A visit to the peaceful Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary (Part IV)

In July, we spent a weekend in the Riviersonderend mountains, staying in a little stone cottage at Onverwacht Flora, a mountain top farm near the famous Boesmanskloof trail between Greyton and McGregor.

This is Part IV, and here are the links to the other parts:

  1. From Cape Town to Onverwacht (Part I)
  2. Exploring the surroundings of our Kliphuisie (Part II)
  3. A hike into the depths of the river valley (Part III)
  4. Exploring the unfinished road at Die Galg (Part V)


A year or two ago, I read a newspaper article about the creation of a donkey sanctuary about 2-3 km outside McGregor. Its patron is the well-known South African singer, David Kramer, who officially opened the sanctuary in November 2007. The appropriately named Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary is a refuge for neglected, abused and elderly donkeys from the Western Cape.

Turn-off coming up!

Naturally, I wanted to go and see the place for myself. So, when the opportunity presented itself this last weekend, we phoned up the sanctuary to make sure that they were open on a Saturday afternoon, and rocked up there just before the last guided tour at 15h30.

All the donkeys are gathered together in the paddock on the weekend

Patricia, one of the guides and a resident of McGregor, welcomed us and explained that visitors were only taken inside the paddock with the donkeys on the weekend. The rest of the time, you can only touch the donkeys through the fence. It was good timing!

The history of the sanctuary goes back approximately six years:

“Dr Johan & Annemarie van Zijl of McGregor village in the Western Cape of South Africa responded to a request from the SPCA to provide shelter for two neglected donkeys. The two fellows arrived and soon it became evident that there were many other donkeys similarly in desperate need of food, water, shelter and care. The vision of a Donkey Sanctuary was born…. The two donkeys were named Vaal & Japie – “vaaljapie” is an Afrikaans term for everyday wine.” (Donkey Sanctuary webpage)

One of the rescued donkeys

Over time, more and more donkeys arrived at the sanctuary. Some of them had been hard at work for more than 30 years, drawing carts or ploughs, or walking blindfolded in a circle to turn the wheel of a mill at brickworks – and some were even rescued just before they were fed to lions! An appalling idea!

Another donkey grazing peacefully in the distance

They currently have 18 donkeys at the sanctuary, and are running out of space, so they are looking for a new place that is large enough to accommodate all the donkeys they have now, as well as the new ones they will no doubt receive in the future.

We were amazed at the tranquility of the donkeys that chose to interact with us – they exuded such gentleness, that we felt ourselves relaxing and slowing down to attune with them

The donkeys aren’t all confined to the one paddock throughout the week, though, because it would be far too small to contain them – and there’s not enough grass left! I guess that they just keep them there on the weekend, when most of the visitors come to meet and interact with the donkeys. The rest of the week, they are allowed to graze in various fields nearby.

Donkey nibbling the grass around a thorn tree – Patricia told us that they like nibbling the leaves off thorn trees, rather like giraffes, and they don’t mind the thorns!

The sanctuary’s mission is summarised in their brochure:

“The Sanctuary’s mission is to provide permanent refuge and care for abused, neglected and elderly donkeys. We strongly believe that these donkeys deserve to be cared for and that their suffering should be addressed. We make each donkey as comfortable as possible regarding its physical and mental health.” (Brochure)

When we remarked on the fact that the donkeys were standing broadside to the sun, Patricia explained that they were sunbathing! Cute, hey?

You can estimate a donkey’s age by examining the growth patterns of the teeth. Patricia told us that donkeys get much older than horses; all (almost all?) the donkeys at the sanctuary at the moment are older than 20 years, and they could easily get thirty to forty years old, if they are treated well.

I love the soft-looking fur on this one, and would so love to brush it for him.

Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary is registered as a not-for-profit organisation (NPO) and a public benefit organisation (PBO). They rely heavily on donations and bequests – and your donations are tax-deductible, which is nice to know. So when you make a donation, or transfer an amount into their banking account, you can simply ask for a donation certificate for income tax purposes.

The regular expenses include the rent of land (they don’t own the land where they stay at the moment, but merely lease it), irrigation, feed, farrier fees (the donkeys regularly need their hoves trimmed, because it is painful for them to walk on hooves that are too long), vet fees (because many of them have been abused, they need medical attention), site management wages, and material for educational projects.

The costs of feeding and caring for a donkey for one year add up to about R3360 a year, which excludes additional feeding and care for donkeys that are in a bad state and need extra pampering and medical care:

  • Hay – R140 a month (R1680 per year)
  • Farrier services – R500 per year
  • Vet services and medicines – about R800 per year
  • Fly and tick control – R380 per year

Every few minutes, whenever a car pulled into the parking lot, one or two of the donkeys would start braying – Patricia explained that it was close to feeding time, and they were keeping a lookout for the van bringing the feed!

