True New Zealand
Think of New Zealand, and the first thing that comes to mind is probably sheep. There are currently 40 million of them (and only 4 million people) in the country, filling any and every patch of useable land not occupied by people or rugged mountains.
Really, it would be hard to say you’ve experienced true New Zealand without spending time on a sheep farm, so back in early November we decided to do just that. Recommended whole-heartedly by good friends back home, we called up Ken and Sandra Closs to arrange two weeks of WWOOFing (working for room and board) at their farm, Te Hapu.
In the far northwest corner of the south island, just before you run out of land, Te Hapu is sandwiched between the Tasman Sea and Kahurangi National Park. It is a bumpy two-hour drive down a dirt road to the nearest town, giving the farm a sense of remoteness and discovery. Rugged green pastures broken by clusters of tree ferns and Nikau palms roll down straight into the sea. Mobs of fine-wooled merino and sturdy Romney sheep—along with a few surprisingly nimble cows—graze continuously, looking like big balls of wool with sticks for legs. A narrow drive leads in to their house, surrounded by a bountiful garden and tall trees, which act as a fortress against a relentless southwest wind.
Ken and Sandra spent years working in one of the shearing gangs that roam the country, saving up enough money to purchase the land back in 1980. They have a wealth of knowledge about the land and their animals, and they were always willing to take the time to patiently answer our questions. The farming has never been easy, and along with a couple thousand sheep and hundred cows they operate several holiday homes scattered about their property. Listening to them tell the story, it is obvious they are proud of the life they have built— and rightfully so. Te Hapu is simply beautiful.
Within the first afternoon, we were smitten. It is hard believe anyone just lives somewhere this incredible. Every curve of the hill holds an unexpected stunning vista, a hidden cluster of foxgloves, a yawning secret cave, or a perfect sweeping beach. Limestone outcroppings dominate the dramatic coastline, topping the steep hillsides and harboring tide pools and crab-filled crevices along the sea.
We quickly fell into the rhythm of daily life on the farm. Up early, we’d spend four or five hours a day working on various projects, and the rest of the time exploring the land. It felt good to have a purpose to each day, and to do some physical work after so long in the car. Ken and Sandra always cooked delicious, simple, nearly self-sufficient meals— roasted mutton or beef, lots of potatoes and squash, vegetables and greens from their garden, plus freshly baked bread every day. It was not hard to fall in love with the simple and satisfying lifestyle.
We’d arrived just as they were preparing to shear their Romney sheep—about 1,100 in all. On the drive in, we had joked about the most undesirable jobs we could be assigned. “What if they tell us we’re going to be cleaning sheep butts,” we laughed. The first night at dinner, Ken announced: “you’re going to be cleaning sheep butts.”
Actually, it’s called dagging, and it wasn’t so bad. Someone wrestles a sheep, grabbing it by the front two legs and flipping it on it’s back, dragging it out for Ken to shear its ass. Alex did most of this, while we landscaped (dug four foot post holes) in the garden.
The most impressive part of the shearing process, though, came many hours earlier. We joined Ken, Sandra, and their seven dogs just after sunrise to muster the sheep from the far-flung paddocks. Each dog has several different whistle signals, sending it wheeling to right or left, or bringing it to a sudden, if grudging, halt. Climbing the green hills and watching the dogs expertly maneuver the mob of sheep, all of it backlit by the early-morning sun, was a sight we’ll not soon forget.
Once the sheep were gathered and dagged, a shearing gang arrived. Two shearers, two wool handlers, and a 9-months-pregnant wife drove up early one morning, ready to start the three-day process. From 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. or so, the woolshed was buzzing with nonstop activity. I was assigned to help, while Nate and Alex spent long, hard hours landscaping.
The shearers, Travers and Neil, dragged the stocky lambs and full-grown ewes out of the pens to shear, each one taking just a couple minutes. Twins Liza and Katrina gathered the wool and sorted through the fleeces, while Ken and Sandra darted around to make sure everything flowed smoothly. I helped sort through the lamb wool, picking out pieces that were too short or dirty. When we moved on to the ewes, I was in charge of sweeping up all the bits of wool, as well as arranging the fleece around the sheep to make it easier for the shearers.
It’s a fast-paced team effort—everyone must keep up with each task, or risk slowing down the entire process. Everyone was dripping with sweat and covered in wool, and by the end of the day we were more than ready for showers, beers, and chairs.
After the second day, we had an extra bit of excitement: Neil’s wife went into labor. Thankfully, they made it back into town, and nervous-looking Nate and Alex were spared being midwife’s assistants. The shearing process continued the next day two people short, leaving Ken shearing and Nate and Alex in charge of feeding everyone.
Once the shearing gang left and the spindly-looking shorn sheep were turned back out to the hills, the woolshed grew oddly quiet. A dozen or so large bales of tightly packed wool sat waiting to be turned into sweaters, socks, and carpets—the payoff for days, months, and years of effort. Being part of the whole process gave us a new appreciation for the wool we use, and all the various people putting so much work into it. After the shearing was done, we got back into our more mellow routine at the farm, soaking up our last few days.
Flipping through their guest book at the end of our stay, we saw that many people from all over the world have shared our experience here over the years. It is just one of those places that leaves an indelible impression on everyone who spends time there. After two wonderful weeks on the farm, it was clear that Te Hapu would stay with us for years to come.