A blaze of cheerful yellow. Picture: Jenny Rooks
A blaze of cheerful yellow. Picture: Jenny Rooks
A lonely section of the trail. Picture Jenny Rooks
A lonely section of the trail. Picture Jenny Rooks

Durban’s Jennifer Rooks is an old hand at taking on the challenge of the Camino de Santiago de Compostelo, a popular pilgrims’ trail, which starts in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southern France and winds its way through northern Spain.

Its ultimate destination is the shrine of St James, in the town after which it is named, and 60s something Jenny (as friends call her) has already hiked the trail twice, using different routes. Now she has been invited to share her expertise with others, helping them to get the most out of their own experience, by leading a group in May this year.

On her most recent venture down the 800km trail, she chose a more difficult route along the Camino (road or path).

“The thousands of pilgrims who walk the trail each year tend to avoid this route,” said Jenny, telling how she first set off along the little used Camino Aragones, starting in Somport in the Pyrenees mountains, which straddle the Spanish/French border.

For her it was to prove 195 challenging kilometres. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done, both physically and mentally,” said Jenny – this despite the fact that she is a seasoned hiker.

“There were many ups and downs, along rocky paths, but it was extremely beautiful, with the backdrop of the Pyrenees along almost the entire route,” she said.

When she walked this sector in September 2012, she said there were only about six pilgrims a day, and most of them were ultra-fit people in their 40s, who stormed through at a pace. This meant she hiked about 30km a day, totally alone.

The extreme heat (around 350) added to the discomfort. Nor had she expected it to be so remote and isolated, with albergues (pilgrim hostels) some 25-30km apart. On the more popular sections, they are located almost every 10km.

On her third day Jenny got into serious difficulties, when in searing heat of 40 degrees, she ran out of food and water, lost her hat, had broken sunglasses, and no cellphone reception.

On the point of dehydration, with some 10km still to go, she began to worry, but her hiking experience in South Africa stood her in good stead. She stopped every 500m to make sure her body did not overheat. “I collapsed when I reached the next village, both from relief and my desperate need of water,” she said.

While the more popular route, the Camino Frances, is well signposted with bright yellow arrows, the Camino Aragones was not so well demarcated, and twice she lost her way. A young Spanish couple drove her across to where she was supposed to be.

Eventually, her route joined the Camino Frances. Asked about the easiest section, she said it had been the last 100km between Sarria and Santiago itself. “Pilgrims have to walk the last 100km into Santiago in order to receive a Compostella (certificate), so this is the most popular and easiest stretch.

This was certainly not her favourite section of the trail, though, as the many pilgrims meant there was always a rush to find a bed at the end of the day. Even so, the sheer number of pilgrims walking this route means there is ample accommodation in virtually every village, with short distances between.

Describing the albergues, Jennie said these are very basic and cheap but have everything a pilgrim needs – a comfortable bed, pillow, blanket, warm shower, and a place to wash one’s clothes.

Those run by the church are free (but donations are welcome), with the emphasis on a spiritual experience, and hikers might have to sleep on a mattress on the floor, though a communal dinner and breakfast is provided. Municipal albergues are e5 (about R60) a night, and private ones around e10 .

“Most villages also have a casa rural (a country inn) or pensions, but the majority of pilgrims stay in the albergues which are really the heart and soul of the Camino,” she explained.

No backpacking fancy night attire; most pilgrims sleep in the clothes they intend wearing the next day. When Jenny hiked in October, it only got light after 8.15am, so she often set off in the dark, with a flashlight.

This gave her the opportunity to watch dawn break along the way. “I was often rewarded with stunning sunrises,” she said. She tended to stop at a bar along the way for a breakfast of a tortilla bocadilla (large roll with a Spanish omelette) and a cup of delicious coffee.

As she usually reached her destination for the day at around 3 or 4pm, this gave her time to attend to ablutions, then wander around the village, find a place that had Wi-Fi to catch up on blogs and e-mails, write up her journal, before meeting up with other pilgrims for a drink or meal.

“Every bar puts on a special three-course pilgrim’s meal for e10, which includes a bottle of wine,” she said. Alternatively, some albergues have kitchens, giving an opportunity to buy something in a supermarket to cook.

While lights out was usually at 10.30pm, most pilgrims were asleep long before then, after their day in the fresh air. The average cost of walking the Camino, she said, is between e20 and e30 a day.

Asked which sector she had found the prettiest, she said climbing up from Astorga to Cruz de Ferros, the highest point on the Camino.

Having walked the Pilgrims Path before, she was able to compare the seasons.

She found the number of American pilgrims had increased by 90 percent and had the feeling they dominated the Camino. She spent time walking with pilgrims from many parts of the world. Two from California, with whom she walked for about 200km, now want to come to Durban to surf.

A Dutch doctor shared his “near-death” experiences as a medic with her. One American from Minnesota’s boyfriend died on the Camino in 2011. “She had a small memorial shell with her, and I helped her to find a place to put the shell where he died. She then completed the Camino on his behalf and was given a special Compostella in his name,” Jenny recalled.

She met several South Africans, a wonderful group of Koreans, a couple from Kansas City who could not wait to find a MacDonalds when they got to Santiago, an American who had just completed two years in Mongolia with the Peace Corp.

“What is interesting is that age is not a factor on the Camino. Everyone is a pilgrim and staying in the albergues is a great leveller.”

What was interesting was that Jenny not only hiked, but for two weeks acted as a hospitalero (helper) in an albergue. She explained that these volunteers give something back to the Camino by cooking, sweeping floors, cleaning showers and toilets, looking after pilgrims (such as treating them for bed bug bites) thus playing a vital role in the pilgrims’ experience.

“The pilgrims arrive hobbling, tired, aching, in pain with blisters, tendinitis, hip and knee problems, but also with emotional issues they battle to resolve.”

The albergue where she volunteered was located in the tower of a 12th century church. Even if it was overflowing, no one was ever turned away, so sometimes pilgrims slept in the chapel. “I sometimes told people, they would never get a chance to sleep in front of an altar again,” she joked. Every evening the priest gave a special blessing during Mass. “It is wonderful to think that it is the same one given to pilgrims in medieval times,” said Jenny. - Sunday Tribune

l Workshops are held for prospective pilgrims. See http://www.amawalkerscamino.com