While we were there, the van with the feed arrived, and it was shared out among the donkeys, with piles of straw and hay dotted around the paddock. It was entertaining to see how they used body language – an outstretched neck, a glaring look, flattened ears – to communicate, “This is my food, go away…”

There were signs along the fence asking people not to feed the donkeys. Patricia remarked that this was quite difficult for visitors to understand, as it seemed quite natural and acceptable to feed carrots and apples to the donkeys when they came up to the fence. But she added that this caused bullying and in-fighting among the donkeys, so it was better if visitors left treats with one of the guides to give the donkeys when they were being fed. As their brochure explains:

“Please do NOT feed the donkeys, as it leads to barging and bullying of the oldies! We will gladly receive any treats you bring and share them out fairly at feeding time.”

Feeding time at last!

In order for them to meet all their running costs, they have an innovative ‘Adopt a Donkey’ program. Don’t worry, this is just on paper, you are not required (or even permitted for that matter) to take the donkey home with you! But by donating a specific amount, you can become the adoptive mommy or daddy of a furry donk with long ears! Isn’t that a wonderful present? We thought so too, and promptly signed up.

The fee depends solely on the level of support you want to give; there are several options (although any amount is welcome!):

  • R50 per month (R600 per year)
  • R100 per month (R1200 per year)
  • R150 per month (R1800 per year)

You can pay this either as a once-off amount, or by means of a monthly debit or stop order. In exchange, you receive a photo, an adoption certificate, a report, and their quarterly newsletter.

This donkey has laid claim to a nice pile of yummy straw to munch on

Since 2008, they have expanded their activities into educational campaigns. For instance, there is a classroom project including “a teacher’s pack aimed at Grade 3 learners” in both English and Afrikaans:

“The pack covers the 3 basic learning areas of literacy, numeracy and life skills and is designed to provide a variety of learning resources for teachers with a focus on donkeys through exercise, drama, poems and stories.” (Donkey Sanctuary webpage)

Teachers are also encouraged to take learners on field trips to Eseltjiesrus, where they are taught about donkeys and how to care for them; the things they learn in this context can be expanded to the care of animals and social responsibility in general.

I really like this fluffy-eared little donkey, soo cute!

And lastly, outings are arranged for children and adults with special needs, who are given an opportunity to interact directly with the donkeys by touching and brushing them. This must be an amazing form of therapy!

And don’t you love this one’s face? Just beautiful.

Speaking of which, we had tumbled head over heels in love with a donkey named… well… Donkey. He had arrived at the sanctuary together with his mother Dinkey (! :-)) some time ago.

He was a strong, well-proportioned animal, with the softest furry ears, and an untidy mane that stood up in a ridge along his neck, vividly reminding me of my own tousled hairstyle in the morning. He had a short black line running from his withers to his shoulder, and a white snout with a soft muzzle.

I think both of them are smiling with happiness!

Donkey had taken an instant liking to Richard, nuzzling against his chest, nibbling at his shirt buttons, and positively purring with pleasure, if donkeys could purr, that is. I don’t know what secrets he was sharing with my husband, when they looked each other deeply in the eyes like this, but there was unmistakeably a lot of love flowing back and forth!

Can you feel the love? I can…

So when it came to deciding which donkey we wanted to adopt, the choice had already been made for us! You can click here for a list of some of the donkeys available for adoption, with descriptions, and here for the adoption form.

We thanked Patricia for showing us around, and went across to the restaurant, which is called the Eseltjiesrus Country Kitchen, although it is completely independent of the sanctuary. It is run by Debbie and Jimmy Hall-Reece, and they are open from 10.00am to 17.00pm Thursdays to Sundays (closed Mondays to Wednesdays).

The Eseltjiesrus Country Kitchen is also a very peaceful place

We were hungry ourselves now, so we sat down for a cup of coffee, a capuccino, a piece of cheese cake and a pair of scones with jam. Yum.

The restaurant even comes with a tiny chirpy bird! I think he was hoping that some crumbs might fall off the table for him…

There is a gorgeous little gift shop behind the restaurant, which stocks all kinds of rustic, handmade gift items for house and garden. There is also a small nursery next to the gift shop, where you can pick up all manner of indigenous plants.

The gift shop is next to the nursery on the left

You can find out more about the donkey sanctuary here, and you can also connect with them via Facebook. And if you can speak Afrikaans, you can read this article by Colette du Plessis titled, appropriately, Donkiehemel op McGregor (Donkey Heaven in McGregor).

Because that really is the feeling you get when you visit here:

As the peace and tranquility of this special place seeps into your body, and as you simply share the space with the donkeys, you will feel your breathing slowing down and your heart beating more slowly. You can feel your emotions settling, and the chattering mind becoming calm and peaceful. There was just stillness.

One last look at this special place

Click here to read Part V!

One thought on “A visit to the peaceful Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary (Part IV)

  1. Pingback: Celebrate World Donkey Day! | Finding Frohsinn - Living Now

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