A heart in winter
July in the Maniototo
Snow was falling at Dead Horse Pinch, and I was glad of it. I wanted a sense of how miners would have experienced this landscape, trudging with shovel and pan to the Mt Ida goldfield in the winter of ’63. The icy flakes snagging like cotton on the matagouri scrub and couching in the roadside tussocks gave it to me. For them, for me, it was a cold coming to the Maniototo.
The miners were bound for Naseby. Parkers, it was called then, after two brothers who had found payable gold in the head of the Hogburn in May 1863. By July the word was out and the rush was on. Men at other Otago fields deserted their diggings and set out for the new bonanza, tramping through the snow with all their worldly goods on their backs.
Still more streamed across the Pigroot, the old coach road between the coast and the goldfields, the road I was travelling. The Pigroot meanders through the foothills of the Kakanui Mountains. Dead Horse Pinch is near the top of a long uphill grade, not far from where the traveller gets his first views of the Maniototo Plain. For many a horse in the eight- and ten-horse teams pulling laden wagons bound for the goldfields, this was a hill too far. They collapsed in their harnesses and were buried over the bank.
I wiped the snow off the glass of the information panel at the site to reveal a photograph of a queue of horse-drawn wagons—more traffic than I’d seen since I turned inland from Palmerston. The front wagon had broken down, and the road was too narrow for the others to pass. Gridlock on the Pigroot.
I drove on, tapping a foot to long-forgotten hits that form the staple playlist of Classic Gold Ranfurly. Between songs the announcer gave the weather outlook: a high of 4° C and an overnight low of -6° C. “It’s a bit chilly in the wind, but otherwise just another winter’s day in the Maniototo,” she said cheerily.
I was out of the Kakanuis now and taking the long sweet run down towards Ranfurly—sliding down the rim of “the big fishbowl,” as one resident described the Maniototo to me. It’s an apt comparison. Five mountain ranges encompass the region: Rough Ridge to the west, the Rock and Pillar Range to the south-east, the Ida and Hawk-dun Ranges to the north and the Kakanui Mountains to the north-east. Within the mountains’ embrace lies the broad and grassy Maniototo Plain on which the economy of the region has been built.
The ranges, which mark the sites of active faults, have been pushed upwards over the past 30 million years by tectonic jostling in the earth’s crust. Unlike the sawtooth mountains of the Main Divide, they are mostly blocky, the flat-topped molars of the mountain world. Ranging between 1000 and 2000 metres, they are high enough to keep the rain out and the cold in. Average rainfall in the Maniototo is a scant 400 mm a year, and winter temperatures regularly plunge into minus figures. The coldest place in New Zealand, Ophir, lies just outside the Maniototo’s western boundary. Ophir set a teeth-chattering record of -21.6º C in July 1995.
I reached into my travel bag for a CD: Hell Freezes Over. Mood music for a Maniototo winter.
In the hogburn the easy gold was gone in six months, and with it most of the miners. Like moths drawn to brighter flames, they departed for rushes at Garibaldi, German Hill, Firemans Hill and across to the West Coast. “The cream of our population left, never to return,” wrote Naseby storekeeper John Bremner in his memoir of the goldfield days.
For those who stayed, water was the key. Only with huge volumes of water could sufficient earth be scoured from the spurs and gullies to make mining pay. Therein lay a problem. Maniototo’s mountains are not substantial enough to create sizable watersheds, and in the region’s scorching summers many rivers and burns dwindle to mere trickles or dry up completely. To obtain the necessary quantities miners banded together to build water races, the longest of which runs to St Bathans and is said to measure 27 km. Hand dug, such earthworks represent an astonishing investment of human energy. But then a stout heart and a strong arm were the only assets most miners possessed.
