Why it is a great idea to consider traveling with a donkey…
For the past couple of weeks, the sun has pushed the clouds aside and brought warmth back to the French country side. Burgeons timidly appearing on branches, flower buds spicing up my garden, the first awakening of life is here after months of cold hibernation.
Nothing beats the joy of walking. Nothing offers better views of our surroundings, nothing benefits our body or ease our mind like walking. Nothing allows us to be part of this world like a journey on foot.
I know this may seem odd for me to say, considering I have been living in the back of a Jeep, while creating and writing about off-road trails. But when given the chance, I’m the first to trade it all for a nice walk through less traveled tracks.
Using “fair means” as opposed to an expedition vehicle is not simply a question of choice, but mostly a question of organisation. If we all had the time, the energy and strength to travel the world on foot, we would. As David Henry Thoreau once said, “The swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot”. Only it isn’t that simple nowadays. As an example, to complete our Spanish trail by Jeep takes ten days, to do it on foot will take at least a month, if not more. In a society overloaded by work schedules, where time is of the outmost essence, not everyone can allocate for such leisurely breaks. Neither everyone has the fitness required for such physical endeavour. Sitting at our desks all day, hardly ever using our bodies to move, thanks to cars, trains, escalators, elevators, etc… Or ever carrying any substantial load for an extended period of time, you can see why doing it by car becomes a lot easier and a lot more practical.
I myself resorted to a car because the photography equipment I had to bring along to record my trips was just too heavy to carry on my back. While my dad in his day just used a small analogue camera and some films, I had to transport a very large and heavy set of cameras and lenses, as well as a computer and all the wires and chargers necessary to keep them all functional. After having wasted too much money on the search of the ultimate camera bag, I just gave up and started traveling by car.
While for me it’s too much technical gears, for most it’s too much of useless “comfort” oriented items that are never used. As such, the first step to ease our journey and go back to walking, is too lighten up.
And if that isn’t enough, to find a more pleasurable and ecological way to carry it for us.
And that’s how I thought of following the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson and do my next trip with a donkey.
Now, as much as it may sound like a great idea on paper, being able to walk freely while the animal carries our load, there are many details to consider before making the jump. The first of which is to learn about donkeys. Because to think that all it takes is to hire one and expect it to follow you obediently where ever you want, when ever you want, is the kind of naivety that will lead you to disenchantment !
Have you ever heard the phrase “Being a Jackass” ? (An Ass is the proper name for a donkey, a Jack being the male’s name). Donkeys are smart and they are strong minded. They don’t do anything they don’t want to unless you lead them to it; either by brutalising them, (sadly the most common option by far in our world) or by gaining their trust (obviously the one we strongly advocate for). But gaining an animal’s trust takes time. You can’t expect an ass you just met to follow you blindly on paths it has never seen before. So unless it is your own donkey, or a “rental” used on tracks it has seen hundreds of times with other “clients”, it might require a lot more experience you and I have to lead the donkey smoothly on its journey, at least during the first few days. (Stevenson’s account being a prime example of that)
Owning your own donkey is a commitment. They can live up to 40 years, even 50 for some breads. (Somehow the life expectancy for those used predominately for work purposes drops to 15 years, Strange isn’t it !!!!!) It also requires at least 5.000 m2 of pasture for food, and because it is a lot more sensitive than we care to think, an ass likes company. That means either having two donkeys or finding him a “friend”, like a goat, a sheep, a dog or even a chicken. In other words a donkey is a social animal that does best in a natural environment. Also, being originally from the Middle-East and North Africa, they tend to do best in drier climates.
So if, understandably, you can’t provide for all its needs, renting one for your next trip is the better option. There are many places providing donkeys for travelers these days. As nature tourism expands year after year, more and more companies are created to catered to this new form of rural exploration. A quick search on internet will highlight a few within your area or the one you plan on visiting. Most will have pre-determined circuits, with established stops where your companion can enjoy a safe and restful night. It guarantees you to see the best places around without getting lost, and not struggle with a reticent animal scared of unknown territories. However, others will let you roam free, just charging you for the time you spend with the animal. A serious owner will “educate” you, explaining the do’s and don’ts when it comes to the well being of the animal, and be there to rescue you at anytime, if something was to happen along the way. Anything short of that should be an immediate red flag and convince you to seek someone else’s services.
Once on your way, treat it with respectful authority. You’re the boss, but it ain’t your slave. Be considerate, be patient, be smart.
Smart means don’t overload it. You’ve heard the expression “Charging the Mule”. Not a good idea. It isn’t because you have it carrying your things for you, that you need to bring more than you would have carried yourself. Keep it to a minimal !
Smart means earn its trust. Don’t think the more you beat it up, the more you’ll get out of it ! It’s the opposite.
Smart means understanding this journey is not just about you. The donkey is not a mere tool useful to you and to your own pleasure. You are a team and you’ll need to find time for him to enjoy the trip as well. Yes, it won’t request to stop for a selfie when passing in front of a beautiful view, but a few breaks for some tasty leaves or the fresh waters of a stream is always a nice reward.
Traveling with a donkey is a communion between you and your animal. A shared journey on a different time scale, filled with complicity and respect. An experience we had lost thanks to the evolutions of our times, where speed and efficiency are the rules. One I believe we will strongly benefit from, if we accept to reunite with the natural flow of life.
Cover picture by Simon Matzinger. All photos found on Unsplash.com