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South Africa’s Forest Gump turns soul-searching trek into TV show

In early 2015, journalist Erns Grundling was depressed. He was burnt out, overweight, unfit, injured and had recently had an unexpected break-up. Things were tough and he knew he had to do something. 

That something turned out to be a very long walk in Spain. The Camino de Santiago is a network of routes that lead to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain – and Erns took the decision to tick off a bucket list item and walk the Camino. 

He came back, wrote a best-selling book about the experience, which formed the basis of a new travel show  Elders: Die Camino, currently on kykNET.

Charlie Human caught up with him to chat about some of the things he learnt as a pilgrim on the road. 

CHARLIE HUMAN: The scallop shell is a symbol of the Camino; a metaphor for how pilgrims are drawn to do the walk in the same way waves draw shells to the shore. What drew you to the Camino? 
ERNS GRUNDLING: I first heard about the Camino in 2004, when I was very fortunate to do a telephone interview with the bestselling author Paulo Coelho, whose work includes The Alchemist and The Pilgrimage. I think what drew me to the Camino was the prospect of living light, the daily physical exercise, the mindfulness and meditative aspects of walking, and the opportunity of sharing this experience with fellow pilgrims from all over the world. 

You walked an incredible 1,025km in 40 days. What was the physical toll on your body? 
At first, it was incredibly challenging and intense. But I learned so much about pain, and how the body can process pain. After about three weeks of walking on average 25 km per day, I really felt fit and in good shape. And then I couldn’t stop walking – I became a bit like Forrest Gump! In the end I walked even further than I planned. I lost about 11 kg during my first Camino. 

Taking a break at Monte de Gozo

Can you talk about your internal process as you undertook this physical journey? 
I think the physical and inner journey can’t really be separated – it’s all part of the Camino experience. Even if your intention is not to necessarily to do soul-searching on the Camino, I think that’s inevitable at some stage. When you are not distracted by all the “noise” of the rat race, you get a chance to think, and a chance to just be. 

You did the Camino Francés, the “French Way", one of the many routes to Santiago de Compostela. What were some of your most memorable moments on this route? 
There were so many: touching snow for the first time in the Pyrenees, partying with locals during a festival in Pamplona, taking a break and lying in a field of green wheat, walking and singing all by myself...

Make like Johnny Walker and just keep on...

Is there anybody who you met that contributed to your experience of the route?  

The diversity was almost staggering: a 76 year old grandfather from Canada walking with his 12 year old grandson, a young Japanese medical student, two friendly Italians who restore old mural paintings in churches, a bubbly and ambitious girl from Mexico who runs her own travel company, a former female soldier in the Israeli army.... One American host at an albergue (hostel) told me to “walk it off” when I complained about a cold. His phrase became a mantra. 

Did you learn anything that you can apply in the rest of your life?  
I learned so much about myself and life during my first Camino. One day a thought arrived out of nowhere: “Focus on what is, rather than what if.” I get anxious quite easily, and this realisation to let go of regrets and anticipatory anxieties – the “what if” – and to be more at ease with whatever the present moment brings – the “what is” – has had a lasting impact on my life. 

Follow the arrows.

You published your book, Elders, in 2017. Now it's a show on kykNET. What has the process of writing a book and creating a show been like? 
Writing Elders was extremely challenging, especially since I also had to deal with a demanding day job. It’s a lot harder to write 80 000 words than to walk 1,025 km! I did television work and presenting over the last two years and so decided to pitch this as a documentary TV series, inspired by the book. In September 2017 I returned to the Camino, this time to walk around 350 km. I’m super excited about this TV series. 

Are the any other stories, insights or lessons from your trip that you'd like to share? 
One thing I learned while walking the Camino: everywhere you go, you always travel with yourself. And it’s better to have a meaningful and loving relationship with this ever-present travel companion, no matter where you are.

* Elders: Die Camino airs on Tuesdays at 17h30 on kykNET. The show is also available on Showmax.

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