Our Camino begins

Camino Day 1 SJPDP – Orisson

Assumptions based on previous experience can be found wanting with changes in circumstance. Based on Pam’s previous walking prowess walking the eight point five kilometers from St Jean Pied de Port to the Albergues Orisson will take a couple of hours. The Albergues Orission is small, having only 18 beds, and bookings need to made to have accommodation waiting on arrival. To successfully capture our booking we are told we must arrive by two in the afternoon. We strike out from St Jean Pied de Port at 8:45am.

We think (ignorance is bliss) that we are leaving early however over the next couple of days we realise that early means 4:00am or sooner in Camino time.

The first slope out of St Jean has me sweating and groaning about the weight of my pack, only 899 km to go I think. There is a slight downhill after the first slope encountered. Little did I know that would be the first of only three downhill sections for the day.

Onwards ever upwards, we sally forth, the sun by now blazing, the sky deep blue, the scenery green rural and spectacular above and beneath us.

Mick has a vast knowledge of the obscure, we sometimes catch him losing track of where he is and practicing strange martial art moves or providing someone with a deluge of information about a topic. Lexi and I, lovingly, have stolen a line from the movie ‘American Beauty’ and often have to tell Mick, ‘Honey don’t be weird’. Only a few kilometers into our ascent, I was struggling to catch my breath when Mick pulls out from his arsenal a Russian technique he has seen to help catch your breath and quickly lower your heart rate. This involves dropping your head and shaking your whole body while exhaling in short sharp breaths on the compression phases. Well, blow me down, it worked a treat, even with a backpack on.

Sorry Lexi, I have gone to the dark side.

People point and stare as we regularly stop and do our little jiggles, I teach the technique to a couple of ladies who are obviously labouring. They find it effective however as they fall behind us I see them bent over hyperventilating again. The power of aesthetics has triumphed over practicality again.

On the second of the three little down hills we come across a film crew shooting a man walking around a curve and up the slope in front. We can see the crew is just about to take a shot and we politely stop and remain silent as they shoot which endears us to the crew. Once the shot is taken we march on by grateful for the short downhill pause in the otherwise seemingly endless ascent.

About fifteen minutes after our encounter with the film crew they drive by us in their vehicles and suddenly I am walking beside the ‘star’ with cameras and sound booms in my face. The ‘star’ introduces himself, he is a medical doctor called John Davies from the Sunshine Coast Australia of all places. He has a firm handshake and seems like a very pleasant genuine fellow.

Pam has put on the afterburners after seeing the cameras and hightailed it way ahead of me however I am already walking at my maximum pace which the experienced John easily matches.

Of course I hightailed it out of there, I am not making my debut on the Oprah network with a beetroot red face, and the top of my head functioning as a working water fountain (worthy of a character from a Dr Seuss book).

He strikes up a conversation with me. We discuss the upcoming Australian Federal election and the imbecilic lengths to which politicians will stoop to garner favour with the populace at large in election times. He is desperate to find the results of the Fifth Cricket test against England and is disappointed I have no information to pass on. We talk of other simple things about Australia, the camera and boom mike getting it all. Me with my super attractive legionnaires hat flapping about my ears, sweat dripping from my entire body, panting between each sentence.

The crew eventually stop filming and ask for my consent to use the footage. On asking what they are shooting they state they are an American Oprah Winfrey production team shooting a documentary about belief systems throughout the world. Fourteen major belief systems across seven continents. I laughingly say that they must surely be able to find more photogenic participants than myself, they reply the conversation was interesting. As part of what the Camino is about for me is opening myself to new experience I give my consent.

So you may catch sight of me on television one day, watch out world here I come.

The film crew point out Pam who is dwindling in the distance and tell me laughing to ‘get the lead out’. I have no chance of catching Pam should she not want me too however seeing the cameras are no longer shooting she deigns to wait for me.

Onwards ever upwards, the route ahead becomes steeper with each turn of the narrow country road, bicyclists are abandoning their seats and pushing their bikes, the sun rises in the sky basking us all in shimmering glory. My Pacerpoles are showing their value now, with each arm thrust I am propelled upwards and forwards, easing the strain on my legs and knees.

