The Steamer’s Run Raid

In the 19th century transport through the Gippsland Lakes was by steamships plying the waterways from the railhead at Sale which connected through to Melbourne. On February 26th 2020 this old tradition is being honoured through a rowing ‘raid’ by four St Ayles Skiffs. The boats will row 70 km over three days from the Port of Sale to Paynesville along the rivers, lakes and straits that were the old ‘steamer’s run’ of the 1800’s. The steamers travelled all the way from Port of Sale to Lakes Entrance, but these rowing skiffs will only travel as far as Paynesville on McMillan Strait to join 300 other classic boats for the Paynesville Classic Boat Rally on Saturday 29th February. This blog will document the trip and introduce you to the people, the boats and the country of the Steamer’s Run

Steamers Run Day 1

A great day’s rowing in a stiff breeze blowing down the Sale Canal and la Trobe River. 20 rowers in four skiffs had a an easy row 16 km of protected waters with a following wind and favourable current.

Pelicans, a falcon and a sea eagle accompanied us for part of the journey. We are camped now by The Heart Morass – a nature reserve close by Lake Wellington.

Tomorrow brings 37 km crossing Lake Wellington, then traversing the McLennan Strait before travelling along Lake Victoria to Loch Sport.

The Jonah Walk

The book of Jonah tells us that “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, … an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.” When I read this I wondered how long it would take to walk across Melbourne. Would three days be enough? Having been a pilgrimage walker in various places in the ancient Celtic Lands of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, I thought walking in the spirit of Jonah across a large city would be a good discipline and an exciting experience.

Finding the time to do it was another thing. As a pastor one never seems to have three days without responsibilities or appointments. Then the Baptist Union of Victoria scheduled the annual Assembly for 2019 to be held at New Hope Baptist Church – just 1.8 km from where I live in Blackburn. Why not walk to the meeting – but not from Blackburn. Walk from Olinda on the top of the Dandenong Mountains to the east of Melbourne! It’s only 23 km and almost exactly along the route I had originally planned for the Jonah Walk. It will be just the first day of the Walk, but a useful beginning – around 6 hours walking time with opportunity to stop for meeting and talking, praying and listening, and of course, for coffee.

Early in the morning Jane (my wife and fellow Pilgrim) drove me to Olinda where we prayed together looking over the city before I set off, trusty pilgrim staff in hand. For the story of the staff, which I found years ago on a night pilgrimage walk across the inner suburbs of Melbourne, please see the Pilgrimage Staff post below.

I left Olinda around 9am. It was a steep and slippery track down the mountain. The sounds of birds and insects were beautiful and I saw a mother duck with five ducklings who shared the path with me.

At a pilgrimage conference in July Prof George Greenia spoke on the importance of pilgrimage ‘soundscape’. Moving from the music of the forest to the Mountain highway traffic, to the noise in the cafe at the 1/4 way mark of the walk has been very stimulating.

I’ve been thinking of, and praying for, a range of people on the journey.

The beginning of the track
The oldest oak tree in The Basin, planted as an acorn in 1873

I’ve now made it to Ringwood – 16km walking. It’s not until you walk through a city that you realise how isolating the motor car is. Thousands have driven past me but we cannot talk or share our stories. So few are walking apart from the crowds around shopping centres or transport hubs. The strong, cold headwind is moving me to pray for those facing difficult passages of life – students in the final stages of the school year, refugees, some of the the elderly I have walked with, unable to drive and making their way slowly through the streets.

22km walked now. 1.4 to go! I’m resting near the corner of Springfield Rd and Surrey Rd. It’s been an exacting journey for the last 10 k but well worth it. Keeping focus has not been easy, but the struggle makes me much more aware of the suffering of others. I should arrive after 5pm.

Arrived at New Hope Baptist Church. It’s been a tiring but very worthwhile experience. Walkng across your own city gives a different sense of the scale of it. You also sense the types of people living in different parts of the suburbs – their ethnic background, their ages, whether an area has many families and young children. When passing schools I always prayed for the children who studied there.

The housing stock differs as you move from outer suburbs to the more middle ring suburbs. It was a strange experience to come across the first traditional Victorian weatherboard house with a picket fence (Mitcham). I’m sure there are others further out but this was my first on this trip.

Walking is a great way to think and pray and many of the world’s great thinkers have done their work while perambulating through nature and history. The Celtic Saints walked, prayed and preached. It was a privilege to try a small venture in this tradition. It will take some time to fully reflect on what it has taught.

