From the E-book 'Road to Flamingo Flat'
The Whisky Grew Sweeter
At the outset of World War Two, young men from the New Zealand high country heeded the call to arms. Tying up their dogs, they swapped their hill stick for a rifle and a canteen. In doing their bit for King and country those men left their high country employers with a void that they were going to find difficult to fill.
Unfortunately, many of those young men would never return, of those who did, many ventured into city life. For others however, the love of the outdoor life lay deep in their hearts.
Many of those young men, on their return, were assisted back onto the land by way of a government grant. Nevertheless, that acute shortage of skilled musterers and shepherds continued for the duration and well beyond the term of the war.
One of those farmers, who managed a high country station, was only one of many who found it difficult to employ good men with dogs during those war years. On one particular occasion and in desperation, this farmer is said to have hit on an ingenious plan.
To muster his wethers off the range, he offered the job to a group of boy scouts. Partly filling old golden syrup tins with stones, he pointed each of these young blokes, tin in hand, to their allotted beat.
Assuming a suitable distance apart, the scouts commenced rattling their tins. With a noise that would have scared the living daylights out of the most stubborn of sheep, those youngsters drifted across the hill face.
At the conclusion of a highly successful muster the delighted cocky was overheard to remark, tongue in cheek.
“That’s the best damn muster I’ve had on that block, we lost a couple of scouts, but we brought in all the wethers!”
In early 1946, two high country neighbours began bouncing ideas around, both concurring that the war years had partly destroyed a mustering breed.
They set about seeking ways of rejuvenating that mustering skill and attracting it back into the High Country.
They hit on the idea of a dog trial. While proposed primarily as a social event, the trials were to have a couple of objectives.
- To encourage and recognize mustering skills
and good dogs.
2. To attract musterers back into the high country.
Such an event would be open to those past and present musterers and shepherds who worked on the sheep stations within the Ashburton Gorge.
As a result of those two founding members enthusiasm, the inaugural dog trial meeting was held at Hakatere Station, on the 25th May 1946.
From that meeting, guidelines for the proposed event were thrashed out, two of which were:
1 To fund a dog trial each year, it was generally agreed to levy each run-holder to the tune of ten shillings per thousand sheep.
2 First prize the equivalent of fourteen pounds, a month’s wages.
Eleven competitors took the field on the initial dog trail on the 12th June. 1946.
With the services of an official judge, first, second and third were finally selected from the day’s contenders. Two contestants were also honoured with titles of the youngest and the oldest competitors of the day.
So successful was that first dog trial, plans were made to continue it during the following years. That first event not only established a unique camaraderie among those high country stockmen, but it demonstrated what a huge appetite these men had.
For the next thirty-five years the local branch of the Red Cross provided lunch.
They say a menu, much of it donated by the run-holders, consisted of wild mutton, mashed potatoes, mashed swede, beetroot and home made pickles. That fare remained unchanged for the whole period.
Desert, was stewed apple under a slab of pastry, covered with a mountain of whipped cream.
Not to be abandoned, those sheepdogs, the real stars of that show. Well, they received a drink of water and a lie down in the shade.
Around 1950, a Silver Billy, designed and manufactured identical to the billy favoured by musterers on the beat, was offered as first prize. That billy would continue to be vigorously contested in the years to come.
As part of the first presentation ceremony, the winner was encouraged to fill the billy with whisky, passing it round the cook-shop, long after the event had finished.
As the whisky grew sweeter and the beer keg became lighter, to the accompaniment of one local character, whose fingers deftly caressed the keys of his favourite piano-accordion, re-runs of the day’s event began to take shape.
Stories were told of those dogs performing legendary feats. In a matter of hours the cook-shop was rife with stories, where the dogs had pitted their unique skills against the wily sheep, on a hill face that had miraculously became almost perpendicular.
As the night wore on, stories became more and more bizarre, telling of bionic musterers scaling those slippery slopes, pitting their skills against gigantic sheep recently drenched with Ivomec. They declared that particular drench increased their speed and agility.
Then there were the yarns, where everyone was trying to outdo the other.
One old hand told his story of the two dogs who spent a day at the local agricultural show.
One dog was a Pomeranian bitch called Bow. She was done up like a dogs dinner especially for the day, with a nice red ribbon around her neck and a cheeky little bow on her topknot. The other was a male fox terrier-cross called Tom, with a dirty shaggy coat, a scarred nose and a gammy leg.
Both these animals agreed they would meet at the gate after the show, to exchange their experiences.As agreed, they duly met at the gate. The Pomeranian went first, saying she had a wonderful time. She preened as she told of the judges awarding her first prize, a second prize and a highly commended.
“How did you go?” She asked. “Were you a good boy Tommy?”
“Aw, shucks, Bow.” Old Tom smiled, his mouth open, his tongue hanging out and panting from sheer exhaustion. “I had a couple of sexual connections. Had three fights. And now Bow, I’m buggered, but highly delighted.”
The crowd erupted into song.
Space became a premium in the cook-shop as supper tables, unceremoniously laden with a banquet of sandwiches appeared, some dry, some moist and some curled at the edges. However, all had one filling in common. Cold mutton.
To top off the evening, one bright spark suggested a midnight run down to a corner of the road, almost a kilometre for the jaunt.
Older and wiser contestants, legs jellified by the over indulgence of liquid refreshment, waited in ambush along the roadside verges, to join the leading bunch on their return.
After a sprint that could have made Usain Bolt envious, the bunch collapsed in the cookhouse door.
Chests heaving, tortured lungs wheezing. They begged for another beer.
As the years progressed, the event developed to accommodate not only the young men, but also to take into account the greater involvement of those women, who loved to work on the land and compete alongside their men.
By the 1970’s and 80’s, the event became a family affair, held in picnic mode during the late summer or early autumn. A family day offered the dog trials as a more sedate event, with barbecues and a more modest round of ale.
Concluding the day’s festivities, the midnight run was replaced with an afternoon jog from the woolshed to the slipping pens,
Then as the shadows lengthen and the day gradually came to a close, the whole family dined on a lavish homemade banquet, including mutton chops, along with sausages off the barbecue.
As old acquaintances are renewed, past times are golden for those aging musterers.
With nostalgia in their hearts, they take one last look at that famous hill and marvel at their feat, or was it their stupidity in youth, sprinting to the top of that famous hill.
Many will pay tribute to those two men who inspired this event in the beginning, all those years ago. Without their faith and persistence, the Ashburton Gorge would be a less colourful place today.
Whatever these families do during the months ahead is anybody’s guess, but come hell or high water, every effort will be made to train another pup and have the absolute desire of returning to the Gorge the following year, their hearts once again set on winning that coveted silver cup.
I hope this little story brings back fond memories to some.