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Make Hay While The Sun Shines

There seems to be a universal appeal to the notion of living more simply, closer to nature and its rhythms.


The sense that that these days we all live in a swirling maelstrom of information, complexity and disquiet seems to be quite universal amongst citizens of the so called “developed” world.

There is a notion too, amongst a growing number that a move towards a simpler, more natural rhythm is sorely required.

Depending on our circumstances we might respond to this need in any number of ways.  And it should be said that any attempt to lead a more natural peaceful life is valid.  We might invite some nature into our lives by going for a walk in the the park or invest our attention in a potted tomato-plant on the window sill.  At a more extreme end there are a few who might embark on that survivalist journey that lead Chris McCandless to his tragic death in the wilds of Alaska as documented in the book and film “Into the Wild” by John Krakaur.

Chris McCandless in front of his ‘Magic Bus’ in 1992. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

McCandless’ story is one of tragic folly but it appeals to something in many of us who aspire to a simpler, more connected and more natural life.  At the very least the desire to connect with nature is a noble and worthy aspiration.

The reality,however, is cruder than we might expect.  When you have to devote time to primary needs such as shelter, warmth and running water you are seriously complicating life.  A stressed out city dweller need only flick a switch to satisfy those needs. The newly arrived rustic has to divert considerable time and energy to the matter and soon finds plenty of things to worry and stress about.

So, motivated by a heartfelt need to be closer to nature I found myself living in a very small village of fifteen souls where I could pursue my interests in gardening, beekeeping and animal husbandry.  It’s not as if I embarked on this with any grand plan. Rather it grew upon me little by little through conscious and more often than not, unconscious decisions that have lead to my total immersion in the process.

In the beginning I divided my time between conventional teaching jobs and the juggling of the innumerable and seasonal requirements of living in this context.  There always seemed to be an awful lot of balls in the air at any given moment and all in all it amounted to considerable stress and uncertainty.  There were many times I thought about jacking it all in and choosing a more conventional life.

There comes a point though, where you either quit or commit unreservedly. The thing that lead to my total commitment was the arrival of a donkey called Momo.

I had absolutely no idea how to care for a donkey or for that matter any particular interest in large animals.  In fact, Momo’s arrival contributed initially to my sense of stress.  But we learned a lot from each other and fell into something of a routine.  After a year another donkey called Django, arrived quite out of the blue.  Within days I had embarked on building a cart. If you have two donkeys you have to have a cart!


Donkeys are in fact pretty straightforward. They don’t require a lot of breaking in.  Their domesticity is pretty much inbred and once you have their trust there’s no limit to the possible adventures.  In the summer months we graze any free pasture and I control them with an electric fence.  In the winter things get a little more complicated as the pasture is poor and the weather can be harsh.  Donkeys don’t tolerate prolonged wet weather and cold wet weather can be fatal. So, you need a shelter and if you’re going to have them stabled you’re going to need hay.


You can buy bails of hay although livestock owners don’t often have much surplus to sell.  These days the bails are often huge and require someone with a tractor to deliver it.  It can quickly become an expensive headache.  Nonetheless, every spring the county council sends a fleet of grass cutters to mow the verges at the side of the roads. Result, a two metre by 50km strip of fresh cut hay. I watch the weather keenly for the threat of rain and when the hay is good and dry, venture down the road with the donkey cart and collect as much as I can.


I have come to call this way of life, “living directly”. There is a need, which must be satisfied, you examine the resources, engage available tools, manpower and of course, donkey power and you arrive at a solution.

And so, on a hot day in August with the hay now good and dry the time had come to ship it all to the donkey’s winter quarters.  My good friend and inveterate donkey driver Cameron Webster, was there to lend a hand.  José, a guest from Valencia was eager to help too.  Evidence once again, that folks are really keen to take part in some honest labour at donkey pace.


We loaded the cart with sacks of hay and made several trips to the shelter.  I can only get so far with the cart and have to unload the sacks a few hundred metres from the shelter.  We then unhitch the donkeys and tie the sacks to their harnesses for them to drag it in.


This was not without it’s problems.  I had two lengths of rope, one short one long. I grabbed the first that came to hand, attached one end to the sack and the other to Momo.  As I finished the knot I realised I had used the shorter rope.  Momo is the more nervous of the two and a thought passed through my mind that he’d have been better with the longer rope.  No matter!  I passed the reigns to Cam and set about attaching Django to the next sack.

No sooner had I done this when I looked up to see Cam and Momo locked in a dangerous waltz.  As they moved off Momo had got the notion that he was being pursued by a sack of hay.  He bolted but Cam had his reigns so he ran in circles with the sack of hay moving even faster on the outer circumference of their trajectory.  It was a bit like one of those kids games where they attach a ball to their ankle then skip over it as they walk.  Momo’s version of the game was a bit more lethal and Cam soon let go leaving Momo to sort it out for himself.  Thankfully he didn’t run far away and we soon had everyone calmed down and back on the job.


All in all the operation filled a pleasant morning.  I’d have been quicker doing it with a tractor but out of pocket too.  This method brought benefit in so many forms. We’d harvested a resource completely for free and spent a pleasurable few hours doing an honest job with the sky larks singing in the sky above. When all was said and done we sat back with a beer on a hot August day, secure in the knowledge that come the first snows the donks have food and shelter.

That’s living directly.

And as McCandless famously wrote, «Happiness is only real when shared.»

Honey bee adventures

There are a few questions people always ask beekeepers;

Do you get stung?

Yes. Frequently.

Do bee stings hurt?

Yes. Intensely for about a minute then they calm down and you forget them.

How many bees are in a hive?

A strong hive would have a population of around 50,000

VioletWEB There’s surely something magnetic that draws us to a bee hive. Something stronger than the urge to run away. A step closer and then another. We’re drawn into to the thronging activity at the hive entrance.

