A MULE RIDE (1)

There was just the beginning of lightness in the sky and the shards of mist over the river and meadow were already whitening into luminosity when we came to the boundary of the Settlement. Nothing was visible for more than a few metres and the mules were tethered bridle to saddle so as to keep contact. Our voices were low and in the windless quiet only the sound of iron-shod hooves striking the rocky track and the jingling of bridles could be heard. As we climbed through the dense, enveloping ground mist to emerge from its blanketing covering and into the bright light of the early morning, first head and shoulders then, like swimmers from sea foam, we could see for the first time the mules on which we sat, and the ground under their feet. Ahead, the leading mules climbed upwards while the ones at the rear appear, one by one, into the dazzling light. Once clear of this mist we saw the top layer stretched in all directions to the valley hill-sides it was contained in, filling the lower ground. Above it the hill-sides were bathed in brilliant sunlight as the sun cleared each obstructing peak changing in an instance the vista from opaque grey to flowing whiteness.

When our group was all clear of the mist we halted, spontaneously, marvelling at the new World we had just entered with its feeling of lightness and freedom. Then we set our spurs to the mules’ sides and rode up the valley towards the encircling sierra ranged about us leaving behind the sea of rolling valley mist. The track ahead led in the direction of Lagoa Grande which lay about 50 klms. across the range of hills from our starting point in Nova Lima lying hidden beneath the mist. The four of us now urged on our mules, impatient to get a faster pace going, but the fifth rider, our guide, Joao, knew the pace to set for the long trek ahead and ignored the press behind him. John Trewellyn’s mount followed close behind the leading mule and John turned his head to the other riders with a wry smile when the gambit proved to be fruitless. Gerry Lee came behind John and Jean Dempster came next. I brought up the rear, a place I prefer if it is not possible to lead.

I had proposed and organised this ride. Joao was a muleteer from the Olaria stables and our objective was to ride to the large lake on the other side of the sierra and meet up there with the main party going by Company bus for a picnic at the Lake House.They would be setting off several hours after our start at 0630 hrs. and would be there when we arrived to share the picnic food they were taking. If all went well we would join them a little after midday and more than ready for something to eat. My three companions were the only ones to accept the challenge of this ride. My daily riding would enable me to cover the distance without difficulty but they would find it hard after the first two or three hours; but they had youth on their side and the views of the awesome range of hills now spread before our eyes would be compensation enough for the stiff and aching joints they would suffer after completing the journey.

The four of us were relative newcomers to the Gold Mining Company in the Brazilian Highlands and keen to discover more about the new land in which we found ourselves; still in our twenties or, in my case, the newest one to arrive and the oldest at thirty years, we exaulted in our youth, which we squandered unthinkingly and replenished unknowingly. We were the young Turks and knew our worth, but this sort of thinking evaporated very quickly when riding mule back across a Sierra. The motion bounces any such vainglorious preconceptions out of the arrogant young mind and calls for a more focussed view of life. It is calming once you have learned to adjust to the mule’s gait. One looks for something more personal, more together, more philosophical. The very act of being astride another animal in locomotion is both absurd and harmonious; it is a union of companionship between two of God’s creatures. I wondered what the others were thinking.

There was John Trewellyn up front, a laid-back leader, itching to spur ahead of the guide, Joao. John was a mining engineer from the Camborne School of Mines. He had come to Nova Lima over a year ago with his wide-eyed, glamourous new wife Joan, a bubbly, giggly girl who was shy underneath but also very determined, whereas John was quiet and reserved although he could change easily enough to riotous fun at party time. He had the casual firm integrity of a Cornishman, reasonable to the outside World until the edges of that integrity were invaded, and then his reaction would be solid but non-confrontational, and this was when one could see the strength of the man. He was dark-haired and as handsome as Joan was strikingly attractive. I liked them both , but John more than Joan; I could talk with him but Joan seemed to have little conversation. They deserved to be treated kindly by the World and whilst one can never tell of a couple in their twenties, if the bonds of sensuality and sexuality would evolve to later stages of eroticism and companionship; in these days we all expected our marriages to last and, if we thought about it at all, it was the expectation of remaining together until the separation of death.

Gerry Lee, the one following John was an accountant or, at least, he did an accountant’s job at the offices in Casa Grande. At one time and, for all I know it might still be possible to work as an accountant when one’s qualifications were, ‘non-qualified accountant.’ This absurdity was an example of the English dislike of qualifications, preferring as they did the gifted amateur syndrome. Apart from the profession of medical doctor it was possible in these days to work in most professions as a non-qualified member of that profession. There is a wealth of analysis possible when disentangling the English preference for learning on the job sooner than engage in prior training; it was a pragmatic acceptance that paper qualifications did not necessarily fit one more for a job than those without. This was a time before the Professional Institutions had gained an arm lock on commerce, banking, insurance, accountancy or even law and so it was possible to work as a non-qualified practitioner in many disciplines.

