3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

Vacation on a Station

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Our bicycles arrived at 8:00 am. I loaded a couple of bars, a liter of water, and a roast beef sandwich into the paneers and watched ultra-athlete Stu heft my pack into the Jollie Biker van. My Osprey Ariel has rarely been out of sight – much less off of back – in the last four months. It’s become a part of my being, like a bulbous red growth, and it’s a strange sensation of incompleteness to see it drive 70km away without me.

Stu had given Dad and I a map of the Alps2Ocean cycleway and we were soon pedaling the next section of Te Araroa from Tekapo to Twizel. We followed the crayon-blue hydro-electric canals connecting Lake Tekapo, Ohau, and Pukaki. The wide dun plains of the Mackenzie Basin raced underneath the sky until they met at the top of the snowcapped Southern Alps.

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It was a perfect day for it with barely a cloud in the sky or a whisper of wind. We leisurely ticked off 10-12 km an hour,¬†stopping to take pictures, snack, and watch a couple of working dogs move a flock of sheep across the road. The Mackenzie canals are said to be one of the best places to catch trout that were “this big!” despite it not being a natural river. The water is a brilliant opaque blue, so I’d imagine it’s quite the surprise when you reel in whatever monster lies in the depths below.

It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that we rolled into Twizel (not pronounced like the candy) and met Kirsty Rutherford outside the local cafe. She had just picked up two of her three boys (all under seven!) from swim lessons; which hadn’t put a damper on their little boy energy in the least. Ted and George bounced around in the backseat of her SUV as we shook hands. Though we had both been at Outdoor Retailer in August, this was our first time to meet.

Kirsty and her husband Simon Williamson run a sheep farm between Twizel and Omarama. My sock sponsor, Point6 had put us in contact months ago and we’d been looking forward to getting a taste of the New Zealand farm life for months. We were soon reunited with our packs and were off to Glenbrook Station.

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The Canterbury and Otago regions became home to some of New Zealand’s first sheep farms in the 1840s. High and dry (comparatively speaking), the eastern bit of New Zealand is ideal for raising merinos, whose wool make a damn fine sock, if you ask me. And, unless you’re the sort of person that doesn’t go to an outdoor store once a week just for fun, you will have noticed the merino invasion. From base layers to underwear to lifestyle clothing, merino wool is the fabric du jour. Even traditional synthetic companies like Polartec are now introducing merino blend products.

Kirsty turned off the highway into a dense stand of pines. Hidden behind was a lush green lawn starkly contrasting the golden tussocks of the valley we’d just left. A white farmhouse with roses and vegetable gardens greeted us. A happy couple would soon be having their engagement photos shot here, and for good reason, too. It was a picture of pastoral elegance.

We would spend the next two nights at Glenbrook. My room was just off the kitchen, where, at any given time of the day, something wonderfully aromatic was on the stove, in the oven, or mixing in the KitchenAid. The kitchen is like a sitcom set with characters entering and exiting all day: Kate making quiche, Simon and Locke stepping in for lunch, Marcia arriving for work, Stevie coming over for a drink and staying for dinner, Ted and George arriving home from school, two Te Araroa trampers eating everything in sight.

Glenbrook is a little over 9,000 acres (3,700 hectares). Simon and Kirsty run around 3,000 merino ewes and up to 4,000 lambs, in addition to raising cattle, race horses, and a variety of field crops. It was harvest while we were there, and Simon and Locke were busy most of the day with the combines.

On our first morning, Marcia, her working dogs, and I drove around the station throwing salt out for the sheep and cattle. You know those fancy Himalayan salt lamps? Yep, that’s what we were throwing to the livestock. Not the lamps, but the salt. No electro-smog for these sheep!

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I asked Marcia about the dogs. Her flatbed truck, like most you see on rural New Zealand roads, has a wire cage affixed to the back, filled with energetic dog faces. These guys are the ideal employee: enthusiastic about their job, self-motivated, a high sense of purpose, and a good team spirit.

There are two types of herding dogs, headers and drivers. Headers, like the dogs in “Babe,” look like they’re playing good a defense in basketball. They stare down the opponents, I mean the sheep, zig-zagging back and forth, keeping them in a group. The drivers, commonly a New Zealand Huntaway, bark (a lot) and push the sheep forward. Marcia sends the dogs signals with a whistle, but for the most part, they seem to know what to do instinctively.

If Dad and I had arrived just a few days earlier, we would have been able to watch the dogs in action as they rounded up the sheep for shearing. But, as it was, the ewes were sporting their new haircuts and the wool shed was filled with bundles of wool the size of hay bales. It should come as no surprise that everyone at Glenbrook feels quite strongly about wool.

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Once you’ve gone merino, there really is no going back. Wool fiber wicks moisture from your skin while still maintaining temperature regulation. UV and stink resistant, merino doesn’t itch like other wools because of the fine texture of the fiber. Plus, as Simon pointed out, that unlike many synthetic fabrics, wool is less likely to catch on fire if you’re in a car crash.

For over 100 years, wool was New Zealand’s biggest export. But, despite merino’s growing popularity in Asian, European, and North American markets, many sheep farmers are converting their land to dairy; which has become increasingly more profitable than sheep. In 1982 there were over 70 million sheep in New Zealand. But as of 2014, the number of New Zealand sheep had dropped to 29 million. What can you do? Stop drinking milk and buy more wool. Hmm, that doesn’t sound right. How about buy wool over synthetic materials because it’s a better, natural fabric which isn’t derived from petroleum.

Like the organic farms I WWOOFed at in France several years ago, Glenbrook has no trouble painting the farm life romantic. Meals fresh from the garden, little to no TV, good conversation late into the night, and up early to work in the morning. It’s hard work – Kirsty and Simon are ‘on’ all day – but the reward seems worth it.

We said our goodbyes after just two short days. Kate drove us back to the trail where we would soon start our journey south to Wanaka.

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