This Blog is Now Closed


This blog is closed (again). I’ll re-open it temporarily if I have anything useful to say about the new routes I hope to eventually walk.

I hope you find the archives helpful and/or entertaining!

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:43 pm
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Life on the Road with a Donkey


Donkey shadow

For those of you who are considering walking with a donkey (and of course for armchair travellers), here are some thoughts on day-to-day life with a donkey as I experienced it while walking in France for a month with a donkey named Kaïcha.

Of course, your own donkey-walking experiences may vary wildly depending on your donkey’s personality, your own personality, your equine experience, the number of people in your group, and other factors.

Donkeys Eat

Kaïcha eating

One of my many photos of Kaïcha eating.

Donkeys like to eat. Sometimes, in fact, they seem never to stop eating. In order to make progress and to show your dominance, you are supposed to give them a firm “No” and yank on the lead rope if they try to eat while you’re walking together. This often works relatively well under normal circumstances.

Walking through tall grass is different. It is enticingly easy for your donkey to move her head to the side and grab a mouthful. It’s also hard for you to stop her. In these situations, it can take hours to advance a few kilometres.

Donkeys can also be devious. If you let your donkey stop when she wants to scratch her leg with her nose, she may take advantage of this when the local vegetation is particularly delicious, halting regularly to scratch and snatching a mouthful of grass or flowers as she raises her head.

Walking Uphill

Donkeys don’t like ascents. At least, my particular donkey didn’t. Kaïcha had walked well uphill for other people in the past, but because (I assume) I was not dominant enough, I had problems with hills.

If you’re in a similar situation, your donkey’s reaction to hills may vary. Sometimes the merest hint of a slope (or no slope at all) will slow her, but sometimes her pace won’t change much until the hill gets steep. Your donkey may stop every few steps. Or she may continue to advance, but make less actual progress than the slowest of snails. You may even have a miraculous hour or day when your donkey wants to climb hills faster than you do and you have to hold her back.

I eventually decided that I’d walk along at Kaïcha’s pace as long as she kept moving. This sometimes kept me from becoming as frustrated as I’d get when urging her forward, and often she’d get bored and pick up her pace somewhat. All in all, I figure we averaged about two kilometres per hour, including a ten-minute break every two hours or so but not including an hour’s stop for lunch.

Walking Downhill

Donkeys like to descend hills quickly. My usually slow little donkey got annoyed at anything (i.e. me) that stopped her racing down hills at a breakneck speed.

The approved donkey-slowing position involves walking in front of your donkey with your arms stretched out to the sides. You may have to constantly move from side to side to get in your donkey’s way when she tries to get around you. Your donkey may get frustrated and nudge you firmly with her nose. If this doesn’t work, she’ll decide that if she’s going slowly anyway, she might as well stop and eat.

So you may find yourself descending a steep, rocky slope with your arms out, trying to keep your donkey from either racing ahead and dragging you down the hill or coming to a complete halt. In this situation, you have very little attention to spare for dangerous footing.

Donkeys and Traffic

Donkey walking through town

Grischka, Kaïcha’s donkey friend, walking through Pradelles.

Donkeys and traffic go together like oil and water. Or they would if, say, oil was completely oblivious to water and so didn’t worry about walking down the middle of a small bridge because it was unhappy with the narrow width of the sidewalk that hugged the bridge’s side. (In that particular instance I decided it made more sense to get Kaïcha across the bridge as quickly as possible than to try to get her to the side, which might well have been an exercise in futility.) Needless to say, you and your donkey may cause the occasional small traffic jam.

When you’re leading a donkey, the obvious way to get her off the road in case of sudden traffic is to lead her onto the verge. She is usually happy to saunter in this direction, as grass, flowers, hedges, and other tasty delights often grow there. Unfortunately, once she has her food, she’s not concerned if her rear end protrudes onto the road. To deal with this, you have to lead her further onto the verge. She may be less happy about this, since the grass at the edge of the verge is perfectly satisfactory, and she is not particularly worried about disrupting traffic or being hit by a car.

As alluded to earlier, donkeys don’t like narrow sidewalks, particularly if these have the occasional metal barrier to separate pedestrians and traffic. Sometimes they have a valid point, since their panniers make them too wide to fit on some of these sidewalks.

