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A Place to Call Home star’s epic life change

With a schedule that’s booked out months in advance, it was a sudden change of plans that found Kiwi actress Sara Wiseman trekking alone, under Spanish starlight, on a pilgrimage.

They say a journey begins with a single step, and for Kiwi actress Sara Wiseman, 43, that first step was an uncomfortable one.

In a small French town, she found herself on day one of an 800km walk – a steep hike up the Pyrenees. Nothing like a slow and easy start to kick off the trip of a lifetime, particularly when she’d only decided to tackle the famous walk three weeks previously… and would be doing it with borrowed gear, and brand-new hiking shoes she hadn’t broken in yet.

Wiseman was about to spend four weeks trekking across Europe with no headphones, no music, no companions, no distractions; just her thoughts, and a very, very long walk.

Breathing space

The call of El Camino de Santiago – a walk also known as ‘The Way of St James’ – may not resonate with everyone, but it’s been a favourite of the faithful for centuries.

It began in medieval times as a pilgrimage for apostle St James, whose remains lie in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wiseman’s reasons for doing the Camino may not be as sacred, but they’ll feel familiar to many. In her early 40s, Wiseman said she saw the walk as a way of fighting against “the shrinking balloon of life”.

“I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and remind myself what I was capable of again,” she says. “It was an exercise in mindfulness – in just being here, now, with every step.”

It wasn’t in her plan to prepare for the Camino in such a rush. The pilgrimage, which starts in France and goes west across the north of Spain, had been on her bucket list for years after friends had completed the epic journey.

Wiseman is a busy lady: she’s been filming two TV shows, Rake and A Place to Call Home, back to back, as well as fitting in theatre, a New Zealand feature film and other small-screen work.

As one of our most successful actresses, her dance card has been full for a while and finding a spare month to, you know, walk 800km is not easy to come by.

But when plans to go to LA, with her husband and A Place to Call Home co-star Craig Hall, fell through she was left with five spare weeks.

Not knowing when the next opportunity would arise – her schedule is tightly booked until late 2016 – she grabbed it with both hands.

The grand preparation plans she’d wanted to achieve before tackling the Camino – learning Spanish, for instance – flew out the window and with just three weeks to prepare, Wiseman booked her trip.

Just for reference, websites designed to help walkers prepare recommend at least three to four months of training beforehand. But where there’s a will, there’s The Way.

Wiseman plays Carolyn Bligh in period drama A Place to Call Home.

Soul purpose

The French Camino route – the most popular one – begins on the French side of the Pyrenees and goes west across the north of Spain, twisting through villages, vineyards, cities like Pamplona and León, before ending in the city of Santiago.

While it’s no longer the sole domain of the faithful, the spiritual undertones remain for many who complete the journey.

“I do consider myself a spiritual person, not religious but spiritual. It’s something that’s always a work in progress but that was a big reason why I wanted to go, to find that authenticity back to ‘what is my spirit,’” Wiseman says. “It’s a walking meditation.”

If the success of Cheryl Strayed’s auto-biographical novel Wild and the subsequent movie adaptation is anything to go by, the idea of a woman walking alone has struck a chord with us.

Alone, with just her thoughts to guide her. It is a beautiful and serene concept… in theory.

“Initially, all I could think about was pain,” Wiseman says. “My hiking shoes weren’t fully broken in when I started; that’s how sudden my decision to go had been. So all I was thinking was, ‘When am I going to get the chance to think about all the big things I should be thinking about, because all I can feel is my feet!”

Sharing the journey

You carry what you need on your back, so it’s recommended you only have two changes of clothing. But dotted the length of the walk are ‘albergues’ – hostels with beds and cooked meals for pilgrims only. They cost about $16 a night plus $16 for a three-course dinner, with plenty of wine (although Wiseman decided to go alcohol free).

And while the days were often solitary, nights in the albergues were anything but.

“You’re all wearing the same thing you wore the night before and the night before that and the night before that. There’s no hierarchy of status or wealth,” Wiseman says. “The conversation becomes about ‘Where did you come from today?’ ‘How far have you walked?’ ‘Where are you aiming for tomorrow?’ All different ages, all different nationalities.”

Wiseman has been a familiar face in New Zealand and Australia for two decades; her very first role was in Xena: Warrior Princess in 1995 and she’s been working non-stop since. But in those tiny albergues, elbow to elbow with people from around the world, she was just another pilgrim.

Days of solitude

The spirit of the walk is what so many refer to – the quiet days of solitude, evenings with like-minded people looking to find their way back to their religion, their lives, their true selves.

Wiseman points out that magic moments came thick and fast throughout the walk, whether it was an unexpected ‘spirit hit’ of tiny churches, in forgotten towns, large cathedrals in the main centres, or connecting with her fellow pilgrims along the way.

