It was the popularity of the trekking that inspired farmers Bruce and Ruth Wright to introduce this quirky variation of rambling to the flatlands of Norfolk earlier this year. They bought four males, Jose, Carlos, Miguel and Pedro, now aged between one and four, from a breeder in Snowdonia, deliberately avoiding a female in the pack to avoid competitive squabbles amongst the boys.
When we arrived at Thetford Forest Lodge, 25 miles from Newmarket, for our four-hour trek and champagne picnic the four llamas were tied to a wooden rail like horses in a Western. Not that you ride them, which one 6ft trekker discovered to his relief, having passed a sleepless night worrying about the political correctness of hollering `giddy up!' to what amounts to an outsize sheep. Beasts of burden in the Andes are able to carry up to 7 stone, the llamas were loaded with yellow pack saddles, tailor-made in Carlisle, containing our picnic packs.
Six of us turned up for the trek, including French-born Christian for whom it was a surprise birthday treat from husband Douglas, their son, Alan, and his girlfriend, who was wearing a Peruvian hat for the occasion. From a distance Christian, who had ne ver heard of llama trekking, mistook the animals for cows.
Before setting off, Bruce gave us a pep talk. ``Llamas take a while to make your acquaintance,'' he explained. ``You can stroke their necks but don't touch their faces and let go of the lead if they bolt.'' He then handed four of us a llama (since there are only four llamas you have to take it in turns to walk with one) and we set off amidst much oohing and aahing as we got used to the novelty of having such an exotic beast at the end of a 5-foot horse's lead.
What Bruce didn't mention until later was that llamas are discerning, sensitive creatures who take an instant dislike to some humans, flamboyant dress and strong perfume being particular bugbears. In July Jose apparently refused to budge when a woman wearing a Chinese hat took his lead. My anorak could hardly be described as flamboyant but I nevertheless felt a sense of pride as Jose walked amiably by my side.
What sounded like a herd of stampeding camels soon shattered our equanimity. We looked behind us, to see the headstrong Pedro charging towards us with the laughing and shouting Douglas hanging on to the end of his lead, the shaking about of tupperware inside the packs accounting for the thunderous noise.
Such outbursts, provoked by sudden movement or high-pitched sounds are, we soon realised, par for the course. But their acute hearing and eyesight make them excellent aides for spotting wildlife which, in Thetford Forest, includes Muntjac deer, squirrel s and some rare birds, including Crossbills and Stone Curlews. If they do spy something in the bracken, they stop in their tracks, communicating with each other through ear movements (all of which are, of course, completely indecipherable to humans), extending their elegant telescopic necks for a better view.
At least they don't get your attention by spitting, something which they only do in private when they are fighting over food - so the only way you'll know if it is a deer they have spotted deep within the bracken is by whipping out your binoculars and seeing for yourself. There is also no danger of being bitten by these llamas, since they've all had their fighting teeth removed and, with the exception of Jose, they've all been gelded, too, to calm their temperaments.
Wilful as riding school ponies all the same, llamas have an irksome habit of lunging at passing foliage, which is followed by much guilty tugging of leads in an attempt to get them moving again. This rarely works and since llamas do everything together, including going to the loo, it is not long before all four llamas are munching on grass, deadly rhododendron bushes and overhanging branches.
After an hour and a half it was our turn to stop for some lunch. The boys, as the Wrights affectionately refer to the llamas, were relieved of their packs and tethered using metal hoops. Camping stools were produced from the packs, the champagne was popped and we sat down for a wholesome lunch of meatloaf, coleslaw, hot baked potatoes and a selection of tasty homemade chutneys. Aromatic apple pie and cream were followed by coffee, tangy, moist lemon cake and date and walnut cake.
About an hour later and now much more at ease with our furry brown consorts, we all helped to put the packs back on and to get the llamas back on their leads before resuming the gentle circular walk back to the Forest Lodge. Set amid the sombre Brecklands, Thetford Forest consists of austere rows of pine trees, interspersed with beeches and silver birches. It is a monotonous landscape and the flat terrain definitely makes the excursion more of a walk than a trek.
The Wrights will match their llamas to just about any activity and the treks themselves grow more diverse as the justified popularity of their various treks increases. As well as taking school children on group treks, Bruce has ambitious plans to build allama-drawn cart, reindeer style, to transport the disabled. This month's speciality is the festive trek, which kicks off with mulled wine at the The Hare Arms in Stow Bardolph, followed by a two three hour trek, breaking for a mince pie on the way and returning to The Egon-Ronay recommended pub for lunch.
For the more ascetic rambler, however, there is an archaeological llama trek which reveals Thetford Forest's varied history, which includes flint mining and rabbit farming, accompanied not just by llamas but by local archaeologist Kate Sussams also. If you're lucky you might chance upon a Stone Age arrowhead, but don't expect special fossil-spotting abilities from the llamas. They just come along for the walk.
Which is all llama trekking is about really, since llamas don't serve any practical purpose, save porterage. But llamas do have a therapeutic, calming effect, especially when they stare at you with their doleful brown eyes, children love them and they make charming walking companions. Unlike dogs, they aren't smelly, they don't slobber all over you and they don't bark, but make a gentle, camel-like hum from time to time instead. What's more, they can carry more than a flimsy newspaper. Dog lo vers, beware! Bruce Wright, Wellington Lodge Farm, Brandon Road, Northwold, Thetford, Norfolk 1P26 5NP, tel 0842-878181. Four-hour champagne treks cost £35 per first person and £14 per extra person. Group bookings up to 20 people can be arranged on request for weekdays and weekends. Festive treks can be arranged on request until mid-January and are already scheduled for 8 and 12 December and 2 January 1995. Cost £23, including trek and meal. Children welcome. Vegetarians catered for.