Donkeys and Damp

Donkeys don’t like to get wet. When there isn’t a proper shelter in their fields, they will hide under trees. They will walk in the rain, but they’re not thrilled about it.

Once, I thought Kaïcha was horribly hurt because she bent her back knees every time I touched her back. It turned out (after a call to her owner) that my touching her made her feel how wet she was, which made her seriously unhappy.

Stubborn/Scared Donkeys

Donkeys’ reputation for stubbornness is said to come from their reactions to fear. A scared horse will dash away, while a scared donkey will dig in his or her heels.

Kaïcha in many ways wasn’t a terribly fearful donkey. She largely ignored dogs, had no fear of traffic, and wasn’t generally bothered by the bridges that plague many people who walk with donkeys. But still, even on the Stevenson Trail, which she’d travelled many times, she sometimes hesitated when approaching flimsy bridges or other obstacles. Usually I waited, walking ahead to show her there was nothing to be afraid of. It often worked.

We returned to Kaïcha’s home by the Regordane Way, which Kaïcha had never walked before. She was more nervous. She refused to walk next to a flapping ribbon until a wonderful woman ran out of her house with an apple and spent ten minutes enticing her forward. She balked at walking between two cars that otherwise blocked our path, until someone moved one of the cars. She objected to a few perfectly harmless (as far as I could see) bits of the route. Once we even had to turn around and find an alternate route when I couldn’t get her to cross a shallow but wide and rocky stream. (I suspect if there had been another person, we could have managed to get her across.)

She was also more nervous about other animals. In one case, she froze, staring at a very old dog who wasn’t even that interested in us. After I spent a few minutes encouraging her to move, she suddenly shot forward, dragging me with her so suddenly that I went sprawling across a low wall.

Donkeys Delight

Walkers and locals are often excited to see donkeys. I got to practice my French more with Kaïcha than I would have without her, as both walkers (mainly retired French people who spoke little English) and locals (same thing—although she also got a couple of kisses from kids) would stop me to talk about her. In one case, though, a man from Langogne was less than delighted when a friend pointed out she was nosing around his baguette bag.

People were incredibly kind when I needed help, both when I was with Kaïcha and when I was wandering around towns without her.

Your donkey will probably delight you, too, when she isn’t causing serious frustration. When she comes to meet you at the pasture gate, traverses a difficult bit of terrain without complaining, fails to misbehave when she so easily could, tries to groom you, or nudges you in a friendly way, you may forget all about the difficulties she’s caused you and feel sad when you realize that your exhausting, difficult, amazing, wonderful journey together is coming to an end.

* * *

If you have any general questions about walking with a donkey, please ask them in the comments so everyone could read the answers. If you’d like to know about specific parts of the Chemin de Stevenson or Voie Régordane in a donkey-related context, let me know. I’ve thought about writing a post on that, but it’s a big topic, so I won’t unless there’s some demand.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:42 pm
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Walking with a Donkey


Kaïcha the donkey

I’m back! Briefly, anyway.

I walked in France with a donkey for a month last May/June. Since I couldn’t find much information in English about walking with a donkey before I left, I thought I’d try to fill that gap now. Keep in mind that I’m in no way an expert; I just have some experience with one particular donkey.

Where should I walk with a donkey?

That’s up to you! If you search the Internet, you can find donkey rentals in a variety of countries. I chose France because a) I sort of speak the language, which is helpful both in communicating with the ânier (donkey wrangler) and in arranging accommodation; and b) France has a lot of donkey rentals and more trails with donkey accommodation—especially for a long trip—than many other countries.

I considered several French long-distance trails, and settled on the Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson (GR 70) in the south-east because it seemed the best place to find good donkey accommodation. Probably more than half of campgrounds, gîtes d’étapes, and hotels on the route can take donkeys … or have a arrangements with someone else who does. I returned largely on the Régordane (GR 700), which was more difficult with a donkey.

I rented Kaïcha (my donkey companion) from Âne Azimut because it is based in Le Monastier, which was more or less where I wanted to start. (I didn’t want to pay extra for her to be transported by vehicle.) The owner, Christophe, was great.

I’ve never had anything to do with donkeys. Is this a good idea?

