In New Zealand, Filming Where Sheep Run the Show

August 28, 2003

Editor's note: Simone Swink works as a producer for National Geographic Today. For two weeks, Swink traveled in New Zealand with colleagues Chuck Walter, director of photography, and Charlie MacDonald, head editor and fill-in soundman. Their agenda: to show viewers facets of the island nation they haven't seen before. During their first week, the trio tackled sailing—New Zealand's national sport and passion. The film crew spent several days in Auckland talking with members of the new America's Cup team who are already planning their challenge to win back the Cup in 2007 after their embarrassing rout by the Swiss team earlier this year. After a few days with Team New Zealand, the trio headed to the South Island for two intimate stories about the people and culture of the less-populated island.

Kaikoura is a little town on the northeastern coast of the South Island, 93 miles (150 kilometers) north of Christchurch. The mountains here are stunning. The snowcapped Kaikoura range of the Southern Alps runs right up to the sea. Our second destination on the South Island, Arthur's Pass, is the only village on the island that is smack in the middle of the mountain range.

Driving several hours inland from the east coast port of Christchurch, we wind our way on two lane highways into the increasingly desolate foothills of the Southern Alps. We pass the occasional ski lodge facilities but the terrain is mainly dotted with sheep. Thousands of sheep.

Running parallel to the road for much of our journey are train tracks. We are on one of the only roads that runs east to west through the mountain range—it's an ancient road, originally used by the indigenous Maori when they traveled from one coast to the other. The town of Arthur's Pass was originally built early last century as a settlement for railroad workers.

Today, not a single person working for the railroad lives there. The town is so small that the first time we drive through, we don't realize we are there. It's not until we are at the top of the actual pass that we realize the town is behind us. A national park visitor center (there's 240,000 acres of national park preserved here), a petrol station, and a small motel are initially the only discernible features of the town. Some wisps of smoke from chimneys poking above the trees and a do-it-yourself outside post office are the only other signs of a village.

Population here is 54. Correction, it was 54 but now it's 49. No one here seems quite sure why it's dwindling. It seems the kind of remote, rough place that you can disappear and never be heard from again.

We're here because we have heard it's beautiful. At least that's what one of our main interview subjects, vocal Kiwi environmentalist and groundbreaking ecotourism operator Gerry McSweeney, has assured me. And it is beautiful. But where are the inhabitants?

Backtracking to our lodgings, Wilderness Lodge, built so carefully into the hillside just down the road from town that we missed it entirely when we drove by, we meet our first sheep. "This is the sheep who thinks she's a dog," Gerry chortles, pointing out the car window at the fattest sheep I have ever seen. "Her name is Madeleine," he said. A round cotton ball of fluff with what seemed to be four toothpicks for legs, she sported a noticeable disdain for us humans when we approached the paddock, unlike the other sheep that fled.

As my crew and I start to figure out our schedule here, Gerry mentions that the biyearly sheep muster will be the following morning. A common occurrence on sheep stations in this country where sheep outnumber people 12 to one, the sheep need to be moved to different parts of the wide-ranging farms or "stations" so they do not overgraze the land.

Very early morning, our second day, Andy Bitmead, the station manager, is rounding up 1,520 ewes, getting them ready to be herded from one side of Coralin sheep station to the other—down the two lane highway that runs through the valley. One VW van prowls in front of the herd with the driver flashing his lights at oncoming cars so they know to slow down for "STOCK IN THE ROAD" as written on the wooden sign hanging on the front of the van. My cameraman, soundman, and I drive down the highway from the starting point of the muster to try and catch the sheep coming toward us.

Straining our eyes to watch the top of the hill, the pavement starts to undulate, like the effect of heat rising off the road on a very hot day. But it's hundreds of sheep heads bobbing up and down. Though fascinating to watch from a distance, the smell that emanates from 1,520 sheep is a bit overpowering. And it is truly one of the less glamorous moments of the trip.

Now, if you are one of the drivers in a car coming from either direction, you are supposed to just keep driving, but very, very, slowly. The sheep sea will part to let you through. But since the animals are inclined to stop and eat at every single opportunity, the nine mile (15 kilometer) muster is slow going.

Continued on Next Page >>




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