After our day in Queenstown, Sister Mary Francis rumbled over a few kilometers of dirt road to find a beautiful campsite nestled in the narrow valley of giant, towering mountains.
Upon reaching our campsite, we break out dinner fixings, a glass of wine and a Wittaker’s Chocolate Bar. We are nibbling away on Milk Chocolate with Nelson Pear when an unholy racket begins. Thumping, rumbling, and the voices of a thousand concerned citizens roll over the crest of a nearby hill.
“What is that?” I say, just as the first white nose peeks over the horizon. Then another, then another, then one thousand. The mountain side transforms from grasses to a blanket of fluffy, but dirty, white pillows with faces. Soon, the wave is broken by a dog, running at the top edge of the group. He moves down the hillside, and the wave of white ripples forward, as a wooden spoon might stir ripples into a bowl of whipped cream. The bowl of whipped cream runs and protests with a cacophony of “Baahhhh. Baahhhhaaahhh.”
Another dog runs along behind barking at the scragglers, encouraging them to join more tightly into the mob. The lead sheep are stopped by a closed gate. With nowhere to go, the mob packs more and more tightly into the tiny space between the gate and the approaching dogs. The collective sees the jam, stops, and turns to the sheep behind. No one vocalizes a full “baahhhh” now, but instead we hear a low pitched grumble like old men complaining about a cold breakfast. “What now, Phillis?” “I don’t know, what now Roy?” “Let’s wait.” “No, we should move over there.” “Move over!” “Make space!” “Ow, you are stepping on my hoof!” “Stop putting your tail in my face!” “Oh, come on, who….” Beady, confused eyes turn back toward their canine director, waiting for instruction.
Pretty soon, the Shepherd walks up and over the crest wearing a bucket hat, overalls and carrying a stick just like I always imagined. A scruffy, grey bearded dog trots along side the shepherd’s knee. The mob makes way for the shepherd to open the gate, but as soon as he does the dogs bark and push from behind and the sheep take off running straight up the steep slope. Before the last one is through the gate, the first has taken residence at the top of the peak. The Shepherd patiently watches them go and closes the gate behind the last.
“Want to go talk to the Shepherd?” Andrew asks me.
I look over at the man and hesitate. He is working and probably has stuff to do. But, Andrew has it in his mind that he is going to talk to the Shepherd. So, in true Andrew form he starts edging closer and closer to the shepherd, holding beer in his left hand, staring up at the mountain, not making eye contact and without saying anything. This casual, but silent approach continues until we are standing on the other side of a wire fence, just three or four feet away from the Shepherd who is now talking to another couple. I follow but lag a bit behind because I always love watching this bit of awkwardness unfold.
Pretty soon, the Shepherd and the other couple turn to face Andrew. “Hi?” It is said as a greeting, but tipped up like a question - as if they wonder why this man is casually sidling up to their conversation without saying anything. But now, Andrew cracks open, smiles and starts asking questions. “How many sheep is that?”
Everyone relaxes back into the conversation. The couple hover around for a few moments more then close their conversation and walk away. “1200 in this group, and I have another 1800 more that I will move in the morning.”
The Shepherd explains he has been working all day to move the sheep from the mountain side into a pool of water with cleaning chemical to help clean them and prevent flies from burrowing under their wool and laying eggs in their skin. Now, it is time to move them back onto the mountain side for bedtime. These are Merino sheep, the type with the wonderful wool they use to manufacture Icebreaker clothing. The warm in the winter, cool in the summer, never stinky magic fabric, priced like bits of gold.
Merino sheep are tough little buggers who do not mind cold weather or climbing very steep slopes. This Shepherd owns 15,000 hectors of land in this alpine pass. When they are not being moved from here to there, these sheep romp freely in the grass. At the end of the summer season, then are rounded up and penned in the lower elevations because otherwise they would wander off into the steep, craggy parts of the peaks and hide. Like Shreck, the Merino sheep who escaped into the wild to avoid shearing for six years.
(Shreck became a New Zealand National Mascot, honored by the Prime Minister and making twenty high quality suits for charity from his wool stash once he was finally corralled and found.)
As we talk, three of the four working dogs rest in the grass. The fourth is romping around harassing the other dogs, jumping in between the narrow wires in the barbed wire fence, chasing and barking at sheep who are still hugging the inside of the fence beyond the gate.
“Back to the line, Luke!”
We ask about how he trains his dogs, how long it takes for a dog to be ready (almost a year), and how long a dog works (Depends on the type. Nippers are hardest workers, running after the sheep and nipping at them to keep them in line. They usually only work one or two seasons. Other dogs are responsible for barking. Some are responsible to stay up front of the sheep and give them the “eye” to keep the sheep from stampeding.)
The barker rests with his ear perched straight up.
“Is he listening for something, or does his ear just stay like that all the time?” I ask.
The Shepherd looks over. “Oh Jazz (?) Cheers (?) Chizz (?)” (Name not confirmed due to the New Zealand/America language barrier) “He’s one biscuit short of a full tin. He works really hard, but it’s usually in the wrong direction." The Shepherd pauses to think, "I don’t know what he’s doing with his ear.”
Jazz-Cheers-Chizz and I are kindred spirits.
We learned that this particular Shepherd used to be a Civil Engineer, but “retired” to take over the family land and manage their mob of Merino sheep. “It’s a lifestyle choice.” He explains. The crisp cold air rubbing against the tips of our ears. “I get to enjoy this beautiful land.” And he is right. This spot is one absolutely breathtaking place in the world. What would it be like to settle into one spot like this and spend our time caring for sheep? It’s a lifestyle I have never considered. It seems so far away from our experience.
We keep the Shepherd company until his lolly-gagging college-aged helper rolls up in an old blue truck. The dogs know what to do and all but Luke jump into the bed fixed with pens without problems. Luke harasses the other dogs on his way in, causing barking, snarling and growling. Soon, they get settled down, though. The Shepherd tosses in his stick and climbs into the passenger seat with a wave.
What an unexpected, neat experience I think as I drift off to sleep, the mountain side still singing with belly-deep chortles of “Bah. Baaahhh. BAAAHHHH!” There are so many voices singing, bleating, or carrying on scat, it sounds like the world’s fuzziest acapella rounds choir.