Walking El Camino de Santiago

Former nzherald.co.nz news editor Simon Winter takes on the 775-kilometre Spanish Pilgrim Trail

Spain: A mind-clearing journey

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Walking into Astorga. Photo / Simon Winter
Walking into Astorga. Photo / Simon Winter

My impression of the Camino has changed. Fear has been replaced by calm. I am tranquil.

We know we'll complete the walk now, there's no 'if'. In 24 days we've travelled over 520 kilometres, in driving rain, belting sun, hungover, with food poisoning, after sleepless nights, while getting lost, with aching legs.

We've walked with Irish, Finns, Americans, Dutch, Aussies, South Africans, Canadians, lots of Germans, a Kiwi mum from Wellington and others.

We're completely removed from our old lives - not just physically, but in our minds.

We get up, we get dressed, we walk. We stop for cafe con leche, we walk. We stop for lunch, we walk. We end. We find a place to stay. We shower, we wash clothes, we nap, we eat and drink. Then we sleep. There is nothing else.

And that is the point. Joyous simplicity. When we walk just together, there is sometimes silence - long stretches of it.

We are lost in our own worlds.

And there is another level. My new friend Guntar explained it best earlier in the trip. The proud 52-year-old Bavarian has bought his wife and daughter along to celebrate 30 years of marriage - at the time they were scattered in other villages. On his Camino, he's knocking out 40km a day.

"Simon, when I walk. I think of nothing. Nothing at all. I clear my mind. I just walk."

At the time I didn't understand. How can you think of nothing?

Now it's me staring blankly into space. Just breathing the air, looking around.

Simplicity. Calm.

It sounds a bit new age, but in reality, it's the impact of the length of the journey. The effect is not so much on the body any more, but on the mind.

Lisa and I are lucky. We're not on deadline, most of the other pilgrims are - many only do a section. I wonder if their experiences are the same?

We've left the stunning walled city of Leon now, the fourth-biggest on the Camino. The tent is seeing more and more action. It's therapeutic listening to wind, rain and various animals and birds from inside. It's also a bit strange - most nights we're the only tent in the campground!

Usually there are other pilgrims staying in bungalows and holidaymakers in campervans to share some cheap Spanish wine with. Other nights we've camped in the front yard of a busy albergue (slightly weird), and freedom camped beside a river near Astorga.

There's another fella freedom camping the whole 'Way'. We see him every few days, outside one town or another. No one will tell him to move on - there are few authorities and virtually no police.

The last section of our 'pilgrimage' promises to be the most enthralling. The province of Galicia is renowned for its beauty, and in a few days we'll climb to the highest point on the Camino (1517 metres) and visit the walk's most sacred mark - Cruz de Ferro, where pilgrims traditionally leave a stone from home to 'shed their worries'.

Route marker: 520km down, 255km to go.

* Simon Winter is a former nzherald.co.nz news editor. He and partner Lisa are following the sun through Europe.

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