Fifteen years ago, Ian Curtis was looking for a new business opportunity.
One morning, he woke up with a voice in his head that said ‘alpaca trekking’. Which may not be our first thought, first thing.
Curtis listened to the voice and, with no prior experience of the South American camelids, bought three alpacas, and trained them to be walked by visitors around his home town of Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.
Curtis says he was the first alpaca walker in the country. I can’t verify that, but he’s certainly not alone now. You can walk with alpacas all over – Yorkshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex. More or less every alpaca-keeper seems to offer them up as a counterfeit dog. Except no one will pay £45 an hour for the privilege of taking a pooch for walkies.
I’d never considered taking an alpaca for a stroll but then some friends booked themselves and my family on a Curtis trek, which sounded formidable but was actually a gentle meander around the pretty port of Wells.
My seven-year-old twins sing a nonsense song about llamas (‘Happy llama/sad llama/totally rad llama’). But these are larger beasts with coarse, woollen coats and banana-shaped ears. Alpacas are cuter – their ears look like Yoda’s from The Empire Strikes Back – and their wool is gorgeously soft.
Curtis brought us five alpacas, on thick, six-foot leashes. Each child got one, and so did my friend Henry, who had to master the alpha-male alpaca pack-leader. ‘Alfonso is the leader, not because he’s brave, but because he is full of importance,’ said Curtis. ‘Could be self-importance.’
And then we were off. It was immediately clear that we were not walking the alpacas but Alfonso was deigning to show us his kingdom. And Curtis was harder on the humans than the alpacas, chivvying us to walk in line and maintain the correct order: Alfonso, Pedro, Costello, Pablo and Pepe.
We could stroke our furry friends on the neck and back but not the head, nor must we eyeball them because that was aggressive. This was harder than it sounds. Their eyes were protuberant balls of liquid brown, as soulful and needy as every great pet.
Our dainty walking companions appeared deceptively fragile and there was a hint of alien life-form about their long necks, which waved all over, as if craving something. We soon discovered that this was any kind of plant.
Pepe, bringing up the rear, took his teeth to everything from brambles to ornamental ivy from front gardens. He also decided on a good back-scratch and rolled over in the middle of a thankfully quiet lane.
As we relaxed, so did our new friends, trotting on their padded hooves very nicely. Then we reached the main road into Wells. Is crossing the road a problem in summer when it’s busy? ‘Oh no,’ said Curtis. ‘People stop for alpacas.’
And the traffic parted like the Red Sea to let our strange caravan across.
We permitted our beasts a refuelling stop on a grass verge, before following an old railway cutting to the boat sheds and crab pots of East Quay.
Along the front, we enjoyed glorious views across the salt marshes to the distant North Sea, imbibing notes of mud and salt, as oystercatchers and curlews called shrilly in the distance. Then we trotted our way home up a tiny lane past minuscule old fishermen’s cottages, wiggling through a council estate that proffered further eating opportunities.
Perhaps this strangely tranquil experience speaks to our inner herder. We have centuries of experience walking dogs but walking alpacas is much more novel. It feels as if we two species are only just getting to know each other. And taking a walk is an excellent first step, when becoming friends.
The quiet back lanes of Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, are perfect for a stroll. Alpaca-trekking in Wells 07787 394088; email firstname.lastname@example.org Other providers are available