Cilla Cole

Cilla Cole's website (more great reads there)

Cilla Cole grew up in Avalon and after finishing school, spent a year as a Rotary Exchange Student in Indonesia. After studying Economics and Anthropology at Sydney University, she completed a Graduate Diploma in Tourism at James Cook University, Townsville, before returning to Sydney to work in wholesale travel. 

Now with four children she works part time with her husband Richard as the office administrator for the family architecture firm, Richard Cole Architecture and as a volunteer for the NGO Good Return, while spending her spare time planning the next holiday and writing about the last.

Her just released book The Camino Diaries is a great read which shares one of those trips from the perspectives of three walkers; herself, her father in law, and his architect.

The Camino De Santiago or The Way of St. James ( 'French Way' or simply 'The Way'), is a network of pilgrims' ways or pilgrimages leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many follow its routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth. It's also popular with hiking and cycling enthusiasts and organised tour groups. The Camino Francés, or French Way, is the most popular.

How many of us know someone who has actually completed this marathon pilgrimage though and can hear, first-hand, about what is seen and what can be found along the way?

Although in journal form this shares a very immediate perspective of a very long walk. You can feel the sun, and the cold rains, even marvel on the falling of snow; see the sights such as a foal just wobbling to its feet, the descriptions of lunches and dinners, although matter of fact, and the changes in that menu through the regions traversed, make for a very interesting read and may even leave some readers hungry!

The descriptions of villages, the getting of stamps for the ‘passport’ – the landmarks, the way traversed, even the scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, which has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago are better than and documentary on this journey as they come from familiar voices – or voices with a familiar tone – our own.

A chat with our July 2019 Artist of the Month - Cilla Cole:

Where were you born?

At Mona Vale Hospital! I grew up in Avalon so haven’t strayed too far from home.  My father passed away a few years ago but my mum is still in the same house in Careel Bay.  Apparently when I was little, we were driving past the hospital and my mother asked, “Who was born there?” and I replied: “Jesus?”

Where did you go to school?

I went to Avalon Public school after Playtime Kindergarten (just like our kids did) and then travelled up to the North Shore (to Abbotsleigh) for high school. 

Have you always loved writing or always done a lot of writing?

A little bit.  I remember enjoying creative writing in primary school.  I came across an old school report recently from my second-class teacher (Mrs McCarthy) who had listed ‘written expression’ in the column beside “Aptitudes and Strengths” and added ‘Perhaps she will become a writer?’

And I always kept a diary when travelling.

Have you travelled very widely?

Not necessarily but I had the chance to travel to some quite different places as a teenager to Africa and Tonga, and after school I spent a year in Indonesia as an exchange student.  I also did the classic Europe backpacker trip in my 20s and about 10 years ago we took off for three months to travel around Australia on a camping trip.

Why did you decide to do this legendary walk?

After we were married, Richard and I went travelling around Europe on a sort of extended honeymoon.  Just before we left his father told us about a long walk he wanted to do in France and Spain and we said, since we’d be in the area, why don’t we meet up and we’ll do it with you.  So we didn’t really give it much more thought than that and as a result, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.  The Camino is very well known now, but it wasn’t then.  Even now, most people ‘just’ do the Spanish part which is half of what we did.  But my father-in-law doesn’t do things by halves! Although if you read my diary, I may not have seemed grateful to him at the time for suggesting this walk, looking back it was an amazing thing to do, and a great time to do it before it got too busy and well known.  

What were the standout moments for you, naming the most challenging and the most memorable?

The most challenging would be trying to walk with blisters and very sore feet while keeping up with the others, as we all had pretty different personalities and abilities. By the end I could manage the longer days without too much complaint but the early weeks in the cold and rain were hard work.

I think the places that stand out in my memory the most are the tiny simple churches and small medieval towns in France which we had time to wander around in and explore.  I think having walked to them, it almost felt like we had just come across them and that they were our own special discovery.  There was also one particular day early on in the walk which was a beautiful sunny day after having snowed overnight and everything was dusted with snow.  The whole landscape seemed to be in black and white apart from the yellow heads of the daffodils poking through.

How did The Camino Diaries begin?

About 4 years ago, I realised it was 20 years since we had walked the Camino and I thought it would be a nice idea to type up the diary entries and send them by email to family and friends on the corresponding day twenty years earlier.  When I told Terry (my father in law) about my project, he immediately offered me his diary “to provide the facts”.  He claimed I would have made up everything in my diary.  So, over the next few months, I sent out our journal entries and they gained a bit of a following.  Many family and friends said they had become quite addicted to their daily soap opera!

