Madrid - The last thing you would expect to see in the backpack of a hiker in Spain is a seashell. Yet for Marita, a widow from Germany, the shell was precious cargo.

As I walked along with her on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela – part pilgrimage, part marathon walk – she explained that her husband had found the shell when they were on a transatlantic cruise and said it was so beautiful they must take it with them when they did the walk. That never happened because, shortly afterwards, he developed a brain tumour and died. But Marita was determined that she would take the shell along with her and place it on his grave on her return home.

That is the sort of thing you experience on the Camino, which is a life-changing or life-affirming, experience for the many who undertake it.

For Hans-Georg from Germany, it was about celebrating life. As we walked together, he told me he had cancer and was in remission. He changed his lifestyle completely: he became a vegetarian; decreased his weight from 100kg to 75kg and has walked 3 500km since 2011.

Then I walked a while with Monique, a very religious Dutch lady: she asked me at one stage to do a prayer walk. While walking in the mountains we prayed in English, Dutch and Afrikaans for friends, family and the world.

The Camino is one of those experiences that help you put the world in perspective and, for me, it provided an excellent “bridge” between my career and the road ahead, after I retired from the foreign service at the end of 2012.

What attracted me was the physical and mental challenge of walking this distance; to break away from the normal routine and comfortable lifestyle and return to the basics; to be exposed to nature; to experience the more spiritual dimension of such a journey and to have time to reflect on life; and to meet and interact with interesting people from around the world.

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is becoming popular, not only with pilgrims but with hikers and those looking for something different. There are various routes from different locations in Europe, all ending in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

What started off as a pilgrimage traditionally walked by Christians through the centuries is walked today by people of various ages, all walks of life and from all over the globe for diverse reasons.

I decided to do the so-called French Route from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela, covering just more than 800km. This route is rich in tradition and developed to cater for hikers, still referred to as “pilgrims”.

The preparation was part of the experience and I walked for months in Pretoria to break in my boots and to get used to my two walking sticks and the weight of my back-pack. I also read books and spoke to former “pilgrims” to be as well prepared as possible.

I found that there is a close bond between former “pilgrims”.

I walked from early May to the middle of June and completed the distance in 32 days. I walked every day without taking a day off in one of the villages. It worked best for me to start very early and arrive early enough to recover and explore the little villages. Although it was early spring it was very cold at times, with temperatures the coldest in 40 years.

Crossing the Pyrenees between France and Spain on the first day was very challenging, especially given the weather conditions. We started off in sunshine and then it started raining and we walked in thick fog in places. I opted for the most difficult route, which is not recommended when it rains and we soon discovered why: ascending more than 1 200 metres in a few hours was tough enough, but negotiating the steep downhill in muddy, slippery and snowy conditions was the real test.

We arrived wet, cold and exhausted at our first stop that evening. I now understand why many walkers do the first day in two sections while others completely cut out this first day’s walk. Although the walk is, generally speaking, not dangerous, there are of course incidents given the number of walkers: early this year one man fell to his death on the first day due to fog and another died of a heart attack, also on the first day crossing the Pyrenees.

The first three days were quite difficult. Somebody said that if you compare the Camino with real life, the first three days are the childbirth – I subscribe to that.

The first days you experience stiffness and all sorts of pains in places where you did not even know you had muscles, but after a few days the recovery time became shorter.

Many people walk the Camino in various stages over a number of years for various reasons and some just walk the last 100km to qualify for the certificate.

I personally felt that doing it in one go is a very special and intense experience that will always remain one of the highlights in of my life.

The landscapes are beautiful and very diverse. You walk through forests, cross various mountain ranges and rivers and walk through large vineyards.

It is interesting how the different stretches have different effects on you. I personally found the steep uphills and forest roads, though sometimes on stony surfaces, in a sense less challenging than walking on a long straight road where you can see three days in advance, so to speak. The latter also challenges you mentally because you see this never-ending stretch ahead of you.

Like in real life, it is better not to see too far ahead!

You soon discover your own pace and rhythm that works best for you.

The basic lifestyle on the Camino is also what helps you to cover the distance: the daily routine is to get up early, walk to your next destination, shower and wash your clothes, rest, eat, sleep.

You are away from the daily stress that you experience in real life. The very basic dormitory-style accommodation in the hostels/albergues is also part of the experience. You sleep on bunk beds in your own sleeping bag, although some hostels provide basic linen and blankets. You soon get used to communal bathrooms and snoring during the night.

