Tails on the Trail – a vet’s stories from the road

Travelling opens the door to synchrony and serendipity. Instant rapport and intense connections can blossom with strangers newly met, regardless of the perceived barriers of race, gender, culture, religion – or species.

On the last day of a two month South American trip, Dorian was looking for a leafy hollow where he could finally lay to rest his leather hiking boots. For a decade they had served him well on extensive treks around the world but the last few weeks hiking in Argentina had finally proved too much.

It was a sunny yet crisp spring day as he left the outskirts of San Martin de los Andes. Two dogs bounded into view, following him as he stepped onto a dirt track. He eyed them warily. Street dogs in South America have a reputation of bailing up lone hikers and these two were large enough to pose a potential threat. But they seemed more intent on play, wrestling and chasing each other around the trees and across the field. Dorian watched them for a while then resumed his search. A little way off the track he found a grassy hollow beneath a boulder at the edge of a forest. It was the perfect resting place and a fitting tribute to a faithful old pair of hiking boots. Carefully positioning them side by side he placed a yellow wildflower in each boot and reflected on the wild and beautiful landscapes they had trod.Retracing his steps back to the path, Dorian found the dogs were still at play but as he passed them the larger of the two suddenly broke away, staring intently at him. Then, slowly wagging his tail, he trotted up to Dorian and fell into step beside him. He was a stocky black and tan cross-breed with a short thick coat and looked to be in great health. Entering town, Dorian patted the big dog’s head in farewell, expecting him to lope off home but street after street, the dog kept close to his side. Occasionally, he felt a wet muzzle nudge his hand and, glancing down, he was met with a pair of large brown eyes fixed adoringly on his face. Clearly, his shadow had no intention of leaving anytime soon. He seemed a good-natured sort but with only a few hours to go until his bus out of town Dorian’s time was limited and he didn’t want to encourage the dog to stray from his home.

Entering a cafe, he sat down at a table while the proprietor shooed the dog out the door. For a while a pair of limpid brown eyes stared at him through the window but after coffee, cake, and an hour or so, the coast seemed clear. Briskly now, Dorian strode towards his hotel but as he approached the end of the street, a familiar figure tore around the corner, careened past him, skidded to a halt, then doubled back with a look of sheer joy on his face.

“Something just clicked,” Dorian told me later. “And I’m sure that dog thought of me as his soul-mate. Had I lived in Argentina I would have taken him home.”

Instead, he was about to leave the country.

The besotted canine trotted beside him and waited at the front of the hotel while he packed his bags. When the taxi arrived the dog jumped onto the back seat and Dorian had to gently but insistently push him out of the cab. But as the taxi drove off, the dog began barking frantically and ran after the vehicle. The taxi driver turned quizzically to Dorian who could only shrug helplessly. Even had they shared a common language, how to explain that for some unfathomable reason and despite differences in culture and species that Argentinian dog had fallen in love at first sight.

A dog’s love is absolute and unconditional but not all connections are as intense and bittersweet.

On my first assignment for Lonely Planet, researching Basilicata in Southern Italy, Tundra and I found ourselves lost in the labyrinthine streets of Matera. We were captivated by the city’s primitive beauty and its famous sassi – the unique cave-dwellings inhabited since Neolithic times that sprawled below the rim of a yawning ravine like a giant nativity scene. But the confusing network of streets had us jokingly wish for a handsome Italian guide. Fabio would be suave, of course, with a becoming dash of European arrogance. Now, having twice traipsed a network of narrow lanes and alleyways only to loop back onto the same road, I would have settled for a GPS and a decent map. Although the tourist map showed the major avenues, many streets and thoroughfares were unmarked. Frustrated, I searched for a street-sign while Tundra snapped a few photographs. A dog, lying comfortably across a ledge on the terrace above, watched us for a while then lazily got to his feet, stretched, and picked his way carefully down the steep slope to the road.

He was a handsome dog, a large mixed-breed with perky ears and a shaggy coat. I wondered if he was a stray like the many cats that lived in the sassi but he looked too well-fed, if a bit unkempt. He waited patiently as Tundra snapped his picture then padded slowly down the middle of the road, his rump and tail swaying rhythmically as he walked. After a dozen or so paces he stopped and peered back at us over his shoulder. The command in his pose was so clear we both laughed.

“What are you waiting for?” his stance seemed to imply. “Follow me.”

