It’s a dog’s life in the Auvergne
merrioncharles.com THE homicidal sheepdog that launched itself at me from behind a grassy hillock had the look of a demented hearth rug but the fangs of a leopard.
No self-respecting border collie would take such a creature as a serious competitor in the herding business, but French sheep are different, at least those in the unfenced wilderness of the Aubrac plateau in the Massif Central.
More goat than sheep, they evidently regarded the ferocious dog as a minder that allowed them to graze full-time while it saw off wolves, bears and other predators, including a pink-faced randonneur trying to decide whether the map had put a volcano in the wrong place or he was indeed lost.
I leapt backwards, apparently far enough to satisfy the rug that I was no longer a threat.
Those teeth were the most dispiriting spectacle of my walk through the Auvergne. The most inspiriting was a vast view of velvet-green volcanoes curving out from the base of the Puy de Sancy when I was halfway to its 1800m summit. But the pleasure of wilderness walking goes deeper. Mostly it comes from the stillness of moving through the countryside at 5km/h, a speed that empties the mind of all its clutter and is certainly the maximum intended for humanity by God.
But its essence is distilled into the moment of bliss and terror when you realise you are lost. Everything then depends on how well heart, brain and feet work together. Exhilaration remains long after the fright has gone.
On this reckoning, the mountainous country of the Auvergne is a jewel beyond price. Although there are tracks through it, it is vast and empty enough to meet the fundamental criterion of wilderness walking.
About an hour after I had left the sheepdog behind, I came to a stone farmhouse where another stood barking. The ancient farmer who came out had a face that wasn’t so much wrinkled by the Auvergne weather as corrugated. The sheep were his, and the dog I’d seen was the mother of this one. ‘‘ Elle est du bon coeur,’’ he said, explaining she was a Basque sheepdog, accustomed to guarding sheep by herself, and would certainly have attacked had I approached closer. He and the dogs were all that remained of the community in the area.
The cretins in Paris had made it illegal to shoot wolves, and even bears were encouraged to breed.
It is a useful attribute on the Aubrac plateau, for walkers and shepherds alike, to be of bon coeur.