Len’s Land

They are eating vacuum-sealed, dehydrated Fettuccine Alfredo flown in from California, sitting on folding chairs outside of their rent-a-van covered in a tiger mural. They are still hungry when they join me on my yoga mat. I’m slicing onions, garlic and cabbage with shoulder bacon waiting for a hot skillet by candlelight with my iPod on shuffle.

Americans. Fresh off the plane. Always in a rush.

We first saw each other at a scenic cove overlooking the eternal meeting place of blue-green water, forest-covered cliffs and smooth-stone beaches. We greeted each other and kept driving. I start down the unsealed road to the East Cape, the most easterly point in New Zealand and home of the most easterly lighthouse in the world, when I see their van behind mine. Awesome, I’ll have some cool people to hang out with tonight, I think to myself.

Isolated land and sea.
Isolated land and sea.

The drive is filled with cows and calves grazing unfenced on both sides of the gravel road. I have to stop to encourage the little ones to get out of the way.

You're very cute. Now please move.
You’re very cute. Now please move.

I see the hills reflect off of a still pond and I have to pull over to take some pictures. Their van stops next to me and he says,

“Are you looking for the same campground we’re looking for?”

I tell him I’m going to the lighthouse. I’ll see you there?

I didn’t know about a campground, I just wanted to check out the lighthouse to see if I could camp there for easy access to sunrise. Unfortunately, it is private land so I told them I plan on walking to the top tomorrow morning for sunrise. They agreed with my plan so we drove the slow, scenic six kilometers back to the campground, which was just a paddock with a spigot and an outhouse.

I’m excited to meet them and they want to learn about me. Britney and Tim lived across the hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were both planning on traveling to New Zealand and when they met each other, they thought it would make sense to split the costs and go together. They are sleeping in a van about the same size as mine and they aren’t having sex. Weird.

Tim has long California hair and he lives two minutes from the beach. He is studying engineering and he works for some technology company. I assume he is well paid because he is able to take a three-week holiday to New Zealand.

Britney is graduated and is now working at REI, which explains why she brought along the backpacking meals-in-a-bag and why she is going on about her “Campsuds” when I say I’m going to wash my dishes.

After sitting and talking over the candle, we part ways and I fall asleep early to prepare for the next day. They said they would join me for sunrise at the lighthouse.

I woke at 5 am, brushed my teeth and flashed my lights at their van. No response. The lovely young Czech couple next to us shows signs of life. I give a double honk as I leave the campground, hoping Britney and Tim won’t be far behind.

I drive faster than I usually would on a gravel road with cows, calves, sheep, lambs and horses grazing unfenced in the dark. But I can’t wait to lie down in the grass with my camera on my tiny, flexible tripod to take a long exposure of the purple hues of early dawn.

The first picture of the day.
The first picture of the day.

The Czech man crests the hill with his GoPro recording every second. They don’t speak much English but we don’t need to speak much to share such a special and beautiful moment. We are at the edge of the world witnessing the first sunrise together.

While the boyfriend is on the other side of the lighthouse taking pictures, I ask her where they are from and how she likes New Zealand.

She says they wanted to get away and travel and see beautiful places, and she was surprisingly eloquent with her limited English. I wish I knew more languages so I could have a full conversation with people from all over the world.

Then it was time for them to leave. They said Goodbye and then I said Goodbye. They were very happy and polite and not like the Americans.

Britney and Tim never made it to the lighthouse. By the time I returned to the campsite, they were gone.

They were probably driving all day. Meanwhile, I had a relaxing day of preparation and adventure. I cooked bacon, eggs and toast with blueberry jam over two cups of coffee, waxed my leather boots, sharpened my hand-forged knife gifted from my step-mother, mended holes in my merino wool underwear and socks, and packed my bag for a long walk.

I set off toward the paddocks and forests away from the coast, and as I’m walking out of the campsite, the farmer drives in. He kills his engine and motions for me to come around to the driver’s side.

“Kia Ora,” he says.

“Kia Ora,” I reply.

He tells me his name is Len and I tell him my name is Sean.

Chill.
Chill.

“Kia Ora, Sean,” he says as we shake hands. His are callused, hard and dry.

“Nice to meet you,” I reply.

I ask him if he lives out here, Yup, the homestead is down by the lighthouse. I say it’s beautiful and isolated.

