Women on the Road: Why did you choose to walk to Santiago on your own?
Wilna Wilkinson: Can there be another way to walk a pilgrimage? If it had been a trek or a hike or a walk anywhere else, I can well imagine you would welcome the company. But a pilgrimage is in a sense a walking meditation - in this case an 850 kilometre meditation. To be completely alone for that length of time, to have time and space to think, to reflect, to meditate, is very much a luxury in this busy and demanding world we live in.
If you had the choice of walking alone or walking with a hundred people in your sights in front of you - the next person only ten metres ahead, and a hundred people fast approaching from the back - which would you choose? Think of the litter and the pollution. Think of the number of refuges and beds and having to queue up for shelter and for food. Think of the noise, the crowding, the invasion of your meditation and reflection time and space.
WOTR: And you did the Camino in... winter?
Wilna: Walking in winter is hard and there is a danger of slippery ice, hypothermia (a very real threat and not uncommon on the Camino), but for me it was no contest. There is extra hardship, but for me the heat and the crowds in summer would have been unbearable.
The beauty of the pilgrimage route lies in its remoteness, its inaccessibility, its solitude. That is what makes it possible to think, to meditate, to be yourself without compromise, without any need to conform. None of that would be possible when there are hundreds of thousands of people crowding the pathway.
WOTR: What advice would you give a woman contemplating the Camino on her own?
Wilna: The amazing explorer/mountain climber, Reinhold Messner explains how he managed to climb Mount Everest without any supplemental oxygen: there has to be complete acceptance of whatever will come your way - difficulties, pain, suffering, challenges, demands, physical and mental. Know that you have the resources you need within yourself. Discover those resources within yourself and believe that you will find them. Be ready for an emotional upheaval.
WOTR: What should a woman walking alone bring with her?
Wilna: In winter, when there are days on end without another person in sight, a mobile phone. Leave it on silent mode so its ringing or vibration don't distract you. Don't let your 'real' life intrude on your pilgrimage, but keep your phone ready in case of emergency.
I didn't take any make-up or creams, but I did want a little luxury - a scrap of old silk, or a scarf, something colourful to sit on or use as a table cloth. A page of poetry, perhaps, something to make you smile. And yes - a couple of immodium (you can't walk with an upset tummy!) and some NOK cream to cover your feet every morning. I walked 850 kilometres and never had one single blister thanks to this excellent preventative measure!
WOTR: Tell me a little about your book, The Way of Stars and Stones, and why you wrote it.
Wilna: How could I not write about this amazing experience? I dedicated my pilgrimage to a friend with cancer and found that the walk helped me tremendously to understand her pain. I share the many parallels between walking the pilgrimage and suffering from a terminal illness in my book. The Camino provides so many answers on how to cope - it gives insight, understanding - it empowers beyond words. I simply had to share that. And the most heartening thing to hear now is from dozens of people who have cancer and found that the book touched them deeply.
WOTR: How did the pilgrimage change you and how have you carried that change into your life now?
Wilna: Apart from finally finding my faith, finding the meaning of it all, experiencing the energy from the earth, from creation, from nature? For years I've worked as a motivational speaker and as coach in life skills. I taught people "Don't sweat the small stuff", "If you can dream it you can do it", "The power of the mind", "The power of positive thinking" - all these slogans we live by. But this was the first time I actually lived those slogans and really understood their meaning. For the first time my belief was tested - it is 800km of meditation - you cannot come back unchanged.
WOTR: Do you really live in a French chateau?
Wilna: Yes - I really live in a little fairy castle (originally built in 1269) that stands with its feet in the Dordogne river in south-west France. To pay the bills, I run the chateau during the summer as a Chambres d'Hote - and love that I can share this most idyllic spot with people from all over the world.
I absolutely love living in countryside after having spent my entire life in big cities, eating only fresh produce grown within a radius of 50 kilometres. It has changed the way I eat, the way I cook. There is time to enjoy life and the world around me, time to be creative.
I coach and speak as far afield as Japan, Iceland, the USA, but I love coming home to my little village by the river!
WOTR: Where do you want to go next and why?
Wilna: I would love to walk the Camino again - if my feet allow me. I would want to go walk the route of the 88 Buddhist temples of Shikoku in Japan. But that is in the future. For now, my next trip is in a couple of weeks to South Africa where I am going to organise a fairytale wedding for my beautiful daughter, in the bush, under a maroela tree.