The Walking Club of Victoria is a Melbourne-based walker's club that organises weekly walks in, around and outside of the city. I was kindly invited to join one of their Sunday walks for which we gathered at 8:30AM around the back of Southern Cross Station and then car pooled. With four of us comfortably seated and our destination Steiglitz entered on the map, we headed west out onto the highway. The city thinned and eventually gave way to dry farmland. As we drove I talked to my fellow passengers who told me about some of their more adventurous hikes in the thin Himalayan air of Nepal. Those days were behind them now and the Australian outback was where they now did most of their walking.
Once we'd all arrived at our destination, an hour of so later, we stood in a circle and began with a formal introduction to the walk and the day. Our guide was a relatively new member of the club and she was being mentored by a more experienced walker. In a sense, she was the beginner and was leader in name only, but her responsibilities were, nonetheless, real. This was a learning experience for her and a way in which the club brought in new people and gave them the skills to lead walks. She explained what the walk would be like (she had already scouted it with another club member) gave us some advice on how to stay safe in the hot weather and welcomed today's new member, which would be me.
We walked out of Steiglitz and saw the remains of this gold-rush mining town. At one time it was home to over 1500 people. Streets such as Barry Street, pictured here, would have been lined with more or less temporary structures, all of which have now vanished. When the gold dried up there was little else to keep people here: today the population is in single figures. As I am currently developing a project for another 19th Century mining village, Allenheads in Northumberland, I was set wondering why one village was able to adapt and another has all but disappeared.
As we walked we talked. The way conversations flow on longer walks, like this, is quite specific. The duration, the rhythm of the footsteps and the changing scenery allow for pauses and silences, for interruptions and observations whilst still maintaining enough direction for the conversation to continue. You invest time and effort into the walk and this rubs off in the connection with the other walkers. I find people are usually more open when walking in nature, more focussed on what and who is around them than on their phones, as is often the case. As we headed up a largely dry stream bed, the path became more broken and the walking became harder. I heard some nice stories about the club which was founded in 1947, and which had seen pretty much everything, it seemed. At one point, apparently, there was a spate of its members getting married to one another, and on another walk some years ago, a senior member had passed away. Whilst that must have been distressing for the rest of the people on the walk, it sounded like a pretty good way to go. They agreed; if it's your time, sitting down on a quiet rock in a beautiful place and letting go is just about ideal.
The plants and landscape were pleasingly unfamiliar to me. There were no two-headed turtles or carnivorous bushes, but when I examined the flora closely I could not say precisely what any of it was. Along the way we came across a lot of tall grasses, the most aggressive of which was this variety that reaches a metre in height and carries a nasty spike on the end. The hikers came equipped: some wore gaiters and many used walking poles to cut a path through the bush and work the arms at the same time. I understood why: this was not a gentle stroll in Surrey, there were plants here that could rip you up, there were (thankfully rarely) poisonous snakes too, to say nothing of the threat of bushfires that can race faster than a man can run. I checked my phone: there was no signal down here in the valley. This was not a good place to come alone or to act dumb in, this was a place to come prepared and in company.
I wanted to see if there were different ways the group's members walked through and experienced the landscape because, although this was one tour, I suspected there were numerous parallel tours taking place. I floated around spending a bit time with different people, dropping into their conversations and then, sometimes, I just walked on my own and let the landscape make its own impression. As expected, there was quite a contrast in how we walked. One lady was keen on interpreting the rocks and trees and seeing things into them. For example, we sat in front of these rocks, which she called 'the temple' because they reminded her of a Greek temple, and once she had said it I also started to see it too. It was fun, not to say enlightening, to walk and talk with her and see the trail through her imagination. I then spent some time with a serious bush whacker who had a very specific and efficient way of forging a path through rough terrain. As he and a friend of his walked, they looked around and compared this trail to other trails they knew in other parts of Victoria. They were serious walkers. This variety of perspectives made me think that I should like to better understand how indigenous Australians view, cross and imagine this landscape. Theirs, however, must be a very different way of walking, one most probably quite antithetical to this.
At lunchtime the gatorade came out. I was offered some and while I'm sure it serves its purpose of rehydrating admirably, it is not a pleasant brew. I have a tribal loyalty for Irn Bru (Scottish family) which I admit is not consensual stuff either, but I was surprised to learn that there are Gatorade cocktails; an Angry Granny = gatorade and whisky; an H-Bomb = gatorade and malibu. Hmm, I think I'll stick to the gin and tonic.
At some point the trail levelled off and it became easier to stroll, look around and take everything in. That is when the otherness of this place really hit me.
The early afternoon sun was pretty hot and on the home stretch back into Steiglitz we fell into a more languid rhythm. A conversation question I overhead was, "Have you ever had skin cancer?" This struck me as a question you wouldn't often hear asked in a British walking club. In the UK you'd be more inclined to hear people ask where they went to find some sun. Towards the end of the walk, one of the group (not the lady above) had to take a stop for a breather in the forest, the heat getting the better of him. The club sprung into care mode and I discovered a number of the walkers came from medical backgrounds, and those who didn't were also active immediately planning a way to get him out, carrying him if need be. Finally, all he needed was a break and he was back on his feet and tramping back into Steiglitz in no time. It was reassuring, all the same, to see how the club takes safety seriously and everyone was really looking out for one another.
When we were done we jumped back into the cars and headed over to a nearby cafe. Over custard tarts and refreshments I asked some of them why they were a part of the club. Their answers were varied but overlapping, the most common ones being that it was good exercise, a pleasant social activity and the club enabled them to go to beautiful places they probably wouldn't otherwise visit. The bonds of friendship seemed deep; even if the club's marrying days were over, at least for the time being, they seemed to connect well as people. I also learnt that there are a number of walking clubs in and around Melbourne, and that there is really quite some variety in them. I started to see that there was an understated competition for members between the clubs as they all need to ensure a consistent stream of new blood into their clubs. I felt that this club was doing things right; it could never be all things to everybody, what matters most is that it is meaningful for the people who do it and that it remains sustainable. In this respect, not being too large was actually quite a good thing: over the duration of the walk I had time to talk to just about everyone.
In a similar way to how we began, the computers and GPS stepped back in. It doesn't look too tough a walk, according to the stats, but fighting our way up the dry river bed, weaving from side to side was not smooth going. If I lived in Melbourne I would definitely give them a go again, they not only organise walks every week but also talks on subjects relevant to their outings. I suppose the most similar tour to this one that I have made recently was the trip up El Teide in Tenerife this Summer. That was a good deal more arduous and uncertain than this one, as our guide had never made the trip himself. This was an altogether more relaxed and comfortable walk, as I would expect of a club that had been doing this for over 60 years. What they had in common was they were about walking in nature and letting that be the strongest element, rather than listening to a guide telling a story. To put it another way, on these tours, the walk itself is the story and the guide is simply there to help us better hear it.