“Very isolated. My neighbor is just down the road, about four k’s,” Len says.

What a life.
What a life.
Epic Sheep.
Epic sheep.

He says I look like a keen photographer, and I do with a full backpack and camera slung from my shoulder. I say I’m headed out for a walk and I’m wondering if this is all private land and if he minds if I wander around.

Without hesitation he tells me it’s fine.

I assure him I will shut all the gates behind me but he doesn’t seem to care at all at the thought of some random tourist tramping through his land. I’ve realized the importance of having a camera in hand. You can go anywhere if people see that you are just a photographer. As I walk away, though, I’m a little surprised that he didn’t tell me where his bulls are. I know they are out there so I’ll have to tread lightly.

He heads down the road a bit to shift his springer mob, the cows that are calving soon – and the only herd that are actually fenced in – and I open a gate and close it behind me and walk on his tyre tracks.

Len setting up his temporary fences.
Len setting up his temporary fences.

There are paddocks with wire-less fence posts on either side of the road. On one side, the paddocks end at the beach, and on the other, they end at pine forests and native bush.

I follow his track to the edge of the forest and jump in. The pine trees are planted in neat rows, like every pine forest in New Zealand, and this helps me to not get lost. Where the pines end, the native bush takes over and I’m overwhelmed by its thickness. There is a bloated, decomposing cow in a ravine. I realize if I keep going forward I will get lost in the dense forest or I’ll fall or something bad will happen and I’ll end up like the cow so I turn back. I decide to walk along the road but then I see a logging track and decide that would be perfect. This is obviously not Len’s land, but he said I could go anywhere and I doubt there is anyone out here right now.

I think this means, Do Not Enter.
I think this means, Do Not Enter.

I walk down the path and practice my stealth skills so I can sneak up and capture birds with my time traveling device. It is futile. The birds have been evolving for thousands, or millions, of years and they fly away before I have time to draw and shoot. But my stealth skills still work on humans.

After walking as silently as possible for about 90 minutes, I turn a corner up a hill and see a small all-terrain-vehicle with three people standing around with coffee and smokes. They think they are alone out here so I don’t want to frighten them. I walk much closer than I expect before they notice me. I say, Hello. The Maori man facing away from me jumps. I say Kia Ora, I’m sorry, I’m just going for a walk. The man on the side of the vehicle is rolling a thin cigarette and asks me where I came from. Uhh, the end of the road, I’m staying at the campsite, I tell them. This is a very isolated area and they don’t understand how I made it up here on foot.

He says I’m not allowed to be up here, “We don’t give a shit, but the site manager would.”

He says there is a wild bull out here somewhere and I should be careful. I tell them Len said I could go anywhere and they all laugh.

I decided my best course of action is to head back the way I came so I don’t get caught here in the dark of night where I’m not allowed to be with a wild bull lurking.

I’m extra careful to listen for oncoming trucks and I look for places I can jump to stay out of sight. But I’m alone.

I make it back to the road and walk into the unfenced paddock and head toward the beach. A small group of cows and calves run away from me and I see a big black cow with its head down by the boundary fence.

Human! Run!
Human! Run!

I sneak behind the big cow expecting it to hear me or sense me in the way that only animals can but it keeps its head down in the grass.

It looks... big.
It looks… big.

I make it to the boundary fence and – by force of habit from working on Digger’s farm – I check it for electricity with a blade of grass. Of course there’s no power so I straddle the wire fence up to my crotch and step over. I walk in front of the big cow, now on the other side of the fence, and it finally acknowledges me.

It lifts its head. It is broad and heavy and powerful. His body is a mass of muscle and I realize, Holy Shit, I just walked a few meters behind a bull. I’m either really lucky or really stupid or this bull was just really hungry.

Menacing.
Menacing.

Cows can be controlled and guided while bulls are unpredictable. They don’t care how confident you are, they will charge you and pin you against a fence without thinking twice. On my first day milking cows at Rian’s farm one of his monstrous bulls hulked through the shed, after the girls were milked, with the swagger of Gregor Clegane. They are terrifying.

As I’m getting over how lucky I am, I see a self-contained Britz caravan trying to find the perfect spot to park for the night.

A new friend appears in the distance.
A new friend appears in the distance.