I found the quality of food quite good. Most hostels have kitchens where you can prepare your own food and hikers often club together and buy ingredients to prepare food and buy wine. I joined in on a few occasions, but found the so-called “pilgrim menus” available in all venues for about E9 (R132). It is a basic 3-course meal, including a good fresh salad and a bottle of red table wine. I normally had that late afternoon and in the evenings I preferred fresh fruit that is of an excellent quality. I normally did not have breakfast at the hostel/albergue, but preferred to walk for about two hours and then have it at the next village. Despite big meals, wine and beer I still lost 6kg during the walk.

The small villages on the road are beautiful and each has its own church where evening services are often held specially for the “pilgrims”. I attended a few of these evening services that are also part of the history and experience.

One of the very special features of the Camino is the interesting people from all over the world that you meet.

Since I speak German and Spanish I could communicate with most “pilgrims” (the Germans are the second largest group on the walk) on the Camino) and also as well as with the local community.

If you want to walk alone you have that option, but there are always people that you meet on the road or at the hostels or coffee bars on the road who are keen to share and you have the option to walk with others.

I walked alone by choice at times, but I also walked with lovely people from all over the world: sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for a day to a day-and-a-half. People are very open and keen to share and you hear wonderful and inspirational stories on the road.

You also tend to meet the same people on various stages on the route; there were some that I started off with and saw on various stages and again in Santiago. I am already corresponding with a number of people that I met on the Camino.

You soon learn that it is important that you travel light and to listen to your body. Some people carry too much weight in their backpacks (my own backpack was too heavy and I got rid of a few things soon) or push themselves too hard and then sustain injuries. Most common are blisters and ankle or knee injuries. I met a fit young Danish man on the side of the road: his plane had been delayed and he tried to make up by walking 50km on the first day. He damaged his knee in the process and could barely walk.

I found that after a few hundred kilometres and improving weather conditions the act of walking became more automatic and less challenging and you have more time/opportunity to enjoy and focus on the nature and the people around you. This is an interesting parallel to life: when the going gets tough, you tend to focus only on the next step. You have to make an effort at times to create opportunities to look around you and see the bigger picture, instead of concentrating on the next steps.

Arriving in Santiago is an emotional experience.

I saw a young couple from South Korea who knelt in front of the Cathedral on arrival and prayed. They then got up and hugged each other and they were in tears.

l For advice on the Camino, email: [email protected]


Camino inspires idea of hike in honour of Nelson Mandela

The Camino de Santiago has inspired Dawie Jacobs and others to propose a similar long hiking trail in honour of Nelson Mandela.

The trail will stretch from Qunu in the Eastern Cape to Robben Island to celebrate the life of Madiba and to perpetuate his legacy and the values he personified.

The idea was refined by Dawie and his foreign affairs colleague, Mike Basson, and his wife, Maryke Basson, who were previously posted to Spain and also had knowledge of the Camino.

Given Nelson Mandela’s international stature; the values he personifies; and his inspirational “Long Walk to Freedom” from his village in Qunu to Robben Island, the trail will would attract and inspire people from all over the globe to participate and\[olga.accolla\] will would serve to keep his legacy alive for future generations.

Developing such a trail is in line with South Africa’s key priorities of promoting economic development specifically in the areas of job creation, rural development and tourism.

In this way Madiba’s legacy will continue to contribute towards a better life for all South Africans.

The project has got enthusiastic support from the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, the Minister of Arts and Culture, the National Heritage Council (NHC) and the Minister of Tourism.

In the spirit of Madiba’s experience, modest clean overnight accommodation is suggested. The idea is that existing hiking routes and accommodation such as campsites, farms, bed and breakfasts, guest houses, backpackers and even old prisons be utilised as far as possible and that additional accommodation be developed where necessary. Accommodation could be built in prison style with a communal court-yard that could be fenced off. This would at the same time provide security to hikers.

These units should be self-sustaining eco-cultural business models embracing the traditions of the regions, offering accommodation, ablutions, meals and a communal boma area. There should be a uniform standard on the whole route.

Appropriate names could be assigned to these overnight facilities to reflect the values personified by Madiba such as Freedom, Justice, Equality and Reconciliation. Places of historic interest, specifically related to Madiba, should be incorporated as far as possible and further museums and exhibitions could be incorporated in the overnight facilities.

l Full details of the project areon the website of the Hiking Organisation of Southern Africa –