11. The Farmyard

In keeping with my dream of having animals on the farm, I started the farmyard with assorted ducks, geese, and chickens. These lived in the big hoenderhok, which eventually became our Pavilion. I must say we enjoyed this noisy unruly brood, and were especially happy to have fresh, daily eggs with bright yellow yolks.

Next came three Cameroon goats whom we named Mabel, Myrtle, and Marigold, who turned out to be sensitive, intelligent and feisty creatures. Mabel, in fact, became a Malmesbury celebrity. Injured by our German Shepherd Ziggy, she was taken to the vet, fro, where she returned physically mended, but clearly still traumatized. We left her at the vet, and next thing we saw on the front page of the weekly newspaper a large picture of our Mabel in the grassy field at the back of the surgery. A few days later, the vet phoned us to say that someone had seen Mabel’s picture and wanted to take her. Would we mind? We were greatly relieved.

Some five years later, after the inexplicable death of Marigold, Myrtle became severely depressed, sitting under a bush and refusing to eat. We decided we needed to find her a companion, and visited the farm of a woman who was selling off her Cameroon goats. And blow me down if it wasn’t Mabel sitting right there in a field. So Mabel returned to the farm, and happily kept a quickly recovered Myrtle company for the next ten years. We eventually acquired a third goat called Charlie, who had, unbelievably, been raised in a flat in Malmesbury, but, not surprisingly, had become too difficult to handle. We quickly had him castrated so that he wouldn’t make a pile of baby goats.

After the goats there came twin hanslammeties (lamb orphans) looking for a home after their mother had died in childbirth. These we named Baahbara and Lambertus, the latter after Lambertus Basson from whose farm they had come. Baahbara and Lammie had to be bottle fed six-hourly for a number of weeks, but fortunately we had two Dutch volunteers here at the time who were very enamored of them, and agreed to do the feeding.

First donkeys Bella Rupert and Talula
First donkeys: Bella, Rupert, and Talula

For a while this was the state of play in the farmyard, until I acquired my first donkey, Bella. Bella lived next door, and I had seen her, not yet fully grown, being beaten by the farm manager’s son. I stopped at the farm the next day and confronted both the manager and his son. They were extremely rude, saying they owned the donkey and therefore it was their right to beat her. I there and then offered to buy her, to which they agreed. Bella remained terrified of people for a long time, only many years later coming up to us to receive her treats. Donkeys are very sensitive, much maligned creatures, and they never forget a wrong done them. They also refuse to be commandeered. My donkey book says that a horse you can command, but a donkey you have to negotiate with. This is quite true, and it is interesting that in Africa it is women who, by and large, train donkeys.

Of course, having just one donkey was no good. We needed a companion for her. We put out feelers and heard of a farmer in the area wanting to sell an adult female donkey. A week later he arrived with the donkey on the flatbed of a truck, but as she came down the ramp, there appeared just behind her a woolly little bundle that was her foal. “Sorry,” the farmer said, “She wouldn’t move without her baby.” So that is how we acquired Rupert, the long-haired donkey, who, from the start, was a real character. While his mother, who we named Talula, was uncertain around people, Rupert had never received bad treatment from anybody, and he was nosy and pushy and pranced about delightfully on stiff little legs. He was so woolly that for months you couldn’t see his eyes, and we worried that he would end up blind. There is nothing in the world quite like a baby donkey.

The fact is, I love everything about donkeys. The way they look and the way they smell, the small sounds they make as they eat, and the big squeaky gate sound they make when they call. I love their liquid eyes, sensitive ears, and their velvet muzzles, Most of all, I love their gentleness.

Some fifteen years after we got our three donkeys, we acquired three more plus a horse. The horse had bone chips in his pasterns (wrists), from carting wood when he was too young. The donkeys we named Jemima, Charlotte, and Oscar, and the horse came with the name Starz, for the bright white star on his forehead. We soon had Starz castrated, but we were too late. Unbeknownst to us, he had impregnated Talula. Imagine our surprise when she dropped her foal quite unexpectedly. This foal was rather special. The offspring of a male donkey and a female horse is called a mule, and the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey is called a hinny. Hinnies are incredibly rare. We named our hinny, Winny, and she is a beautiful creature with clear donkey and horse features and her father’s white star on her forehead. Needless to say, like our goats, our equine herd lives purely for pleasure—theirs and ours.