Land of the Kiwis

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End May 10, 2005

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Monday, April 4, 2005

On to New Zealand, land of 4 million people (and 1 million who are living elsewhere in the world) and 39 million sheep! New Zealand was called "Aotearoa", meaning the Land of the Long White Cloud, by the Maori who came here many years before the Pakeha (white man) arrived.

Martin and I were met at the airport by my sister, Kris, and a friend from Edmonton, Steve, who will be travelling with us for the next couple of weeks. (Though it took us quite a bit of time to get through customs - Martin and I had to pass through agriculture quarantine because of his digeridoo and I had some Australian wildflower seeds. NZ customs are as strict as Australia's.)

Kris moved here almost a year ago and is living on a sheep station with her partner, Grant. They actually met over 20 years ago when Kris was on an agriculture exchange in New Zealand and now she's moved here.

Grant has a "hill country" farm about an hour south of Auckland at Tuakau (pronounced "Too-a-cow") on some of the most twisty and turny roads you'll ever encounter! I sat in the front seat so I didn't get car sick; Kris says that sometimes she feels sick even when she's driving!

This is definitely vertical farming. Grant has had couple of accidents with equipment since he's been here, both a result of negotiating such steep hills. It's a wonder that the livestock don't mutate to have two legs longer than the others from standing on the hillsides! The sheep and cattle grazing on the hills results in the ground slipping, forming terraces along the hill face.

The station is about 1500 acres in size and they have about 5,000 sheep and 200 cattle - 140 cows and 60 bulls. The bulls are raised primary for hamburger (or mince as they call it here). The day after we arrived, Grant and the hired man were busy "drenching" the bulls (giving them injections for parasites). The sheep and cattle combination work well when it comes to grazing; first, the lambs are placed in a paddock to eat the shorter grass, them the ewes and rams to eat the grass that's medium-length, the the cattle are let in to eat the longest.

We spent one afternoon riding around on a quad and motorbike exploring the back paddock - most of which is either uphill or down! Steve, Martin and I must have been quite a sight on the quad, leaning forward chanting "I think I can" up the slopes and then leaning back to try and balance as we rode down. We all "reckoned" that Grant should start a spa for fat people - just take them out on the quad and bounce the fat off! It certainly required some ab muscles to stay on! Kris said she tried to take a short cut across the hills and ran into so many ravines that it was impossible.

Grant told us that he practises "self-management" with the sheep, i.e., the sheep have to look after themselves for the most part because the land doesn't allow for close monitoring. Thus, when it comes to lambing, the ewes are pretty much on their own. (I was astounded when Digby in Australia didn't seem to care very much if he lost a sheep, but then I didn't realize that it takes about 15 sheep to equal the value of one steer!) To make life much easier for themselves, farmers in this hilly country fence their land along the contours rather than is straight lines.

While we were on the quad, Garth, the hired man, roared past us on his motorbike. His dogs had smelled out a pig! Wild boars are very common here and many farmers take great sport in killing them. They are a nuisance as they destroy the farmland. Grant usually has the pigs he kills made into bacon. Often the pigs are killed way out in the forest and must be "piggy backed" back to the vehicle. Martin and Steve got to help drag the pig out of a hole and ended up covered with mud - and blood - as a result!

Grant has a number of dogs to assist him with his work on the station, both sheep dogs (for moving sheep) and pig dogs for pig hunting. Unlike Digby who used only one dog for moving his sheep, Grant has six - two heading dogs who move to the front of the flock, lay low and stare the sheep down; two huntaway dogs who bark and nip at the sheeps' heels at the rear; and two mustering dogs who follow the fenceline to move along any stragglers. They're working dogs - not pets - and must be dealt with firmly to ensure that they do their job. The hilly land makes it that much more challenging. Grant has various whistles that the dogs are trained to obey with such meanings as "go right", "go left", "stop", as well as various verbal commands (which may or may not include some four letter words).

There are no mammals or rodents native to New Zealand, only birds. The national bird is the kiwi bird (hence New Zealanders are called Kiwis), a nocturnal bird that is now endangered because it was hunted for its beautiful delicate brown plumage. Deer, goats (there were a number of wild goats on Grant's station), rabbits and possums - as well as many birds such as magpies and crows - were all introduced. Possums are particularly a problem in that they get into people's gardens and destroying the native bush. New Zealanders are appalled that the possum is protected in Australia. They have attempting to develop a market for possum fur. We saw possum fur slippers, hats, fur-trimmed gloves, as well as wool-possum blend sweaters and scarves. Possum fur currently sells for about $70 a kg; it takes about 17 possums to make up that amount.

Much of the northern half of north island of New Zealand could be considered sub-tropical and is very green (I've never seen so many shades of green), while parts of the southern part of the north island and the south island are more temperate and receive some snow, particularly at higher elevations. (There's skiing on both islands.)

Kris cooked foods typical of New Zealand for us, including roast leg of lamb and pavlova roll topped with passionfruit and peaches. Yum!

When I mentioned to Kris and Grant that I was surprised to find out that it's mandatory to vote in Australia, they told me it's the same in New Zealand! If you don't/can't vote, you'd better have a very good reason or you'll be fined or worse! Not sure how I feel about that . . . .

Other tidbits of information - Did you know that water goes down the sink counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere (as compared the clockwise in the northern hemisphere)? And the sun in the afternoon appears to the north (rather than the south like we're used to), so it's the north and west sides of the house that tend to receive the most heat (rather than the south and west)?

New Zealand is also a country of firsts. In 1893, New Zealand was the first country to establish women's suffrage and give women the vote. Bungy jumping, as it is known today, was developed here. And, of course, one of the first people to climb the world's highest mountain, Mt Everest, was a New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary.
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