Mustering Up Some Inspiration

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We rode out to muster the cattle (or round ’em up, as they say in Texas) the other day. This time I opted to ride in the truck with Bill instead of on the ATV (bike) since it makes me too cold. The back deck of the bike isn’t padded and I have to hang on to what looks like a tail pipe sticking out of the side in order to not fall off. The ride is bouncy and we blaze through mud puddles and precariously close to edges of cliffs, but rest assured, she is a good driver.

We drive in the truck until we can go no further. We all pile onto the bike, close yet another gate behind us and go to a section where the cattle should be. The sun is out and the day looks clear. You can see for miles over the hills and the snow is slowly starting to melt off of the top of the mountain range. She lets Bill off to go find cattle on the Dark Side. I like the name of that section. It’s funny to hear them talk about it. “There’s a mob of sheep on the Dark Side.” I wonder just how evil those sheep are out there. There is also Butt Cheek Hill, the Solar Panel and Volcano Ridge to name a few.

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Looking out toward the Dark Side

Bill takes a long handled flat head axe with him. I wonder why, but don’t ask. Rosa and I ride up the track a bit and she says she will go muster the cattle down below and that I can wait up here. I’m happy to hear that, as I now have some alone time and can sit in the sun IMG_2935 and warm up. As I look up the hill in back of me, the sky is once again an impossible blue. A few cows near the top slowly meander toward the rest of the herd, as if bothered by the fact they have to move at all. The tan color of the tussock and the dark scrub brush on the hill contrast beautifully with the sky. The clouds are breaking up into patches and it reminds me very much of the wool on a sheep’s back.

I take this opportunity to walk up the track a bit to see if I can find some photo ops. The curve in the road seems to promise more beyond it.  I think about how barren this area looks and remember Rosa saying this place hasn’t changed at all in 100 years. I feel very alone, but quite content to be. I feel like I’m the only creature that has walked this ground. Yet, as I look around me, it appears that absolutely no part of this land has gone untouched. I can’t walk without seeing droppings from the sheep or cattle. No matter how far up or down the hillside I go, it is there. There are bones scattered in spots and later in the day, we came across a sheep carcass on the track which hadn’t been there a couple days ago.

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We could see out to the ocean from here

It is quiet except for the many birds I hear singing. They sound happy…maybe it’s the chill wearing off or it is coming into mating season. The sun is getting warm and I decide the tussocks look to be a pretty comfortable seat while sporting a gorgeous view in front of me.  I take off the heavy coat and sling it on top of the tall grass and lean back into it. There is another small tussock right in front of me for my feet. I look up at the sky and the sun warms my lips. The black top I have on soaks in the heat. It’s a good day to be alive. I look beside me and am again reminded that I was not the only one to be in this spot. A twig is poking up out of the ground with a bit of wool stuck to the end of it gently waving in the breeze. IMG_2971lo

I hear the bike in the distance coming back for me and I stand up to take notice of the herd. They are far off in the distance all standing together for once. There might be about 50 of them. It seems to me they are much harder to muster than sheep, but I’m told it’s the other way around. It feels we have been out for a long time and covered a lot of ground to only have rounded up 50 cattle.

Rosa asks if I had seen where Bill walked, which I hadn’t. She pointed to the Dark Side and moved her finger across the land all the way to where I saw the herd of cattle.  It probably took him a couple of hours or more. We all met up and mustered them into different paddocks. Bill leans on his axe while he and Rosa talk about where to put the cattle and try to determine the total count. Experience shows on their faces and clothes. They’ve been farming practically all their lives. It’s a dying business, I’m told. Their concerns about growing older and wondering if their son will take over the farm  lingers on their minds. Their income is mostly obtained from selling lambs and wool. They sometimes contract people to do work on the farm which comes at a steep price. I often wonder how they get by.

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Turnip patch

Even with all of the work that must be done during the day, I’m amazed at what good parents they are. They have two boys and a daughter in boarding school in Dunedin, who comes home on the weekends. They are caring and concerned, teaching the boys manners and encouraging them to do their best in school and sports. They never appeared bothered when one of the boys interrupts them with a question and they always take the time to answer thoroughly. They maintain a sense of humor along with the discipline young kids seem to always need. They are a stellar example of what parents should be. I am happy to be here with them all and able to experience this unique, yet dying lifestyle.

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Out in the Middlemarch of Nowhere

 

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Staying true to my M.O., I find myself once again, living at the end of a road in the middle of nowhere. But this is REALLY out there. Probably the farthest I’ve been in nowhere. I am volunteering on a sheep farm on the outskirts of Middlemarch, which is about an hour 1/2 inland from Dunedin. When I inquired to my hostess the name of the town she was in (since she said they were about 20 minutes from Middlemarch), her reply was, “We don’t live in a town. We live at the end of a gravel road.” I just smiled to myself and thought back on all of the times I’ve found myself in places like that.

