Walking back to happiness

Bill Bailey / 20 April 2017

Bill Bailey on why walking can be an endless source of happiness.

Walking is the simplest and perhaps most underrated of outdoor activities. I like all kinds of walking, from jungle treks to nipping to the shops for tea bags. Whatever the reward is – a view or a pint, or just a cup of tea and a lie down – walking can be an endless source of happiness. Provided I have the correct footwear. Among those things that really get my goat, such as incorrect spelling or general rudeness, having the wrong type of shoe for the required activity is right up there.

A brisk walk is a great pick-me-up, but if you’re intent on something a bit more than a stroll to the Post Office, take the advice of Thomas Jefferson, who said, ‘Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far’.

How to walk properly

Walking longer distances requires a bit more prep but, for me, there’s a thrill to the challenge. Often the wildlife along the way can elevate the experience, and one such path was a hike I took across the island of Seram, in Eastern Indonesia, aiming to see some of its extraordinary bird species.

From Wahai, on Seram’s rugged northern coast, a group of us hiked for a week through dense tropical rainforest in the wet season. It was fun, if by fun you mean a gruelling slog, during most of which we were up to our knees in mud and leeches, and sustained by a daily diet of dried fish, rice and noodles.

I spotted quite a few glorious birds at first, but after a few days I couldn’t tell you if it was a black-chinned monarch or a pale-grey cuckooshrike as I was dreaming about a satsuma.

But at the end of each day, a treat lay in store for us that made the hardship worthwhile. Overseas visitors are a rarity for the remote villages in the interior, so our arrival was a huge novelty. The sight of our bunch of rain-sodden, mud-spattered, wild-eyed loons stumbling out of the jungle was for the village kids tremendous entertainment. The more they laughed and pointed at us, the more we played up to it, and goofed around and pulled faces and silly-walked like idiots.

Sometimes the end-of-walk reward takes an unexpected form. On a walking holiday in northern Spain, our plan was to take the path from Bigues i Riells up the valley to the spectacular 11th-century Sant Miquel del Fai, a Benedictine monastery perched on a rocky outcrop that juts out from a vertiginous cliff face. It was hard going; the sun beat down on us as we toiled up the rough trail, threading our way through the orchards and olive groves. Sometimes we were rewarded with glimpses of dazzling bee-eaters, richly coloured birds rarely seen in Britain but common in these latitudes.

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At the top, the view was spectacular. We felt we had earned it, and the waterfalls and reverential silence that hung over the place added to the feeling of achievement.

To have trodden in the footsteps of monks whose path was still the only way to reach this sacred site felt humbling and reassuring. It was as though nothing had changed in a thousand years.

After spending a while just soaking up the atmosphere, we thought about the journey back. A member of staff asked if we had enjoyed our time. I said we had and were looking forward to the walk back.

When he said, ‘You can take a cab back if you like. Lot easier. Taxi rank is just up those steps, next to the car park,’ it slightly took the shine off it.

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