When I return to the campsite, I approach them. They are from Switzerland, on a two-month holiday.

I love the Swiss. They take their holiday seriously. When I was a waiter at the Overlander’s Steakhouse in Alice Springs – the real “Outback Steakhouse” – we had to place flags on every table to show the assortment of nationalities. Every night we had at least one table with the square red flag with white cross. They travel often and travel well. They don’t fly to the other side of the world for a measly fortnight.

Unlike the budget travelers I meet, who are usually a year or two or three younger than me, this efficient couple went for the camper with room enough to stand, cook, clean and have wild sex. He hasn’t shaved in four days and his English is more practiced than that of his wife.

She says with a hard accent that their car locks automatically and they have been locked out before so if it happens again they will come sleep in my van. We all laugh with the joy of meeting strangers in a strange land.

We tell each other how long we are here, the second mandatory question among travelers. I say two months is a good chunk of time, they aren’t in a rush and they can see most of the country without driving for seven hours a day. He says, Wow, a year. He says I have the best way to live. Work and little, travel a lot. He’s right.

There are difficulties, however, like finding a balance between going on adventures with wild animals, wild humans and wild landscapes and sitting down at my laptop somewhere with power and Internet to write about said adventures.

And what book should I read next?

When the Swiss couple leaves the next morning, we share a happy, hearty wave. I love the Swiss.

After another relaxing morning of seaside breakfast and yoga, I leave the East Cape and think about Britney and Tim.

They didn’t see the first sunrise and they didn’t meet Len and they didn’t trespass through crown forest and sneak behind a bull or see the sunrise the next morning with magical horses grazing through the campground beneath the magical sky. I can’t blame them, they don’t know any better. I’m on a completely different schedule than them. I can afford to spend two nights on the Cape and then spend three nights at a motor park in Gisborne to wash my body and my clothes and renew the Warrant of Fitness for my van and buy contact solution and thread and darning wool.

New Zealand, you are amazing.
New Zealand, you are amazing.

Len is the luckiest man in the world. He owns the most easterly land in New Zealand. He spends his days with his sheep, cows and horses. His animals are happy — they graze freely and babies stay with their mums — and he is happy. He can go fishing or collect shellfish from the bountiful sea. And he can stop to talk to travelers who come to camp on his land.

I’m glad I decided to tour Eastland instead of heading straight to Gisborne to sit in the library and write all day. Adventure comes first. Blog comes second. You gotta have priorities in life.

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Farm Frustration

There are bright, sunny days where everything is smooth and I let the cows over the road crossing and drop the tape gate in perfect time for Digger to ride through on the two-wheeler with his aviator sunglasses and we feel like badass, bearded lords of the cows.

Then there are days like today when I lose count of how many times I yell fuck.

It started going downhill once I maneuvered the tractor down a hill into the paddock with the milking cows, ready to feed out the load of grass and maize. As I start the routine, I realize that everything is wrong.

One of the farm owner’s lackeys took the tractor into town yesterday and attached all of the hydraulic plugs into the wrong sockets when he brought it back. I’m no expert when it comes to farm machinery, in fact I’m pretty useless. I do what I can and use trial and error to get the door to raise, the chains to move and the blades to rotate, but I can’t figure out the latter.

I ring Digger and he tells me to drive the tractor to the cow shed and he will take a look at it. Really, man? I know you’re my boss but that is no simple task. I have to squeeze through three narrow gates — jumping out before and after to open and close — and up three hills.

I forgot I was in third gear and I stalled out going up the hill in the paddock. I back up and try again, but then I’m too close to the gate to make the sharp turn. Then I bumped the fence post and pushed the heavy gate off of its hinges, which I would later spend five minutes and five expletives trying, and failing, to lift back in place. I reverse and make a wide loop to approach the turn at a more favorable angle. Then I make the same mistake and underestimate a smaller hill and stall out and roll back down and nearly take out an entire fence.

Oh yeah, and this is the paddock by the road so everyone driving by — mostly farmers — are making fun of the idiot who doesn’t know how to drive a tractor.

I finally make it to Digger and he fixes the problem in a matter of seconds. He tells me to make sure I spread out the feed evenly this time. You always do it too thick, he says. Great. Now I have to drive back down to that paddock and open the gates and close the gates. Then spread the feed. Then drive back to the shed and open the gates and close the gates.

