We returned to Shag Valley farm for a week, where we planned to help bring 7000 sheep down from the hills (‘mustering’) to the lowlands, and then help with the subsequent shearing of those sheep. Before our return we did a few days touring, relaxing and enjoying the Winter views and returned ready for some energetic work in the hills! But as we drove the final few kilometers to the farm we saw thousands of sheep grazing in the surrounding fields and realised we had missed the major mustering. We were a day too late! While we were a bit disappointed to miss the major action, there were still some smaller jobs to be done transferring sheep between fields, and we had ample opportunity to watch the working dogs earn their keep. The next morning we hopped in the truck with Johnny and the 8 working dogs (plus the pet jack russell!) who were piled in the box at the back. As we got close to the sheep the dogs erupted in a cacophony of excited barking, until Johnny quietened them with a shout. But they started again, and again, the excitement of being so close to the sheep just too much for them. When we came to a stop, he opened the back of the truck and called out Kate, a 7 year old female. She nosed her way out while the rest stood, tails eagerly wagging, hoping in vain to hear their names called too. With a word from Johnny, Kate sped up the hill and got to work behind the sheep, with Johnny commanding her by whistle or voice (sometimes a yell that had US jumping to attention) as he guided her to get the job done. And done it was, with several hundred sheep rounded up and ushered out the gate in a matter of minutes. They were a joy to watch and it was a wonder she could even hear him over such a long distance, let alone follow the instructions. This was repeated several times over in different fields, with different dogs, before we had cleared a large field ready to receive the 3,000 sheep that were grazing in a field on the far side of the river. (With Johnny and the dogs working so well together, you might wonder what purpose we filled – well thankfully Johnny’s dogs can’t quite manage to open gates, so we did that!) The next job was to round up these sheep and bring them across the river so that they too could be shorn a few days later. The river that runs through the property is the Shag river, a fairly swift knee deep river. We were worried the sheep might not cross it willingly, but once the first few reached the river, and felt the building pressure of several thousand behind, they waded in and the rest followed. Job done! The low lying fields surrounding the shearing shed were now packed with over 7000 sheep, who were all to be given a severe haircut 3 days later.
[sunset at Shag Valley]
While waiting for the shearing to start we joined Tanya on a day trip to Dunedin, at the school where her daughter boards, to make 700 dozen cheese rolls. Yip, that’s 8,400 cheese rolls! Cheese rolls are a South NZ “delicacy”, and these rolls were being made to fundraise for an upcoming school trip to New Caledonia. The volunteers making the cheese rolls were some of the girls who would be traveling, plus their Mums, plus … Daniel and myself. About 15 to 20 volunteers in total, and the biggest group we have been in since we got here! Despite our feral look (especially Daniel’s hairstyle), some assumed that Daniel and I had a teenage daughter traveling on the trip and asked where she was that day (mental note to do something about that grey hair!).
Anyway, back to the cheese rolls. They are made from grated cheese, mixed with hot onion soup to form a slushy mixture which is spread on a slice of bread, and then rolled. At this point they were packed by the dozen in bags, for the buyers to freeze, before grilling in their own time. First job was to carry about 100kg of cheese upstairs to the school’s cooking room, followed by 410 loaves of bread. Then we set about making the rolls. Tanya was on cheese mixing duties while Daniel and i teamed up with one of the Mums to make the rolls. We laid out slices of bread on our working table, then i spooned a bit of cheese mix onto each slice, while our teammate spread it, and Daniel folded the bread into rolls on a tray and passed it to the packers. We worked at a frenzied speed, daunted by the size of the task, and were each so focused on our single task that we were almost dizzy for a finish. Between the 3 of us we made about 3,000 rolls (give or take a few thousand!). Other volunteers were making rolls at nearby tables, but chatting sociably as they did so and our group certainly stood out (imagine us two process efficiency fanatics in the middle of this group – i think it’s fair to say they won’t forget us!). Tanya had purchased some and there were cheese rolls for lunch the next day, but i was so sick of the smell of them i couldn’t eat any. So despite having made 3,000 cheese rolls, i’ve never eaten any!
