The Aussie Camino

shrine dedicated to Australia's only saint, Mary MacKillop,

The Aussie Camino is a picturesque pilgrimage inspired by Australia’s only saint, Mary MacKillop. The Way is from Portland, Victoria to Penola in South Australia, places associated with St. Mary McKillop of the Cross.

The Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St James”, is a network of routes across Western Europe leading to the resting place of the apostle Saint James the Great.

While Caminos traditionally lead travellers to a place of spiritual significance, many of their walkers are not religious. Most are, however, open to soul-searching.


For 1,000 years, millions of people have walked in each other’s footsteps on a revered pilgrimage trail in north-western Spain.

The Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St James”, is a network of routes across Western Europe leading to the resting place of the apostle Saint James the Great.

More than just a hike, people often embark on the 809-kilometre walk that leads them away from their daily routines and usual comforts for a variety of deeply personal reasons.

For Melbourne’s Luke Mills, it was a life-changing family tragedy that deepened his interest in “the Camino”, as the pilgrimage is colloquially known.

Mr Mills was grappling with his wife Gabriella’s unexpected death in 2008 and the reality of raising their three young children alone.

“It was a very aggressive form of leukaemia and in a very, very short time she had passed away,” Mr Mills said.

 Luke Mills with his wife Gabriella
Luke Mills with his wife Gabriella and their three children in 2008.(Supplied: Luke Mills)

He had heard about the Camino de Santiago in the 1990s and said the idea of people walking “hundreds and hundreds of kilometres to this place in Spain … just captured me”.

“There was a whole history behind it, it was wrapped up in the crusades, it was the Knights Templar, and there were castles and churches and things built along the way,” he said.

“It had a thousand years of history.”

In the years after his wife’s death, Mr Mills’ yearning to walk the Camino grew — but he could not leave his grieving children or afford a plane ticket to Spain.

Then in 2010, Mary MacKillop was canonised as Australia’s first saint — and Mr Mills realised that Australia could offer its own Camino pilgrimage.

 

Cape Bridgewater
Sunrise over Cape Bridgewater, near Portland in south-west Victoria, where Mary MacKillop began her teaching career.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

The Aussie Camino

The high school English teacher delved into Mary MacKillop’s life story and found the inspiration he was looking for.

Following in her footsteps, he charted a journey from Portland on the far south-western Victorian coast — where Mary had started teaching — to Penola, 160 kilometres away in South Australia, where she started the order of the Sisters of St Joseph.

But when Mr Mills arrived in Penola after completing his first Camino in 2014, it marked a much longer journey than the distance he had just walked.

“[The Camino] gave me time to meditate and to ruminate on what was coming up next, or how to deal with all the things that had just occurred in my life,” he said.

Planning that first pilgrimage with two workmates was a means of recovery for him.

 

Luke Mills with the two workmates
Luke Mills with the two workmates — Mick and Steve — who went with him on his first Aussie Camino.(Supplied: Luke Mills)

“After that trip, the other two guys — Mick and Steve — were quite happy to leave it at that, but I wondered if there [might be] any more interest,” Mr Mills said.

He put the word out in a group email and within days had 33 keen responses.

“That made it clear to me that there was something good about the Camino — and there is something good about this story, and there is something good about this place,” he said.

Since 2014, Mr Mills has taken 400 pilgrims on the picturesque, 160-kilometre walk now known as the Aussie Camino.

 

 Luke Mills
Luke Mills founded the Aussie Camino walk in 2014.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Spiritual experience for the non-religious

While Caminos traditionally lead travellers to a place of spiritual significance, many of their walkers are not religious. Most are, however, open to soul-searching.

“I think anybody who goes out on a Camino still goes out sort of asking the big questions,” Mr Mills said.

“It could be the loss of a job, the loss of a partner, the death of a friend or some major separation.”

For some, it’s about finding a clear path forward when they’ve lost their way.

Melbourne writer Sue Gunningham is walking the Aussie Camino, hoping to find a way to overcome writer’s block.

“Being on a Camino silences everything and you can hear yourself thinking and suddenly you kind of know what it is you believe in,” she said.

 Sue Gunningham
Melbourne’s Sue Gunningham intends on finding four or five good stories from walking the Aussie Camino.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

In the group of 11 walkers she has joined, she is one of the “non-believers”. Something that has not put her off.

“If you’re not a religious person it doesn’t appear to me that there’s a lot of praying to be done. In fact, when people get in at night they go straight to the fridge and get the beer out.”

 

 Most mornings start early.
Most mornings start early.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Rising to the challenge

One of those walkers enjoying a beer most nights is social activist Bernie Cronin.

