“Walking about” – dharma pilgrimages through the Australian Wilderness

Victor von der Heyde

We’ve been doing different sort of yatras here in Australia: different flavours. Given the choice between walking through farmland and walking through bush, we started with a mix but we’ve ended up staying largely in forests and wild country. Being in forests means there’s not so much space for tents so our groups have been limited in size: we usually have between 20 and 40 people. The good side of this is that it becomes quite a close group and we can have minimal impact on the country we walk though. We’ve also found that many people like walking at their own pace and so we try to cater for that. The first yatra here was inspired by one of the yatras in France but since then it seems each yatra brings with it the interest in doing another.

With most of the recent yatras we’ve chosen to spend a full day of silence with a retreat schedule at an old and basic retreat centre built in the middle of a forest. We get there after a few days of walking. The forest means goannas (big 1.5 metre lizards that can think you’re a tree to be climbed if you stand still (not a good idea)), catbirds (they sounds like cats but they’re birds), strangler figs, snakes (poisonous snakes and more friendly snakes that just bite and crush things), ticks which can burrow into you and can be tricky to get out, and leeches (our dark-skinned friends waiting patiently by the track for a drink of blood). But the good news is that most of the snakes go away (sometimes with a bit of encouragement), most people don’t get a tick and the wildness and life of the forest makes up for small discomforts.

For our standard yatra we have all the gear loaded onto a support vehicle each day so people only need to take day-packs. There’s a daily rhythm that we get into: yoga first up, sitting before breakfast often with birdsong in the background, then breakfast with talking, pack-up and back to silence for the day’s walk. And in the evening we quieten with a sit and a dharma talk, or some chants.

We had one yatra in more desert country in Central Australia: remote, dry, very little tree cover, but such a wide open and expansive feel compared to the busyness and life in the rainforest. It was a tougher yatra with two days carrying all our gear including water. Six litres of water minimum but the most of us opted to lighten loads by leaving tents behind and sleeping out. Somehow the stark landscapes and red rocks of the desert ranges ended up doing something to our psyches and we came back with way more than just an appreciation of where we’d been.

One of the things that has struck us about the yatras is that the mix of silence, meditation, yoga, dharma talks and the hours of walking leads to a quietness and reflectiveness that is very similar to what happens on regular retreats. When we come to the retreat schedule day in the forest, the atmosphere is like we’ve been on retreat for days already.

We’ve also noticed the impact of particular places we’ve visited. It’s striking sometimes how focussed and settled meditations tend to happen more often at a particular place, as if the place itself is unusually nourishing. We’ve also been mindful of the aboriginal history of some of the areas we go and the sacred sites.

There are few retreats and Dharma programs here where people still sleep in tents and without common facilities, but not many. Having programs where we live close to the earth and very simply seem to act at times as welcome reminders that letting go of things can be quite a gift.

It was Ronny Hickel and his partner Emma who started the yatras here in Australia and Ronny has been one of the teachers (yoga) in all of them as well as an organiser. Carol Perry and myself have been teachers as well. We have more yatras planned. Details of those open for bookings and photos of some of the past ones are at www.dharma.org.au/yatras.


“The Walking Man” – a dharma pilgrimage for men

Ronny Hickel, Ken Golding

In March 2009 twenty men walked the initial “Walking Man – Yatra” for seven days through the rainforests of the Nightcap National Park in Northern NSW. During these seven days we walked in silence, made and broke camps, talked around campfires, meditated, did yoga together and ate tasty cooked food from a mobile kitchen. The experience we had on this journey was rather profound. There was a true opening of the heart; a deep connection with each other as well as with the magnificent wilderness of the Australian bush. Collectively we created a trusting environment where we could speak our truth and be listened to; where we could let go, sit with our feelings and be vulnerable. Out of some tears emerged great joy and gratitude which was expressed in ritual and celebration.

“The Walking Man – Yatra” is a pilgrimage especially for men. It aims to investigate our role as men in these present times as we travel together through a variety of inner and outer landscapes in the company of other men. Our mindfulness provides a container for this journey and supports a deepening of our experience and understanding. Our individual and collective enquiry consists of a respectful combination of meditation, reflection, discussion and movement.

In each generation there is the opportunity to question the values and attitudes that are passed on from the previous generation. While some are still useful there are some that are not. The traditional male role can narrowly determine our roles as partner, father, worker, friend and lover. We live in times where the question “how am I to live?” has serious implications for the future of not only our children and grandchildren but the planet we collectively depend upon. How we relate to nature and how nature shapes the way we think and feel is a crucial and determining factor of our existence.

From the 12th to the 18th of March 2010 another group of men will walk together on a different route for seven days through the World Heritage listed rainforest and past the outstanding escarpments of the Lamington and Springbrook National Parks.