When I was a toddler in Newsham in Yorkshire we had friends at Hilltop Farm, and Mrs Todd used to send me to look for eggs in the boxes by the chicken run. The excitement and pleasure of lifting the lid and finding an egg — or two — in the straw is still sharp in my mind. Likewise the glee of spotting a mushroom in the woods when, later in life, I went on a mushroom hunt. The joy of finding half a crown half-buried in the sand on a beach in Cyprus, when I was six, is still fresh, and I’ve had an eye out for lost coins ever since. I’ve watched children panning for gold by the Amazon, seen pearl-fishers diving for the dreamed-of oyster which yields up a pearl, and tackled those children’s puzzles in which the outline of a designated object must be divined in the tangled lines of a picture — and know from all these things that there’s something quite primal and distinct about hunting for something, template in mind, and suddenly seeing it.
But I never thought a cowpat could fit the bill.
We were in Bolivia a few weeks ago, at an altitude of 15,000 feet, on a six-day walk across the treeless flanks of an Andean range called the Apolobamba. With our horses and guides we had pitched camp in blowing cloud on some lovely meadows by a stream beneath the glaciers. As the sun dropped behind the snowy peaks the temperature plunged — as it does in the thin air at very high altitudes — almost within minutes to below freezing. We six had the shelter of our tents and warm sleeping bags, of course, and a gas ring to cook on; but it was only 6.30. We could not spend all the next 12 hours asleep, and wanted to sit up, talk, and share with our guides and horsemen the bottle of Talisker whisky I’d hidden in my rucksack. Could we make a fire, I asked the guide?
‘We must not burn wood,’ he said, ‘and anyway there isn’t any. But we natives of these mountains do burn…’, he hesitated for a polite word, then indicated a large, dry, brown, flattish, biscuit-shaped lump about the size of a dinner plate on the grass at my feet. It was a prize cowpat, not fetid, moist and fly-blown as its British equivalent would have been, but desiccated and crisp — as anything becomes that lies for more than a few hours in the fierce sun and oven-dry air of the High Andes. ‘We burn this,’ he said.
How curious. Not a few hours beforehand, toiling up a long pass, one of my companions, who is of Sikh origin, had been explaining the caste systems of India to me. His family, he told me, belonged to the higher Sikh caste, of yeoman farmers. He explained that the lowest caste is that of dung-carrier.
We asked our guide for a big sack. There was still about half an hour’s twilight before dark. The pasture we were camped on followed the river upstream between mountains, in a narrowing tongue for about a mile before the next pass: tomorrow’s challenge. Now, we would fan out like a search party, hunting for brown gold. Our Sikh-descended friend, though offered a dispensation, volunteered to carry the sack. ‘Not the horse,’ called our guide. ‘It’s not good for burning.’ I wondered if I could distinguish. ‘But the llama’s good,’ he added, making a scooping motion with his palms. Llama dung, like a heap of Maltesers, comes in pellet form.
The first big cowpat I found, and perhaps the second, did not in prospect seem to invite me. But by the third I was well away. Beautifully light, entirely odourless, and structurally as rigid as a giant ginger biscuit, these droppings all but winged their way from their resting places. I soon pocketed my gloves, for greater dexterity. Absorbed in our hunt, we zigzagged across the pasture, eyes skinned in the gloom, the silence of our intense concentration broken only by the occasional whoop — ‘Jeez! This one’s a beauty’; ‘Oi, come and look at this stunner: bigger than a granary loaf’; ‘Call that a cowpat, Lilly? I’ve seen more impressive fairy-cakes.’
The search became competitive. One soon began to develop a sense of where a cow was more or less likely to walk, and where linger. ‘Losing your nose for it, Paul? I’ve got a lovely one you just missed under that mint bush.’ It grew darker, our eyes keener, the stream faster and the pasture narrower as we neared the valley’s neck.
The sack was nearly full, and heavy, as we turned back home for a final ransack en route. Llama poo was now at a premium, as handfuls of this black gold would cascade down through the lumpier contents of the now-brimming sack. Llamas (as breeders will know) designate toilet areas in their fields, and the dung is concentrated here in easily accessed heaps. On my knees beside these I could scoop up armfuls in seconds.
And, ever and anon, just as all daylight seemed to be gone and the meadow had surely given up its riches, there would be another find. Lilly came in with a late bonanza the size of bicycle wheel. All of us could by now spot the difference between pieces of bovine and equine dung at 20 yards, in the near dark. Our dung-carrier was staggering beneath his load. ‘Take a photograph of me,’ he called, exultantly, ‘in case I ever want to drive any of my relatives to distraction.’ We refused.
The guides, when we returned, were vastly impressed. The men in our party (as befits men) all became instant experts on dung-firelighting, offering conflicting advice and prodding turds with professional nonchalance. But it was easy. A match, a slip of paper, a handful of straw, half a dozen strategically placed cowpats… and — no, not a great blaze. Dung doesn’t blaze. It burns deep red with a soft, evanescent orange flame, gentle heat, almost no smoke, and no smell but a very delicate, almost autumnal tang. We made a sort of towering inferno. It was still glowing at dawn.
Talisker has never tasted so good.
Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.