Tassie Sheep

SHrek

Tasmania is often the butt of jokes for those from the Australian ‘mainland’ – rumoured to be home of the hillbillies with two heads, it is in fact quite a civilised isle. Any city that boasts a weekly inner-city market with more than 2 stalls selling merino/ possum blend socks has got to be a winner in my books, and Hobart ticks that box. Even though it isa city, with 4-story buildings and a whole fleet of parking wardens, it is nevertheless remarkably similar to New Zealand. This was reinforced to me last week, thanks to, well, a sheep in general conversation.

A discussion on digital media suddenly took an interesting turn, when the question of what constitutes breaking news came up. The answer? 23kg of wild fleece, recently detached from a sheep that called the wilderness of Tasmania ‘home.’ ‘Shaun’ the sheep was headline news not only in the local Tassie paper, but all over Australia. I even heard about it in almost real time from my Australian colleagues whilst we were out in the middle of the ocean – the animal had global penetration. Of course, at just 23kg Shaun’s shavings didn’t have a patch on the fleece of our very own Shrek. And of course I couldn’t resist letting everyone know this fact. But it didn’t end there.

Arguments over the relative merits of youtube and twitter were soon left by the wayside, thanks to the use of the words ‘sheep’ and ‘iceberg’ in the same sentence. Hobart may be a ‘Gateway to Antarctica’, but it is not the sort of port where icebergs head for a sightseeing holiday. Dunedin, of course, is exactly the sort of port past which large chunks of ice from the far south periodically cruise.

‘It’s not just about the fleece,’ I told my colleagues, ‘that’s not where the story ends at all. It’s what the sheep does afterwards that is the really ground breaking stuff.’ This concept appeared to be ground breaking for all those around the table. Sheep, of course, are not only good for grazing our lawns and gracing our plates. They are also great models to star in wool commercials for the warmest textiles – and where better to stage such an advert than on an Antarctic iceberg? Crampons, clippers, and a chopper ride had NZ transfixed a decade ago, and Hobart transfixed last week.

Shaun and Shrek do have plenty in common, but for me, the iceberg-shearing incident seals the deal. Next time an overgrown ovine appears from the Hobart hinterlands though, we’d best keep an eye on our own headlines, as seeds of ideas have now been planted…A bit of trans-Tasman rivalry never did anyone any harm, but it is nice to be on the winning side, even if I am currently on the ‘wrong’ side of ‘the ditch.’

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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It’s Showtime!

show tomsWhen I lived up in Auckland, the word ‘show’ carried connotations of a night out at the theatre, or a laser light projection on the downtown ferry building. Sparkles and spectacular were in; tractors, not so much. Since moving south, the word ‘show’ has variously been prefixed with ‘quilt’, ‘dog’, and of course ‘A&P’, widening both my horizons and knowledge of rural necessities.  This weekend the show is back, and this year, I finally know what to expect.

First, there will be a whole range of jumping-related events, featuring horses, dogs and highly coordinated kilted dancers. The intricacies of horses and highland dancing remain a mystery to me, but when it comes to the dogs, I’ve done my prep.  Volunteering at the Ashburton dog agility show opened my eyes to the range of dogs that compete, from ankle to hip height, and the many different leaping styles that exist, from the dainty hop to the mighty bound.

Next, there will be cakes on display. Fresh cakes. Despite the fact that entries must be received well prior to the event, the baked goods themselves arrive on the day. I learnt this from the Methven show, where the discrepancy between entry date and the show itself left me most concerned that my perfectly square, meticulously prepared scones would have gone mouldy come judging.

Then there are the tractors and seeds and machinery that really put the ‘A’ in ‘A&P’. Growing is an important business down this way, and there is a huge amount of science that goes into soil preparation and improving yields.  The show is, of course, a prime opportunity to put the technologies behind new agricultural advances on display. Cue GPS integrated systems, shiny new imports, and a yard full of lads looking as gleeful as kids in a lifesize lego playground. Throw in the odd hotdog stand and you’re sorted.

The closest that I ever got to an agricultural show up on Auckland was the time I stopped by the carnivorous plants expo one Sunday morning. I have a feeling we were the first visitors of the day, because the plant-rearers waived the entry fee and plied us with specimens of NZ native bug-eaters to take home to our flat and nurture up to competition size for the next year. Which of the dozen native insect-eating varieties they were I couldn’t say, but we didn’t have an ant problem that summer, that’s for sure.

Neither did we have the carnival atmosphere that comes with the annual A&P event. Rural shows may be less cabaret and more field day, but there’s more than enough entertainment behind those gates to keep even a thespian-loving lass from the city entertained for the day. What are you waiting for? It’s showtime!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Funny Looking Sheep…

llama back

As far as mountain ranges go, the Kaikoura ranges do not really compare to the massive Andes of South America when it comes to height or scale. When it comes to long-necked furry mammals though, it is another story. Last weekend we headed north to explore the coast and to experience the new tourist phenomenon that is llama trekking.

