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Dairy Diary #2

In order to allay Brian’s concerns regarding my tenure under his supervision, I made attempts at appealing to what I hoped was his empathetic nature by displaying a childlike enthusiasm for the job. “Don’t fire me, Mr. I’ll do better. Sure I will.” That was basically the foundation of my argument. I accented this plea by never being further than 3 feet from his side; showing how keen I was to try my hand at anything. I was consequently told to go away a number of times, but I this was only after he understood. I know this, because he told me.

As it happened, from the first week on I was never left wanting for something to try my hand at. It was now the beginning of August and the start of calving season. This meant that each of the 700 cows was going to have a little cow of their own, sometimes two; and over the coming months I was going to be helping. This would involve a number of jobs of varying description and liking but, for the purposes of the blog, can be condensed into these.

1. Calf retrieval – Once the calf is born – usually over the course of the night – I am sent into the paddock to locate the mother, who has been described to me as ‘white with black parts on her’ or sometimes with a slightly more concise description of ‘the brown one’. While it appears that everyone else knows which cow to target, I am generally running with both arms raised above my head towards a collection of innocently grazing cows. Once she has been located, I am to separate her from the rest of the herd – more often the case against her will – and coax her out on to the track.

At the point of completing this phase of the task I have likely run several kilometres chasing upwards of 10 separate cows, none of which have birthed, through a paddock riddled with holes big enough to get swallowed by and logs and broken sticks hidden in long grass that possess to be the perfect instruments to administer a dislocated knee. As long as I haven’t found myself at the bottom of one of these concealed openings in the earth I am now put to retrieving the new calf.

Providing luck was on my side the infant would be curled up in a restful slumber in the middle of a low lying and flat section of the paddock inches from the gate. I remember this being the case once, and never again.

Convention would have it several hundred yards away; sometimes not in the same paddock; sometimes not in the same farm; standing at the highest point of the horizon briskly limbering up for the chase of its life. By the time I have reached the calf and regained composure enough to breathe without the sensation of my lungs collapsing, I take a minute to study its curious countenance while it makes preparations in front of me in the form of quad stretches.

What follows is a good 10 or 12 minutes of exasperating pursuit – up hills and down banks, over logs and through bogs, and if I’ve not been drawn at least once into a head on collision with an electric fence then it’s been unusually fortuitous.

The final stage of the proceedings is for me to carry said calf back across the hillside to the trailer. The demand of this can only be appreciated when it is understood that newborn calves can weigh up to 100 lbs, depending on the breed. One calf of a particularly tremendous dimension was birthed by a cow with the significantly apt nickname of ‘Tank’. Danny carried that one. And this task is to be completed as many as 15 times per day during the season’s busier weeks.

The Rock Paddock

2. Transporting the cows and calves – Up to seven or eight calves can fit into the trailer attached to the back of the 4-wheeler at a time. The trailer is then driven at a speed of less than 5km/hr with the objective of persuading the birthed cows down the track behind it, and back towards the direction of the milking shed.

If we now consider the simplicity of a cow’s mind with its usual and somewhat unexceptional day to day existence, we shouldn’t fail to remark upon the potentially distressing effect this task may have on a new mother. Essentially, I have just, without reason or explanation, singled her out of a crowd of her peers and chased her like a maniac out of a field in which she was understandably recovering from a taxing night of labour (100 lbs!) onto a grassless track and left to wonder what that was all about.

She has then bore witness to the very same man wrestling her new born to the ground and throwing it into a caged trailer where it is left to cry-out while it is stood and defecated on by seven other screaming calves. At this point it can be ascertained by the nervous pacing back and forth along with the distended eye balls protruding from her skull, that this mother’s sensibilities are now a bubbling tumult of confusion and agitation.

However, the episode of distress hasn’t quite reached its end as now is the moment the individual, and unquestionable cause of her anguish, mounts the 4-wheeler and parades the young in front of her at a speed that forces her to suffer this scene for perhaps over an hour; after which the calf is swiftly whisked away from her and summarily disposed of into a pen filled with other similarly fated calves.

