Monday, 15 October 2012

Travels with a donkey

BOOM— a plume of water shot 50ft. into the air. Kelly beamed all over his face. BOOM —the second depth charge went off. Kelly's beam turned black as the expected trout failed to surface.
"Not enough gelignite," explained Kelly as he rummaged through the back of the transit for his two cardboard boxes containing a hundredweight of high explosive. The third explosion of atomic proportions was curtailed however, as the brush around us swayed and parted revealing a large and heavily armed portion of the Greek Army completely surrounding our strategic position on the bridge.

I suppose, in retrospect, they had a good reason to capture us; it was probably a mite thoughtless of Kelly to start dropping bombs off a crucial bridge in the military border area between right-wing Greece and lefter-than-left Albania. The other problem was that Kelly was a bandit and looked more like a bandit than most bandits. A week earlier he had disappeared into the dusty, crumbling heart of Ioannina, a mountain-backed military town in northern Greece, with five bottles of whisky. Several hours later he returned grinning all over his bandit-ridden face with a large cardboard box full of gelignite under each arm, forged permission to enter the military zone in his teeth and two full bottles of whisky still in his pockets.

Again the whisky came to Kelly's rescue, though I suspect the cavalry commander was still unconvinced that everyone in Britain fishes that way. Several hours later we were high in the Timfi d' Oros range at the drivable limit of our van, which I thought was pushing it a bit, but then it wasn't really our van (Kelly had hired it in Salford for the day, three weeks earlier, to move his granny's effects from Dukinfield to New Mills). I actually suspect it was the first time a vehicle larger than a bull donkey had been sighted in the tiny cluster of huts that was Upper Papignon.

Here Kelly produced a sawn-off shotgun; he had vowed back in New Mills that its sole purpose was to shoot the choughs that flew about the top of the pothole we were to descend, loosening rocks on those below. Now, however, he used it effectively to round up all the village donkey drivers so that we could get our ton of gear transported up the mountain. It's a strange thing about donkey drivers that what fits exactly on one man's twelve donkeys will also fit perfectly well on another man's two donkeys, which are of course cheaper.

With a kind of friendly prodding action with his shotgun Kelly. put me in charge of donkey management because of my previous experience. (I should perhaps mention here that the experience in question consisted of having a father who had once owned a donkey for a few months before it drank the half gallon of bright blue paint that he'd put in its field, with which to paint the fence.)
We hired and paid a Greek who promised us eight stout donkeys for the trip. The following morning he arrived with four things that resembled tatty Alsatians and a fifth animal with one ear and a splint on its back leg.

The Greek proceeded to load the animals with me supervising while the others went off to get drunk. The technique was quite simple—load the animals up with mountains of gear until their legs buckled and they collapsed, then remove one item of equipment and kick the donkey as hard as possible in its knackers to raise it to its feet again. It was barely possible to see the donkey beneath the mounds of ropes, ladders and recently ex-army tents but off they staggered, driven forwards by a sharp 'thwack' on their private parts with a specially designed 'donkey thwacker' that all hill Greeks carry.

The donkeys collapsed at regular intervals up the hill, sometimes never to rise again, until the donkey man stopped at the halfway stage, surveyed the hillside strewn with gear, dynamite and dead donkeys and said that enough was enough, that was as far as he went. The rest of the expedition was boring—carry all the gear up a mountain, carry it all down a hole, bring it out again, carry it down the mountain and so on: exactly the kind of boring repetitive stuff you read in expedition books. It was on the way back that my interest in the world about was rekindled, I suppose.

She was in the van when we got back from the orchard we had found miles from anywhere as we crossed the Pindus Mountains. We all piled into the back, trousers and shirts spilling oranges and peaches everywhere, and were screaming off down the road before we had even noticed the beautiful, diminutive sunburnt girl sitting amongst our gear.

"Who the fuck are you?" snarled Kelly graciously.
"Elizabeth," was the gentle reply, then as an afterthought, "and I like screwing." She smiled a beckoning Californian smile at everyone but me, about whom she was obviously reserving judge­ment. Kelly's black eyes bulged as she unwrapped her only luggage, a sort of coloured tea-towel containing a full two-pound block of hashish.

The expedition drifted aimlessly and happily homeward along an undetermined and certainly illogical route as the block of happiness diminished. Somewhere in southern Yugoslavia occurred the 'Kelly and the Giant Melon' incident. Admittedly I don't remember too much about it, although I do recall being a central character; I was still rather dazed from lack of blood and the shock of seeing Kelly auctioning two pints of my rhesus positive in the streets of Thessaloniki to pay for my share of the petrol.

The van screeched to a halt, the dust and daze subsiding to reveal a large field containing a large central melon. "Get it," said Kelly. As I staggered towards the melon the field got bigger and bigger and the melon began to grow. Even before I'd reached the giant, the peasants in bullock carts were beginning to take an interest in our activities. Once there the first thing that was immediately obvious, was that I couldn't even lift the thing. I beckoned for help but by the time we were struggling across the field fumbling with a melon nearly a yard wide the peasants were after us. More help! Kelly came and we ran for the vehicle, heaving the giant into the back as the show made a flying getaway.

