I was 60 last February and when I thought, what could I do that would be really special, taking a few days off to go walking with my donkeys is what I came up with that I felt very excited about.
We’ve had Bijou and Bichette for about 5 years now and during that time we trained them to allow them to be free of leads as much as possible when out on walks together around our area. And it has been simply so much fun to be able to trust them and to be trusted by them.
So last November I started preparing for a 10 day-walk, some 170kms in total, using the GRs, (national hiking trails), with a field, a Bed-and-Breakfast type accommodation, an equestrian center or a camping site for each night. My journey was going to take me across our natural regional park, “Le Parc Naturel Regional des Causses du Quercy”
which most southern point starts just 3 kms north of our farm. There is St Cirq-Lapopie towards the South and Rocamadour further North. The Dordogne River, The Lot River and the Célé River cross this natural park. The Compostela Way has 2 itineraries there, one along the Lot River and another along the Célé River. This area is packed with History, fabulous geology with famous underground prehistorical sites, limestone caves and some numerous rather surprising remains of phosphate mines. But the attraction for me was firstly its stunning natural beauty with struggling oak forests sitting on limestone rock, and those dilapidated dry stone walls everywhere that still speaks loud of its past. Never mind that I had not done any serious walking or camping for the last 45 years, I chose to go up to Cabreret from Balthazard, then follow the River Célé up to Brengues, then back down through Cajarc and Limogne-en-Quercy, in a full circle taking us back home. I shared this project with my students, friends and family, inviting them to join me if they wished. I love my own company and the probability of doing this alone didn’t bother me at all.
I could have never done this without Geoff who tended the farm, prepared my meals and then much much more after I left home. I took some notes every evening and worked on the writing of my journey for a few weeks after I got back to find a voice that was true and mine. I have succeeded in French but I am not sure my translation in English is good enough somehow, but it’s the best I can offer for now.
Monday 5th June – Puylaroque/Bach 12kms
8am- I am off feeding the animals, to give the donkeys time to eat plenty before we leave. I am putting all our gear together in front of the barn wall, all that I’ll need for my 10 days, including the fencing poles and ropes. I have weighted everything, each bag, every item, I’ve calculated the weight for each donkey, I am arranging all of these on each side of the little saddle and the saddle pack on top of trestles. I have been preparing this trip since last November and I am not taking any chances with anything. Yesterday I made up the donkeys’ tent on the lawn, with a 3mx4m ordinary tarpaulin that’ll do fine and won’t weigh very much at all.
9am- I’m going to get the donkeys. They seem to know something is up because they are at the gate waiting. I hook them up to the barn wall and start loading Bijou who will carry less than Bichette who is stronger. Tina goes to get our water and lunch. Together we did the Amazon trekking and canoeing in Ecuador and the Michu Pichu in Peru , and we are both wearing the “National Deaf children Society” T-shirt with whom we went. Mine has holes, it is stained and torn but I can’t bring myself to throw it away. We both feel like pioneers this morning.
I intended on leaving around 10am but it’s 11am by the time we’re off. At the gate Bijou’s saddle slides down and I fiddle with it to lift it up…off we go again. Geoff takes some pictures. We are leaving our little road and head for Boutiq. We need to stop again 500metres down the road, the loads on both donkeys have moved again. We tighten the straps and get going once more. One mile further on, at Gardemont, Maurice’s horses behind the hedges frighten the hell out of Bichette who jumps for her life with her load now dangerously hanging down on one side, Shit!!! This time I have to confront the fact that we are not going to go anywhere like this. We unload both donkeys under this ash tree, call Geoff who will pick it all up and bring it to me every evening. He had offered to do this at our gate but I had dreamt about this so much and wanted to try no matter what. In a few days Jean Pierre from “les Cadichons” will tell me that the donks are too young for such weight. We load Bichette again but with only what we’ll need today. We have to get going now, we’ve lost enough time.
2pm- Just after Belmont-St-Foi, we stop for 15 minutes in a small clearing on the path to have our lunch. The donks enjoy a few of our cherries and back on the path we go.
3pm. A deafening roar can be heard, 20 or so quads are rushing down the lane. I panic because the donkeys hate anything remotely resembling the sound of horse flies. We have just enough time to pull them on a side path and for me to gesture wildly to these guys for them to turn their engines off, which they do thank you very much. They are now rolling down silently and stop in front of us. We meet, chat, share our adventure; they take pictures of the donks who are by now sniffing the quads. As we get going eventually with the donks in tow and lead free, these guys will stay motionless watching us for a long while. When I turn around at the very top, they are still there watching us disappear out of sight. For an instant Tina wished she could swap the donks for a quad. For her 50th her friends offered her an hour driving lesson with a 30-ton truck. She loved it… We are now following the path next to the Caylus military camp, with lorries driving past. The woodland path is cool, nice.
4.30pm- We cross Vaylats, nice little village well looked after, the monastery is gorgeous, Bijou is behaving with Tina.
6pm-We’ve reached Bach. The last bit of the walking through open wheat fields has been hot and we’re glad to be here. My field for tonight, adjacent to the “gite” has high fences on one side and a thick edge on another. I will raise the tents there while Tina and Geoff will be having their dinner at the “gite”. I’ve asked them to bring me mine after they finish theirs. The donkeys are peaceful, they have a huge area to graze and they are not wasting any time with that. They never stray far from me. I will complete the last segment of the fencing before going to sleep and I’ll bring them in then. At the gite, they are not allowing Geoff to bring me my diner in the field. Him and Tina won’t be able to change their minds. Those people won’t want to hear that I cannot leave the donks alone as they will jump the fence to stay with me. To attach them while I go and have my diner is not an option. My donks have never been attached unattended and it would be too stressful for them as much as for me. Tina is furious with those people and wants to leave but Geoff is already sitting in front of his diner. I’ve managed to have Tina hear that for me who can fast for one week, not eating tonight is not a big deal. It’s true. When I met the man from the “gite” back in November he was charming and offered his field to me and the donks for nothing. Choosing to take our meals tonight in his place was our way to thank him. The man he is tonight in front of his wife is definitely not the same one and he will charge Geoff €10 for the use of the field … Tina is off with Geoff after the only walking day she’ll ever do with me on that journey. Her hip and right knee will not allow her for more walking, but she will be essential to help Geoff with the equipment and meals logistic over the next few days. Thank you so much Tina!
I am on my own now and I put all my stuff as well as the donkey stuff in my little pop-up tent, and keeping all my clothes on as well as my shoes and my beret down to my ears I get into my sleeping bag under the donkey’s tarpaulin. I will be sleeping on and off aware of the munching going on all night around me. When the jaws go silent I open an eye and both my little friends are lying next to each other like identical statues in front of me. It’s a cold night full of stars and a very big moon, I’m filled with wonder.
Tuesday 6th June – Bach/Letou 17kms
6am- it’s raining. I put on my wellies and raincoat and clear the space to allow the donks to come in. This tarpaulin was for them after all. Bijou hesitates for a minute when I invite him in then comes in. Bichette will only protect her head. When I get out to take down the fence she’ll go in next to Bijou. The fenced area is very small and there is dung everywhere. The amount produced last night is unbelievable! I need to negotiate where to put my feet with each step…
8.30am- the sun is coming out, yippee!!!!
