Doug McPhillips has walked the epic 800 km Camino de Santiago not once, but three times. His pilgrimages have been in response to tragedies and hardships he’s personally experienced, and he credits the Camino for changing his perspective on life.
Doug hopes many others will follow in his footsteps and unlock their own voyage of self-discovery …
Hi Doug. What’s your relationship with both the Port Macquarie and New England areas?
My career after leaving school was with the Commonwealth Bank from 1963 to 1968, during which time I was stationed in Macksville, Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie. I played some football for the local side but mainly, being young, just had a good time.
I was moved to Inverell on the tablelands for a year, but eventually moved to Sydney and transferred to the old PMG (now Telstra) for three years, before joining AMP in sales for six years in Sydney, eventually being appointed Regional Manager AMP based in Tamworth and later Inverell.
After 13 years I resigned and purchased the Walcha Newsagency in 1980 and sold it in 1987. During this time, I returned to Port Macquarie once a month to help establish business and tourist interests there. In conjunction with local businesses, we had Port local business guest speakers at our monthly meetings. This was my day of escaping the seven day a week grind of a busy newsagency business. It re-established my business contact with Port, and I still have administrative business interests there since those days.
My vision is to return to Port and the Mid North Coast, where I still belong to a bush walking club which has links from Taree to Port and inland to Armidale! I still do the occasional weekend walks and camp outs with the local members and friends when I find time to head north and out of the big smoke “rat race” of Sydney.
As a side interest, my ancestors on my father’s side come from Tamworth and Gunnedah and my mum’s from the Clarence. My great aunt was the first Matron of Tamworth Base Hospital and my grandfather was a teamster who drove cattle and sheep across the Liverpool Plains for a living. My Boundary Rider song is centred around his exploits and mine up there in the New England.
Many readers may not have heard of the Camino de Santiago … Tell us a bit about the route and the countryside.
The Camino de Santiago traditional French route follows the route taken by Charlemagne, the French General, and his army in the 8th Century. It was the route taken by Napoleon Bonaparte when he marched his army there in the 1800s and conquered Spain and Portugal during the French – Spanish war(s).
There are nine routes in all, including the route from Paris, France; Lisbon, Portugal; Munich, Germany, etc. All nine believe theirs is the “traditional” way.
The French Way was (and still is) the most popular during medieval times, and pilgrims have walked the way now for over 1,000 years. Back then it attracted over 5,000 pilgrims a week, but slowly lost its appeal as a way of pilgrimage due to wars between Spain and its neighbours, including the Spanish – American war of course.
Today, due too much promotion in the 1950s and a resurgence of pilgrimages to “holy” places, it has revived. In 2017, some 250,000 pilgrims descended on the Cathedral for the Pilgrims’ Mass at the end of the pilgrimage. It is probably more of a spectacle of entertainment than a spiritual experience. Of those who attend the service in the summer months, only 20% are Catholic and most attend the service out of respect, curiosity, or just because it is the done thing.
This year in summer it is expected to record over 300,000 attendees to the daily midday Mass celebration. This does not count those who do not attend the Mass service or those who walk in the colder months. So, the real figure of how many “pilgrims” actually do the walk is an unknown.
The Way first attracted attentions as a path of pilgrimage after the reported finding of St. James’ bones in 810 – declared and identified as “fact” as his bones by the local bishop, to help bolster financial support for the ongoing wars with the Moors (Muslims) on the Iberian peninsula; the Christians and the Moors wanting the territory for its rich harvest of silver, bronze and other precious metals.
Pilgrims consisted of priests, prisoners, slaves and those who got paid to walk for the wealthy, so that they would receive grace and penance for their “sins” in the next life. Other free souls walked for their own reasons and a sense of freedom, as happens today.
The traditional French way follows the route over the Pyrenees Mountains in Northern Spain, through ancient cities and villages, across desert plains, on cobblestone streets of small hamlets once frequented by Roman chariots, French armies and the great soldier of Saladin of the Moors, to Germanic tribesmen, earliest European man and every nationality of the known ancient world.
