Talk is sheep


David Whitley prays for the silence about the lambs, but begins to understand where the Kiwi sheep obsession comes from.


For some years now, New Zealanders have tried to dispel the notion that they have a penchant for sheep that extends beyond a nice roast lamb dinner. Unfortunately, it seems as though they forgot to tell the tour guides. Put a Kiwi behind the wheel of a bus and the obsession takes over. Throughout my two weeks in New Zealand, I’d barely be able to sit down and buckle up the seatbelt before the tales of New Zealand’s glorious wool industry would begin. The hardy merinos bred in the high country farms produce the finest wool in the world, they say. Low prices are making farmers convert to cattle and dairy, they continue. Special breeds of sheep have been created in New Zealand to suit the conditions, they harp on.


The pinnacle of this ewe-phoria came on the trip up from Queenstown to Mount Cook. On passing the little farming settlement of Bendigo, we are told the story of Shrek, “New Zealand’s most famous sheep”.


Whilst this might sound like a line from Flight of the Conchords, it’s true: New Zealand does have a most famous sheep. Shrek managed to avoid being captured and shorn for six years, and by the time he was, he was a big woolly monster. He looked so silly that he became a celebrity. He was taken to parliament to meet New Zealand’s Prime Minister, and was eventually taken to the top of an iceberg floating off the South Island’s coast to be sheared on live television.

Frankly, with tales such as this, any lame gags about sheep-shagging slip into redundancy. And once you’ve realised that it isn’t going to go away, you may as well run with it. 
There are a few places across the country where you can watch shearers in action. One is the Agrodome in Rotorua, which hosts an absurdly popular Sheep Show three times a day. It takes place in an unnervingly large auditorium, and the 19 types of sheep bred in New Zealand are trotted up onto a podium. From there, it descends into a slapstick frenzy of dogs chasing ducks across the stage, rams being told to strut their stuff and wool being thrown into the audience.

It’s entertaining in an utterly shameless way, and there’s more of the same in a slightly less slick manner down in Queenstown. 
The Walter Peak High Country Farm is still a working station, although it exists primarily to entertain people getting off cruise boats. Here, a true Southern Bloke – Lindsay Westaway – goes through the whole sheep rigmarole, peppered with the odd tall story. It’s all very cheesy (that’d be a Roquefort or feta for any dairy pun fans out there) but you begin to understand why the humble sheep is so highly regarded in New Zealand. Wool and lamb exports are an integral part of the country’s history – a key factor in the change from being a backward pioneer colony into a wealthy first world nation.

And the boys that handle the woolly wonders are certainly skilled. Lindsay demonstrates how to herd the sheep with his trusty dog, Storm, and then proceeds to set about shearing one without the faintest hint of a shaving nick. 
He takes a few minutes, but that’s not a patch on the rock stars of the shearing world. Believe it or not, there are actually international shearing competitions and the world record holder managed to get through a mammoth 721 ewes in nine hours. And when you start considering the practicalities of that, then realise that it’s actually jolly impressive, you’re well on your way to becoming a qualified Kiwi tour bus driver...


More photos here



One castle, and a lot of controversy


Just outside Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, is one man’s dream castle. But that dream turned into a nightmare, as David Whitley finds out

You don’t, it seems, need to be a member of the aristocracy to have your own castle. It never stopped William Larnach, after all.

New Zealand may seem like an odd place to find a castle. It has no history of medieval warfare and no reason to assume it will come under siege from trebuchets at any point soon. But Larnach, an Australian-born banker who came over to Otago during the gold rush in 1860s, saw a perfect spot on the Otago Peninsula and decided he wanted to build one there.

Larnach Castle, of course, is suitably ludicrous. Fabric wallpapers and intricately carved wood-panelling were shipped in from England, the supposed verandah was glassed over when they realised that the south of New Zealand doesn’t quite have an Australian climate and a tower was built to ensure they had a prime position to take in the views.

But traipsing through the castle to see the rooms and old furniture is only moderately interesting, despite the extraordinary efforts of the current owner to track down all the original pieces that were sold off when Larnach’s children sold the estate. What really makes the castle worth a visit is the story of the Larnach family. And frankly, you’d not be surprised if one of them was haunting the place.

It all started going a bit weird after a family trip to London, where William’s wife Eliza gave birth to their sixth child, Gladys. When they came back from London, Eliza’s sister Mary joined them and came to live in the castle.

Alas, Eliza had grown to hate the isolation of the place and being left alone while Larnach was in Wellington, strutting his stuff as a power-behind-the-throne sort of MP. So she got a townhouse in Dunedin, where she promptly died at the age of 38.

Larnach didn’t have too far to look for a new wife, and married Mary, promoting all manner of tutting from respected members of society. It also was the start of legal wranglings over Larnach’s will – suffice to say the children didn’t want Mary getting her hands on anything.

But then Mary died, again aged 38, and Larnach took a third wife – Connie – soon afterwards. But there was a substantial age gap between the castle-building MP and his new wife. She was closer to his children’s age than he was.

It seems one of the children spotted this. Rumours started circling that Larnach’s son, Douglas, was having an illicit affair with his stepmother. Keeping it in the family had become something of a family tradition.

The tale goes that Larnach didn’t know about this affair until he received an anonymous letter warning of it. And he shot himself dead inside the New Zealand parliament building the day afterwards.

He died intestate, so this triggered off huge rows about the inheritance. Connie and Douglas lined up against the other kids, who eventually won. Although a fat lot of good it did them, as they inherited a pittance – unsurprisingly for someone who sees fit to build himself a castle, Larnach had been living beyond his means for quite some time and was virtually bankrupt.

The Larnach children decided to get rid of their dad’s castle soon afterwards. Luckily neither it or the story behind it have crumbled into obsolescence.


Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

by David Whitley



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