9.20am- Geoff and Tina are here to pick up my stuff. It started to rain again but I am equipped for the rain. No worries.
10.30am- I am off for Letou, 2kms before St Cirq-Lapopie. I am feeling good.
Today Bijou is carrying the saddle pack and I’ll have him on a lead whenever necessary. Bichette is free and she is walking sweetly behind us. It stopped raining.
11.30am- Meeting with Martine and Michelle, one from the Landes area in the South West and the other from The North-Est. Michelle will have Bichette on a lead to cross Concots and the other little hamlets on the way. Villages are difficult for donkeys, they are scared of absolutely anything and everything: zebra crossings, man-holes, pavements, traffic…we slow down every time the donks hesitate and stop. We go the long way around avoiding whatever seems to bother them, and we encourage them. Michelle simply loves her time with Bichette. We’ll have a lovely day together. A lot of sharing. Both women have grown up children and a divorce somewhere back in the past. A lot of laughter.
1pm- We stop for lunch during which the donkeys follow me when I am off into a thicket to empty my bowels. I have my little gardening tool and dig a hole among the leaves and crouch. Oh! Sweet Jesus! The donkeys run away! They’re soon back and in turn leave their dung next to mine…. As for peeing, I will never need to pee on my trail which is amazing, I will sweat it all out. The donkeys are now sleeping standing up, while we finish our lunch and pack.
3.30pm- We split. We say what a great time we’ve had together, we thank each other. The girls keep going towards St-Cirq-Lapopie and I leave the hiking trail to follow the sign for Letou. I have now Bijou back on a lead and he is not very happy about that. He plays up and gets told off. The road through the tall pine trees is deliciously cool.
4.30- We’re at Marianne’s who welcomes us warmly. She is a dynamic and kind woman. I lead the donks to the field she points out to me. The terrain is all hills, very pretty. I look around, a few stone houses well looked after with trimmed shrubs and climbers and in the middle, Marianne’s home where she lives with her mother-in-law. No signs of the neighbours. I can’t see anywhere either where I could put our tents, or may be down there at the edge of a thicket and sheltered from the rising wind. Marianne has gone to fetch some water for the donkeys and I plonk myself under the large oak tree in the middle of the field. I am tired and I’ll wait for Geoff here.
6.30pm- Geoff and Tina are here and we have our diner straight out from the boot of the car on the other side of the road from the entrance of the field. Marianne and her mother-in-law are working 100m down in their vegetable plot. It’s a beautiful evening.
7.30pm- Geoff has the sheep to feed, they leave. We’ll be in touch later tonight for me to know about the weather forecast for tomorrow. I set the tents and build a 10m fence between the 2 fields that make up this very large area. The donkeys have 3 hectares all to themselves, it’s plenty.
9.30pm- I am in my sleeping bag, the donks are grazing in the evening light and I feel great, except, there is no connection on my mobile. Bugger! I put my wellies on and struggle back up the field. Tina answers and says Geoff is in the garden, we’ll talk tomorrow morning.
Wednesday 7th June – Letou/Cabreret 9.5kms
6am- I get up with the dew. Wellies are so useful for those early hours when I am packing. Leaving with soggy feet is not the best. I take all my stuff back up the field and leave it on the inside behind the hedge by the gate for Geoff to collect this afternoon.
7.30pm- Marianne is here with a hot coffee and a bun. How kind! We chat. She used to be a shepherdess and loved it. A tough but rewarding life she says. Now she is retired and she has transformed her farm buildings into holiday accommodations. Geoff will leave a good bottle of plonk on her doorstep this afternoon.
8am- We’re off to St Cirq-Lapopie. No more saddle pack for either of the donkeys. We’ll be crossing busy roads ahead and the saddle pack will be in the way with the donkeys on leads on either side of me. I’ve got all I need for the day in my rucksack. On the way down to St Cirq the trail is narrow, rocky and very steep, not a worry for the donkeys coming down behind me. Big groups of twenty or more tourists are slowly making their way up and they glue themselves to the rock face to let us pass, smiles photos,..
10am- the trails leads to St Cirq’s very narrow and quaint medieval streets but for the donkeys it’s simply too daunting. I can’t get them to move forward. I don’t mind at all, we’ll turn around and take the main road to the top of the village then take a left and follow the path right above the village, enjoy the stunning views, and to the parking area, way above the village and the Lot valley. This village Marianne told me had known a tsunami of tourists when it was declared the French’s favorite village in 2012. More than 800 emails to reply to the next morning in the Mairie’s mail box and without any kind of structure in place to feed all these people 7/7 . A nightmare. As a consequence some local residents left, goodbye, salut, auf wiedersehen, with now only 46 people living there in the winter and 400 in the summer selling anything and everything.
As we get to the top of the hill, I am looking for a clue as to where our trail could be but I can’t see it anywhere. I attach the donkeys onto a lamp-post and wander around asking. A lot of tourists but no information on any of the trees nor boards. Finally I decide to go down a local path hoping it will lead us to the river. It works and we are now walking East along the South bank of the Lot river, the trail is wide and shaded. Lots of people walking up and down, different nationalities, some dogs. Just before the towpath I stop for lunch. The donkeys are mesmerized by the river. They are grazing up and down, never far from me.
12pm- We start on the towpath along the river. It has been carved into the cliff and it is an impressive three hundred meters paved with slippery wet stones, with water dripping here and there overhead. Not easy to walk on. The river level is a few meters down. The donkeys are not convinced but we have no choice. This time there is no Plan B. In front of each puddle it’s a little drama to get over it. People stop , take photographs, discuss, give their opinions…We get through a few puddles slowly and carefully but then there is the biggest one yet and we are going to face it for a couple of hours without being able to move on. The donkeys hate puddles and Bijou and Bichette have no experience yet of these nor had any training yet. I put a lead on Bijou to make sure he doesn’t decide to turn around to go back the other way, Bichette is behind him and I try everything: kindness, treats, threats, nothing works. A woman with a very sweet little dog comes to my rescue. Donkeys love dogs. The woman holds her sweet dog under Bijou’s nose and Bijou moves one step forward to sniff it. Unfortunately he won’t move another step. Shit! Shit! Shit! I am in shit! The place is so incredibly stunning, the river is rolling its grey waters past us at great speed, unconcerned, a pleasure yacht passes by, taking pictures of the donkeys, I gesture for them to stop and board Bijou and Bichette, they say no of course. Ha!Ha! The young lock-attendant is here to see what the problem is. Someone has obviously told him of my troubles. He rings a friend of his who has horses. Unknown to him his friend’s place is where I am heading today. The bloke says he knows nothing about donkeys but gives out another number of someone with donkeys….I call, no answer, I leave a message.
