Category Archives: El Camino del Norte

Goodbye Dubai

When the alarm went off at 4am this morning I wished I’d gone to bed a little earlier than 3 hours prior. The notion of sleeping on the plane usually works for me, but my overtired, freezing cold state is preventing me from nodding off. I’m also in the middle, middle seat again. There’s definitely an unfortunate pattern reoccurring here.

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My friend Murad had ordered me a cab for 4:45am, and I was ready to spring out the door except for the fact it was running late. Had I known what lay ahead of me at the airport I may have been a little more concerned, but 10 minutes later I was cruising along the colourful streets of this crazy magical city half asleep without a care in the world.

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Then it all started. I wasn’t able to use the self check in which meant I had to line up in a horrifically long checkin queue which took 30 minutes to reach the counter.

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Once there the woman explained the flight was completely full, there was no way to change my seat, then she tapped and mumbled for a while before taking my passport over to another attendant on the far end of the checkin area. I waited for over 10 minutes, thinking she’s either trying really hard to move me to a better seat or maybe there’s a problem and she’ll come back with a couple of hardcore looking security personnel to escort me away. Why do airports always make you feel like you’re breaking the law in some weird way?

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My pack only weighed 8kg but the other 2kg was in my smaller rucksack which I’m carrying on the plane. When the woman did finally return she explained something quite odd about Spain not accepting my Australian passport. I ruffled around and handed her my Dutch one, feeling even more like some international undercover agent dressed as a backpacker.

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The whole checkin process took 45 minutes. Then came the queue for passport control. This is when I thought there could be a possibility of missing my flight. The photo below doesn’t do it justice, but the line ups were incredible, backing up even before people had passed through the entrance. I shuffled forward about one step every couple of minutes, checking my watch at least every 20 seconds and trying to gauge the levels of panic of those around me. No one seemed that phased really, meaning this must be typical for Dubai airport and as such they’d all arrived at least 3 hours early for their flight.

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When I finally reached the lady at the desk she flipped through every page of my unidentifiable passport which is so worn now you cannot see what country it’s from on the outside. She got to the end of the pages, asked if I had a visa, then looked through every page again to find my stamps from Oman. When she looked for the third time I honestly started to question if my trip to Oman had in fact been some incredibly vivid dream. Surely I got the right stamps coming back in??

Finally she stopped on one of the pages, turned it upside down for a better look, then grabbed her stamp and thumped it down. Immediate relief. By this time my flight was already boarding and I still had security to get through. In my haste I almost left my phone in the plastic tub and almost ignored the man calling me back thinking they wanted to search my bag and delay me even further. On the way to the gate I ran into the bathroom, but again the line was so long there was no time. I ran back out and reached the gate as they were making the final call. I now understand why they suggest arriving at the airport at least two hours beforehand!

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I’m sitting next to a young Spanish couple on my left who haven’t stopped talking for the last 4 hours. I haven’t made eye contact with them yet. On my right is a sweet elderly Indian woman who offered me to sleep on her shoulder after my head was dipping forward twice while falling asleep seated. I politely declined but she insisted several times, until I eventually gave in and awkwardly rested my head there for a few seconds of complete weirdness before thanking her and removing it. She lives on an island off the coast of Spain and is a vegetarian. These are the only two bits of information I know about this woman who offered to be my human head rest for the flight.

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Just when I thought I’d used my quota of strange occurrences for the day, I arrived in Madrid, went to the transfer desk, got my next boarding card and then got stopped at passport control because I said I was going to San Sebastián and not Gran Canaria like my boarding pass said. Never mind the fact the guy wasn’t at all concerned that my name wasn’t Thomas Strankojr! He simply told me to go through despite my insisting I go back to the transfer desk for a new pass. He just shook his head and waved me through. Bizarre.

I managed to grab myself a new boarding card, SIM card and European travel plug, so other than forgetting the PIN number for my UK bank card I’m in great shape. Next stop San Sebastián!

Two days to go

It’s 8:30pm on Thursday night in Dubai and I’m drinking coffee watching people skiing in the snowfields of the Mall of the Emirates. This is not the first time I’ve seen it, but again I’m struck by the absurdity and equal wow factor of an indoor ski venue in the middle of the desert.

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This is my second and final shopping excursion for Spain and I’m having to swallow the now or never reality and just grab what I can. I don’t recommend planning a 30 day hike in one week. There’s nothing heroic or admirable about being unorganised or unprepared, but the idea of taking each day as it comes is a refreshing one, especially knowing that supplies are so close to the trail. I started my shopping expedition back at Carrefour where I purchased my suitcase a couple of days ago…

I managed to collect the majority of items on my list (deodorant stick, zip lock bags, pocket knife, wipes, antiseptic cream, tape for blisters, lip balm), but failed to come across waterproof or rain pants despite my efforts to mimic rain with my hands to some of the staff who clearly didn’t speak english or have a clue what I was talking about. For some reason I felt like I was moving in slow motion through the mall, completely drained of energy, wondering  what my fitness will be like after two months of only walking to and from site. I haven’t carried my pack for almost 6 months now, although it will be much lighter with only minimal food and snacks plus water. Currently my base weight is only 10kg! After successfully finding rain pants and ignoring the huge price tag that came with them, I needed a caffeine pep up and moment to regroup at Costa.

