Sheep Farming in Duntroon

Meeting the Locals

Before coming to New Zealand, Meg and I had signed up as members to the WWOOF site. This stands for “Willing Workers on Organic Farms”. In exchange for a room and meals, members go work on a farm, bed and breakfast, vineyard, etc. for 4-6 hours a day. We loved the concept. Part of travel is to relax, see the beautiful scenery and try local foods but, like many, I am also drawn to other ways of living and cultures. When I told Meg about my first true traveling experience in Thailand, I spoke at length about the local kickboxing match I went to see one Friday night. There were posters all around Chang Mai but my friends and I were the only tourists to show up. A sweat stained boxing ring stood in the center of a fairly empty building. Two small concession stands were set up on a far wall; local beer and some Thai food were for sale. You could tell right away this was a community event, as all the locals crowded around ringside vying for unobstructed views. It was loud and everyone seemed to be shouting over one another but it was an energy of excitement at having reached the end of the week. The first up were youth matches and the first thing that struck me was the ceremony of it all. This was not a sports event designed to sell tickets, hot dogs or merchandise. This was a gathering of a community that I was fortunate enough to be present for. Being foreign to this place, I was a fly on the wall so-to-speak. Still, I felt immersed in a completely different world, another way of living. I think it may have been one of those rare moments of introspection for me but I knew that I liked this feeling in the moment and would be looking for more of it.

20171031_204353
Old Sheep Shearing Scissors

I tell this story because I absolutely love nature, yes. Everywhere I do travel is based on setting foot in beautifully unique and diverse settings. I am thankful there are no shortages of places you can go to see towering mountain ranges, monolithic rock formations or tranquil waters. Trips seem to fall short however if I’m not able to meet the people that choose to live in these locales. How did they get here? Had they always been in this spot or did something move them? How did they adapt? How do they make ends meet? And where is the best place for beer and fish tacos? It was the search for these new perspectives and people that I latched on to Meg’s discovery of the WWOOF site and we began our journey into WWOOFing.

The Invitation

Meg and I have already spoken about the serendipitous events we’d so far experienced in this country. I refer to buying our campervan from a couple roughly our age, just about to get married and heading to a new country for a couple of years. Is that a unique plan? Not particularly, but running into them at kind of the same moment in life we were in and becoming friends seemed significant.

Well, one of our first messages on this WWOOF site was from Carrie and Gibby, two farmers from a place called Duntroon. They wanted to know if we would be interested in sheep tailing with them for a week and help out on their farm where they raised pug and griffon puppies that would need looking after. “Of course! Let’s do it! Pugs?? I mean, this was meant to be I think”, I told Meg, a lover of all things Pug. To which she of course asked me if I knew what sheep tailing was and I told her that I did not. But I did have WiFi, so into YouTube went “Sheep Tailing” and a nice educational video about sliding sheep down a conveyor belt began playing. First, said the man on the screen, you have someone lift a lamb up onto the rollers and under the thin metal bars. This will hold them on their backs, stomachs up and ready for the first part of this assembly line system. He proceeded to matter-of-factly explain the vitamin injection into the lamb’s neck, the process of placing a circular rubber band around the sheep’s testicles for castration if they were so equipped and finally the process of removing the long tail they are born with via propane heated shears. “It’s the no wee-wee slide,” I said as I looked over at Meg. Can you believe she was not immediately sure she wanted to do this?!

20171031_163152
Part of the Vanished World trail in Duntroon

Joking aside, we talked it over. Both of our mothers grew up on farms but we’d never really worked on them before. How would we react? We weren’t doing anything cruel to these animals, in fact the complete opposite, the need for removing most of their tails comes from the sharp drop in worms and infections that result from it. We were city folk though and this was something quite different. In the end we came here to (warning, incoming cliché) “expand our horizons” and I have always found some of the best things come from outside your comfort zone. So we committed to meet up with them in just over a week, confident we’d find transportation in Christchurch, which luckily we did.