First up, a clarification: ‘You Do Not Ride Llama!’ as the brochure loudly exclaims. Instead, you walk alongside the animal, gazing into its large black eyes and hoping that it doesn’t decide to spit in your general direction. First, though, you need to pen the creatures so they can be haltered up. That was an interesting way to start the morning, chasing llamas round a muddy paddock. Since moving down here I have invested in a pair of good quality gumboots, and in this situation they really came into their own.

Next it was time to get to know our charges, and for them to get to know us. Each llama has a distinct personality, which was evident from the outset. Just like the seven dwarves, there was the slow one, the grumpy one, the eager one. Carlos and Rocky were the best of friends, so naturally they had to walk side by side. We took them by the halter, and headed off for the grassy verge of the highway, into the late morning light.

Being llama novices, we opted for a flat and easy hour-long taster rather than a half-day trek or an overnight mission. As it turned out, they were very pleasant exercise companions, stopping for a chomp of grass every now and then, but otherwise peering quite happily over our shoulders at the mountainous terrain and posing for the obligatory llama selfies. While riding is out, you can put any important documents in the satchel bags on the animals’ flanks to get ‘llaminated’ (this is a great activity for families, because the opportunities for ‘dad jokes’ are endless).

Llamas in Auckland are about as rare as lapdogs at the Brown Pub, so the opportunity to make friends with what looks like a long-necked sheep was rather novel, and not to be passed up. In fact it was a friend from the city who tipped me off the activity in the first place. Of course I booked right away. In short, we paid good money to take someone else’s llamas for their daily exercise. And we had a lovely time.

Aussie Aussie Aussie, Sheep Sheep Sheep

shrek

We recently had an Australian couch surfer come to stay on our lounge suite. He came for the snow and a small taste of the rural, but in light of the gale force winds he was starved of the former and gorged at a buffet of small town NZ until he was full to bursting.

First up, we took him for a pint at The Blue. On a Wednesday night, the pub was not its usual bustling self, but we assured our guest that on special occasions, like the speed shearing competition, both our local landmarks pack out. The mention of sheep shearing was innocent enough, but apparently the trend has yet to hit the hip new nightclubs of Brisbane. Eyebrows were raised.

The next day I sent him off for a wander through the town, marking such highlights as ‘The Garden of Harmony’ and the ploughing sculpture on a map. They were nice enough, but it was the sheep in our neighbour’s garden that had him raving. ‘It’s a pet,’ I explained, ‘until it becomes dinner.’ Living in an apartment 12 stories up, a hamster was the best our visitor could manage back home, and his hamster was definitely not named ‘snack’.

Next it was time to get outdoors for a stretch and some scenery with a gradient. On our hike up Awa Awa Rata our Aussie was initially cautious as I strode ahead. ‘Back home you’d definitely be on the look out for snakes in this terrain’ he told me. Not here, though. The wasps of summer were nowhere to be seen, and the dearth of venomous creepy crawlies made all manner of cross-country manoeuvres possible. He started to relax. ‘I could get used to this’ he told me as we descended towards the car park. Then, as we drove past paddocks of livestock and over the RDR, he snapped a few photos and offered to make dinner. 

Post meal, when I asked our Aussie about his impressions of Mid Canterbury he went quiet for a moment before offering his response: ‘I never thought that all the sheep clichés were true before I came here.’ In light of his reply, I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that he cooked us a lamb curry for dinner that evening…

The next day our guest departed Methven, bound for Queenstown, culture, and the slopes of the south. Or so he thought. What he’ll make of the Shrek museum in Tarras is anyone’s guess…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Sheep of the Globe

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I never thought I would find myself face to face with a sheep in the centre of a barn, taking notes on a shearing demonstration. Then I visited Patagonia, and everything changed. On an outing to a local farm, or ‘Estancia’, we were treated to a rural experience, Chilean style. If you discount the wild llama we passed during the bus ride out there, suddenly home didn’t seem so far away at all.

First up we were treated to a sheep dog demonstration. The huaso, or cowboy, sat perched atop his dappled steed while his shaggy canine companion tore about the paddock, herding his flock.  While it was not a patch on the International Sheep Dog Trials at last year’s Ashburton A&P Show, it was an admirable effort nonetheless, made all the more interesting by the appearance of a wild fox in the middle of the course halfway through the demonstration. It looked remarkably similar to a tall cat, and the dog treated it as such, hounding it out of the arena before the sheep could even bleat. The A&P judges may not have been too impressed with such behaviour, but hound and herder got full marks for entertainment.

Next up was the shearing demonstration. This was no Friday night entertainment in the local pub, but a serious educational experience, complemented by tiered seating and a running commentary from our local guide. While the majority of our contingent was intrigued by the equation ‘sheep plus shears equals fleece’, for me it was an eye opener that so many people were unaware of where wool actually comes from, despite their own knitted base layer clothing.

