< previous | next >Letters Home: Betsy Kepes in New ZealandContents | NCPR Home

Messages for Betsy
Glenomaru Valley to Stewart Island 1/19-23/06

January 19th and 20th Glenomaru Valley

Farmers in NZ have two types of dogs-working dogs and pets. The working dogs are thin and obedient, live in bare outside cages and are fed once a day after hours of running while herding sheep or cows. The pet dogs live a pampered existence inside the house and are often fat and sedentary, with soft dog beds and chewing toys. Such is the dog's fate here.

Pam brought two of the working dogs with us in the morning when we took the four-wheelers up the valley to the higher paddocks (pastures). Tom got a quick lesson and was soon cruising along on one four-wheeler, two dogs standing behind him on a plywood platform. I rode behind Pam on the other machine. My job was to jump off and open and close gates as we corralled sheep from the higher paddocks down to the dirt road. The dogs did most of the work, driving hundreds of sheep toward each open gate. These two dogs were a type called "heading dogs", small and quiet. The dogs didn't bark but streaked across the paddocks, constantly moving and gathering the sheep. The dogs we left behind in their cages were "Hunt-aways", larger dogs who bark loudly as they work behind the sheep.

Pam said she wasn't good at training dogs, she was too soft on them. Herding dogs can be purchased already trained for $2,000 to $4,000. After watching the dogs work I could see their value. One person on a four-wheeler or horse and two or three dogs can move hundreds of sheep for miles if necessary.

We brought about 1200 lambs down to the woolshed to be sorted in a narrow chute. Neil stood at the three-way gate, quickly sorting into three paddocks-ewe lambs in one, big ram lambs in another (destined for the packing plant) and not-as-big lambs that needed pasture for a few more weeks before being sent to the packing plant. By lunchtime Neil had sorted over 2,000 lambs.

After lunch, Tom and Jay helped herd a group of the lambs back up to the high paddocks then Tom and I had a chance to use a few of our skills. Pam and Neil heat their house with a woodstove and the woodshed needed filling. Neil had a eucalyptus tree down and he and Tom cut it into lengths while I split the rounds and piled the pieces into the truck. Eucalyptus, or gum tree, grows amazingly fast in NZ- the annual growth rings were more than an inch wide-and the pale yellow wood was easy to split. It reminded me of White Ash, though the wood was softer and lighter.

The next day Tom and I worked on another eucalyptus, a big tree that I assumed to be about 50 years old as the rounds nearest the stump were a good two and a half feet in diameter. What a surprise when I counted the rings in the stump-fifteen years old! Pam and Neil had planted the row as a windbreak and now the trees were too big. Was it magic dust in the soil? No, just a long growing season with a very mild winter. Snow is rare here and doesn't last long.

We worked on the wood on and off all day, in between rain squalls. Jay helped for awhile then walked back to the house to play some of the board games he'd found in a closet. Pam and Neil have three kids, now doing graduate work, and they left behind a good assortment of games.

In the late afternoon we all piles into the car for some sightseeing. First stop was an old RR tunnel converted into a slightly scary walking path. Neil made it even scarier by jumping out at us and catching us all by surprise. The RR was built by hand at the beginning of the twentieth century to make it easier to get the giant old-growth logs out to sawmills and other markets. When the trees were gone, the RR closed also.

Next stop-Nugget Point Lighthouse- a stark place on a rocky spit with seals playing below on the rocks and Yellow-eyed Penguins standing guard at their nests. The cold wind and rain eased up for a moment and the sun created a shimmering rainbow-picture postcard perfect.

We stopped in to say hi to Pam's brother, Bruce, and his family. Bruce farms organically and gets about one and a half times the price for his animals that Pam and Neil get. Neil did tell us that Bruce's lambs don't weigh as much as his-it's difficult to keep them de-wormed without chemicals. Bruce was a vocal proponent of organic meat and could have argued for hours with Neil but we left before that began.

Supper was late-Tom's sourdough bread with cheese and tomatoes and Vegemite for those who liked it. Vegemite is a tarry brown spread made of yeasts and salt. Many people in NZ are very fond of it and eat it on their breakfast toast. It is, shall I say, an acquired taste. After the meal we played Pictionary and Jay, our artist, was on the winning team.

January 21st Glenomaru Valley to Paptowai

Before we left in the morning we watched Neil shear a sheep. Usually a shearing crew does the job, but this ewe had escaped the first round of shearing and was hiding out with her lamb until Jay herded them back into an occupied pasture. The ewe was skittish and wild until Neil flipped her onto her back and held her head under his arm. The shearing didn't take long and while Neil worked Pam separated out the dirty and briar-y patches of wool that would diminish the value of the pelt if left in. The long, slightly greasy fibers seemed soft to me but they will probably by made into woollen rugs. Wool clothing is spun from the finer fleece of merino sheep.

We didn't say goodbye to Pam and Neil until after we'd pedalled 10km to Owaka, browsed in the small museum, then re-met our hosts for lunch at the Lumberjack Restaurant. After a quick look at a small private museum (old logging tools, photos and a new quilt show) we thanked Pam and Neil and said we hoped we'd host them the next time we met. We'd go to our Lumberjack Inn in Tupper Lake and show them our favourite forests and lakes.

