Melanie Burke - Interview with - Camino de Santiago

Tuesday, 9 July, 2019 - Thomas Davidson (Editor)
We caught up with Melanie Burke, Chairman of StreetsmartSA, who recently completed the 120km pilgrimage on the Camino Francés to raise awareness and R50 000 for homeless children in South Africa. This is what she had to say on the spectacular experience...

What is your goal for StreetSmart?

StreetSmart SA is registered as a Public Benefit Organisation as well as a Non-profit Organisation and ensures that every cent donated by guests goes towards social and educational upliftment projects for street children. StreetSmart's goal is to be part of the process of social normalisation and to encourage the public not to give money into the hands of a child as this keeps them on the streets. In essence, donating to StreetSmart where you eat, drink and sleep is the responsible way to help a street child.

There are currently around 100 establishments that have embraced StreetSmart’s vision to make a real difference in the lives of street children or children at risk of living on the streets. Funds are raised by adding a R5 donation to each patron’s bill. This donation is voluntary and donors are able to contribute more if they wish to. With this generous gesture, StreetSmart establishments and their guests are making a real difference to the lives of vulnerable and street children in their local communities.

To date R14 million has been raised. Every cent raised goes to our beneficiary organisations. Administration costs are covered through separate fundraisers and corporate sponsorship.

Why did you choose the Camino as your fundraiser?

My personal pilgrimage in Spain was to mark my 50th birthday. Since I was doing it anyway and all expenses covered by me, I thought StreetSmart could benefit - so the fundraiser idea became a reality.  My pilgrimage also coincided with StreetSmart's 14th birthday and I thought it would be a useful 'gift' to raise awareness and funds.

The Spanish Camino was the first part of the fundraiser. The second is the annual, local Cape Camino in September. Linking the two activities provides a strong platform to raise R50,000 for StreetSmart as part of the “Pilgrim with a Purpose” campaign. The fundraiser concludes at the end of September and we welcome any donation, big or small. Thanks to the generosity of many, we have raised close to half of the target R50,000.

How many days did you walk and what distance did you cover? Where did you start?

The Camino Francés pilgrim route, also known as the French Way is 780km long and can take up to 35 days to complete. I walked 125km over 6 days on the Camino Francés pilgrim route from Logroño to Burgos in Northern Spain. 

Left or Right?

Before leaving the city of Logroño we stocked up with water and a few snacks because the first three hours of the journey there was barely anything along the route. We found our way out of Logroño quite easily through the Puerta del Camino, an arch through the old town walls and many locals wishing us a “Buen Camino” and pointing us on our way. 

Ready to go

The next town, Navaretta was the perfect first stop on our journey and is famous for its rose La Rioja wine and there are several bodegas where you can taste the wines. I stopped at the Iglesia de la Asuncion, a baroque church that has a wall mounted map of the world and encourages pilgrims to pin their names on the are of the map they come from, which of course I did.  The area is also characterised by a red-coloured clay which is used in the many pottery workshops in the town .

The rest of the day was very difficult for me as my body started to ache, my knees hurt and the last 500 meters were completed by doing the 'pilgrim shuffle'. At this stage I felt like I had taken on too much. Luckily after a short rest and a warm bath, my spirits and my body were somewhat restored. A fellow pilgrim had some ointment concoction we called the Helderberg Village 'wonder rub' and after I rubbed this on my body, I felt much better. After dinner and a good night's rest I was looking forward to the rest of the Camino.

The next day saw us walk through golden fields of wheat and beautifully planted vineyards. Another welcome discovery was a wild cherry tree which I pounced on and picked fruit from to my heart's delight and my stomach's displeasure. I also started to encounter more pilgrims on this part of the route. 

Cherry picking delight

This pattern of waking, packing, walking, eating and sleeping became second nature. From the third day my body had adjusted and I felt less uncomfortable physically. This made the rest of the pilgrimage a real pleasure as I continued to walk through fields, farms and villages overnighting in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Belorado and Villafranca-Montes de Oca. 