I really enjoyed doing that and reliving it all (although it was excruciating at times) and I felt a bit flat when it was finished.  So, I then thought I’d put them together in book form, together with photos and Richard’s sketches, as a Christmas present for the family.  I also got in touch with Tom, the fourth member of our group, who kindly agreed to contribute his diary too, which added another perspective again and some lovely descriptions of the architecture along the way (he is an architect).

And then, since I had done all that work on it, I thought I may as well go the final step and produce it in paperback form.

I’m very grateful to Terry and Tom for contributing their journals as it certainly wouldn’t be the same without them.  And for being such good sports about it!  

My father-in-law, Terry, is a former judge and later led the Royal Commission into the building industry and when I was sending out the daily email instalments, I apologised for some of the things I’d written about him, giving the excuse that I was young and had lots of time to think etc but he just said, “Don’t worry Cilla. You should have heard what the Unions said about me!” 

And Tom’s diary was great too – it added another element again, especially about the architecture and scenery and also gave another very different take on the whole thing.  I feel I gave Tom an undeserved hard time, yet I see now I would have been very frustrating to walk with.

What did it feel like to finish this Pilgrim’s marathon?

It was a real anticlimax.  We just finished and that was it. (We felt pretty fit though!)

We (Richard and I) went to London afterwards and worked for around six months to earn the money to come home.  Then it was back to living in the real world – finding work, buying a car and a house and a year later starting a family… and packing my diary away in a box for the next twenty years!

This is also a very locally produced work too though – the cover design is by Emma Long at Penguin Creative in Avalon and the book also includes some of Richard’s sketches – it must be great to have produced something with such wide appeal locally?

Yes, it made it a very fun project, with friends and family involved.  Emma was very patient with me when designing the cover!  And Samantha Miles, (formerly of Finch Publishing at Mona Vale but has now set up Bad Apple Press which The Camino Diaries is published by) helped edit it and she said she felt she knew us all personally by the end and felt a bit sad when it was all over. And Richard’s sketches illustrate the book beautifully – he kept a sketchbook instead of a diary during the walk and now says he is very glad he did! 

Day 10 sketch Estaing - by Richard Cole

Life must be full and busy – must have been busier too when Richard was President of Avalon Beach SLSC?

More so for him than me then – I was kept pretty busy with family life though.  Our four children are growing up now and becoming more independent – only two are now living at home – so life is a lot less frantic. With more time up our sleeves, we have even started talking about doing a bit more travel – so you never know, maybe we might go on a long walk somewhere…?

What are your favourite places in Pittwater and why?

Careel Bay as it is where I grew up – I love the pelicans cruising around and I spent many days as a kid exploring the mangroves with friends in a canoe and building a cubby house there.  There is also a bit of a tradition on Christmas Day to have a treasure hunt through the mangroves with the extended family. It’s always the same treasure (chocolate coins) but always fun.

Also Currawong.  I have stayed there a few times and our family had a Christmas there once – it is just across the water but feels a world away and I love its low key and relaxed feel.

What is your ‘motto for life’ or a favourite phrase you try to live by?

I should probably say something profound and Camino related like, ‘It’s not about the destination, but about the journey” but, having just had a melanoma removed, another favourite phrase at the moment is: “Don’t forget your sunscreen!”

The Camino Diaries

By Cilla Cole, Together With Terry Cole And Tom Keelty And Illustrated By Richard Cole 

Available through Beachside Bookshop, Bookoccino and Berkelouw Books Mona Vale or direct from the author: ($25)

What's it about?

Is it madness or naivety when a young woman thinks walking the ancient Camino de Santiago pilgrimage path with her husband, her father-in-law, and his architect, would be a fun way to spend her honeymoon?  But it doesn’t take Cilla long to realise that walking 1500 kms across France and Spain with a single-minded judge and an ex- Army commando and avid bushwalker will be no sightseeing holiday. 

Experience the landscapes, cuisines and eccentric personalities of the Camino de Santiago, not to mention the tears and tantrums, through this compilation of the candid journals kept by Cilla, her father-in-law Terry and friend Tom when walking the ancient pilgrim trail across France and Spain together in 1995.  

Much like the medieval pilgrims who walked the same path 800 years before them, as adversities start to take their toll and divergent motivations clash, this unlikely group find themselves inside a walking pressure cooker.  But there are three sides to the story.  

*Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on a variety of meanings, metaphorical, practical, and mythical, even if its relevance may have actually derived from the desire of pilgrims to take home a souvenir.

Extract From The Camino Diaries

Day 3
16th April 1995


Left gite at 7.45 am after rising at 6.30 am. Had a splendid dinner last night all for 60 F. Excellent value.

We started up a very long steep climb towards Saugues and walked through lovely pine and beech forests with open rolling country all around. Reached Saugues at 11.45 am, having had our croissants in light snow at the top of the climb. Lunched in a bar with a hot coffee. Set off at 1pm and expected to arrive at Chanaleilles at about 5.15 pm. In fact, we arrived at 4.30 pm so made very good time. 

A lovely converted barn with large tiled room, open log fire awaiting us and a smiling Madame Partier to greet us. We each have our own room with heater and a nice tiled bathroom (45 F each, about A$12) and dinner is only 45 F. Bargain. Dinner was soup, then homemade bread, ham, sausage and cheese with a salad and wine at 12 F a bottle.

All well and happy.


I hated today. Our book was wrong and we actually ended up walking 31 kilometres, not 27. 

We rose before it was light and walked straight uphill for the first hour and a half. The wind blasted against my right side the whole way and kept blowing my hat off. Extremely annoying.

Had breakfast squatting in the fog beside the road. That was when it first started to snow.

At midday stumbled into Saugues, literally putting one foot in front of the other, where we found a warm bar to have coffee and the by-now soggy baguettes Tom was carrying. Changed in the urine-stinking squat toilet into my thermals and then we were off again.

The new energy was not to last. I had terrible blisters and the tendon on my heel gave way, which Terry said he’d have to shoot me for. I limped the last 10 kilometres.

Finally hobbled into Chanaleilles towards our hostel where the others, along with the Madame, were all standing at the front door watching me stagger up the hill. I walked straight up to the Madame and hugged her.

She then showed us into a brand-new little cottage with a fire roaring and Terry poured me a whisky. ‘Dinner will be served at seven here in front of the fire,’ announced the Madame, wiping her hands on her frilly apron before disappearing into the kitchen.

Things had started to look up.

Had a just-the-shot dinner as Terry would say. I’m finding it hard to keep up with Terry’s extravagant drinking and eating habits though.

Everyone talked of the beautiful scenery today, of lovely forest paths, lush green meadows, daffodils emerging and babbling brooks. I don’t remember any of it.

It turns out Tom was in the army for a while and trained with the SAS. That explains a lot. He’s so cheerful, even after a cold bath the other night.

Day 13
26 April 1995


Woke with the rain ceaselessly pouring down, as it had all night. I had slept in skivvy, jumper, socks, hat, sleeping bag and three blankets.

Walked the first 10 or so kilometres with our heads down, stomping through the mud. There we had breakfast in a bar and Dikka went off to get provisions for the evening meal. He came back with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, meat and a leek for a ‘boeuf bourguignon’. Also, two bottles of wine. Appropriate dinner for the weather, if not a tad heavy. The leek is now strapped to my handy leek strap on the side of my pack, which I hadn’t until that moment known what it was for.

This was the famous 16-kilometre day that we thought we couldn’t avoid and which started all the arguments. Considering the weather, I thought it was very lucky that we were only doing 16 kilometres, but unfortunately last night we saw a notice on the door telling of accommodation 6 kilometres further on. The others had jumped at this as it would solve the ‘huge problem’ of walking only 16 kilometres.

Walked on to Livenhac where we arrived about 1.30 pm and there wasn’t a thing open, not even the church. Terry managed to talk his way into a shop and came out with a bottle of J and B whisky. 

The next town finally turned up 9 kilometres later, not the promised 6. We were all absolutely drenched and freezing, our packs twice as heavy, and feeling miserable.

We then discovered we still had to go another 3 kilometres beyond that. I started whimpering at this stage and seriously began to think about pulling out.  I tried to think that worse things could be happening, like all my family could die. But I couldn’t sustain it and started whimpering again and even moaning as we walked down a steep, rocky path ankle deep in water.

Along the way there was a string across the path that I casually stepped over. It turned out it was an electric fence and I was zapped in the crotch. I screamed and then burst into tears. It was the last straw.

Everyone was very sympathetic. For about five seconds. Then I started hearing choking sounds as they stifled their giggles but soon could control themselves no longer and fell about laughing.

Tom then seemed to grab onto every electric fence he came across after that, either to gallantly test them for me or through some perverse desire to electrocute himself.