Back on the bikes, the road curved up and down and we turned onto a side road to see Purakaunui Falls, a short walk through native bush. We stopped at two more waterfalls before reaching our destination-Papatawai, a small settlement at the mouth of the Tahakopa River. From the motor camp we walked along the sandy shore of the river out to the ocean, passing fishermen and other families out walking. Jay had time to build a sand castle before we walked back, still light after 9pm.

January 22nd Papatowai to Curio Bay

The beach beckoned and we didn't leave Papatowai until noon, after spending a few hours reading and playing in the sand. Our biking day began with a walk-up a long hill where at the top we had a sweeping view of a long beach and rocky headland. After a glorious downhill we carried our lunch in to Wilke Lake, a small bog lake, unusual in coastal NZ, though it reminded us of the Adirondacks.



A few more hills brought us to the dirt road leading into Cathedral Caves. The gate on the road is only open during low tide when the caves are accessible to walkers. We walked along a dirt road then down a steep trail through the bush to a sheltered bay. At the far end the cliffs were a pitted limestone and with a bit of imagination the entrance to the first cave seemed covered in carved gargoyles. Inside, the cave roof rose to a cathedral height then narrowed at the back wehre a passageway led to a second cave, one with its own entrance, the two caves forming a "V". The inner point of the V had a small rocky platform covered in seaweed. I imagined how terrifying it would be to be caught inside at high tide, waiting for the water to go down. Maybe the next movie filmed in NZ will feature such a scene…

Back at the parking lot, we chatted with the woman who took the admission fees (the caves are on Maori land). She told us that last winter the waves had moved the sand so that for months the caves were inaccessible at all tide levels. Now she was happy to have her job back.

By the time we walked back to our bikes it was after four and the tourist traffic had died down. We enjoyed an almost empty road stretching through miles and miles of "scenic reserve" native bush. I counted about ten minutes between each motorized vehicle, a long enough interval to have time to feel immersed in the bird sound of early evening.

We left the thick trees via a glorious winding downhill, back to green sheep pastures and past the Niagara community hall where cars lined the road and I saw men lifting a large container out of a pit. The party would feast on a "hungi", with the meat and vegetables steamed underground. A traditional Maori hungi usually featured pork and kumara, a purple sweet potato. (The next day we met a farmer who'd been in Niagara. The event was a 70th birthday party and the hungi included beef and venison as well as pork, kumara and white potatoes).

The road followed the ocean now and we saw surfers tying their boards onto their cars and peeling off their wetsuits. Most of the little rental cottages had NO VACANCY signs out front. Fortunately, Curio Bay had a large campground with the site carved out of a slightly claustrophobic flax forest. Flax is a native bush with long flexible leaves. The Maori shredded them to make baskets and clothing. A territorial sea lion amused a crowd at the beach, though not a young girl who couldn't get past him. Yellow-eyed Penguins drew another crowd on a rocky shore nearby. A sign warned about not disturbing the Hector's Dolphins but a friendly Kiwi tourist told me the dolphins hadn't been around much this summer.

January 23rd Curio Bay to Invercargill

After a few evening showers, the weather cleared and we biked in the morning through the brightness of a classic summer day. Our first 12kms were dirt road, mostly level through farmland and past a shallow lake where a road sign warned of tidal flooding. We stopped at a respectful distance when we saw a farmer getting the last of his sheep into a new paddock. We now understood how skittish sheep can be.

In the entire 85kms to Invercargill we passed one store. Well, we didn't pass it. We stopped in to buy cold drinks and popsicles as we weren't used to the sun and the heat. Surprisingly, the motor camp at the edge of Invercargill was new (most are old and a bit rundown) with clean hot showers and a large capacity washing machine.

Squeaky clean, we pedalled into the city for a celebratory meal at a Thai restaurant next to the movie theatre. We saw "The World's Fastest Indian", in which an older man from Invercargill travels to Bonneville salt flats in Utah in the 1960's to try and set a speed record with his 1920's Indian motorcycle. The movie was a low-budget affair with clumsy acting but great fun to see it and recognize the beaches where we'd just been.

When we bicycled back through the dark empty city streets the western sky glowed an astonishing green, a color I have never before seen at sunset. Tom and Jay surged ahead, building up speed on the tandem bike, imagining themselves hurtling down the Bonneville salt flats at the speed of light.

January 23rd Invercargill to Stewart Island

Invercargill isn't a big city, but at 35,000 it is the biggest place around and it bustled with Back-to-School shoppers on Monday morning. (School begins in two weeks). We were interested in books and maps, not clothes. No luck finding a used bookstore, but a happy Jay bought the latest Alex Rider paperback (a teenage James Bond) and Tom found a good map of Stewart Island. We finished our shopping with a quick buffet lunch at the Hong Kong Restaurant and grocery shopping at the Pak'n Save.

We stuffed five days of tramping food into our bike panniers and pedalled 30 flat kilometres out to Bluff to catch the ferry to Stewart Island.

< previous | next >Letters Home: Betsy Kepes in New ZealandContents | NCPR Home
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475