Time is running out and the woman with the dog has got to go but can’t get herself to leave me. She offers to give me her number. Her number? What for? We laugh, I thank her and she is off, feeling sorry for me. And then I have an intuition, the only thing I have not tried yet: I take Bijou’s lead off and I tell the donks that I am off, if they want to come with me that would be very nice indeed. I walk on, and hop! Hop! They jump the water and are right behind me. Why didn’t I think of that before? They don’t want to be separated from me, just like I’d hate to be separated from them. Phew!!! The end of the tow path is just a few meters away now, but then there is the last puddle and here the donks stop again. This cyclist comes along and ask if I would take a picture of him with the donks, I want to send him to hell but I keep my cool and explain the difficulties encountered for the last few hours. The man understands and is now talking to Bichette. Come on girl, this lady is waiting for you…and Hop! Bichette jumps the puddle, followed by Bijou! …I thank him and offer to do that picture for him, he is off happy…we get going, some people clap.
2.30pm- We’re now crossing this immaculate park, with a lovely green lawn, flower beds and gravel path, we’re still going along the river Lot, some benches with people sitting in the sun enjoying the weather. Loads of people around. I am walking and the donkeys are behind me just a few meters back. People are taking pictures of our trio, we can’t stop, we need to keep going if I want to be in Cabreret tonight before dark. We are in Bouzies. We still have a bridge to cross then 800 metres of a very busy cliff road with fast traffic then we need to take a left into the trail again and go up towards Cabreret.
3pm- We’re in front of the bridge, one of those with only one file of traffic able to cross in any direction, a few cars behind us waiting patiently, but the donkeys are not intending on crossing. Bijou has turned around and about to walk back towards the main street. Bridges are not donkeys favorite things and this one is not an exception. This young man comes down from his van, are you in a hurry I ask. No I’m not he says smiling. He wants to help. Ok, please do me a favor then, and ask the drivers behind your van to come down here and cross the bridge together and the donkeys will follow. And that is exactly what we do, it’s a biblical scene, unforgettable. Half a dozen people marching together with me, the donkeys following. One of the drivers is that woman with the sweet little dog… As we walk together with the donkeys in tow, the young man in his van is filming us. We’ll be on all the face-books tonight, the most photographed donkeys in the whole of the French South West. When we reach the other side, I put the donkeys on leads, gesture a big thank you to all who helped and off we go along the D662, then through a short tunnel, well done donkeys for managing your fear, then we cross the road and take the trail up and up and up.
The trail is so steep here. I walk really slowly, concentrating on every step, breathing deeply. It’s very, very hot, I am sweating buckets; I stop, drink a bit and keep going. We are climbing one behind the other in complete silence. The trail to Cabreret will take what seem a long while in the heat, surrounded by those skinny oak trees that don’t have any shade what so ever to offer even though they are probably over one hundred years old. Donkeys are eating machines 24/7 but right now they are not grazing, they’re climbing. At the top and a couple of hours later, I hear chatter and then these 2 women in a poppy field, coming straight out of a Monet painting, giggling. I ask if they know the way to the equestrian center, and they are happy to tell me that this path on the left is a short cut for it. Brilliant. They give me some directions and I find myself on a very open plateau full of wild lavender. The afternoon light is now softer and the views are amazing. I am happy, I even take a picture of the donkeys with my mobile. After I get back people will ask if I took photographs, I will say no, carrying my good camera would be too much of a bother and would be an insult to the present moment. I will have nothing but my memories and no regrets.
6.30pm- We’re there. It’s an Eco-centre offering all sorts of accommodation and activities related to horses. Bijou and Bichette have spotted some horses in the entrance field and they say hello to each other without any commotion. The 3 of us stop in the middle of the yard where a few people are talking. They seem surprised to see the donkeys free of leads, then this woman says, come along, I’ll show you your field, we follow her. She tells me Pascal will be here shortly. The paddock is big and shaded, with some large oak trees and box-wood everywhere. It’s fresh, it’s perfect. I sit down by this huge and magnificent oak tree and I wait for Geoff here. No, shit, there are too many flies. Hey where do you come from? A tiny kitten has jumped on my belly and is purring away. The donks are gone exploring. Pascal isn’t here yet but will be soon, but oh, golly, Bijou has just gone under the fence and is grazing a few meters away.
7.30pm- the electricity has been plugged in and Bijou is discovering it with horror. He is furious. He is going to sulk for a while in the middle of the field.
8pm- Geoff and Tina are here. Bijou and Bichette don’t let Geoff get close. Geoff is upset. We eat together but the moment isn’t enjoyable. I need to leave early tomorrow morning so I go and pay for my night. Pascal had said come whenever you ready we’ll be outside having drinks. Tina comes with me she needs to use the toilets. Pascal sends her to piss in the wilderness, bastard, but I need him so I shut up. I pay for my night and he shows me an alternative route to the one I intend on taking tomorrow. He said the hiking trail above Cabreret on the right bank is very hard but the one that follows the left bank will be easier and just as beautiful. It’s a horse trail he knows well.
10pm- I am in my sleeping bag.
Thursday 8th June -Cabreret/Les cadichons , Sauliac-sur-Cele 7kms
6am- I am up. The donks have understood and they are waiting, but when I get close to Bichette I can’t help noticing that she is shaking all over. Shit, is she ill? I am going to do the packing and will decide then if we should wait for the people here to get up and get some advice, may be use their vet…Yesterday I discovered a growth inside one of her back leg next to her teats. Something weird with a mushroom kind of shape. What the hell is that!!! I’d asked Geoff to bring me some green clay but the only water I have this morning is ice cold so I’ll wait tonight to make her some cream.
7am- The sun is coming out, I am ready. Bichette isn’t shaking anymore and seems alright. Good. The night has been particularly cold and humid and the three of us are glad to get out of here. I unplug the fence and open the gate. Off we go, lead-less and free. No-one around at this time of the morning. We leave through the main gate and we find ourselves on a ridge, on top of this valley looking north and oh and behold, on the other side of the valley in front of us, layers upon layers of mist and forests on top of each other like books on a shelf. It’s magnificent, ephemeral, stirring. Am I dreaming or are the donkeys also moved by this incredible landscape? We fill our eyes and go on. A bit further down we get to the parking of the Pech Merle Caves that we need to cross to find the hiking trail that leads straight down to Cabreret. A very tough 20minutes said the couple we’ve just met. Bichette isn’t going to go down and I don’t fancy it myself either somehow. Never mind Bichette, let’s take the road to Cabreret. It winds down gently in the morning sun and it feels just right to stay on it.
I am walking in front and the donks are grazing on the road side behind me. We meet the freezer van that comes up to refill the Cave’s restaurant and bar. The driver and his mates say hello and smile. The donks have everybody smile. At the cross road where we meet the main road, I put the donks on leads and we get to Cabreret. An old man sitting on a wall comments: very good, very good, he says. I smile at him and he gives me a big toothless smile back. A bit further on I check with this bloke on how to get to the church. Pascal had said the path passes behind the church. The man crosses the street, I attach the donkeys to a lamp-post and we look at the map. He sets me in the right direction.
There is a little stone bridge to cross and this huge gas truck is reversing on it. He stops when he sees us but he is in a hurry, grumbles, we move back, he keep reversing with so much dust and noise. The donkeys are scared but I am holding them tight. I enquire with these 2 people about which way now. A woman comes out of her house, she is one from the Monet painting yesterday, she is so pleased to see us and goes to look on the internet. It’s that way she goes, there is some limestone gravel for a while then it will be tarmac. Thanks, thank you very much, we smile at each other, and we move on. 10 minutes later this car stops by us, he is the bloke I spoke to in town who showed me the way. He says we’re not on the right track but this one leads to where I want to go today, so no problem. Off he goes, he has some mowing to do. I will see him again further on when I turned left when I could have just as well have turned right. I couldn’t see this junction on my map. He tells me I’m on the right road. I won’t see him again. He was my guardian angel, one of them.