We arrived after sunset so I really had no idea where we were or what it looked like.  All I knew was that it was dark and there were no lights anywhere in sight. When I woke up in the morning and looked out the large kitchen window all I saw were fields, tall rolling hills and to the west, a long mountain range with snow on the top of it.  “Wow,” was all I could say. It was beautiful.

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I was taken out to see where the chickens were fed and she threw out warm boiled potatoes and kitchen scraps to them, as well as ‘meat’ of some kind and a bit of grain. We also tore out tufts of grass in front of their pen and laid it out neatly in front of them, as if it were a delicacy. She said it made the yolks more yellow, which is how you can tell free range eggs from caged.

I was given the task of lacquering the wood around the front door and windows and after I was done, she came in and asked if I had ever stuck a needle in an animal before. I said, “Only an iguana!”  We rode on an ATV out to the barn where a very large flock of silent sheep looked at me with nervous eyes.  I see where the term “sheepish look” comes from now. I was amazed at how silent they were. There must have been at least 300 of them, which was just a fraction of the 5000+ they own. She rigged up two bottles on hooks with big syringes. One bottle was a milky white and the other looked like blood. I had no idea what was going on here. Turned out the red one was B12 and the other was a vaccine of some sort which they get once a year.

The barn had about three large holding pens and the job was to herd the sheep (with the help of a great dog who knew exactly what to do) into different pens. It was fun watching the dog jump effortlessly over the high gates, barking constantly and keeping the sheep in order. There was a narrow run that held about 45 sheep at once about two sheep wide. They were stuffed in there so they couldn’t move easily and with a swift and careful jab in the neck, they each got two shots. I watched the routine a few times before she had me do the B12 shot and she followed behind with the vaccine. Once we got down the line, I swapped out the needles and the herding started again. By the time we were done, I was a lot faster and more confident. She smiled and agreed when I exclaimed that I had gotten the hang of it.

I was then given the task of picking up one of the boys at the bus stop.  Oh man…driving on the left and a right side drive truck! Really my only hurdle was the right side drive, as it was just down a stretch of road with no cars, so at least I could practice there instead of in traffic. It felt very strange, instinctively grabbing for the seat belt to my left and finding only air. Thankfully, it was an automatic (something I never thought I would say). Last thing I need at this point is to drive a standard in the opposite direction. The pattern still being the same as if you were a left hand drive but yet opposite since first gear is away from you, not next to you.

I passed over the low water crossing, which I was told on the way in, can have you stuck at the house for days on end if it floods. The truck crept up the steep hill, feeling as if I would tip end over end. I really should find out how to use 4WD, I suppose. The scenery on the way (8km) was beautiful. Large rock outcroppings with grazing sheep around them, endless sky with perfect clouds hanging over the mountains and even an old truck, just begging to have its picture taken, all caught my eye. I swore I would come back the next day to photograph it all.

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Oyster Catchers

The following day, we had to herd some sheep down to the house so they could be scanned for babies. We rode up the hill on an ATV early in the morning. It had frozen overnight, and ice covered the puddles that we crunched through while riding slowly. The wind IMG_2602stung my face as we scanned the land for sheep lying down. If they are pregnant and can’t get up, they will die there and birds will come and poke out their eyes. Her older dog sat next to me on the ATV, shivering. I held her close to me before we had left, trying to warm her up.

Frost covered the grass and the other dogs ran beside us and the puppy sat on my IMG_2551lap. It was a winter wonderland as far as I was concerned. The air was crisp, the sun tried its best to warm the earth and I attempted to keep my face warm by wrapping the scarf around my mouth and nose as we continued to ride.

As we got higher up, she stopped at a spot and said she would leave me here for about an hour as she rounded up the sheep. They would come down and I had to keep them on the road and get them through the gate. She said they tended to want to go up the hill and to make sure that didn’t happen. I got off the ATV and watched the sun slowly come over the mountain top and made my way into the light. I took advantage of the time to take some photos of this special place where tourists simply do not go.

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About 45 minutes later, I could hear the ATV in the distance. A flock of sheep were coming down the road! I ran into position but then they stopped, as they tend to do when something is in their way. I ran beside them to get them going again and yelled, “Go! Go! Go!” They started to walk faster and then I noticed that some were getting into the field…the same one I was supposed to be protecting. I ran down and herded them toward the gate. It was all easygoing after that. They marched through the gate and into the pasture. More came and I was amazed at just how many there were. It was a steady stream for at least ten minutes. “C’mon girls! Come! Come! Come!” The last few trickled down and I was happy they all made it through ok.

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Sheep going through the gate into the pasture

We continued to herd them through on the ‘bike’, as they call it here and the dogs ran on either side keeping them going. Even the puppy did a good job, running in back of them silently. The herding dogs are worth thousands of dollars and are an integral part of this business. They respond to voice and whistle commands and do a damn good job at it. The puppy will become one of the crew, but she’s just watching at this point and understanding what’s going on. Some of the dogs only use eye commands while others bark. They are all well behaved and quite friendly.

