Saturday #29: The Bit In The Middle

I usually feel obligated to at least try to do something interesting on a Saturday, but given my skydiving experience on Friday, some post-skydiving celebrations, and plans to walk the 19km Tongariro Crossing on Sunday, I was happy to lay low on Saturday #29.

We arrived at Blue Duck Station on Friday afternoon and planned to stay two nights at the vast sheep and cattle station on the Whanganui River. By ‘vast’ I mean 3700 acres with 2500 ewes, 500 cattle and plenty of room for 40 Strays. If things do get a little crowded, some of the eco-tourists can move across the road to a sister farm of the same size.

Blue Duck Station is the creation of Dan Steele. (Not that Dan Steele for you Tom Waits fans.) Steele grew up on his parents’ farm across the river, got a degree in agriculture, and worked briefly as a livestock auctioneer before deciding to travel. While living in London he worked as a labourer for a company that secured vacant buildings from squatters.

“I thought about the poor buggers who lived in these spaces with the worst form of drug dependency, no goals, no passions. It was a real eye-opener. I realized the great contrast of places in the world and the quality of people’s lives. Greece was a great party place but how could you compare a bunch of white houses on a rock with the beauty of the bush up the Whanganui River? And in Las Vegas every second person seemed to have a throat tattoo. I wondered about their lives. What were they thinking?”

“I looked at New Zealand with fresh eyes,” he continued. “It gave me an appreciation of our natural environment and an understanding that it’s slipping away from us. By the time I arrived home I was feverish to get back on the land and climb in amongst it all.”

Steele came up with a plan to create a business that pairs farming with tourism and a massive conservation project. He secured the 3700-acre property adjacent to the family farm and went to work creating Blue Duck Station. When the folks who run Stray came across his humble little collection of huts and cottages they encouraged him expand and promised to start bringing up to four buses per week to the property.

“At the start I had no idea how to host a busload of young people. I had always relied on having a yarn and knowing that visitors would love the bush here and what we were doing. I can remember thinking, ‘We’ve got 50 people for dinner tonight and we’re out here in the middle of nowhere’.”

The first Stray bus arrived in 2011. It wasn’t long before Stray passengers voted Blue Duck Station as their favourite stop on the route between Auckland and Queenstown.

“It’s humbling that people like it here. I think part of it is that personal connection. We’re friendly, we talk about what we are doing and why. These kids are adventurous and eco-conscious, probably more so than young Kiwis.”

Success on the Blue Duck Station isn’t just measured in visitor counts and occupancy rates, or the number of sheep sent to market. This is a major conservation project, and after seven years the results are encouraging.

“The indicator species are bouncing back. We’re seeing big flocks of tui and kereru again. I’ve seen 50 tui in a flowering kowhai.”

Over 1900 acres have been left to regenerate, 450 predator traps are inspected weekly, and 6 kilometres of fencing have been built along rivers to keep the livestock from polluting the water.

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Six of us had the opportunity to dine with the Steele family and their staff on Friday night. The meal consisted of lamb with roasted potatoes and carrots, coleslaw, fresh baked bread, and warm apricot cobbler served with ice cream. It wasn’t nouvelle cuisine but it was exactly what a hard working farm family and their staff eats on a regular basis – and for that reason alone it was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in a long time.

On Saturday most of the Strays slept a bit longer than usual, cooked breakfast in the self-catering kitchen, and tried to shake off the effects of a night on the deck where 10 cases of beer somehow disappeared.

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By early Saturday afternoon I had recovered and was ready to do some exploring. I set out from the lodge but instead of turning left and walking toward the river, I made a beeline for the large shed that housed the farm implements. As a rule of thumb, the most interesting items on a farm are usually stored behind the barn or drive shed.

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While I was photographing several rusting farm trucks I realized that Dan’s brother Richard Steele was watching from about 10 meters away. He had just finished feeding a large dog that was lounging in the shade of the shed. Some guard dog, I thought. I didn’t even realize he was there. Perhaps he realized that I intended to take nothing more than photographs.

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I didn’t get a chance to talk with Richard at the Friday night dinner but I got the impression that he was a man of few words. Our initial contact on Saturday confirmed this. He wasn’t unfriendly yet he provided only one or two word answers to my many attempts to start a conversation. I asked him about trapping stoats, building fences, what type of hay they grow and such. I think I got a three word answer, once. Then I asked about the collection of tractors that I spotted in an adjacent shed. Two hours later we were still talking about McCormicks and Fordsons and whether Richard considered himself to be a green (Deere) or red (Case) man. In case you’re wondering, Richard’s motto is: “If it ain’t red, keep it in the shed.”

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I told Richard that my grandfather David L. Stouffer had once walked into Henry Ogden’s Massey-Harris dealership in Ontario with the intent of purchasing a few links of chain. He walked out owning the business. This was just before the great Depression and while I don’t know what became of the business, I suspect that he lost it when everything dried up in the mid 30s. Richard rummaged around in a pile of tires and pulled out an original Canadian-made Massey-Harris-Ferguson tire. Tossing it on the hood of a truck he cracked, “There wouldn’t be many of those buggers laying around.”

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Over the course of our two-hour discussion I learned the history of every tractor, baler, disc, hay rake and set of harrows on the farm.

“I’m working on that one,” was a common refrain. “That one just needs a gasket and it’ll run. I ordered if from Iowa last week and it should be here in a few days.”

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Richard has two identical Austin farm trucks and he plans to restore one of them. He’s spent the last 20 years trying to figure out which one he will restore and which one will be cannibalized for parts. “They’re darn near ’dentical, ’cept for the beehive under that one.”
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It was well past dinnertime when Richard finally said that he should be getting back to the house. I thanked him for the tour and the bottle of Speight’s.

“What was your last name, Mike?”

When I replied, “Hamilton,” his eyes lit up and the slightest hint of a smile came across his face. Dinner could wait. I followed Richard back to the drive shed where he opened up a big wooden cabinet where he kept spare parts.  After a few minutes he found what he was looking for.

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“I thought I had a carburetor intake mounting flange stamped ‘Hamilton’ but how about this?”

I wouldn’t know a carburetor intake mounting flange from a fuel bowl oxidation unit but I was happy to hear that C.W.F. Hamilton & Co. Ltd. is a thriving business that Richard still deals with.

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I assumed the company was based in Hamilton, New Zealand, but Richard explained that it was actually from Christchurch and was started by an Irish immigrant named William Hamilton. Today its HamiltonJet subsidiary is a world leader in the production of water-jet propulsion systems. Blue Duck Station operates a jetboat on the Whanganui River and Richard wouldn’t think of running anything but a Hamilton engine.

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The sun was dipping behind the mountain range when we finally said goodbye and I started walking back to the guest cabins. As I kicked rocks down the dusty one-lane road I thought about something Dan Steele had said.

“Life’s a work in progress. You are born, you work, you die and it’s the bit in the middle that’s interesting.”

Around Blue Duck Station, even the laziest of Saturday afternoons was indeed “interesting.”

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Some of the quotes attributed to Dan Steele were taken from a story first published in NZ Farmer magazine. Everything attributed to Richard Steele was told directly to me. If I have misquoted Richard Steele, it’s likely due to his quiet demeanor and the hand-rolled cigarettes that only left his lips when he took a swig of beer. The aerial photo of Blue Duck Station and the photo of Dan Steele are courtesy of NZ Farmer. All other photos are mine and shot with an iPhone 6. Get one. Seriously. If Apple doesn’t get to $150 in the next 18 months I won’t be able to continue traveling.

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