Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Counting sheep

A farm in New Zealand's lush Wairarapa Valley makes the pastoral seem surreal

Sometimes unbidden, my brain will indulge in a spontaneous slide show of places I've been happy. While stuck in traffic on the expressway, I will get flashes of that perfect coral reef off Praslin in the Seychelles. Or the undulating coast road in Southern Newfoundland. Or standing in front of the relics of the royal graves of Ur in the British Museum.

They were all places where I was surprised, delighted, charmed and yes, happy. Places that make all the jetlag and bad nights of travel worthwhile. Places that jump to mind when people ask me, as they inevitably do, "Hey, you travel a lot, right? What's your favourite place?"

But they are not my favourite place. I could be trite and say my favourite place is in the arms of a loved one. Or I could be whimsical and say my favourite place is in my own bed, in a deep sleep. But if I had all the money in the world, and I could be anywhere, for however longed I liked, I would like to be at Stansborough Farm (tel: 011 64-6-372-7002; stansborough.co.nz). I first went to Stansborough Farm because I was writing yet another piece about Lord Of The Rings and New Zealand. In a desperate attempt not to talk to the same dozen people every other journalist in the world had interviewed, I tried to track down some of the craft people involved.

I started by talking to Ali and Greg Lang, a husband and wife wheelwright team that live and work around 90 minutes outside of Wellington, in the farmlands known as the Wairarapa.

They started by building and fixing wagons, carriages and old farm machinery for locals. Now they are so busy making movie and TV props (they've worked on Xena, Hercules and The Last Samurai. They were also the creators of Gandalf's cart), they regrettably don't have much time for their neighbours.

When I asked what their current project was, Greg looked a bit uncomfortable and explained: "Well, I am not really supposed to talk about it." Only in New Zealand do the wheelwrights sign confidentiality agreements.

Cloaking System

After visiting the Langs, I headed another half-hour or so up into the inland mountains. I was heading for a farm where they breed the sheep that grew the wool that was woven into elven cloaks for the Lord Of The Rings. Bit of a reach, I know. The road became narrower and narrower. Paving became nothing more than a warm memory.

I drove up sharp mountains and along cliffs. Most of the time the road was dark, shrouded by the trees that met overhead. And then, the road dropped down, down into the valley. The trees were gone and it was bright. A small stream trickled along the valley floor. By the stream was a solid, graceful old farmhouse. I drove on and parked by the homestead. Then I got out of my car and looked around.

It was like waking up in a Dr Seuss drawing. The pretty storybook house was hemmed in by the most peculiar hills I've seen outside a children's book (or drawing). They were sharp and sudden -- witches hats and saw’s teeth. You could see the mini-mountains' naked shapes because their protective layer of trees had been nibbled off by the picturesque flocks of white sheep that floated around the valley like languid, earth-bound clouds and -- what the hell was that?

The most bizarre sheep I had ever seen ambled across my line of sight. More giraffe than sheep. All Seuss. From behind me a voice asked, "Do you like the alpaca?" Cheryl Eldridge introduced herself. Along with her husband Barry, she owned this farm. All 1214 hectares of it. Over home-baked muffins in the farmhouse kitchen she explained that they had decided to get into sheep farming over a decade ago. But they realized they needed something special.

So they found a sickly flock of 300 odd, grey sheep in southern New Zealand and brought them up to their farm. Through selective breeding, they refined the sheeps' wool creating a light, soft, silvery grey coat. By the time they had finished, they had founded a whole new breed -- the Stansborough Gotland sheep.

Cheryl managed the stock, hand-sorting the wool as it was sheared. A bit of alpaca was sometimes thrown in to liven up the colour palate and add a bit of softness. Barry was in charge of the weaving. A bit more complicated than it sounds as they decided to use Victorian looms (they have two of the four left in Australasia). It can take days to hand pin the settings. But the results are, well, elven.

Zeal for the Land

All very interesting. Fascinating even. But it was the scenery that got me. After lunch we went for a stroll. It was pouring rain, but it was still astounding. Unexpected knolls, inviting valleys, all deep, glowing green.

I had another appointment and had to go. I promised to return. And I did. A few months later, on another trip to New Zealand, I made sure to head back to the valley. I never go back to the same place twice. But this time, I had to. Cheryl and Barry took me around. Every rise opened up an even more perfect corner of the farm.

Let me tell you about the river. I am a connoisseur of rivers. I spent much of my childhood up to my short knees in a river, flipping rocks looking for salamanders and suckers. This river was the river of my childhood dreams. It twisted and curled, lazy and meandering. It flowed enough to keep the water clear, but not so fast as to whisk away items of interest. It was too wide to jump, but periodically there were rocks ideally placed for stepping stones.

Every now and then the river would widen and deepen, creating an inviting swimming hole. Of course there would be a boulder to jump off, and a sandy beach to lounge on. Hidden here and there on the farm were also a proper swimming lake, fields of billowing pampas grass, and nesting black swans. From the tops of the hills, I could see to the Pacific, or down the spine of the mountains of the Northern Island.

Back at the farm, I took a closer look at the animals. White sheep, grey sheep, cows, alpaca, llamas and, with a whistle from farm manager Steve, four bounding sheep dogs, ready to round up the rest for the evening.

The farmhouse garden was heavy with bounty. There were grapes on the vines, grapefruits, lemons, apricots, pecans, kiwis, figs, walnuts, plums, nectarines, almonds, apples, arrowroot, pineapples and star fruit.

What can I tell you? It is perfect. The air, the water, the green is exhilarating and awakening. The odd geography and the odder animals make it impossible not to smile. And the people give it warmth. It was Canada condensed. With a better climate. And alpaca instead of bears.

Even Cheryl still isn't used to it. "We do really pinch ourselves sometimes. You can't really own this, you can caretake it."

If I had all the money in the world, and I could be anywhere, for however longed I liked, I would like to be at Stansborough Farm, feeding the llama until I was hot enough to pick some grapes from the vine and head down to the river for a swim. Makes the expressway seem pretty insane.

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