It is entirely understandable, almost logical, that the trip back to the milking shed is significantly comprised of frustrated attacks from said cows against said individual.

The track home

3. Drenching – This job is required in order to replenish a cow’s diminished calcium levels after they’ve given birth. The process is simple in theory – feed each newly calved cow one bottle of molasses. In practice, you’re lucky to get the job done without losing the use of an arm.

Before this can be attempted all the cows will have been herded into the herringbone and locked up tight to one another. After filling up the drenching bottle I wander down the aisle in front of the cows to pick the one pointed out by Brian. The cow catches a glimpse of the bottle in my hand and instantly fires a startled glare up at me. I clock that she’s seen it and there’s a second where both cow and man are frozen in a stand-off, each waiting for the others’ move.

The cow’s nerves get the better of her; swaying side to side, pawing at the ground, edging backwards and stepping forwards, craning its neck up and away from me. Now I’m standing face to face with it, both arms out stretched and mimicking the motion, side to side, looking for an opening. When I think I see it, I make my move. That is to say, I thrust my thumb and middle finger right up its nostrils.

Then there’s another second where I’m amazed at having my hand inside a cows face. Once I’ve made a mental note of how awesome this is I tuck the bottle of molasses under my right arm pit, yank on her nose, wrap my left arm over the top of her neck and grab the underside of her top lip on the opposite side. I let go of her nose and slide the bottle into my hand. This is the point where she really kicks off.

It’s now my job to, not only hold onto the head of a cow that definitely doesn’t want me to, but to overpower it with one arm, pry open its mouth, tilt its head up to open the gullet and upend a litre of tar-like syrup down it. She definitely doesn’t want me to.

It’s not uncommon for a cow to drag me over the barrier and pin me, with the force of a Car-Cuber, between herself and her neighbour, whom she is certainly in cahoots with. However, it’s a more regular occurrence for the cow to have me floundering with both legs airborne, one arm clinging around her neck, and the other flapping wildly dispensing molasses over me and everything else in the local vicinity. A timely flick of the neck would see me catapulted with a parabola’s trajectory against the unfortunately position breeze block wall.

The herringbone

4. Feeding the Calves – New born calves, for the first few days of feeding, must imbibe themselves on colostrum. It is the priority of the afternoon milking to collect this colostrum from the newly birthed cows in a specifically designated receptacle and ferry it over to the calves’ pens.

From being deposited in their pens in the morning to being corralled for feeding in the afternoon, the calves have collectively dedicated their time to decorating themselves and their surroundings in a staggering amount of excretion.Such was their dedication; a good number of them will have collapsed into an immobilized torpor.

This, therefore, requires some physical encouragement provided by some gentle rocking with the inside of the palm; and supplemented by a few stirring swipes with the outside. This technique would almost always render poor results but a better way was without the grasp of my temperament.

If I had made a success of raising the sleepers I would then need to direct them out of the pen and onto the ‘calfetier’: a task made all the more calamitous by the ice-like slick covering the wooden flooring – a residual effect of the previously mentioned calf waste – and the now unrestrained vim shown among the calves.

One man and eight calves produce a total of thirty-four legs; each one working with seemingly opposing objectives and at an alarming rate. A front leg might lurch forward while a hind leg splays outward; a knee might buckle while a hip joint locks; a body could collapse and cause a chin to meet with the floor; or a leg may rocket into the air and throw a head backwards, perhaps leaving it fixed between slats in the gate. This latter predicament is far less wearing when it happens to one of the calves.

It is outside the pen at the ‘calfetier’ that the true level of stubbornness in a young calf is displayed. Large amounts of time and effort are required to over-turn the natural impulse of a calf to look to an elder for nourishment.

