Donkey trekking

400kg of donkey isn’t easily convinced

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine February 2016

Why donkey walking, you ask? Well, it’s like walking a dog, but three times better. 1: they’re bigger, so easier to stroke while walking. 2: they carry your luggage, so you don’t have to (which is a big plus. Especially when you, like me, carry a bag full of (un)necessary items.) 3: they need regular snack breaks. The only downside: they don’t fit in your car. So this month we drove up to Aljezur in order to try trekking with donkeys.

Meet Emil, white and grey and already 16 years old. Next to him stands Kiko (our cover star), who is 10 years and has curly brown hair. Kiko was found tied up in the woods, left to starve. Luckily, he was saved and now he’s part of the herd of 13 donkeys owned by German Sofia von Mentzingen (50) in Vale das Amoreiras, located 4km northeast of Aljezur. Both Emil and Kiko are grazing, occasionally glancing up at us between bites. With their big soft ears, they look like the type of animal you’d buy just to cuddle it all day long.

A few decades ago though, donkeys were considered working animals in rural Portugal. Called ‘the poor men’s tractor’, they’d help out on farms, ploughing the land and carrying goods. They were also used to get to the weekly markets, some people even falling asleep on their animals as they rode through the night. Apart from reliable, they’re brave (in parts of Canada they’re used to guard cattle and will scare wolves and bears away) and loyal. Now machines have taken over their place on the farm, the donkeys have become walking companions. With Burros & Artes Sofia has been organising donkey trekking in the Algarve for seven years.

 

As longs as the weight is evenly distributed, the donkey will happily carry the luggage

“Especially old people love it when we walk past,” Sofia says. “They’re used to donkeys from their childhood; they’ve probably ridden to school on one.” Before the walk starts, it’s time for grooming and tacking up. Already used to horses, donkeys aren’t that much different to brush, only more convenient: there’s no need to tiptoe when checking for ticks between their ears. The brushing session ends with massaging their ears by kneading them with your thumbs. Emil and Kiko lower their heads and close their eyes. I bet they’d be purring if they could.

We saddle them up with a French pack saddle. The French are leading the way with recreational donkey rides; their equipment is way lighter and more comfortable for the animal than the traditional straw and leather Portuguese saddles. The saddle is placed in the middle of the back: not too far front so it doesn’t put pressure on the shoulder blades, and not too far back so there isn’t any pressure on the kidneys. It’s then fastened with three belts; one in front of the chest, one tight below their belly and one under the tail. Over the saddle come Moroccan straw baskets (or waterproof ones that are made of a recycled festival banner). I feel a bit bad for Emil when I let him carry all my luggage and contemplate leaving my jacket in the car, but according to Sofia there’s no need to worry. “They can carry up to 30kg. Just make sure the weight is equal on both sides.”

 

400kg of donkey isn’t easily convinced

Setting off on the walk, it quickly becomes clear why they have a reputation of being stubborn. The two refuse to leave their grass buffet for a walk and also on the road they’re more interested in grazing on the side. 400kg of donkey isn’t easily convinced. Sofia suggests keeping them on a short lead in the beginning, which allows them to get used to us. It allows us to get used to them. Emil, I soon find out, doesn’t like walking in the front. Not even when he’s bribed with an orange. He blatantly refuses and only when Kiko passes him, he’s willing to follow. He also doesn’t like walking in water, no matter how sneaky I try to steer him towards (read: push him in) the puddles. “He will follow, but only if you go through the puddles as well,” Sofia comments. Point taken Emil – we’ll both keep our feet dry.

While trekking, the donkeys decide the speed. Which is a bit slower when walking uphill and a bit faster when going down. Stopping is done by making helicopter movements with the rope directly in front of their head or just stepping in front of them, with your arms spread out like a fence. “Donkeys have a slower rhythm, they need a break and a graze every two hours,” Sofia says. Brilliant, I always feel bad for being the one who insists on regular coffee and cake pauses – now I can just use the donkey as an excuse every time I get hungry or tired. “On average, donkeys tour for 15km per day. It’s a very healthy way of trekking, as we humans sometimes forget that our bodies need a rest too,” Sofia, who doesn’t even go for walks without her long eared companion anymore, agrees.

