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GERMANY

Hiking with the llamas

Joe, Elli and Michael Ines lead the llamas through a forest.

Joe, Elli and Michael Ines lead the llamas through a forest.

A llama in harness in its enclosure.

A llama in harness in its enclosure.

Holidaymakers can enjoy a "nervous" pastime in the German woods

Ines Ladig, a 33-year-old German tax adviser, is being followed by a beast and she's keeping her fingers crossed.

"I'm counting on them not spitting," she grins.

Ladig and the other members of her hiking party have llamas in tow: large, moody, South American animals that are notorious for their oral ejections. The hike through the Lein Valley in southwest Germany was her birthday present for a girlfriend. Ladig's boyfriend, Joe Brettle, is also part of the group.

"It's almost like giving someone a hot-air balloon ride as a present," says Brettle of their unusual excursion, noting that he probably wouldn't have gone trooping through woods and meadows with shaggy, spit-prone companions had it been up to him alone.

Ladig's trust is confirmed, though - the group managesto keep dry.

"Everyone naturally asks about that spitting," admits Susanne Ott, organizer of the Lein Valley llama hikes, part of a broader leisure-time activity known as animal trekking that has spread throughout Germany. Llamas generally target other llamas, she says but people would be well advised to stay out of the line of fire.

"Llamas are ruminants, and when they've eaten grass, their regurgitations can be quite green."

Why take the risk of hiking with these great expectorators?

"The animals are recreation for me," says Ladig, whose work-week is filled with numbers and arcane tax laws. She owns horses, so her outing with the llama dam Biscuit is a stroll by comparison. The group needs two hours for the six-kilometre tour, during which they lead the llamas on leashes like dogs.

Llamas are hardly pet-like, though. "They may look cuddly, but they're not cuddly animals," Ott says.

Llamas will more or less submit to friendly pats on the neck and snuggles from children. On the trail they tend to be rather tense, constantly surveying their surroundings with pricked-up ears and waggling their heads. The more nervous the people around them are, the more jittery the llamas become.

This, according to Ott, is what makes them ideal hiking companions. "Fidgety children in particular then realise they ought to calm down," she says.

A state-approved teacher of children with special needs, Ott also offers llama hikes as therapy. Some people feel a sense of accomplishment in being able to manage the animal, something that has a calming effect on them, she said.

Other animal trekking organisers focus on the adventure of it. In the north-eastern German town of Lindow, for instance, Steffen Schindel has a stall full of goats, mules, donkeys, dogs, ponies and llamas that hikers can choose from.

"Simply experiencing nature, combined with another experience is the secret of the activity's appeal," Schindel says.

Llama hikes have also sprung up in the Luneburg Heath and Rheingau regions. In the Teutoburg Forest, people can take a ramble with alpacas.

"Llamas are well-suited as hiking companions because they're even-tempered and keep their distance. So they can also interact safely with disabled persons," says Marius Tuente, spokesman for the German Animal Welfare Association. He adds that it's important, however, not to humanise the animals or overexert them.

For Ladig's part, the llama hike is "great fun". But when the llamas were returned to their pen, the ones that had been left behind greet the day-trippers with jostling, kicking and ... spitting.

Ladig and her friends, fortunately, are out of the line of fire.

If you go

_ Llama hikes in the Lein Valley, in German] (http://www.leintal-lamas.de/freizeitangebote/lama-wanderungen/)

_ Animal trekking in Lindow, in German (http://www.animal-trekking.de/)








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