How an Instagram Post Changed my Summer of '17
It was July last year and I was looking to book a solitaire holiday.
I always travel with friends, never alone, but this time I wanted some time by myself to do some writing, and enjoy some solitude.
I could picture myself sat on the balcony of a whitewashed beach house or perhaps a rustic farmhouse, overlooking the sea or rolling hills. Snag was, I was going away in August - peak season, school holidays galore - and the dream break could have easily turned into a Brits abroad nightmare.
Then one day, as I was scrolling through Instagram, I came across a picture of a very happy pig posted by someone called Jacobs Ridge. Upon further investigation ( i.e. simply going to JR's account) I discovered that Jacobs Ridge was not in fact a person but an animal sanctuary based in southern Spain.
I started following their account avidly. I couldn't get enough of the pictures of the many residents living in what seemed like total bliss. Horses, donkeys, goats, pigs, cats, dogs and even a pig/boar cross, happily enjoying their lives in harmony under the hot Spanish sun.
Once I found out that the sanctuary offered volunteering holidays, that was it for me.
Sod the solitary holiday and the blue sea, I was going to volunteer at the Ridge.
The holiday would entail working with other volunteers helping to feed the animals, talking the dogs for walks, cleaning the residents' enclosures, spending time with them, lending a hand with a few chores around the house, such as washing up or tidying up the sitting room, and getting stuck with whatever was needed.
There would also be plenty of spare time to enjoy the beautiful rugged surroundings, swimming in the relaxing pool overlooking the sundrenched ridge, visiting nearby towns and the city of Murcia, going for walks, lake swims and eating fresh figs straight from the trees.
Vegan meals would be provided and cooked daily by the Jacob's Ridge team: Julian - who founded the sanctuary in 2011 when he suddenly came to care for Jacob, the horse who lends his name to the place - Rachael, Abbie, Summer.
It all sounded idyllic, but I was a tad apprehensive about one thing: my fellow volunteers. What if we didn't get on? What if somebody was difficult or rude? It turns out I needn't have worried.
Let the Volunteering Begin!
I'm the last to arrive on a Wednesday night in August. I briefly meet the team and my fellow volunteers: Polly, a teacher and half of LDN Vegans, Selena, a student and Krystal a researcher.
It's too late to meet the residents, so we head to our respective tents to get some rest.
I'm not much of a camper, but these thick canvas teepee-style tents are spacious, pretty and comfortable with a proper bed, a bedside table, chest of drawers, rugs and lamps. Think glamping rather than camping.
My first night is beautifully atmospheric. The rain is pouring down - one of my favourite sounds in the world - the air smells sweet and fresh and I'm about to fall asleep among the trees.
Or so I naively think. What I haven't factored in is that many of the residents here are cats, and although they are not allowed in the tents, in case they cause accidental damage with their claws, these felines are not put off by a law or two. For the next half hour, several cats, which I later find out include Boo and Martin, try, and some succeed, to break into my tent. Starting from a relatively discrete paw sticking out from underneath the tent's zip, to several moggies charging to sneak in at the same time, within minutes I'm scooping up cats left right and centre, and gently showing them the door. Undefeated, they climb up the tent from all directions too (not too sure what they are trying to achieve there). It's a surreal moment, a sort of cute feline version - if one could imagine one - of The Night of the Living Dead . Anyway, once they get the message and are safely locked out of my sleeping quarters, it's time for me to finally get some kip.
In the morning as I awake to the zingy post-storm grassy smell I realise that the cats have had the last laugh: Martin is sprawled across my stomach, sleeping, whilst Boo is sweetly snoring at my feet.
Meeting the Residents
The day starts with a light breakfast before meeting and feeding the animals. Bill and Ben, two adorable pigs that were saved, when they were little, from slaughter by a Spanish couple. When the brothers got big (and they are really big!) their rescuers had to find a solution and give Bill and Ben the space to roam around and live a happy life and that's when the two porcine brethren arrived at Jacob's Ridge. These two lads are very friendly and can't get enough of their breakfast. They are partial to a good scratch too, and we happily oblige.
It's the goat and pig run next. This lot are frisky and the goats, little Lolly especially, enjoy jumping around, trying to steal the corn I'm holding in my bucket. I quickly fall in love with this friendly group and in the forthcoming days spend a lot of time with them.
Donkeys Charlie, Hotey, Steve and Ronnie, share their run with Prospero, a falabella horse who due to his small size (and big attitude!) isn't housed with his much bigger equine cousins. Ronnie loves attention and would do anything for a cuddle. Steve is confident and playful and likes to gently nip, Charlie and Hotey are somewhat shyer and keep to themselves, and Prospero is very docile and enjoys being petted.