It is still hard work though, by now my clothes are as wet as if I had jumped into a swimming pool fully clothed. Both Pam and I are labouring now. For the first time the Camino leaves the bitumen road. The path becomes even steeper, onwards ever upwards is my battle cry sighed between gasping inhalations.

By now our journey has become a funny little race like the old cartoon Wacky Races. We overtake a couple (Dastardly and Mutley) then pause for breath, they overtake us again, another couple overtakes us both then we overtake them five minutes later bent over double and gasping.

The sky is deep blue above us and the scenery the stuff of postcards as the town of St Jean Pied de Port dwindles below us. The pathway is uneven and focus is needed to maintain a footing on the steep unending slope.

Pam keeps telling me we will stop in the shade at the top, but the top never comes and I am running out of puff. I insist we pull over and we walk down a little farmers driveway and lie down on the grass to eat a handful of nuts and dried fruit. I lie with my head in Pam’s lap under the shade of an unknown (to me) tree species. The slope above and below us is steep and we can see for miles across the valleys to other mountains. It is peaceful and serene and despite my exhaustion I am replete in this moment of flickering sunshine and shadow.

Standing up again and dragging on my backpack was not pleasant and took me some time.

Not long after this we encounter our third downhill section which curves downhill to the right then up up up again. ‘What goes down must go up’ I think for the first of many times to come and we struggle on down the little slope.

Hidden at the bottom of the curve is the Albergues Orisson. The time is 1:00pm. We made our reservation time…….phew.

The film crew has stopped at the Alberques for lunch. John spies me and comes over to chat, sans cameras this time. He is in his sixties and has walked the Camino before, his son (also called Mick) is part of the production crew and we discover that we both went to the same high school Downlands Toowoomba.

I have never been a participant in any old boy rituals that boarding schools all seem to have and had only seen one or two of my old school friends in the last thirty years. The saying ‘it’s a small world after all’ makes sense to me at last.

While climbing the first leg of our ascent I had noticed eagles soaring thermals above us. During my conversation with John and Mick one after another gather above us until at last I count eighteen eagles circling in the wind above our heads. I point this out as a great shot for their documentary however the crew are engrossed in lunch and the moment passes.

John and I continue chatting and Pam joins us, John is a delight, sincere, energetic and has just had two grandchildren added to his family. His son had a child five weeks previously and the day before our encounter his daughter had given birth to her first child. He tells Pam and I that he has been walking the Camino with tears in his eyes rejoicing.

As the film crew departs he waves to us from the car and shouts Buen Camino.

A beautiful phrase I hope I never tire from hearing.

Pam by now has booked us into the Albergues and the friendly staff show us our room which is across the room from the Albergue proper under the deck where chairs and tables are used for daytime meals. We will be sleeping with two other ladies, Monica and Inger from Sweden. They both speak reasonable English and we are able to converse.

We have a shower in the broken down shower cubicle where the water pressure dribbles a slow stream over our tired bodies.

The shower is glorious and renewed we set about the chore of washing and drying our clothes, tending to our tired feet and bodies. We eat outside under a flapping awning on the deck that spans our rooms rooftop. The food is simple and tasty, the view magnificent.

That afternoon commencing 6:30pm we eat our first pilgrim meal, vegetable soup, followed by meat and beans. All washed down with red wine and water. The Albergues caters for vegetarians and Pam has a delightful salad that she is very happy with.

Everyone is friendly though a little hesitant, almost at the end of the meal the beautiful girl running things whistles loudly and announces first in French then English that tradition at the Albergues Orisson is for each pilgrim to introduce themselves, tell where they are from and where they hope to make their Camino journey to.

Each participant earns the applause of the rest and the conversation heats up after the end of this communal ritual.

The conversation dwindles with the setting sun, everyone is tired and we all know the climb continues higher on the second day than the first.

Pam and I trundle across the road, check our washing and tumble into our double bed (the last double bed we see for some time).

Despite the novel experience of sleeping with three women (in the room) I am asleep before I have time to fully pull on my bug eyes.


Mick and Pam

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