Walking with the world: Tasmanian pilgrimage travels the globe

By Veronika Cox

A Belgium girl on horseback. A Canadian father with icicles in his beard. A woman in South Africa. A family in Croatia.

They walk in sunshine, clouds, snow and rain. They brave sub-zero temperatures and extreme heat. They walk in forests, on mountains, through cities and suburbs, by rivers and highways.

From far-flung corners of the earth, hundreds of people will unite in peace and solidarity this weekend as they undertake the Way to St James Global Pilgrimage.

The event – which began in 2016 as a local pilgrimage in Southern Tasmania – has burst onto the international stage this year, with walkers on almost every continent registering to be part of the unique global experience.

“I think, frankly, we have tapped into a real need around the world,” Fr Michael Tate said.

“The fact is that this pandemic is not a fleeting phenomenon. It is now part of our world experience and that is why it needs a worldwide response. What this event shows is the resilience of human beings. It is born out of adversity. Instead of throwing our hands up in despair, something creative has emerged.”

The traditional two-day pilgrimage, inspired by the famous Spanish El Camino of St James, winds its way through the scenic and peaceful Huon Valley to a celebration at the Spanish mission styled Church of St James, nestled in the heart of Cygnet.

When the event was cancelled due to COVID restrictions in 2020, the organising committee decided something had to be done to maintain the spirit of the event.

“We came up with the idea of a virtual camino – a way to walk with us wherever you live,” Way to St James Cygnet committee member Leanne Prichard explained.

This year, it was discovered by the world.

“The response has been nothing short of amazing,” Fr Tate said.

“Our pilgrimage is for any person of any faith – or indeed none at all – open to a meditative walk through natural surroundings, so as to join in a common endeavour around the world to restore body, mind and spirit in these anxiety-ridden times.”

Ms Prichard, who walked the inaugural Way to St James pilgrimage, said while not everyone does the trek for spiritual reasons, there is a sense of deep connection.

“The camino gives you lessons for everyday life and you learn to accept, with love and respect, that everyone has their own path,” she said.

“If everyone treated each other like they do on the camino, we wouldn’t have any problems in the world.”

And that, she says, is the essence of the pilgrimage.

“It is a unifying thing in this global pandemic. There is this affiliation and connection with all other pilgrims. You become a family.”

Many of the registered pilgrims have walked the Camino de Santiago, and, after connecting through social media, are eager to rekindle the spirit.

“It seemed a bit pie in the sky, at first, that we could have people walking all over the world,” Ms Prichard laughed.

“But now we have almost 1500 people following the event, with pilgrims signed up from every state in Australia and every continent in the world other than Antarctica.”

(Ms Prichard did contact an Antarctic Facebook group in the hopes of recruiting someone on the vast, icy landmass but unfortunately has not had a response. Yet.)

From Equador to Canada, from Wales to Paraguay, walkers will take up the traditional pilgrim’s scallop shell and pebble as they unite in their journey.

 “it is bigger than Tasmania now. It is a story that needs to be told,” Ms Prichard said.

“I don’t know of any other walk that unites people like this. It is exciting, uplifting and inspiring.

“The camino will change your life.”

The Way to St James Global Pilgrimage will be held over the weekend of 15-16 January. 

The pilgrimage opens with a blessing at Mountain River at 10.30am on Saturday and closes with a ritual at St James Church, Cygnet, at 3.30pm. These ceremonies will be livestreamed and available around the world.

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