What is there to see? Traffic in and out.  Arrivals laden with pollen, like brightly coloured bicycle panniers.  Momentary greetings between those ready to leave and those with news of rich nectar sources.  Bees just inside the entrance fanning to create an air-conditioning air-current.  And if you draw closer and breathe in as you glide your nose to the entrance, the magical scent of nectar being cured into honey. The indescribable aroma of sunshine and nectar and a symphony of buzzing in the air. But careful! Breathe out into their midst and the games afoot. The arousing effect of your breath amongst them is instant. Bees sense their world and communicate amongst themselves largely through scent. I can highly recommend sniffing bee hives but I also recommend that you wear some protective kit. KonViWEB So, suitably kitted out with gloves and veil, the next step is to let your curiosity get the better of you and open the lid. Anyone who is prepared to take this step and to observe what lies therein with careful attention, is invited to embark on a journey into the interconnectivity and  interdependency  of all things. When you dip your fingers into a thriving colony you are really delving into a living organism. Individually the members have no meaning. But together they form a living, breathing, growing, organism. The component parts attend to alimentation, growth, repair, defence and reproduction.

It is correct to think that a colony of bees is as much an organism as a dog a cat or for that matter you or I. As you look at the inside workings of a hive for the first time you may well be very aware of the individual «stingyness» of the many thousands of bees that are buzzing around your head. However, I would encourage you to stay calm and consider that different groups of bees within the colony have been given different roles and activities. The ones that have been assigned the role of guards may be particularly obvious to you as you delve further into the hive. But if you look more carefully still you will see bees whose roles might include, house keeping, nurse bee, wax maker, forager, drone or Queen. beeThese specialisations are essentially the same as the specialisation of cells, into tissues, into organs, into organism. Bees are like cells. The bees are specialised in one task or another in much the same way as some of the cells that make up you are specialised to form an eye, or a liver or a kidney.

A bee colony is therefore like any other living organism only there’s a big difference. It is this difference that makes beekeeping so fascinating. Unlike the cells that make up most other living organisms the bees can dissociate themselves and venture out into the world in a way that few other organisms can do. A strong hive with a population of 50,000 bees will have around 15,000 workers foraging in the field on a warm summer’s day. Foraging bees fly from their hive to penetrate and explore their world flower by flower in search of food in the form of nectar and pollen. They will range up to 5 km (3 miles) from their hive. The fifteen thousand or so worker bees that issue back and forth from a hive every day are interacting with their environment at a fantastically subtle level over vast distances. Through their interaction with the thousands of flowers that each of the fifteen thousand workers might visit in a day, information is gathered. Nectars sampled for quality, quantity and location. And no less importantly, pollination is achieved and fruits begin to form.

The bee is a clear example of how one tiny and essentially rather insignificant creature acting as part of a greater whole can be of so much greater importance. A bee hive is a fountain of transformative life giving energy. ZoneV1Sphere of influence. The foraging range of my hives is around 5km (78km2)

It would be fair to say that beekeepers are always beekeeping. If you keep bees the seasons take on a new importance.  On walks you’re always noticing which flowers are in bloom.  Which blooms they’re working.  A chestnut tree in spring can be thronged with bees and the buzz always draws your attention.

In these parts this summer (2019) has been good. Rapid growth in the spring (April/May) and honey production in July/August. My hives are situated in oak forest. Foraging includes, lime, hawthorn, bramble, thyme, heather and most imprtantly “mielato”. Bees forage pollen, nectar and mielato (honey due). Mielato is any sugary sap or substance exuded by a plant or sometimes other insects. In this region the acorns of the evergreen holm oaks and a broad leafed oak, exude mielato as they mature. We have had a combination of hot summer and torrential rain in September which may have favoured this. mielato

Sticky «mielato» exudes from the acorn of a broad leafed oak

Bees are fickle creatures and beekeepers merely keep them for as long as they are prepared to stick around. Bees are in no way domesticated and they are only encouraged to stay with their keeper because he or she encourages them to do so by giving them food and quarter. In the spring time beekeepers perform clever manipulations with their hives with the intention of building new hives or growing existing ones. But bees actually get on fine without our intervention and they often have different plans to the beekeeper.

Nonetheless, beekeepers are clever and resourceful and have opposable thumbs so sometimes we come out on top.

While walking through some fields I cast a weather eye towards the remnants of an old abandoned hive. I was in the habit of checking this hive to see if there was activity at the entrance. A swarm will often occupy an old hive. The residual aroma of previous occupants attracts them. And on this day at the end of July there was traffic. A quick check revealed that they had occupied four of the original frames forming their own Gaudiesque cathedral of honey comb.

“I’ll be avin’ that”, thought the beekeeper and in no time at all the colony was transferred to a new box which he had prepared earlier.

And so began another beekeeping adventure. I returned that very night to close the door and load the box into the back of the car. The mission to transport them some seven km away. There they would spend two weeks or so before I returned them to my apiary. The apiary is probably only 300 m from where the colony was found but if we were to move a colony such a short distance the flying bees would return to the previous site the next day. We must therefore move them outside their maximum foraging distance of 5 Km


Transporting bees at night in a car with a nervous dog for company is always entertaining. I stapled some fly-screen material over the entrance to stop them getting out. Working at night it’s best to use a red light as they can’t see into the red part of the spectrum. We don’t necessarily see that well into the red spectrum either and the trail back to the car was treacherous in the dim red glow. Once or twice they ZIZZED angrily as I jolted them. The red light illuminated their little heads and jaws working at the fly screen stapled over the entrance. But they couldn’t get out.

