Thanks to “airbnb” I 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.
Back 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.
We 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.
We 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.
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.»
Our 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…