Christmas is a PR bonanza for the humble ass, so here's a donkey-related story to mark the season:
For six months in 2013 Hannah Engelkamp circled the perimeter of Wales, a journey of 1000 miles on foot loosely following Offa's Dyke and the new Wales Coast Path. With her came Chico, one very opinionated donkey. He might have carried her stuff and provided company (after a fashion), but there was a major hurdle too - what to do about the 900 or so stiles they encountered along the way? Hannah is planning to write a book and make a film about it all, both currently being funded through Kickstarter.
My mum has discovered a word that, through being French and academic, gives validity to what she and I have always done. It’s the verb, to dérive: making an “unplanned tour through a landscape directed entirely by the feelings evoked in the individual by their surroundings.” One must “set aside the usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there,” say the Situationists of the 1950s. This is a tool, apparently, for understanding the theory of psychogeography.
Well, Mum and I consider ourselves to be pro-level dérivers, most happy when we’re able to dérive through life, and use it more loosely to mean not making plans but seeing how we feel a bit later, nearer the time, letting directions and decisions settle at their own sweet, slow pace. It’s falls halfway between acting on instinct and just plain meandering, through space and time. It’s nice. I should make it clear that my mum is not slippers-and-knitting sort of mum (although she has slippers and likes knitting). She is braver and calmer than me, the family’s original wild camper; the real deal.
"I’d never owned an animal, but donkeys look sweet. How hard could it be?"
Last summer I was writing a little article about the momentous opening of the Wales Coast Path, and I was pierced with the sudden realisation that I should do it. I’d been ready and hoping for just such an epiphany, and it took root. I’ve walked a few long distance paths before, and done some cycle touring and canoe and kayak touring too, and the snail’s life suits me well. But I’d never busted through the two-week mark.
It did always seem to me that it took about twelve days to get into a new lifestyle, leaving two days of really enjoying it when, if I had a companion, we’d begin to be able to be quiet together. When the muscles would stop complaining and I’d work out which particular assortment of backpack belongings were actually useful. When the endorphin shock of being outside every day settled into being normal, albeit a superb normal, and my voracious appetite for flapjacks, whole slabs of chocolate before breakfast, salted peanuts and toffee waffles would start to plateau a little. And then it was time to go back to a desk.
So this was the first big appeal of the idea, to become a person-who-walks. I thought, based on fifteen-mile days and plenty of rest/slow/contingency days, that I could do it in three months. May to July, 1000 miles, wild camping where possible, and pacing the boundary of the country where I was born.
As soon as it had become a reality, taking three months off seemed fine. It’s hard to find time to do the three-weeks of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path – I know because Mum and I have been trying to for a decade – but somehow three months is easier. Once you’ve decided when you’re going you just quit your job and say no to everything else. Easy.
"It was a celebration of the small and the slow, of listening and looking, and of the wealth of interesting things, layers of history, human endeavour, and natural beauty, that’s all around"
Then, because it all seemed too easy, I had a second epiphany – like an earthquake aftershock, three weeks later. I should take a donkey. I might have had a beer, watching an outdoor screening of a 1920s film of a man crossing the Sahara with a horse. The balmy night got to me, and the second epiphany couldn’t be shaken either. A donkey would make a walk into a story, cause us to meet more people, carry my stuff and be my pal. I’ve never owned an animal before, but donkeys look sweet. How hard could it be?
It was three more weeks before the first sensible person asked what I’d do about stiles. By then, although it was a catastrophic shock to my embryonic plans, it was too late. The two elements of my idea were completely incompatible, and I was going to do it anyway. I investigated: there are 410 stiles and 783 kissing gates on the WCP, and 554 stiles on Offa’s Dyke.
I thought about trained jumping donkeys, hydraulic jacks, aluminium ramps, bolt cutters, pack goats, trespass, and in the end ran out of time to plan and just set off, with 29 OS maps and no real idea of how it would work out.
The answer was that we dérived, big time. Even if we’d wanted to plan the whole route out beforehand it wouldn’t have made sense because the hands-on experience of the land – the topography, the weather, energy levels, donkey compliance, tips from locals, unusable overgrown bridleways, usable A-roads with pavements, etc etc – made so much difference to what routes were open to us, it would have been ridiculous not to make it up as we went along. Now that’s my sort of adventure.
And so what was a spanner in the works became one of the best things about the journey. If we had been able to follow the footpath we would no doubt have become focused on the daily average mileage, felt concerned about ‘doing it properly’, watched out for markers instead of relying on whim. It was hard too, of course – setting out in the morning without knowing where we’d sleep could be nervewracking. Especially on the north coast where there was precious little land that wasn’t concrete promenade, faceless caravan park or A55; or the sparsely populated borderlands where all land is farmland but you often don’t see a soul.
"We often found ourselves walking drove roads that would have seen 2000 years of hardworking donkey traffic"
In a way this was the antithesis of all of the macho adventures that promise firsts, fastests, highests, etc – the helicopter in, the conquest, and the airlift out again.
It was made challenging by the distance, the length of time, the occasional loneliness, and the regular confounding acts of donkey, but essentially was still a very simple thing to do. The magic came from the details – the people we met, the changing relationship between the donkey and me, the engagement with the land, the sunrises, fish and chips on quaysides, camping wild under gorse bushes, breathtaking and humbling daily kindnesses – the very simplicity turned out to be its triumph.
We often found ourselves walking drove roads that would have seen 2000 years of hardworking donkey traffic, estuary villages where even people in their thirties remembered the women using donkeys to bring in the cockles, and faded seaside resorts where generations of children had their first taste of adventure on a 50p donkey ride.
It was a celebration of the small and the slow, of listening and looking, and of the wealth of interesting things, layers of history, human endeavour, and natural beauty, that’s all around, just outside, wherever you are.
Sometimes it would take a whole exhausting day to go only a few miles, thwarted by locked gates, full fords or fields of bullocks. Very occasionally, if we stuck to tarmaced back roads, we’d manage fifteen miles. My three-month estimate doubled, my sparse savings dwindled. My tan faded under heavy October skies.
But we made it. I worried at the halfway point about how it would be walking into winter, but in the end it was alright. Cold, dark, wild, but alright. The experience of walking right through seasons was worthwhile, and I’m surprised that it’s still 2013 – for the first December in my adult life I feel like this year has been really long, full and well used, and I’m not hurrying into New Year’s Eve in a frenzied shock of lost months.
For every mile that we walked there were an astonishing number of footpaths – if it wasn’t for the donkey I could have walked around Wales hundreds of different ways. The new and wonderful Wales Coast Path was the catalyst for me, but the true magic came from not following it at all.
Make it up as you go along – dérive a little!
Photos © Hannah Engelkamp & Rhys Thwaites-Jones
For a more detailed account of the journey see my website, seasidedonkey.co.uk. I have just launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign too, to raise the money needed to write the book and make the film of the donkey adventure. If you’d like to support the audacious folly by buying the book or film please do! Any shares, likes etc etc gratefully received – it’s an ambitious and scary target and if we don’t make the lot, we don’t get any of it and the donkey gets no hay this winter, poor dab.