So that a donkey may drink, I spent the afternoon in the pursuit of phantom streams.
Here in the heights of the Ardèche, along the drainage line which separates waters bound for the Mediterranean and those bound for the Atlantic, my survey map shows an abundance of rivulet sources. But alas, all so far are dry. Ne’er a drop to drink.
I am walking in a landscape dominated by absence, and dryness laces the air. The tall grass is brittle, with an orange-yellow hue reminiscent of a golden hour blush. In truth, that orange is the last vestige of moisture and of green.
An elderly man with a hooked nose stops for a chat. He is driving a white Renault pickup, and I expect he is heading to the nearest shop which lies on a National route, way below.
The drought has gone deep under the ground, he says. This is the most dangerous time.
Kaicha slides down some descents, the rough dry grass now slippy under hoof. It is strange to see a large animal perform such helter-skelter feats, but she does so with stealth.
By mid-afternoon, and still no water in sight, I decide to hedge my bets and wait a few hours at an old farm shop which sells goats’ cheese. Curiously, it opens only at 6pm. So much of rural France is improvised in a manner such as this; people layering job upon job, in a hardscrabble attempt to make ends meet.
I take a seat in the shaded sedge of the field opposite the shop – fully happy to do nothing.
Two middle-aged men pass by, walking and chatting together. One has a vegetarian look about him, T-shirt in hand, and a torso cleansed by virtue. The other is more rotund, and trundles along, fully clothed. We salute each other from a distance.
I become distracted by the bells of 50 goats, being herded into the giant harvested field in which I’m sitting, by a rather thuggish goatherd. He shouts orders aggressively at his dog to no effect, and then aggressively to his milking goats – blaming the world for his bellowing, goatherding incompetence.
I was born the year The Sound Of Music was filmed, and am reminded of the danger in meeting one’s heroes.
Suddenly, from a distance, the walkers are running back towards me, shouting and pointing. The rotund chap has shot ahead. Both are clearly distressed. I bounce up from my ferny hollow, in an effort to figure what’s going on.
Feu! , the slower of the two shouts. Feu!
I swing around to see a dark and ominous billowing of gunmetal smoke arise from forest below, two kilometres from us. We stare in awe as a thick pile of grey snakes into the still air of a sultry afternoon.
I ask why the other chap is now running straight for the fire. His car, I’m told. His car is in the forest.
Rattled, the vegetarian and I ring the emergency fire services. My phone gets connection; his 1998 Nokia does not.
Where are you?, the responder demands. I give the exact location from my ordnance map. Repeat your location, he says tersely. And I do.
And that was it.
During the wait I introduce myself to Pascal, who becomes enamoured with Kaicha and explains that he is vegetarian. He has a gentle but louche air about him, like a man who has escaped the grip of animal fats only to be kidnapped by weed.
He begins to talk about staying at the abbey close by, Notre Dame Des Neiges, and having seen three ghosts in one night. I nod along. Having failed to drum up much interest, he returns to his favourite theme.
He looked at Kaïcha and looked at me. They make donkey sausages, you know.
Meanwhile, the giant billows expand.
Some minutes later, a spotter plane circled the growing fire. From my Flightradar App I can see that the plane departed 2 minutes after we called emergency services, from a local strip called Ruoms. In between kissing the donkey’s head and laying his cheek upon her neck, Pascal marvelled at all that smartphones can do.
His friend arrived back with his car, his lungs almost exploding. He was a tower of sanity in comparison, and we talked about Rory Gallagher, the English, and the unstable behaviour of our resident goatherd.
Above, the thundering sound of a De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 MR arrived to the scene, having been despatched from Nimes. This was all within 45 minutes of our call. The aircraft’s belly was engorged, and within lay tons of fire retardant material.
Like three fools on a ditch, we sat and stared. It circled the fire twice, and then descended precipitously low, below our view, to despatch the first of many drops. In the distance, the wail of fire brigade vehicles from the valley.
The threat of fire so close to his stock was sending our goatherd into a fit of angst, and he started shouting at all three of us.
Harbouring a desire to be neither swallowed by fire, machete-ed by a goatherd or caressed by ghosts, I bid adieu to my two new friends, and moved on in search of water and sleeping quarters with less drama.
Finally, I came upon a local forestry cabin manned by a hunter without prey. The animals go quiet when the rains stay away, he explained.
I told him of the fire some kilometres down the road, and he slowly shook his head.
Like many French I meet, catastrophes are eloquently explained by a delicate cocktail of logic and conspiracy.
That could have been started by the fire brigade itself, he said. They just love fire. Or it could have come from the National highway down there. There are no ashtrays in cars anymore. So idiot smokers just fire the butts out the window, and into the forest.
Having given me water for Kaïcha, he directed me towards an empty forest cabin nearby for shelter.
Donkey fed and watered, I leaned up against that shelter and finally had lunch for dinner. To the west, the rumble of the De Havillands slowly petered out. And as I brushed my teeth, I squinted upwards to see the first stars appear.