Joanna Wane goes in search of the good life in Tirau, the corrugated-iron capital of the world.
A few months ago, when an overly libidinous quail left the object of his affections with a nasty peck wound, his fate was sealed. “Don’t be a male and piss me off or I’ll probably eat you,” she says. “That’s pretty much the law around here.”
As a general rule, if your name begins with “S” – Spence and Sprat, the sheep; Sadies, the doberman; Scooter, the ginger ratter – you’re safe from the hatchet. Everyone else is fair game. That shocks a few of the young “Woofers” who come from all around the world to help out for a week or two on the farm (last year’s recruits included a teenage girl from Berlin on her gap year and the 25-year-old son of dairy farmers in Mexico).
“Often they’re not used to death,” says Sheryn. “But I don’t think cows stand around in the paddock worrying about their future. They live in the moment. And it’s better for a healthy, well-treated animal to be killed in the prime of its life and be utilised than get old, sick, sore and be wasted. The best compliment I’ve had was from my butcher. He said if he came back as an animal, he’d want to be one of mine.”
As luck would have it, her husband’s name is Steven, so that means he’s a keeper too. He also meets Sheryn’s two other non-negotiables for living the good life on their farm: being useful (“Every animal has to do at least three things; you have to earn your keep”) and good-natured (“I breed for personality”).
The Clothiers bought their 3.5ha lifestyle block, off SH1 in Tirau, 10 years ago and have transformed the sour, boggy soil of an old dairy farm into a land of organic plenty.
Cattle, sheep, pigs, ducks and beehives thrive alongside lush vegetable gardens and almost 300 different fruits, nuts and berries, including the first-ever fruiting banana in the Waikato. “Or at least in Tirau,” says Sheryn, tenderly cupping a bunch of tiny green fingers that have grown from a banana pup she brought home from a canoeing trip down the Whanganui River.
The trouble with so much abundance is that although she can grow all sorts of things (sugar cane, really, in the Waikato?), she’s not fussed on cooking, although she does make her own bread, yoghurt and cheese. Instead, she barters – a sack of quince in return for a couple of bottles of wine; a bucket of fruit for an apple and rhubarb pie. “Little old ladies are the best!” Which brings her to another farm commandment: “If we can’t make it, we don’t eat it” – honourable exceptions include oysters, salmon and wine.
Sheryn grew up in Nuhaka on the East Cape, where her parents were sustainable out of necessity on their isolated 250ha property, and organic before it was trendy. She met Steven when one of his brothers came to work on the farm and must have fallen hard, because she gave up that wild, beautiful coast for the tamed rolling hills of the Waikato, where fields of long grass are the only waves that ripple in the wind.
She married into the equivalent of Tirau royalty, though. Steven’s father, Henry Clothier, is credited with saving the town from obscurity after the late 1980s rural downturn saw the bank, the butcher, the baker, the chemist and even the general store close down.
In 1989, he bought the empty Rose Bros store and opened an antique shop, then transformed the old council building into a conference and event centre. And gradually Tirau reinvented itself from a drive-through to a drive-to, a cluster of antique and craft shops guarded – quite unexpectedly – by a medieval fortress, The Castle Pamela (circa 2000), which houses a doll and toy museum up on the hill.
A handyman by nature, Steven helped build the castle and married Sheryn there while it was still under construction (guests weren’t allowed across the threshold unless they wore fancy dress). “There’s not something I won’t try,” laughs Steven, which is probably why his father volunteered him for the job when it was decided Tirau’s giant corrugated-iron sheep, built to house a wool and craft store, needed company.
In the late 1990s, the town was overdue for some new public toilets. Instead of splashing out on fancy modern ones, an idea was hatched to literally stop traffic by housing the loos inside an enormous iron dog – and called in Steven to design and build its head. The visitor centre moved in, too, and the toilets quickly became a tourist attraction. “People would come from Cambridge with their legs crossed just to pee in them,” says Sheryn.
