Te Kuiti: home of the Running of the Sheep

by Jenny Nicholls / 13 August, 2017
Photography by Ken Downie

Backstage at the 2017 New Zealand Shearing Championships in the Les Munro Centre, Te Kuiti.

Jenny Nicholls wonders if there’s something in the water in the small North Island town of Te Kuiti.

The children know their work. They are holding sheep backstage at the Les Munro Centre in Te Kuiti, ready for the competing shearers out front. Each one holds the animal tenderly but firmly, young fingers curled under its chin.

Suddenly, a glistening shearer crashes in and pulls the sheep through the gate – up, over and onto her spine – and into the bright lights of the stage. The sheep ends this swift arc, fat stomach up, between the shearer’s boots – as stunned as anyone would be, somersaulted and deprived of their clothes in a moment.

The senior semi-final of the 2017 New Zealand Shearing Championships is going like clockwork. The audience is transfixed by the relentless, economical motions of six shearers: Ramone from Gisborne, Ricci from Napier, James from Glen Murray, Darren from Whangamomona, Paraki from Napier and Hura from Taumarunui.

The competition gets underway, as the sheep are somersaulted and deprived of their clothes in a moment.

Onstage, a queue of wiry, grey-haired judges in blue shirts and cowboy boots bend over the shearers, intensely focused, as if inspecting every fibre of wool spilling creamily onstage.

A genial-looking, slightly battered character peers inquiringly around the backstage door before striding past me to the pens. It takes a second, as he splinters shards of sun in the back-stage gloom, to work out who he is.

It’s the white earpiece, worn by the dislocatingly urbane young bloke following him that finally registers. The muscled kids managing the sheep stop and stare at Bill English, lent even more mana in their eyes, I suspect, by his bodyguard’s hipster shirt, glowing in the dusty murk.

Locals – or, more exactly, the residents of a rolling chunk of rural New Zealand lassoed by Hamilton, Taumarunui and New Plymouth – have been looking forward to this day in April all year. The Great New Zealand Muster, billed as a “light-hearted event”, is all part of Brand Te Kuiti – “the Shearing Capital of the World”. Te Kuiti’s population will be boosted, for a few hours, by almost as many sheep as humans.       

The “Running of the Sheep” – an annual event along the main street of Te Kuiti.

The town’s main street is sizzling as if under a giant, blue, gas-fired barbie. A large mob of sheep has been disgorged from rows of trucks near The Warehouse at the north end of town, ready to be unleashed on expectant crowds lining main-street barricades. Shopfronts have been hung with rustic, sheep-themed signs, and verges planted with sheep-themed, sculptural steel cut-outs.

Te Kuiti is out in force. Oldies dance to piped music in the street, and their moko jump into a blue, cloudless sky from the bouncy castle on a side street. Musicians and a dance crew perform on a large stage in the centre of town.

The street food is old-school – none of your quinoa burgers here. Youngsters Tess and Jake Randle are raising money for a family holiday to Australia with an impressively branded lemonade stand (“TJ’s Lemonade”), and Aria, Meedz and Kayla giggle like teens while flipping “mana burgers” to raise money for their marae.

Prime Minister Bill English meets and greets the flock.

The PM, fresh from his Invercargill shearing victory against the great David Fagan (who was possibly not going as fast as he could), is in his element. He blends in so well with the locals, in fact, that North & South photographer Ken Downie walks past him twice without noticing.

A waggish, bewigged bagpipe band and a parade of dignitaries in buggies alert the crowd to the imminent arrival of the day’s four-legged stars.

Soon after the appointed time, they pour up the main street, heading like woolly maniacs for the grassy hills in the distance. The sheep, almost a thousand of them, are protected from the candyfloss-sticky embrace of a town’s worth of ecstatic children by a sturdy barrier, which also prevents them from shooting up a side street and getting stuck in the bouncy castle.

Shanaya Taylor, 14, and Sammy Phillips, 13, tuck in.

Te Kuiti royalty, in the impressive person of Colin Meads, watches the muster from the shade of a shop awning, politely ignored by a crowd around him who, anyway, have eyes only for the sheep. Fellow Te Kuiti-raised David Fagan, five-times world champion shearer, is here, of course, in his role both as patron saint of the muster and the man behind the 12-year-old “Running of the Sheep”, which, it is hoped, will do for Te Kuiti what the rather more bloodthirsty Running of the Bulls does for Pamplona, Spain. Some believe that Fagan is the subject, despite his famous shyness, of a huge sculpture of a shearer on the south side of town.

There is another hallowed name to mention, although he died in 2015 so is here in spirit only. Te Kuiti is too small for a mayor, but until 1995 the mayor of the Waitomo District was frequently none other than Les Munro, the Te Kuiti farmer who piloted a Lancaster bomber on the Dambusters raid of May 1943. The newish town hall, buzzing today with the shearing competition, is named after him.

Colin Meads is chauffeured down the main street before the muster.

Such a clutch of Remarkable Kiwi Blokes – rower and yachtsman Rob Waddell was born here, too – is an interestingly high count for a small town. They seem the reserve vintage of a tough local terroir.

Te Kuiti’s most famous woman, by the way, is Diggeress Te Kanawa CNZM QSO, the master Maori weaver who died in 2009 – although she is outranked in the fame stakes by her opera-singing niece from Gisborne.

Made of lesser stuff than the average Te Kuiti hero, we retreat to the town’s architectural glory for coffee and cake. Purchased by the Waitomo Council from KiwiRail for $1, the railway station has been lovingly renovated and is now a stunning cafe-restaurant. Sadly, this also means it is no longer a train station. Residents of Te Kuiti, once the epitome of a railway town, complete with its clutch of classic “railway houses”, now have to catch the Northern Explorer in Otorohanga.

