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Published: July 12th 2012
The danger of slow reactions - Pamplona, Spain
Still hit despite holding a newspaper. Small bulls are released to chase people in the ring at the conclusion of the encierro.
Is this the last sunrise that I would ever see? Exactly twenty years ago these thoughts flickered through my mind as the Spanish sun illuminated the interior of my tent. I emerged from the sleeping bag and glanced at my watch – just after six in the morning, and only two hours until my yearning of a decade was to be satisfied. The genesis of this yearning arose a decade earlier whilst watching Sixty Minutes in Australia, when reporter Ian Leslie presented a story on the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona in the Basque region of Spain (more accurately termed the corralling of the bulls – enceirro
). The 826 metre route involves a panicked sprint in front of six bulls (toros
– bull) and nine steers along the old town’s cobbled streets. After completing the run, a breathless Mr Leslie explained that Ernest Hemmingway, who based his novel The Sun Also Rises
in Pamplona, stated that the enceirro
was the greatest test of courage of a man in times of peace. I was enthralled by the madness, energy and danger, and knew that one day I too would endure this infamous test.
Arriving in Pamplona a day early,
I sought to purchase the traditional white clothes, red waistband and red necktie. During searching, I happened upon a giant video wall showing highlights of previous years, mostly consisting of gored corredores
being tossed around the horns of toros
like rag dolls. Thoughts of having my intestines strung across the cobbled streets like a string of sausages saw my enthusiasm for the enceirro
dramatically wane. I limped dejectedly away, fearing that fear had overcome me, but stopped after passing a stall selling the white and red attire. Conflicting thoughts filled my head, but one shone more brightly, namely that when laying on my death bed many decades hence, I can reflect on a life with no regrets; so I purchased the clothing with pesatas
and my participation was confirmed.
The following day, I exited my tent on a mild morning and headed into Pamplona for the eight o’clock enceirro
. Eight runs are held every year (July 7-14 inclusive) and I decided on the less crowded sixth instalment of 12 July 1992. The enceirro
is part of the Festival of San Fermin (Pamplona’s patron saint) and the streets were filled with families, including young children, all dressed in the white
and red that characterises all festival attendees, both corredores
(runners , corredor
- runner) and spectators. One could even purchase white shirts with red bloodstains already printed onto both sides – probably to disguise real blood in case of a goring.
I carried a rolled newspaper, for if thrown on the ground it can distract the attention of a toro
and ensure an escape if one is cornered. I also wore a packed money belt below my waist, for what in hindsight was a particularly stupid reason; namely to afford my family jewels a modicum of protection. This was never going to prevent any intended or unintended castrations from a sharp horn, but such is the misguided confidence of youth.
Nervously entering the streets, I found myself amongst a teeming mass of restless runners and proceeded to a less crowded area (meeting a lone female runner in the process) to find a less cramped experience at the enceirro’s
commencement at Santa Domingo. I later discovered that the relative sparseness of corredores
at Santa Domingo is due its dangerous reputation, but solace was gained in today’s toros
being the Miura breed, considered one of the “steadiest” with no gorings since
Emblem on the necktie I wore during the encierro
Hangs on the hall stand at the entrance of my apartment.
Mr Leslie filed his Sixty Minutes report from these same streets. Interestingly, the Miura are some of the largest and fastest bulls in Spain, and it is why Lamborghini named one of their sports cars the Miura in the 1960s.
I explored the moderately inclined Santa Domingo area and found an escape route 40 metres from my starting position – a series of temporary wooden slats that blocked a side street – and my supposedly brilliantly plan was to climb the wooden slats in case of emergency. I peered down at the street, and was dismayed to find it had been freshly hosed earlier that morning; as if the enceirro
isn’t difficult enough without some idiot adding slippery cobblestones to the list of challenges one must face. I then noticed my long flapping shoelaces, and thought it prudent to execute a double-knot to avoid the embarrassment of sustaining an injury due tripping over them. Upon arising I bumped into the akimbo arm of a middle-aged Basque corredo
; I apologised, but upon him seeing the obvious nervousness painted across my face, placed his hand on my shoulder and clutched it long and tight whilst giving me a genuine reassuring smile
that doubled as acceptance into the corredo
fraternity. My attention was drawn to a clamour coming from nearby, so I squeezed past white clad participants to observe dozens of corredores
conducting their benediction to a statue of San Fermín resting in a small niche. This involved shouting, pointing aloft arms to the statue, cheers of “Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermín!” ("Long live San Fermin" in Spanish and Basque) and jumping in tribal unison.