Pilgrim Staff

Early one morning in December, several years ago, I was lying sleepless in bed at 3am, grappling with issues in life and ministry. Around 3.30am as I struggled to pray, it was as if a divine voice broke through the gloomy fog of my mood and commanded, “Get off your backside and do something!” So I rose and showered, dressed and packed, and at 4am set off to walk 11km from Kew to my office at the Welsh Church in La Trobe St, Melbourne.

It was while walking down the long hill beside Studley Park, just below the old palace of the Catholic Archbishops of Melbourne (now home to one of Melbourne’s business tycoons) that something in me cried out “Lord, I need a staff, a pilgrim staff!” So I stepped into the bush in the early morning light and fossicked around until I found a fallen stick of about the right thickness. I used my foot to break it to the length that suited me and together we rejoined the road and journeyed on.

I later found that the name of that episcopal palace and business mansion – Raheen – means ‘wooden hill fort’ in the ancient Irish tongue. What a great name for the wooden staff of a pilgrim! As I carried Raheen on that first day we had many experiences and insights together as I journeyed through suburbs and places connected with the previous 30 years of my life.

As I walked, the bark around the staff started to crack and break off, revealing that beneath the bark the timber of the stick had been carved in intricate patterns by generations of insects living between the bark and the wood. These patterns are evocative of some of the indigenous designs of Australia’s First Nations people. Is it both beautiful and very meaningful, as the tracks carved into the wood by the bugs that lived there tell the story of their lives from birth until they break through the bark into another realm of existence. It is not only a ‘walking staff’ but also a ‘story stick’ with many life stories woven into its intricate designs.

Raheen now has a silver ferrule on the top, round in shape like the traditional staffs of medieval pilgrims. It has a rubber crutch-tip fitted to the other end, making it reliable for support and steadiness in all ground conditions. It is a talking point with many I meet on my walks, and even on my rowing pilgrimage trips. So if you see an older man, walking the roads and tracks of Australia with a gnarled and scribbly old bush staff with a silver top, hail him and chat about life on the road and the joys of pilgrimage!

Waratah Bay pilgrim walk

A training walk today – just a few kilometres A round the Bay to prepare for a longer walk on Friday.

I started down through the Forest of the coastal reserve. On reaching the foot of the hill I turn northeast along the beach.

Walkerville campsites at the bottom of the hill.

The beach at Waratah Bay curves around past the settlements of Walkerville, Waratah Bay and Sandy Point. As I walk the birds are twittering in the forest on my left and the waves are lapping the ancient rocks to the right.

Some of the oldest rocks in Victoria are found along this stretch of coast. These beautiful eroded beds lie close the the ‘corner where the beach turns from the northeast toward the east.

The threatened hooded plover nests in this beach. Walking these sands reminds us of the fragility of nature and the damage humans are doing to the environment.

Human habitation on this coast goes back many Millenia. Occasional shell middens testify to earliest settlement but many have been scattered by the sea. More recent settlement is witnessed by the occasional ‘pebble’ of weathered hand-made brick dating to 19th century like that below.

The Forest comes right down the beach.

Since medieval times the scallop shell with its radiating lines from the hinge or nodal point of the shell has been the symbol of the pilgrim. “All roads lead to Rome, or Jerusalem, or Santiago de Compostela.” But Celtic pilgrimage has no destination, just hopeful wandering ‘to a land that I will show you’.

I sometimes think the shells on this beach are a better symbol of the twisted, varied, sometimes damaged, often beautiful architecture of life’s journey.

Pilgrim tools

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet/ my staff of faith to lean upon/ my scrip of joy – immortal diet!/ my bottle of salvation / my gown of glory, hope’s true gage/ and thus I’ll make my pilgrimage. (Sir Walter Raleigh)

Hooded plovers on the beach
Wilson’s Prom across the bay
Scallop shell on the beach

In the last 100m of the beach walk I came across this scallop shell. Right at the destination – Waratah Bay township. A perfect symbol to finish this little journey!

The Pilgrims

Jim Barr is a Pilgrim steeped in the Celtic tradition of peregrinatio, that wandering on land and sea that characterised the Celtic monks of the 6th-8th centuries. Of Scots extraction (generations ago) he is an Australian who seeks a spiritual engagement with the mystery of this continent and its ancient civilisations through a respectful journeying through country – that reality of place revered and understood by First Nations Australians.