On an icy morning suitably harsh for appreciating such endeavours, Dave Purchase, bar manager at Naseby’s Royal Hotel, took me for a bike ride up behind the town to see the legacy of six decades of mining. These days Naseby nestles among conifers like a European alpine town. When it snows you can imagine you’ve stepped into a Christmas card. Yet before 1900 there was not a tree here—no shelter from the freezing southerlies, no buffering from the frost. The men who hewed the races and moiled for the yellow metal would not believe their eyes if they could see Naseby today.
We talked as we rode the forest trails, our tyres shattering frozen puddles as if they were panes of glass. Dave told me he used to pull pints in a Hamilton pub before being offered the Naseby job four years ago. What kept a young buck like him in a town like Naseby, I asked? Being “2000 feet above worry level,” as the Welcome-toNaseby sign boasts, didn’t seem a compelling reason for a single bartender sporting an eyebrow ring to tarry in an old-fashioned town with a permanent population of 100. “The community,” Dave replied, “and the backdrop. I consider myself extremely lucky to have this sort of scenery on my doorstep.”
We came to an old sluicing area, where scoured pillars of gravel stood like giant sculptures. All the old diggings look like this, landscapes scarred by gold-fever. At St Bathans miners sluiced away an entire 120 metre hill next to the town. When they reached ground level they kept on going until they had created a hole 40 metres deep—today’s Blue Lake. The only reason they stopped was because in 1934 the county council, fearing the town’s main street and buildings were in danger from the earthworks, issued an order to cease mining.
We followed a waterrace back towards town. Paw-prints—rabbit or hare, I couldn’t tell which—crisscrossed the snow-covered trail. The race itself was a shallow ditch a little more than a metre wide. A slurry of ice had formed at the channel edges, but the water still flowed freely, as I imagined it had done for more than a century.
After the ride I called in at Naseby Forest headquarters to talk to Greg Kendall, the forest manager. The company he works for, Ernslaw One, bought Naseby Forest in March 2000 from Ngai Tahu, which had been awarded it as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement. Kendall told me that Naseby’s main timber species are Corsican pine and Douglas fir, with smaller stands of Ponderosa pine and larch. There’s a little radiata pine, but it doesn’t do well here. Because of the harshness of the climate (searing heat in summer and freezing cold in winter, with ground frosts on an average of 170 days a year), growth is slow—typically less than half that of plantations in more equable parts of the country. But slow growth gives timber strength and durability, and so Naseby’s products—posts, poles and framing-grade lumber—command premium prices.
Snow isn’t a big problem for the operation, Kendall said. Occasionally he might have to put a grader through to clear the roads, but that just means a bit of a sleep-in for his loggers.
Kendall marked a route on a map, gave me a fluoro vest and a hard hat and sent me up to an area where a mechanical harvester was working. I parked at the skid site near a pile of neatly stacked Douglas fir sawlogs and tromped down a branch-strewn hillside to where the machine was lopping trees in the snow. Stumps cut the day before had little cappuccino peaks of snow on them, and the smell of resin was intense and sweet.
Craig Campbell, the operator, was clearfelling an area that hadn’t seen much silvicultural management, with the result that many of the trees were too thin and weedy to be of any value. I watched him work for a while, impressed at the speed and dexterity of the process. Scrawny trees he simply ripped out of the ground, gripping them with the harvester’s metal claws. Better specimens were cleared of branches by running rollers up and down the trunk, then gripped and sawn to length.
What would the gold miners have thought of this abundance of timber? They struggled to find two sticks to lay together to make a fire, and often resorted to using tussock as fuel to boil the billy or cook a chop. In those days there would have been more mutton than firewood in the Maniototo.
Sheep farmers preceded gold miners by about a decade. For a deposit of £20 a man could obtain a 14-year lease on a block of land, so long as he stocked it within six months. Some of the descendants of those original runholders are still on the land. Indeed, it is unusual to find a sheep farmer who isn’t at least a third-generation Maniototo-ite.
