snug fit when wearing hiking socks.  If the answer to this is, Yes – good for you! You can skip most of the rest of this section. If you are reading this though, chances are you don’t have the right boots yet, but before you run out and buy them…

Have you ever seen a podiatrist? Now, this may seem overkill, but many people actually have a less than ideal situation going on with their feet, especially when in sports shoes, and if you’re about to spend several consecutive days hiking, you want your feet to be in top form. You may have slightly collapsed arches or a tendency to pronation, and not even know it – but a single visit to a podiatrist will generally equip you with a better understanding of how you walk, and how to walk better. For maximum efficiency, bring all your shoes with you so they can see how you walk – your running shoes, the work shoes you wear every day, the boots you defer to in winter, and off course the hiking boots if you already have them. The podiatrist will quite likely get you into orthotic soles to stabilise your feet, and wearing them daily will strengthen your ankles as you prepare for your trip.

Cost: The total cost will vary depending on where you are and how much you’re prepared to fork out for the orthotics, but it’s a worthy investment.

Now, once you have your orthotics (or a bill of clean feet from the podiatrist), head to a camping shop, armed with the orthotics and some thick socks. Socks are just as important as the boots – you want woollen socks, slightly contoured and padded, designed for hiking. Icebreaker make fantastic ones; my favourites are ones I found in Spain, but they all have in common a high percentage of wool and contouring – the contours will stop the sock from slipping and the reinforced padding protects against blisters. NO COTTON. I know we have been brought up to believe cotton is a lovely natural fabric, but it’s not lovely when you’re sweating. And artificial fibres may feel nice while you’re hiking, but they get stinky and stay stinky – trust me. Go with the woollen ones (merino is the best if you find wool itchy and uncomfortable).

Cost: Outlets or online stores will generally have affordable merino socks; you only really need 2-3 pairs (one to wash, one to wear, and one for when both are wet and you really need dry socks).

Getting someone knowledgeable to help you fit your boots will be a major asset, and if there’s no-one other than some teenage part-timer, it’s worth coming back later. You may end up dropping several hundred dollars on your boots and you don’t want the wrong ones. Whether you end up buying from the shop or taking notes and buying them cheaper online is up to you, but the advantage of buying from the shop is there will be a return/exchange policy, which gives you some time to stomp around at home and work out if they are a good fit. Choose shoes with a good strong sole – after walking for a few days, normal soles feel about as protective as tissue paper when your sore feet are walking on a gravel path. Trial them with the orthotics and socks, going both up and down an incline (most shops have a little mini-hill to climb up and down). Take your time.

Cost: I would expect to pay AUD $160 for a decent pair of boots, you might find cheaper offers online though. Also I ended up paying AUD $220 for mine and I have no regrets.

Now you’ve got your boots, you’re going to need to break them in. You can soften your boots up a bit by holding them, toes to the floor and then repeatedly flexing and bending the soles. Don’t worry, it won’t damage them, and it will soften up the stiff soles so they are more gentle on your feet. You can also experiment with the way you lace them, to reduce pressure on different parts of your feet.  Obviously the real breaking in involves wearing them in. The training plan comes with a Boot-Breaking plan, but it can be summarised as:

  • Wear them at home for at least a week first.
  • Then start taking them on walks: a short trip to the supermarket, a brief walk around the block.
  • Then the first couple of kilometres of your training walks/hikes, before swapping them for your running shoes.
  • Even once you start doing longer hikes in them, keep your running shoes in your backpack just in case.

Just in case of what? Well the gradually increasing walks will take care of building strength in your feet so they don’t feel like they’ve been attacked with a meat tenderiser, but of course you also are looking to avoid blisters. The seams inside your boots, your sweaty socks chafing against your skin, or the general weirdness of learning to walk with your ankles fully supported mean that you are likely to get blisters. However you can avoid this by pre-emptive use of blister protection band-aids. Within the first few days of breaking in your boots, you’ll know which parts of your feet get red and sore from wearing boots. Get hold of the little doughnut-shaped pads for protecting corns, and before your hike, place them strategically over the bony bits of your feet and toes. Make sure the skin is clean and dry, and heat up the pads first by rubbing them between your hands before peeling off the backing. Then after they’re on, a dusting of baby powder will help keep things dry and prevent them from catching on the inside of your sock. You can also use an anti-chafing silicon-based gel to protect your feet – I find this useful if you have just a little bit of rubbing but nothing really painful, and it’s probably more effective once your boots are more broken in.

Cost: The corn-protection plasters can be a bit expensive if you’re getting through a dozen a week, so keep your eye out for special offers and bulk buy. The gel can be expensive but you’ll be able to use it for other things too…

Source: My Camino hike was done completely unprepared in running shoes. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in so much pain in my life as I was by day 4.  My Himalayan trek was done following all of the above advice (after researching online, talking with podiatrists, physios and sports doctors) and I never gave a second’s thought to my feet. You can pick and choose which of the above tips to follow, but trust me that you do not want to spoil your hike because you’re distracted by the pain in your feet…

Camino day 1: Roncesvalles to Orisson

As mentioned in my “Pre-Camino” post, I hardly slept and had walked 5km before I even got on the bus from Pamplona to Roncesvalles. When the first bus of the day got there, it was already 11:20 and I had some serious concerns about covering the 27km to St Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPP) before dark. This was a ridiculous fear, I would come to realise over the next couple of days, because it doesn’t get dark till gone 8pm, but I had been caught in mountains after sunset in Taiwan before and it’s not a happy place to be.

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Anyway, due to this fear of stumbling blindly in the mountains at night, I decided I would set off immediately. The woman at the information office told me there were two paths to SJPP and that I could take either, as I wished. Standing at the point where the two paths diverged, one showed a climb of 500m over the space of about 1.5km, I thought I would take the other path, aware that my knees would be complaining.

