SHADOWS ON THE HILL

The river stretches a braided thread of silver along the valley floor.

Morning in the High Country. On a hillside far above the Phantom River, a musterer gives his sheepdogs a command: “Speak up!” His four black and tan huntaways immediately set up a cacophony of loud barking. The musterer joins in with his own voice, shouting out “hey, hey, hey” into the still morning air. Even his heading dogs, Queen and Chucky, normally silent and observant, add a few high-pitched yaps into the mix.

High above, on top of the High Claytons range, another musterer’s dogs answer the bark-up. From below, the dogs of the three other men, who are spaced at intervals down the hillside, complete the chorus. The noise echoes back back from the gullies and ravines on the opposite side of the valley, which lies in deep, hazy shadow. The river stretches a braided thread of silver along the valley floor.

The barking alarms the merino wethers who have been grazing alone and in pairs on the tussock-clad hillside. It is early April and the fine-wooled wethers have spent the summer months roaming the hills of the station’s 35,000 acres. The sheep form themselves into long lines and move off ahead of the dogs’ noise. The musterers begin moving too, following the sheep south-west across the hillside towards the distant ramparts of the Two Thumb Range.

The Phantom River.

It is the third day of  the autumn muster: an annual event which brings the sheep down off the high tops before the winter snows arrive. At 4am, the musterers had gathered for breakfast around the big kitchen table in the station’s homestead. Fortified with bacon, eggs, sausages and toast, washed down with copious quantities of tea, each of the five musterers had made a pile of sandwiches for lunch while the runholder explained each man’s beat (the route they would follow across the hillsides) for the day.

The High Claytons.

An hour later, as the rising sun cleared the triangular bulk of Mount Peel, the musterers were atop the High Claytons. In earlier times they would have spent three hours climbing out on foot. But these days, 4WDs are used to carry musterers and their dogs to the hilltops. Although the air has an early morning chill, the day promises to be sunny and hot.

The hills shimmer as alpine breezes ripple through the vast fields of snow tussock, which can grow to a height of a metre or more. As the musterers walk their beats through the steep, rocky faces they encounter not only wild deer and chamois, but dozens of Himalayan tahr. Introduced into the Southern Alps in 1904 these agile mountain goats can climb the most perpendicular rock faces with speed and grace.

On the Hill

For the shepherds and musterers who work on the High Country stations down the length of the South Island, work is slowly disappearing. Years of low wool prices have meant the farming of sheep has become less economically viable in the High Country. Vast tracts of land have been closed up or taken over by the conservation estate, and as the usage of the high country has changed, so the demand for high country mustering skills has diminished.

Mustering gangs once camped out for weeks at a time in backcountry huts where traditions and hierarchies were observed and maintained. Now, musters are completed in days using helicopters and 4WDs. Hobnailed boots, billy tea and camp ovens have been replaced by GPS locators, energy drinks and Vibram rubber soles.

But change is an integral part of the High Country. The grey slopes of scree and shingle, the beetling bluffs of black rock and the endless ridges and summits – which generations of musterers, in typical understatement have simply called “The Hill” –  are in a constant state of change as the elements shape and reshape the landscape.

By 2PM,  the musterers are nearing the end of the block. The long lines of wethers, which have moved ahead of the musterers and their dogs all day, descend a steep ridge towards Spurs Flat.  The huntaways keep the sheep moving while heading dogs cast left and right to bring individual sheep into the main mob which is gathering on the edge of the flat.

Each musterer controls his dogs with unique whistled commands. The older, experienced dogs instinctively watch the sheep, turning runaways back into the mob and keeping the animals moving. The younger dogs run boisterously alongside, learning the skills from their teammates and from the occasional profanity-laden command from their human masters.

The infant Orari River marks the end of the day’s muster. Beyond the river, which here is merely a trickle of crystal water bled from the snowfields of the Two Thumb Range, Horse Spur rises in a rounded fold of russet and gold tussock. The mob will be left on the spur to be gathered up tomorrow: the final day of the muster.

But the wethers, creatures of habit and suspicion, are reluctant to cross even this small creek bubbling across grey shingle between grassy banks smudged with matagouri. The dogs move the mob to the water’s edge. An older wether leaps across and soon the mob is following. The sheep string out across the hillside beyond.

Crossing the Orari River.

The musterers sit in the tussocks discussing the day’s work. Each has a story of good runs by their dogs and difficult sheep which had to be carefully extricated from a gully or ridge using cunning and skill.  The runholder arrives in a 4WD with flasks of tea and a fruit cake. The dogs sprawl around in the sun, mark their territory with squirts of piss, occasionally snarling at errant youngsters.