A Warm Welcome

2017-11-04 17.05.26
Duntroon Countryside

As we headed south, the rolling countryside opened up. Severe hills of bright green peppered with little white dots of grazing sheep came into the foreground of our windshield. It was magnificent. I’ve always had a thing for wide open spaces and with the snow patched mountains in behind I felt a broad smile stretch across my face. I rolled down my window and hung my arm outside the driver’s side window, catching the breeze and starting the work on my farmer’s tan.

“You must be Alistair,” I reached out my hand to the new boss on our arrival. “Gibby,” he smiled and shook it. Introductions to Carrie, his wife came next, and then his daughter, Maddy, and her boyfriend followed. Maddy was on her way out, so we sat down to an amazing home cooked lamb, potato and veg dinner with just Carrie and Gibby. We soon found out that Carrie was originally from Calgary and we told her we were Canadians as well. She and Gibby had met when she had been travelling and worked a job on the farm he was managing. They told us of their son, Gus, an avid hunter who is now working in Canada for a while as a hunting guide. A large, stuffed wild pig’s head and skull of an impressive buck hung in the living room as a testament to his skills.

20171031_184213-1.jpg
Pig Hunting Shrine, yes that is a pig on the back of Gus in picture on left

We also went over what the week would look like. Sheep tailing on Monday, a rest day of light work on Tuesday, Wednesday was more sheep tailing, Thursday would be yard work with the last round of sheep tailing being on the Friday. After dinner we made friends with Ivy, their older griffon dog with an under bite that could not contain her drooping tongue (obviously spending most of the evening in Meg’s lap) and their other indoor dogs.

They asked about our lives back in Canada, some of our military experiences and what our plans in country were. The back and forth was easy and enjoyable. I felt comfortable very quickly. After we got to know them more though in the coming days, I enjoyed seeing them start to get more comfortable with us as well. They began telling us that sheep tailing would be the perfect test for us as newlyweds. Gibby would even start taking jabs at me, asking if I was going to leave any of the light ones {lambs} for Meg to pick up. That’s when we started to hope that they might like us too. First though, we had to get through day one.

Happiness through Manual Labour

Breakfast was at 5:15am. “You want one or two sausages?” Gibby asked. Before us was a farmer’s breakfast of sausage, eggs and toast with a mug of coffee. Brushing off the last bits of sleep, we dug in, somewhat aware of the calories needed for the day and somewhat from the fact we had been eating non-perishable campervan food. It was this morning that we met one of Gibby’s new employees, Callum. A young 23 year old, he wasn’t originally from farming but through connections had been given a spot here at the farm to learn under Gibby’s guidance. Very friendly and clearly eager to learn, he sat at the table and soaked in the upcoming tasks being relayed to him. From a Scottish background, Callum had originally been on the North Island but quickly realized that city life wasn’t for him. So he got himself educated and connected with the right people to make his move into farming. He moved to the South Island with his girlfriend and had found his way to this sheep and cattle farm. With the meal done we were told to meet over at the Yute. “Sure thing,” I said and Meg and I went to brush our teeth before heading out the door having no sweet clue what a Yute was. Turns out it is short for utility vehicle and meant Gibby’s Toyota Hilux truck parked out by the working dogs kennels. Hopping into this Yute, we headed down the gravel road with the dogs running and barking alongside. “This is their time to stretch their legs and go to the bathroom. Though sometimes they get too excited and forget the bathroom part,” Gibby told us as the dogs ran maniacally back and forth across the road. I was amazed they avoided the tires. “First stop will be the biggest pen of the day.”