Simply gorgeous

To avoid the stretch of unattractive industrial areas that most other pilgrims experienced I did the alternative Camino which goes through Castrillo del Val, which meant that after 6 days of walking, I entered into Burgos along the river and through a beautiful park with tree-lined avenues, through the city gates to the front steps of the magnificent Gothic cathedral.

What was the greatest obstacle of the Camino?

For me, the first day was the toughest and the longest distance, covering 30kms. Having only ever walked two days at a time before, a week-long hike sounded like a scary challenge, but an achievable one too. I had done one practice walk of 25kms as a test to see if I could do it because I have problems with my knees.The simple rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other helped me focus and by the third day my body had adjusted, my knees didn't hurt and I had no blisters on my feet at all.

Was there a part of doing the Camino that transformed/supported/challenged the way you think about outreach?

The simplicity of the Camino way of life gave me a significant insight into how our material needs can be met with very little. In an ever-changing and fast-paced world, our needs to be loved and validated emotionally are much harder to satisfy. Each of us has a role to play in making sure that our society is well and that especially the children we are raising are offered a chance to thrive, in spite of the set of circumstances they may be born into.

I had this realisation around the halfway mark of the Camino when I found myself looking back constantly and thinking about how far I have walked. At some point on that day, I realised that I had stopped looking back and was focused on what was ahead. It reminded me that my personal journey had it's own challenges and with the support of many people who cared about me, I was able to thrive.

Through StreetSmart and its fundraising partners, I get to play a small part in ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society have a better chance to thrive.

Did the Camino change your view of life? And if so, how?

The Camino did not suddenly make me reach enlightenment, nor did it change my life overnight. The changes for me happened on very subtle, yet profound ways. I experienced many very powerful moments and stories that continue to stay with me. It helped me settle some decisions that I had made about the next decade of my life and I know these will stay with me long after I return home. For example, I carried everything I needed for the trip in my backpack. After a few days I realised that I needed much less than the 10kgs I had packed...and I thought I was travelling light! I also realised that I am physically stronger than I thought. That I am never alone, even when I am on my own. The support and encouragement that I received during the Camino was amazing.

What tips would you give anyone doing the Camino?

Invest in good walking shoes. Plan your route so that you spread the difficulty-levels you walk evenly. Build in some 'lazy' days with shorter distances. Be open to the stories of the people you meet. Have fun and find yourself. Walk your way, do not be influenced by others too much.

What was the highlight of the journey?

The people we met along the way, from all walks of life and a multitude of reasons for doing the Camino. The places we stopped off and walked through were simply breathtaking, there was beauty everywhere. My fellow pilgrims Jenny Wensing and Mariheca Otto were amazing travel companions and we shared many special moments along the way.

Anything else you would like to share

The first leg of the “Pilgrim with a Purpose” StreetSmart fundraiser concludes at the end of July, so your donations are more than welcome. To donate please visit

The second leg of the StreetSmart fundraising campaign will be concluded with me doing the Cape Camino walking pilgrimage route set around the beautiful Cape Peninsula on 28 & 29 September 2019 and I would like to invite locals to enjoy this pilgrimage, in the beautiful Mother City. 

Cape Camino

Day 1 covers the 16km Mountain Shade leg from Rhodes Memorial along footpaths and under canopied trees through Kirstenbosch Gardens and the Cecilia Forest into Constantia. Day 2 is the 18km Wine to Water leg with the first stop at the Schoenstatt Shrine and then on to Groot Constantia wine farm, a Kramat sacred space on Klein Constantia wine farm, through forests, greenbelts, fynbos thickets and the community of Westlake on to Muizenberg beach, a perfect spot to rest, swim, or enjoy a drink overlooking the ocean. To book or for more information, please visit

Melanie Burke
Melanie Burke

Cape Camino
Cape Camino

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