Fencing with Guy’s dad was a different kettle of fish to the gentle rolling country Hemi had been used to fencing on. Guy’s dad was a high-country fencer. The really tough country a lot of other fencers wouldn’t take on. Boundary fences out in the wop wops. The first day started before the sun rose, Guy’s dad woke Hemi at 5:30am.
‘Rise and shine Hemi, let’s get to work, we’ve got a job at Ben Lomond Station. Get some brekkie in you, there’s some porridge on the stove’.
Hemi squinted into the light coming through the door into his dark room. ‘Aw yeah’.
Guy’s dad’s name was Athol, Hemi thought it was an old-fashioned name, so he liked calling him Mr A. Mr A had come from a line of pioneers, really hard bastards. His grandfather ran a bullock team out of the bush near Opotiki, where their family was from originally. His father had ridden a bull to standstill at a Rodeo. Mr A was built of that sort of stuff, he was gruff and terse. But he was honest and never asked Hemi to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself.
It was good that Mr A wasn’t much of a talker, because Hemi wasn’t one for small talk either. They drove into the early dawn in the Toyota Hilux. The Hilux had seen some action, Hemi liked the smell of it inside the cab. It smelled like…farm. A mixture of smells, some baling twine, oil, diesel, sweat, dog, leather. It was a comforting aroma, familiar. They drove for ages in silence, with Radio New Zealand’s National Radio providing the conversation. When Mr A did talk, he liked to talk about the weather. The weather was crucial to his day’s work of course. Whenever he bumped into one of the locals on the country roads, they’d stop for a chat from the vehicle’s windows in the middle of the road. Nobody else was likely to come along for a while. You didn’t see many people around out here, so you’d often stop for a chat with the people you did see. They wouldn’t see anyone else today though.
Mr A broke to silence after about a quarter of an hour.
‘It’s been a pretty dry spell, so the ground is hard as buggery up on the hill. A crawler has started carving a track, but it’s hard going. Hopefully that southerly due will bring a bit of rain to soften it up’.
‘Yeah, that’d be good’.
Hemi didn’t really think it would be that good, rain carried in on a cold southerly wasn’t a lot of fun. He didn’t fancy working in that. Hemi was yet to find out the bare ground of the fence line was hard as rock, sun parched and unforgiving. Every inch of dirt would be reluctantly conceded. As though the land didn’t want a fence built on it.
The Hilux’s big off-road tyres whined against the tar seal, as though they didn’t like being there, they whine constantly, a high-pitched sound, until they hit the metal road where they were more at home. Here the tyres made a satisfied crunching instead. The farm tracks and paddocks were where they were most at home though. They shut up then, just getting on with the job they were built for.
They pulled up at the gate to Ben Lomond, out on the Puketoi Ranges. The high country between the Ruahine’s and the sea, the Puketoi’s ran from Weber down to Alfredton. Ben Lomond was in the middle, near Pongaroa. Out in the wop wops, on the edge of the ‘tiger country’.
‘Let’s load up with some gear, we’ll get a head start before the chopper turns up to lay out the rest. It’s always a bonus when the chopper does the job. It’s a prick of a job to cart all the gear up the line by hand’.
Hemi saw the huge pile of posts, battens and wire by the shed. Thousands of posts, hundreds of rolls of wire, then he looked up the hill from the woolshed.
A track wound its way up to distant peaks. He could hear the drone of a far off bulldozer, the crawler, he could see the smoke from its exhaust on the bonnet. Away in that distance, he could also see a scar had been cut almost vertically up the mountainside.
‘Yep, up there, thought he’d be finished by now, slow bastard. We’ll take the Hilux up to the tractor, I bought it out last week. The beauty of the track is we can cover most of the job with the tractor, not too much on foot, just some of the steep stuff at the start’.
Hemi nodded, ‘Goodo’.
Mr A often said ‘Goodo’. Hemi adopted the affirmation around Mr A, rather than his usual ‘choice’. He also wondered what he’d got himself in for.
They loaded as many posts and rolls of wire onto the Hilux as they could manage. Tanalised pine posts and number 8, for the base wire. The rest of the wire would be that high tensile stuff. Number 8 was heavier and less springy. The high tensile wire was like a coiled spring. You never let go of it until it was firmly stapled to a post. It always wanted to whip away from you, as though it was trying to get back into its coil as fast as possible.
The drive up to the tractor was slow going. A dusty, bumpy, rutted, track, better suited to a tractor than a Ute. These tracks were never maintained, apart from by the weather. The track was almost white, this was limestone country, sandstone and limestone in a lot of places. Large ruts ran down the middle of the wheel tracks, where the wash from the rain over the years had carved a route down the path of least resistance. The Hilux’s big tyres made short work of it, gnawing away at any purchase they could get on hard chunks of the track. They crawled up the track in low ratio, bouncing along.