David Crutchley is fourth-generation. His great-grandfather arrived in the Maniototo with “oneand-thruppence and two children,” David told me as we jolted across a paddock in his ute, feeding out barley to Merinos. The sheep ran to the trail of grain as it dribbled out of the hopper, creating a long line of bleating animals that stretched across the landscape like the teeth of a zipper.
We were in the foothills of the Kakanui Mountains near Kyeburn, a few kilometres east of Naseby on the road to Danseys Pass. “We’re right on 45° south here,” David said. He pointed out Mt Nobbler, site of a local tragedy. In 1891, two brothers who had gone out rabbiting were trapped by snow. The search party was swept off the mountain, the first recorded deaths by avalanche in New Zealand.
David farms 6000 hectares in this area. He was shearing on the morning I visited—always a dicey proposition for the sheep in the middle of winter, but a financial necessity for the farmer. The water was off in the shearing shed—the pipes had frozen. The only water was the condensation dripping from the corrugated-iron roof as the shearers worked. “You have to accommodate yourself to the weather,” David said. “When it’s really cold we use heat lamps and fan heaters to keep the pipes in the house from bursting. It got down to -21° C here in 1986.”
Farming in an extreme climate like Maniototo’s is all about strategy and timing. Lambing must be timed to coincide with the start of spring grass growth—the first week of October. Lamb too early and the ewes won’t produce enough milk; too late and the lambs may not fatten up sufficiently during the short growing season, or still be eating the grass the farmer needs to set aside for winter feed.
To get them through the winter months, most farmers rely on a combination of grain, silage, hay and ground crops such as turnips and swedes. “I’m planning next winter’s feed programme now,” David told me. Again, the timing is crucial. He must make sure he has sufficient feed on hand during winter shearing, when the sheep are at their most vulnerable.
These days the emphasis for most Maniototo farmers has switched from wool to meat. “It’s easier to put a kilogram of meat on a lamb than a kilogram of wool on a sheep,” David said. “Both fetch about the same price.”
Given those economics, farmers such as David have switched much of the composition of their flocks from fine-wool breeds such as Merinos to breeds with higher fecundity, better lamb-survival rates and faster growth. David McAtamney, a third-generation Maniototo sheep man, runs Romney–East Friesian cross sheep on his property between Kyeburn and Waipiata for these very reasons.
When he invited me to see his sheep being scanned I thought I’d misheard him. Surely he’d said “sheep being shorn.” But no, when I arrived the following morning he was shooing sheep into pens and driving them up a race into a small covered trailer. Inside the trailer, seated in front of a mud-flecked monitor, Hamish Barclay scanned and separated the ewes into singles, twins, triplets and “drys.”
“It’s essentially the same technique as what’s used in hospitals,” Barclay explained, running a scanning device the size of a computer mouse under the belly of the next sheep in line. Up on the monitor screen came a grainy image that at first glance looked like a satellite weather map. “See the embryo there?” he said, trying to describe to me which of the morphing grey blobs was, in fact, the foetus.
Barclay, one of a dozen livestock scanners in the Maniototo, averages 3000 sheep a day and works 110 days straight during the season, from June to August. David McAtamney says scanning has revolutionised flock management. “Before, when you had all your ewes in together, the singles would gorge on all the tucker, and the twins and triplets didn’t get enough. Now you can make sure they all get the food they need. Also, with scanning you can get your drys out and sell them. A ewe is no use to you if it doesn’t produce lambs.”
While modern techniques such as scanning have enabled traditional sheep farmers to squeeze a few more drops of profitability out of their operations, nothing has transformed farming on the Maniototo the way irrigation has. It has allowed intensive farming such as dairying to develop on land that would otherwise not support it.
John Falconer, a young dairy and deer farmer, has experienced that transformation at first hand. The family property, Clachanburn, lies near the southern tip of the Maniototo, where Rough Ridge meets the Rock and Pillar Range. Over tea and scones he explained why dairying is a good option for the Maniototo, and how irrigation changes everything.