After a few days on the farm it started to rain heavily and it soon became clear that the shearing would have to be postponed – the sheep must be dry when being shorn. While waiting for the weather to improve we did a few farm jobs, joining Tanya on her daily chores of feeding the chickens, the horse, the pet calf and lambs, and also helping Johnny to feed silage to the sheep. To do this, Johnny and i rode in the tractor while the machine behind dispersed silage from the bales it was carrying. When we entered the gate to the field, the sheep, obviously knowing the drill, ran eagerly towards us. It was hard not to feel sorry for them as they came running after the tractor, desperate to get food. They were hungry and soaking wet, and i was sorry to see them out in that weather. I was even sorrier to think of them getting shorn in a few days, just as the cold Winter weather was about to hit. Getting shorn though is a necessity, as if they fall over (all too easy on wet, muddy ground), they can’t get up as their wet wool is too heavy, and they die (we saw one poor creature that had fallen in this way but which died before we could rescue it). Sadly, it’s not much of a life for sheep it seems! It wasn’t all grim though, as riding in the jump seat of a 130 horse power tractor was fun!
Johnny too was a marvel, living as he does with renal failure. His kidneys failed in his early 20s and for many years he managed on a kidney donated by his (living) Mother. Unfortunately though his body rejected that kidney 7 years ago and he has been on kidney dialysis since then. He is one of the few people in the country that perform dialysis at home (rather than in hospital) and every second night he hooks up to the dialysis machine for 8.5 hours. Home dialysis is a serious undertaking, as his entire blood supply circulates numerous times through the machine, and having access to electrical power and the needed 700 litres of filtered water each time is a must. Needless to say he barely sleeps during the process, and so effectively sleeps only every second night. Apart from being a drain on sleep and energy, needing dialysis means he can only travel for 1 night at a time and sadly has to miss family trips away. Nonetheless he manages the farm, including plenty of heavy work, coaches the local rugby team and carries on his family and social life with more good humour and energy than i think i could manage in his shoes. The whole experience had a profound impact on us and gotten us thinking about the thousands of people in a similar situation, and how important it is that we all carry donor cards. I’ve also been seriously pondering why more of us don’t donate one of our kidneys as living donors. We only need one after all …
As the rain kept falling the shearing delay became the least of Johnny’s worries as river levels rose and flooded some of his fields. The river we had taken the sheep across 3 days before had become unrecognisable – a frightening torrent several times wider and deeper than when we crossed it, sweeping tree trunks and large branches downstream. The main driveway to the house crosses a bridge over a side stream, and the water thundering under the bridge was almost level with the road, and it was STILL raining. As a precaution we drove our little car to the far side of the bridge, so we wouldn’t get stranded if the road was flooded and destroyed (Johnny could ferry us and our bags via tractor if need be). All around, bridges were being flooded or washed away, roads were closed and neighbouring livestock were marooned on islands of grass surrounded by water. We awoke the next morning relieved to see that the bridge had held and the water levels were receding. With no sign of shearing, and heavy snow forecast in the following days, we hit the road rather than risk getting snowed in. We were sad to leave Johnny and Tanya, and thoroughly enjoyed their company, the farm experience, and the warm home they welcomed us into. We both agree that despite all the beautiful places we have seen, the highlight of our trip has been getting to know Kiwi families like these and this is what we will treasure most after we leave.
As we write several days later, the weather has been dominating the nightly news. (It turns out that the heavy rain was a 1 in 20 year event.) Flooding and road closures around Shag Valley still feature, as well as the mighty Winter storm that has blown in since then. Snow, snow and more snow! The region we are in has received the most snow seen in 30 years with 100-200cm of snow, temperatures of -10 degrees and many road closures. The snow fell over several days and while we were excited when the first dump arrived, that didn’t last long. Yesterday morning when Daniel awoke, his first weary words to me were ‘is it still snowing?”. The snow forced us to sit tight in the backpackers we had reached after leaving Shag Valley and we whiled away almost a week in front of the fire and glued to the TV weather reports. The town we are in is surrounded by indescribably beautiful mountains and we are itching to get out and see them covered in snow, but alas with the lethal road conditions, we can only wait, and this is slowly driving us mad!
[first day out after the storm]
[Clara was up to take the shot while lazy D was sleeping]
[Ranfurly, our temporary hometown]