‘Christ on a bike, they better sort this bloody track out with the crawler on its way out. This’ll bugger the suspension if we have to do this every day. Bloody old Campbell doesn’t like spending his money though. He’s as tight as a gnat’s chuff’.
Hemi chuckled at the Mr A’s descriptive language, he had a few choice phrases that only he seemed to use. Hemi had certainly never heard anyone else use them. He particularly liked ‘Jesus fucking Christ all bloody mighty!’ Mr A would shout that when he was really pissed off, each word would get really heavily emphasised, to hammer home the point of how pissed off he was. ‘Christ on a bike’ was more for expressing frustration.
After a dusty, bumpy age, they arrived at the tractor, parked on a small plateau. The only piece of flat land for miles. Even though New Zealand had adopted the metric system a few years ago and distances and speed were measured in kilometres now. Miles was still the preferred term for how far you could see, kilometres simply didn’t work at all in that setting. No, you would see for miles, as in really far.
The tractor was a little faded red 4WD International 484 with a post rammer on the back and a front-end loader. The front-end loader didn’t have a bucket though, it had a transport tray. That made sense as Mr A didn’t need to dig holes with a bucket, he needed to carry fencing gear. So, the tray was best.
Hemi could see the extent of the fence line now, which had been carved out by the crawler still puffing and grumbling away in the far distance. This fence line really did go on for miles, and miles. Hemi wondered how long it would take, how would he hack it up here. He was actually pretty daunted by it, as anyone would be, looking at a job like this for the first time. He nodded his head gently and whistled quietly to himself. Fucken hell, he thought.
‘Bloody good job bloody old Campbell got his kids to take the old fence down first. Good holiday money for them I’ll bet, if he paid them properly, the miserable old sod’.
Mr A clearly didn’t have a lot of time for bloody old Campbell as Bill Campbell was known, well to Mr A anyway. Hemi couldn’t be sure of course if anyone else called Bill Campbell, the farm owner, ‘bloody old Campbell’.
‘Makes the job a hell of a lot easier if we don’t have to strip down the old fence. That’s a bastard of a job, especially with bloody concrete strainers’. Mr A observed wryly.
Hemi stood there, in his shorts, singlet and hobnail boots, socks around his ankles and a towelling hat. He looked the part anyway. The ground was really hard under his feet, bits of rock sticking out of the fence line track, this was going to be hard going all right, and he hadn’t even tried to put a spade in it yet. Mr A noticed Hemi looking at the parched, rocky earth.
‘Yep, it’s bastard going, we’ll need the rock auger and jelly (Gelignite) for every single post. This shaley shit is bloody tough to dig in, but it gets a bit easier when we get above it, up there’.
He pointed up the hill, better described as a mountain, with the scar of the currently empty fence line running up it, out of sight.
‘This layer finishes a few hundred metres up, it’s a bit softer when we get to the scrub’.
Hemi could see where the cultivated paddocks finished, and the scrub of what Mr A called ‘tiger country’ started, even though there were no tigers in New Zealand. Mr A used ‘tiger country’ for the really remote stuff, beyond the wop wops. ‘Tiger country’ was about as remote as you could get, so a good place for tigers to live, if they lived in New Zealand. The fence line skirted the edge of the scrub. The boundary fence: They loaded as many posts and rolls of number 8, boxes of staples and footing gear off the Ute on to the transport tray as they could. Mr A fired up the little tractor. You don’t use a big tractor for high country fences. You need something smaller and nimbler. This tractor had strakes fitted to the back wheels, big steel retractable and expandable spikes, to give you extra purchase on the steep slopes, or when it’s slippery going.
The fence started at a gate into another paddock. The gate was lying on the ground as the strainer it was supposed to hang on had been taken away when the old fence was stripped out. The new strainer was the first post to go in. Then Hemi and Mr A would go to the next gate strainer to wire up the line, then dig in all the other posts in a line kept straight by the strained number 8 wire. The strainer is usually 2.4 metres long and about 20 cm diameter. A big, heavy post which needs to sit in a hole about a metre deep. Mr A watched Hemi take his steel handled spade to the hard ground. There followed a crack, a ringing sound and Hemi felt a hard shock of vibration going right through his body, his knee and wrists took the worst of it. There was a small spade shaped mark on the rock-solid earth.
‘Yep, that’s why we’ve got the rock auger and jelly. Did you not hear me when I said that?’
‘Yeah nah, I thought we’d be digging a bit of a hole first’.