Eventually I make it back and have to feed the calves. Digger still hasn’t set up the big calf feeder with the trailer — it’s been “on the To-Do list” for two weeks now — so I have to carry 12 twenty-liter buckets of milk over to the calf pens everyday and try not to spill much on my overalls or on the ground. There is one calf feeder that is too fast and one that is too slow and the calves — growing stronger and fatter everyday with the massive servings of protein — constantly push and shove, jockeying for position. It’s an impossible task to get them all to drink the same amount and if I mess something up, they could die.

And he hasn’t given me any Colostrum milk — the “liquid gold” produced just after birth that is essential for new-born calves — in over 24 hours so I feed the babies the regular calf milk, which apparently makes him liable for a $200,000 fine, because it contains penicillin, if they are collected by the bobby truck. They are randomly tested for antibiotics and he decides he will take the odds. Strange, I didn’t take him for a gambling man.

Eventually we meet up for a team huddle and I tell Digger that everything went wrong this morning. He said he’s had a good one too. The heifers escaped and scattered all over the farm. He had to collect them and walk them back in groups of two.

Digger always seems to handle problems calmly. I’ll be sweating bullets and yelling fuck because the cows jumped a fence and I’m trying to keep them off the road and George rocks up and says, “Ahh, yeah, did they pull a sneaky on you? I bet it was number 12.”

He’s used to this and I’m not. He says farming will give you a whole new level of patience. You just have to accept that shit happens. You have to bottle it up and let it go. That’s why he smokes.

His response reminded me of the interviews with inmates in solitary confinement I watched last night during a New York Times video binge.

George Franco — who spent 20 years in the shoe in Pelican Bay State Prison — said if you have anger or frustration, “What do you gotta do? Just hold everything inside.”

Farming and owning land is the ultimate freedom, but it’s also the ultimate responsibility. Having all of these living things under your name. You can’t just leave them.

After my morning duties are finished, I walk back to the house for breakfast. I decide to do some yoga in my sun room — one of the four empty bedrooms — to stretch, relax and decompress. As I’m sitting there focusing on my breathing, I start to laugh uncontrollably thinking about how awesome it is that my biggest frustration in life is that the hydraulic plugs were attached to the wrong sockets on a tractor on a dairy farm in New Zealand.

My Stock Sense is Tingling

Everyday I learn a new trick to help me control the cows. My outstretched arm creates a magical barrier. My “hup” tells them to line up in the milking shed and a pat on the bum tells them to move up. The honk of the horn on the farm bike is a reminder that I’m in charge. It takes years to develop stockmanship, but sometimes it’s a simple matter of dropping into a full on sprint to get in front of her before she runs away.

The best way to learn anything is by messing up. If you want a cow to turn around, you can’t chase her down. I’ve tried zooming the two-wheeler between a couple of rouge cows and an electrified wire fence and ended up down in the mud with a bruised knee and a deflated ego. It’s much easier to jump the fence behind the cow and jump back over in front of her. Farmers would be great at track and field, if they ever had spare time.

I’ve learned that it’s better to let a few cows out of the paddock even if you only want one of them. But when I follow those guidelines during the next challenge, Digger tries to stop me before it’s too late. The rules are always changing.

Mate, it’s a mind fuck tryin’ to get inside the mind of a cow,” he said after we won a short victory over the mob.

We are three weeks into the calving season now, with anywhere from one to six fresh ones dropping every day. Digger and I have worked out a routine. Well, an outline of a routine that constantly changes according to what has gone wrong that morning. Every afternoon we have to gather the new-born calves from the paddock and bring their mothers to the shed for milking.

Umm, can I take your baby, please?

He’s been in charge of this farm for a little over two months and he is already well-acquainted with the troublemakers. He can easily recognize the brash cows who aren’t afraid of using their massive bodies to break the gate that’s been welded together three times and who will jump a fence even if they know they will get shocked.

Sixty-one there, she’s a bitch. A real slut cunt,” Digger says as we walk into the paddock.

Some cows come easily, while some put up a struggle. It’s all about their age.