Last year, Steven – now known as the Tin Man of Tirau – completed the holy trinity by adding a massive horned ram. Made from 150m of corrugated iron, it snuggles up next to the sheep with a look in its eye that suggests a little late-night action wouldn’t be out of the question, if the dog with its lolling tongue would just avert its gaze.
A riot of colour or left a beautifully bare silver, Steven’s signature pieces have become Tirau landmarks, from a welcome sign at the primary school to the local mechanic’s workshop. Each artwork is painstakingly snipped into shape and then riveted together in a barn next to the Clothiers’ house (itself a 10-year work in progress, made from corrugated iron and plywood). Sheryn helps with the designs, and over the years commissions for their “Corrugated Creations” have flooded in from all over New Zealand and as far afield as Canada, Scotland and Alaska. Last year, a 4.5m-high rooster in a cowboy hat was sent off to Queensland.
These days, though, Steven is just as happy tinkering about with cars. A Mercedes specialist, he has a dozen or more of them in various states of repair parked up in his yard. Here, too, nothing goes to waste. Engine oil coats their fences, old car parts stop birds flying down the chimney or blocking the drainpipes. Sheryn sifts her seed-raising mix through an antique grille, a car bonnet has been turned into a dog kennel (complete with headlights) and the shell of a 1964 sedan doubles as a glasshouse.
Steven has been a Mercedes fan since he drove one into a power pole at 100mph, when he was 15. “Dad wasn’t happy,” he says. “But I could still drive it home afterwards.”
Tirau might not be the centre of the universe, but it is pretty much the dead centre of the North Island – something Sheryn uncovered when she was working as a reporter for the local paper. The title remains disputed, though, and has been claimed officially by Waharoa (26km to the north).
In Maori, Tirau means “the place of many cabbage trees” – apparently it was known as an excellent spot to hunt kereru who slept in the trees at night. But try pronouncing Tirau correctly – it’s “tee-roe” (as in what you do with a dinghy), not “tee-row” (a tiff with your spouse) – and you’ll be greeted with blank stares or possibly run out of town as one of those bloody Auckland wankers.
Beekeeper Geoff Ernst has been in these parts all his life. “I don’t know what you’ll make of this garbled story,” he says, smoking roll-your-owns at a table stacked with old newspapers by the entrance to his Tirau Museum. “It’s mostly true.”
At 15, he quit school to help with the family’s hives after his father, a Swiss immigrant, was injured in an accident. “Boy, I was free! It was like getting out of jail...”
A long time ago, he and his younger brother had big plans to head for Australia to dig for opals. “We thought we’d have a crack at it. Two young fellas, not married, fit as trouts.” They stayed home to build a new house for their mother and Ernst stuck with beekeeping instead.
Now in his 70s, he keeps only a handful of hives, but his honey has the rich, sweet flavour of Waikato gold. Each year, he takes off with a few mates on gold-digging expeditions to Australia, but he still lives on the land where he was raised as a child – where he lost his older sister, who was six when she drowned in the river nearby. His parents never recovered from that.
A lifelong collector of obscure curios, old machinery and historical artefacts, his museum is a wonderfully rambling labyrinth, with a small shop selling honey squeezed into a tiny corner by the entrance. Dedicated music, military and communications displays fill entire rooms, and every inch is jam-packed with treasures: a piece of rigging that washed up on the West Coast from the Schomberg, a sailing ship wrecked off Australia in 1855; an old brothel token from the Hog Ranch in Wyoming; a stack of New Zealand Herald newspapers from the 1920s, still in sealed rolls; a hall stand that once stood in the Buried Village’s Te Wairoa hotel, which was destroyed in the 1886 Mt Tarawera eruption; a brand-new $100 trillion bank note from Zimbabwe; a tallow lamp and a bronze figurine “excavated by a visitor” to Pompeii. In the car shed, a 1926 two-door Buick coach shares space with a horse-drawn dray and an 80-year-old tractor that still runs.
