Sitting on the wet ground, my body was slumped across Grace who lay still. Even through her blanket she felt warm although it had been three hours since she dropped right in front of me. Not believing that her spirit had left, I’d pumped and pumped at her chest. Now it was to her spirit that my voice, muffled against her blanket, softly called, ‘Grace, Grace.’ Like a mantra, ‘Grace, Grace’. She was only sixteen.

It was four weeks before I could think of replacing my beloved Grace with another trekking donkey. Together with my other donkey, Charley, Grace and I had walked over 3,500 kilometres together. I knew I had to get my thoughts together, to recapture what it was that makes a good trekking donkey but as they flashed through my mind it occurred to me that Grace had none of these characteristics, except for her enjoyment of adventure.

For a start, at just over 11 hands, she was a bit short for my packsaddles and her short stocky legs had difficulty in matching Charley’s and my pace. Grace was inclined to tubbiness, giving her a rather sway back, not good for carrying a pack for extended periods without being chaffed. She was also fair-skinned, so she was quite tender-footed. Protecting her from chaffing and sunburn was always a bit of a challenge.

But adventure – she lived for it! 

We were on the Bicentennial National Trail in North Queensland and about to cross the Herbert River. I could see that it involved about 25 metres of wading through very deep, fast flowing water, the prospect of which caused me some trepidation. I’d never had any trouble getting the donkeys to walk through the many rivers we crossed but, as I unhooked Charley so that she could find her own way across, I wondered what the donkeys’ reactions to this one would be.

With Grace on the downstream side of me, I led her to the water’s edge and did as I always did, let her take her time before stepping into the water. Much to my surprise, she hesitated for no more than a second before plunging into the river. I’ll swear Grace was laughing with the sheer joy of pushing her way through water nearly to the top of her saddle bags. The river was flowing so fast that I hung on hard to her to stop myself from being washed downstream but, by the time we got to the other side, I too was laughing with the fun of it.

As I clambered up the bank and turned around to encourage Charley, I realised she hadn’t followed as usual but was still on the other bank with a look that said, ‘You don’t really expect me to cross this, do you?’

So I tethered Grace and back across the river I went, this time without the stability of a donkey to hold onto. I stopped as soon as I could pick up the end of Charley’s lead rope where it had fallen in the water. At the other end of the rope, Charley was standing high on the bank, as far away from the water as she could get without actually backing into the bush. I thought, Oh hell! She’s going to refuse to go in as long as she can still see Grace on the other side.

I didn’t fancy having to cross and re-cross to move Grace out of sight, so I decided to give it a go. I lifted her rope fully out of the water as I called, ‘Come on Charley, darling.’ Then I reassured her, ‘It’s OK. You’ll be fine. Didn’t you see how much Grace enjoyed it?’

That’s all it took. With continuing reassurance and encouragement, she came straight in. I manoeuvred myself to the upstream side of her to cross, and soon we were standing on the bank beside Grace. I don’t know how donkeys celebrate such achievements but I could tell by their faces that my laughter and cheers were enough for all of us.

Entirely confident and secure within herself, Grace was not a “people” donkey. Most donkeys I have known who have been well-handled and cared for will sometimes seek interaction and petting from people other than their owners. Grace, on the other hand, generally kept her distance from other people unless I actually stood with her and asked her to “say hello” and let them touch her. It was not that she was in any way fearful or timid. She was simply self-contained. Whatever people-needs she had, they were apparently met in her relationship with me. Her trust and affection was, to me, a privilege, something never to be taken for granted.

She was really gutsy, and never shrank from anything I required of her so long as she believed she could physically manage it. Once she crossed a bridge so scary that she was shaking with fear as we trod ever so carefully to avoid either of us falling into the fast flowing river several metres below; and she did it because I asked her. Another time I wanted her to get over the 1.3-metre-diameter trunk of a massive tree that had fallen across the track. She couldn’t jump it like Charley did, and would have preferred to push through the scrub the length of this enormous tree until we could find a way around it. But, as physically difficult as it was for her, fully loaded, she managed to scramble over.

Grace was also sensitive and compassionate. We were at home when I had hurt my back and was in a lot of pain. My husband had kindly done my job of giving the donkeys their morning bucket of oaten chaff and raked up all the manure in the small yard where they spent the night. I hobbled down the hill to their yard to see them just as they were about to head for the other end of the 200 metre-long paddock. The donkeys next-door were calling to them. I got in a quick hug with Charley before she trotted off smartly to see her friends, then I turned to Grace.

The back-pain was severe as I put my arms around her neck, but her warmth and love seemed to go right into my heart. It released the intense pain in my lower back in a burst of sobbing that I didn’t understand. With my head resting on Grace’s neck and my arms folded around her, I cried for about five minutes while a part of me expected any moment for her to move out from under me so she could join Charley now 200 metres away. But no, Grace stood still, holding the weight of my pain until the sobs subsided of their own accord.

When I stood up, she still didn’t rush away, but turned her head to see that I was OK now. Only then did she trot away to join her friends. I smiled at the thought of the donkeys doing whatever they do with their day, without humans, in their own space, in their own way. As I turned to head back up the hill to the house, I realised the pain in my lower back had completely gone! It had dissolved with my tears.

On one hot, dry morning, the flies were particularly bad as I cleaned up the manure in the donkeys’ yard before getting their chaff. Except for the frequent flicking of her tail at the flies, Grace waited patiently as usual while Charley got annoyed because I took a bit longer than normal. After a while, though, the flies, combined with Charley’s fluffing around, got too much for Grace who gave a little side kick at either Charley or the flies or both. Unfortunately, I happened to be in the way – the flat of Grace’s hoof got me on the calf muscle.

I snapped, ‘Oh, Grace! That hurt.’