Convincing them that the source of their unbridled excitement lies in drinking vast quantities of liquid and not in my crotch is to convince most women I know of the opposite.

If after completing all these jobs I was still able to call upon my bodily faculties to walk myself home unassisted, I could graciously call the day a roaring success.

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Dairy Diary #1

After four months of debasing frivolities in New Zealand’s party capital, I decided it was time to leave Queenstown so I could do what I came to New Zealand to do in the first place: work as a Dairy Farmhand.

Even though, on the morning I left, I was nursing a hangover that felt like dysentery would be a favoured alternative, I took comfort in the promise of what the near future may bring. This was a day I had been quietly anticipating since the idea of coming to New Zealand sprouted in my head over a year ago.

Admittedly, leaving Queenstown and all its beautifully enticing appendages, not least of all the South American female backpackers that seemed to be so prevalent, didn’t feel like a natural thing to do at the time, but I knew I needed to experience something more rewardingly wholesome and in fitting with the real New Zealand.

That’s my face….

I managed to get the job through an agricultural recruiting agency on the back of living for a number of years on a small holding in Wales and working as an assistant to my Engineer step father for a couple of summers between university years.

It wasn’t long before I realised I was in over my head. It came as a swift and not all that unanticipated realisation that feeding chickens and twice bailing hay is not an impressive background in farming, and, as anyone with even a paltry familiarity of the working world will admit, is far from enough experience to work for five months on a 900 acre working dairy farm with a herd 700 cows strong. A fact that my boss, Brian, became quickly assured of three minutes into my first day.

“Right, you can ride a two wheeler can’t you?” he said, confirming rather than asking. After deducing that he probably wouldn’t appreciate me admitting I couldn’t, I attempted circumvent the issue by cleverly replying “Uhhhmmm……..no”. It was early.

This must have only given him the impression that I’d forgotten whether I could or I couldn’t, a curious tactic when talking about riding a bike, but there we are. I attempted to change tack by ostensibly conveying concerned confusion as to where he could have got that idea from, while knowing full well it was from the job agency I had told I could a month before.

“OK, right, you can ride a 4 wheeler can’t you?” he asked, but this time with a tone and a facial expression that suggested only an idiot would say no to that question. I said no. After a short pause, while he came to terms with hiring a cretinous space waster, he half-heartedly asked “Tractor?” I didn’t offer an answer as much as slowly release a defeated breath from my inflated cheeks and raise an eye brow that told him all he needed to know.

That morning it became ominously clear the months ahead were going to be laden with an enduring sense of disappointment, chiefly dispensed by yours truly.

For someone who had never before worked on a dairy farm, it took quite a lot of focus and brain power (admittedly something I am not regularly accustomed to) in order to fully comprehend what my tasks involved and how they contributed to the overall continuity of the farm. Receiving instructions from Brian wasn’t quite as elementary as the two, usually, reciprocally conducive acts of him saying them and me hearing them would suggest.

Not wanting to say Brian had a limited vocabulary, although it seemed he would use words as if he was being charged by the letter. In trying to get his money’s worth he would cram them all into each sentence, while not being overly concerned with the trifling issue of making any sense whatsoever. Conversations with Brian would often leave me utterly perplexed and completely clueless.

One of his many mystifying instructions was to “go and spray the paddock halfway down the lane, that’s above the opposite field where it joins the back paddock next to the one that’s below itself”. That might not be entirely verbatim, but it was similar nonsense giving me a cerebral meltdown almost every day in the first few weeks on the farm

There were a number of things I found especially hard to get to grips with during the initial stages of my appointment in Tokoroa. Being in Tokoroa was one of them. It’s a moderately sized rural New Zealand town, situated in the Waikato region at the heart of the north island and surrounded by an unremitting landscape of absolutely nothing.

The farm itself is reached by a 20 minute car journey approximately 15km north of the town along Old Taupo Road. A journey that when going to the farm for the first time gave me my first real sense of what Tokoroa and the Waikato could offer.

