As you might expect, sheep have been a constant feature
of our travels in New Zealand. As well as importing, losing
and replacing our own Lamby, we've met quite a few of the
locals. They are pretty impossible to escape around here.
The Maori thought the land here was theirs. Then the Pakeha
(Europeans to you and me) claimed it as their own. But after
six weeks travelling in New Zealand we know the sheep have
the greatest claim upon the land, at least in the deep South.
There were 6.3 million new additions to the sheep community
in 2004 alone.
Rush hour in Southland
And where there are sheep there are shearers, one of the
most physically demanding jobs a man can do. As a shearer
Phil was used to handling up to 400 sheep a day. After years
of this back breaking work, he was taking a break to pursue
his dream and run a tavern in the ghost town of Orepuki.
In his new trade he was lucky to serve 60 local punters
a day but hoped to build on it with passing tourist trade.
As if to demonstrate his commitment, he opened up especially
for us early one Monday morning and offered us coffee and
shelter from the wind.
As he rolled a smoke, he asked us how many km we do a day
(people always do) and compared the physicality of our challenge
to working in a sheep shearing gang, where in the course
of a day a top shearer does work equivalent to two marathons.
"You can't stand up afterwards, it's truly physically exhausting
work. It's piece work you know, paid by the sheep. An average
guy does 250 a day, but if you want to see the best, there's
a world record shearing attempt being held down here in
January." He showed us his sponsors brochure, "The guys
in this gang can handle 600 sheep each in a nine hour session.
These gangs are real close knit families. A bit like you
guys." He smiled and thought for a moment. "Perhaps I'll
turn my hand again for a few months when things are quiet
here." It looked as if things would always be quiet there.
The Three Springs Woolshed, an
old shearer's workplace
"If you want to see sheep, go see my sister," said a young
Dad we met at a playground in Riverton. "She's on your route
and may have a place you can camp if you say I sent you."
Taking that as an invitation, we stopped for a picnic outside
the Wairaki Station, the farm he mentioned on the road to
Blackmount. The air was full of 'baahing' as they chomped
the grass and we chomped our picnic. Chomping stopped when
a car pulled up at the entrance to the farm. "Is it Trudy
and Anna?" asked Kirstie. "Yes" replied the driver, somewhat
taken aback. "And you're pregnant too?" said Kirstie checking
she had the right woman. "Well, yes," replied the woman,
clearly shocked by Kirstie's clairvoyant abilities. "Haven't
I seen you in the papers?" asked Trudy inviting us in to
get to know us a little better.
"My brother told you all about me did he?" she said pouring
the coffee, "Did he also tell you he was Young Farmer of
the Year? He's so busy at the moment I'm surprised he had
time to go to the playground. Mind you we're pretty busy
ourselves." By coincidence, Wairaki Station is the venue
for the record breaking shearing attempt Phil had told us
about a few days earlier. Either everyone knows everyone
else's business down here in Southland (which is not beyond
the realms of possibility given the relatively small number
of people at least compared to sheep) or we were on a magical
mystery tour. Hosting the record attempt is a complicated
business. Everything has to be just so for the event to
work and for the officials. For months before, the sheep
have to be prepared, ensuring almost 4000 of them have dag
free crotches and the required minimum 900g of wool. And
that's before you think about organising shearing platforms
and shears, physiotherapists, first aid, feeding and watering
the shearers, officials and 1000 plus visitors, and handling
between three and four metric tons of wool. And of course
the beer; these gangs like to party at the end of a long
Cameron left New Lamby safely
in his buggy
Andy was another retired gang shearer, who had turned his
hand to running a small farm and horse trekking business
near Te Anau. "Then you put one leg over, swing her round
gently, grab her legs and pull her back, sweep up here,
around like this, and down the other way." It was like a
minute waltz, feet sliding gracefully across the floor,
arms carving gentle arcs through the air to avoid the slightest
nick of his invisible sheep. Andy gave us a private performance
of the dance of the sheep shearer. "Fifty to sixty partners
an hour, some more beautiful than others." We visited Andy
to talk about family horse trekking but ended up in his
kitchen, drinking coffee and talking sheep once more. "You
can only do it for so long," he told us. "The only ones
I dance with now are my own, and that's only if the horse
trekking doesn't earn enough to pay a gang." All the shearers
we met had retired but always talked about the gruelling
work with a surprising fondness. We have yet to get the
There's a sign we're getting used to. A big
orange diamond containing one large black sheep and an exclamation
mark. We've come to realise that this does not mean a sheep
on the road but 600. Having watched and waited as 600 sheep
passed us in an hour, we were left in awe of these amazing
men who can man-handle this same number in a day and give
each one a short back and sides.
OK, which way now then?