 

They eat everything: grass, plants, woods and flowers. Even roses

Taking it slow on the Rota Vicentina Fishermen Trail allows you to enjoy the coastal landscape with its rocky hills, trees, fields full of flowers and the sea somewhere in the distance. We smell lavender, lemon and eucalyptus and hear cowbells and waves breaking on the shore. But don’t think you can dream away – every time I do, Emil notices my absent-mindedness and tries to sneak off for a cheeky bite. “They eat everything, grass, plants, woods and flowers. Even roses – don’t ever let them into your garden,” warns Sofia. “No matter the time of year, they’ll find something to eat in this landscape.”

Walking with Kiko and Emil through a field full of daisies, I feel at one with nature, almost like one of these posters with quotes like ‘take nothing but memories and leave nothing but footsteps’. Well, and some donkey poo, but that’s probably eco-friendly. The donkeys don’t scare off cows, so we’re able to come close to a Portuguese shepherd with his cattle and admire a baby calf that has been born only minutes ago.

 

Quick, take off the saddle before they start rolling in the sand

Arriving at Amoreira with a donkey on a lead is surreal. The beach is deserted, apart from some fishermen risking their lives on the rocks. The donkeys sink up to their hooves in the sand and we stop for a break to give them a rest. Emil suddenly sniffs and starts scraping with his hoof. Time to quickly take off the saddle before he starts rolling in the sand. This a way to get rid of parasites, help the blood flow and cool off, but above all it’s great fun. “We have a piece of sand at home as well, but this is heaven for them,” says Sofia.

Gustave the dog, which has been joining us on the walk, decides playing in the sand is only for dogs and starts to annoy the donkeys, despite being told hundreds of times to leave them alone. One kick of Kiko and he slips away, yelping. Then Kiko approaches me, turning around so his back legs are facing me. I briefly fear a kick for being the owner of the irritating little dog, but no, apparently this behaviour means he wants a back massage. Sofia tells me I should be honoured: “He doesn’t do this with everyone, he must really like you.”

 

Kiko and Emil suddenly see some grass and refuse to move

The feeling is mutual. Although the dog probably disagrees, I think the donkeys are wonderful. They’re cute, with their long fluffy ears and soft hairs, especially on their bellies. And fun, like Donkey in the Shrek movies. (No, I don’t know why Winnie-the-Pooh’s Eeyore is a chronically depressed, pessimistic, gloomy beast either, probably because he’s forced to wear a giant pink ribbon in his tail). While having lunch in a field, Kiko and Emil are happy to graze nearby.

Then I realise there’s a lot of grass that needs cutting in our garden back home. In my head, I quickly measure up both my car and the donkeys. Bugger, Emil won’t fit on the back seat. Maybe I could just walk them home? After all, Sofia sometimes does tours of several weeks, all the way from Alcoutim to Aljezur or from Aljezur to Cabo de São Vicente. Too bad the donkey and my dog aren’t a good combination. I try putting Gustave in the basket, telling him he’s now out of kicking reach and should enjoy the ride, but it isn’t working. A shame, no donkey for me, I decide, as we make our way back. With only a few hundred meters to go, Kiko and Emil suddenly see some grass on the side of the road and refuse to move, not caring about our pushing and pulling. Actually, they’re completely right, I thought it was about time for a coffee and cookies break too.

 

When to go?

Pretty much whenever you want. Apart from a short period in November, donkey trekking is possible all year round. There are no fixed days or times, so just let Sofia know when you want to go. Obviously, it’s more fun when the weather is good. Spring time is especially nice because of all the wild flowers.

Since you’ll be doing a fair bit of trekking, take good walking shoes. And seeing as it’s an outdoor activity, dress according to the weather – and don’t forget to take sun cream. The donkeys will love you even more if you bring some snacks for them, like apples, carrots or oranges.

Want to go? Make sure to reserve beforehand by contacting Sofia. All contact details can be found on the website donkey-trekking-algarve.blogspot.pt

 

For whom?

Anyone who likes donkeys (that’s basically everyone – they’re so cute they’re impossible not to like) and walking. This activity is also suitable for children; kids weighing less than 30kg can ride the donkey.

Treks vary from 1.5 hour walks in the area of the donkey farm, to full day tours. The full day treks can go to Amoreira beach from October to April and follow 80% of the Rota Vicentina Fishermen Trail with a cliff line walk in the high season. Longer tours of several days up to three weeks are organised regularly, just contact Sofia if you’re interested.

It’s also possible to rent a donkey for a day and go walking by yourself, without a guide. Previous donkey handling experience isn’t necessary as Sofia or one of her team will explain everything before you start.

 

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine February 2016

Posted in This month we try.

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