With 800km to cover, in 27 days, Wiseman was walking an average of 30km a day. That’s roughly three-quarters of a marathon, and she would start early in the morning so she could avoid walking in the hottest part of the day.

“I’d walk out in starlight, because I found that to be the most spiritual time of day – and the quietest. I only needed my head torch once, the rest of the time it was lit up enough by the moonlight or the stars. I would walk, often on my own, and see the turning of the light into day.”

**A woman alone*

‘Flying solo’ was part of what drew Wiseman to the Camino, a chance to get back to her “authentic self”.

It makes sense: as women, we all play different roles – as mothers, wives, business owners, employees. For actresses like Wiseman, the roles can be more literal. For example, just before she went on the Camino, her A Place to Call Home character had been through a brutal attack and she admits it was another thing she had to leave behind on the walk.

“To have the most fiercely independent character getting the wind knocked out of her in such a way, it was challenging,” Wiseman says. “It screwed with my head quite a bit, so it was nice to go and walk for a while. Shake that one off.”

Wiseman was determined to see the solitude as a gift, not a risk. The pilgrimage is well financed by the government and local councils – and the pilgrims are highly valued by the locals they meet along the way.

The albergues, for instance, are staffed by volunteers and ‘Buen Camino’ is a friendly blessing offered to pilgrims as they pass villages.

However, last year there was one crime that blighted the otherwise perfect history of the Camino – US woman Denise Thiem went missing in April 2015, and her body turned up five months later – she’d been murdered by a local, who had also allegedly attempted to kidnap two other female walkers. The police found her remains just four days after Wiseman had begun her own pilgrimage.

“I didn’t let it in; I didn’t want it to affect my psyche. I was mindful of it – I certainly wasn’t careless – but this walk has been going for thousands of years,” Wiseman says of the crime. “I get really frustrated and upset at society saying, ‘You’re unsafe as a woman alone; it’s unsafe for you to do that alone.’ I wanted to rally against that, which is why it was so important for me to break that stigma and go, ‘Stuff you, I’m going to do this.’”

The cross we bear

One of the stand-out sections of the Camino walk is at the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross that towers over the countryside.

It’s where pilgrims are asked to bring a stone or a memento from their pre-Camino life, and leave it behind as a representation of something they’re looking to let go.

Wiseman – who lives in an apartment, so had to make do with a beloved crystal, as opposed to a stone from a home garden – had long awaited this moment, as the pilgrims do, but when it came time to leave her crystal behind, something was missing.

“Expectations, man! They’ll knock you right out of the moment,” she recalls, laughing. “I had built the iron cross, and what it was going to look and feel like, up in my imagination and when I got there, it was nothing like I had thought. It wasn’t the place for me. But a couple of days later, I was walking out in starlight and I was alone, and I felt myself drawn to this area. And the quiet voice inside me said, ‘This is where you’re going to do it.’”

It took her 20 minutes to release it, to get her head around leaving the crystal she’d carried with her from her Sydney home behind in a small, unmarked area of the Spanish countryside.

Now months since her journey, she says her heart immediately jumps back to that moment in particular, standing alone at dawn.

Starlight and stars

After five weeks, Wiseman admits she had sky-high expectations for the final walk into Santiago and the last stop.

“In my imagination I’d get there and there would be people sobbing on the ground, in full euphoria, in full tears,” says Wiseman. “Of course, when I got there, it wasn’t like that at all. That saying – which is in all the philosophies – that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, really sank in… it was a true epiphany of knowing it in blood and muscle and bone and tissue. I had a surreal moment of ‘I’m here’.”

If there’s one thing Spain does well, it’s surrealism, but even by Spanish standards, Wiseman’s post-Camino 24 hours were fairly spectacular.

Following on from the traditional mass held for the pilgrims, she met up with some Kiwi expats, including one who was the tour manager for U2, and spent her first night in the VIP section of the band’s Barcelona concert next to actors Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz.

“A day after the pilgrim mass, a day after eating my tin of sardines at Land’s End, here I am taking surreptitious photos of Javier dancing like a kid. It was crazy.”

On the road again

Life after the Camino has returned to full pace for Wiseman – theatre in Melbourne, finishing up the series Rake, tutoring at The Actors’ Program and filming season four of A Place To Call Home.

But the effect of the Camino has stayed with her even as real life takes over – she says she feels more centred and at peace since returning home.

“It’s a remarkable parallel to life. Life throws some seriously unwanted shit at you and you have to face it and deal with it. I couldn’t leave the trail, I couldn’t take it back or change certain things about it. But what I had in my power to do was to find resolve and understanding and compassion. Who knew walking 800km could bring up all that?”

Words: Emma Clifton

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