Alistair Sloane finds challenges and compadres along an ancient pilgrims' road.
I watched the flames eat into our trail-worn clothes: the grungy undies, T-shirts, shorts and socks. Once they had turned to ashes and been scattered by the wind, my son Cam and I would leave the rocky Spanish headland behind. Those were the rules for the ritual of the fire, said the Irishman.
Don't look back, Seamus had warned. "The tomb of the Celtic witch Orcabella is there. It is said that those who look back and set eyes on her die within the year." He began chuckling. "I'm jokin' wit ya," he said. "No one has seen Orcabella for 3000 years."
Back then, the headland that juts into the Atlantic Ocean was a place of pagan rituals. The gods of the sea whipped up its storms and Orcabella moved among its rocks. Ancients called it finis terrae, the Latin for "Land's End". They believed it was the end of the world. Centuries later Christopher Columbus found it wasn't.
These days Cape Finisterre is the end of the line for many — not all — pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James), the 800km walk from France across northern Spain to the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela and the remains, say believers, of Jesus' cousin, St James the Apostle.
Cam and I had made it, 33 days after leaving France. We'd followed Napoleon's route from St Jean Pier du Port over the Pyrenees and down into Spain to the storied abbey of Roncesvalles, through the Basque country, the wine region of Rioja, across the barren Meseta and the cities of Burgos and Leon and into the soft green hills of Galicia to Santiago. We didn't book ahead, we took the walk on faith, sleeping and eating where we could and walking 21-27km a day.
We slept under the stars, on floorboards, on bunks in "albergues" (al-burr-gays) or lodgings, and in small hotels, often men and women together: strangers, dog-tired, sunburned and snoring. Showers and toilets went with the territory — either good or bad — likewise the food.
We peeled potatoes in the kitchen of a 15th century house for a medieval pilgrims' meal of vegetable broth, bread and wine, and dried the dishes with wet teatowels.
We sheltered from rain in the porticos of ancient churches; from the midday sun in the cool recesses of thick-walled village houses.
Now it was over. Our trail clothes were gone and with them one of two ancient Camino rituals, both meaning new beginnings: the fire, or a swim in Finisterre bay to let nine waves wash over you, one for each month in the womb.
I skipped the swim to carry out my own ritual. I had carried a scallop shell, a symbol of the Camino, wrapped in paper, deep in my pack. A Jewish friend gave it to me. It had been sitting since the 1930s on a mantelpiece in Stanmore Bay. She said it would link two headlands: Whangaparoa in the new world, Finisterre in the old.
I buried it in the sand near Finisterre Castle and headed along the beach for Finisterre village itself and a ride back to Santiago, 130km away. The start of the journey back to Auckland.
But the Camino wasn't quite over. The man I had dubbed early in the walk as the "Mystery Man", the solo pilgrim, was walking towards me along the beach. He was on his own again. Only days earlier I had learned his name, where he was from, what he did, why he was on the Camino. Now he had reached the scene of a boyhood dream. I was about to live the Camino all over again.
I'd seen him here and there since Roncesvalles and he always seemed to be on his own. Grey-haired, slight, average height, light pack, trekking sandals. Maybe 60-ish. He would walk into a cafe or bar and search for a seat on his own. No spare seats and he would walk out. Even in a lodging, with wall-to-wall bunks, he seemed invisible.
Wonder who he is? What he does? Is he a priest, teacher, scholar, gardener, a monk perhaps? A Norwegian woman said that whoever he was, he had impeccable manners. He stood when she walked into the kitchen of a lodging early in the Camino. He greeted her in French.
His identity from then on became a game in my mind. Should I find out who he is, why he walks alone, or let him remain a mystery? No brainer: the mystery. Prolonging it helped exercise my mind when the 52 bones in each foot ached and my 15kg backpack dug into my shoulders and hips. When my feet wouldn't get moving in the morning. When Cam turned to me under a fierce sun one day and said: "Remind me again why we're doing this, old man."
We spent the first night in Orisson, a hostel below the 1410m-high saddleback of the Pyrenees and the French-Spanish border.
There were no available beds inside but a spare tent outside. I turned 60 that day.
Frederik, a French jeweller, chose the wine with dinner; Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Italians, Germans, Austrians, Brazilians, Argentinians, and an English couple helped drink it.
Why the Camino, they asked. The question would crop up all along the trail.
I wanted for years to celebrate my 60th on the Camino. Cam, 25, decided to join me. An English woman was walking it for her 65th. She had walked 800km from Seville to Santiago for her 60th.
