North Island

 

 

David Whitley survives where Steve Irwin perished, feeding stingrays from the beach on New Zealand’s East Cape.

 

There’s something of an aquatic scrum going on in front of us. The plucky cormorant is on his own, but is diving between the increasingly aggressive kingfish with impressive bravado. It’s rather like a hyperactive child running between the legs of annoyed adults at the drunken stage of a wedding reception. In the midst of all this mayhem, the real big boys of the bay are attempting to glide serenely around the trouble, and enjoy their meal in peace. It’s these stingrays that we’re supposed to be feeding, but the ongoing feast has attracted interlopers. And they’re far more aggressive about going for the bait than the placid rays.

 

The chaps at Dive Tatapouri on New Zealand’s East Cape are keen to restore the formerly good reputation of the short-tailed stingray. Since the tragic death of Steve Irwin as a result of a toxic barb through the heart, these largely harmless beasts have developed an unwarranted reputation as killers. “They’re incredibly good-natured,” says Dean Savage. “It’s extremely rare for them to be aggressive, and they’re absolutely fine around us.” 

 

Dean started out by offering dive trips and fishing charters from his scenic little pad on the Pacific Coast Highway, but the stingrays have quickly become the most popular draw card. The human-ray interaction at Tatapouri started by accident. At one stage, a crayfish depot sat just off the beach, and the used bait and scraps were left at the water’s edge. For the stringrays, this meant easy pickings. From there, says Dean, it was relatively easy to move them on to hand-feeding.

 

And that’s what a line of 15 visitors kitted out with deeply unflattering waders and bamboo staffs has signed up for. The waders are to stop us from getting wet as we stand in the shallows, while the staffs are partly to help us walk out there. Mainly, though, they’re to stop the stingrays from sneaking round behind us.

 

Dean asks the group to stand close together with the staffs evenly space in front of us. This theoretically stops the rays from having contact with the waders, but all it takes is a small deviation from the military formation for them to start nuzzling at your shins like an over-affectionate Labrador. The rays are probably more interested in what’s in Dean’s bucket than what’s in our waders, however. Big chunks of barracuda are on today’s menu, and Dean hands me a piece.

 

“Hold it out flat, as low as you can in the water,” he says. “And then just let the ray swim over it.” Despite a couple of smaller eagle rays being rather keen, the 200 kilo short tail wins out. I rest my hand on the rock, just below the water’s surface, and it glides over my fingers. Soon afterwards, my hand is engulfed, and the chunk of barracuda is sucked up. It’s somewhere between a vacuum cleaner taking in a ball of fluff and a UFO beaming up an unsuspecting earthling.

 

The ray stays long enough for me to give it a stroke. The skin is unbelievably soft – the texture feels like velvet. “Pretty loveable, aren’t they?” says Dean as he hands over another chunk of barracuda. He also attaches a piece to the end of his bamboo staff, and the ray follows it around as the lure is slowly dragged through the water. Whilst leading the ray on a wild goose chase, he asks us to look at the tail. “The barb is about one third of the way up,” he explains. “It’s razor sharp and full of toxins, but unless it gets you through the heart, it won’t kill you.” He explains that pouring hot water on the site of impact is the best way to draw out the sting, but that this should never be necessary. “As long as you don’t try jumping on top of the ray, it’ll see no need to defend itself.”

 

The rays aren’t allowed to get reliant on the handouts. The feeding doesn’t happen every day, and sometimes won’t happen for a few days at a time due to weather conditions. It’s thought that 40-odd live in the immediate vicinity, and regularly come in for their free meal. But most of the time they have to fend for themselves, and compete with the kingfish.

 

And hand-feeding the latter is an altogether less elegant experience. Instead of the hover and hoover approach, the kingfish opt for pouncing like a shark on fish, fingers, the works. It’s a ferocious gummy nip from a fish not known for its placidity.

 

Despite their unfortunate killer image, the rays are absolute pussy cats in comparison...

 

David was a guest of Tourism Eastland (Gisbornenz.com), Dive Tatapouri (Divetatapouri.com) and the Teal Motor Lodge (Teal.co.nz).

 

 

By David Whitley

Talk is sheep

 



David Whitley prays for the silence about the lambs, but begins to understand where the Kiwi sheep obsession comes from.

 

For some years now, New Zealanders have tried to dispel the notion that they have a penchant for sheep that extends beyond a nice roast lamb dinner. Unfortunately, it seems as though they forgot to tell the tour guides. Put a Kiwi behind the wheel of a bus and the obsession takes over. Throughout my two weeks in New Zealand, I’d barely be able to sit down and buckle up the seatbelt before the tales of New Zealand’s glorious wool industry would begin. The hardy merinos bred in the high country farms produce the finest wool in the world, they say. Low prices are making farmers convert to cattle and dairy, they continue. Special breeds of sheep have been created in New Zealand to suit the conditions, they harp on.

 

The pinnacle of this ewe-phoria came on the trip up from Queenstown to Mount Cook. On passing the little farming settlement of Bendigo, we are told the story of Shrek, “New Zealand’s most famous sheep”.

 

Whilst this might sound like a line from Flight of the Conchords, it’s true: New Zealand does have a most famous sheep. Shrek managed to avoid being captured and shorn for six years, and by the time he was, he was a big woolly monster. He looked so silly that he became a celebrity. He was taken to parliament to meet New Zealand’s Prime Minister, and was eventually taken to the top of an iceberg floating off the South Island’s coast to be sheared on live television.


Frankly, with tales such as this, any lame gags about sheep-shagging slip into redundancy. And once you’ve realised that it isn’t going to go away, you may as well run with it. 
There are a few places across the country where you can watch shearers in action. One is the Agrodome in Rotorua, which hosts an absurdly popular Sheep Show three times a day. It takes place in an unnervingly large auditorium, and the 19 types of sheep bred in New Zealand are trotted up onto a podium. From there, it descends into a slapstick frenzy of dogs chasing ducks across the stage, rams being told to strut their stuff and wool being thrown into the audience.


It’s entertaining in an utterly shameless way, and there’s more of the same in a slightly less slick manner down in Queenstown. 
The Walter Peak High Country Farm is still a working station, although it exists primarily to entertain people getting off cruise boats. Here, a true Southern Bloke – Lindsay Westaway – goes through the whole sheep rigmarole, peppered with the odd tall story. It’s all very cheesy (that’d be a Roquefort or feta for any dairy pun fans out there) but you begin to understand why the humble sheep is so highly regarded in New Zealand. Wool and lamb exports are an integral part of the country’s history – a key factor in the change from being a backward pioneer colony into a wealthy first world nation.


And the boys that handle the woolly wonders are certainly skilled. Lindsay demonstrates how to herd the sheep with his trusty dog, Storm, and then proceeds to set about shearing one without the faintest hint of a shaving nick. 
He takes a few minutes, but that’s not a patch on the rock stars of the shearing world. Believe it or not, there are actually international shearing competitions and the world record holder managed to get through a mammoth 721 ewes in nine hours. And when you start considering the practicalities of that, then realise that it’s actually jolly impressive, you’re well on your way to becoming a qualified Kiwi tour bus driver...

 

More photos here