20171101_065406
First Pen of Sheep in the Rising Sun

The first pen, was some three hundred odd sheep that needed to be herded up steep hillsides. Gibby hopped onto a motorbike while Callum took the work dogs out to help herd the stragglers. We learned that some of the dogs just run and essentially corral the sheep, while others are used more to bark over and over at them, incentivizing them to keep a decent pace. It was interesting watching him work, his years of experience and knowledge of the land made it all look pretty simple but we caught a few glances of wayward sheep trying to cut back in the opposite direction we wanted them to go. One time this happened, a large portion of the others took notice and a strong surge shifted through the mass as they all started to double back. Fortunately gotten under control, if they had broken loose we would have needed to reset and start all over again. Judging by how long the days were at week’s end, and the physical toll it took, I’m glad Gibby was holding the shepherding stick.

20171030_091214

20171030_090024-1

20171030_085843

20171030_091617

Getting into the rhythm of things did take a little bit of effort. Figuring out a good technique to pick up the lambs and place them into the chute without taking a hoof to the leg or face was key. The fading bruises come Friday provided a bit of solace that we were in fact learning somewhat. After a natural system unfolded, the process picked up a bit of speed and in the end I think our hosts were happy with our work. I also picked up on the fact that stubbies were a key to Gibby and Callum’s success. Stubbies are shorts that come up to about mid-quad or even higher for the brave. I started wearing my short trail running shorts and my lamb hoisting abilities quickly improved. I can easily imagine that this type of work can be very tedious and more than a bit monotonous for some, but I was so happy to be outside and using my hands again I failed to notice. There is something extremely rewarding for me when you can see the tangible results of your efforts firsthand. The immediacy of it pushes me to keep working hard. The modern day cubicle had obstructed this view from me and, although a lot of great work can and is accomplished on a computer screen, I was grateful for this change of pace.

20171101_121939
A Lunch Room with a View

When we paused for lunch that first day I ate like I man possessed. Carrie is a fantastic cook and had brought out a quiche-like pie of eggs, ham, broccoli, cheese, and a bunch of other vegetables in pie form. We also had banana chocolate chip muffins and some apples. And here, on this perfectly green pasture was the first moment my lips were hit by L&P. Oh, L&P you delicious carbonated soda. If you don’t know what this sweet nectar is let me tell you. It is one of New Zealand’s top beverages, aside from ginger beer which I am also a huge fan. It tastes like Sprite or 7UP if Sprite or 7UP tasted really good. It is a mix of lemon and some fruit called paeroa. What is paeroa you ask? No idea and there’s no picture of it on the bottle but it is amazing with lemon, carbonated water and sugar. Anyway, I’ve gone on a severe tangent about a soft drink so for those who have stuck around, thank you, I will now continue with my story. I had told Meg earlier that there is no better feeling for me than working really hard physically and then eating as much as I want afterwards. I don’t know why. I think it’s my love of pushing myself combined with my love of food but to feel like I’ve truly earned a meal makes the food taste that much better. But I’m not exaggerating about the L&P. It is that good.

20171030_090057
Keeping an eye out for any troublemakers
23573990_10155953880477320_422697664_n.jpg
The Set Up
23601990_10155953880472320_1441321588_n
The Grab and Scoop

20171101_114104

20171101_114111
Vitamin B6 & 12 Injection

We pushed on with the rest of the afternoon, having stocked up enough calories to not let our progress slip too far. It was a long day and our bodies were unfortunately unaccustomed to that amount of work. We had learned from Rob and Uta (our campervan friends) that the Maori word for stomach, or a chubby paunch, was called a puku (pronounced poo-koo). Well, Meg and I were working off any office pukus we’d developed over the past year. Awesome side note, Carrie had named one of her pugs on the farm Puku which was hilarious. Also, one was named Midget. For those of you who know Meg, yes, those are the sounds of her giggling in your head right now.

A Sense of Community

Throughout the week we also got to see how close the community was around Gibby and Carrie. Their neighbours came over beers one night and we just sat out on their back deck and talked and laughed for a long time. This is what life’s all about, people and the connections you make with them. When Meg and I ventured into the tiny town of Duntroon we also met an older gentleman, Burns, who volunteered to run their museum. He was so passionate about the palaeontological history of the area you couldn’t help but catch at least a bit of his enthusiasm. He told us to say hello to Carrie and Gibby for him.

