Cruising to Walter Peak Farm
In the afternoon, the T.S.S. Earnslaw took us 7 miles from Queenstown across Lake Wakatipu to the Walter Peak High Country Farm.
Long and narrow, Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand’s second-longest at 52 miles. Fed by glaciers at the north end, it has 3 roughly-equal segments running south, then east, and finally south again. Queenstown sits near the east end of the middle segment. The lake level rises and falls 3-8″ every six minutes because of a process called “sieche” caused by the surrounding mountains creating variations in wind pressure.
The Earnslaw, the largest steamship built in New Zealand, is 168′ long and weighs 330 tons. Constructed in Dunedin, it was dismantled and shipped to the south end of the lake, and then re-assembled for launching on 24 Feb 1912.
One section of a lower deck has been cut away to allow viewing of the engine and the boiler room.
The boiler is coal fired and burns one tonne (about 2205 pounds) per hour.
Especially when building a head of steam, the ship also shows the effects of burning coal.
When joining group events, you meet interesting people. We enjoyed sharing the excusion with Monica Bischoff, who hails from Appenzell, in the eastern part of Switzerland.
Walter Peak High Country Farm is a 400-acre demonstration farm with 300 sheep. By way of comparison, the working farm down the road has about 25,000 sheep. (Walter Peak itself is a nearby mountain named by Queenstown’s first European for his son, the first European child born in the region.)
Today New Zealand has about 35 million sheep, about half the number of the 1970’s. The change is largely the result of Britain’s entry into the Common Market (an early step toward the EU). As a colony and then a member of the Commonwealth, New Zealand had a protected British market for its wool and lamb. The Common Market opened Britain to competition from Europe, to the detriment of New Zealand. The loss of that market forced diversification of New Zealand’s economy, which now produces, among much else, more wine, fruit and beef.
New Zealand raises about 30 varieties of cross-bred sheep. They tend to be raised in lower elevations, on higher-density farms, mostly for meat. Most of what we see in the summer fields are lambs who will be sent to market when they’re six months old.
A few are saved to produce more lambs. (The concept of seed-corn comes to mind.) A sheep with two years in a row of only producing one lamb, instead of twins, is sold as mutton. (Or, our guide joked, are sold to Australia as lamb.) The prolific sheep are treated with fertility drugs and breed for about 7 years.
The demo farm raises a variety of animals. There are a few Alpaca sheep, which have the finest wool, but are hardest to deal with.
High-country sheep-farming focuses mostly on the hardier merino sheep valuable for their wool. They are left to roam on vast farms for most of the year.
Monica tried to pet the shy Merino.
The farm also showed examples of other types of livestock. Highland cattle from Scotland are well-suited to the high country here.
Central Otago farms also raise deer for venison, a common menu item. This beautiful 8-year-old stag grows a new rack each year and then scrapes it clean to harden it for the spring fights with rivals. Fortunately for him, potential challengers are on the other side of the fence from his harem.
Afternoon tea provided a welcome snack. The small pancakes with a whipped cream ring around fruit are called “Pikelets.” Other tempting options included choices of scones. To be polite, of course, we tried everything.
Flowers and the lake view graced the grounds.
And bird-feeding provided some family time.
As former owners of a Shetland Sheepdog, we especially enjoyed a herding demonstration by a Border Collie. He started by circling wide to get above the sheep and then drove them down the hillside….
and kept them together against a fence at the bottom.
He worked mostly with a glare, rather than a bark.
A shearing demonstration came next. Although raised primarily for meat, the cross-bred sheep produce wool used for general woolen fabric and insulation. They are normally shorn twice yearly.
Merino, with their slower-growing, more valuable wool, usually are shorn annually. Their fine-textured wool goes into products as diverse as long underwear, performance t-shirts, expensive sweaters and Italian suits.
The first step is to turn the sheep on its back to immobilize it.
Next comes shearing with electric sheers.
It’s almost impossible to visualize how that was done in the days of hand scissors. Today workers sheer 300 sheep per day, earning about NZ$1.50 per sheep.
To complete the picture, we were shown how a traditional spinning wheel works. The spinner starts by attaching a piece of string to the wool and then just adding new pieces to the working string.
The return trip on the boat included a group sing around a piano. The song book provided lyrics as diverse as “My Bonnie lies over the ocean” and “Oh Susanna” to “It’s a Small World.
Our delightful day closed appropriately when Monica Bischoff, whom we had met on the tour, joined us for dinner.