As the evening crept in I was given the opportunity to survey my new habitat from atop a gently rising brae outside Brian’s wooden slatted farmhouse. The dwindling sun threw faint beams of twilight skipping across an endlessly undulating countryside that engulfed me on all fronts, before falling behind the silhouette of the Rangitoto mountain range to the west.

It was an undeniably tranquil and humbling setting that most would struggle not to appreciate, and I was suddenly smitten. However settling this brief moment of reverie was, it was to be the last one for several, several weeks.

Tongan times #1 – First impressions

Arriving at Nuku’alofa International Airport is a pleasantly unexceptional experience. Its runway is a grey score through sheets of chartreuse lawns mottled with tiny tufts of dark green, like balled cotton clinging to a jumper. The terminal building lies idly among a mesh of irregular palm trees, seemingly in a state of exhaustion.

As I stepped from the sterile chill of the aeroplane, the wall of thick air was dizzying to walk through and the heavy heat hung off me as a garment. It was early morning but already the sun had begun to cook the day. I trudged across the tarmac removing needless layers of clothes. The door marked ‘arrivals’ shimmered behind the haze rising in front of it and the ground appeared to swell below me. Everything here had a pulse.

Once inside, the relief of the shelter is complemented by the fact that you’re reminded by very little that speaks of an international airport. It was a relaxed and unaffected arrangement that proved a welcomed spin on the tedious chaos of most airport terminals. The general listlessness of the employees, the hand painted welcome sign above the immigration desks – which were two ragged book stands draped with grass skirts – and the official customs forms evidently designed on pic art were all indications of the casual island sentiment that permeates the attitudes of even the tautest of tourists.

The hostel which I was booked into, along with my travel buddy, Owain, was a basic affair but it offered an airport pick-up and a shuttle into town throughout the day. We were shown to our quarters at the end of a potholed dirt track behind the more agreeable looking accommodation at the front. As cement shells go, we couldn’t have much complained, but the mattresses could have doubled as doors and a hole in an overhead septic tank would have made a marked improvement on the shower.

As we took a few moments to make these considered appraisals a dark carpet of cloud rolled itself out across the heavens, too quick for either of us to notice before it emptied a torrent of rain that kept us confined to the common room until late afternoon.

Eventually the weather cleared and Owain and I wasted no time in venturing away from the hostel. With backpacks and water bottles we skipped down mud alleys, over coffee coloured puddles and through verges of messy St. Augustine grass; passed topless children chasing scrawny chickens; ducked under overhanging hibiscus flowers; and cleared onto the open main street. We turned and headed west towards the coast.

It wasn’t long before we approached the local market around the first bend. As we rounded the corner there seemed to descend a small second of peaceful silence; a quiet feeling of empty calm, like the moment right before you walk into a glass door. Except in this instance it wasn’t a pane of glass but a pack of five rabid dogs crowding the shop entrance. Each of them lifted their heads, turned and glared at us. We both froze, our breath stuck in our throats.

Only a few feet away from us was the biggest and most aggressive-looking: tufts of fur missing from its bloodied coat, shoulders like a shot putter and anvils for paws. It peeled back its top lip and let out a snarl that nearly made me collapse on the ground. Neither Owain nor I took our eyes off the dogs’ movements as they pawed at the dirt.

Owain – breath still trapped – took a tentative half-step backwards that sent the beasts into a wild fury. The biggest leapt forward into a torrent of guttural barks and ferocious fangs, strings of saliva tumbled from its mouth and its jet-black eyes protruded out its skull like bullets. Both of us were now back pedalling in to the street, considerably more concerned about avoiding a bite from this animal than getting T-boned by a bus. It forced us clean across the road.

We edged along the opposite side and watched the pack descend; they lunged and barked at each other as they were overwhelmed by their rage. An old and heavily dented people carrier tottered by us at a canter. Its engine coughing and spluttering mocked the scene, but distracted the dogs long enough for us to mark an ample retreat. Steadying our breath we doubled our pace, taking regular glances over our shoulders as we high-tailed it into the distance.

