Mustering in the Otago High Country - New Zealand
31 July 2007

In mid July 2007, it was reported on the TV news that there was an amazing hoar frost in the far south of New Zealand in the Central Otago region. A hoar frost is caused by many successive days of frosty and foggy weather so that the frost does not melt. So, next day, I took the timely opportunity to make the 90 minute flight from Auckland to Queenstown and then drive another 90 minutes in a 4WD rental vehicle to a small farming town called Omakau (half an hour from Alexandra). The photography for the next 3 days was absolutely stunning, despite the very cold temperatures (down as low as -10 degrees C), with trees covered in white frost, frozen lakes and rivers and foggy and moody conditions (see separate gallery).


I stayed the first night at the very old Omakau pub (Commercial Hotel) owned and being renovated by ex local policeman Colin. This pub is well known in NZ for the filming of one of the Speights Beer TV advertisements where the bar lady tried to entice a “Southern Man” with 2 tickets to a show, but he shared them with his Southern Man mate! This area is now also quite famous and very popular with tourists who walk the “Rail Trail” which is the path of the old uplifted railway line. I had a great meal (local steak of course) and chatted with the very friendly locals.

I learnt a valuable lesson to ensure that I make a DVD backup of my images immediately after each day because I dropped and wrote off my portable computer hard drive and lost the first days photos including the locals at the pub. Sorry, therefore there are no shots of the locals playing darts etc.). Damn!


I also met a young couple, including Reagan, who was working as a shepherd in the district and he suggested that he may be able to arrange a “mustering experience” for me on the Dunstan Mountains. Next evening, I received a cell phone call from Andrew of Matakanui Station inviting me to join them on a muster of Hereford cattle the following day. With a fair amount of apprehension, this “townie” from the big city ventured up the unsealed road to Matakanui Station situated at the base of the sun drenched and snow covered mountain range.


I was advised by Reagan to put on more layers of clothing for the journey up the mountain on the mission for the day to locate the large herd and the stragglers, before mustering them down the slopes back to the farm on the flat. Next, I joined the working dogs on board the 4 wheel drive Toyota Ute, with Andrew at the helm and Reagan in the lead on the farm bike with his dogs following in close pursuit.



The ute was abandoned on the lower slopes and all three of us then squeezed onto the farm bike for the trip up the snow lined mountain tracks, followed by a noisy and excited pack of farm working dogs. I held on for grim death (as I was absolutely determined not to embarrass myself by falling off the back of the farm bike) on the steep ascent but managed to shoot some slow motion photos of the dogs in hot pursuit! Or maybe it was the camera bouncing about that made the photos soft and blurry?



Then it was a succession of stops and starts firstly to open and shut many gates then to search for isolated cattle to round up. One was found deep in an opposite valley and a dog was despatched to encourage it down the mountain. But these Hereford cattle (also in calf) are very large (and stroppy) and stand up to the dogs and really just do their own thing in their own time! These females won’t be rushed!




A few sheep (Polwarth breed) were also located in the terrain, some belonging to other farms. Next it was a slow walk down the mountain, through the deep snow to meet the main herd which had been rounded up by Andrew and his father (Martin) and after a fair amount of coaxing, the herd and sheep were mustered down to the flat and down several kilometres of roads back to the farm. Radio telephones kept all parties informed of the progress whilst mustering during the day.




Of course, not everything went smoothly as two of the herd got isolated from the main group (being the photographer’s fault of course!) and they ran off in opposite directions; one successfully jumping a wire fence into a neighbour’s paddock and the other getting caught up in the wire, which meant cutting the fence to free it.



Reagan was given the task of rounding up the delinquents and putting them into a holding pen. Then, he patiently took a small group of cattle back up the road to join the so called “bitches” (the high jumpers!), so that they would walk back down the road and finally over the bridge to join the main herd. Martin took over this task as we finally stopped for a great, welcome, man sized, awesome sandwich lunch at the farm house at about 4pm! The trip up and down the mountain and mustering had taken around 6 hours.




While Andrew did a deal to sell a farm truck to a buyer from the far north (who had arrived dressed in shorts to the frozen south!), Reagan took the sheep, dagged and sheared around their heads and feet and then finally the neighbour’s sheep were returned to their respective owners (including the pretty one which I was told was not worth much!).   



Finally, I made a DVD of some of the photos for Andrew and Reagan and a beer or two finished off a perfect day for a townie in paradise. When I left the farm at 6pm, the windscreen on the hire car was covered with ice and the fog had descended again and it was a slow trip out to the main road and back to Alexandra to find a comfortable motel, complete with spa bath for me to thaw out!


I would like to send a big thank you to Andrew and Reagan for looking after me on this wonderful mustering experience (especially for a boy from the big city) in an absolutely stunning and beautiful part of the country. From this single day, I now have a feeling for the experience, energy and patience required to run a high country farm, and that is just one small aspect of the big picture of farming. It is a day that I will never forget! I think that I now know the meaning of “The Southern Man”! Pity that their rugby teams are not up to the same standard! Obviously too many soft Northerners in their Southern teams!

And now I’m home, I have a new command for my “heifer”:

                          “Get in Behind”.


Copyright 2007: Bruce Burgess Photography