Michelle Ryan standing at the end in front of the Cathedral in Santiago, photo taken by another pilgrim

My Portuguese Hike

Breathe in deep. Feel the coolness of the air moving in slowly through your body. Exhale long and slow, relaxing every muscle. It’s going to be ok you can do this, you are fine. I’m sitting in the mud where I threw myself down after throwing my backpack off to the side. It’s midday and nearly 40°c (105 °F), I just walked through some muddy, mosquito infested swamp land in Portugal, I’m all alone and on the verge of having a major panic attack!  

I look up and scan the surrounding area. I can see houses off into the distance, maybe 5kms, (3 miles) away maybe more. It’s hard to tell as the flat swamp area is all around me. I look for any sign that someone is near and nothing! I feel completely alone.

This was the 23rd September 2014 and only day one of a 675 km (420 mile) hike. I took myself to Portugal and decided to walk the Portuguese Camino from Lisbon up to Santiago in Spain, by myself. Why? because I love to hike and the challenge of going to the opposite side of the world in a foreign country I had never been before and follow yellow painted arrows really appeals to me funny enough.

The Portuguese Camino is one of many Pilgrim trails that end in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Many years earlier I had walked a different one known as the Del Norte. This trail followed the coastline for around 850 kms (530 mile) to Santiago de Compostela. It was a beautiful and very challenging walk, one that I will always be proud of achieving though I did that with a friend. I have also done many other walks throughout Australia and the world but this was to be my first solo.

An arrow pointing the way - photo by Michelle
An arrow pointing the way.


Hearing a loud crack of thunder, yep I’m here, not a dream. That was loud enough to wake the dead! There have been three thunderstorms through Lisbon since landing. I really do hope that will be it and no more. Not keen on walking in a storm.

Now before I go on let me explain a little bit about this type of walk. This is a pilgrimage which is a journey that one would embark on sometimes for religious reasons (though not always or even necessary) where you would follow a trail to reach an important place or destination. With these walks, you can carry what is called a pilgrim’s passport or credential where along the way you collect stamps to say you have been to each of these places and at the end of the trail this can entitle you to a Compostela or Certificate of completion. I won’t go into the fine details but you get an idea. These trails tend to follow the journeys that perhaps Saints had followed in the medieval times. There are maps and guide books that show you the way and you find they are all sign posted as well. The trail sign you are following is mainly yellow painted arrows. There are other signs but it’s the yellow arrows that take you to your end destination. These arrows can be painted on the road, fences, rocks, trees, all over. I always liken it to a game of Where’s Wally? A game of seek and you shall find. Many a time I might be seen standing by the road scratching my head seeming very lost and confused as I’m looking high, low, all over for that yellow arrow. More often or not I’m standing on it.

Back to my walk and how I ended up sitting on the ground. I take off out of Portugal and the day was warming up fast so I became quite eager to keep moving and knock off as much as I could before the afternoon heat, so high with confidence I happily trekked along, that was until the swamp land. The swamp land was to be the worst and perhaps the best part of the whole walk.

I innocently strolled along out of the suburbs and now onto a narrow dirt path into the wetlands. The ground starts to go from dirt path to thick slippery mud which becomes like a very narrow dyke way with brackish swampy mud on either side. Thank goodness for my hiking sticks. Then like a nightmare or a really scaring B class thriller “When Mosquitos Attack!” I’m not talking the odd one or two I’m talking swarms of them! The air is thick, I cannot even take off my pack to get out the repellent, there are too many!

I start walking as fast as I can go, slipping everywhere desperately trying not to fall. I was getting bitten by the mozzies and scratched up by the swamp shrubs and I swear this path is getting narrower. Now I’m quite high up on the dyke with large drop-offs on either side of me. This has become very dangerous. I just keep moving, these mozzies are relentless, I’m getting eaten alive. Never have I seen or felt anything like this and now I’m faced with another obstacle, the muddy dyke has broken away and there is quite a large crossing. I can’t jump as I will surely slip so I grab hold of some branches of the shrubs growing on the embankment tugging madly at them to be sure they are secure and hold on tight as I stretched out my leg and leap over to the other side while pushing my body weight behind me. My heart is pounding so hard it feels like it is going to burst out of my chest.

Not sure in the end but looking at the map after I worked out it was about 5 km’s, (3 miles) of hell. I come out the other side and I feel like I’m going to die! So hot, dying of thirst, heart hurts from pounding hard and I’m feeling very dizzy. This was where I threw myself on the ground.

This is when I threw myself on the ground - photo taken by Michelle
This is when I threw myself on the ground.

Now I did say this was the worst but also the best part of the walk. The worst is obvious, but why would I say the best? Easy, I survived. I came through knowing no one but myself pulled me through and this made me feel strong and empowered that I can do this solo. I carried this strength with me for the rest of the journey.

That was the beginning of an incredible journey that saw me walking the whole way to Santiago in Spain and along the way meeting many wonderful people from all over the world on their own journey. I walked in and out of places that people who were driving would never have even thought about seeing. I met many a stray dog and for some reason I often had the company of them, one even walking with me through the countryside for around 10kms (6 miles) only to leave me for a 4-legged blonde.

The kindness of strangers that was shown to me on this journey blew me away. I received gifts from strangers just out of the blue and often when I really needed a pick me up. Some of those gifts I received were kind words others were things like a handful of freshly picked cherry tomatoes from a farmer as I passed him, an icy cold juice from an old man who ran out of his house as I passed, one time as I walked through a village a man had walked out of a bakery clearly with his family’s bread, saw me and came over and gave it to me. When I was unsure of where I needed to be someone always appeared and guided me to the place I had to go, sometimes walking for quite a while with me to make sure I found it. This is just some of the examples. This walk has shown me that in this world no matter where we are from, what our language is, our religious beliefs are or nationality we are all capable of giving.

Tomatoes given to Michelle by a kind farmer
Tomatoes given to me by a kind farmer

Author Michelle Ryan of Walking Two by Two
I have been very fortunate in my life to have the experiences I do, having now walked through many different countries, experienced different cultures and meeting many people and this will just be the beginning for me as I plan to keep going if the legs are willing. I have since this journey done another solo, this time in Australia on a very little known trail, The Lavender Federation Trail. This was around 215 km (134 miles) and I became the 1
st person (male or female) to walk it solo, unaided, end to end! Such an achievement that I am very proud of. You can read my story on my web site as well as all the other amazing hikes I have been able to do like Italy, Norway, Scotland and the list goes on.

Now I am busy planning my next solo, this one is going to be my biggest challenge yet and I am very excited. This walk I will be staying in my home state of Western Australia and hiking the Bibbulmun Track, a 1000 km (620 mile) bush walk! It will take me 53 days to complete and only 9 of those days I meet civilization, I am going to have to be self-sufficient and will be camping each night. Also, I’m busy concentrating on my travel writing and have had various articles published in adventure magazines. I’m proud to have made my first documentary, you can view on my YouTube channel – and am currently working on my next one.


You can follow Michelle’s journeys as she walks the world here:
On the Web – www.walkingtwobytwo.com
Instagram – @walkingtwobytwo
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/walkingtwobytwo/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/Michell80121351
You Tube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBtkq3WUX2Y

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