You can’t always lead a donkey up a hill – but you can sometimes make one walk around Wales.
The Wales Coast Path – the first of its kind that allows tourists to wander the entire coastline of a country – opened in May 2012, and Hannah Engelkamp was feeling ready for an adventure. “The idea took hold, one moment to the next, and I knew it was going to happen,” she says.
“Several weeks later, I had an epiphany aftershock – a second wave: ‘I must take a donkey!’”
Hannah’s epiphany was inspired by a video she saw about a man leading a horse across the Sahara Desert. “The idea was that the donkey would carry my stuff, and heighten the social side of my walk. I figured people would come and say hi a lot more, and yes – they really did,” she explains. “I’d never owned an animal before – only a stick insect, and we weren’t a dream team – or spent any time with donkeys, but I told everyone to make sure I couldn’t back out.”
So, next step: finding the donkey. “People said I’d just know when I met the right one, and I doubted that – I’m not a ‘just know’ sort of person,” Hannah says.
But then, there he was, leaping at the gates as though saying come on, let’s go! “Chico’s whole demeanor just screamed ‘adventure donkey’,” she says. “It was only after I went to pick him up I realised how scared we were of each other. We were both pretty skittish – he was young, and I was scared of his hooves and teeth.”
Preparation for the 1000-mile walk didn’t go so smoothly. With all the difficulties buying Chico and making him a packsaddle, all other plans fell by the wayside. “I had time for one practice walk with him in the weeks before, which was such a terrifying disaster I almost gave up the whole plan,” Hannah says. “We left with a route planned for the first day, and accommodation for the first three nights. That was it – deep end. And it rained.”
Falling into the deep end is pretty common while travelling, though usually one isn’t splashing around with a stubborn donkey. “Chico doesn’t do stiles or kissing-gates,” she says. Just to clarify, there are over 900 of these on the coastal path and Offa’s Dyke, so Hannah often had to cobble together routes made of bridleways, forestry tracks, beaches, back roads, and even dual carriageways.
Moreover, Chico also decided he didn’t like hills. “On several days we spent hours and hours at the bottom of mountains he refused to climb. On days like that it was like being shackled to an immovable, unreadable anchor.”
Despite the occasionally cantankerous nature of her companion, Hannah recalls the trip with fondness. “With no fixed route or itinerary, we left ourselves completely open to meeting all sorts of interesting people and staying in some brilliant places, like a lighthouse, Hobbit house, and hay barns,” she says. “That was the whole point of the journey: I’m not a gone-before-dawn covert camper, nor am I a fastest-to-the-pole adventurer. This was about experiences, and I made sure there was plenty of time for those.”
Of course, this meant that days were incredibly diverse – once morning pack-ups were taken care of. “If I was wild camping with no one to chat to, no showering, and no chores to do, it would still take two hours to get the tent down, Chico fed, his corral dismantled and hooves checked, and everything packed and loaded onto him and me. We often didn’t get going until midday,” Hannah says. “The route would be dictated by energy levels, weather, and where we hoped to arrive.
“Sometimes this was an offer of accommodation that came via Facebook, or people passing us along to their friends. Sometimes I’d hear of a campsite, or find a spot on the map that looked hopeful for wild camping, like dunes or access land. I’d get there, make camp, and have a tea-and-brandy before falling asleep.”
After five and a half months, Hannah’s walk with her loyal donkey reached its end. “I can’t even blame Chico [for the delay – the trip was originally intended to take three months],” she says. “I’m sure he often could have walked further, but I was filming and writing notes, planning routes and meeting people – not to mention eating ice cream on beaches. All of those things take up a lot of time!”
No walking trip Hannah had ever taken in the past – coast-to-coast through Cumbria and Yorkshire, the West Highland Way through Scotland, and Hauge to Brussels – took longer than a fortnight. She always felt that only around the ten-day mark would things click into place, and she would feel like a “person who walks”.
“I always wanted to bust through that, and now I really have,” she says. “I didn’t once wish I wasn’t walking – that part was unreservedly brilliant.”
Naturally, it makes sense there would be some shock upon returning to normal life – even though Chico had managed to find himself a girlfriend in the process. “I was exhausted and terribly homesick for the outdoors. I went through a strange little period when I felt like I didn’t deserve the outdoors, if I wasn’t doing it properly,” Hannah explains. “Mostly I missed the sense of purpose that comes from travelling overland under your own steam; though, admittedly, it was exciting not to have to put shoes on to pee in the middle of the night!”
Despite her temporary funk, Hannah is putting her time back home to good use, launching a crowd funding campaign [ending January 29th] to raise money to make a film and write a book about the experience. “Promoting them has been a full-time job, and I’ve had such an amazing response,” Hannah says.
“I’m so looking forward to this most indulgent next phase: reliving the best six months of my life and putting it all into words.”
Fellow animal lovers and walking enthusiasts: are you mulling over your own similar endeavours? Getting started might be simpler than you think. “Chico was a bit complicated to organise, but everything else was astonishingly easy. My kit was mostly stuff I had already, and I saved very little,” Hannah says. “You don’t have to be fit – walk five miles a day and you’re still in a whole new place. You could quit your job on Friday, buy a map and sleeping bag on Saturday, and set off on Sunday.
“Just know most people are interesting and kind – Wales was full of kindness. Most rain passes, and most scary things aren’t so scary when you’re in the middle of them. Bodies are capable of more than their owners expect, and so – more importantly – are minds. Expect good things.”
Hannah is a travel writer and editor, and for the last decade she’s edited several outdoor magazines and websites, and written for many more. She had a funny turn and bought a donkey called Chico, who still tries to pretend he doesn’t like her much. Hopefully she’ll be an author soon – watch this space.