After what has seemed like an eternity, last week I finally got out on the road with a flock of Romanian sheep. I was in Salaj judet, also known by its traditional name of Tara Silvaniei, in the Eastern Carpathian foothills about 200 km north of the home farm. The ewes, rams and now their lambs had been over-wintering here since November. They were about to start their six-week trek across the Transylvanian plateau back to the Cindrel Massif.
Though it was not nearly as bad as in eastern Romania, there was a lot of snow here in January and February. Apart from the rare treat of a shower and a change of clothes, the shepherds had lived outside day and night during most of that period.
My host was the 29 year old Ghita, a nickname for Gheorghe, and together with three hired shepherds and at least 1000 animals (including ten dogs, and six donkeys which carried our food and other equipment) I walked with him for six days at the start of his spring transhumance.
By the time I arrived on 30th March the snow had long gone; it had left no visible traces except deep cracks in the pastures, and was no help to the grass at all. The hills were dun-coloured but during the week I was there, willows began to flower like ghosts materialising in a pale yellow mist. Yellow, orange and red dogwood branches stood out against the brown and the apple trees were full of mistletoe. It too was in flower; some of it glowing with acid yellow florets. In the woods a solitary orchid known as The Monk poked beautiful pink and blue petals and toxic looking leaves above thick carpets of dead oak leaves.
The sky was often overcast but even then, the landscapes were magnificent: we wandered in large loops over land that varied from ploughed strips to burnt stubble, from marshy valley bottoms to sturdy young forests through which the sun, if it shone, made dappled shadows on the bronze coloured leaf mulch. We walked on soil that varied from chalk white to dark chocolate with amazing shades of ochre, rust and pink in between. No wonder they call Romania a land of milk and honey. Pity about the guys at the top though.
At night we slept around a campfire – or rather I did; the others took it in turns to keep watch throughout the night in case of wolves, robbers and other threats, and they got very little sleep at all. Catnaps during the day were the only chance they had to catch up on shuteye. I began to understand the typical stance of a Romanian shepherd as he leans on his bata (staff); he may well be dozing on his feet.
Having spent so much time trying to join a transhumant flock when the time came I wasn’t ready for it. Like a new army recruit, I had to fall in with the shepherds’ routine or lump it: if I overslept my covers were yanked off me unceremoniously. We set off at 6 or 6.30 am – later on it would be earlier – and kept walking with very short breaks until 8 or 9pm. No breakfast, not even coffee. A slurp of water if we had the chance. We were lucky if we got a mid-day meal – don’t expect room service on transhumance and do take hard rations! But what did I expect: this was a serious enterprise and there was no room for slackers. With Ghita, his sheep’s needs came first, last, and much of the way in between.
So much happened during the eight days I spent with Ghita and his crew that I haven’t had time to absorb it. What follows is an extract from the end of my trip, which I was tempted to with the end of Hardy’s The Return of the Native, which I read just before coming to Romania. But Egdon Heath is a poor substitute for upland Salaj.
After months without rain, on Friday, the fifth day of our walk, skies darkened. It had been scorching since 10.30am but around 3pm scowling clouds gathered right overhead, promising a dramatic change. I was grabbing a rest on a steep hillside while watching Ghita separate his flocks into two groups, so that the strongest animals would be in one lot and the weakest in another. Catching sight of the black smudge overhead he gave a shout and did a little triumphal dance. He was desperate for wet stuff.
Ghita wasn’t disappointed. Within 15 minutes the premature summer had vanished and we were in the midst of a tremendous storm. We had the full works – thunder that rolled and crashed like Kudu drums and lightning that rent the heavens like tearing silk. And with depressing speed everything I had on was drenched – it had been so hot in the morning that I’d packed my waterproofs deep in a donkey bag. There was no time to dig them out: the shepherds couldn’t take time off to dress and we had to keep moving for the sheep’s sake. And did they move. I trudged after them in my squelching boots and the men in varying degrees of stoicism and misery, trying to help keep the seething mass of fleeces on legs to a path we could control without preventing them from getting the nutrition they wanted. Not for the first time I wondered what the hell I was doing here. It was 9pm before Ghita found an appropriate place to camp. We had to have water to cook with and although there was plenty falling on us, potable water wasn’t easy to collect. And still the rain came, interrupted every three or four minutes by drum rolls and flashes that forked the sky. Some were so close they made our faces go as pink as blushing girls.