The road winds gently up a hill, with some wide views all around. It’s wild, it’s incredibly silent, it’s beautiful, walking is easy. We won’t meet anyone here, away from the main hiking trail. A big bunch of bulls frightens Bijou and Bichette when they run along the fence to meet them, probably to play with them. They are majestic with enormous horns pointed to the sky. We’re glad we’re on the other side of the fence from them…. Not a soul in this dry and dusty landscape. We walk on. We are in the middle of something called “The Monclar Forest” but there is no forest here…My cousin JC who works as a warden in the park will tell me later that a fire has devastated this area in July 89, burning everything down….
11.30am- Some buildings. It’s alive. Civilization I say to myself. The lawn is lovely, horses behind the hedge are neighing, the entrance of the place without any gates is inviting. But nothing indicates that this is our camping for tonight. Passing the letter box I read “Les Cadichons”( a French name for donkeys). I am surprised to be here already but with the kind of day we had yesterday it’s really good to have an easier day today. I turn around and I see this man watching me. The donkeys are up there grazing, waiting for me. I walk towards the man but he is not smiling, he is upset: you are crazy to be walking with donkeys off their leads! He shouts, you are completely reckless, he continues. You are not in charge, they are! I am stunned. The man continues his virulent attack; nothing is going to stop him. Show me that they are listening to you, call them he goes. I call the donks but they are eating his lawn, it’s very nice thank you, they don’t even lift their heads, cheeky buggers! You see? says the man and he starts again. I wait until he seems to have finished and I tell him that I find him very interesting and that anything more he could tell me about the donks that I should know I would love to hear. I smile to him and he calms down. We even become friends within a few minutes.
They have real Mongolian yurts hidden behind the hedges, as part of what’s on offer here for people with children and grand-children. Their 6 donkeys are for hire from one day up to one week. Him and his wife print out easy reading A5 size maps for each day, book accommodations for them in the area, teach them how to look after the donkeys: a seriously well made-to-measure service. I’m impressed. The donkeys love to go trekking says Jean Pierre. He shows me Bijou and Bichette’s field and tells me it’s a good idea for me not to camp with them tonight and for them to trust that I’ll be there in the morning for them. Well then in that case I know where I’ll erect my tent tonight, right under the shade of these wild plum trees over there. I ring Geoff and I lay in the shade.
Nothing here looks like a camping site, more like a natural looking labyrinth with wild hedges surrounding green areas, it’s impeccable, everything has been thought about carefully and the place is full of lovely details. The shower rooms are tucked away in an old barn and I am going to have a shower without soap or towel, never mind. Waiting for Geoff in the afternoon will be the hardest thing for me during those 10 days. I don’t have anything to lay on to take a nap, I can’t have a proper shower, nothing to read, only waiting and waiting.
And when eventually Geoff gets here with Tina he is upset with something. Today his GPS took them through the same road as the one that led me here but by the time they got there, a huge machine like a JCB was blocking the way and they had to reverse and took the horse trail I should have been on. Except that it had pot holes and rocks everywhere, such that Geoff was really worried about damaging his car. It took them hours to get here and by the time they got here, Geoff was really upset and Tina very worried about him.
In the meantime I meet Dominique, Jean Pierre’s wife, who has been responsible for their 4 beautiful horses and the 6 donkeys’ health for the last 20 years. When I tell Dominique about Bichette’s growth under her back legs, she goes to see her. She thinks it’s a sarcoid, a virus quite common with equines but not deadly. She notices that Bijou seems to have an umbilical hernia… She advises me to get the vet in when I get back to have the donkeys checked. Dominique will spend the next half hour, describing the creams she prepares for her horses and donkeys whenever there is a need. She never has the vet deals with her animals. With essential oils mainly she prepares and does everything herself. I write it all down.
Tina intended on staying with me tonight which would have been brilliant and leave with Yves when he’ll bring Monique tomorrow morning. But she is too worried about Geoff and she won’t stay. Managing the various routes through the French countryside to lug around my camping gear and the fencing from one place to the next as well as cooking and bringing me my meals is simply too much for Geoff and he is driving himself insane. He has no time back at the farm for anything and he is losing his marbles. I promise myself not to do this again like that. Later on he will ask me half-jokingly, what are you going to do for your 70th? Ha! Ha!
Jean Pierre and Dominique joins us for a glass of wine , chat, joke about my somewhat unusual meeting with Jean-Pierre earlier on, look at my itinerary and one hour later jean-Pierre will bring me some maps for the next 3 days, re-writing my journey to make it easier for me. They have even added another stop over with contact details, adding an extra day to the whole journey but making it somewhat do-able. I am very thankful to them. The €18 I pay for my night is a ridiculous price for the service I receive here.
Friday 9th June -« les cadichons »/gite de Galance, Marcilhac 12.5kms
8.10am- Yves and Monique are here, nice and early. My little pop-up tent from Liddl is broken. Not unusable but impossible to fold back in its bag. Yves will take it back with the rest of my stuff. I said to Geoff not to worry, I’ll use the donkeys’ tent from now on, but he will drive to Montauban to get me another one from Decathlon. Thanks Geoff, I won’t have to sleep with horse-flies tonight.
I go and get the donkeys and Dominique shows me how their hooves should be trimmed by the blacksmith so as to re-adjust the angle on which they stand. I never look at their feet. She shows me how to lift their feet such that the donkeys are willing to have them looked at and dealt with. Thanks Dominique.
We’re off. Some small country roads first, the country where Monique was born and loved. We are feeling good. Because of Jean Pierre I have Bijou on a lead, solely for him to be walking and not grazing like Bichette behind us. It’s important to keep a training session no longer than 20 minutes, after which they get bored. Bijou tries it on a bit but after a short while, bless him, he is walking nicely next to me. When I take him off the lead he is straight after Bichette mounting her. She is on heat and backs her arse towards him. He will be “serving” her on and off rather a lot anywhere and everywhere. He has been castrated but he is such a sweet donkey anyway and their copulating is always a very gentle and civil affair. Around a bend near Aynac, a farm from where we get a concert of ewes bleating in unison when they see the donkeys. Bijou and Bichette stop and stare at the ewes for ages. An old woman’s head pops up from behind a garden wall, she is surprised to see the donks not carrying anything. They are still too young, I explain smiling. She understands and nods. We’re off again.
We leave the road to Limognes on the right and continue left in the direction of Marcilhac. We walk for a couple of hours checking our map from time to time, we ignore this path on the right with a tractor plodding along on the edge of the field and we keep going. By a junction in the woods we have our lunch sitting on a fallen tree. Which way now? The option isn’t obvious, we talk about it and decide for the left path going up. The river on our right seems quite big but it cannot be the river Célé yet, and it’s not marked on our map even though it is rather large….
