Uhuru is the Swahili word for freedom and the name given to the summit of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and the tallest free-standing mountain on Earth. It is a volcanic mountain of utter magnificence, ironically with an ice-cap just three degrees off the swelteringly hot Equator, but at 19,340 feet (5,895 metres) you have only half the oxygen available to you at sea level. So it feels like you are functioning with only one lung as you suck desperately for air to fuel your weary body.
You take a few small, slow steps; stop, breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out, and then move again. It’s called the Kili shuffle and is the geriatric form of locomotion that afflicts most high-altitude trekkers.
Perhaps only on my hike through the high Himalayas to Everest Base Camp have I moved as slowly, but that was also partly because I didn’t want to miss anything of the majesty of this iconic mountain, while watching for frequent avalanches and listening to the crunching and cracking of the Khumbu Glacier, a giant conveyor belt of rock and ice that moves a few metres each year.
The Camino de Santiago is even more inspiring than I’d dared hope…
With wry amusement I realise that here I am on the Camino de Santiago and moving at a similar snail pace, but without the excuses of extreme altitude or exhaustion. This should be easy for me, but isn’t!
What’s my excuse? The truth is that I’m fit and strong but my feet are killing me. It is an effort to remind myself to ensure that each step is a prayer and a blessing as I give thanks to Gaia Earth, which sustains, nourishes and inspires me.
I have given up (for today at least) on the expensive cross-trainers that have been cripplingly uncomfy from day one and am wearing my Gorilla Feet – the minimalistic footwear with individual toe sockets that are designed to strengthen the foot and mimic the actions of barefoot walking and running.
I’m mostly impressed with these eccentric-looking shoes but a couple of days of torrential rain has allowed the insides to get as soaked as the rest of me and they’re beginning to chafe. I prise the right one off and am pleased to see there are no blisters underfoot – in fact I haven’t had a blister in a month and several hundred kilometres of walking. Then I notice blood oozing from the tops of my toes. Oops, that’s not part of the plan.
The wind is howling and gusting violently enough to upset my balance; rain is bucketing down and there is no shelter anywhere, so I abandon any idea of drying my feet and administering First Aid. I slide the shoe back on, don’t even bother to check my left and more painful foot, and resume my Camino shuffle, looking like an escapee from the old-age home.
I’m sore, certainly, but that’s the outer journey. I’m feeling physically and mentally fit and in remarkably good spirits. I’m actually enjoying the wild weather in a perverse way after more than three weeks of unrelenting sunshine that has left me glowing with a deep tan. Besides, a pilgrim embraces whatever comes his or her way and I’m doing exactly that while looking for the lessons.
At 17 miles (27km) my rain-blurred vision spots a remote pilgrim hostel and I forsake plans to push on another 4 miles (7km) and meet my young Australian friend Morgan Wright. As is his routine he has powered ahead with all the strength and eagerness of a 21-year-old. He’s a delightful travel companion but we won’t see each other again for a couple of days, which is part of the ebb and flow of Camino life.
After a barely lukewarm shower in the albergue I seek out the internet across the road at the only restaurant in the village. An email from another Aussie pal Merryn Black informs me that after we parted some days earlier she treated herself to the luxury of three days of rest to allow her feet to heal. Now, after buying new boots and thick socks, she is sauntering and exploring instead of striding it out. I admire the wisdom and feminine intuition that has persuaded her to slow down and respond to what her body and soul needs. The Camino is different for everybody and it is important that we do it at our own pace.
I thank Merryn for the reminder and decided that with Santiago now just 43 miles (70km) away I’ll not do it in two days, but savour every moment and allow myself three or four days to reach this fabled pilgrim city and its towering cathedral.
A slower pace will also give me more time for reflection and a celebration of my many gifts.
My time on the internet complete, I order a vegetarian pasta and tuck into it in a dining room dominated by a giant TV screen featuring a spaghetti Western dubbed in Spanish. It’s all about lingering close-ups of penetrating blue eyes; unblinking 1,000-metre stares from our action hero; and amateurish and poorly choreographed fist fights that manage to be devoid of any real sense of violence or malice. The pasta is as bad as the acting, but I don’t mind – I realise I’m having fun despite the challenges, or maybe because of them.
The Camino de Santiago is even more inspiring than I’d dared hope – even the graffiti offers stimulating food for thought.
Negotiating a flight of steps, I unexpectedly came across this old favourite:
Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow is a mystery:
Today is a gift,
That’s why it’s called The Present.