With obstinate donkeys, randy mules and strapping stallions on the trail

What happens when a dozen pig-headed and handsomely decorated donkeys, three love-lusty mules, two shiny stallions and a hundred party-loving Andalucians go for a mountain hike? This is what we discovered when we set out on the second annual Ruta Arriera Serranía Romántica walk yesterday.

Donkeys may seem like a Spanish tourist gimmick, a romantic hooved animal from bygone times. However, one does not have to go back many decades before donkeys and mules were the pillars of Spanish transportation and vital for movement of goods between towns and villages here. In James A. Michener’s Iberia, he described how donkeys were still used to pull barges of oranges on and off shores in the 1950’s. Los Arrieros are the traditional Spanish muleteers and they still exist. Our oldest muleteer was well over 80, about half my size and without a single tooth. Admittedly he had to do part of the trail in the follow vehicle (probably happily safe-guarding the transported food and beverages), but who am I to judge?

As part of this month’s Ronda Romántica fiesta, the Andalucía’s hiking association Pasos Largos and Ronda’s Tourist Association organized the annual ‘Arriero’ walk to commemorate the importance of pack animals in local history. Last year, we walked a hundred strong from Ronda to El Burgos and this year our goal was set at the town of Benoaján and it’s cat cave or Cueva del Gato. As a requirement for joining the walk all needed to be in period costume (18-19 century peasant style), donkeys and pack animals included.

The walk started out with the participants being given handmade terra cotta cups, which immediately was tested out with local brewed Anís, strong enough to strip paint off cars. Our 9 am start was somewhat delayed for reasons unknown, yet no less predicted. Finally off, with cheers and un-period-like cellphone cameras in hand, we did a detour along the old Arab city walls and up through town so oriental and other tourists could photographs rondeños with braying donkeys and well-hung mules in tow. Two hours and multiple pit stops later, we were barely out of the La Dehesa quarter of town. Yet, the mood was rising with the temperature and the lively hiking crowd had already started singing and clapping as they walked along the ridge above the Descalzos Viejos (the barefoot monks) vineyard.

By midday, we tied up the animals and took our first proper break by a river. Nothing like a generous supply of chorizo on white bread, topped with cans of Cruz Campo beer to motivate one to hike for hours in unprotected sun!

I should at this point share a practical observation of hiking in a long period dress. Though it sweeps up dust like nothing else, it is a perfect personal shelter if one needs to ‘spend a penny’ where there are no bushes. And as many female hikes also know, the bushes are never there when one needs them…

As the sun had reached a scolding 30*C, it was time to continue the steepest part of the path. It always amuses me to think of how absolutely impossibly illegal and unfathomable this type of adventures would have been in the overly safety-conscious Canada or the overly willing-to-sue-the-ass-of-anyone USA. Just before we took off, an Arriero came up to my husband with three donkeys, handing him the rein of one, urging him to “Just hold her, please”. And thus our donkey, which we nicknamed Mamacita (as she was clearly pregnant), was ours to pull and drag and plead and sweet-talk and bring along for the entire walk. No questions asked, no papers to sign, no precautions made and no donkey-pulling certifications required. Not that anything usually goes wrong, and the hiking association do have insurance should something happen. But it is ever so freeing to know that big brother is not always watching and that safety is not always up to the government, but is sometimes up to us as adult allegedly sane-of-mind individual. And then, of course, there is something so amusingly Spanish about the macho Arrieros, who will pull and rap and jump on their mules and arrive with hands cut and other manly battle wounds, usually quite unnecessary were it not for the show-off factor.

Having lost a third of the group before the last killer hill (where an alternate, less steep route was available) and another third of our group to the first bar of the village of Benoaján (where alternate, more efficient pain relief was available), we finally arrived at out destination. In tact with local tradition, consumables of all forms and shapes would emerge from packs and pockets. The not completely period-style follow vehicle pulled up and an industrial supply of beer, sausages, tortillas, meats and cheeses were brought out. It always baffled me what Spaniards manage to bring with them on hikes, but that is a story for another day…

A couple of buses waited to pick us up and bring us back to Ronda, while the stallions were ridden back to our barrio in style. Our day of the past was over. And what about the donkeys, you may wonder? I was assured by one of the Arrieros that Mamacita and the other donkeys did not have to suffer another walk that day, but would be transported back in a proper cattle trailer.

Spending a day with mules and donkeys, one cannot but have great respect for these ‘beasts of burden’ that have carried Spain’s past on their back. The animals are not stubborn and dumb as an ass, the way we have been taught to believe. They just know what they want and what is good for them. If they are hot and tired and somebody asks them to walk, they will refuse, simple as that. I mean, wouldn’t we all? If they walk with a heavy load up a narrow path and somebody suddenly jumps on their back mid-hill, it is not only natural that they turn around and run downhill instead, unwanted rider on, off or in between? And if this will cause other donkeys to turn around and people to fall and scramble, this is also natural and to be expected. To me, this shows the good sense on part of these animals. And as far the moral of the story, I am not sure who is the real ass…

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