Developed for cattle grazing by early European settlers, the township of Tirau dates back to the 1880s, when it was auctioned in 97 half-acre allotments, priced from six pounds. Today, the population is holding at about 800. Many of the old antique shops have disappeared, but on a sunny weekend, the main drag hums, from the Art on Main gallery and The Clock Peddler to a string of cafes and two shops selling homemade fudge.
For locals, a sense of community remains strong and annual fundraising events are outrageous affairs, by all accounts, although details are strictly off the record.
Back at the Clothiers’ place, Sheryn eyes up a neighbouring strip of land she’d buy if they could afford it, to run a Murray Grey cattle stud. A former editor of the TreeCropper journal, she writes a monthly column for NZ Gardener and NZ Lifestyle Block, and ran the Tirau business association for a while.
At weekends, she holds a series of sustainability workshops, where people can learn how to cherish the land and ruminate on the purpose of life in a world where, in Sheryn’s philosophy, both humans and animals bring something to the table. “We’re just higher on the food chain...”
TIRAU’S TOP SIX
The Good Life
A “Living Sustainably” weekend on Sheryn and Steven Clothiers’ land in the Puketirau Valley might involve learning how to manage a house cow, make soap or sausages, stomp sileage, fix small machinery or create a home orchard. Accommodation in the house or – new this summer – glamping on the hill, with an open fire for roasting marshmallows, an ensuite view of the rolling countryside, and the option of a DIY “camp cook brunch”. Turn off SH1 north of the township and look for the donkey letterbox, one of Steven’s corrugated-iron artworks that are Tirau icons.
7 Puketirau Rd, Tirau, ph (07) 883-1898, www.lals.nz or corrugatedcreations.co.nz
Okoroire Hot Springs Hotel
Natural hot mineral springs to soak in, a nine-hole golf course, a historic 19th-century hotel that’s had a recent “refresh” but retains its olde worlde charm – why would you ever want to leave? Set on 28ha by the Waihou River, it’s only 6km from Tirau (heading south on SH1, turn left at The Dog). From $186 a night for a queen/twin room, or from $235 for a family chalet.
18 Somerville Rd, ph (07) 883-4876, www.okohotel.co.nz
Tirau Museum & Honey Shop
Be warned: you could get lost for days in the labyrinth of this wonder emporium stuffed to the gunwales with curios and collectibles amassed over the past five decades by local beekeeper Geoff Ernst, who sells honey from a small shop by the entrance. He’s also a master storyteller, with a tale behind every piece. Adult $5, child $3 or a family pass for $12.
State highway 5, Tirau, ph (07) 883-1442
Te Waihou Walkway
For sheer jaw-dropping beauty, this 5km trail to the crystal-clear Blue Spring – so pure it supplies around 70 per cent of our bottled water – deserves to be ranked among the Great Walks; it’s like stumbling into a Monet painting. Pick up a brochure from the Tirau i-SITE Visitor Centre (inside the belly of The Dog) and it’s a 10-minute drive to the carpark off Whites Rd (SH28), at the northern end of the walkway.
Kayak Glow worm Tour
Paddle along the southern edge of Lake Karapiro and up the Pokaiwhenua Stream, then drift back down after dark in star-struck silence as hundreds of glow worms light up the steep, ponga-clad banks of the canyon. Mike and Ann Paget run Lake District Adventures with their two daughters and sons-in-law from the family’s lovely homestead overlooking the lake, near the start of the Waikato River Trails. You can stay overnight, hire kayaks or mountain bikes, or book in for a guided tour – and the good-natured banter and insight into some of the local history that goes with it. The glow-worm trip is utterly magical, $99 per person.
368 Horahora Rd, Tirau, ph (0800) 287-448, www.lakedistrictadventures.co.nz
The Castle Pamela
Tirau’s own Taj Mahal. Named by owner/builder Kelvin Baker in tribute to his wife, Pamela, the castle is home to New Zealand’s largest doll, toy and train collection, plus Royal Albert china. Now it’s been licensed as a conference venue, you can even hold your wedding here. The Castle and tearooms are open during school and public holidays.
10 Bridge St, Tirau, ph (07) 883-1112, www.thecastle.co.nz