Eventually we turned off the path to follow a sign saying ‘Gite 300 metres’. It was more like a kilometre I’m sure, and all uphill. The gite (hostel) was associated with a horse-riding centre and reminded me of a terrible homesick week spent at a horse camp in high school. There was one measly heater, the shower just warmer than cold and at first I couldn’t see anywhere to cook, but we later found the cookhouse in an adjacent building. Nothing had been cleaned for a long time. As I tried to thaw out under two sleeping bags and two blankets, Terry came out of the shower and announced, ‘Right, tomorrow we go to Figeac, find a five-star hotel and stay there until the sun comes out.’

I fell asleep and when I woke up everyone had disappeared. I found the three of them in the cookhouse, huddled in the little kitchenette around a table they had moved in there, with a blanket strung up across the doorway and all working gas elements turned on. I was amazed how cheery they were and then I noticed that the bottle of whisky was three quarters empty.

Not that Tom had stopped being cheery all day. His face clouds over at the mere mention of a sleep in, let alone a rest day, yet you can’t wipe the smile off his face when walking through pouring, freezing rain – in shorts. 

Had a delicious dinner – well worth the extra weight. The Monsieur running the place had a fit when he saw the blanket used as a curtain. We complained of the cold and lack of heating and warm shower but he merely said if you don’t like it you should go to a hotel and you’ll find it more expensive anyway (as if there was one to go to in a 13-kilometre radius) and why aren’t we used to the cold as it’s colder than this in Australia. We couldn’t be bothered explaining that he might have us confused with Austrians. He and Terry almost came to blows but Terry kept lapsing into English and then they both just shouted at each other, ‘Je ne comprend pas!’

At 8.30 pm the two young Swiss boys arrived absolutely drenched. They had walked from Conques, nearly 40 kilometres. The Monsieur once again had a rave at us, this time because although there were only four of us, we had taken up every bed. This was quite true and we went and cleared a bit of space for the boys. They could barely talk they were so exhausted.

Day 14
27th April 1995


Arise to a misty morning at 7 am, hot shower, then pack to leave for Figeac, the others still in bed. They don’t seem to like getting up early. I want to try to get my boot fixed and decide to walk with the Swiss boys. I would have liked a cup of tea before leaving but don’t want to keep them waiting.

We walk the 13 kilometres without stopping which is a pleasant change. I am ravenous by the time we arrive in Figeac at 11.15 am.

Get the boot fixed immediately, have coffee and pain au raisin, then look at the hotels with much walking around. They are more than double the listed price in the book. Sit on a stone wall and await the others, thinking they will be no more than 90 minutes behind at most. They arrive five hours later, having decided to stop for a five-course lunch. 

Am not impressed.


Tom set his alarm for 7 am, wanting to go ahead to get his shoe fixed. The day fined up – perfect walking weather. How lucky was it we got all those kilometres out of the way yesterday? I thought sarcastically.

We left leisurely, taking the longer route via the path rather than the road and stopped at a bar for breakfast but ended up staying for lunch. The smell of roast pork was overpowering and considering it was almost midday by the time we stopped and the fire was roaring, we thought Tom would understand. In any case the plan had been that Tom would book us all into the hotel mentioned in our book and we’d meet him there. So, we had a huge meal accompanied by a litre of red and finally staggered out two hours later, unable to do our waist straps up on our backpacks.

During lunch, when we were all full and content, Terry had said, ‘Well, Cilla, you can’t complain now about this day!’

‘I don’t complain. I just suffer quietly,’ I replied.

‘No, you don’t complain,’ said Dikka. ‘You just cry.’ And they both had a chuckle. I was so cross and hurt, I fumed all the way to Figeac.

On the way into town we discussed that we’d better not tell Tom that he’d missed out on our best meal yet. We found him sitting on a fence waiting for us. He had not had lunch for fear of missing us and had not booked into the hotel as he thought it might be too expensive. So he had just sat and waited for us for four hours. Terry immediately told him he had missed out on our best meal yet.

We then walked around town for an hour checking out all the hotels but ended up back at the original one. It was expensive but we thought we deserved it. I had a long bath, just as I’d been dreaming of.

Although we who had indulged in lunch were not hungry (I speak for Dikka and myself as Terry seemed to constantly think of food and is never so cheery as with the prospect of a six-course meal, especially if it includes innards of some sort) we had the 85 F set menu at the hotel and this took over the first ranking of best meal. I had soup de poussin, caesar salad, duck a l’orange and pears with chocolate sauce for dessert.

After dinner I had another bath, just in case.

Photo: The four in Le Puy