Two weeks later saw us repeat the whole process to install them in the apiary. I fed this colony a lot in what was left of that summer and tried to introduce some order in their chaos by providing regular framed foundation. But there was no enticing them from their original labyrinthine home. The queen seemed to love it in there and had no intention of laying in the new frames. In fact the bees were spreading the chaos onto the faces of the new frames. chaosWEB

By autumn I introduced some polystyrene block to fill up unused space and protect against the cold. Over the following summer this hive had grown enormously. Little by little I was able to move the chaotic brood nest around till the queen abandonded it and it filled up with dark honey. All that remained was to reach in and take the reward. ExtractedWEB   Extracting honey from such irregular comb is not so easy and we had to build a press. Although it was a shame to have to destroy their fantastic handy work the reward was an exquisitely sweet distilation of summer sunshine. I gave them the sticky utensils to lick and by the morning they were all clean. Next summer this hive will know the benefits of a little order and hopefully we’ll all get to the end of the year with honey in the larder. Labyrinth Labyrinth1WEB Labyrinth2 PressWEB

A journey with donkeys


Thanks to airbnbI enjoy a steady current of itinerant travellers who stop for a while in my house and tell me their tales of travel and adventure. I get all sorts of folk, from all corners of the globe. Solo, couple and families with kids. They are all without exception, good people.

They almost always want to do a trek with my donkeys, Momo and Django. The French people almost always ask in that polite French way, “Feel (that’s me), would be possible doing a trekking with your monkeys?”

It would be a pleasure”. I always reply.

The format is simple. The monkeys carry the wicker baskets containing picnic hamper, drinks, blanket and assorted kit for tackling adventures. People love donkeys. It’s impossible not to. And I’m lucky enough to be able to share all this with the folks that happen through here. I can be out and about in the hills with the donks on average three times a week in the summer months.


It’s fun but nonetheless there comes a point where we need a little time to ourselves. Round the middle of September I saw a gap in my calender which coincided with two curious events.


Firstly an expedition had set out from Burgos to drive ox carts to Donostia (San Sebastian) over seventeen days. Their mission was to transport pitch to “Albaola” the Museum of Basque Maritime History. There the pitch would be used to seal the hull of a replica galleon of the fifteenth century called “San Juan”. The project is a form of living archaeology which enables people to explore what life would have been like back in the day when the Americas had just been discovered.

I was interested to join the caravan of three pairs of oxen and walk back into what it might have been like back then.

The second expedition was a cycle ride from Las Palmas in Tenerife to Donostia. The project was an out reach from Donostia which was chosen as European Capital of Culture 2016.  The bikes were equipped with electric motors and could carry a considerable amount of kit. Their mission was to investigate local, small-scale, unusual projects along their route. The donkeys and myself had fallen into this category.

These projects were both organised and carried out by other organisations. I simply popped in on their trajectory across Euskal Herria (The Basque Country). While I say “simply” it has to be borne in mind that shifting two donkeys hauling a covered wagon does propose its own logistical conundrums.

The thing is of course, that we’ve been in each others company all summer and have formed a good team. I stock the wagon carefully with essential camping kit; a sleeping bag, stove, food, etc.. The donkeys are hitched in ten minutes and we’re off.

The pace is slow but steady. It reminds me of sailing. Much as a sail boat is propelled by the invisible force of the wind, a wagon is propelled by the labour of two living beings. There is a magic in those two forms of energy which is hard to achieve with a petrol engine.  When we involve petrol engines or for that matter speed, in our journey we seem to become more concerned with the destination than the journey itself.

AvenueBack in September I embarked on a journey that would coincide with two other journeys as they meandered slowly across Euskal Herria. The locations and timings of our crossing points lay out there on the horizon. But we had to get there first. And the journey began as we tripped out of Leorza on a blistering 32ºC (90ºF) afternoon. Our initial path lead us on a track which snaked up through the oak forest. There are some long stretches in the open sun baked road.  It was hot.

Now, I can do this trip in fifteen minutes in the car but with donkeys it takes a few hours. By dint of this you are more involved with the journey. The heat, the dust, the balance of the load, the morale of the two guys doing the donkey work. It takes time.

CrisWagonWe pulled up to the summit of the pass and a spectacular view of the plains of Álava flooding out below us. Our destination, the village of Ullibarri, nestling in the fold between hill and plain. We descended quickly now sheltered in the cool shade of the tall beech trees that clad this northern slope. And by late afternoon we’d arrived on the edge of the village.

The river here has been gathered into a neat little swimming pool. Plane trees provide the shade and the grass by the river is sweet and green.


After their hard work crossing the pass, Momo and Django were very hungry so the priority was unharnessing them and setting them to grazing. I had an electric fence with me so they can be contained within any green space.

Once all that was done the only thing that remained was to dive into the pool.

Splash!  And I realised that after several months of being in the company of people, albeit good ones, I was now in the company of two monkeys and myself.  I dined on food from the garden while the donks munched the sweet grass.  I then stretched out the sleeping mat and bag for a night of dreamless sleep on the wagon.

The following morning I decided the donks would benefit from a day munching green grass and I would benefit from a day by that pool. I also had a few things to repair and sat in the shade of the wagon stitching harnessing with a big needle. It was on the next morning after man and beasts had fully recharged, that we took off again.

We were in the plains surrounding Vitoria. It’s flat, sometimes rolling and fringed with mountains to the north and south. It’s a place with a lot of sky. On any other day I might be speeding through it at 120kmph (70mph) in a metal box which insulates me from the experience, makes it slightly less interesting and allows my mind to wander on to something else. The destination for example.

A donkey cart goes at around 5kmph (3mph) which is walking speed. On the flat stretches I ride on the wagon. On the hills I hop off and encourage them. On the down hills I ride on board and operate the brake so they don’t get bowled over by the wagon.