We had set off in search of a beach, wanting golden stretches of palm enclosed bliss scattered with satin skinned nymphs. But it seemed this rude introduction to Tonga proved a bit of a contradiction to that fantasy – at least for now.

Back Backpacking

The solo-backpacking lifestyle does a lot to animate the mind: obscure cultures, breath-taking vistas and lovable locals. But as I arrived in Kuala Lumpur I battled with the cynical thoughts of filthy hostels, forced openness and repetitive conversations. It had been almost 4 years since I was last in south-east Asia and hoped this trip would remind me of the things I love about it.

The dorm I was staying in consisted of a young Canadian student, a thirty-something year old German chap and a middle-aged silent man who no-one saw for days in anything other than his very small pants.

The streets when I turned up

The streets when I turned up

The Canadian, JD, seemed nice enough but, judging by his leisurely approach to sentences and an inability to lift his eye lids, was on his own special kind of trip; so I turned to Tommy, the German. He came across as a peculiar fellow and evidently not too sensible with his money. He was flat broke and had resorted to selling off his possessions. He offered me his old and battered camera for $50, and when I declined, asked if he could ‘just have the $50 anyway?’ Two very tempting offers but thought I’d save the cash and buy some dinner.

I hadn’t eaten in nearly 15 hours as the airline I flew with had clearly spent its entire annual budget on the cabin crews’ hair spray and teeth whitener, so couldn’t afford its passengers the luxury of a meal.

I dragged myself down China Town’s rubbish strewn streets and shadowy alleys and slumped onto one of the plastic stools arranged outside the only food stall open at this hour. A bowl of what was supposed to be noodles in black bean sauce was brought out to me, but, to judge by its appearance and taste was more likely something procured from a disused oil drum.

Dinner and a chat

Dinner and a chat

Tentatively picking at it a voice chirped up from behind me. “Hey, what percentage is this beer?” He was a lone backpacker from America and apparently desperate for conversation. We talked beer percentages for about as long as most people can, which is to say four seconds; after which he lurched right into a lengthy monologue about some absurd love triangle he had found himself in.

He had an affected manner and an unyielding self-interest. The more he talked the less I listened, but he babbled on undeterred, as if everyone was definitely interested. “And then her boyfriend flew all the way in from Bangkok to get me.” Oh, Christ, I thought. I had more pressing matters.

The streets on a typical night

The streets on a typical night

I went back to my meal and tried to decipher whether it had been made in a wok or a shoe. Another bite and I was almost certain it was a shoe, then the chef came out not wearing any and I was convinced. I hung on with the story to find out if the boyfriend had managed to catch up to him. He hadn’t – I left.

Back in the dorm – tired, hungry and alone – I stripped off to my very small pants and settled down for a few days in silence until my train left.

One Last Hurrah

“I’m not wearing pants ‘til Perth!” – my defining vow exclaimed to my travelling comrade, Ivan, as we prepped for a two week road trip down Australia’s west coast. I had been living for four hot months in Broome, from the boot of my 1994 Ford Falcon Sedan, and this was our final foray of abandon before a new life in the city. We were giddy with excitement – Ivan, less so about the pants thing.

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With the Falcon packed we lit out and vanished into the enormity of the Great Sandy Desert. The sun-bleached highway cleaved its way through red dust hills that softly undulated like the broad swell of an ocean after a storm. The colours around us were simple but intense. The sky was a sharp blue; the dirt, clay red; the shrub was a lifeless brown and the staggered centre line blended into a solid strip of a gleaming white that licked our front right tyre as we hove over the landscape.

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The Karijini National Park gave us a chance to see what lay beneath. On foot we waded through placid waters that crept along deep fissures in marbled rock to openings of serene pools, ribbed by the gentle fall of water curling off the drop ahead. The walls rose high above us and, as the desert for a ceiling, we were enclosed within the shadows of the earth.

