I am a big fan of anything that facilitates back country travel with a minimum of disturbance and certainly no engine. Canoes, Nordic skis, mountain bike and sail boat are all firm favourites. They all facilitate your flow through an environment.
Donkeys facilitate this flow too and enable us to drift unobtrusively over hill and dale as pilgrims and nomads have done down through the ages. To travel with donkeys is to travel back in time and cross into a slower, parallel universe, “The Donkey Zone.”
What’s more donkeys will carry your kit and impart the richest company. Something you won’t get from that expensive bike or those state of the art skis.
Donkey trekking would seem to be wins all round then?
Hold your horses!
Unlike expensive sports equipment, donkeys come with a brain too and this can be the source of much confusion to the ill prepared.
Understand them a little and you will unlock the door to a world of great adventures.
Donkeys are smart. Each donkey is his own universe and each donkey his own character. Sure they have predictable donkey attributes but the more you get to know them the more you appreciate the nuance of each character. Of their many character traits “stubbornness” is probably their most infamous but least well deserved.
On being faced with a donkey that you are going to be spending some time with, you need to realise a couple of things. Whether the donkey is old, young, trained or not s/he is going to try to figure YOU out and how to get away with doing as little as possible while simultaneously trying to eat as much as possible. You’re soul objective is to convince him or her that it is worth participating in the carefully planned expedition that you are both about to undertake.
How to do that?
Choice of two.
Reward and punishment.
Rewards can be crumbs off the hunk of dry bread you have in your pocket and which they can smell. It’s important they can smell it. That they know it’s there. That’s enough. The promise of reward is a powerful driving force.
The fact that they are carrying the load leaves me free to carry nothing more than a long switch of hazel rod. I have never more than tapped them with this but I tell them from time to time, in no uncertain terms of how I will flay their lazy asses if they don’t just GET WITH THE PROGRAMME!!!
In short you need to impose on them a little. Search for the sergeant major that you carry somewhere within you and impose yourselelf on them “ this ‘orrible lot of lowsy raskles!”.
I have found that donkeys are such sensitive creatures that just reminding them from time to time who’s in charge is enough.
Situations arise during a day where they need to surmount some hurdle or other. They are predictable things. A fallen tree, a puddle, a bridge, a river, boulders, a steep descent, change in the colour of the path. These are the obstacles we encounter and they really can become a serious impasse. I think of Shrek trying to persuade Donkey to cross a seriously sketchy rope-bridge over an abyss filled with lava. This is an every day occurrence on treks in these parts.
You think I exagerate?
For example, we’re out following a farm track through the mountains after rain. The ground is wet and there are puddles.
No exaggeration. Here we are faced with something as common as a puddle and Momo who I have shared these last seven years with is adamant that he will go no further. Not for all the dry bread you can carry will he consider taking one more step. And so you stand there faced once again with the puddle of dread. It becomes routine, I stride forward into the puddle burbling in calming tones that “It’s a puddle. Look no crocodiles this time. Pesty crocodiles! You never can be too sure ay?” Burble burble and all the while with a tension on his line. And then within a minute he’s taken a step forward and you burble some more and you take up the tension and before you know it we’ve moved on and the crocodile infested puddle is barely even a memory.
Donkeys are not stubborn.
They will state from time to time that they will go no further but there is always a reason. Something in their circumstances has changed and although you didn’t give it any importance Mister Donkey has and we are all going to need a moment or two to assimilate what has happened and decide how we will proceed. Donkeys always need time to assimilate situations. Only once they are satisfied that to the best of their sensibilities that it is safe to proceed will they do so. That is not being stubborn. It’s being cautious.
Nearly all the problems we encounter on our treks have the same root. Uncertainty about the terrain. Donkeys are extraordinarily foot-sure but also extremely sensitive about where they put their feet. Anything that creates sudden visual contrast in their path will provoke alarm. Puddles, zebra crossings, open space and changes in colour all provoke this uncertainty. I suspect it’s because they can’t see depth very easily and therefore think they are going to “fall in” to the puddle or dark shape.
Obviously Momo doesn’t believe there are crocodiles in the puddles but he is wondering about just how deep that puddle is. Is he going to fall in up to his neck? He needs to know from me or you that it’s really all just fine. But always with firmness.
When we start the day I usually link the three of them via their leads, bridle to bridle. I put either Momo or Django in the lead. Matheu is a follower and noticeably uncomfortable in lead position. Curiously, he is eleven years old and three years senior to the other two but donkey hierarchies don’t seem to take this into account. I suspect it’s a herbivore thing.
The lead donk gets linked to a strap over my shoulder and we set off. The first hour or so can see me towing them and reminding them that I do indeed have a stick and I’m not afraid to use it!
In an hour or so the tension begins to release from the line and we all pick up the pace. They will happily walk at 5km/h (3mph) although for rough navigation you can calculate a speed of around 3km/h. We will sometimes travel four abreast, no leader all in step. This is the sweet spot of donkey trekking.
When we get into a flow I release the other two and lead only one. The two freelancers trot along at the back and snatch mouthfuls of vegetation along the way. They hate getting left behind. Matheu is the biggest offender. He’ll lose himself in a patch of rich grass as the rest of the team continue down the track. Eventually Matheu will realise he has been abandoned and returns to the herd at full gallop, braying mournfully.
The trick is to keep it flowing. You become very good at spotting potential hurdles ahead of time. By and large if you can just get the donkey your leading over the hurdle, the rest will follow. Recently as we approached a big muddy puddle at a gate I picked up the pace a little with the intention of bowling Django on over the obstacle. As I arrived in the puddle our caravan ground to an abrupt halt. You have to keep the momentum up. Once they’ve stopped you’re probably in for a period of serious negotiation. As the lead donkey, and captain of this platoon I was already getting irritated with their recalcitrance and was pulling hard on that line. But Mr Django, he stayed put.
A few minutes passed before I realised Django was looking steadfastly at the stretch of dry path that lead around the puddle to the other side. In moments like this I realise that if ever there was a stubborn donkey it’s me!
So, we trundle on over hill and dale. In these parts the forest stretches to the horizon in all directions. The population density is low but there are villages in the valleys and little medieval “hermitas” on some of the hills. These afford shelter and become the target for our daily wanderings.
This is the donkey zone