We found a dead badger in the road and laying him to one side found the partner still alive but unable to move. Someone in a rush to get home the night before had clipped them both. Sad, but you notice stuff like that when you go slowly.


A few hours walk saw us arriving in Dulantzi.  We tripped out into the plaza to encounter three magnificent pairs of oxen harnessed to great wagons. My pair looked like a classic car in a convention of heavy trucks! Tati was there with his two donkeys, Celso and Gaspar. One of mine Django, is very excitable round other quadrupeds and particularly other donkeys. On seeing these others he exploded into a Hee-Hawing song. He builds up to it, inhaling and inflating himself to bray and simultaneously pump out a fart. But that’s all he does. There’s no aggression or dashing about. He just says Hi! To everyone. Interestingly he’s the least dominant of my two.

BueyesWe followed the oxen for two days. Momo, Django, Celso and Gaspar got on well together and Tati and I too. The oxen pulled at a steady, unrelenting pace while Tati and I got distracted by bars, the opportunity for a second breakfast and pleasant chat with folk you meet. In Agurain I noticed how the donkeys while grazing a green patch by a bar, attracted the attention of Moroccans, Sahararauis and Gipsys. People for whom donkeys represent memories. I always have the grooming kit to hand to occupy the hands of kids young and not so young, who want to get to know these two gents.

no donkeys

It was fun to be with the oxen but we were happier to do our own thing. Together the anarchist donkey team called in on a 5000 year old group of standing stones and passed through seldom visited but beautiful villages.


When we said goodbye after two days my team insisted on a 360º loop in the road before accepting that our paths must part. So, we doubled back on ourselves and set off to coincide with the cyclists from Tenerife. We were now really in the swing of things. Donks pulling well and the wagon and associated paraphernalia holding up.

Tati and I had parted at a junction in our paths. Mine would lead me via an underpass to a minor road running parallel to the “A” road. Tati, Gaspar and Celso set off on a short cut to their destination. No sooner had we parted when I confronted the underpass. It was for pedestrians and we just weren’t going to fit. The wagon might have entered with a hairs breadth to spare but convincing Momo and Django was beyond me.

We did an about turn again. Something of a manoeuvre in itself, and continued the long way round. Only to find that it lead to the slipway for the “A” road and a sign prohibiting horse and presumably donkey drawn vehicles.

So, we turned again and made our way back in search of a more fordable crossing. All in all we’d added maybe 2 and a half miles to our journey. Add to that the manoeuvrings and you’re an hour or so behind schedule. Only there is no schedule so it doesn’t matter. Arriving at the brow of a hill leading to the fly over, Django’s ears pricked forward and he began to inflate to release his usual Hee-Haw, Farting, wind band recital.


He had seen Tati, Gaspar and Celso following a path between fields and set on a course to collide with us. Evidently their path had lead them to some insurmountable obstacle. Donkeys are very particular about certain things. A change in the road colour is almost always a cause for reflection. Momo is always particularly concerned about puddles. We joke that he is worried a crocodile will leap out from the murky depths. In actual fact it’s because donkeys can’t distinguish depth very well and Momo fears he will fall into the puddle. It helps to understand these things. Often if I stand in the puddle or walk ahead onto the new road surface, it’s enough to let him see that I haven’t fallen into the gap. Donkey psychology.

It was now mid morning and we had to say goodbye again as we set off on our respective journeys. Django insisted on doing another farewell loop in the road before knuckling down to the task in hand and pulling on down the road.


Our course stretched out before us. An east west line bisecting the plains of Álava and paralleling the National 1 with its arterial flow of heavy trucks and assorted vehicles. We followed the old road flanked to the south by fields rising up into the beech-clad hills we had crossed a few days prior.


To the north that busy road, then fields and the mountains of Guipuzkoa and Bizkaya. The road switch backed gently over the undulating plain. It was hot and there was a sense of expansiveness under the arch of the immense, cloudless, blue sky.

I walked the hills, not wishing to over burden my companions. For the rest of the way I enjoyed the ride. Seeing the world unfold from the back of a donkey wagon is different. It’s rather difficult to photograph because you are so much part of the scene. You’d need a very long “selfy” stick or a dedicated photographer to capture the Turnerian romanticism of these beasts gliding down a long avenue of poplars with a back drop of sun flowers. You are more involved in what you are doing and where you are when you travel by donkey cart.

We trundled on, the sky larks chattering while the gentle rhythm of the labouring donks provided the bass line. Groups of cyclists overtook with a cheery, “Aupa!”


By mid afternoon we were back at Ullibarri and that swimming pool. The donks were ravenous. An emotion perhaps more typically applied to carnivores but here were two ravenous herbivores. I had to unharness them double quick. Struggling with their powerful heads as they lurched to get their noses in amongst the green grass. With all our detouring we’d topped 20km (12 miles).

Arrival is a routine. A buzz of activity for the driver. Unharnessing, tethering, laying out the electric fence, watering, grooming, etc.

A Jeep pulled up and out popped Andres. Beady eyes peering out of an asterisk of red haired beardyness. Andres is a shepherd with a flock of three hundred sheep. He milks them and his sister makes cheese. They are among a very few cheese makers who still make cheese on this scale. Confronting the grand task that is shepherding three hundred sheep to produce a small quantity of an incredibly local and unique product, Idiazabal cheese.

He had brought a block of it and some beers.

A hunk of bread, some cheese and you can walk all day”, he enthused.

You don’t need much else”, he concluded.

I let the team enjoy some well earned pasture for the rest of the next day.  In the late afternoon I decided to move them once again a few miles to Erentxun my rendezvous point with the cyclists.  A friend called to see if we could take some kids for an evening run in the wagon. Perfect! The best things just happen. No plan necessary. So, we hitched up once again, the kids tumbled into the wagon and we set of west into the setting sun. We climbed gently up into the edge of the great beech forest as the sun dipped over the horizon.


