Day 32 of Walking Out of the World, a virtual pilgrimage from Worcester to Compostela, now walking in slower donkey steps on the Chemin Saint-Jacques (Via Turonensis variant, GR48.)
(The previous day’s walk was Day 31 Rain all day to Châtellerault and rescue in a storm followed by a rest day and Rubí donkey’s review of the virtual pilgrimage.)
If you have never walked with a donkey, your first experience will be largely determined by the character of the donkey who teaches you. I had a good teacher. Dalie donkey was saddled up with the croisillon, a wooden pack frame on which the loaded pannier bags are hung, and I was well briefed by Barbara with all the do’s and don’ts for the days ahead. For the complete novice it is a great comfort when the donkey knows exactly what she is doing.
In our virtual pilgrimage, this is a few days walk with a donkey on the Chemin Saint-Jacques along two river valleys, as a short break from the three months of walking from Worcester to Compostela. If the following account enthuses the reader but does not provide all the information needed, don’t worry: there will be a booklist! The first learning point is this: when you are ready to walk with donkeys you will be called to do so. It might simply happen when you are least expecting it, so just relax and let the donkey teach you.
The initiation into walking with a donkey, as delivered by a flying instructor, can seem very technical. Bags of donkey medication, donkey food, donkey hoof implements, donkey covers, donkey buckets and bowls, donkey supplements, electric donkey fences, donkey straps and buckles, is a lot to take in all in one 20-minute introductory session. And then, all of a sudden you are walking solo down the Chemin Saint-Jacques. Donkey has control. The flying instructor can only do so much. Donkey will instruct you in the ways of walking with a donkey.
Our route is down the river Gartempe to Montmorillon following the GR48 Turonensis variant from Antigny. (Thanks to Dr Simon Cotton for his photos of Antigny church of Notre Dame and fresco.) For good reason, this has been called “the valley of the frescos“.
The first hazard of walking with donkey is that everyone will say, “Ooh look! It’s a donkey!” and stand in front of it to bring donkey to an immediate halt. This requires getting donkey started again, and donkey will be reluctant because she is now enjoying the attention of people gathered around her saying, “Ooh look. It’s a donkey!” So you need to tap donkey on the behind to get her moving again. At this point you become the villain of the piece. “Oh, the poor donkey! See how he smacks her! And she’s carrying so much weight! How can she bear such a load? Lovely creature, but such a pity that monster of a man is making her life a misery…”
From this moment I learn something new in life: everyone will give you advice regarding a donkey. Even if they never owned one. Even if they’ve never seen one before. Everyone. The straps are too loose. The straps are too tight. The donkey looks hungry. The donkey looks overfed. You should walk one pace ahead of the donkey’s nose. You should walk half a pace behind the donkey’s nose. Everyone. Even if they’ve never given advice to anyone about anything else in their life, they will feel compelled to say, “That load is lopsided: look how the donkey leans to the left! You must tighten the right-hand strap.”
So, day one was spent discovering (1) donkey is very good company and presents no problems; and (2) people present you with never-ending donkey-related drama. Outside a café in Montmorillon a four-year-old pokes her finger in Dalie’s mouth and immediately shrieks, “The donkey bit me!” An indignant mother turns around to find the owner of the beast and says accusingly, “This donkey is unsafe, monsieur: it should not be in a public place!”
Away from people, on long shady tracks through sun dappled forest paths and alongside the gurgling rivers, donkey and pilgrim walk in harmony in a perfect rhythm. More slowly than walking alone. Donkey has her own pace. You must adjust your pace to hers. Slow down, pilgrim. We have things to show you. Dalie stops. She is looking at something in the field, under a tree, just five paces away from where we stand. I look over Dalie’s neck to see what she finds so fascinating. It is a tiny fawn, hardly bigger than a sheep. The fawn is sitting down, quite unconcerned, looking at Dalie – and I’m hiding on the other side of donkey, my scent disguised by her donkey scent – and big-eyed fawn and donkey stare at each other. I reach in the pocket of the pannier bag for the camera and break the spell. The fawn darts away silently, leaping across the field, a tiny body on spindly legs and on the other side in a hedgerow she finds her deer mother.
Walking with donkey is different.