I returned to my original position and peered upwards at the canyon of old buildings fronted with small balconies packed with excited onlookers backed by the clear blue skies beyond. Life seemed much calmer at such heights. I nervously looked at my watch for the umpteenth time in the past ten minutes – it was almost eight o’clock. Beside me was a similarly aged corredor
from North America and his contribution to this scene was to endlessly repeat the same words, “Oh my God, Oh my God, I am so nervous, I am so nervous, Oh my God, Oh my God, I am so nervous, I am so nervous....” which did nothing to satiate my nerves, but just frayed them even more.
explosion echoed amongst the buildings, it was the rocket that announced the opening of the gates holding the herd and a panic seized the area. The nervous North American instantly fled, along with half the corredores
, so I was suddenly in a largely empty space with few others within five metres on any side. Another rocket punctuated the sound of mayhem to announce that the six 600 kilogram toros
and six steers had left the corral. Eight metres fore was a solid wall of white-clothed corredores
all facing away from me to glimpse the oncoming herd. Occasionally, a panicked corredor
would burst through the pack, as if it was a spout of water bursting through a fissure in a wall, and this quickly increased in number, but the wall of corredores
remained solid and immovable. I too held my position, even though the sensible part of me wanted to run immediately, the daring side insisting I stand my ground until the bulls were near.
The following 30 seconds proceeded in the slowest of motions, for almost simultaneously every corredor
in the human wall rotated and rumbled like a giant wave in my direction. The bulls had arrived. Before I
could even turn I was swamped by a mass of frightened men that tossed me within its tumult. I stumbled and narrowly averted a disaster, for upon falling a corredor
must not move because toros
have killed participants attempting to raise themselves from the ground. One must remain motionless, regardless of what stomps on them, until a fellow corredor
taps their head to signify that the danger has passed.
Panic made progress painful, for corredores
elbowed each other (including one into my right ribs) to force a passage through the crowd. Without a doubt, corredores
pose more danger than toros
in an enceirro
. The cacophony of exclamation and panic increased in volume, but my sight was limited to the dark-haired heads of corredores
surrounding me – it was impossible to determine the herd’s location. It was now an appropriate time to head left toward my pre-determined escape route for respite, but upon arriving a scene of horror greeted me, for a policeman atop the fence was hitting anyone who dared come near with a swinging baton! Until now, I handled the enceirro
quite manfully, but that dramatically changed the instant my safety route was unavailable. With me foolishly having
A corredor berating a particpant for disprespecting the bulls - Pamplona, Spain
A scuffle ensued because the chap in the dark shirt dared to grab a bull's tail.
no alternative plan, I fell back into the swirling maelstrom of humanity that again carried me along the cobblestone road, and glanced back in disbelief at the policeman expecting to see two red horns emerge from his head and the baton turn into a trident.
With my mind, heart and body racing, the situation became increasingly desperate as corredores
were resorting to more aggressive means to separate themselves from the unseen toros
, though one now sensed they were incredibly close. The noise reached a crescendo as that unpredictable moment of destiny was imminent, when I saw my salvation! Ten metres away on my left was a section of unoccupied fence with no trident-wielding devil. I scuffled towards my sanctuary, as the raucous din intensified, five metres, four, three, two, one – the fingertips of my outstretched arm touched the fence...
...suddenly, I was slammed at force from behind – the impact driving the oxygen from my lungs and painfully dragging me along a rough wooden fence slat. The toros
were blameless, for other corredores
had arrived at my sanctuary barely a second after me. Regaining composure quickly, I hoisted myself up one slat, but the flaying arms of
sought to remove me from this prime and safe position, with one grabbing my hair and another my shirt. I clutched the fence’s upper rail, but was being dragged downwards, so turned my head to ascertain and kick the culprits.
Then everything stopped.
Our group, who only moments before were writhing and wrestling, were now as still as statues.
Only two metres distant and directly below me, the dark bulls and pale steers came into view.
My rapidly and loudly beating heart silenced all external noise; I could not hear the sound of hooves on cobblestones, nor the bells worn by the steers, and so the herd silently glided by with the grace of divine beings. I could have extended my leg and touched them but maintained my paralysis and followed their passage with my eyes, not daring to even move my head.
With the herd now vanished from sight, the corredores
grabbing me released their grip and sauntered away, the young hair-holding one not even having the decency to apologise. I peeled myself from the fence and examined the inside of my left arm which was heavily grazed; though
unsightly and sore, it would fully heal. I leant against the fence to calm myself when another commotion emanated to my right – for three more steers (released after the main herd) were heading towards me.
I was more brazen for this second encounter, and with the streets now holding far less corredores
, I stood directly in front of the steers and watched them trot for some distance, before I nonchalantly returned to the fence when they were only a few metres away. The steers passed so closely that I could have touched them by merely dropping my hand. With the steers and their clanking bells passing without incident, the exhilarating though frightening enceirro
for me was concluded.
There were no gorings on that day, but 32 corredores
required medical treatment, with seven being within Santa Domingo. I could have been the eighth, but with sufficient first aid supplies at my disposal, did not report a comparatively slight injury. I had triumphantly completed Hemingway’s greatest peacetime test of courage, and if the novelist was alive and strangely inspired to recount my modest tale, he may have penned, “Shane shuffled into Pamplona as a boy, but he strode out
A younger Travel Camel a few hours after the encierro (and pointing to part of the graze)
This photo is placed here due to "duress" from a non-Travelblog member - I certainly looked different 20 years ago!
as a man.”
Photos were taken the following day whilst observing the festivities.
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