Swede Elizabeth had lost her husband to cancer and wanted time to reflect on their lives together. She'd been to New Zealand. "The best fish and chips I have ever eaten were in Whangarei," she said.
Frenchwoman Isobel's father was ill and she and her husband Joel wanted to summon spiritual help.
Fellow French couple Jean-Paul and Martine were going as far as Leon. They would finish the rest of the walk another year. Both were in their 50s. Martine had a heart condition and Jean-Paul carried all their belongings in a giant backpack.
I last saw them leaving Castrojeriz, climbing a steep path from the isolated desert town to a plateau. Jean-Paul was powering ahead, settling into a rhythm under the 28kg pack.
Martine was struggling, resting every 20m or so. "Need a hand?" I said. "No, I must do this alone."
The hostel in Roncesvalles had beds for 120 pilgrims in an ancient dormitory at €9 a head. First in, first served. The beds were perhaps 50cm apart.
I found a bed between a Brazilian woman, tired and in tears because suncream had leaked in her backpack, and an Italian fellow who ignored everyone who didn't speak Italian.
It was late afternoon. First a shower, then some washing. Always shower in the evening when you are trekking. A shower in the morning softens your feet. Blisters thrive on soft feet.
The queue to the men's showers was 12 deep. The queue to the wash tubs was 15 deep. That's when I remembered two pieces of advice: If you want to finish the Camino as a young man, start out as an old man, say Spaniards. It means take it easy and preserve your strength. The other: on a long walk, spoil yourself.
I did. I gave the €18 to the church and found a nearby B&B (casa rural) with two separate bedrooms and a huge bathroom for €35, almost twice the price of two beds in the dormitory.
It set the standard for the rest of the walk. Some nights albergues, some nights pensions or hotels. Retired Englishman and Camino volunteer David approved of the preference every now and again for privacy. "The Camino is not penance — if it was you'd do it on your knees," he said.
We had walked 24km in 30C heat and were nearing Larrasona when we met a woman wearing open-toed trekking sandals who had tripped on the rocky trail and peeled back a big toenail. The sole of another women's boot had peeled off. A lone Englishman was staking out a one-man tent in a bush clearing. "Larrasona's not far, mate," I said.
"That's it for me today," he said. "I can't walk any further. I'm too damn sore. I've got food and water. I'm staying here. Might see you tomorrow."
Larrasona was full, too. A sign nearby said: "Hotel 500m." Roman occupiers regarded the Navarre region as a food basket, so fertile were the volcanic soils. Two-thousand years on, the Basque couple who own the Hotel Akerreta think the same about their patch.
"Tonight you will eat from our organic garden," he said.
The Basques have a saying: "The first thing travellers the world over ask is: 'Where is the best place to stay?' Not the Basque. The Basque wants to know one thing: 'Where is the best place to eat?'"
Next morning I thanked the Basque for his hospitality. "Go with God, my friend," I said. He chuckled, dismissive of my commercial Spanish in the Basque country, where the Euskura language sits loftily above Spanish on every signpost. "It is not me who will need God today," he said. "It is you — because the devil will be with you."
The Devil was, too. All day and into the evening. We missed the signposted route into the old part of Pamplona and a beer with Ernest Hemingway's ghost. Realised our mistake too late. Walked 40km in plus-30C heat before we found digs for the night in a small village. It was 7.30pm. Puente la Reina, one of the most famous towns on the Camino, was two hours further on. We made a pledge, Cam and I. Told the Devil to go to hell. "Don't mess with us again, pal. We're pilgrims."
And so we were, on and on across Spain. Pausing to eat grapes off the vine in Rioja; watching, in a fruit market, the juice of a plump nectarine cascade down the blade of my pocket knife and dribble through my fingers; the cathedral in Burgos, where Spanish military hero El Cid is buried; chancing upon a wonderful B&B in Maneru after running short of water in the blistering heat; taking a rest in the middle of the Maseta, surrounded by hundreds of square kilometres of nothing, not a soul in sight this side of four horizons; the wonderful garlic soup on a cool evening beside a stream in Mollineseca, after the knee-jarring descent from the pre-Christian site of Santa Cruz; the permanent pilgrim and his donkey in Galicia ...
Mexican Enrique had fallen and hurt his knee. He was using a broken tree branch for a crutch and hobbling, in obvious pain.
He had lost his job as an electrical engineer in Mexico City and flew to Spain and the Camino to find what his faith held for him. Cam wasn't using his walking poles so he loaned them to Enrique.