The wagon trundled on into the darkening forest.  An owl passed ghost like and noiseless over the heads of the donks.  A pair of roe deer in the road up ahead. Silhouetted and still, they sniffed the air and this strange smell of donkey beast.  One of the pair coughs a dry bark and simultaneously they spring off to be engulfed by the shadows of the night.

The journey turned into a magical evening safari.

And the next day we awoke in the company of Aitor, Ainara and Carlos, the cyclists from Las Palamas in Tenerife,  Their odd assortment of bicycles, tricycles and trailers were a curiosity for Momo and Django but they quickly granted their approval and were invited to join the herd.

We followed the Vasco Navarro Cycle way and exchanged travellers tales.  Aitor, Ainara and Carlos had travelled almost three thousand kilometres (1860miles) with a mission to investigate local initiatives along their way.  They had uncovered a great diversity of projects which in one way or another saw local citizens embarking on projects to transform their surroundings.  They had encountered everything from urban gardens, through community centres, home made planispheres and local currencies.

Reflecting on his experiences Aitor had this to say, «We have seen projects which seize opportunity in adversity.  Abandonment, lack of equipment or institutional passivity have often acted as detonating factors.  The reality which surrounds these projects is often unfavourable.  Citizen initiatives nevertheless, have the capacity to cope with these adversities and return benefit to the community.  They make the city.»

CaravanOur cavalcade drifted on down the road.  We stopped for a second breakfast and then went our separate ways.  The cyclists for Donostia and Team Donk to cross back over the hills into our home patch.   To scheme the next adventure…


Becoming a donkey owner


  Me and Mr Momo

I live in a place where believe it or not, donkeys frequently crop up in conversations. People in bars talk of donkeys seeking homes much as folk in other parts try to find homes for litters of kittens. In this way some friends who live in a nearby village got a female donkey some years ago. Then someone offered them a male and they said «yeh alright then», as you do.

She goes by the rather unfortunate name of Fanny and he’s called Matheu. Donkeys have a ridiculous libido and Matheu was constantly at it. In the end we had him castrated. Somewhat miraculously Momo was born exactly a year later. Donkeys have a very long gestation period. In fact if something takes a long time here people commonly say «shit, this is taking longer than a donkey’s pregnancy». It sounds better in Spanish but also hints at how much donks figure in local culture. Anyway, Momo appears to be the result of Matheu’s last bonk. Almost two years later and we found ourselves back in the same hole as it were. Only this time Momo had the slightly Oedipal complex of suckling and bonking his mother. It had to stop! So, he too was castrated. Rather a grim process and I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say that while it is easy to anthropomorphize about keeping male donkeys intact, it is without doubt a necessary procedure. Stallions, or «Jacks» are insatiable and quite capable of killing mares («Jennies») with their amorous intentions. Geldings are calmer and considerably more biddable when it comes to handling them.

Momo when he was a few months old

Fanny and Matheu had been living the life of Riley for several years with my friends. They over winter in my friends paddock and spend the summer roaming free in the hills with a herd of potxokas. These latter are a Basque breed of horses reared for meat. I know, folks from other cultures are a bit thrown by the concept of eating horse but I have come to think that if you are going to eat meat then you should at least ensure that it comes from animals that have lived well. Potxokas live wild and free and their meat is said to be very healthy. I stopped eating meat long ago and my name Philip, translates from Greek (Philipus) as “Lover of horses” so I ain’t going to eat one.

My friends were reluctant to continue with three donkeys and began to enquire about a new home for Momo. “Aye, allright then, I’ll have him”, I offered in a moment of rashness and romanticism.


Fanny, Matheu and Momo

Family group, Fanny, Matheu and Momo

There followed a certain amount of logistics and arrangements. I had to register officially as a livestock farmer then arrange for the vet to come and have him tagged with a chip and castrated. The day of “the big chop” Momo had to be confined in his stable and fasted. This was where I discovered that while donkeys are infamously stubborn and tend easily to say “nope, no way will I do that” they can be equally determined to do exactly as they please. In this case the issue was keeping Momo confined in his stable. Momo made short shrift of the barricade we placed in the entrance. We replaced it with something more substantial but he just vaulted the back wall and was back with his mum and dad munching grass in no time.



A week after his operation all three had to be brought down to my paddock where they would be introduced to the three horses that live there. The two kilometre trek was a trial. Three semi feral donkeys and abundant spring grass to provoke frequent stops. I make no pretence of being any kind of “donkey whisperer” and am capable of great errors. I made the near fatal mistake of knotting Momo’s leash with Fanny’s. Knotting mother and son together worked well for a while. He tends to follow his mum and therefore went wherever she pulled. Then something startled someone and they were off. Three stampeding «burros», two of which were joined with a rope. Fanny set off down a slope bound for the green barley shoots. Momo went somewhere else and suddenly Fanny was tits up in a ditch. I really thought I’d killed her!

We eventually got them all down to my home village of Leorza where there was an altercation with a dog and then a fight with the three horses they will be sharing the field with. What on earth had I let myself in for?


Momo’s new family

In the following days I had them in my garden for periods during the day and they did a great job mowing the grass. So much better than the strimmer which is noisy, uses petrol and doesn’t produce organic fertiliser. With a mind to introducing Momo gently to the idea of independence I tried keeping him separate from his mum for a few hours at a time.

Hopeless. He spent the time braying mournfully at his mother who did likewise. It was extremely noisy! Even noisier than the strimmer!

The following day there was nothing left for it.


