Age no barrier
At a time of life when most of us are thinking about slowing down, 80-year-old local Neil Dougherty is just warming up! Currently in training to walk the 1000-kilometre Via Podiensis across rural France in May this year, he is testament that age is no barrier when it comes to following your dreams.
It’s not the first time the former physical education teacher of almost 50 years has tackled what would be considered a daunting feat for someone half his age. In 2008, at the ripe old age of 70, Neil Dougherty fulfilled a lifelong ambition to walk the gruelling Kokoda Trail and at age 77, he and his wife Michele completed the iconic Camino Francés across northern Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Fighting fit and having just turned 80, Neil is ready for another challenge, when he and Michele take on another section of the Camino Francés walk in May.
“I remember when the opportunity came up to walk the Kokoda Trail with some mates who were ex-Vietnam vets I jumped at it straight away,” says Neil.
“I was excited about the walk but more importantly I had utmost respect and admiration for the Japanese and the Australians for what they did and they had to do so lugging all their weapons for 50 miles. How they did it I will never know.”
Despite being very well organised and having done his research on the terrain, Neil describes Kokoda as something you can never be truly prepared for.
“I remember we were a bit late leaving Kokoda on the first day, so by the time we crossed the river, it was almost black, there was a torrent, the rain was pelting down and we had to hook ourselves to a wire to cross it. I remember hiking up hills and all I could see were the heels of the person in front of me. It was hot and sticky and we slept in tents in the pouring rain.
“The first day when we crossed the rivers I would take my boots off, but after that, I just emptied them out, wrung out my socks, put them back on and kept going.”
But it was an Anzac Day ceremony at Brigade Hill, that brings tears to Neil’s eyes as he describes the vivid memory.
“Brigade Hill is one of the final stops along the trek, and it sits on a distinct ridge of just 25 metres at its widest point. There were over 200 people. One of them carried the bagpipes all the way and there were three generations who were in the Air Force and the daughter sang the national anthem, it was so moving,” he says.
Fast forward seven years and it was time to dust off the walking shoes and backpack, and in 2015, Neil tackled the Camino de Santiago, this time with wife, Michele in tow.
“I remember Michele flicked me an email about it and then it kept cropping up everywhere,” says Neil.
“They say if you are meant to walk the Camino it will keep hitting you in the face until you do it. Neil plans all the walks to the nth degree, I just go along,” Michele says, laughing.
“On that trip, we started with a visit to Gallipoli, then we did a boat cruise from Istanbul to Venice and unfortunately, I got really sick, so when I started the walk I wasn’t in good shape and the first stop is after an 850-metre vertical climb.
“I got to the end of the first day and thought there is no way I can do that again tomorrow, so I got a taxi around the mountain and Neil continued the walk over the top of the Pyrenees, but I was okay after that and just walked at a slower pace.”
It took Neil and Michele 45 days to complete the walk, averaging 18 kilometres a day and staying in basic hostels along the way.
“We didn’t go as part of an organised tour. We just walked with a backpack for 1000 kilometres,” says Michele.
“We really enjoyed meeting people who were travelling on their own. I remember having a two-hour conversation with a chap from Germany and we communicated by drawing on a coaster, I don’t know how much we all understood but it was such fun!
“I walked on my own because I was slower than Neil and I found I was in meditation mode most of the time. Neil used to have a Wallabies cap with a red poppy on it and he would leave that wherever he was so when I came into the next town I could find him.”
Neil and Michele are currently back in their walking shoes, preparing for their next big adventure in May.
“We are doing the next leg of the Camino, across France,” says Neil.
“It’s about the same distance as the last walk, around 1000 kilometres, so we have started walking to build our fitness again. We did the leg work last time so we have to do the same for the next one.
We didn’t do enough hills last time so we will be focusing more on that to be even better prepared.”
So what’s next for these intrepid travellers?
“I’ve told Neil, it’s my turn to book the next holiday and it’s going to be poolside at a luxury resort,” says Michele.
Fair call I think.