Four legs good

Why go walking alone when you can enlist the company of a four-legged friend? On the 130th anniversary of Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey through the C�vennes with a donkey, Jon Bryant follows his footsteps and makes a lifelong friend. Meanwhile, in the following pages, llamas and huskies also get an outing...

Why go walking alone when you can enlist the company of a four-legged friend? On the 130th anniversary of Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey through the C�vennes with a donkey, Jon Bryant follows his footsteps and makes a lifelong friend.

A donkey may not be everyone’s first choice of a partner to spend a week alone with but when you’re struggling up misty, dormant volcanoes, hiking across flooded plains and through dense, chestnut forests, he (or she) becomes strangely appealing – especially when your bag is growing heavy.

Following the route that the writer Robert Louis Stevenson undertook 130 years ago (with his donkey Modestine) has become one of France’s most celebrated grandes randonn�es and having an animal beside you, carrying your luggage and refusing to move most of the time, makes the trip even more authentic.

Stevenson set out from Le Monastiersur- Gazeille in the Haute-Loire in late September 1878 and travelled to Saint- Jean-du-Gard more than 100 miles south. The journey took him 12 days and he kept a journal of his adventures, noting where he stopped and slept and what he fed the donkey; it later became his first published book – the aptly titled Travels with a Donkey in the C�vennes.

It was undoubtedly the donkey that caught the publisher’s eye. Stevenson’s treatment of it, from frustrated indignation to tearful affection makes the book a masterpiece of unplanned adventure and understated humour. He begins by requiring “something cheap and small and hardy, and of a solid and peaceful temper.” What he ends up with is a “diminutive sheass not much bigger than a dog, the colour of a mouse, with a kindly eye and a determined under-jaw.” Twelve days later, he can’t bear to part with her.

For supplies, Stevenson took a sheepskin-lined sleeping bag, a leg of mutton, a revolver, chocolate, a bottle of Beaujolais, a few tins of Bologna sauce and an egg-beater. For my journey, I thought about the revolver (there are wolves and boar in the hills) and chocolate, but didn’t find room for the whisk or mutton. I did however, take Stevenson’s book and made sure I followed the same bridleways, old droving trails and the occasional slightlytoo- long railway tunnel as it traces through the Velay, G�vaudan and into the mountains of the C�vennes.

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A far cry from vineyards and lavender fields, the landscape is dark and rugged and with fields scattered in a chaos of boulders. Fractured castles on hilltops look down on you and, as Stevenson did on many an occasion, it’s easy to get hopelessly lost, despite the red and white marker bands that guide you along the GR70. It’s actually comforting to have a donkey force you down the correct routes even when they look unlikely. And if you don’t have a pack animal, you can just follow the droppings of others.

Stevenson’s dismissive, humorous disgust at most of the locals and his loathing of dogs and noisy children is a welcome respite from gushing travelogues. Clearly much of the region has barely changed in the last century but according to �ric Chaptal, who runs the H�tel des Sources in Chasserad�s halfway along the route, the popularity of the pathway is relatively new.

“Until about ten years ago, no-one locally had really heard of the RLS trail. Now everyone knows about it and it’s been a real boost to the local economy. Because of the altitude [much of it is over 1,000 metres], it’s cool in the summer evenings,” he says. Some of the hotels offer a Stevenson Menu’ (high in carbohydrates) and are very used to dealing with blisters, lost guidebooks and unexpected braying.

I knew about gentle braying and the legendary stubbornness, but the sudden series of prolonged, blood-curdling bleats in apparent agony… nothing could have prepared me for that. You may be 20 metres away, looking at a clearing or chestnut grove, but to everyone in a ten mile radius, you are thrashing the poor creature to within a saddle-thickness of its life. Stevenson lost it’ a few times with Modestine but nowadays, the accompanied walker spends most of the trail stroking the donkey, playing with its ears and carrying their own luggage.

Donkeys can live to 40 years old and, according to Ga�lle Bruchet Exbrayat, who keeps 20 of them near Le Monastier, they really enjoy the trail. “They love being with people and they love walking.” Mme Bruchet says all the hostels along the route know how to care for the donkeys during the night and walkers can hire them from her after just an hour’s training. “Some donkeys can do six trails in a season – they know the route!” she says. “They like being brushed and having stones removed from their hooves. They don’t like tight leather straps or climbing up Mont Loz�re!”

Chaptal reckons more and more people are doing the route with donkeys. They can be rented for around €45 a day and hotels charge another €5 for feed and a grassy field for the night. The village of Saint-Germain-de-Calberte even has an annual Miss Modestine pageant for the best-looking donkey in the region.

The 220-kilometre Stevenson Trail is something of a pilgrimage for them too. Modestine was sold for 35 francs in Saint- Jean-du-Gard. Stevenson wept when he thought of her afterwards. She is reputedly buried in a field nearby.