Momo was locked in the stable for the following three days against his inevitable bid for freedom.  The first three nights Momo brayed bailfully at precisely four thirty am. Then he just seemed to accept his lot and mucked in with the other three horses. Well, “mucked in” isn’t really accurate. The three horses are always together with their prima donna airs, gossiping over the hay trough while Momo strikes a solitary figure. Nonetheless, he’s with them. Donkeys are herd animals and need company of some sort, preferably equine.


Applying some simple donkey psychology I figured that those first few days of separation from his mother would provide a window of opportunity in which I could form a bond with him. Daily visits, lots of brushing, short walks and small rewards in the form of dry bread and visits to fields of green stuff.


A battle of wills

Those initial treks were a battle of wills and we spent a lot of time looking at each other from either end of a tight rope. But he changed from one day to the next and now trots happily or rather ploddingly, by my side. He takes a while to warm up but when he gets going doesn’t need to be led. Now we venture deep into the hills, ascend rocky peaks and jog down steep tracks. He was born in these mountains and is rarely phased by obstacles such as creeks which he leaps in a bound.


Kitted up and ready for action

Looks like this particular journey has only just begun and as Robert Louis Stevenson, another Scotsman who travelled with a donkey said, “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”

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Be a Traveller not a Tourist


Bizipozatours is an insiders guide to the curious country and culture that is Euskal Herria (The Basque Country). It is about connecting visitors to the wealth of unspoilt, often undiscovered, country and culture which exists here.

 It is not about the well trod tourist trail where you choose your meal from a menu with photos, shuffle round the sights and return home with a sombrero and a bottle of dodgy plonk.

No it’s not about that.

Bizipozatours is about stepping off the beaten path and taking time to explore the less trodden tracks that twist this way and that. Those are the tracks that lead to the crystal fountain where you meet friendly folk with time to pass the day and a restaurant serving beans grown locally, washed down with a bottle of Rioja, “sin etiqueta”.

Bizipozatours is about travel. It’s about stepping outside our routine, observing that there are other ways, other customs, that there’s always another point of view and that really anything could happen!

 The following photos and text recount some highlights from a five day trek that took us across Navarra travelling from west to east and passing to the south of Iruña, the capital of Euskal Herria, before ascending into the pre-Pyrenees.

At Bizipozatours it is nothing less than a great pleasure to facilitate people’s exploration and discovery of this place.

All the same there comes a point in the year when the guide needs a holiday too.

What to do?

Where to go?


The answer came with the chance arrival of a friend from Madrid. He’d walked the 400km in three legs of a month each and he was currently on the final section which would take him to the occupied villages of the Navarran Pyrenees. Javier’s route in the previous days had taken him over the Sierra de Toloño and down into the ocean of oak forest that is Izki National Park. He’d taken three days to cross that. Camping under a tarp and cooking on an open fire where his preferred dish was “rice and…».While Javier’s tales of camping in the forest and sleeping in church porches in sub zero temperatures provoked a certain horror they also held considerable appeal. The appealing simplicity of life reduced to the contents of a rucksack. He also exuded a deep vibe of calm a strong smell of wood smoke and there was no doubt that I would be joining him on the next leg.

There is something tremendously special about starting a long journey on foot from your own front door. A sense of departure and a certain longing for the slippers and pipe that lie by the still hot embers of the hearth.

I was leaving the comfort zone.

All the stuff I had been fretting about until that moment of departure evaporated to be replaced by a rather heavy ruck sack.

After crossing the Sierras of Iturrieta and Urbasa our first port of call was the village of Etxauri in Nevarra.

As two off season pilgrims travelling the wrong way on The Camino de Santiago I guess we stood out as an oddity. We quickly fell into conversation with the locals in the bar and when we explained our intention to pass the night in the church porch they were quick to offer us floor space. We may be ‘ard as nails but we ain’t stupid either.

The storm clouds of the previous day had moved on by sun up the following morning. Turning westward into those warming rays we picked up a winding trail that stretched on through vineyards to the far horizon and our destination the snow clad Pyrenees.





The day unfolded and the kilometres eased by at a leisurely pace. The early morning frost lingered only in the shade and the air temperature soared with the rising sun. Stops were frequent as we adjusted clothing, stripped off layers bringing welcome cooling but unwelcome weight to the packs on our backs.

There’s a meditative quality in the rhythm of walking. The mind chatters but what are you really going to pay attention to when the pressing concern is how to adjust the weight on your back so that that tensioning pain in your shoulders might find ease?

Mid morning and a stop for “hamaikatako” elevenses. Cheese and some of Oianha’s organic bread, baked locally from “masa madre” made with locally grown and milled flour. Simple food well earned after a mornings walking.

The road lead on through rolling farmland linking every three or four kilometres, one village with another; Otazu, Larraya, Galar, Esparza,… Unremarkable villages when seen from a speeding car but filled with interest to the pilgrim’s eye. When there’s only one or two people in the scene you’re rather obliged to interact. Folk out and about or tending huertas (gardens) would pause in their tracks and exchange a “buenos días” or “Egun on”. And more often than not we’d fall into conversation.

Turning Pamplona by the broad plain that lies to its south we joined the Camino de Santiago for some twenty kilometres. We were of course travelling away from Santiago. Something which people we met took delight in informing us. Nonetheless, it was an insight into the Camino and its history. This corridor linking Santiago in Galicia with France and the rest of Europe via the Pyrenees has seen the passing of inconceivable numbers of pilgrims, traders, nights templer, and crusaders since the midle ages. The record of their passing is preserved in the chiseled stone of buildings with their distinctive Navarran arches and cryptic inscriptions.

But there are layers of history here. Iruña was founded by the Roman commander Pompey in 75 B.C.. He named it after himself “Pompaelo” and it presumably evolved into Pamplona over the milenia. Iruña is the Basque name for the town.