That’s a difficult one. I’d had no donkey experience and very little horse experience. I think it would have been better if I’d had equine experience, but … I survived. And I’m glad I did it, although when I finished I was convinced I would never do it again. It was an amazing, challenging, intense, difficult, rewarding experience.

It helped that I’d read as many books as I could about trips made with donkeys, and of course the ânier told me the basics, but actual experience with donkeys would have been better.

From what I’ve read, I suspect it would also be much easier to walk with your own donkey, with whom you have a relationship, than with a rented donkey.

(Also, if you do have experience with horses, read up on the differences between donkeys and horses. They’re smarter than horses and react to fear in very different ways—where a horse would flee, a donkey generally digs in her heels and stops—which makes them different to deal with.)

Should I walk with a donkey?

Another difficult question, and one I’ve broken down into sections below.

Luggage

The one unmitigatedly wonderful thing about walking with a donkey is that you don’t have to carry a lot of weight. On my first day of walking, I walked alone, hauling a large backpack from Le Puy-en-Velay to Le Monastier. In the evening, I creaked slowly to my feet whenever I had to stand. I had minor blisters.

After that, I walked with Kaïcha. She carried most of my luggage, and I carried a small backpack that probably weighed several pounds, depending on how much water I was hauling around at the time. It was wonderful, and I had no serious physical problems.

Meeting People

You will meet (and be photographed by) more people than you would if you didn’t have a donkey companion. If you speak the local language, you will chat with locals and other walkers who want to know about your donkey and why you are doing this (and in my case why you wanted to come to France to walk, when Canada is so beautiful). This is generally fun and a great way to practice your French, especially on routes, like the Stevenson, where the majority of people you’ll meet don’t speak much English. I know people would have been friendly and helpful even without Kaïcha, but it was nice to brighten their days and hear excited comments like, “This is my first donkey of the chemin!”

On the flip side, there may be the occasional person who thinks they know more about donkey management than you do, despite having no donkey experience whatsoever. This can test your patience, especially when you’re having your own doubts about your ability to look after a large, sometimes difficult animal.

Companionship

A benefit of walking with a donkey is the companionship. But this is a mixed blessing. Donkeys can be lovely animals and it is fun getting to know them and their personalities, and hanging out with them when they are not totally ignoring you.

But in my experience, donkeys do not share your goals of, say, making it to your next accommodation before dinnertime. Their goals tend more towards climbing hills as slowly as they can get away with and eating as much grass, tree branches, and other growing things as they can. So at times, walking with one can be rather like trailing a whiny child.

This does not seem to be a problem for everyone. As I will discuss in the next section, people with more dominant personalities and equine experience seem to do better on this front.

Speed (or lack thereof)

Apparently, Kaïcha has walked more than 30 kilometres a day with other people. With me, aiming for more than 15 kilometres generally stretched our day out to 12 hours.

I found, as have a few other people whose donkey-walking books I’ve read, that if you don’t have the donkey experience and dominant personality (or at least a helpful human companion) to properly motivate your donkey to move, it’s better to go with the flow, so to speak, and slow down to the donkey’s pace rather than drive yourself crazy trying to speed her up. Eventually, I vowed that as long as Kaïcha was moving forward—even if it was only at 0.5 kilometres per hour—I would walk at her pace. Luckily, she usually seemed to get bored with the slow pace when I wasn’t arguing with her, and either stopped (in which case I got her going again with an “Allez!” and a swift tug on the lead rope) or upped her speed.

This was not always easy. It could be hugely frustrating, especially when the day was fading away and we weren’t particularly near our destination.

There are other elements of walking with a donkey that also make your day longer. In the morning, you have to brush her and pick out her hooves before loading her up. And if you’re not camping, her pasture may be up to a kilometre away from your accommodation, so you have to walk back and forth several times. And of course you may want to visit her in the evening. I sometimes ended up walking the same stretch of the route numerous times.

Donkeys are known for being stubborn, but stopping and refusing to go forward is the way they express their fear. I could often get Kaïcha to move beyond something that scared her by going on ahead, talking to her, and waiting for her. On one occasion, when she was terrified of some caution tape erected around an inactive crane that filled the road, a woman ran out of her house with an apple, and over the course of about ten minutes managed to lure Kaïcha forward. When those sorts of methods didn’t work, I would give her a good tug. She was well trained, and we only had to backtrack once when she refused to cross a rather large stream on a route she’d never seen before. (She was familiar with the Stevenson, so I didn’t have any serious problems there, but she was more nervous on the Régordane, which she’d never walked on before.)