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On the final stretch home, I noticed narrow paths etched into the ground. I was told they walk single file and tend to follow these paths back home.

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Later in the afternoon, I was asked to drive into Middlemarch to pick up the kids from hockey practice. A longer drive than the bus stop and a new route for me, I did alright driving on the left and on actual pavement this time. I didn’t even get lost! A miracle in itself. On the way out, I came across this traffic jam. Certainly another first for me.

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No road rage here!
One Tree Hill on the way to Middlemarch
One Tree Hill on the way to Middlemarch

 

 

 

Dunedin, New Zealand

 

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Where to start? I’ve only been here for 10 days but it seems like a month already. Quite a bit has transpired since I arrived, starting with my cancelled flight to Dunedin from Auckland due to snow. It wasn’t that pressing that I got down there that day, so I holed up in a not so great hotel down the road from the airport.  I didn’t have a first impression of New Zealand by staying there, really. However, walking around to find something to eat and checking out a nicer hotel, I saw in the distance a large tall field with trees on it that looked nice, but that was about it.

The flight to Dunedin (which is located near the southern tip of the southern island) was amazing. It’s the only land I’ve seen besides Guyana that has been so sparsely populated.  Of the 4 million people in NZ, 3 million live on the north island, mostly in or near Auckland and only 1 million on the south island. I saw a huge snow capped volcano and mountainous areas devoid of trees. I was actually surprised at how few trees there were. Apparently NZ had about 80% of its land covered by them but when people came here, they were cut down.

There aren’t many animals here either. The poor flightless birds that were native to NZ were killed by introduced species like humans, cats, rats, possum, pigs and dogs. I thought I was asking a dumb question as to where I could find kiwi birds, but I was told that they are very hard to see in the wild. I believe the only mammal here is a bat. NZ is free of snakes which is amazing but does have the sweet tuatara lizard who is a relative of the dinosaurs. Those are hard to see in the wild as well but can live between 60 and 100 years!

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When I was about to land in Dunedin, there were patches of tall dark trees poking up out of the earth like knives standing on end. I could see where the snow still hadn’t melted in spots yet and bright yellow bushes dotting the landscape.

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The following day, I got into town and had a look around. It certainly was quite different than what I’ve been used to seeing. First, the weather was very cold and damp. I stayed bundled up in my jacket, three layers of clothes and bought Merino gloves right away. It was overcast with drizzle on and off and then the sun would come out. However, it was subject to change at any given moment and I learned quickly to always have an umbrella with me.

There are quite a few photos, so I’ll post them here with comments under them:

View from Roslyn looking out onto Otago Bay
View from Roslyn looking out onto Otago Bay
Amazing architecture in a church
Amazing architecture in a church

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Great mochachino!
Great mochaccino!

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Train Station
Train Station

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Inside train station
Inside train station
Chinese botanical garden
Chinese botanical garden
A very steep street, but not the famous one here
A very steep street, but not the famous one here
Gulls in St. Clair
Gulls in St. Clair

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St. Clair beach
St. Clair beach
St. Clair beach
Best cup of hot chocolate I've ever had!
Best cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever had!
Tuatara on the side of a building
Tuatara on the side of a building

I was able to take a penguin/albatross/fur seal tour the other day and luckily it was beautiful! Not a single drop of rain. The tour only had 7 people, 4 of which didn’t speak English so it was a fairly quiet group. We were able to go onto private land to see the very rare fur seals, hooker sea lions and yellow eyed penguins. We stopped at the Royal Albatross Center which is one of the only places in the world based on a mainland that albatross nest.  They are the largest sea birds with up to a 10 foot wingspan! We saw about three fly over us and the views out to the ocean were spectacular. If it’s not obvious by now, I like taking photos of the sea gulls. They’re actually quite beautiful and they pose very well. I didn’t realize I caught this one flying in until after I took the photo:

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Gull calling to his friend flying in at the albatross center

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After that, we drove about 40 minutes toward the peninsula where huge hills awaited us.

Cool trees shaped by the wind
Cool trees shaped by the wind

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Fur seals were hunted to extinction by European hunters last century. Luckily, a large population increase occurred over the past five years here. They looked silky soft!

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Baby fur seal
Baby fur seal

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Then it was off to see the penguins and sea lions! The scenery did not disappoint and was literally breathtaking (especially after coming back up the hills!) The hooker sea lions are the rarest of the world’s five species of sea lions and are endemic to NZ. The Maori hunted them to extinction centuries before the Europeans showed up. These males weigh up to 880 pounds! They can also live up to 25 years and can dive to depths of over 700 feet!

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The male with his harem

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The male with his harem beach babes

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Seal skull
Seal skull

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We waited patiently for the penguins to come in from the water. There were two on the cliffs already and finally one appeared right before we left.

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The end of a great day!

The drive back provided some great shots of the sunset, albeit from the inside of the van.

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I feel this was the first time I got to see the New Zealand I have been hearing about and I look forward to seeing more of it over the next few months.