The heifers, young female cows that haven’t calved yet, are the equivalent of 18-year-old girls, he says. They don’t really have a motherly instinct yet; they only care about themselves. Yesterday we couldn’t get a heifer to follow her calf so we had to chase her around until she was tired enough to walk out on her own, with the dignity of a free, independent woman. The older cows are much more likely to follow their babies out of the paddock and generally be cooperative. They have been doing this song-and-dance for a few years now and they don’t put up a fight.

They are also the ones who stop to moo and moan to their young when we take them up to the shed for milking. They just want to cuddle their babies but we force suction cups on their udders twice a day for eight months instead.

Interacting positively with the calves is very important. Teaching them to drink milk is a practice in patience, you can’t force them. A rough, short-tempered farmer can change a young cow’s perspective on humans forever.  It doesn’t matter how you treat the bobby calves though. The males are loaded up into the bobby truck after three to four days. They are usually ground up for dog food or turned into a delicious veal steak.

Caption!
Moving a healthy heifer calf into a new pen.

It’s important to not fall in love with the animals. They are money makers, not pets. Especially when you are out to collect the calves and you find two dead being licked by their mums. They are called slinks, the still born. It’s an eery feeling dragging a rigid, cold calf out of the trailer on a dark night. It’s almost as disgusting as picking up afterbirth. Fortunately, the slimy blobs of blood and fat stick together surprisingly well.

I have learned a lot from Digger over the past six weeks, but there is no better teacher than being alone with the cows. Some days I have to bring the milkers to the shed by myself. First, I make sure the series of gates are in the right position before I let them out of their paddock. Then, I ride the two-wheeler down and let them out then slowly follow them, encourage the mob toward the milking shed.

Once they are in the yard, I have to make them line up probably in the shed, while keeping them calm. Cows can sense your temperament just as you can sense theirs. If their farmer yells and pushes aggressively, they will balk at your commands. You have to ask nicely and look at it from the cow’s perspective. At one point, I wanted to send three cows back into the yard and bring in three good milkers, that didn’t have any udder infections.

Cows don’t understand that their heads are attached to their bodies,” Digger’s words echo in my mind.

To turn a cow around, you can’t just push their bodies, they are way too big and they don’t care about you unless they can see you. I climbed around and pushed their noses back. It worked. They got the message and I felt like a cow champion with all the girls lined up nicely with no trouble when Digger came back to inspect my work.

I’m only here for a few months so I’m not going to pretend I’m a hardcore farmer who knows everything, but I’m learning the basics and getting by. I have also gained a new respect for real farmers. Just last night the outlook for dairy prices dropped again. New Zealand dairy farmers are enduring rainy days of frustration and agony, and the vast majority won’t even turn a profit this year. I have never met a group of people so dedicated to their lifestyle. Respect.

The Tractor Run

“I don’t trust this cunt. He looks like a terrorist,” David says after being told I will be joining him on the tractor run tomorrow morning.

I can’t blame him. I was holding a thick 60 ml syringe full of penicillin and wearing my bright blue overalls, wool cap and my beard. But, still, there are probably better words to hear when meeting someone.

The wealthy businessman, Bob, who owns the 230-cow dairy farm I work on also owns a 1200-goat dairy farm and a farming equipment shop. He likes to keep his costs low, so he uses grass and leftover meal from the goat farm to feed the cows.  That means every morning someone has to drive the tractor with the massive muck spreader 18 kilometers down the main highway to pick up the cow feed from the goat farm. Starting tomorrow, that someone is going to be me.

The monster.
Full of grass and maize ready to feed the cows.

I wake up early the next morning and defrost the wind screen on the impressively sized McCormick tractor. Digger, the 21-year-old contract milker I work for, briefly taught me how to drive this machine last night. I’m confident driving the smaller Deutz tractor for simple lifting jobs around the farm, but this one was much more complex. Each gear has four clicks, for a total of 16 gears. And driving on the highway means more chances to embarrass myself or cause an accident. I’m terrified of stalling out or getting my gears jammed in the middle of the intersection of 27 and 29 with trucks, cars, workers, farmers, and tourists all laughing at me.

Once the frost clears enough, I slowly and cautiously drive the McCormick down the road to Bob’s warehouse where his collection of tractors, trailers and farm machines reside. David arrives a few minutes later and he gets in the driver’s seat and I sit in the child-sized folding seat next to him.

