I’ve been writing a lot about skiing lately, which I can’t even DO at the moment, so I thought I’d include a nice summery post about a trip we took with a donkey for easyJet magazine a few years ago. It was a really fun trip, and a really nice way to be able to go for a long walk with small children without them complaining. Although we also discovered that donkeys aren’t called stubborn for nothing. Anyway, here is the article.
There’s taking life and a gentle pace, and then there is taking it at a donkey’s pace. If you’re looking for a way to appreciate the countryside in the slow lane, you can’t beat hiking with a donkey.
Claude and Elayne Danjou moved to a farm in the Alpes Mancelles in the Sarthe region of north-west France from Paris in 1997 and started collecting donkeys which they now hire out to tourists. Their first donkey was acquired simply to keep the grass short on the farm at Gesnes le Gandelin, then a few more, and slowly Claude became known locally as “the man with the donkeys.” Today the couple have 20 donkeys of two breeds – Normandy and Contentin – and the inside of their house is covered in donkey memorabilia. In 1999 the countryside around the village inspired them to start offering walks with donkeys for children, and the business grew from there. The hikes with donkeys are popular with adults and children alike – “Some are inspired to try donkey-hiking after reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes”, Claude explains.
You can take a donkey for anything from a half-day trek around the local area (32 Euros) to a full-on 140 kilometre seven day trek to Le Mont St Michel (from 400 Euros) as well as shorter trips of three days or so (from 130 euros). The donkeys will carry children, bags and tents if you are intending to camp on the longer trips – or Claude will arrange B&Bs along the route if you prefer.
After you are introduced to your donkey (for us this was 11-year-old Jason – Claude’s original donkey) the children have a chance to groom the donkey, brushing him and picking anything unpleasant out of its hooves. The donkey is saddled up and Claude gives a brief lesson on donkey wrangling – basically holding the donkey’s rope firmly and close to his face and whacking him on the bum with a stick and shouting “Allez!” if he stops and refuses to move.
Then armed with a photocopied map with your route marked out, you’ll be sent on your way. Claude leads you through the village to get you started, but after that, you’re on your own.
Walking with a donkey is a brilliant way to enjoy walking in the countryside for parents whose children are too small to walk very far without complaining. Children will love riding on the donkey and can also take turns at leading it, although donkeys don’t seem to be that impressed by children’s little falsetto shouts of “Allez!”, preferring to ignore them and continue eating the grass during his frequent stops.
Having a donkey in tow also means there can be no competitive rambling – no striding ahead at a brisk pace – you have no choice but to take things slowly and enjoy the scenery. Donkeys truly seem to deserve their stubborn reputation – Jason would plod along quite happily once he got going, but if he got distracted by some tempting dandelions it took a lot of stick-waving and shouting to get him moving again. At one point he actually ate the stick as if to say “Yeah, whatever – you’re not in charge of me.” While at first it might seem alarming to be sent out alone in charge of a donkey, you will quickly realise that they are so slow and placid the worst you are likely to have to deal with is the donkey refusing to budge. If you get lost or have any other problems, Claude is at the other end of the phone. He can even bring his trailer out and pick you all up if need be – although so far the only times he has had to do this if when sudden storms have broken.
For a slightly longer walk – starting at nearby St Leonards-des-Bois – Claude will meet you at various points along the way to make sure you take the right paths and also help you cajole your donkey up the up particularly steep bits – even lending a hand with carrying small children if need be. The path meanders up and down and some bits are steep enough that they children have to get off the donkey, but it flattens out again quickly enough that they can manage this without complaining too much about their legs aching.
The walk is beautiful – through woods and along a river to St Céneri –le-Gérei – a chocolate-box pretty village with woodsmoke-scented restaurants and an ancient chapel in a field by the river. Here Jason gets to take off his saddle and eat as much grass as he likes while you enjoy a picnic of ham, cheese, salad, fruit and bread made using traditional milling and baking methods from Claude’s organic farm.
After lunch the afternoon’s walk starts with a very steep slope through trees which Claude will help guide you through – reminding you that you must stay in front of Jason so he knows you are in charge – even if he doesn’t look like he knows it. Afterwards the walk leads through fields of sunflowers and more woods and by the end of the day you might even find that your donkey is a little more responsive to your commands.
Walking with a donkey feels like a real back-to nature experience which forces you to take things as they come – the donkey knows there’s no great hurry to get where you are going – you will just have to accept it and slow down too.