Charley and Grace are described as having very different personalities, what was your favourite thing about each of them?
My favourite thing about Charley was her timing and quick reactions. Clipped behind Grace, she was acutely aware of our pace in every situation. She enjoyed travelling at the back but kept up, without ever tugging on the connecting rope, no matter what the situation underfoot; she could even time a dash slightly to the side to grab a bite to eat without affecting Grace’s forward movement. What I loved most about Grace was her courage. She would do anything I asked of her, as long as it was within her physical capacity, no matter how scared she was. Once crossing a bridge with only planks over the bearers, just wide enough for car wheels, Grace was shaking with fear as she carefully negotiated the narrow wheel track while I nervously traversed the other wheel track holding onto the lead rope. Both of us, I might add, avoided looking down, through the large gaps in the bearers, at the fast-flowing river 10 metres below. I could usually rely on Charley to follow in Grace’s footsteps, but this time, she was not having a bar of it. She ran down the very steep embankment to tackle the deep, rushing water, then clamber up the equally steep embankment to where Grace and I were by now standing with bated breath. We all laughed and cheered – anyone who knows donkeys well, will appreciate what this looks like. So you see, with Grace’s courage and Charley’s athleticism, I could not have had a more suitable pair of companions. Lots more about this in the story.
How did your relationship with your donkeys change as a result of your trek?
I feel it is a great privilege to get to know and befriend any large animal. They are bigger and stronger than we are, so they don’t have to do what want. I don’t care what anyone says about animals being at a lower level of consciousness than humans, Grace and I loved each other – I’m crying because the hole in my life, left by her death a few years after the trek, can never be filled. My deep connection with Grace was well-established before we set out on the trek, but my relationship with Charley was a little different. She was rescued from an abusive situation when she was 8 years old and held herself aloof and protected. For a donkey, she was very flighty but, by time we left for Cooktown, she had bonded with Grace in such a way that Grace was her older, wiser and protective sister. I felt that my relationship with Charley was through Grace rather than directly with the little sister. This was remarkably similar to my situation as a mother of two daughters, whereby I spent several years incapacitated by grief after the tragedy of my son’s death, leaving my 5-year-old daughter to be raised by her 15-year-old sister. Now in their 50s and 40s, my connection with them remains heavily influenced by those years – I am close to the older daughter but my connection with my other daughter is mostly through her sister. During the trek I began to feel as if I had my own relationship with Charley but, after Grace died, it was clear that no-one – no donkey, horse or human companion – could connect with Charley in her grief and emotional isolation. She currently free-ranges on 100 acres with 5 or 6 horses. They naturally graze together with Charley browsing not too far away from them. However the owner of the horses says that Charley keeps her distance, and is not as friendly with the horses as they would like her to be.
What was the most important thing that working with donkeys taught your about yourself?
Accepting the way things are, like donkeys do, is far healthier, for both mind and body, than getting lost in thoughts about how things should be.
You talk about meditating with your donkeys during your trek, is there a way that people could do this with their donkeys at home?
Yes. Sit meditating near donkeys and you will feel their presence, and realise how they feel yours. However, meditating outdoors can be difficult for someone unused to either meditating indoors, or sitting cross-legged on the floor, because a straight spine, unsupported, is important for sitting meditation. For most people, a milk crate is just the right height for a good meditation posture, feet firmly on the ground to allow a relaxed, upright, sitting position, using a piece of closed-cell foam to avoid a sore bottom from the plastic struts.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to do a long distance trek?
From the various facets involved in a long-distance trek, consider where you might lack experience and spend time acquiring the experience you need. From 30 years of overnight bushwalking, I was experienced at living outdoors, packing light, negotiating difficult terrain and camping, cooking in all weathers. However I had no experience with large animals and allowed myself 4 years to get to know my donkeys, learn how to handle them on the road and have them face as many scary situations as I could predict might arise.
What was your most essential piece of equipment?
My hoof pick. Everything about trekking depends upon the donkeys’ feet.
You talk about having to learn about adjusting your standards of what to expect, how did the Trek compare to what you expected?
Adjusting my standards was more about adjusting my expectations of other people and myself. A strong theme in the book is that – because of all my outdoor experience – physical challenges were easily overcome. It was almost as if surviving physically demanding situations was no longer part of the lessons I needed to learn. The challenges were much more about relating to people from whom I needed help – because of the extremely dry conditions and NEVER part of my trek plan – so accepting my limitations, and theirs, changed my standards of what to expect in all sorts of social situations.
It’s been 16 years since your Trek, have the lessons your learned endured?
Yes. Because lessons learned from experience, in other words, from our mistakes, naturally endure.
How are things with your family now?
Even given the qualification in my answers above, things with my family are good.
Is there anything about the experience that you wish you had done differently?
Not much point wishing things could be different from what they are or have been. I’m happy with who I am as long as I keep on learning from experience.