As I got on with the rest of the raking, I brooded, feeling emotionally hurt that she hadn’t been careful enough to think about where I was at that moment. I had noticed that Charley’s reaction to my cross tone was to move away and talk to our dog, Benji, waiting at the yard gate. Being cross with Grace however, I deliberately paid her no attention, so it took a few minutes for me to become aware what she was doing or, more accurately, not doing.

As I raked and shovelled manure, it gradually dawned on me that, wherever I was, Grace continued to face in my direction while standing as still as possible. I realised she was saying “sorry.” At that, my heart softened and I went and put my arms around her neck to let her know I’d forgiven her. Not to be left out, Charley came straight over to join us without so much as an excuse-me to the dog. As Charley’s nose came into our space, Grace gave a barely-perceptible nod of dismissal that said, “Not right now.” Charley responded immediately by returning to her conversation with Benji, while Grace and I continued our hug and re-connection.

Grace wasn’t backward in making her needs known. One morning I had tested her patience by becoming engaged in a chat with a visiting neighbour while Grace was waiting for her chaff. While Charley stood by enjoying the occasional moment of attention by the neighbour and me, Grace waited at her usual distance from this stranger. Finally she came up and stood next to me, which I took to being told to hurry up with her breakfast.

After another five minutes of no action by me, she seemed to give up and walked over to the straw in the feed-bin. But turning almost immediately to face us, she finally succeeded in breaking up the conversation by looking me right in the eye, standing there with a single 30-centimetre-length of straw clasped neatly centred between pursed lips. 

This was her final plea: ‘Are you going to feed us this morning or not?’

The neighbour and I cracked up laughing, with Grace obviously enjoying the joke as I jumped to attention to get the chaff buckets.

Another frequent joke the donkeys must have had at my expense was one to which I had been completely oblivious, until right towards the end of our 2,500 kilometre trek through Queensland on the Bicentennial National Trail. People often ask how far we walk in a day. My answer was, ‘In Queensland, it depends. It depends on the number of cattle grids.’

The mandatory gates provided by farmers to get around grids can be hard to find, hard to open, hard to close, or all of the above. The “gate” can be up to 100 metres on either side of the grid, with nothing to indicate where it is except the piece of stick used for levering the bush-gate back into place sitting at a bit of an angle to the top fence-wire. Or harder still to find are those openings that are nothing more than the little wire twist and hook where each fence-wire can be undone and reconnected without ruining the integrity of the fence.

Except in those few cases where there was an obvious gate beside the grid, it became my habit to tie the donkeys near the grid while I went searching for the gate. At what turned out to be the very last grid we crossed on our Queensland trek, a few kilometres south of Mt Perry, I happened to take a different tack.

As I approached this grid, I noticed it was different from the usual construction of pieces of rail-line with gaps in between. This one was made of timber with no spaces in between, and used the timber’s cross-section shape to make it too hard for animals to walk over. The construction alternated a round length of timber with one that had a four-by-four-inch-square cross-section, pointy-edge upward.

This looked to me like something the donkeys may be able to negotiate, so I coaxed Grace to try it. Placing her left foot onto the first round piece she could reach, she then brought the right foot up beside it. But on testing her stance by bringing her weight forward onto her front legs, she decided that this would not work, and stepped back off. She still seemed to be willing to have another go, so I got her to try it again: one foot, then the other. She thought for a moment, decided this was not a good idea at all and backed off smartly. She immediately headed briskly along the fence-line to the right, pulling the lead-rope right out of my hand.

In a moment she was standing waiting for me to undo the fence about six panels to the right. It was one of those “gates” I might have walked passed several times before I realised it was the opening for getting around the grid. How Grace recognised it from the roadway, I’ll never know. Like most of these openings, there were no signs it had been used in years. The only indication  was the four wires all joined at the same place in the fence-line.

I laughed a lot at what the donkeys must have thought every time I’d tethered them near the grid while I trudged up and down the fence looking for the opening. At first, they probably thought, ‘Oh good. She’s going for a walk on her own. We can rest and eat.’

Then, according to my imagination, the commentary would start. ‘Wrong way. It’s to the left.’

‘No. You’ve passed it!  Go back three panels.’

‘Getting warmer. No! Getting colder!’

How many hours walking, I wonder, might I have saved myself if I’d let the donkeys take the lead each time we got to one of the literally hundreds of cattle grids on our way through Queensland?

I have many more stories about Grace that I could share, but it seems time to begin my quest for another trekking donkey, so I call my friend, Pat Emmett. Pat comes across many more donkeys than I do, and I trust her judgment implicitly when it comes to recognising one with good trekking potential. I also know Pat will understand what a hard time I’m going through in coming to terms with the loss of my wonderful and precious friend.

While the shock of Grace’s sudden death has worn off, there’s the deep pain and sadness of facing life without her. Strange as it may seem, I’m grateful that I’ve had enough life experience to know that the only way to deal with the pain of having lost a loved one is to go through it. There’s no way around it, over it or under it.

After talking about Grace, Pat and I chat about donkeys in general, then on trekking donkeys in particular. I always enjoy a chat with Pat about donkeys, but as I hang up the phone, the reality of my loss hits me like a thunderbolt. No matter how perfect for trekking a new donkey might be, it would not, and could not ever replace Grace; and I’m overwhelmed by how much I miss her.

I live alone now, my house set in the middle of five beautiful acres. And so, as I hang up the phone, I don’t have to concern myself that neighbours or anyone else can hear the loud sobs that wrack my body. When the crying finally fades away, I lift my head and see Charley watching me through the window, her eyes filled with compassion for both of us and our life without Grace.

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    Vicki May 23, 2021 (5:08 am)

    I cried …