Whereas John was reserved with his opinions, Gerry was forward with his and liked discussions, when he argued his case relentlessly. I was his main protagonist and we would argue each other to a standstill, neither capitulating to the greater persuasiveness of the other’s point of view. I had come a long way since, as an 18 year old in the Air Force, trying to hold my own against the impeccable logic of Albert Witchlow, all to no avail. Now, against Gerry, the opinionated stubbornness was matched and the intellectual posturing concealed the search that each was on. I knew that Gerry and I saw the World through different prisms and it frustrated me at times to find no entry into his World, nor was I able to make him understand mine. We respected one another as far as fellow-seekers do and although there was no blending of views at any level, we were, surprisingly, more often allies than not within the Community. With Gerry’s wife Moira I could talk, enjoying her company and knowing she enjoyed mine. There was an Irish beauty in her eyes, and in her hair and even her voice although it must have gone back a generation or so. It was clear to me that she was Gerry’s show piece, allocated the role of embellisher to his conceit, while he played the role of talker and intellectual. Moira, unlike Gerry, had a sense of humour and the absurd, as well as a good, enquiring mind which she was discouraged by Gerry from using.

Jean Dempster, whose mule trod before Boston Stump, was flaxen-haired, slim and looked like a Hollywood version of an immaculate frontierswoman in her white, cotton shirt and Jodpurs. We learned Portuguese together with dona Cashilda. Jean’s youth and vivaciousness could capture many man’s interest, yet it was cuddly, old, rugged Harry Lowes who worshipped her and, to me, his was as innocent an attraction as any man could have for any woman. Jean flirted lightly but had strict views on decorum and behaviour and was capable of putting any man down in company if he strayed into regions she could not condone. Eric, her husband, another mining engineer and colleague of John was handsome in a weakly, boyish way and was as unlikely to take a firm line on any ethical point as jean was. He was for fun and to hell with the consequences and was shrewd enough, I thought, to take his chances in life and to come up roses.

I was sunk in a relaxed reverie, comfortable in my thoughts and my body, as one with the swaying hulk of Boston Stump as he picked his way, unerringly along the trail. The sun was warm and there was now only so much appreciation to be got from the scenic splendour all around us as we seemed to have become part of it, so I had lost myself in ruminating about the personalities of the people I rode with and their partners, while my beloved Ursula was in England awaiting the arrival of our first baby. It proved a pastime, endlessly satisfying to my introverted mood, induced as it was by the dynamic yet static act of riding; and so the time seemed to pass quickly. My watch showed that we might be about half way to our destination. Joao had halted ahead and I spurred Boston to a gallop in order to check with him. The track ahead narrowed and ran upwards to a precipitous climb and, at this very point, there was a sheer drop of several hundred feet on one side and a lesser drop on the other side but with ugly boulders as dangerous obstacles were a mule to slip. Joao asked me if the riders wanted to dismount and let him ride each mule along this hazardous stretch. I could see his point. One slip and it would be over the edge for mule and rider with awfully certain consequences.

John and Gerry said they would ride up and over the dangerous stretch but thought Jean should dismount and let the muleteer ride her mule over it. Jean pointed out that she had done a lot of horse riding in England and was far from being inexperienced. They said this wasn’t the same thing, but she declined the offered option, so I told Joao we would all take the ride. Relieved of any responsibility he merely said, ‘go fast; don’t stop. I will wait at the top’ and set his spurs to the side of his mule. As we watched and saw the mule digging its front legs into the incline and its hind legs lunging and scooping into the rocky ground for a firm purchase and Joao straining forward, while a cascade of small pieces of rock showered down into the drop below, it was as stark a demonstration as we could expect to see, of the dangers of riding over this neck of exposed track. The ascent had to be made in one dash; the mules straining and heaving into the climb. For one awful moment Gerry’s mule stopped half way up and started to slide backwards with eyes rolling wildly. We watched in mute-like silence but its survival instincts must have been strong enough; he splayed out his legs and bucked himself into a recovery and, with Gerry clinging on tightly was able to retrieve momentum and reach the top. It was Jean’s turn next and her mule made it in an ungainly flurry of hooves, a sight for any Hollywood director to envy. I set Boston hard at it and he flew at the slope with his powerful legs, scrambling up to the top in a performance that showed his fine metal. There was a strained and subdued jubilation as we all grouped together in the safety of the wider trail beyond this hazard. The way ahead opened out and we rode abreast telling each other of our feelings at the recent experience. In particular we wanted to know what Gerry had been thinking. There was more climbing to be done but nothing equal to what had just passed.

We had been riding for more than four hours when we came in sight of the plain below; Joao pointed to a speck of silver in the far distance and said, ‘Lagoa Grande.’ We were tired now but ruled out any idea of stopping to rest and so, for the next hour we leaned back in our saddles as the mules slithered downwards. When we reached the plain it seemed amazing to be riding on the level alongside trees and streams with no more vast views but a lot more security. We could not see how far we still had to go but felt we must be close and eased ourselves repeatedly in our saddles. As we emerged from some woods we came to the edge of the water, the speck of silver seen by us from the mountains, now close by was the great lake of Lagoa Grande. There was a further half hour to ride round one side to the end of our journey. The roof of a large house showed above a circle of high hedge and smoke from the chimney showed that cooking was in progress. Outside the hedge a game of rounders was being played and we saw people at the water’s edge who shouted and waved when they saw us. We urged the tired mules on to a last effort and dismounted to tread on soft, rough grass on uneasy legs. I felt the satisfaction of achievement battling with an aching weariness. ‘Hold on,’ I called out, ‘I want a photo of us.

1955