A week or so later a burly Tex-Mex came up to us early one evening at a lodging. "You Cam from Noo Zee-land?" he said. "Enrique told me to look out for a guy with a beard and long hair called Cam. Cool thing you did, man, giving him your sticks. He couldn't have kept going without them. Wants you to know that. My name's Carlos. Wanna beer?" Months later, the two alloy poles arrived in Auckland from Mexico City. Enrique had walked the Camino and was working again.
Cam's goodwill gesture followed us along the Camino. Word spread ... the father and son from New Zealand, they said. Two French women who had helped look for Cam's missing cellphone jokingly nicknamed me "Yosef" (Joseph) and Cam "Yaysoos" (Jesus).
Five Swedish women approached us in the ruins of the Knights Templar castle in Ponferrada. "We heard you walked through the night to look at the stars," said one. "So many of the women wanted to do that but were afraid on their own."
Breakfast was half a bottle of water and heart pills. Part of the daily diet these days, because of a virus I picked up in France 10 years ago. Cam and I walked a further 8km to Carion de les Condes and a cafe. The tortilla potat (potato omelette) was delicious. The mystery man was sitting reading outside an albergue. He was on his own.
Some-time walking companion Seamus, a publican from Ireland, wasn't too sure about the church's version of St James and the Camino: how St James' body had turned up in Galicia after he was behead in Jerusalem.
One Camino story starts with Roman emperor Charlemange. He had a vision of a line of stars in the sky that crossed France and Spain. A voice spoke to him: "This is the path of St James, the servant of Christ. My body is in Galicia. Find it and others will follow."
Charlemagne set out from Italy and eventually came to Finis Terre. A boat appeared out of nowhere, the same boat that had carried St James' body from Jerusalem. Charlemagne clambered aboard, stood at the prow and hurled a spear into the waters. Later, the scallop-encrusted body of St James was washed up on the shore and locals carried it inland to be buried.
A church was built on the gravesite. A town grew up around it. The town is Santiago de Compestsla — St James of the Field of the Star. Believers say St James' bones lie encased in a silver casket, deep in the crypt of the church.
Seamus, like many pilgrims, holds a place in his head and heart for the church but not for the story. "One thing's for sure," he said, "St James couldn't have walked, unless he carried his head under his arm. But then he wouldn't have been able to 'tink' for himself."
Religious scholars say the whole thing's a fraud dreamed up by itinerant monks looking for money to build a church.
The scallop shell has nothing to do with St James, or the church, they say. The scallop was the emblem of the pagan love goddess Venus and used in sexual rituals, probably on the shores of Cape Finisterre.
Compostela, they say, has more to do with the latin for compost heap than stars. The river near Santiago is the Lavacolla. Early pilgrims would wash in it before the last leg into the cathedral. Lavacolla, say latin scholars, can mean "bum wipe".
French woman Coralie and I were walking through the hills of Galicia. We had earlier bumped into each other crossing a footbridge on a misty morning. ''You help me with my English and I'll help you with your French,'' she said. We rounded a corner on the trail. It was raining. The mystery man was up ahead, picking blackberries. I hadn't seen him for days.
I quickly told Coralie about him. She turned towards me, frowning. Something was lost in translation. "Mystery man? No," she said. "He is a Frenchman, a Breton who works in Paris. I spoke with him last night. His name is Jean-Yves. He is an artist on an environmental magazine."
The guessing games in my mind had come to an end. An artist, huh? I'd figured he was French but picked him for a scholar. He was going to Cape Finisterre, he said, to gaze out at sea and picture the 1805 naval shoot-out off the headland between the British fleet and French-Spanish fleets. It was a draw. Had the British been defeated, French Emperor Napoleon and his 150,000-strong army amassed near Boulogne almost certainly would have invaded Britain.
That was it. Jean-Yves had walked for more than two months across France and Spain to see where Anglo-French history might have taken an altogether different turn. He had dreamed about walking to Finisterre for years. The Camino was important but secondary, merely a path of discovery.
We wished him well and walked on, towards a fork in the trail. Coralie would go one way, to a lodging to rest her feet. Later, she would return to Reunion Island and her job as a nurse.
The journey was nearing the end. Santiago, the cathedral, the father and son "good on yer, mate" hug, the joy of seeing people we had met along the way, the pilgrims' mass, the wonderful 14th century Catholicos hotel, the certificate in latin to say that Cam and I were now bona fide pilgrims ... all that was a day away. Cape Finisterre was three days.
I paused at the fork, wrung out my waterlogged cotton hat, and looked back along the trail.
Jean-Yves, the artist who treads softly upon the earth, the gentle man with impeccable manners and a dream, was reaching higher for blackberries in the soft Galician rain.
He was on his own again.
flies from Auckland to Madrid, via Doha, with return Economy Class fares from $1429.