Near Vila do Mato, in central Portugal, the Mondego River runs deep and lugubrious and is as old as valleys. Prince and Olive, two Portuguese water dogs, are not much like this. They bounce and laugh and pant, their pink tongues a splash of whimsey in their black furry faces. They wag their whole bodies in strenuous chaos when they see you; they smile as only a happy dog can do. And they can swim. I mean really swim.
Scott had arranged what he called a ‘quadbike safari’ on the Saturday morning of our stay at the river. He borrowed a friend’s quadbike and I climbed on. We scooted off in a cloud of dust, up into the eucalyptus woods, which did not yield much wildlife, apart from Prince and Olive. They made up for the lack of other animals as they yelped and raced around us in circles, narrowly missing the wheels, overjoyed and overstimulated. We are going somewhere, they yelled to each other – actually somewhere!!! These outings never happen as much as a dog would like.
They sped ahead, turbo charged, leading the way, whooping, if dogs could whoop. At a twist in the gravel track they would stop and turn and look at us, ears expectant, tongues lolling, eyes glittery under hairy brows. One reassuring word and they were off again, as long as we were following. ‘Let’s take them up into the pine forests’ they agreed, as they ran side by side. So we went up into the pine forest, leaving the bike, climbing up rocks and small landslides as the warm pine smell cooked up from the ground drifted and the air hummed. This is the smell no amount of sun can produce further north, the smell of hot deep Europe in its southern nudge with Africa. The fecund smell of potential. The heat and the black fur, I thought, as I watched them rest in the shade, on our way down, is probably what lead them to become water dogs.
By the time we got back Olive was trailing behind, cantering not galloping, panting until her tongue seemed to trail too. Prince was trotting alongside us, his yelp all gone. We drove all the way to the river, and stripped off and jumped in and they followed us. Into cold stripes and warm flecks, into slick hidden currents and small surface waves. Into the deeps. Apparently, they have webbed feet and can fish. We all lay on the floating sundeck in the river flow, hair and fur grimy from dust, skin mottled with river scum, smiling. I smiled with my mouth shut, theirs were open.
Earlier in the week Prince had hitched a lift on the standup paddle board, and I wasn’t sure about the river part of Portugeuse river dog. But on the Sunday, when we were returning from a prehistoric foray that Scott labelled ‘Kayak Adventure,’ circled by red kites and not a human to be seen, there was a black spot in the distance of the shimmering river. It was moving, and it was Prince. He was swimming to meet us. They had followed us as far as land would allow, and then we had assumed they had returned. But they had just sat and waited, and now they were swimming to meet us, snouts high and tails wagging under water. We called to them and they snorted and snuffled and doggy-paddled up to the kayak, in wet slippery joy. Olive attempted to board.
I love those dogs when they wake me with busy bashing noise in the morning, heads thrust into the duvet, eyes trusting and quizzical. When they meet me coming down the stairs like it is the first time; to them I am always new, always a delight. In my early day of gritty sadness after a night in which my back pain seems impossible to bear, I gently hold Olive’s furry face and with my tiny scissors cut a sticky burr from near her lip, and ruffle her ears. Every day is a fresh day, she says to Prince. He smiles at her, and with his tail, he nods his assent.