After ‘parking’ the flock in a dell surrounded by oak and beech woods – squint at it, and it could have been in rural Leicestershire – all ten dogs exploded into paroxysms, and shot off into the dusk. Iosif (40) and Andrei (22) were closest to me at the time, and they shouted one word, ‘Lupi!’ (Wolves). Gripping their staffs they both disappeared in pursuit of the noise while I stayed close to the solitary oak tree we had chosen to sleep under.
The sheep, still divided into two separate groups were within 50 yards of each other, as close as they could be without getting mixed up. They were remarkably unmoved, I thought, scanning them with my torch. I was rewarded with the reflections of 1500 pairs of eyes fixed like green stars in the black night. But although they stayed put, their bleats showed that they were on red alert.
Somehow, with all the alarms and excursions, someone managed to gather wood for a fire, get it going and make food in the smoke-blackened cauldron.
Wolves and rain apart, I was in turmoil over the animals’ welfare. I never knew how the men would react to the suffering of the creatures they had in their charge, fearing their cruelty but as often as not, witnessing deep and immediate compassion. On one of his excursions away from the flock, Ghita had brought a cojoc for me because I had said I was cold at night. Tonight the heavy sheepskin cloak was needed elsewhere: one of the ewes had lost nearly all her fleece during the winter and he carried her to the fireside in his arms, flung the cojoc around her and a plastic sheet on top of that. For the next two hours she sat there, invisible in her tent except for her breathing which came steadily more easily; we could see she was still alive by the plastic rising and falling.
Cries of ‘wolf’ continued for the next two to three hours and meanwhile it was still pouring. Hugging the fire as though it were a lifebelt as well as the only way to dry my sodden clothes, at one point Iosif nudged my shoulder, ‘Lup la deal’ (‘A wolf, up there on the hill.’) I searched the gloom in the direction he pointed to. ‘Uita acolo, nu vezi?’ But I didn’t see it. My glasses were dripping – forget contact lenses! – and the only shape I could make out was a moving something a hundred yards away; it might have been a wolf or a figment.
The scare continued all night and I was the only with time to doss down: every few minutes the dogs broke out into another uproar and the night sky was bright with the crossbeams of four powerful head torches. They were like antiaircraft lights but no-one was going to sound an all clear.
For most of that night, Ghita was nowhere to be seen: he was rushing around, checking and rechecking the sheep. At 1.20 am while I was buried in my bivvi trying to be oblivious, Marcel, a 14 year old Rrom who had run away from school to become a shepherd, raced from the woods to the fire screaming, ‘A luat un magar!’ (It’s taken a donkey!’ It hadn’t; one of the donkeys had either slipped over or was rolling.) Ghita was furious; his stress levels were at breaking point. That night more than any other we felt the lash of his tongue. He was like a captain at sea in a hurricane.
I might have dropped off peacefully after that but for the aforementioned Marcel who at 2.10 am yelled right in my ear, ‘Tanti, tanti, umbla ursi!!!’ (‘Auntie, auntie, there are bears about!!!’). There weren’t of course – we were too low down – but I didn’t know that and his electrifying news got me out of bed in seconds flat. That was the last zizz I had till morning.
No sheep were lost to wolves but during the downpour one of the ewes slipped down a steep bank into a stream and drowned. Marcel and I found her in the morning by chance while taunting each other about wild beasts in the woods, when the rain had eased and we were off again on the quest for grass. Ghita’s anguish was palpable; he spoke little when upset, and after he and Marcel had hauled the corpse up onto the bank by its horns, and after Ghita had kicked it with his boot, wobbling her sides to see if there was really no life left, he cut off her yellow tag and turning away with his face turned down, he abandoned her for the crows, the wolves and the worms. It meant another motherless lamb to feed and protect; another source of income gone; another living thing that he had nurtured, dead.