An hour later we stopped to eat the prize; the knife wouldn't cut it and a saw only managed to win a small piece. It tasted awful but we were determined to eat it. Then Frank, the Daily Express man who was exceptionally clever, came back from the front for a look at the yellow giant.
One night the team visited a disco in Spittall; I couldn't go because they'd spent all my blood money on petrol, so I stopped behind in the van. A few minutes later the girl returned with a bottle for me. She edged hesitantly closer, letting her shift slide off.

"I'd like to screw a queer." Who was I to argue? It transpired that Kelly, after he'd had his turn, had told her not to bother with me because I was homosexual and consequently wasn't interested in women. At last I had the last laugh. Four years later I found myself in a similar situation, living 11,000ft. up in the Zagros mountains of Persia amongst the Kurds (spelt with a K, not a t). Again we were caving and I was penniless. but we had a leader who was the antithesis of Kelly; Judson was such a low-profile leader that most of us never met him until the expedition was half over.

I had been in the advance party dumped by bus in the desert town of Kermanshah, a genuine dust bowl hell-hole. The rest of the party were to follow when the food and other survival gear arrived by Land Rover. Our problem in the advance party of four was quite simple; We had to get half-a-ton of caving gear from Kermanshah across 20 miles of desert to a Kurdish settlement, hire donkeys to get the gear to the cave entrance at 11,000ft. and ladder up the cave. Without food or money.

The first problem seemed a bit daunting how to get the gear across the desert to the Kurds' donkeys? A promised helicopter, as expected, failed to arrive. Standing on the central island of a short dual carriageway leading out of the town, Glyn, the expedition poet from Dukinfield (I know, that's what I thought) had a brainwave. He just held out his hand and a taxi stopped.
We pointed at the four of us, the half ton of gear, then at the desert. The taxi driver beamed in Arabic and began dementedly throwing our gear into the taxi then persuaded us to climb in after.

"It's not a melon," he screamed with delight, "it's a bleeding pumpkin!" Somewhere in the middle of a road in southern Yugo­slavia there probably still lies 9810 of a giant, uneatable pumpkin. By the time Austria came I began to ponder why I wasn't getting my share of Elizabeth and why Kelly was getting more than his. It wasn't that she ignored me, she just observed with a strange look from a distance.  We had just over 9p between us; we thought it only fair to show this to the driver first, then just wait and see how far down the road to the desert this would take us.

Minutes later we were at the roadhead with ten miles of pure desert between us and the Kurds' tents. Instead of stopping our beaming driver careered off the road into the desert with dust, sand and sagebrush flying everywhere. That taxi went in a dead straight line for ten miles over sand, dry streambeds, rocks, camel skeletons and the like to drop us at the Kurdish encampment. Off went Abdul in a cloud of dust with his 9p, beaming all over his face.

The donkeys were there, dozens of them all controlled by one impudent little twelve-year-old Kurd and his younger sister. He was very efficient, leading all the donkeys up the crag-littered mountain flank on his own after tying them all together. He tied a short rope from one donkey on to the tail of the next one and so on. This Whymper-like arrangement was to have disastrous consequences later.
This little Kurd tried to swap his sister for my Swiss Army knife, then when that didn't work he upped his offer to his sister and a donkey. I didn't go much for that either so he stole it from me.
Well, the caving ended uneventfully with little of interest happening, apart from a ten-foot-long mountain leopard jumping over John and Colin as it passed them going the opposite way on a knife-edge limestone ridge at night (what either party were doing there at that time is a complete mystery to me).

The donkeys returned for the trip down, were loaded up and tied together. At the very top of the steep south flank of the mountain the donkey Kurd decided to take a short cut across a smooth limestone slab. One donkey fell and another six went with it, donkeys and our gear strewing themselves down over hundreds of feet of hillside. The Great Donkey Disaster left much of our gear and several dead donkeys on that hillside for ever, but the Kurds kept beaming all over their faces.
Returning to Kermanshah there only remained the most danger­ous part of the expedition for me, the final meal out and booze up. It was here that Caver X made his first series of attempts to murder me. (I should explain here that he was not without motive, I did owe him £5.36 for the expedition insurance cover).

Mister X took the expedition to a desert village mealhouse in theLand Rover and we ate and got plastered. This in itself was quite dangerous—to drink at all in these orthodox Muslim areas was risking being stormed by the Arabs, though we felt fairly safe in numbers.Having taken us out there Mister X decided he wasn't taking me back, but would leave me to the glaring Arabs around. I didn't fancy this so when the Land Rover set off I jumped on to the roof rackHalfway back I couldn't resist hanging down over the wind­screen and peering in at Mister X.

He was furious and immediately drove off the road into a forest of low  trees in an attempt to sweep me off the roof; too drunk to argue, I got off, only to grab the towing ball on the back as I saw how close the Arabs were getting. You should try hanging on a greasy ball with your backside bouncing off the desert in the middle of nowhere, being chased by hordes of stone-throwing Arabs.I survived, but I nearly succumbed in another assassination attempt a  week later. I was sure I was in dire need of antibiotics; X, however, had padlocked the medicine chest to induce me to die. Having broken in in the dark, I gobbled half a bottle of painkillers by mistake.......I don't think they did me any permanent damage.
Pete Livesey

First Published in Crags 1971