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At night the sun drowned under an inky firmament and dusk drew in like the tide. The line between heaven and earth, by day so conspicuous and distant, became imperceptible in the depth of the darkness – it felt like standing on a platform in space.

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Teased by cool, purple airs we woke before the show of a heavenly sunrise and rejoined the empty highway south. For hours I stared, transfixed by the sight of the road unravelling before me and the sound of the wheels humming their way over miles of arrow straights and round easy curves. Ningaloo Reef and SharkBay provided perfect reprieve from the road. Off the coast we snorkelled among brilliantly coloured fish and carefree reef sharks, and sat as Queen Fish the size of tennis rackets swam about our ankles in the shallows.

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The sun was high, hard and white. As we drove towards it streams of gold fell in through the wind-shield. Clouds overhead raked into the distance and dropped off the edge of the world. The Falcon glided to a stop and perched at the first set of traffic lights seen in 2000 kilometres. The freedom I had experienced was brand new and one wholly unique to soaring across Australia’s vast outback – and also, to not wearing pants.

Rafting in The Smokies

Drew’s pick-up truck roared out of the petrol station in Knoxville, Tennessee, and bounced onto the eastbound highway. “I’ll pay for gas, if you buy the beer”. We were heading for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to try our hand at white water rafting. “Good idea”, I thought, “I’ll probably want to be drunk for this”.

Drew was a rambunctious adventurist with an infectious enthusiasm for living wild – the force behind his ‘Yee-haw’ could jolt a flock of Rock Pigeons from a tree in Kentucky. Leaving his log-cabin in the wooded foothills of the city, he seemed to display a distinct lack of concern that neither of us – myself and my friend, Oli – had been anywhere near a raft before.

The ever enthusiastic Drew

The ever enthusiastic Drew

The mountain pass took us up through a splaying landscape thick with a woolly greenness. The sky was unusually clear in the heights of the Smoky Mountains as little more than a light mist hovered above distant peaks. Towering Fir trees staggered along the riverbank and stretched skyward, hacking the sunlight into shards of silver, and cast looming shadows that maligned the river flow. I wondered if now would be a good time to start drinking.

The assent into The Smokies

Not as smoky as I had expected

I nervously pretended to help push the inflatable raft off the safety of the slipway; Drew delivered a couple of cursory instructions that I immediately forgot and Oli kept a close eye on the bag of beer. The river stretched on and on but we were already only meters from where it broke into a tumbling mess of froth and swirls.

Some frightening froth

Some frightening froth

The roar of the rapids battering against boulders soon sent my senses into a spin. I panicked and started randomly stabbing at the water with my paddle. The first sudden drop had me flailing like lunatic being attacked by bees and I immediately slunk off the side into the depths. Oli – who later described my face as ‘horrified’ – leapt across the bow to my rescue and dragged me back in by my life jacket.

Checking my body for puncture wounds I tried to compose myself. Oli did his best to suppress his merriment while Drew seemed more excited than ever. “Get ‘em, boys. Get ‘em!” – our cue to burst into some power-paddling. We attacked the next rapids at pace – a tactic that only seemed to serve us in a speedier dismount from the raft.

A rock the size of Rushmore raised Oli several feet into the air; he clattered back down onto the side of the raft, was flung into a backward somersault and then vanished into the roiling cascades beneath. “Yee-haw”, cried Drew. Oli’s dishevelled head popped back up the other side of a felled tree and he lifted himself back in.

Survived and no more

Survived and no more

Eventually, the rapids eased and we sailed into the relief of tender waters. The raft hushed its way around a gentle bend to a gun-sight view down the trench of the valley. Below the lurching boughs of the Cedar trees we drifted among the soothing intimacies of the wild – the best time to enjoy a beer.

The serene wild

The serene wild