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A Family on a Bike Tour: New Zealand, Samoa, USA and Canada 2004/2005
 

Feeling sheepish

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From:       Kirstie and Stuart
Subject:   Feeling sheepish
  Date:         30 December 2004
Place:
     Mount Somer, Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand

 

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 days shearing.


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 sheep's perspective.

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?

 

 

 

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