“People think that because this area is high and cold and dry it’s a bad place to dairy. But they’re wrong. This is a brilliant place to dairy. It’s got great animal health always has had. With irrigation and our long sunlight hours we can grow as much grass here as they can anywhere in New Zealand, and the stock do really well. There’s no mud. We’re wintering our cows on swedes and they’re walking around on top of the soil. If you went to South Otago they’d be up to their knees. Last year we did 420 kg milksolids per cow. The average for the country was just over 300.
“Of course, without irrigation we couldn’t do it. We’d be toast! Water allows you to look at your land and ask, ‘What is it best suited to?’ When we did that exercise in the late ’80s we realised our land was too good for the type of stock we had on it. Our Merinos were getting foot problems and our Hereford cattle put on too much fat. So we got out of sheep and we got out of beef. Now we run dairy cattle on our good land and deer on our intermediate land. The production and employment benefits have been huge. Originally this property supported my grandfather and a rabbiter. Now we’ve got seven staff and their families on this place.”
John admits that irrigation has been a thorny issue in the Maniototo, because not every farmer who wants it can get it. The Maniototo Irrigation Scheme, built in the 1980s, provided water for farms in the southern Maniototo only. “If you’re a dryland farmer there’s not a lot you can do that’s different from what your grandfather did. When you get water you can intensify and diversify—basically do whatever you like.”
“Including grapes?” I asked, thinking of the viticultural success story happening over the hill in Central Otago.
“We’re too high, except maybe for pinot noir,” Jane Falconer, John’s mother, replied from the kitchen. “But peonies are definitely a goer.”
Jane started to list other niche possibilities. She has a garden that is open to the public, for example, and John offers trophy shooting for stags. David and Glenis Crutchley are involved in cross-country cycle tours and 4WD tours.
“I see another tourism opportunity,” Jane said, warming to the subject. “To complement the wine you could have a boutiquey little cheese factory using Maniototo milk. I’m sure there’s an opening for that.
“What you have to say, though,” she added with a sigh, “is that there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many things you can do.”
One tourist option that can’t be offered is a romantic winter train journey to the Maniototo—chuffing through the Taieri Gorge, gazing out the window at the Rock and Pillars and speeding across the plains to Alex and Clyde. To the everlasting fury of some locals, the last rails of the Otago Central Branch line were pulled up in 1990. Today’s trains go only as far as Middlemarch, in the Strath Taieri district to the south of Maniototo.
Each generation, it seems, waxes nostalgic for the mode of transportation of the one that preceded it. While many today pine for steam, those who witnessed the spread of rail lamented the demise of the coach and wagon. After reading tales of wagoners in Janet Cowan’s Down the Years in the Maniototo, I felt a pang of nostalgia for that horse-drawn age. I pictured Harry Nettleford driving the Cobb and Co. coach on a winter’s morning, his flowing beard “a mass of icicles.” Another driver, having lost his hat, got into the habit of using a tea cosy to keep his noggin warm. Then there was John Sinnamon, who on one occasion trundled a five-foot diameter, three hundredweight wagon wheel 23 miles—most of it uphill—to replace one which had broken.
Despite the lifting of the tracks, all is not lost of the rail era. In 1993, the Department of Conservation bought the railway land and, over the next six years, built a 150 km recreational trail for walkers, cyclists and horse riders that runs from Middlemarch across the Maniototo to Clyde.
I borrowed a bike from the Royal Hotel and rode one of the more picturesque sections, Daisybank to Hyde. Along this stretch great schist buttresses jut into the Taieri Gorge like the bows of battleships. The trail winds through the gorge above copses of pines, alongside sheep paddocks where farmers have turned discarded rails into fence posts, across a couple of bridges and through an old brick tunnel that doesn’t seem wide enough to have fitted a train carriage. One pleasant aspect of the trail is that, being a former railway line, there are no hills.