There have been ample opportunities to talk about sheep during my Antarctic trip as well, with tabular icebergs providing the perfect entry into a conversation about Shrek the sheep. As we cruised around the towering walls of ice, discussing the colouring and texture, I told my captive audience that back where I come from we use these kinds of bergs as shearing platforms. When a particularly large chunk drifted our way in 2006, we flew Shrek out there for a haircut. Many a discussion was subsequently held on the merits of merino wool and how to manufacture crampons to keep iceberg-faring sheep from going for a skate. While the practical applications of such an invention may be rather limited, my spiel appeared to spark renewed interest in the animal crampon industry, providing an opening for any budding entrepreneurs back home who are looking for an exportable niche…

Back on the Estancia, the sheep remained on solid ground and eventually on a solid roasting rack. A Chilean rodeo demonstration topped off the rural show before a meal of lamb on a spit was devoured. For a stepping-stone between the ice of the south and a Methven autumn, this Chilean farm was just the trick. What with sheep, farm dogs, and barbecue, it was just like being back home – the odd wild (and unshorn) llama aside.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

The Facts of Life

Living in a rural community, it’s hard to avoid the facts of life. Lambing season comes and goes, calves are reared, the stock truck heads to the meatworks and the cycle comes full circle. Over the past few weeks I have observed the circle in action, where it has had less to do with the birds and the bees and more to do with a couple of mammals with impeccable timing.

The first life-or-death incident had us getting up close and personal with a sheep, and not in the ways that Australian jokes would have you believe. We were walking along the RDR, minding out own business, when we heard a ‘Splash’, closely followed by a ‘Maaaaaaa.’ Closer inspection revealed a bundle of bleat knee high in the mud and very stuck.

We were going to have to do something – but what? Our initial efforts made it clear that pulling alone simply wasn’t going to cut it. Sheep, it turns out, are quite heavy, and a wet sheep can rival the bench press selection at any flashy Auckland gym. We needed a new tactic. Cue kiwi ingenuity 101, aka two dog leads and some cleverly applied physics. One harness contraption and two very confused dogs later, the bedraggled sheep shambled off as far away from the water as possible to dry off. Judging by the number of sheep carcasses that showed up in the RDR as the water level dropped over the next week, our sheep was one woolly mammal with a cosmic wristwatch, alright.

The second mammal I encountered, although more commonly associated with watches, was not so lucky. Instead, the hare that crossed the path of my station wagon will now be eternally late. This proved to be a bonus for my friend and I, both in terms of kudos and cuisine. While the boys were at home trying on their new waterproof gear and studying a DVD about stalking deer, we were bringing home dinner. So far our accidental hunting has proved more fruitful than any of their rugged bush walks, which suggests that the preservation instinct of the deer still trumps the carefully edited cinematography of even the best ‘How To Hunt’ video guide.

In the end you win some and you lose some, but I’ve learnt to always make the most of the situation at hand. Rural life is one big Lion King chorus, and I’m slowly getting to know some of the words.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Last Friday Night

Last weekend I visited Auckland, city of sails and signs and sounds. Come Friday night, we headed for that holy grail of gaudiness and over-stimulation: The Arcade. No matter what your favourite colour there is a game to match, complete with looped theme tune and special effects lighting. From Dance Dance Revolution to Air Hockey and Photo Booth, this parody of city life provided the colour and bustle and crowds and sensory overload that I have missed.

Growing up, such busyness was always just background noise – something that I was not consciously aware of but was nonetheless slightly comforting. It was not until spending time away from the bright lights and street corner preachers of Queen Street that I realised how much I had been screening out. Impromptu street theatre? Ice cream parlour karaoke? How did I not notice these before?

Ashburton, with a smaller population, has less on the radar, but there are still entertainment options, many of which you would never get in the city. Take the cow milking competition in the Tinwald Tavern, for instance. The concept was simple: whoever could extract the greatest volume of milk from their’ cow’s udder by hand in one minute was the winner. Being a city girl, I had never really considered the possibility that bovine mammaries might form the basis for a competitive sport, let alone one that was spectator friendly. It certainly gave new meaning to the term ‘brown eyed beauty’.

A recent chat to a local revealed yet another unique entertainment form run in the vicinity: the Methven sheep racing. Not content with annual motorcycle races, the town went one step further, introducing theRacing Baa Blacks to the repertoire of street circuit events. Auckland tried to stage a similar event as part of the Rugby World Cup parade last year, but it was shouted down as a no-go. Sheep don’t know how to obey traffic lights, and their droppings would have posed a hazard to inner city cycle couriers. While the question of droppings remains, contending with red lights is not a problem in Methven.

Perhaps the rural nature of Mid Canterbury has been sending out subliminal messages, because my big city arcade visit concluded with an equine twist. I couldn’t resist trying out the plastic horse video game from the early 1990s, and although the realism of the ride was slightly lacking – I am yet to hear a real horse announce ‘stop crashing me!’ – my choice of entertainment option does say something about the way my large animal horizons have broadened over the last year. Who knows, next time I’m in Auckland it could be to pitch a new game to the arcade, based on competitive cow milking. ‘Udder Frenzy’ could be the next big thing…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian