Hendaye to Gabas
[extract from If you only walk long enough - exploring the Pyrénees]
On the third day, it is drizzling as I unlock the hotel door and let myself out.
Gainekoborda, near Ainhoa
Further on, through the woolly atmosphere, I can hear the hum of engines, and the grating sound of gravel against gravel as it is displaced by rubber tyres. The noise seems to get closer, pass in front of me, and then stops abruptly.
The cart track descends. I can smell diesel fumes and, coming out of the cloud, I see a collection of four-wheel drive vehicles parked at the pass. Half hidden behind them, a man shouts something unintelligible in Basque. Murmured replies, then silence. A rustling, a metallic squeak, and then the plaintive bleating of a sheep, taken up by innumerable other ovine voices. I am greeted by the lanolin smell of wet fleece, and the nauseous stench of trampled sheep dung.
There are four small wooden-fenced pens, partly hidden under the oak trees. Two are full to bursting point with a heaving mass of discontented sheep, one is completely empty, and one contains three trestle tables. Before each makeshift operating table stand two men, each holding a vicious looking instrument in one hand. In front of each man on the table is a sheep, its four feet tied together at the ankles, resigned, as yet uncomplaining. The apron of the man who seems to be in charge is still a pristine white.
I walk up to the enclosure and say ‘bonjour’. The foreman replies, also in French. There are 200 sheep he tells me, and the seven men will take all day to deal with them. Behind him the men start snipping, one hand holding a sheep by the ear, the other holding the shears, biting into the fleece. The first sheep has just been finished. As soon as its legs are untied it slithers off the table and is shown to the awaiting empty pen. It shrugs its shoulders, waggles its rear quarters, and skips off like a lamb.
The foreman passes me the shears to look at: a strip of iron bent into a U-shape with opposing blades at the terminals. Squeeze the U and the blades cross and cut. Release the pressure and the blades spring apart. They are identical to shears that I have excavated on archaeological sites in Britain. They reached technical perfection in the Iron Age, over 2000 years ago, and have not evolved since.
The workers are systematic and quietly efficient but at fewer than 30 sheep a day each they will not go down in history books. The world record holder, New Zealander Darin Forde, sheared 720 ewes in a day – using electric shears, naturally.
‘We also treat them for diseases and ticks,’ says the foreman, showing me a freshly exposed backside where the ticks are feasting. He slaps a dollop of noxious, sticky, black tar on them and smears it around.
‘It’s now and in July that the ticks start to attack so we have to treat them before it gets too bad.’
If the ticks are bad for sheep, they can be even worse for people. In 1989, my friend Gaby had a nasty bout of influenza. His temperature rose and he ached all over.
‘One day I noticed that I didn’t have any sensations in my left foot. It was like a lump of lead dangling off the end of my leg. I went to my GP and he asked me if I had been bitten, if I had noticed any sore patches.’
Gaby had been walking. He remembered a bite and the subsequent rash.
‘The ambulance came to fetch me straight away. The doctor at the hospital took some blood samples and came back a couple of hours later. I asked him “Is it bad?” and he replied “We’ll try to save you.” “What are my chances?” I said. “Better than 50%” he replied.’
The paralysis spread. At its worst, the only thing which he could move was his head, but he did make a full recovery.
Ticks, the temperate-climate equivalent of mosquitoes, carry Lyme disease. It has a variety of symptoms ranging from a rash and fever through numbness, arthritis, and encephalitis to cardiac problems, so sufferers can find themselves branded as hypochondriacs. It has been around for millennia but the symptoms are so diffuse that it was not identified until the 1970s. In France, the Pasteur Institute estimates that there are 5000 cases every year, only the drier coast of the Mediterranean escaping.
‘Do you have problems with Lyme disease?’ I ask the sheep shearer.
‘Not here. I’ve never heard of anybody round here catching it,’ he replies blithely.