A modest tourism infrastructure is starting to grow up around the trail: farmstays, backpacker accommodation, craft shops, a café or two. Although most of the custom is in the warmer months, other developments are afoot which capitalise on Maniototo’s winter attractions. In Naseby I watched the roof going on a new million-dollar indoor curling rink—the only one of its kind in the Southern hemisphere. It is due to open in 2005, and a luge track is also in the pipeline. To cope with the influx of visitors these facilities are expected to bring, a motel and conference centre is being built in the centre of town. Promoters are already calling Naseby “the winter sports capital of the Southern hemisphere” and are planning to erect a big curling stone as a roadside icon, along the lines of Clinton’s Clydesdales and Ohakune’s carrot.
If Oturehua were to choose an identity symbol, one option would be a King Kong-sized monkey. Since 1980, this tiny settlement 20 km up the road from Naseby has hosted the Brass Monkey Motorcycle Rally. Held each year on Queen’s Birthday weekend, it derives its name from the expression “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”—an accurate indication of the weather at this time of year.
The organisers don’t mince words about what people can expect. “Your tent may well decide to split, your bike fuel lines may also split, your radiator will freeze.” They recommend parking bikes around the 44-gallon drums they provide as braziers—forming one’s wagons in a circle, as it were, against the enemy,Jack Frost.
I did “the Brass” in 2000, drawn more by the lore of the event than the allure of standing around in sub-zero temperatures discussing carburettor adjustments with petrolheads. There were the usual biker diversions, such as holding a bike stationary while running it at high revs so that the back wheel digs a hole and the pipes glow red-hot and dropping a clapped-out bike from a helicopter into the Idaburn Dam (only possible in years when the dam hasn’t already frozen). The highlight was a monster Saturday-night bonfire, a 30-metre long inferno around which 1500 leather-clad bikers roared out the chorus of “Born to be Wild.”
When the bikers leave, the Idaburn Dam reverts to its normal winter use as a curling and skating venue—if the ice is thick enough. Although there are several freezable dams throughout the Maniototo, Naseby is the winter-sports Mecca because it offers the best of both worlds: natural ice rinks when the weather is cold enough and an artificial ice rink when it isn’t.
Late one afternoon I met Merve Jamieson kneeling on one of Naseby’s natural ice rinks, drilling into the ice with a brace and bit. He poked a piece of wire down the hole to measure the thickness. “We’ve got three inches at the bottom end of the rink, three-and-a-half in the middle and four at the top end,” he said. “Ideally, we need a uniform thickness of around four inches for curling.”
Jamieson’s 30 years of experience with ice has earned him the title “ice master.” He’s an important man in a community like Naseby, because ice conditions dictate where and when curling can take place. And curling is as much a part of a Maniototo winter as Swanndris and swede soup.
It’s not just locals who are mad about sliding 20 kg lumps of granite from one end of a sheet of ice to the other, or sweeping furiously with their brooms. Curlers come from all over the South Island to compete in club and business house competitions. One night I met a group of fat-lamb drafters on the artificial ice rink. Though they live in various parts of the island they come to Naseby each year to compete for their trophy—a shield with the curly-horned head of a Merino ram affixed to it.
“We’re not serious curlers, we’re more hurlers and chuckers,” admitted one, after his stone had veered off course. “And we have a few more rations than are strictly allowed,” he added, pointing to the well-stocked drinks table at one end of the ice.
Liquid fortification is integral to the sport—it stands to reason, given its Scottish origins. A wee dram of whisky is the traditional reward for a good shot. The player of a particularly poor shot can also be urged to take a dram, in the hope that the whisky will improve his aim. Anyone unlucky enough to “handle” a stone that is, have it flip over onto its handle as it skids down the ice—pays a forfeit of a bottle of Scotch.
After the game, at the Naseby Royal, I made my acquaintance with another curling-related beverage: Stone’s green ginger wine. I asked Barbara Chisholm, part-owner of the Royal, if she had it in stock. She did, and hunted for a recipe in the bar cocktail notebook.