Beyond the Romans you’ve got the neolithic period and this whole area is dotted with neolithic stone circles. This is a place that has seen the passage of civilizations. Makes you wonder about the permanence of our own.

It took us three days to cross Navarra and we spent most of the nights in church porches and always found a space to make a fire and brew up a pot of «rice and…» The nights were fresh with the temperature falling to around 4 below.

Arriving in the village of Itzagaondoa with fading light we were dismayed to find that the church didn’t have a porch. There were a few folk around and we asked if they new of anywhere that might provide rudimentary shelter for the night. A key was produced, the local community centre was opened and the central heating was cranked up. “ Aye, this is the life!” What’s more, having arrived on foot there was a certain sense that the people of Itzagaondoa were after all just neighbours. We spent a few hours with them drinking patxaran and discussing this and that. So many things in common. Concerns about rural depopulation a shared sense of injustice and indignation.  A notion that a more local, collaborative approach might be the salvation we are looking for.

They opened the church for us explaining that some builders had discovered a freeze under the plaster. The freeze is dated around 1460 and depicts a medieval calendar. Things like that abound here. The church is an otherwise unremarkable replica of so many others in so many other almost uninhabited villages. Soooo much history!

From Itzagaondoa we made our way to Aoiz and there began the ascent into the foothills of the Pyrenees. We spent one more cold night in a hunter’s shelter at around 1200m before descending to the occupied village of Arizkuren.

Arizkuren was first inhabited in the 12th century had its heyday in the mid 18th century and was abandoned half way through the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine what the original inhabitants gleaned from those forested hill sides at an altitude of 800m. But they must have found something and they certainly built some beautiful houses out of the stone they quarried.

Some eighteen years ago Arizkuren was occupied by a group of folk who have repopulated the streets of this medieval village. I can easily imagine the enthusiasm and romanticism that fuelled their initial experiments in building a community. I can also see how hard it has been to match idealism with the reality of living in such a remote spot. But they’ve done it or better said, are continuing to do it as this level of community requires constant attention and a very clearly established system of conflict resolution.

It was inspiring to be there. This is a level of communal living that is based on a collective economy and while it is certainly no picnic it is a system which currently supports twenty one people. The nearby village of Lakabe has been operating for around forty years and is respected world wide.

These are communities of people who have stuck their courage to the sticking post and opted consciously for a way of life where they accept responsibility for their actions and live by and large with a minimum of impact. Out of respect for them and their privacy I won’t add more here but if you wanted more information you would know where to ask.

In one way or another this trip represents the spirit of a Bizipozatour. Having said that most of our clients opt for accommodation in luxury rural, guest-houses complete with spas. I hope you might be inspired to join us.

Ondo Ibili;)


The Cider House Rules

There is a strong tradition of cider making here in the Basque Country.  Sagardotegies (cider houses) are very typical in the province of Guipuzkoa but cider is also made here in Araba and the «Sagardotegia Iturrieta» was inaugurated in 1998 with a view to reviving that tradition.

This is a very small family run cider house.  It has it’s own orchard with around 600 apple trees which they hope to double in the next few years.  Any additional apples are sourced locally in the valley of Aramaio and nearby.  The trees are all traditional Basque and Asturian varieties.  These are trees which would simply have vanished if it wasn’t for initiatives such as «Sagardotegia Iturrieta»
We have lived for too long by an economic system whose principal philosophy is, «business is business and business must grow».  This has created a perilous situation where we have literally placed all our eggs in one basket.  The brewing industry is a perfect example.  Only fifty years ago there were thousands of little breweries and cider houses all over the world brewing all sorts of delights.  Now there are just a handful.  We have moved from a  situation where there was lots of choice to one where there is no choice at all.
At «Sagardotegia Iturrieta» there is lots of choice and I was tremendously lucky to be invited to an event to mark the inauguration of this years cider.  I tried five different organically-produced ciders each with their own particular characteristics.  These ciders  must be «broken» before drinking.  To break the cider it is poured from a height into the glass.  The glass is only filled with a little cider.  To fill it up to the top would be very bad form.
Glasses are chinked with a shout of «Txotx!»  /chotch/ (Cheers!)
The cider was accompanied with tortilla (Spanish omelette), morcilla (black pudding) and sopa de ajo (garlic soup).

A typical menu at «Sagardotegia Iturrieta» starts at 12€ and includes three courses and a bottle of cider.   Traditionally people eat cod omelet, T bone steak, cheese and quince jam, washing it all down with copious amounts of cider direct from the barrel.
This is what Bizipozatours is all about, connecting you with the authentic Basque experience and promoting a sustainable future for all of us!

You can sample the atmosphere at Sagardotegia Iturrieta in this short video


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Three Basque Peaks

The first time I crossed the mountain pass of Urkiola and saw the parched white lime-stone peaks of the Duranguesado I figured, «yup, this is a place I could happily spend some time».  That gut feeling lead to a decision and today almost fifteen years later,  my passion for this singular land known as Euskal Herria has only deepened.


Euskal Herria (The Basque Country) is a jumble of craggy peaks forming the western edge of the Pyrenees.  The Basque mountains are around 1000m in height, the ideal size for a day trip and there are enough to keep any hill-walker or Munro bagger happy for many life times.

Of all the Basque mountains the three best known are Gorbea (1481m) Anboto (1331m) and Aitzkori (1550m).  I’ve climbed them all many times but with little else to do this Christmas figured on doing all three in as many days.








As you might expect there are those who do all three in a day.  The itinerary covers just over 100km, 5000m of ascent and 5000m of descent.  This year was the eighteenth edition and 1560 runners set out at midnight on a Friday.  The fastest ones were crossing the finishing line at  10.30am the next morning.

