From empty faces to bright eyes and constant smiles

Vietnam veteran Graeme Bolitho (1 Royal Australian Regiment) of Blackheath, NSW, has achieved a long-held dream of completing part of the legendary Camino Trail in Spain under the Accessible Camino program.

9 July 2020

Mr Bolitho, 76, and his support team were the only Australians to join the 2019 expedition.

Accessible Camino is designed to give people with physical limitations the opportunity to travel the final 111 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago trail, a trail not known for its accessibility.

‘For some years I have been observing friends "walking the Camino"’, Mr Bolitho said. ‘I used to love walking 60 years ago. Being on crutches as a result of my Vietnam service, I have had both a burning desire and disappointment relating to this.’

Left to right, Sandra and Graeme Bolitho with pusher Tony Jacques in Santiago de Compostela.

Mr Bolitho said he was inspired to apply to join a travelling party after he saw a clip of the I’ll Push You TEDx talk on YouTube.

The RSL sub-branch vice-president said he was discussing the expedition at the club one evening when one member asked: “Why take on this task at your age?” and the bloke next to him stared me straight in the eye and said: "Today is the youngest you are going to be! So, get crackin”!’

‘Accessible Camino was a transformative event. The empty faces of the people we met on the first day … turned to bright eyes and constant smiles at the conclusion.

‘It gives us great hope for those that wish to challenge themselves in the future. I see the mental and physical benefits that veterans can gain and enjoy by taking part.’

Mr Bolitho’s support group were his wife, Sandra, an ex-Army nurse, as carer, and former Blackheath and Mt Victoria RSL secretary, Tony Jacques, 68, his ‘pusher’, who’s walked the Camino five times.

Mr Jacques is a former British Army artillery and ordnance officer who joined the Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps as a bomb disposal expert in 1980. He served for five years followed by 20 years in the Reserves.

The team raised funds to support their expedition; a big-bill item was a specially-engineered cross country wheelchair made in New Zealand, which was left behind in Santiago for other Australian veterans to use in future walks.

‘The experience was special. At the end, the camaraderie, open friendship, loving care and concern for all was amazing with a wonderful feeling of self-worth and pride emanating from all concerned,’ Mr Bolitho said.

While the group members have all gone their separate ways, they still keep in touch, with regular Zoom chats.

He says a venture like Accessible Camino is another opportunity to extend themselves for veterans who, like him feel “a vacuum” when they return from overseas service.

Mr Bolitho thanked people from the Blackheath/Mt Victoria community in the Blue Mountains, the RSL, his family, Friends of the Camino and Veteran Sport Australia for their financial and other support.

Mr Jacques describes himself as a Camino enthusiast, in addition to walking the trail five times, he helped formed a Blue Mountains Camino Supporters group that has around 400 members. He is a useful contact for people wanting to walk the trail, able-bodied or not.

Email Tony Jacques for more information: tony.jacques1 [at] gmail.com.