The wethers have dispersed across the face of Horse Spur. The afternoon sun glitters on the waters of the Orari River as it begins its journey down through the muscular hills. The musterers load their dogs onto the 4WD for the long journey back to the homestead.

At dawn tomorrow, the musterers and their dogs will once again be out here among the tussocks and rocks, mustering the Merino wethers ahead of them as they move across the flanks of the High Claytons like shadows on the hill.

The High Road to Central

There is gold in these here hills…

West of Duntroon, beyond the limestone caves with their Maori rock art, beyond the fertile river flats where sleek cattle graze and sheep stare stonily from boggy paddocks, the Danseys Pass Road enters the gorge of the Marawhenua River. The hillsides, cloaked in scrub and pine trees, close in until there is only enough room for the river and the road.  The Danseys Pass Holiday Park stands on a sunny bend where the river flows through a deep rocky pool, then the road steps across the river on a Bailey bridge and begins its climb up the flanks of the Kakanui Mountains.

Sheepdogs, Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.
Sheepdogs, Danseys Pass.

There is gold in these here hills.  Side creeks, descending in steep gullies, show signs of sluicing from olden days when gold rushes were a regular occurrence in these parts.  Prospectors still fossick in the riverbed, looking for traces of colour in their gold pans and clues to the ever-elusive Mother Lode.

The road, surfaced with the fine pink quartzite gravel of North Otago, undulates along a ridgeline past woolsheds and farm buildings. There are rows of baled silage, wrapped in long plastic sausages, and muddy tractors parked in fenced enclosures.  Snow posts mark the edges of the road and big, bushy snow tussocks wave in the constant breeze blowing down from the tops.

The Danseys Pass road began life as a stock route for sheep and cattle being driven over into Central Otago from the stations of the Waitaki Valley. Gold miners followed, their pots and pans clanking on the sides of their bullocks as they crossed the ranges en route to the goldfields of the Maniototo. Today, a steady stream of tourists travel the road which is well-maintained and perfectly safe for 2WD vehicles. 

Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies… 

The road crosses a dozen small streams – some bridged, others with concrete fords – and rattles over a similar number of cattle grids set into fence-lines which traverse the road and climb the hills on either side.  Gateways open onto steep 4WD tracks which zig-zag up the mountain-sides, providing access for shepherds to the high tops. The hillsides – “as steep as a hen’s face” is how shepherds describe precipitous country – fall right to the river.  Sheep scuttle off the road at the sound of your approach, leaving piles of poop where they have been sitting. A battalion of power pylons marches across the landscape.

High Country shepherds and their dogs in the Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.
High Country Shepherds and Their Dogs.

Finally, the road climbs across a vast tussock-clad face towards the pass, winding in and out of narrow gullies and sidling around the muscular flanks of the hillside.  Encased in your cocoon of twenty-first-century technology, it’s easy to forget how harsh this environment is. You need to be tough to live up here. Late snows, baking summer heat, floods, landslides, fire: farming in the High Country is a constant struggle with the elements.  

…and light takes on a life of its own.

Dansey’s Pass itself occupies a wide saddle slung between shingly peaks.  Bare slabs of stone lie scattered amongst the tussocks and traces of winter snow cling to the hollows of the mountaintops all year round. Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies.  

From the pass, the road dips steeply into the catchment of the Kyeburn River.  Fangs of black rock protruding from the hillsides, giving the landscape a slightly menacing aspect.  It’s the sort of place you would expect a troll or an elf to live. Water seeps from the gravel surface of the road which is hewn through slabs of solid rock in places.  The sky up here is dazzling, and on summer days, streaks of tinsel nor’ west cloud stretch out from the distant Southern Alps.  

Fangs of rock protrude from the tussocky hillsides of the Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.

The Kyeburn, another river full of gold, twists out from the hills, beginning its long journey to the coast where the water of the snowfields will be swallowed by the sea. Hereford cows peer at you over rusty fences of flat standards and barbed wire as you pass by. In this landscape of stone and gold, every view is back-dropped by the snowy spines of mountains and light takes on a life of its own.    

The Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, deep in the valley, offers superb food and coffee, and overnight lodgings in unique gold rush-era rooms. Travel is always a vanishing act. From the Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, you could get into your vehicle and drive back to the top of the pass, with the world spread out at your feet, and watch the sun set over the hills. Perhaps you could take some other long straight back road and see where it leads, like a prospector following a new reef of gold. Or, you could simply order another cappuccino instead.