Any small village church displays the architecture of Greek, Roman, Gothic, Muslim and Christian architecture and the ornate influence of the Spanish themselves. One may sit at the end of the day in a small church to unwind, having dispensed with backpack and boots, and be captured by the architecture alone, without consideration of the spirituality which seems to flow through the veins in such places.
The way stretches over hill and dale to Santiago, some 800 km away, to the Cathedral’s Christian celebration. Some pilgrims then venture on to “Finisterre”, to the “end of the Earth” to throw away or burn some item of clothing or boots as an acceptance that less is more and letting go of needed possessions is an ultimate sacrifice. (I did not do this, as I needed my boots and my gear for future walks, I figured!)
In your view, what’s the historical significance of the Camino?
The influence and experience of understanding the hunter-gatherers conversion to community and village life over the centuries; the myths that developed since the time of Christ, which are still believed throughout Northern Spain today in small insular hamlets. The still existing influences of the occult, witchcraft and Christianity in Spain today. The variety of architecture that exists throughout. Celebrations like the “running of the bulls” and the link with the killing of saints. The link with Christ and St. James in Spain, the arts, music and economic changes influenced me on my journey, which I have documented in my story of The Way in my writings.
When did you first walk this route – and why did you decide to commit to this initial journey?
My first Camino was in 2013 and was a letting go of much grief and personal baggage when my ex-wife left me after 28 years of marriage and my second eldest son committed suicide. I let go of a lot of pain and suffering and through it was inspired to write a book of poems and my first album of songs. It may never have happened had I not walked The Way.
What did you discover about yourself (and others) on this first trek?
I discovered a new sense of freedom and that what I thought I needed from a material perspective was not essential in reality. “Less is more”, so to speak, although in truth I still don’t live that way but am conscious of the fact that in a changing world, materialism is a puff of smoke in the scheme of things.
I also learnt that other needs are somewhat more important than my own – in a sense, life is not all about Doug.
The Camino must have left a lasting impression on you, as you’ve now completed it three times. When did you complete your second and third walk … and did these differ greatly from your first experience?
I returned to the Camino on the Portuguese route in 2015, as I already had a template in my head for another book. What resulted was research on the miracles of Fatima, a journey down the path of the Templar Knights, a brief romance that caused me to write in my next book about the differences between lust and love and the lessons one must undertake as a consequence.
I returned in 2017 to recover after a long bout of depression and anxiety in 2016. I did that journey for me i.e. my recovery back to mental health. It has resulted in another book, Santiago Traveller, which is my journey of The Way, looking back on the first and second Camino and the benefit and lessons learnt therein. It has led me to appreciate life in the now, friendships, family and the love of oneself and the so called spirit that exists within us all.
You’ve written several books, poems and songs about your Camino experiences, which are available to purchase on your website: caminoway.com.au – what do you most hope listeners and readers will learn/experience through your words and music?
There’s something about that walk that draws you back – it inspires creativity.
It’s a real journey of awakening and enlightenment. What seems important in our three-dimensional world doesn’t seem important when you’re walking the Camino. There’s a sense of freedom that you don’t normally strike in the modern world.
I’m not necessarily suggesting people do the actual Camino de Santiago, but to step out there and do something different, to think about where they’re at, and how their life is.
Why would you encourage others to complete their own pilgrimage?
I believe all peoples should get away from the known and step out into the unknown at some point in their lives. As stated by Phil Cousineau, “The traveller, the pilgrim, cannot find deep meaning on their journey (life) until they encounter what is truly sacred”. In truth, I see the doorway, but I am still climbing the mountain in that regard. Perhaps another Camino; what do you reckon?
Interview: Jo Robinson.
Visit: www.caminoway.com.au to contact Doug or to purchase his books and music.
Doug plans to hold a presentation in February (date to be confirmed) at Bookface, Port Macquarie, entitled, What is a Pilgrimage and Why Do It?
Check Bookface’s social media for updates or contact Doug for further details.