Which is exactly what we did. Tossing the map aside we followed our unconventional guide through a zigzag network of narrow passages, laneways and alleys, down uneven stone steps and through tiny piazzas. Every now and then he stopped to wait, or loped ahead to reappear sphinx-like on a terrace above, allowing us time to take photographs, absorb the view and appreciate the abandoned cave-dwellings. But when he set off again he would take a few steps, pause, and peer expectantly over his shoulder. As soon as we followed, he maintained a sedate pace but if we tried to catch up with him he trotted ahead. It was clear he took his guiding role seriously.

Eventually, he led us to a large piazza where the cave-dwellings had been renovated into cosy homes and artisans shops. Ignoring the well-dressed Italians gathering for the evening passagiata he padded across the square with a proprietorial air, curled up on the warm stones beside an open door and lay his head on his front paws. Again, the message was clear; guiding duties were over for the day. I looked around. Amazingly, I recognized where we were and, somehow, our canine friend knew this. Or maybe, in some egocentric doggy logic, he thought all roads led to his piazza.

Tundra and I exchanged amused glances. We had found Fabio – a little shorter, a little scruffier than expected – but undoubtedly a handsome Italian, with just a dash of arrogance.

The guide dog in Morocco was far less suave but far more endearing.

Half way through a gruelling 500 kilometre adventure race across the country, we were trekking through the High Atlas Mountains, a barren and rocky landscape cut by steep canyons and fast flowing rivers. Sleep deprivation, hunger and physical hardship had taken a toll, and tension between the four of us had steadily eroded our team camaraderie. We spoke little and moved slowly.

I don’t even know when the skinny dog appeared but suddenly he was there, sometimes padding along beside us, sometimes trailing behind, but always at a distance safe from the reach of a tossed rock or thrown stick. I guessed he came from one of the Berber villages and, from his wary manner, that he belonged to no-one. When we stopped to sleep, well after dark, I glimpsed a pale shadow beyond the reach of my headtorch. The night was cold and he was curled tight against the bitter wind. He seemed so forlorn – a hungry, homeless and lonely dog – that despite my dwindling food supplies I tossed him an energy bar. After his initial fright he wolfed it down. Then, still from the safety of the shadows, he slowly wagged his tail.

The next morning all reservations were gone. The gift of food had unleashed a flood of trust and friendship that must have been a chronic and unfulfilled ache in the skinny dog’s heart. Tongue lolling, tail wagging, he skittered and skipped around us, overjoyed whenever one of us whistled him over for a rough pat and a belly rub. It seemed he couldn’t get enough attention or affection. All day he followed us, often trotting along in the lead with his tail held high and proud like a self-appointed team mascot. His open devotion and delight in our company was touching. That night when he curled up contentedly beside me I felt his weight shift the tension in the air. He was a funny-looking mountain dog, an unloved stray, but his purity of heart mended the cracks in our team.

Next morning, eager to be involved in our every activity, he poked his nose into our helmets and sniffed our harnesses as we geared up for the canyoneering leg. Abseiling down deep gorges in the mountainside meant we had to part ways with our new best friend.

He watched, puzzled, as one by one we each disappeared down the abseil rope. Suddenly realizing we were leaving he began yipping in frustration. I stopped a few metres into the canyon and looked up. He was prancing on the rock ledge searching desperately for a way down. Tears pricked the back of my eyelids. I felt sorry to cause him such anguish but there was nothing we could do. We had a race to finish, and homes in far-off countries. Yet as we moved further and further down the canyon his mournful howls echoed long after we passed out of hearing.

Later, back in Marrakech, we learned the rest of his story. The next team to reach the canyoneering leg found the skinny dog on the same rocky ledge, staring fixedly into the gorge. I knew he was waiting for our return. Although apprehensive at the arrival of the strangers he was unwilling to leave his look-out post and kept a wary distance as they geared up for the descent. Before the team finished preparations a curious Berber villager and his young son appeared out of nowhere. During the ensuing conversation the Berber man abruptly whirled around in agitation, searching for the whereabouts of his son who had wandered off. He was mentally retarded, the father explained, and had to be watched carefully around cliff edges. Panic gave way to relief when he spied the boy laughing and playing with the skinny dog; then to amazement as it became obvious the dog’s gentle nudging was a deliberate act, guarding the boy from getting too close to the rim of the canyon. Seeing the joy on his son’s face, the Berber thoughtfully stroked his chin. When he left, the man clicked his fingers and beckoned the stray to follow. The dog did so without hesitation, his tail pumping madly whenever the boy reached down to stroke his head.

Spontaneous connections made in minutes can change destinies. If that unloved stray hadn’t connected with us to begin with he would not have been waiting on that rocky ledge poised to connect with the boy that would change his life. It was synchrony at work and the perfect ending for our little mascot.


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