“How about this?” she asked. “‘Doggy Likes to Hide a Bone’— two shots of green ginger wine, whisky, midori and a splash of lemonade.”
“I think I should try it straight,” I said. She poured me a shot of the sweet spirit—which, according to the bottle, has been in production since 1740—and I gulped it down, enjoying its gingery warmth.
At the other end of the bar, in front of a crackling fire and a row of gumboots on the hearth, I struck up a conversation with Mike Buswell, who was enjoying an after-match jug. Mike, a house painter, moved to the Maniototo from Dunedin five years ago, and has no desire to return to city life. “They call the Maniototo ‘big sky country,’” he said. “It grabs hold of you.”
I mentioned some of the people I’d met around the place and he told me about a few more, such as the 77-year-old farmer who couldn’t retire “because his old man was still driving the tractor at 100.” Mike speculated that longevity might have something to do with the harsh winters: “The frost kills the bugs, so you start afresh each spring.”
There is some irony in the fact that Naseby, having beeneclipsed by Ranfurly for more than a century, should be receiving star billing as a sport and holiday spot now. Ranfurly started life as Eweburn, one of a dozen or so “animal burns” named by the Otago surveyor John Turnbull Thomson in 1857. The names, so the story goes, were given in a fit of pique. The provincial council had objected to Thomson’s list of proposed Maori names for Maniototo rivers on the grounds that they were hard to pronounce and spell. Thomson offered fresh names which, he suggested sardonically, would cause fewer difficulties for council members. Among the menagerie—which persist to this day—were sow, ox, cow, filly, ewe, wedder (wether) and hog.
Eweburn became Ranfurly in 1898, just before the opening of that section of the railway line, after Lord Ranfurly visited the town in his capacity as Governor of New Zealand. Rail was the making of Ranfurly and—since the line sidestepped it—the unmaking of Naseby. Council, hospital and other utilities moved from Naseby in the hills to the Ranfurly on the plains, and since that time Ranfurly, population 700, has been the administrative centre of the Maniototo. Together, the two towns account for 80 per cent of the Maniototo’s population of 1000.
Not to be outdone in the tourism stakes, Ranfurly has branded itself the rural art-deco capital of New Zealand—the architectural sister city of Napier. The former railway tearooms have been converted into an art-deco museum and an annual weekend of festivities celebrates all things deco. There is even a new town logo featuring a nonchalant-looking farmer with a trio of china ducks flying overhead in classic art-deco style.
Everywhere I looked, it seemed that the Maniototo was gearing up for visitors. And why not: Central Otago has made a killing from tourism. Indeed, some of the growing visitor interest in the Maniototo may be a spin-off from the popularity of Queenstown and Wanaka. And some is probably a reaction to the glitziness of those towns. Grahame Sydney, whose paintings of the Maniototo have acquired the status of regional icons (and fuelled, if not created, a property boom), thinks so.
“People who dislike the commercialisation and suburbanisation of Queenstown and Wanaka are going to look to places like this,” he says. “I mean, the appeal of going from a suburb in Dunedin to a suburb in Wanaka for a holiday is utterly elusive to me.”
Though he has been painting Maniototo-inspired landscapes for 30 years, Grahame has been living in the region only since the beginning of 2004, in a house overlooking the road between St Bathans and Becks. During the hour we talked [see sidebar, p106] a total of two vehicles passed. “I can’t stand this traffic!” he exclaimed in mock annoyance as the second one came by.
I asked him whether he thought adventure tourism would take off in the Maniototo.
“I can’t see it being very big here, compared with the spectacular quality of what is provided in places like Queenstown. The same applies to the whole landscape, really. Compared with the grandeur up there—the scenic-wonderland brilliance of it—this area is never going to be highly sought after. We’re like a person who is an average-to-good hummer standing next to an opera singer.”