Next stop was Borders in the hope to find a pocket sized Spanish phrase book. They had every other language but Spanish, however they had a larger book that had a mix of European languages. There were about 12 pages out of the 120 for Spanish, so like any typical hiker with a little ingenuity, I took photos of the pages that will help me to ask how to get to the centre of town, hostel, campground, how to order basic food and say hello, goodbye and thank you. I’m set!

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After all the excitement of Emirates Mall I came home and laid all my items on the couch to reassess. The reality of the trail dawned on me a little looking at the contents of my life for the next 30 days, but to be honest it will continue to feel like a dream until I step off the plane on Saturday afternoon.

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Adventure HQ

It’s been so enjoyable to see many of the old names pop up recently in my notifications to share the excitement about my new journey to Spain. Ken you make me laugh, I promise to make it fun for you too!

I was searching for a good book to relax with in my week of nothing before the trail begins, and serendipitously between the few books my friend keeps on his shelf, I pulled out a book called ‘The Pilgrimage’ by Paulo Coelho. I looked at the title, thought ‘this is fitting’, turned the book around to read the back and raised my voice a few decibels when I discovered the
book was about the El Camino de Santiago. Not exactly the same trail, as I’m taking the northern route as opposed to the route starting from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, but it hasn’t taken long for trail magic to enter my world again.

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Today I’m heading to ‘Adventure HQ’ in the hope to supplement my current gear with a few additional bits and pieces I either wore out on the trail (hiking poles), or left in Vancouver thinking I’d be returning before my next hike. Unfortunately some of my gear that is on the other side of the world in North America are my favourite pieces of clothing and gear: my Marmot wind breaker, my MSR water bladder, my Arcteryx puffy jacket and my tiny little pocket knife for fending off mountain lions and cutting moleskin!

These are the items on today’s shopping list:
– suitcase (to leave my current life in Dubai)
– socks
– hiking poles
– sleeping mat
– smart wool top
– arnica cream
– rain jacket
– rain pants
– pocket knife
– water bladder
– mini bike light for tent
– Velcro for gaiters
– cheap sunglasses
– cheap warm gloves
– little hook on sunscreen
– wipes
– protector for maps
– big safety pin
– leukotape
– garbage liner bag
– lip balm

When I arrive in Spain I’m hoping to purchase a local SIM card for my phone and some snack food before I start the hike. I also need to plan how to get to the start point of the trail in Irun from San Sebastián airport and a possible place to stay on night zero. Any ideas?

In the cab on the way to Time Square we got caught in a traffic jam long enough for the driver to get out his phone and start watching a movie. When he tired of this he sat and counted all his money, took a phone call, then returned his eyes to the road and continued driving. We were stopped no more than 5 minutes. Multitasking at its finest!

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I was full of excitement as we pulled up to Adventure HQ, thinking that the sheer size of the store would mean they’d have at least something close to what I was looking for. There is a significant difference in hiking gear in the US compared to the Middle East, and as I should have guest the store seemed more about expensive brands than practical gear. The only smart wool items were long sleeve base layers, and the only foam sleeping pad was about as thin as my Therm-a-rest Z Lite after 6 months on the PCT. The man in the store told me the sleeping pad in my hand was for ‘one time use only’. This made me laugh. He then showed me the Neo Air. I looked at the price tag, rolled my eyes and grabbed the foam mat.

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Out of all the items on my list I walked out of the store with the four most important: A Marmot rain jacket, Black Diamond Hiking poles (Z-fold but they didn’t have the carbon fiber ones I love), the sleeping pad and a bike light for my tent. My new mission will be to find a store in Dubai that sells anything ‘cheap’. Will have to tackle that one tomorrow.

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What’s next?

I’m in the middle of packing my suitcase ready to leave Abu Dhabi for Dubai tomorrow afternoon. There was never really a question in my mind about what I was going to do after this job, more a question of would something pop up preventing me from doing it?

Since completing the PCT the draw towards walking another trail has been constant. I find myself reminiscing more and more about these moments. I’m like a broken record repeating the same stories over and over again. Lucky for me I have a different audience a lot of the time, allowing me to become carried away in the storytelling of a time which actually feels more like fiction than fact to me now.

Without time to plan suitably for another endeavour like the PCT, I’ve decided to venture to a different part of the world to wander through a country, culture and environment that again is quite foreign to me.

After reviewing the video above I realised my skills with the camera are becoming even worse than they used to be when I turn the phone around and film either the roof or the sky instead of what’s in front of me! Further training is required!

The Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James is a network of pilgrimage routes throughout France, Spain and Portugal that lead to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in Northwest Spain. I’m planning to walk the Camino del Norte which hugs the northern coast of Spain for the most part before joining with the more popular Camino Frances for the last leg of the trail.

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The total trip is 823km over approximately 32 days. This is what I’ve captured during my 15 minutes of research. Over the next 7 days I hope to know a little more before I step foot off the plane in San Sebastián.