Listen to your donkey, said two donkey godmothers and a couple of other kind donkey people, after I posted a picture of Chico refusing to move, or ‘planted’. He’s trying to tell you something. To me it sounds like this: “Are we nearly there yet? You didn’t tell me we were just going to keep going, and going, and going. I don’t like walking. This is a stupid idea for an adventure. Can I have an ice cream? Argh – a lamb! Uh-huh, a cow. Let’s go back this way. Oh look – a layby that looks like the lunch spot, let’s veer suddenly towards it!” etc, etc.
I’ve checked all over for pack saddle rubs and pinches, I’m feeding him more than before, we’ve had two short days and two rest days in the last five days. It’s not been too warm, he seems relaxed at night, his hooves are in decent nick. There are three things that I think it could be. Firstly, we haven’t been walking fully laden for a while – Dad has been visiting with his campervan, so we’ve been taking the opportunity not to carry everything. We’re on tarmac much more than I’d like to be on the Lleyn Peninsula due to scarcity of old roads, green lanes, bridleways and forestry tracks that we’d become accustomed to pre-peninsula. So walking unladen seemed a good compromise. Then Dad went home, and we were both back to the full weight – 24kg on Chico, 12kg on me. So it could have been that. But even then, suddenly he will find his walking zone and stride along brilliantly for half an hour.
Or it could have been that he’s just better at walking with two people. Two people chat, stride, provide forward momentum, and Chico follows along willingly. When it’s just me there isn’t the same distraction. I’ve tried faking momentum by singing marching songs, talking out loud, making phonecalls, ignoring Chico, and it does work a bit. The moment someone catches me up on the road, Chico gets moving. I might have to start appealing for walking assistance.
Or it could be my new zero tolerance policy on verge chomping. He didn’t used to do it so much, but now he’s looking for any excuse to stop. We’re having regular grazing breaks, including a long unladen lunch break, so I don’t think he’s wasting away. I’m not letting him chomp at will, and it’s getting better, but sometimes he does look at me as if to say: “No chomp, no walk. Ha! How do you like that, irritating woman!”
One other thing it could be… Perhaps he knows something about Porth Dinllaen that I don’t know. I have been looking forward to this stop for ages – an early 19th century fishing village in a cove with crystal clear water, no road access, and a pub. The kindest, warmest-hearted pub, with dear friendly staff, nice locals, and Welsh ale. Chico disliked Porth Dinllaen in exact inverse proportion to how much I liked it.
As we approached across a golf course Chico got really disinclined, until finally some other walkers caught us up, and then he was fine. As we rounded the bend onto the beach on a golden evening, people were snorkelling in the cove, and a few dozen were sitting on the wall outside the pub, drinking, chatting, awaiting the late arrival of a donkey. We walked in and I began to take his saddle off, but he took fright and had a great wet fear poo all over the beach, the first since Aberystwyth on day one. Then he took off, in any direction he could, with the super strength that fear gives him. With luggage (and poo) all over the beach, I followed him down to a spot where we were away from people, and tied him next to grass. We sat together and began to calm down. Golden ale sat waiting for me a few hundred yards away, but I practiced patience. After a while Chico pawed the ground, ready to roll in the sand, so I untied the rope so he’d be more comfy, and instantly, rolling forgotten, he took off again, round the headland and down the next beach. “Can my daughter come and see your donkey?” called a woman from a window of the house on the headland as I was dragged off at the end of a wild beast’s rope, the whites of his eyes showing, breaking into a gallop. I discouraged her over my retreating shoulder.
I got him back to the calm place, tied him again and soothed. After a while I thought I might risk moving him towards the spot for his corral for the night, past the bar – a sheltered corner away from too many people and out of sight of the sea. We’d have to pass the pub audience – I’d get the chance to offer some explanation for my total lack of control over my skittish creature. I got up to untie the rather calmer fellow, and then two high energy dogs rounded the bend at top speed, saw the last thing they expected with only ten foot of reaction time, and opted for wild yapping. Chico opened his throat and BRAAAaAaAaAaAyed. And brayed, and brayed, and brayed. Thirty long seconds of hoarse, wheezing, bay-rattling decibels, that were probably heard in the Wicklow hills across the sea in Ireland, and certainly rattled the pints of ale in the ever more amused pub-goers’ hands. The dogs were dragged off, donkey-soothing began again, a kindly delegation appeared from the pub with carrots.
Things got better. I got Chico to his spot, assembled the corral, fed and watered and brushed him, put up my tent, and finally joined the few remaining pub folk. Kind publican Stuart made me a bowl of chili and rice, despite not doing evening meals in the pub. I drank two pints of elderflower flavoured ale when my body craved water and became a classic drunkard, returning to put the waterproof rug on Chico and giving him a sort of pissed snuggle; “I love you, I do…”
Yesterday I decided to stay at Porth Dinllaen for a rest day. Chico might not like it here, but I do, and I’m in charge. The farm and campsite I’d passed on the way in, with a granddaughter who had taken to Chico, said I could take him up there for the day and night, to get him away from the beach and onto some fresher grass. As we started off across the beach, past the pub, now surrounded by people enjoying a Friday lunch, I whispered, “Please walk nicely, Chico. At least past the pub. Don’t show us up again.” We managed three quarters of the distance along the short beach, before Chico executed an impressive move. He stuck out a front hoof, tripping me up, just as he put on a sudden gallop forwards. Holding onto the end of the rope, but with my feet no longer touching the ground, I did a moment of perfect donkey-towed horizontal superman flight, before hitting the sand, hard. With full pub audience. Still holding the rope, I got dragged a little way along the beach before having the sense to let go. A few weeks ago I sewed a big double pocket on the front of my skirt which is always full – horse nuts, phone, wallet, penknife, pen, raisins, and on this occasion a poop-scooping bag and a mini Babybel – and I landed on it hard, thumping my thigh muscle thoroughly. I was spared hanging about to soak up the shame, as Chico pretty much dashed in fits and starts right back across the golf course, in front of a golfing audience, all of us holding our breath as he veered towards the meticulous suede green, and away again.
He’s happy now, I think, in a grassy field, and I have a very sore leg and a little whiplash. I’ve retraced our steps and tried to figure out what he didn’t like about Porth Dinllaen, but it beats me. I’ll just add it to the list, below bright white cars and houses, sudden appearance of spaniels, and walking with Hannah.