David usually works in the office at the farm equipment shop, but he always has his work boots and overalls ready to do call outs or deliveries. He is a short man in his 50s and has silky white hair. You can tell he has spent years working on farms by the way he easily dishes out witty banter to everyone around him. The fast New Zealand accent, farm slang and my quiet personality make it difficult for me to keep up with the boys.

“You’ll see every fuckwit in the world driving this thing,” he says as we get on State Highway 27 toward Tirau.

He tells me the story of a guy on a push bike who merged onto the highway right in front of the tractor. David tried to swerve to the right to avoid hitting the biker, but he saw a car trying to pass him so he had to come to a stop to avoid causing an accident.

I was about to have a go at the cunt.”

I love New Zealand. The vocabulary is so colorful.

The drive on the highway is pretty simple. Just watch your mirrors and try to pull to the side for trucks because they are trying to make money just like you. Cars can go fuck themselves. The only tricky spot is on the side road to the goat farm. There is a one lane bridge at the bottom of a hill. David explains how it’s important to slow down so you don’t break anything but make sure you still have enough speed to get up the hill. Stalling going up a hill, especially with a heavy load, is the worst thing that can happen. And if there is a car, truck or ute coming make a quick decision of whether to let them pass first or see if they are going to stop.

As we drive up the goat farm there is a man driving a front loader full of wet grass and feed ready to load us up. David and I get out and he tells me we are going to help feed some baby goats while we wait.

Getting loaded.
Getting loaded.

This is my first time here and I’m surprised by the size of this operation. It’s a huge sheet-metal shed with most of the area sectioned off to hold the 1200 adult milking goats. All along the right side of the shed are pens holding hundreds of baby goats.

There are some impressive beards in that shed.
There are some impressive beards in that shed.

They are fluffy miniature animals, some born yesterday, who lumber around and fall on top of each other. They barely come up to the top of my gumboots and they vary in color from pure white to light brown to grey to black. There are at least five workers, all foreign, sitting on buckets with a kid in their arms sucking on the rubber nipple attached to a water bottle full of milk. The South African woman in the pen we jump into asks me if I’m Canadian. I ask her if there is a secret to this as I try to put the nipple in my kid’s mouth. She says to just open their mouth a little bit. I give up on this reluctant drinker and grab a cute little brown one and he starts sucking immediately.

Lil' cuties.
Lil’ cuties.

It’s just like trying to get the calves to drink back at the cow farm. Some are little angels who will suck on your finger and then move to the rubber udder you slide into their mouth. Some are the dumbest little cunts I’ve ever dealt with. I’ll try the finger sucking trick and they resist and pull back. So I try to grab the top and bottom of their dumb little mouths and put it on the udder and they turn their dumb little heads sideways and their dumb little eyes roll back. Then I will finally get them to suck on the udder for a couple of seconds and think I’ve done it. I turn around and when I look back she is looking for an udder under the calf next to her. Whatever.

David’s kid is a screamer. Why do baby goats sound just like baby humans? It’s unsettling. After about 10 minutes and three kids each we head back to the tractor. My time to drive.

Everything is smooth. I masterfully take on the one lane bridge and the hill and I make it to the intersection of the highway. I downshift and the gear box jams up. This kept happening last night when Digger was teaching me to drive. He showed me how to reach underneath the tractor and jiggle the gears to free it up. I try the technique and I’m surprised that it actually works. I jump back in and we cruise down the highway toward Matamata.

We approach a slight bend as David is bragging about his daughter. She has the highest marks at Waikato University and is a professional singer and self-taught guitar player. She wants to enter into New Zealand’s Got Talent and The Voice. He interrupts himself to tell me I should have slowed down around that bend. Better safe than sorry.

At one point the road narrows goes through a ravine and the safety of having a shoulder disappears. When David was driving through here earlier, he slowed because a truck was coming. I slow down as we get closer, following his advice, but this time there isn’t anyone around.

Fuck that, take it fast,” he says as I push the throttle forward.

The cockpit.
Country roads.

We make it back to town and I drop David off at the shop and head back to the cow farm. As I drive by the college, a group of school boys give me the pull-the-cord motion signaling me to honk the horn. I just shake my head because I’m too focused on actually trying to drive this machine through town. I also have no idea where the horn is located. Give me some time, boys, and I’ll figure it out.