‘No, rock auger first, jelly in the hole, then use the shovel to scrape out the worst of the shale before the post goes in. The spade is no good in this stuff’.
Mr A showed Hemi how to use the rock auger, which is basically a long drill with a petrol motor. Hemi drilled through the rock, sweating already under the heating sun, the auger jumping around in his grip. The metre was marked on the auger’s drill shaft. After a couple of minutes of wrestling with the unwieldy machine, Hemi pulled it out of the little hole it had made. It looked like a funnel web spider’s hole, without the web. Mr A had been preparing a charge to put in the hole, a third of a stick of jelly and detonator with a fuse to light. He stuffed it into the hole and pushed it down with the handle of his post rammer.
‘Stand back a bit, over there. This’ll blow the hole but bits of bloody rock and shale fly all over the joint. So, cover your eyes or look away’.
BOOM! A louder than expected blast rocked Hemi and echoed across the valley below them, bouncing off the far hills, boom, boom, boom, in the distance. Bits of rock and shale showered him. He’d just learned to stand a bit farther away next time.
‘Righto, get the shovel and scrape that crap out and we’ll chuck the strainer in. No need to foot it, we’ll put an angle on heading up the hill’.
An angle was another post, planted in the ground, leaning on an angle halfway up the strainer, against the pull of the wire from the direction the fence is going.
Hemi scraped the ‘crap’ out with his steel shovel and they heaved the heavy post into the freshly blown and cleared hole. Ramming the rocky earth back in, around the post. Every strike of the rammer was unforgiving, a heavy, solid thump of steel against rock. The strainer was in, an angle set up and that was the first post. Hemi was already knackered, this was hard as. It was one post and Hemi had been on the job for one morning, given the time it had taken to get here and get started, it was already smoko time. He was ready for a break alright.
Mr A opened his lunch box and thermos, had his piece of cake, a caramel slice, and a cup of tea he’d sorted out before they left. Hemi didn’t have any smoko, he hadn’t thought to bring any and Mr A hadn’t thought to remind him. Nicky would have packed him some smoko and lunch, but she was away, visiting friends. Smoko is also what you call the stuff you eat and drink at smoko time. Not just the name of the break. Mr A gave him a cup of tea and some of his food.
‘Here, better get something in you Hemi, we’ll make sure you bring some smoko and lunch tomorrow ay?
‘Thanks Mr A’.
Hemi leaned on a pile of posts and lit his smoke, actually having a smoke at smoko time.
‘You want to pack those bloody things in Hemi’.
‘Aww yeah, one day’.
Mr A turned on the transistor radio he always carried, there’d be cricket on later. Mr A always had the cricket on when New Zealand were playing. The sound of cricket commentary on the radio has a calming, soothing effect. Makes the job a bit easier somehow, the hushed words, the familiar crack of leather on willow, the muted cheers from the distant crowd. It’s almost as though cricket was invented to provide a relaxing soundtrack to hard work.
After they’d done the wire and laid out the rest of the posts to the next gate, and half a day of putting a few more in the ground, Hemi’s hands were shot. Blisters, big ones. He wrapped his hanky round the hand taking most of the punishment. Mr A didn’t get blisters, he’d been doing this for years. His hands were tougher than leather, the back of his hands covered in cuts, scars and calluses. Hemi would also remember to bring some plasters and bandages next time. Hestruggled on though, trying to shut out the heat and the pain. He’d stopped to look at the view from time to time. They had a great lookout from up here. He could see hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, once covered in native bush. There weren’t many trees out there now. The hillsides were mostly covered in pasture. A huge number of scars on the landscape from the endless slips.
This country was supposed to be covered in trees, native bush, but it had all been cleared years ago, to make room for farms. So, with no trees to hold the hills together, they were very vulnerable to slips. Some hills had poplars dotted around them, from where farmers had tried to stop the land moving.
The day mercifully came to an end. The trip out was done in reverse. It was a long way home. Mr A had gone up and spoken to the crawler driver about sorting out the track up to the boundary fence. So hopefully that would be a bit less painful for the Hilux and it’s suspension.
They arrived home in the setting sun. Hemi showered and collapsed in front of the TV. Mrs A was cooking tea. Mr A went and did some ringing up as he called it, some phone calls on the party line, he made to talk with famers about work coming up, or some of the events he needed to organise for Federated Farmers. Mr A was the local secretary. He’d always start the conversation talking about the weather. Hemi was absolutely buggered. He almost nodded off in front of the TV. He had some hard days in front of him, he could hack it though. He’d get used to it, he had to, no way was he going to blouse out in front of Mr A.