Following Robert Louis Stevenson’s Ass

25th July 2022

A donkey awaits me in the south of France.

The trail we will take together is well-trod: first, by a Scottish writer on six legs, with one pistol; and since then by a growing number of French backpackers, most of whom get by on two legs, pistol-less.

Robert Louis Stevenson was in search of new horizons in 1878. 27 years old, he was still living with his pious parents, still unpublished, and anxious to overcome some troubles of the heart.

The Cevennes, a mountainous area in south central France, became a place both of refuge and discovery.

This sparsely-populated region was famous for its Protestant revolt against Catholic Paris, begun in 1704. It was only in 1878 that Paris finally acquiesced, according people of all religions equal civil rights. Such a victory needed to be marked, and Monsieur Robert smelt a literary opportunity.

The result of his two weeks’ ambling with a donkey across 220kms, from Monastier to Alès, was ‘Travels On A Donkey In The Cevennes’ – an experimental travelogue of observation and meditation, placing the future author of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ on the map, and introducing the world’s first donkey-antihero, the immodest Modestine.

I am, as I write, making my way by train and taxi to Monastier. I have packed a one-man tent, having signed a contract to hire a donkey some months back.

I asked for a female donkey; they’re more cooperative. Her name is Kaicha, Christophe told me; Arabic for ‘pride’.

Christophe rents donkeys for a living for the last 11 years. Ane Azimut in Monastier is my kind of Donkey Parlour – efficient, preemptive and caring. Christophe has an earthy directness in the way he communicates. He doesn’t rent animals, he lends out companions.

‘A donkey isn’t stubborn, it’s smart’, says one the bullet points on my information pack. ‘It is for the person to discover why one’s companion refuses to do something’. Because there is always a reason.

I meet Christophe this evening and then get an introduction to Kaicha tomorrow. The briefing will take an hour in all. By 10am we’ll be on the road.

A donkey awaits me in the south of France. I’m all ears, all excited, all in.

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