Pigs outnumber the other animals here. Elvis, Cerdi, half boar Sweet Pea (the only animal along with Grace the horse, we need to keep our distance from, due to her wild genes), Iggie, Oreo, Fergie and free roaming Queenie - with whom I quickly establish a straight-from-the-tree fig feeding routine - are just some of them.
Just like all the other animals, the pigs have all distinctive personalities, but they all share one trait: curiosity. They can't get enough of nuzzling up us volunteers, covering us in mud and demanding a good scratch.
We load the wheelbarrow with hay and alfalfa bales and feed the 20 or so horses. Woody is exceedingly friendly and downright cheeky, stealing food straight from my hands, whilst Star, the oldest gal of the herd, needs lots of TLC and time for herself. In the coming week we'll get to know all of them, and form bonds that we'll all cherish for the rest of our lives.
After the feed it's time to take the dogs for their walk. On my first day I'm in charge of Eyebrows, a gorgeous sweet girl with herculean strength. We put frisky Barney, laid-back Marley and black labrador Daisy on their respective leash and off we go, exploring the arid and stunning countryside around the sanctuary. Sunny, the latest rescue, is still in training and at this stage she is walked on her own as Barney's naughty antics get her a little too excited to walk in a group yet.
Post walk we sit down at the alfresco poolside dining table for a mighty vegan feast cooked by Abbie. The homemade food is fresh, inventive, healthy and packed with flavour - quinoa salads, burgers, pasta, paella, burritos - and the team really goes out of their way to meet my (I'm sure at times downright annoying) food intolerances.
After we clear up it's time to relax and get to know each other a little more. The weather is stunning, but not uncomfortably hot, and we lounge by the pool, sunbathe, swim, and coax Daisy to jump in for a dip with us.
In the afternoon we tend to the house chores before doing the second feed and dog walk. By dinner we are all tired but elated, and after another fantastic meal, we are ready for a good night sleep under the stars.
The following days are similarly framed, but there's something new to do during each one.
One day we get horses Merlin and Woody - the escape artists - back in their run. Another we clean the donkey pen and fix their fence. Halfway through our stay we get the news that the team is going to momentarily give shelter to a wild, young fox until she's ready to be released back to nature, so we cut bamboo to build her an enclosure.
The days are full of rewarding work, wonderful animals and people and lots of great adventures. The city stress melts away. There's no worry, no meeting to attend, just tending to animals and taking care of them. Polly describes it as an "MOT for the mind and soul", and I couldn't agree more.
I don't think I've ever laughed so much and so consistently for an entire week and guess what? For the first time in my adult life, I feel no stress at all.
In the following days the girls and I explore the area a little and take a trip to Murcia, a pretty city known for its Castilian Gothic cathedral, which surprisingly has quite a few vegan and vegetarian restaurants and a well stocked health food supermarket full of plant-based goodies.
One afternoon we go water rafting - not my favourite of activities because I'm a wuss - but the gang has a blast and it's another happy day in Spain.
Between scooping donkey dung, petting the cats, fixing fences, swimming under the sun and laughing under the stars, the week goes incredibly fast and it's time to say goodbye to our wonderful hosts and head back to the UK.
It's incredibly hard to leave the animals, Julian, Rachael, Abbie, Summer and each other.
I leave a different person. I leave realising that animals having a free and happy life is not utopia, but it can and does exist. I leave realising that for an entire week I've not had to justify my convictions or my veganism once.
It's been wonderful being able to simply be me, surrounded by people who share my anti speciesism views, who love animals and treat them with the respect they deserve.
I live in London, but as in love as I am with my city, it doesn't often give me the chance to be in such proximity with all kinds of non human animals; to learn their habits, get to know their personalities and traits, to see how they interact with each other, but at Jacobs Ridge I got to experience all of this.
This week has made me realise how much I want and I need to be around different species, and how they will feature more in my future.
This has truly been one of the best adventures of my life and I make a promise to myself to come back.
I would recommend this experience to anybody who wants to work closely with animals and help sanctuaries and rescue centres.
If you can't take a trip to visit this wonderful place, there are other ways you can help Jacobs Ridge.
You can sponsor one of the animals, donate what you can afford, buy canvas totes, calendars and badges from their lovely online shop, or you can play the non-profit sanctuary lottery, where for as little as £1 a week, you can have fun and win prizes whilst helping the Jacobs Ridge family.
But if you do get the chance, go to Jacobs Ridge. Perhaps one short week here could change your life for the better, just like it did mine.
Location: Jacobs Ridge, Mula, Murcia, Spain
Cost: One week (seven days and six nights), including food, drinks, snacks, £480. Airport pick up and drop off is priced at £35 each way per person