It’s a dog’s life in the Au­vergne

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - AN­DRO LIN­KLATER THE SPEC­TA­TOR

mer­rion­ 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.

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