We keep going along the river bank on a path that is so narrow and difficult, the donkeys hesitate and stop often but follow us. This is definitely not a path for horses. We don’t think for one minute that this is the river Célé. We don’t know it yet but we should have gone the other way towards the village of Monteils and cross the river Célé there. We have to bow our heads often, the trees are covered with moss and look like skeletons. We reach an open road and after 5 minutes before the stone bridge we read the road sign: Sauliac-sur- Célé. Jesus! We cannot think back where we should have turned right.
Going back isn’t really an option I decide, so we’ll try the trail North above Sauliac that will lead us to Marcilhac, the trail that I had marked on my map that goes high in the hills with panoramic views over the valley… In the village we struggle to find the trail, a local woman wants us to go up this beautiful flight of stone stairs between two houses but not for the donkeys, so we get back down again and when we stop the postman, he shows us a short cut to reach the main road along the river bank. Good, we’re now going in the right direction.
Walking on the tarmac is easier for the feet. We’ve lost a couple of hours but it doesn’t matter, we have plenty of time to get to Marcilhac and we feel good. When we stop for a short rest along the road to have a drink I am horrified to find two tics, one on my neck, Monique pulls it out, and one on my leg. I made sure there is plenty of flesh pulled out too! I have quite a few blisters and I will wear my sandals tomorrow. Tina had mentioned that when hiking, wearing 2 pairs of socks will prevent blisters. I’ll try. Monique calls Yves to have him get me some socks.
No sun now and the walking is easy. We keep going and here is Marcilhac. We won’t visit The Abbey Benedictine from the XI century that is supposed to be well worth a visit. It is related to the Abbey in Conques that I have visited before, and the history of those buildings is rather fascinating if not gruesome with the religion wars. I am not a practicing catholic but standing in those magnificent architectural masterpieces has always moved me. Not surprising that millions of pilgrims have been through here over the centuries… No worries, I’ll be back another time.
In the middle of the village a tiny sign indicates the Gite de Gallance, and on the way up the small street the children from the primary school meet us, all excited at seeing the donkeys. Their playground is open without walls or fences. We stop and chat with them and their teacher. Some of the children have donkeys at home too. Ours get loads of cuddles. The Gite is a couple of hundred meters up the street. When we get there the welcome we get is 1st class. Jean had been waiting for us and there is an electrified fenced paddock for the donkeys. Bichette and Bijou are aware of the electricity now and won’t go near it. I will take my 2nd photo here with the donkeys, my tent and the rock formation opposite.
It’s amazing to be traveling around and nowhere you see any advertising board. Being in a natural regional park implies no advertising of any sort and the regulations are very strict. I understand the peace people get here starting with mine. It’s simply wonderful.
As for the place, there is a very discreet prayer room as you walk in, and the space inside is very much like in a church. It’s a modern building, designed by “Les Architectes de France”, it’s spacious, peaceful, comfortable, and cool. Amazing. Well done guys. Jean and Veronique and their 5 children are and were walkers on the Compostela Way and the place is full of sensitive details like the cold foot bath on the terrace where I’m going to spend something like an hour talking to Veronique with Monique about their life here while waiting for Geoff, Tina and Yves. My feet will feel soooo good when I get out.
We meet a young specialized educator, responsible for this 16 years old girl, a youth at risk, spending a few weeks here working for ½ day every day in exchange for food and lodging. She is lovely, very at ease and happy here. He is interested to know if I would be willing to walk with young people like her and the donkeys. I say yes, we’ll have to talk about that later with his boss. Taking these young people on seems so natural to Jean and Veronique. Inspiring. Monique is talking about coming back tomorrow, I say no you shouldn’t, get some rest. Once in my tent I review the day. The donkeys walked so well, their company is as enchanting as it is reassuring for me….
Saturday 10th June – Marcilhac/Camping du vieux moulin, Brengues 14kms
8pm-Monique is here, bless her. She said she had such a lovely time yesterday she wanted another day with me and the donks. I am very pleased to have her company. She and Yves help me to pack my stuff. Yves has taken on to visit the region while we’re walking. It so nice of him. It’s early and already it’s hot. We climb up, following the GR51 up to a plateau, very narrow path, loads of horse flies, and then those little round buildings made entirely of dry stones including the roof, so common here, big enough to shelter from the rain, cook and sleep when you’re a shepherd. This man accepts to show us his “gariotte” when we stop nearby for lunch. He is a hunter which makes sense. He owns 60 hectares here he says. Monique is amazed by what the man has created inside his “gariotte” such that he can stay for a few days at a time. Here we are right above the river Célé.
We walk on, in the direction of St Sulpice, a little village hanging on the face of the rock with 100 meters before it, some of these incredible troglodyte houses that seem to be born out of the rock face itself. I am thinking who on earth would live in these? Scary. At the church we refill our bottles and we keep on climbing. This GR is well sign posted, no chance of getting lost like yesterday. We meet these 2 women, who like us are walking but in the opposite direction, with husbands carrying their stuff. They are from a small village near Lyon where my grand-father was the mayor in the 50’s. We also meet a group of young people whose dog carries his own water and croquettes in saddles on his back. He is interested in the donkeys and the donkeys would love to be off with him. Unfortunately we’re going the other way and I have to hold Bijou back. Sorry mate.
In Brengues Monique calls Yves and say we’ll be at the Old Water Mill Campsite by 4.30pm, 2kms after Brengues and not really on my route but I chose this place over the municipal one because I need to organize for the transport of my stuff to give Geoff a break. The Old Mill Campsite is a private business and I will some find some help there with that, I’ve been told. I was right, They are really helpful there. Yves is working behind the bar when we get there and Elisabeth is in the kitchen. They provide me with all the phone numbers I’ll need and let me use their office phone for free to do my calls. The only company I manage to ring for the transport of my stuff isn’t very helpful; they charge €8 per 14 kg bag but don’t want to hear about my fencing poles. In the end they tell me that I am walking against the current on the Compostela Way(???) therefore not a job for them. They suggest a taxi from Fijac. Yves and Elisabeth can’t believe it. A taxi would be a lot of dosh coming from Fijac they say. Oh well, Geoff will have to get here himself tomorrow then.
Yves and Elisabeth had a bistro in Paris and took over this run down camping site in 2011. They made it into this very chilled place for holiday makers. The campsite goes a long way along the river bank with rows of big plane trees for shade. The swimming pool is just in front of the bar with youngsters splashing out and laughing. A very large area with a green lawn extends between the bar and the river. It’s really nice. Monique and Yves help me prepare for the night, building the fence and getting water for the donks( empty olives buckets from the bar!) and get the donkeys in. They take some pictures, we thank each other for everything and off they go. Monique won’t be back tomorrow, she needs to rest her foot. A few years ago she fell from a ladder and smashed her heel. Since then mornings are painful. She is very brave. Once they’ve left I am off to the bar for a meal. I am hungry. I meet a friendly walking couple from Britany, and Yves serves us a special walker’s meal he says with a wink. It’s a delicious and copious 6 course meal with Rosé wine, coffee, Cognac and loads of fun for 17euros. By the time I leave the bar is full of people and it’s very lively.