My jeans, boots and socks were sopping and freezing even after the roasting they got over the camp fire; during the rest of the day I had to make a decision, if it was time to withdraw I had to leave now. I wanted to rethink my equipment; I was afraid I was an extra responsibility; I didn’t want to get ill.
A lot depended on the weather, and on how much food there was and how often. When it was there it was wonderful: mamaliga, telemea and branza de burduf, delicious soups, and slanina all cooked in a cauldron or grilled on an open fire. Purple onions, coarse white bread, the occasional apple or piece of chocolate. Water, when we had it, came from wells, in varying degrees of purity. A great deal of grease and salt, no such thing as five fruit a day. Not my usual fare, but at the time it tasted ambrosial.
Ghita can’t afford to up sticks and leave though I’m sure he sometimes feels like it: he faces another four to five weeks on the road until he can reach the relative safety of his home village and enclosed fields. Soon after that – when he has decided which of the lambs will be sold – there will be other dangers and hardships: he’ll be off to the summer pastures 1000 metres above Jina in the Cindrel Massif.
Gadina (monsters) are everywhere: as for the immediate future, he will often travel at night so as to avoid traffic in town centres; he will have to cross railway lines and main roads braving drivers who think they have priority; he will have to face angry farmers who don’t want sheep on their land and keep his animals from trampling new crops. And last but not least he’ll have to rely on his hired men who may get fed up and leave him stranded.
I stayed until my things got so soaked I could bear it no longer. My bivvi bag, bought from eBay as almost new, ex-army Gortex and rainproof, wasn’t.
It was an incredible, extraordinary experience, a huge test of human and animal endurance. My strength – and sometimes my patience – were stretched to the limit and I never want to eat lamb again.
If I had time to sort my gear I would go back to the flock but my time has run out. A return visit will have to wait for the autumn or next spring. Who knows if Ghita will go on the road again; if I were him I might shrink from the idea but he’s made of stronger stuff, is much younger, has been doing this since he was a child and more importantly than all of the above, it’s the way he makes his living. While I was with him and the other shepherds I saw how simply they live, how inadequate their gear is, how much responsibility they have. Other people might despise shepherds for being uneducated – which some certainly are – but while I was with them, their courage, team work and stoicism struck me as little short of heroic. They were also very courteous towards me, and it can’t have been easy to nake allowances for an ignorant foreigner, let alone one from a different gender. True, there were grumbles about pay, conditions and the rest. There are no fixed pay rates and each man must negotiate his own fee. Iosif told me that depending on what experiience and responsibilities he has, a hired shepherd may get between 800 and 1200 lei per month. Iosif said that a sterpar (who looks after the ewes without lambs) gets the most because he has the most responsibility and the hardest life. Hired shepherds also receive their food, clothing and cigarettes. The clothes include short wellie boots which most shepherds wear with obiele, thick wool wraps inside rather than socks; they may have anoraks and most have their own cojoace (which cost around 120 Euros new, and I don’t know if they are provided). Compared to my old Swiss hiking boots, their gumboots seemed woefully inadequate and the sight of Marcel lying down on the sopping earth in nothing but a thin wind-sheeter, thin slacks and a thin plastic sheet made me shudder. But my sources tell me that Ghita pays well in comparison with other bosses.
Ghita and his men – and his girlfriend who came to his rescue because Marcel went AWOL after I left – are still out there, dealing with the realities of shepherding life while I have retreated to a nice warm flat in Cluj.
My overall impression? A respect and liking for this courageous young man who undertakes an incredible journey twice a year so as to maintain his animals in the most natural conditions he can find, so that the milk and meat they provide will taste really good. Compassion both for him and his shepherds who were great, most of the time, and who had to put up with a lot of hardships and anxieties of their own. As an animal lover and a carnivore my short walk with transhumant sheep threw my hypocrisy in my face. Was it that rather than the physical discomfort which has, for the moment, driven me away? Had Ghita not been the person he is, had the hired shepherds not been so considerate – and all of them were human, and often very funny, if not always humane – and had the landscape not been so breathtaking and the animals so charming, I might have thought the whole thing a waste of time. But even though there were cons, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.