Sydney is not alone in preferring the subtler qualities of the Maniototo. Oturehua poet Brian Turner draws inspiration from such glories as the evening shadows in the valleys and the stark hills, as well as the uncompromising climate. More than once, scraping the ice from my car windscreen, the opening line of his poem Winter came to mind: “There is no coddling.”
One evening I was up in Naseby Forest, watching the alpenglow on the Kakanui Mountains and reading a book of poems by another poet of the Maniototo, Blue Jeans, Naseby’s answer to Banjo Paterson. His verses are meant for reading aloud, so, Bogor-like, I decided to give an audience of tree stumps my rendition of Winds Off the Snow.
There’s nothing in the wild wind
That whips in from the sea.
It holds no hidden message,
It brings no song to me.
There’s nothing in the bush wind
To set my soul aglow-
But I get that lonesome feeling
When the winds come off the snow.
A couple of nights later I was sitting in Ross “Blue Jeans” McMillan’s mudbrick cottage at the top of Naseby’s Welcome Inn Hill, asking him about the high country characters who populate his poems. The musterer who saddled up a moa, the farmer who lined up fences using the telescopic sights of his rifle, the Scotsman whose pet magpie shamed him by whistling The Rose of Tralee, and dozens more. From time to time as we talked the log-burner would let out a kind of explosion, and belch a puff of smoke into the room, as if it were laughing at the memories.
Mustering, fencing, shearing, rabbiting, horse-breaking—Ross has had a go at them all, and has no desire for any other sort of life. “I was born in this house,” he said, giving the foot-thick walls a whack with his hand, “and I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else.” He told me that during one of the Dunstan cavalcades (he’s been on all except one of these yearly Otago horse treks) a young rider asked whether he’d travelled much in his life. “I went to Ranfurly once,” he wisecracked, “but I didn’t like it.”
Like almost every man I met in the Maniototo, he hoped there would be a bonspiel before the winter was out. A bonspiel is a curling extravaganza in which all the country’s curlers converge on a frozen dam for a mass competition. A bonspiel can be called only when the ice is thick enough to support such a large number of people. The last time it happened was in 2001. Ross’s eyes lit up at the thought of 20 or 30 skips shouting at their teams to sweep a stone or let it go, and all the “brother curlers” and “sister curlers” on the ice together. When there’s a bonspiel even the schools close, he said, so that the children can join in, serving tea and coffee on their skates.
Though he’s in his 70s, Ross still likes to roll up his swag and take to the hills every now and then, revisiting places where he used to muster. “I rode up to Blue Duck hut a few months ago,” he said. “In the old days six or eight men would doss down in a hut like that. It would stink after a couple of days, but to us it was a palace.”
This time there had only been rats and a couple of redbacks for company. “There was no firewood, and it got so cold I had to swap my blanket for the horse’s canvas one. Still, I love it away out there by myself.”
I looked across at him, and noticed he had on a black DB jersey with the word “Earned” under the logo. I reckoned he was entitled.
“It’s been a good winter,” Ross said. “Not much snow on the ground, and the frosts haven’t been that hard. Minus 10 or 11° C—that’s nothing.” Sheep farmers like Ross dread a repeat of the big snows of 1908, when two metres fell at Naseby. Snow like that is brutal on sheep.
Spring was around the corner.“I saw my first oysterpicker of the season this morning, while I was feeding the horses,” Ross said. Oysterpickers (Ross prefers the word to “oystercatchers”) usually arrive in the Maniototo to breed in the first week of August, he said. They are so territorial they will attack a tractor if it ploughs too close to its nest. With the birds would come the spring grass growth, and in no time farmers would be worrying, not about winter snow, but summer drought.
But for now winter still held its grip. As I walked to the car the air was crystalline with cold. Tomorrow I would scrape ice from the windscreen again. I’d watch the dawn light spread like melted butter across the plains. See frost on the backs of cattle and on the feathers of spur-winged plovers. Maybe the radio announcer would say again in her cheery voice: “Just another winter’s day in the Maniototo.”