Worry

This will depend on your personality and equine experience, I suppose. But walking with a donkey means having a dependent you are responsible for. Even when Kaïcha was driving me crazy, I spent a lot more time than I should have worrying about her—when she had diarrhoea, when she was bleeding just the tiniest bit, when she bent her hind legs every time I touched her back (it turned out she didn’t like the way it felt because she was wet), and on several other occasions.

My sister, a horsewoman, tells me there was a positive side of me knowing nothing about equines. I didn’t worry about some of the things she would have worried about, and so I did—and got away with—things she’d never have considered doing. For example, one day it was almost 8 p.m. and we were still a few kilometres from our destination. Kaïcha absolutely refused to step down a short step I knew she’d have no trouble with. And so I stupidly (but effectively) gave her a good push—something my sister, who has seen horses kick who are said to never kick, would not have tried.

Cost

Renting a donkey—at least in France—is rather expensive. I figure it at least doubled my walking costs. I had to pay the ânier by the day. Also, most places places charge for donkeys. Three to five euros will get your donkey a pasture and usually some sort of food.

There are two donkey rental places in France that let you pay a set amount for walking one of the Camino routes rather than a daily rate: Bibâne and Les Ânes de Monédiès.

* * *

Anyway! I’ll do another post that gives more of an idea of what it’s like walking with a donkey on a daily sort of basis, before closing up this blog again.

If you have general donkey-walking questions, it would be great if you could ask them in the comments so that others could benefit from the replies.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:11 pm
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Oliver Schroer Radio Documentary Update


You can now listen to the documentary I wrote about recently online. It’s a great documentary with amazing music and tells a wonderful Camino story.

Check it out on the CBC website. Don’t press the “play” button at the top; scroll down the page and press the button next to “Listen to Inside the Music? on Radio 2 on Sunday 3 p.m. (3:30 NT) and Radio One on Sunday 9 p.m. (9:30 NT).”

Be sure to leave a comment—it’s always good to encourage such wonderful documentaries.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 4:00 pm
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A Radio Documentary about Oliver Schroer on the Camino


I wrote over a year ago about fiddler Oliver Schroer and photographer Peter Coffman’s amazing (and highly productive) Camino journey.

Canadian pilgrims have a chance to learn more about (and listen to) Oliver Schroer’s musical pilgrimage and the album that came out of it by tuning into CBC Radio this weekend. David Tarnow’s radio documentary uses extensive interviews with Oliver and some of his unreleased recordings from the Camino. It will air on Inside the Music on CBC Radio this weekend. Choose from these listening options:

  • CBC Radio Two on Sunday, May 13 at 3:00 p.m., 3:30 p.m. in Newfoundland
  • CBC Radio One on Sunday, May 13 at 9 p.m. in Ontario, Quebec, Central, Mountain and Pacific; 10 p.m. in Maritimes; 10:30 p.m. in Newfoundland
  • Sirius Satellite Radio on Saturday, May 12 at midnight, and Sunday, May 13 at 6:00 a.m.

No matter where you are, you can listen to the documentary on the CBC website. Be sure to leave a comment—it’s always good to encourage such wonderful documentaries.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 5:24 pm
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Leonard Cohen … Just Because


Leonard Cohen’s music was a theme of my Vía de la Plata pilgrimage. It started a few days in, when I saw a bird sitting on a barbed wire fence and Like a Bird on a Wire started to play in my head.

Anthem was another song that often ran through my head when I was feeling discouraged—and one I heard at the bar in Alberguería. It has possibly the best chorus ever:

There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

And then there was Hallelujah. I heard it in a grocery store in Mérida, and it made that gloomy day a little brighter. I had a wonderful time in Alberguería because I stuck around to hear Hallelujah, and couldn’t seem to leave. I heard it again in Santiago, played by protesters in the Praza de Obradoiro.

The Solitary Walker collected some of Leonard Cohen’s thoughts on this amazing song. Here’s a snippet:

… [R]egardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say “Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.” And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.

(If you got this by e-mail, you might have to click through to the post to see the videos.)

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:21 am
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