Sunday 11th June – Camping du vieux moulin/Camping Pech Ibert, Beduer 15kms
5.30am- I get up with the dew and a thick mist. I take down the fence and the donks are off grazing while I pack my stuff. I can just about see Yves and his dog coming back from their morning walk. The donks have seen them too and are now running across the lawn to meet the dog. Shit! I run to get them back and attach Bijou to the nearest tree while I finish packing but within a few minutes he has entangled his feet in the rope and has collapsed onto the ground. I think he got the gist because when I disentangle him gently he stays around. Good boy.
7.30am- we’re ready and we’re off. The road along the Northern river bank is lovely and cool. After 30 minutes we take a left at the junction, cross the stone bridge, pass the municipal camping on the right and take the next left in the direction of Merlet , a small and sleepy hamlet on the south-bank. Finding my way here is tricky. I go up and down without seeing where I am supposed to go. There is an old man under his tractor in his courtyard, he tells me it’s after the water tank, but I can’t find it. In fact the trail goes between two imposing stone houses but I could never have guessed because the grass has been mowed and it looks like the entrance of a garden, not a horse trail. After 20 minutes I knock on a door where I saw some life and this bloke comes down to show me. Blimey! No way I could have known…I cross what seems someone’s open back garden and very quickly the grass is up to my waist. When I enter the forest, the trail is almost invisible for a couple of kms, this path has not been used yet this year and no-one has been here but me.
Then the trail opens up, gets rocky and climbs up. At a Y junction, it naturally winds to the left, Bichette stops and doesn’t seem to want to go left with me. Bijou is behind me, I walk down. After hesitating Bichette will come down too, but a couple of hundred meters down I stop, this is not the right way, I turn back towards the junction, I check my map, Bichette was right. Thanks Dad for giving me the wisdom to doubt my choices. We’re on a horse trail and the paint on trees and rocks, an arrow pointing in the right direction with 2 dots below, is too often missing for my comfort. On this trail it isn’t even there…With that, my ability to read a survey map is pretty basic. I am thrilled when those farms over there are these little dots on my maps.
We keep climbing and we’re now on this wide open space with golden wheat fields everywhere as far as the eye can see, so beautiful, so peaceful. I stop for a few minutes to take it all in and down we go again. A small D road and the horse trail is here again on the left. A narrow and shady trail for a while. Beduer is just 3 Kms away and these dozens of VTT bikers are now racing down the trail. I heard them coming down and I have just enough time to hold my frightened donkeys, but the riders have to slow down for us and some grumble. I hold the donkeys as well as I can on this narrow path and let the flow of testosterone rush past us. A group of women walkers stops to let the riders pass too, we chat and we keep going. It’s like the M4 in the rush hour. Further down the same thing happen again but more fluid, one rider then another, like that for a while, and coming so fast it’s frightening. As we get to the outskirts of Beduer I can hear some music.
What I am about to find out is a festival down there, with a DJ and the local radio for this 2nd successive year, a VTT friendly event with hundreds of bikers and families together. It’s loud, it’s busy, it’s chaotic….People lounging in the grass having their picnics or napping in the sun…The afternoon has been crucial for the donkeys, some kind of a landmark in the story of their training, they won’t be scared of bikes anymore. In fact they won’t be scared of anything! We turn the corner on the only road leading to the camping site and a journalist is filming Bijou and Bichette which must be a pretty odd site amongst the riders. The donkeys don’t want to go under the huge inflated sausage shaped balloons floating in the breeze so we go around and all is fine. We cross the lawn and join the road again. Then on the left the camping is indicated.
1.20pm- We are going through the gates and this larger than life guy is greeting me. Are you Martine? You’re famous, Jean Paul says with a smile. He points to the donkey’s paddock where there is shade and water, and enquires about my immediate needs. I tell him that my phone has run out of juice and I should call Geoff. Once the donks are in their field, he hands me his phone and takes me to the bar and terrace where his family is preparing lunch. Dozens of them with barefoot lively children running and playing in the middle of them. The summer’s smells of grilled meat and melon hang about the place. The scene reminds me of summertime when I was a kid. I sit down away from the food activity and he puts a jug of fresh cool water in front of me. Delicious. There is another walker here, an older man drinking a beer. Jean Paul has tricked his grand-son and both of them burst out laughing. This big guy is a mountain of tenderness.
The main building of this family camping site has the bar at one end, the shower rooms at another, and surrounded with chalets, mobile homes, camper-vans, large tents and green areas for single tents like mine, without any defined organization but it’s clean and well-kept with mature oak trees everywhere and all around. It’s so French. Your donkeys are luxury donkeys Jean Paul say when I tell him that Bijou and Bichette have not touched their water. It must be too hot he says and without waiting he goes to fill a big bucket of fresh water for them.
5pm- I’ve found a chair behind an empty mobile home to have a nap and from there I can check the entrance of the camping for when Geoff and Pauline get here. It’s really uncomfortable but it’s the best I’ve got. When they get here Geoff won’t stay long. We take my stuff on one of the green areas, go to the bar for a drink, talk about the logistics for tomorrow and he is off. I’ve seen the swimming pool and I am going to check it out. When our tents are up I am off to the pool. The water is D-I-V-I-N-E. A young German woman joins me, we chat. Pauline came from Paris this morning and was in Caussade at 2.15pm, she is tired. She’s gone for a shower. With the sweat, the skin inside my thighs is raw. Pauline gives me a tube of Vaseline and I won’t be wearing any nicks anymore. I am like a baby with a sore bum. So painful. The Vaseline feels brilliant and gives me such a break. Geoff has cooked us a yummy chicken curry. I go to pay for our night here and a couple of sandwiches for tomorrow lunch that I’d ordered.
9pm- we’re in bed
Monday 12thJune – Camping Pech IbertBeduer/Ussac 12kms
6.45am- We’re on the road. A day without sun and God knows how pleasant that is. Walking will be great. Some relatively easy trails on this GR65. We cross Crealou where we come across a cherry tree with yellow cherries. We fill our faces and keep some of the stones to plant them at home later. The donks appreciate them too. A bit further on we meet some people with a couple of happy settlers dogs. The dogs are held back and the donkeys sniff them gently. We chat. Pauline asks me to hold the donkeys, I ignore her, she walks on irritated. When the donks are far behind us I call them and when they respond and run back to me I always thank them. Good boy, good girl. They are my children, my friends, my journey’s companions. Pauline tells me I am doing too much with them.
Up the top the GR65 is taking us to a plateau. Dolmens are indicated, quite a few of them. We meet a couple of walkers, we chat and walk together for a little while, then we split and get lost when it is time to leave the trail for Ussac. We get back on track and find the scallops, emblem of the Compostella way . Jean Pierre had mentioned them, saying follow them all the way to Ussac, about 2kms. The “gite”s owners have created this goat’s path with scallops shells nailed to posts at regular intervals to help pilgrims find their way. On the phone Sylvie had asked me not to get there before 4.30pm. On the highest point we find a made-up table (one of those big cable holders) with an old-fashioned phone on it and a message about the lack of network available from here, so no communication with the rest of the world…and 2 chairs. We eat our sandwiches here with Bijou and his flies standing too near for Pauline’s own comfort and she goes to read and sleep a bit further away from the donks in the heather. Bijou follows her for a while hoping that she’ll fan him but she won’t.
