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



Waiheke Island






David Whitley hops on a ferry from Auckland to Waiheke Island and finds the weather, beaches, views and wine combo a massive winner




I have, I must concede, got this the wrong way round. The drinking should really come at the end of a long walk – as reward and relaxation – rather than near the start of it. Cruelly, however, Waiheke Island’s wineries haven’t placed themselves near the end of walking trails.




Waiheke is both part of Auckland and an escape from it. The ferries from the city are frequent and take just 35 minutes to reach the island. That puts it into commuter belt territory, and you’d be hard pressed to find a prettier commute anywhere in the world.



The dawn of fast ferries in the 1980s set massive changes in motion on Waiheke. The second largest island in the Hauraki Gulf, it was once primarily used as farmland. Much of it is still used as pasture, but easier access to the city turned it into a desirable place to live. Farms got sub-divided into smaller five or ten acre lifestyle properties, houses started going up in the spots with the best views and a host of winemakers followed in the footsteps of early viticulture pioneers.




Fast forward a couple of decades, and you end up at a stage where even simple beach huts change ownership for a million dollars. Talk on the island at the moment is of a new house being built that will cost a staggering $22m.




Buses serve much of the island, and tours on various themes meet the ferry at the Matiatia terminal. For an overview of the beaches, island lifestyle, tethered boats and cutesy shopping ops in Oneroa, they’re fine. But it quickly becomes apparent that the best way to see the island is on foot. Walking maps that cover the range from brief ambles to eight hour stamina-blasters are available at the ferry terminal. But what’s remarkable is how few people you see on those trails. It gets remarkably peaceful very quickly.




I decide to go for the three hour Church Bay circuit, and I’m very quickly faced with an obstacle. I don’t have to walk too far up the hill to find the Cable Bay winery. It’s a showy place – a helicopter lands outside on the grass, somewhat spoiling the view out over Motuihe Island and the Auckland skyline – but one with a consistently excellent reputation for winemaking.




Wine tourism on foot is a new one for me, and it has its merits. Being able to drink as much as you like at the tastings is one of them; having the freedom to wander in as you please is another. The downside is that if you decide to buy anything, you have to carry it around.




While I manage to resist at Cable Bay, there’s no such luck at the Mudbrick vineyard further up the hill. It’s a gorgeous place that’s understandably popular as wedding venue, and both the rosé and the viognier prove too good to leave behind. And that means I spend the next couple of hours trudging up and down hills with a backpack full of wine bottles. Think of it as the alcoholic’s take on carrying bricks around in order to make the exercise more intensive.




The route soon leaves the road and starts zig-zagging uphill through native forest before skirting the edge of farmers’ fields on the way to majestic headland views. The trail repeatedly climbs the cliffs then descends to the beach, making it more than a decent work out. But for all the banana plants, native forest and shale coves, the most enjoyable thing is that it’s just me. The residents are all at work in Auckland, the cruise ship daytrippers are sticking to the roads in their buses and the day trippers have flocked to either the main beaches or the wineries. I’ve got miles of gorgeous coastline to myself, it’s sunny and I’m not far from civilisation should I wish for it. If only I’d brought a picnic lunch and a glass to drink that wine out of, it’d be the perfect island.




Disclosure: David visited Waiheke as a guest of Fullers, who run the ferries from Auckland and the island tours. He stayed in Auckland as a guest of YHA Auckland International

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