But that’s just being silly really.  I climb mountains because I love them.  Other than climbing the only thing I do that would come close to training would be standing as opposed to sitting at my local bar.

Our expedition started on December 23 with an easy ascent of Anboto from Urkiola.  It’s a five hour round trip with 700m of ascent.  Beautiful day although the wind was blowing at well over 100km per hour.  Made for some hair raising moments on the ridge and I had to rope up with Tximis.

Met  Eder at the start of the ridge and within five paces we’d identified that we knew all the same folk.  The Basque Country’s like that.



Two figures struggling with the wind on a steep descent




The «Buzon» (letter box).  Mountaineers leave cards here which others then send back to the club to vouch for the ascent.  This one has the form of an axe.



Christmas day on Gorbea and a turn in the weather.  I ventured out nonetheless enjoyed deserted roads and a festive tin of sardines on the summit with Tximis

Also visited this curious feature, The Cornisa de Atxuri.  Anboto is visible in the distance.

A reasonable day though. Five hour round trip and 900m of ascent.

Day 3 Aitzkori  I chose a less frequented route here up the east face ascending 1000m in a very short distance and was seven hours on the hill.

Tximista on the summit eager for more





Here’s a 360º panorama of Euskal Herria from the summit of Aitzkori.
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Making chutney with a chain saw

Organic-Garden Produce
Organic-Garden Produce

The first frosts arrived with October and the garden is entering a new phase.  The plants are dying back but at the same time in peak production.  It’s just not possible to eat it all so you have to find some way of preserving it.  Some things you can freeze but the result is often a bit of a let down.   To my mind one of the best ways to lock all the summer’s vitamins, nutrients and flavours away for the winter ahead is by pickling.


The word «chutney» is derived from the Sanskirit word caṭnī, a term for a class of spicy preparations used as an accompaniment for a main dish.  Like so many Indian recipes it has been absorbed into British culinary-culture and has evolved into something quintessentially British.  It is unheard of in Euskal Herria but hugely popular among my Basque friends.  At least they appreciate that British food goes beyond egg ‘n chips!

The recipe

There are millions of recipes with all sorts of peculiarities.  Over the years I have reduced it to the essentials.  Weigh your ingredients and calculate on adding 10% weight/volume of sugar (brown is best) and vinegar.  I try to balance sweet fruits such as apples and plums with the other ingredients.


The recipe you can see in this video contains;

Ripe tomatoes 4Kg

Apples 2Kg

Aubergines 500g

Pumpkin 2Kg

Onion 1kg

Peppers 500g

Vinegar 1l

Sugar 1Kg

Tie a selection of spices into a piece of cloth.  This chutney has black pepper, ginger, chile flakes, mustard seeds, cardamon and ginger.  Chuck your spice bag in with the rest of the ingredients and boil gently till you get a jam like consistency.  Jar in sterilised jars and store until around December.

Having completed the task of «chutneying» such a large quantity of veg I found myself reflecting on a process which required; the planting and maintenance of a garden, the felling, cutting and transporting of wood for the fire, the chopping of the veg and the jarring of the chutney.  I also had to build a new stove which you can see here.

It’s always a good exercise to reflect on the origins of what we find in our surroundings.  I can say that we are 100%self sufficient in chutney.  But as someone once said, «man does not live by chutney alone».  Neither is this an exercise in self sufficiency, survival-ism or any of that individualist doctrine.  It is a collaboration with nature and a bunch of other folk who live near by or happen through.
Is it worth it?  If I apply the economics of money to it, probably not.  If I apply the economics of «bienestar», well being or Bizipoza.  It is beyond doubt, sustaining and sustainable.


Red Hot Chile Peppers

Late september and we’re in pepper season.  I’d love to be able to say that these peppers are from our «huerta«.  They’re not.  Fact is they grow better 17km down the road in the neighbouring province of Navarra.  Picked up a crate for 12€ and set too with some folks to jar ‘em.

They’re not the spicy kind either.  They offer a hint of hot  but are otherwise the sweetest and simply pepperiest peppers you’re ever likely to taste.

The best way to preserve and enjoy these peppers is «asado» roasted over a slow flame.  The roasted flesh is then jarred and sterilised in bain marie.

The process goes something like this…


Crank up the barbie




gently toast your peppers.  The smell is intoxicating.




Let the hot peppers rest a while under a damp tea towel.  This allows the skin to detach from the flesh.




Peel of the skin, pack into jars and sterilise.



Thirteen jars of pimientos asados that will accompany many dishes through the coming winter.


The pleasure of working with friends to jar produce is recompense enough.  However, if you want the hard economics a small jar of this delicacy costs nearly 4€.  We  got thirteen large jars for 12€




Times are tight and if you’re waiting for a handout to launch your next big project you’d better not hold your breath.  Better to just get on with it and do it anyway.  That seems to be the spirit that lies behind Atauri Art.

This event, organised by Bapatean Zirko who are based in Atauri,  along with the help of Atauri’s Junta Administrativa and Arratiandi Cultural-Association brought together eight extraordinary acts over three days.  The event was not publicly funded and all acts volunteered their services.

Events kicked of with Los Pardos a hilarious and highly original double act mixing clowning and improvisational music to remind us that really, nothing is as it appears…

Odei of Bapatean Zirko takes an eccentric look at domestic life in «Tenderete»





Full of surprises






The crowd went wild!





Atauri art concluded with a bold, thought provoking and darkly comic stroll in «King Kong Theory».  This monologue by the controversial feminist author Virginie Despentes begins;

“I speak as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckable, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls that don’t get a look-in in the universal market of the consumable chick.”









Que Guapa!

La Chica King Kong with her entourage of caged Barbie Dolls.


More Photos here

For a wee village with a population of around twelve Atauri Art kicked ass!