There was also Karen, one of the resident chicken farmers that we visited to pick up some eggs for breakfast one of the mornings. She had an honesty box built in front of her place to drop a $5 bill into and pick up one of the cartons of eggs sitting there. She came out and greeted us and we introduced ourselves and told us where we were working. We went to hand her the $5 Carrie had given us when she put up her hand, “No, no. I owe them some eggs. Gibby helped shear my sheep a little while back.” We smiled and thanked her.

To say life is simple in a place like this can bring up the wrong connotations I think. I don’t mean simple as in easygoing, laidback or uncomplicated. Farming is hard, it is demanding work to look after other living creatures but it is simple in the fact that you know, after some experience, exactly what you are doing and more or less what needs to be done. You have a close knit group of people around you, some of it by necessity I’m sure, but more so to help each other out and take interest in each other’s lives. Simple concept but makes life a far happier affair.

Carrie and Gibby’s generosity extended further as they told us we didn’t need to rush off after the Friday. That we could stay for the Saturday and relax, finish up some laundry for our trip and enjoy ourselves. That morning, we got a call from Gibby asking if we’d like to go jet boating with his friend Tony. He wants to head out onto the river at 10 if that works for you two. We had both slept in until about 930 but like hell I was missing a chance to sit in a metal tub with a jet strapped to the bottom of it! Carrie helped us pack a to-go breakfast and before we had a chance to get a sip of coffee we were roaring down the Waikati River. It was a rush. There was one point where we had motored aggressively through some low hanging trees over the water and the rudder had definitely got caught up in something and so with no directional control we hurdled into the riverbank and nearly tipped over. This was five minutes into our trip. “Oh, bugger.” Tony said nonchalantly. Whaaaat, Meg silently mouthed to me as I held back any laughter our boat captain might overhear. Carrie later told us that Tony has absolutely no sense of, or at least little sensitivity to, danger. Nice to learn post boat trip. It was a lot of fun though and, quite fittingly, we ended this serene cruise with a Hamilton turn, a hairpin stop and 180 degree redirection of the boat that very nearly sends you soaring into the open air. Jetboat!!! A great trip out for something that we may not have paid to do as a tourist but happy to have had the experience. I also caught a Rainbow trout that I learned to clean in the river and try my hand at filleting for dinner that night. What a special place this was.

There are so many little stories I could write at length about our stay at this farm. Carrie’s evening walks we got to join in on with the parade line of dogs, cats and one curiously brave sheep that fell into line behind her. The gift of a rattling rock to Meg from one of Gibby and Carrie’s neighbours from the nearby river. The collection of vintage cars we got to look over at one of their friends BBQs one night. Visiting Elephant Rocks. Meg’s devastation over the fact that working dogs were not meant to be petted. So on and so on.

20171031_180452
I Guess The Rocks Weren’t That Big (Meg for Scale)
20171031_180534
Exploring Elephant Rocks
20171103_215455
Big Col’s Vintage Ride

20171103_220019

It had only been a week, but we were going to miss these people. As a warm gesture, Carrie and Gibby left us with two bars of chocolate; one Canadian maple syrup flavoured and the other white chocolate with L&P, New Zealand style. They also told us to stop by for tea if we ever made it back there during the rest of our trip. This was the real gift as I’d like to believe people don’t invite you back as a WWOOFer unless they enjoy your company at least a little bit. We definitely do hope to make it back there before our trip’s end as we truly enjoyed getting to know the two of them as well as the stunning region itself. After this week, Meg and I reflected on the welcoming nature of New Zealanders and our good fortune to have met such great people on the outset of our voyage. We think it’s just the Kiwi way and hope to bring at least a small taste of it with us to whatever community we end up building back home in Canada.

20171101_065524


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s