Bob Wallace looks at the importance of choosing the right animal in your travels.
Be careful about the beast you choose.
Despite several times finding myself relying on an animal to get from one point to another while exploring an offshore destination, this advice still tends to desert me when needed most.
It was no better illustrated than on a trip to Egypt a few years ago. For reasons not totally clear at the time, our intrepid group was told that we would be riding donkeys through some fields along the west bank of the Nile outside Luxor. Such small beasts carrying relatively large humans did not seem fair at the time, but there was little alternative and off we trotted.
Except in my case, the donkey was travelling at something in excess of a trot and seemed to be determined to run through those ahead and lead the pack. Despite commands from the owner of our drove of donkeys, and my continued attempts at bridle restraint, the gentle-looking little beast charged on, emerging from the fields well out in front.
The animal we know today as a donkey (or Equus africanus asinus) is descended from the African wild ass and was generally known as an ass until around the late 18th century. In this case, the donkey certainly seemed to want to display a wild tendency and in the process made me feel like an ass as it charged ahead out of the fields towards a highway into the town of New Querna.
Somehow, amid shouts of consternation and further attempts to rein the animal in, we managed to dodge the traffic and made it to the other side. And then the donkey stopped, resolutely — apparently, this was the terminus point and the donkey knew it and wasn't going any further.
The episode gave new meaning to the expression "stubborn as a mule": but, of course, mules are different animals (about which, more later). And I should have known better than to take a randomly allotted steed, docile though it looked at first sight.
A few years earlier we experienced a trip into the Sahara, south of the small village of Mergouza in Morocco, towards the Algerian border. The big attraction was that our transport to the desert camp was to be by camel.
With the vast Erg Chebbi dunes as our backdrop, we equipped ourselves at the last staging post with stylish (and practical) Touareg shesh turbans and chose our camels. I went for a distinctive-looking one, darker than the rest, perhaps because it simply stood out. Alas, by the time we reached the camp, it was well apparent that it was the youngest and most recalcitrant beast in the caravan — and the most uncomfortable. I was in great posterior pain.
That night around the camp fire, a conversation with the camel-train leader ensured that the journey the following day would not be on the same dromedary. In the morning, I was led to a much more amiable and comfortable looking beast of burden and quickly assigned it to my possession. What a difference.
But what about the poor person who ended up that morning on young Fractious? No problem — not only was the animal on its best behaviour that day, but seating comfort was apparently not an issue for the new rider (well, she was rather more amply cushioned than me).
Choose-your-beast-well lesson learned, I soon afterwards applied that axiom when it came to selecting a mule (what you get when a female horse and a male donkey produce offspring) for a trek up a High Atlas mountain trail to our gite in the base village below Mount Toubkal, North Africa's highest peak. While others held their breath and expressed their qualms as we crossed streams and negotiated what at times was a very narrow track on the way up from Imlil to the Berber settlement of Aroumd, my steed felt remarkably sure-footed, confidence-instilling and not at all stubborn. With relief, I had learned the lesson and chosen well.
My exposure to riding random beasts does go back a long way. Many moons ago when touring in South Africa, a visit to an ostrich farm at Oudtshoorn provided the chance to ride one of these flightless giants of the avian world. Today it is politically incorrect, but at the time it seemed like a great idea. And after all, the ostrich's scientific name is Struthio Camelus (as in camel).
Sitting astride its broad back, the instruction was to "wrap your legs underneath and hold on to the wingpits".
"If the bird is running too fast for you and you want to slow it down then hold its neck with one hand and slowly pull backwards," said the instructor. "It's like a hand-brake."
Then they released the bird with the Kiwi on its back. What a ride.
The ostrich went out of the rodeo-style stall flat out (they can clock more than 70km/h and cover up to 5m in one stride) — a thrilling experience until it appeared that it was headed straight for the display ring's wooden-railed fence. Out went one hand to its neck to apply the brake. Unfortunately, reflecting my panic, the pressure proved too great and the beast stopped dead in its tracks, with me flying forward off its back. To add insult, I landed with great accuracy on freshly laid droppings.
Great entertainment for the spectators in the viewing area, including my wife, but yet another hard lesson in choosing the beast well.