May 2014

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Wedderburn Cottages

Stuart Duncan whistles his instructions to his dog, Tis, to bring the sheep down from the hills. Photos by David Lansing.

So this morning, shortly after dawn, I hear a long whistle somewhere out on the ranch. And then another long whistle, this one slightly different in tone—like two long whistles followed by two shorts. Sort of like a whistling Morse code.

Which, I discover when I pull on some pants and a jacket, is pretty much what it is. Stuart is leaning against the fence, hands deep in his pockets on this cold morning, whistling at his dog, high up in the hills, bringing the sheep down so Stuart can move them to another pasture.

Stuart has a whole repertoire of whistles. One means “turn left” and another “turn right.” There’s “move them up the hill” and “move them down” and there’s “stop right there.” A man and his dog.

The dog’s name is Tisdale; Stuart calls him Tis. Stuart says he pretty smart but he’s had smarter. And dumber. “This one here,” Stuart says, nodding at Tis as he herds the sheep directly towards us, “tries hard but sometimes he doesn’t get it right. I whistle right and he goes left. I think maybe he’s a little dyslexic. Can a dog be dyslexic?” Stuart laughs at the very idea and I do too.

It’s something to see though. A dog out there in the hills commanding a couple hundred sheep, all based on the whistles his master gives him.

It takes all of maybe twenty minutes to bring in the sheep from the high hills, herd them through a gate, across the road, and in to another pasture. Fast work. When Stuart locks up the gate he gives another high whistle and this time Tis comes running, hurdles the high fence, and jumps in to the back of Stuart’s flatbed truck. And his payoff for all this? A scratch behind the ears. And then the two of them are off.


The amazing Tis. Photo by David Lansing.

A man and his dog. Photo by David Lansing.

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Stuart Duncan


Stuart Duncan

Stuart Duncan on his ranch. Photo by David Lansing.

Last night while we were waiting to sit down to dinner at the Wedderburn Tavern, a burly man with a crooked nose came over and introduced himself. He was Stuart Duncan. He and his wife, Lorraine, own the Wedderburn Cottages, where we’re staying, as well as the 4,500-acre farm it’s situated on. Stuart’s a friendly chap, as are most Kiwi, and, after I bought him a Speight’s, gave me a rundown of his family history in the area. He told us he’s a fourth-generation Otago farmer. His great-grandfather arrived from Scotland in 1863 during the Otago gold rush. Thirty years later, after the gold had petered out, he bought land that is now known as Penvose Farms where Stuart’s parents still live. Stuart bought the farm across the gravel farm road where he and Lorraine and their three children live and where we’re staying. Between Stuart and his parents they’ve got 6,500 breeding ewes, 130 Angus cows, and 450 red deer.

The cows were a good story, Stuart said. They bought them knowing nothing about dairy farms. Stuart’s father, Graeme, thought his son was crazy. “What Duncans know is sheep,” he told him. Still, Stuart bought the dairy. Then again, when his father first heard about turning the old railway that went through the middle of his farm in to a cycle trail back in the early 1990s, he wasn’t too keen on that idea either. Stuart and Lorraine could see the value in it, however, and got behind it a hundred percent. They were one of the first families in the area to offer accommodations.

“The rail trail probably saved the community,” says Stuart. “Just before they built it about all that was left of Wedderburn after the closure of the school, the post office, and the garage was this pub which, frankly, was struggling.”

Not now. Even though it was a Monday night, the place was jammed, mostly with folks who, like us, were cycling part or all of the Central Otago Rail Trail.

Stuart finished his beer and said he had to get back to the farm. Before he left, he shook my hand and thanked me for coming and staying on their ranch. No, sir, I said. Thank you. And I meant it.


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Bikes at Wedderburn Cottages, New Zealand

Our bikes await us on a morning that was below freezing at the Wedderburn Cottages in New Zealand. Photo by David Lansing.

The deafening silence all around woke me a little before five this morning. In the darkness I listened for a sound. Anything—a bird, the wind, a dog’s bark. Nothing. I can’t tell you how happy that silence made me feel. Usually when I wake up this early I’ll stay in bed pretending I might fall back asleep but this morning I got up, padded lightly on the cold wood floor, and checked to see what the coffee situation was.

Yesterday afternoon when we’d checked in to our cottages in Wedderburn, Lorraine, who owns the sheep ranch and lodging we’re staying in, said she’d packed us a little breakfast in our rooms. In the mini-fridge was some yogurt, a box of Weet-Bix, two slices of bread, and some Marmite. A proper Kiwi breakfast. There was also a baggie of coffee and a French press. I boiled some water.

Wedderburn may only be 540m above sea level, but it’s the highest point on the Central Otago Rail Trail. While the water was boiling, I opened my cottage door a crack and stuck my head out. Brisk. Definitely brisk. Lorraine had warned us that it was expected to get to –10 over night. And here we were on a biking holiday.