Dancing in the street, Te Kuiti-style.

But Waitomo cafe owners Andy and Abi Rawles could see the potential in one of the loveliest buildings in the King Country. The nearby Timber Trail for cyclists was luring enough visitors for them to risk a punt on the kind of flash eatery Ponsonby takes for granted. They have created a winner: Maurice Lynds, their manager at Stoked Eatery in the railway station, reckons he made 412 coffees on the day of the muster – a day that didn’t end until midnight.

There is a powerful domino effect to cafes in these parts. Local couple Bruce Maunsell and Melanie Barton have opened two award-winning cafes here: Bosco, in Te Kuiti in 2001, and Huhu in Waitomo in 2007. They clearly have an eye for talent; one of their hires was chef Andy Rawles, who with wife Abi now owns both Huhu and the marvellous Stoked Eatery. Another was Melanie Simpson, who took the skills she learnt at Bosco to the tiny nearby town of Piopio, which straddles the Auckland to New Plymouth highway. Here, Simpson has opened not one but four thriving businesses. The Fat Pigeon cafe, the Night Owl restaurant, the Owls Nest motel (also a wedding venue), and the Crafty Pigeon gift shop have transformed a rural town in decline, employing 30 locals. The two eateries are valuable social hubs.

 

Te Kuiti’s 84-year-old “Uncle Ray” Coffin has been a Maori warden for 50 years.

Incredibly, the Fat Pigeon alone employs 22, including barista Haami Simmonds, Simpson’s “right-hand man”. Simmonds blew in from Wellington, attracted by a hefty $200 saving in weekly rent. He soon found a local girl, says Simpson, and a house for less than $100,000, big enough to house his growing family.

Indeed, the Te Kuiti-Piopio landscape is indecently beautiful, a good place to come to kick the city from your boots.

And Te Kuiti, despite the scattering of empty shops, is clearly seen in Wellington as a place to take the heartland pulse, judging by its popularity with prime ministers. Since Jim and Joan Bolger raised nine children on their farm just outside town, it’s drawn PMs so reliably that a local barista can recite nearly all of their orders.

Jim likes a flat white. Helen’s is a mochaccino. John’s is a rather Parnellish latte (in a glass). And Bill’s is the same as Jim’s.      

Struan Farm.

TO STAY

Struan Farm

A drop-dead gorgeous 25ha sheep farm north of Piopio studded with two blocks of QE2 Trust-covenanted native bush, plus park-like stands of established exotic trees planted by the owner’s parents before the mid-1950s. Accommodation options are private and self-contained, and consist of a lovely homestead built in 1908, a three-bedroom farm cottage, and a mega-cute riverside hut. You will find plentiful breakfast ingredients, including homemade bread and muesli and local berries. For a bit of an adventure, we loved the awesome “Jim’s Hut” next to the Mangaotaki River. Karen Barrett and John Robertson, ph (07) 877-8012, info@struanfarm.co.nz, www.struanfarm.co.nz

Owls Nest Motel

Simple on the outside, but comfortable and chic on the inside, this friendly motel in Piopio comes with its own restaurant. It is also close by the legendary Fat Pigeon cafe. 12 Ruru St, Piopio, www.theowlsnest.co.nz 

Struan Farm owners Karen Barrett and John Robertson.

TO DO

The Timber Trail

An 85km two-day cycle trail (or multi-day camping and walking route) over old logging tramways and tracks through forests of rimu, totara, miro and kahikatea. There are 35 bridges, including eight suspension bridges (the longest at 141m) spanning stunning gorges. The halfway point is at Piropiro, where a Timber Trail lodge has opened beside the trail. www.timbertraillodge.co.nz, www.doc.govt.nz/timber-trail

Hairy Feet Hobbit Location Tour

Even if you’re not a hobbit fan, there is much to enjoy in this easy guided tour through dramatic limestone country and bush – though we admit we enjoyed wearing Gandalf’s hat and getting our photo taken more than we thought we would. Lots of Weta marvels in the LOTR shop, too. Highly recommended. 1411 Mangaotaki Rd, Piopio, ph (07) 877-8003, www.hairyfeetwaitomo.co.nz

Waitomo area walks

Check out the DoC website for walks in classic limestone country, replete with caves, waterfalls, gorges and a 17m-high limestone arch. www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/waikato/places/waitomo-area/

Waitomo glowworm caves

There have been guided tours to these caves since the 1880s. Today, you can choose to amble (for an hour or so) through either the Ruakuri Cave or the Aranui Cave to see spectacular cave formations – or take a walk and dinghy ride under the world-famous glowworms in the Glowworm Caves. The adventurous (and agile) should check out the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co for their thrilling tour of Ruakuri Cave. Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre, 39 Waitomo Village Rd, Waitomo, ph (0800) 456-922. Information and bookings at www.waitomo.com

Barista Haami Simmonds with Melanie Simpson at one of her four Piopio businesses, the bustling Fat Pigeon cafe.

TO EAT

Stoked Eatery

This chic, friendly and sunny neighbourhood cafe-restaurant makes fantastic use of the old Te Kuiti train station and platform – and the food would pass muster anywhere. Open seven days, 10am till late. 68-70 Rora St, Te Kuiti, ph (07) 878-8758, www.stokedeatery.co.nz

Fat Pigeon

This friendly, award-winning cafe has a truly fantastic range of nosh, from glorious baking to excellent salads, for such a small-town establishment. A good place for a driver’s break, either to “unwind” or gird your loins (depending on your direction of travel) for a journey including the lovely, serpentine Awakino Gorge – and a twisty road over Mt Messenger.  Kid friendly and open seven days. 41 Moa St, Piopio (SH3), ph (07) 877-8822, www.theowlsnest.co.nz

This was published in the July 2017 issue of North & South.

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