The vegetation here is short without any trees, very much like in the Pyrenees. The donks are grazing, the views over the valley is beautiful with a big sky. Pauline has lent me a book from a French bloke gone to live for 6 months in Siberia on his own. His diaries resonate well with me. I am glad I have something great to read. Thanks Pauline. When Bijou comes to me for his flies, I fan him. The flies are really pesky, poor donkeys.
We walk down to Ussac. On our way some wooden sculptures out of tree trunks or branches with some messages about our responsibilities to our world are posted here and there, like friendly smiles. It’s odd but funky. We get to Ussac, a tiny hamlet with just a few pretty houses in a cul-de-sac. I see an empty fenced enclosure and I leave the donkeys in there while we wait in some armchairs just by the sign saying “you’ve arrived!”.
After a few minutes this bloke is in front of us asking me what we’re doing on his property. I say we are going to stay the night and he says certainly not. He looks angry. I am guessing he is Dominique. I talk about the conversation I had with his wife yesterday and he says that she has since then sent me a text cancelling our stop-over. I tell him that my phone is out of juice and I never got her text. He is so unpleasant that I tell him we’ll be going, that I never intended to upset him nor his wife. He softens a bit, seems to change his mind and requests that I get the donkeys out from his field. He shows me another one in the opposite direction, up on a hill facing his house. I take the donks up there, through some well looked after vegetables plots. We really get a sense of a small and close community living here. I don’t want any more unpleasantness so we’re going to wait for Geoff at the entrance of the hamlet, by the sign “Ussac”out of everybody’s way. Dominique will pass us a few times on his tractor and every time he will stop to tell us to use the armchairs rather than laying by the side of the road, but I’ll decline. On the phone I made it very clear that we didn’t need anything other than a field. Sylvie had finally said ok even though she wasn’t terribly happy about it. But she did say ok to me after I insisted that we only needed a field. When they’ll see us putting our tents up in the donkeys’ field, they’ll come and offer to have them near the house, near the toilets and showers. Again I’ll decline. Geoff will bring water and hay for Bijou and Bichette and our dinner. We don’t need anything else. I’d also asked Geoff to bring me some Butox for the donkeys that are literally going mad with those flat flies crawling between their legs and around their arses and impossible to dislodge with their tails. I prepare a small bottle of the stuff and as soon as I wash them with it they calm right down.
Pauline is getting grumpy with her tent and I help her after I finished with mine. Hers is a great tent, quite sophisticated but not one you want to put up and take down every day. Same with her mattress which needs to be blown by mouth. Mine takes just a few minutes. She now tells me not to put my tent next to hers because I snore. Noises in general bother her. She is definitely not a happy bunny at all and I have no idea why, she doesn’t say. I decide to let her be, not to concern myself with what’s not mine.
Tuesday 13th June – Ussac/St Jean de Laur 13kms
6.45am we’re on the road. A very hot day ahead. The hiking trails widen and flatten. We have a short but very powerful 5mn downpour. The donkeys lower their ears, Pauline gets her cape out and covers herself with it, I lift my head to the skies and drink this divine rain falling from the heavens.
We’re off to Cajarc. At the entrance of the town, I ask Pauline to take Bichette, she refuses and marches ahead. With Bijou and Bichette by my side we enter Cajarc. After the silence on our trail, it is a shock for all the senses. So busy! Like an ant’s nest. We go through zebra crossings, we are looking for the sign of our trail which twists through the old medieval streets. It would be great to take a look there. In the middle of the square we stop for a minute, a van is barring the way. A woman comes out of the cafe and hands me some bread for the donkeys she says. I refuse telling her bread is not a good thing for donkeys. She smiles she says she understands, they are your donkeys and you know. When I ask her about the GR she says we can get it a bit further on if we turn right. Good, we’re off along the main street, then we turn right like she said, the GR sign is here again on a lamp-post. The town’s noise decreases. We pass the swimming pool full of happy noisy children. Soon we’re out of town, on a dirt road, not far from the main national road, along the cliff . Corn fields, walnut trees, we cross an industrial estate then a big bridge over the river Lot. We go up, and up, so pretty with silent hamlets sleeping in the sun, a very tempting cherry tree, some wild plum trees with acid red plums the donkeys love. On the way to St jean de Laur, we meet one only sweaty friendly walker. He is German, so no talking possible. We’ll meet him again when we’ll stop for the night ½ hour later. He’ll come in for a drink before going off again. We managed to understand that he walks some 40kms/day. A lot of them do walk an incredible distance, no matter the heat.
1.30pm- Colette and Roger welcome us so nicely in their gite with a big jug of ice water. They have been here since 2011 from Alsace and speak German as well as English and French. Their place is spotless clean and cool, we leave our shoes outside and enter straight into a large kitchen with a grocery store in some kind of a niche in a far corner, to buy whatever we need to cook and there is a tin to put the money in. The dormitory is upstairs and looks like something out of Snow white and the 7 dwarfs…. Colette tells us that Roger is allergic to equines, and mustn’t touch them or walk in their dung. I find quite extraordinary that he has accepted to have us as we bring so little money…but when I meet him a moment later I get the kindness and the care he puts into everything and everyone. He has built a one line fence for the donkeys assuming Bijou and Bichette were much taller than what they are.
We’ve gone for a shower and found some liquid soap left by some people before us, what a delight it is! And through the bathroom window I see the empty enclosure, shit! Were are the donkeys? But no worries they are just a few meters further, phew… Without electricity Bichette got out in no time followed by Bijou, to graze where there is some shade on the other side of the garden. I move the little garden table and a chair and I sit there with my book. The donkeys won’t go anywhere else if I stay here. When Geoff’ll arrive I’ll add another line to the fence for tonight. Then Colette and Roger join me bringing some aperitifs and a few other chairs. Pauline is here now, we chat, we pay for our night and breakfast, and we wait for Geoff who shouldn’t be too long now. The donkeys have ventured towards the comfrey planted by Roger and I check the damage, but there isn’t any, the donks are not interested in comfrey. When Geoff arrives I hurry to get my stuff. Roger has asked Pauline to mind the donks while I do that and she is furious. As soon as all my stuff is down by the donkeys enclosure she disappears without a word inside the gite and we won’t see her again tonight.
Geoff has made us some yummy chili con carne and we eat in the cool kitchen where 2 young Americans are cooking. They have paid for being able to cook then they’ll leave to sleep somewhere in the wilderness. When I ask them about Trump, she laughs, everyone in France is asking them about Trump. Her dad she says had moved his family to Germany when Bush came to power and now he is thinking of moving to Canada. I leave a plate of food on the table for Pauline. Geoff is off home and I go to bed. My tent is inside the donkeys’ paddock, the fencing is safe and the donks are in.
Wednesday 14th June – St Jean de Laur/Varaire 13kms
5.30am- Pauline wakes me up. Geoff’s weather forecast said another very hot day.