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There were a lot of puddles and streams and boggy bits, and after a couple of kilometres I realised I hadn’t seen a single marker. Thanks to my Hash training, I was fairly used to going offtrail and hadn’t been that fussed, but when the path disappeared, I realised I was going to have to backtrack. I’d gone wrong somewhere.

So back I went to Roncesvalles, to the original starting point. 9km already walked, it was 12pm, and I wasn’t even a kilometre closer to my destination. I got a little tearful walking back as I was really anxious about time and fatigue. Thinking about that first day, I realise just how much I learned on the Camino about letting go of such silly anxieties, and about not beating myself up when making mistakes. I started on that journey extremely anxious about planning everything ahead — I came out of it two weeks later able to let go of this anxiety which has plagued me for many years.

Anyway, there I was, Camino Take #2. I was at the bottom of a mountain trail, and now I needed to get to the top. Had I known just how hard it would be I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it, because it was so steep, like CRAZY steep, that the people walking DOWN it were freaking out. For the majority of pilgrims, it would have been their first day too, and they would have come all the way from SJPP and have been very, very tired — the temptation to just lay down and roll down this trail must have been strong. Many of them told me as I went up that it was hard, hard work — ça monte! ça grimpe dûr! they told me, and I gritted my teeth and kept climbing.
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Eventually I reached the peak — the Col de Lepoeder, alt 1410m — and could turn around and see where I had come from. What a view!
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I was pretty pleased with myself:
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I stopped here for a brief lunch, then set off again, ever aware of the minutes ticking away. It felt fantastic to be going downhill, especially as everyone else was going uphill and looked hot, sweaty and exhausted. The views were incredible, and I wished, not for the last time, that I had something better than my dodgy phone camera to take pictures.
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(I only did a couple of self-portraits and some landscape snaps on the first day and then ran out of interest in taking pictures fairly soon thereafter, so I’m putting most of what I have up for this first day)
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I think my feet started to hurt around the time I crossed the Spain-France border. I was still only about halfway to SJPP but I’d already walked those 9 extra kms before getting started so I was starting to realise I was NOT going to make it to my destination — time wasn’t a problem, it was just that my feet were really sore.
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I stopped at the Vierge d’Orisson for a minute, trying not to panic, and in fact barely giving the poor virgin a second glance.

Then I set off again, keeping my mind focused on walking and walking alone — worrying would not get me to my destination any faster, and there was nowhere else to go but straight on. Then just as I was becoming so focused on the pain in my feet that I thought I might have to lay down in the road and pray for deliverance, I rounded a corner and was met with a sight for sore eyes (and feet): L’Auberge d’Orisson.
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The Auberge is quite pricy — 32 euros a night — but the nice lady informed me that they had a cheaper hostel (15E) down the road, just one more kilometre to go.
I had stopped my RunKeeper but I restarted it for this one last stage before the much-needed repose that was so close and yet so far… I’m surprised looking at the result that it was only 13 minutes — it felt like at least half an hour!
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(I know these RK screencaps aren’t very exciting for most people, but this is also written for me, in this blog about things that I did for me… so please bear with them. Plus they are the only visual record I have after my phone’s camera went batty).

And at this shell of a hostel I stopped, showered, changed, ate, watched the sunset and then rolled into bed at 9pm (a record for me) and slept 12 solid hours till 9am. One of the best sleeps of my entire, sleep-poor life.

Total distance covered: 5km in Pamplona + 21.75km on the trail = 26.75km

pre-Camino: Pamplona

My first step on the Camino was to head to Roncesvalles, the last stopover point in Spain before the French border. Roncesvalles is hidden up in the Pyrenees, so to get there from Madrid, I would first be taking the coach to Pamplona and then another coach to Roncesvalles where I planned to spend the night in their historical albergue, rise early, and cross the Pyrenees and stop down in St Jean-Pied-de-Port.
8-hour coach trip to the starting point at Roncesvalles
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So early in the morning I kissed Madrid and Ally goodbye (Juan and Nalia were still sleeping) and made my way from Las Rosaz de Madrid to Pamplona. I found the counter for the local buses and requested a billeta to Roncesvalles in my best Spanish. The woman behind the counter shook her head and said “Mañana.*noise of needle scratching across record*

So I hauled my backpack off to look for a hostel and ended up at Jesus y Maria. I am not a big fan of religion and was a little nauseated by this whole Jesus and Maria thing but in fact it’s a fascinating hostel, converted inside a church (named… Iglesia de Jesús y María) without touching any of the outer structure.

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I dropped my gear off and headed out to explore Pamplona. The week-long famous bull-chasing celebrations of San Fermin had just finished the day before and on a Sunday afternoon, the whole town had a feeling of stunned silence after the storm.

Spot the bull!
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Nearly every shop window was dressed in honor of the festival and its white-and-red clad runners
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I decided to walk to the Yamaguchi park, as its Japanese name sounded promising. It was very small but beautiful and peaceful, and its fountains were very refreshing in the heat of the afternoon.

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I made my way back to the hostel and settled in for the only bad night of my entire Pilgrim experience — I had a very jittery 9-year-old in the bunk-bed above me and he seemed to suffer from “sleep-spasms” throughout the entire night — shaking the bed and waking me up every time I started to drop off. Some time after 4am I took my pillow and my sleeping bag and went to sleep on the floor.

I have to confess that sleep deprivation and hunger meant that I was not entirely thrilled with Pamplona, especially as I had to make a 5km round trip in order to find a supermarket open before I caught the bus to Roncesvalles. But things only improved after that… well a little after that!