The Catholic from Richmond, in Melbourne, describes the journey as a poet or a philosopher might.

“It’s not about a human having a spiritual experience, it’s about a spiritual being having a human experience,” he said.

“The human experience is sore muscles, blisters, driving wind, sunburn and so forth, but it’s this opportunity to be with oneself, to be with nature, and that is indeed at the heart of spirituality.

“People can … have the same experience whether they have a religious understanding or faith or not.”

Bernie Cronin,
For Aussie Camino walker Bernie Cronin, the spiritual side of the walk is a big factor.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Ian Baker has come from Darwin to trek the Camino for a second time after walking it with Mr Mills in 2019.

“I’m not a Catholic but I think there’s a big connectivity between the spirituality of walking and the religious beliefs of Mary MacKillop,” Mr Baker said.

“Every day’s a challenge and it’s a different challenge and you don’t know what the challenge is going to be, so you have to deal with the challenge every day.

Walkers travel anywhere from 16 to 35 kilometres
Walkers travel anywhere from 16 to 35 kilometres each day over the course of 10 days.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“The momentum of every day, one foot after the other … and then you look back to where you’ve come from and you think, ‘My God that’s a long way back, did I walk that far?'”

Why Mary MacKillop?

The canonising of Mary MacKillop in 2010 really resonated with Mr Mills.

“I thought at the time that it was a very significant occasion, but it was still a very Catholic story, it was confined a little bit to the Catholic community,” Mr Mills said.

 

shrine dedicated to Australia's only saint, Mary MacKillop,
A shrine dedicated to Australia’s only saint, Mary MacKillop, in Penola, SA.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“[I wanted] to recognise and celebrate the life of this woman in a much more Australian, mainstream sort of thing that everybody can enjoy.”

Along the way, walkers learn about MacKillop’s legacy of fighting for the rights and education of migrants, domestic violence victims, women in prison, and others less fortunate in the late 19th century.

She is also informally known as a patron saint of sexual abuse victims for her role in exposing a paedophile priest.

“She came up against a lot of opposition and I think for a lot of her life came up against a lot of men … who really made her life very difficult in many circumstances,” Mr Mills said.

Foreshore at Portland
Aussie Camino walkers meet in Melbourne but start the walk in Portland, in south-west Victoria.

It is a story Mr Cronin wishes all Australians would become familiar with.

“She responded to the provision of care for orphans at a time when governments didn’t do this kind of thing and that simple truth is something, we should all embrace,” Mr Cronin said.

“It’s simply about we’re humans, we’re connected, and we should care for those who are less fortunate and more vulnerable.”

Revealing nature’s wonders

As pilgrims make their way along the Aussie Camino, they traverse cliff tops, forests and farmlands, and pass lakes and blowholes. Sometimes all in one day.

“It’s a small pocket [of Australia] which a lot of people don’t really know much about,” Mr Mills said.

“They’re quite overwhelmed by how beautiful and lovely it is and how much the landscape changes over the course of the trip.”

 

Cape Bridgewater Lakes
Walkers meet at the end of a day’s trek at Cape Bridgewater Lakes, Victoria.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

A fork in the road

Mr Mills stopped leading Camino groups in 2019.

“I was working full-time all through this and a few groups approached me and said, ‘We really like the idea of the Camino, can we take some groups out?’,” he said.

“These groups can probably take out more people than I can and they’re professional groups.

“The whole time my goal has been just to get people to go.”

Sue Fischer
Sue Fitcher leads the Aussie Camino with her tour group Getaway Trekking & Adventures, one of three groups that received Luke Mills’ blessing to continue the pilgrimage.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

But Mr Mills had some conditions. He wanted the new organisers to keep some traditions of the Spanish Camino, to read morning reflections from St Mary, and to ensure the pilgrims carry a shell — the Camino symbol — and a passport to be stamped at the places they visit and stay as a physical reminder of their journey.

Mr Mills hopes others will enjoy the pilgrimage as much as he has.

“Caminos are good. They allow people to share, they allow people to ponder, and they’re very good for the communities [they visit],” he said.

“I’m really thankful to the Camino because it’s given me a new lease on life.”

So did Mr Mills ever make the trip to Spain and walk the Camino that led him to create his own pilgrimage in Australia?

Luke Mills on the Camino in Spain
He made it: Luke Mills on the Camino de Santiago in Spain with his partner Michelle in 2018. (Supplied: Luke Mills)

He did, in October and November of 2018, with his partner Shelley.

And it was just as profound and enriching as he had hoped it would be.

 The Aussie Camino
The Aussie Camino takes modern-day pilgrims on a 160-kilometre walk following in the footsteps of Australia’s Saint Mary MacKillop. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

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