7am- Colette’s lovely breakfast, the 1st one since I left home, and we’re off. Roads followed by trails then roads again for a while, then the woods. Accumulated tiredness kicks in leaving us naked they say, those walking the Compostella Way. Nine days it has been for me now and I am keeping only essentials one of which is this faculty to be moved by the beauty of our natural world in its smallest parts, by my donkeys that have learnt so much on their journey, by these people we meet, their kindness and generosity… When I’ll think back later over the next few weeks, I’ll be amazed by the lack of any sort of thinking during my time on the road. My head is empty of anything other than walking, putting one foot in front of the other, making sure I don’t stumble, making sure the donks are ok. It’s a complete rest for the brain. I’ll come home so chilled that I won’t get stressed at all by the work awaiting me on the farm. And work there will be! Without water some of my plants will have died and the grass will be up to my waist everywhere. No, no stress at all, very Zen I’ll be. For me it will be a first.
Jean Giono said one hundred years ago:
“if you cannot think, go walking
If you’re thinking too much, go walking
If you’re thinking is wrong, go walking some more”
Walking empties my head, and there is suddenly space for the unexpected. I can now imagine myself walking forever.
When we get to Limognes-en-Quercy the donks stop in the middle of the town, in front of a café ( called Galopin the name of our first donkey) and they won’t move from there before having taken it all in. They are such inquisitive creatures. Some tourists take some photos, others come to touch them. Some chat. When the donks are ready to move on I look around for Pauline but I can’t see her. She must be ahead of us. Finally but reluctantly the donks walk on. From Limognes to Varaire, flat wheat fields everywhere.
3pm- We’re in Varaire. Pauline has spotted a gite for herself tonight. In the middle of the village we sit on a bench under the shade of a few planes, with a bar-restaurant behind us and the beautiful roman laundry-house in front of us. With the donkeys hooked to each of the armrests, I go and get them some water from the restaurant. Bijou drinks plenty, Bichette doesn’t touch the water. Surprisingly the fresh grass along the trails contains sufficient water and they don’t need additional water during the day, neither do they rush for it in the evening for it. I came to realize this when I carried a bucket attached to my rucksack so as to be able to offer them some water whenever we came across a stream or a fountain. But although Bijou regularly checks the content of the bucket by putting his face in it, pulling me backwards without warning and making me lose my balance thankfully without any consequences, he won’t drink any water from it, and neither will Bichette.
Then the light comes on and I get it: goodies at home are given to them in a bucket…clever donkey. Both are now asleep by the side of the bench. Pauline has gone to get us a drink and we’re waiting for Geoff. It feels so nice to be here. But then Pauline comes back with the drinks and without a pause she attacks me with violent words. She accuses me of loving my donkeys more than anything, and making her feel like shit. Geoff arrives and I am off with him to find this field behind the “Salles des Fetes” that the mairie has offered me for tonight and drop my stuff safely behind a wall out of view. I brief him about Pauline state of mind and we come back down to take the donkeys to the field. When we get back I tell her I won’t walk with her for my last day tomorrow, and yes my donkeys come first of course.
Once she is gone with Geoff I go to the restaurant to have a sandwich made for tonight. We are late afternoon and the woman is preparing the evening meals. She sends me to the baker to get ½ a baguette with which she makes me an enormous sandwich with chicken, cheese, egg and salad. Well worth the €5 I pay. I walk up to my field. The enclosure has three and ½ sides of high stone walls with just a couple of meters of my fencing. In the middle of it, one of those public picnic tables and benches, all in one. The grass is waist high, plenty for the donks. I have a great sandwich, a good book and a long evening alone in front of me. Oh! pleasure…Except that the woman in the restaurant thinks it is private. The one from the mairie is 200 meters up from here and behind this new building I see when I look up…But this one is perfect though….my tent is tucked away and cannot be seen under this huge ash tree. No-one can see me here. I get inside my tent and close it for all those flies are so pesky and the horse flies are nasty things. It’s really hot in there but I am good and I read. The donkeys are fine. I hear people from time to time taking pictures of the donks over the wall and talking. I will be aware of life happening behind my wall the all night through. A man will come and changes the posters on the board, some lovers will do what lovers do, unaware of my presence. And I will be thinking about the owner of this place finding out about me and asking me to leave in the middle of the night. I feel like a naughty teenager….
Thursday 15th June – Varaire /Balthazard 18.5kms
6am- Geoff is here to take my stuff home for the last time. He’s forgotten my sandwich but it doesn’t matter, I am pleased to see him here early.
We’re off but the donks can’t get to move somehow. 50 meters and they stop. They are waiting for Geoff but Geoff isn’t coming. Finally we’re on the move in the right direction. Walking with donkeys doubles the time it takes for an ordinary walker with an average speed of 4km/hour. So our average speed on our journey is of 2km/hour. In the center of the village the trail sign is on a lamp post on the right. We leave the village, the donkeys behind me, free. More and more often now they are free. By now they move to the side of the road to let cars pass. Of course those are small local roads but still I am very proud of them. I need to teach them left and right next, and this will come in time when their cart is restored. We follow the trail to Bach and then we take the direction of Vaylats. I recognize the way now, our first day with Tina. Feels good. The path is easy.
9.30am- In Vaylats I lay on a bench opposite the monastery and call Geoff. He can’t believe we’re already here. No-one’s around, the donkeys are grazing the perfect clean green lawn under the trees and the temperature here is just right. I am glad they won’t leave any dung behind for me to deal with. I’m waiting for Geoff, so may as well have a nap. Bichette is now doing the same, lying next to me and Bijou is sleeping standing up next to her. I so love my donkeys. A friendly woman creeps on us and take a picture silently.
10am- Geoff is here with a carrot for each of them. I’ve had ½ hour’s rest and I’m ready to go on. I want to get home now. We won’t meet a soul on this last leg of our journey. When there is a field with wheat, barley or oat, the best thing for me is to keep on walking regardless of what the donkeys are doing. In the past I have always walked back to get the donks out of those fields before they created some damage, or simply put them on a lead until the field is behind us, but going myself into those fields had created damage of its own. What I am noticing now is that if I keep on walking at a good pace, the donks will pinch a mouthful on the side of the field and carry on walking behind me. No damage done. It’s useful and comforting to be reminded that they do not want to lose sight of me.
We cross Belmont-St-Foi and leave with it the Compostella Way to take a small local road to Gardemont. We pass another outdoor roman style laundry-house and we’re up again from where we can see the back of our farm in the far distance. Hey! Donkeys! Doesn’t it feel good to be nearly home? I choose to go through Mazerac to avoid the busy main road. It means walking a few extra hundred meters. The donkeys recognize the path leading home and they are leaping and farting with joy. As we approach the mill Monique has seen me coming up and she is crying out: Martine is back! Martine is back! I am moved, tears are swelling up. Geoff said that she looks like a 17 year old rather than 69, since her 2 days walking with me. She is so proud to let me know that the donkeys don’t scare her anymore. Having been so close to them for these couple of days has transformed her relationship to them. The donks go straight to their paddock where Dini is so happy to see them, he can’t quite believe it. Our ram will not leave Bijou alone for the rest of the day. When I enter the house Pauline is there smiling. She apologizes saying there were too many emotions for her. As for me I go straight to my bed. It’s the end of my journey, and what a journey…
I will be off walking again! one day….. and certainly not without the donks.