Once I’d made my coffee and a piece of toast with Marmite on it, I crawled back in to bed. I don’t know why I was so pleased with myself but I was. The dark morning, the cold cottage, being out in the wop wops surrounded by thousands of sheep, and here I was sitting up in bed munching on my toast, sipping my coffee, and feeling as content as I’ve ever felt in my life. Go figure. One of the serendipitous joys of travel.

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Wedderburn cottages

The gloaming over the sheep ranch at Wedderburn in Central Otago. Photo by David Lansing.


We’re in Wedderburn, 15 kilometres northwest of Ranfurly, which doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?  Well, we’re out in the wop wops. That’s what Kiwis call the middle of nowhere. If there was one piece of information I could provide to give you a better understanding of Wedderburn it would be this: Wedder is a medieval word from Northumbria (what is now England) that means “castrated sheep.”


I’m not sure why I think it is important to know that Wedderburn means castrated sheep but it is. So we’re in the wop wops in a place named after a medieval word meaning  Castrated Sheep and it is damn cold. Are you getting the picture? No? How about this: There is nothing here but muted green rolling hills which are speckled with white wooly balls that turn out to be sheep. There’s a farm on one side of the road, which is where we’re staying tonight, and a tavern on the other, which was built in 1885, and that’s it.


I am sleeping in a small cottage on the sheep ranch and it is so cold (close to freezing) that the first thing I did was turn on the bathroom heater hoping it might help take the chill off my room. Then I poured myself a shot of bourbon from my flask and sat on the edge of my bed, sipping my bourbon and staring out the window at the purple and orange gloaming over the darkening hills and the red barn across the way.


There’s no noise here except for the distant bark of an unseen dog. It’s not until you’re at a place like Wedderburn that you remember what silence sounds like. It’s startling.


I pour myself another finger of bourbon. It is almost dark now. I hear the crunch of feet on gravel but I don’t see anyone. The dog has stopped barking. It’s about time to change my clothes and head on over to the Wedderburn Tavern for dinner. Soon. But not just yet.



Photo by David Lansing.




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Maniototo Curling Rink

Some old school curlers at a rink in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand. Photo by David Lansing.

Some people have wondered what the story is behind the name of our band, The Single Malt Curlers. Well here it is: The lot of us were on our way to a sheep farm in Wedderburn when we passed a building called the Maniototo Curling Rink. Figured we’d stop and have a look. Place was like a bowling alley but with ice instead of wood. And damn cold.

On the ice were these groups of old men—well, mostly old men—wearing parkas and wool caps or Scottish tams. They were sweeping the ice and yelling at each other like hecklers at a Red Sox game. Couldn’t understand a word they were saying. I think it was Adriena who suggested we give it a go. Sweet as, bro.

So we put these rubber slippers over our shoes and a woman came out, Jo Herd was her name, and in about ten minutes taught us the game. I could repeat everything to you but I’m sure you don’t want to hear it so let’s just say that it’s pretty much like bocce on ice, if you’ve ever played  that, except instead of tossing a little round ball you slide a 20kg granite stone. That’s pretty much it.

So we each had a go at it and then we split up in to two teams of three each and played for awhile. The thing is, there’s not a lot of action in curling, is there? You tend to spend a lot of time just standing on the ice waiting for your turn. And, as I said, it’s cold in there.

I think it was Justin who turned to me and said, in a bit of a whisper so our instructor, Jo, wouldn’t hear, “This game would be a lot more fun if we were drinking whisky.”

He was right, of course. And the thing is, curling is a Scottish sport anyway. And I’m sure in Scotland you don’t play a curling match without taking a dram or two to ward off the cold and boredom.

So I started thinking about the whole thing and, knowing how popular bowling and drinking (together, not one or the other) is with the twentysomethings back home, I told Justin that I thought you could actually make a little money back in the states by opening a curling rink that also served a terrific selection of single malt whiskies.

“Exactly!” said Justin. “And you have the girls in the little tight skirts bringing trays of drinks out to the curlers.”

“Brilliant!” I said. “I think we should do this,” I told him. “In Vegas.”

“Ohmygod, yes!” said Justin. “At someplace like the Hard Rock. Or Cosmopolitan. A curling rink that served fantastic whisky!”

“We’ll call it the Single Malt Curling Rink!” I said.

“I love it!” said Justin. “And as owners, we’ll be the Single Malt Curlers.”

And there you have it. That’s how we got the name for the band. And we’re still looking for investors for the Single Malt Curling Rink in Vegas. If you want in, let us know. It’ll be sweet as, I can assure you.

Casey, our lead singer, definitely showed the best form (and most colorful outfit) curling. Photo by David Lansing.

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