Friday, July 1, 2022

Beauty in land and sky

Whanganui’s Ward telescope was crafted in England in 1859 and bought second hand for the observatory, which was built in 1903. Photo: Michal

It had been a little while since I’d had time off-farm so as I drove through the mighty Manawatū last week, I was looking forward to a couple of days at a small conference based in Whanganui.

It was the annual Coopworth conference and my good mate John Wilkie had done the organising.

I don’t believe I’ve ever stayed in Whanganui before having only passed through. 

Our accommodation was a good old-fashioned pub, the likes of which are fast disappearing from the landscape.

This one had carelessly lost its liquor licence, so we gazed forlornly at the bar devoid of booze and customers.

However, it was right across the road from the Ward Telescope and although our first early morning’s opportunity was rained out, we all trooped across the road at 5.30am the next morning to see this historic marvel.

It sits on a hill overlooking Cooks Gardens where Peter Snell famously broke the mile record in 1962, 60 years ago.

The telescope itself was crafted in England in 1859 and bought second-hand for the observatory, which was built in 1903.

It is a beautiful piece of scientific equipment and is a 9 1/2 inch refractor.

We were here to peer at the wonderful line-up of planets in the early morning sky. 

Jupiter with its four Galilean moons, bright and inhospitable Venus, ruddy red Mars and Saturn showing off its rings. 

It was wonderful.

Our astronomer host Ross is a local pig farmer and a great enthusiast of the heavens above us.

Our first farm visit had us looking at impressive sheep and maize crops, but the Matthews family have been growing roses for the commercial sale of the rose plants for 75 years and the long lines of still blooming rose bushes being harvested were lovely to see.

In a shed, we watched staff pruning and trussing up the harvested bare rooted plants ready for distribution all around the country.

We went to John’s farm beside the Whangaehu River, which runs from the crater lake on Ruapehu to the sea south of Whanganui and was the river that caused the Tangiwai rail disaster that cost 151 people their lives. 

He remembers walking the river with his father checking for bodies.

He’s gone and bought his own handheld methane reader and is recording his sheep’s methane outputs and culling the worst. 

Now there’s commitment to countering global warming.

Another stop was at Denis Hocking’s excellent demonstration of incorporating well-managed forestry plantings onto a sheep and beef farm. 

His trees are all on the large sand dunes that run parallel with the farming operation in the valleys between the dunes. 

The dunes are no good for farming, but are growing good trees. 

Farm forestry at its very best. 

Right trees in the right place.

Visits to more conventional and very well-run farming operations at the Sheriff’s Pine Park and Cranstone’s Riverton Herefords showed what excellent management can achieve as their stock and land looked in great nick.

We went to one of John’s client’s property miles from anywhere. 

David had spent a whole high-flying career biding his time to achieve his lifelong goal of owning and farming a farm. 

He was doing a great job at it, but it was his enthusiasm for his new career and our industry which was a good kick in the pants for me who had been going for 35 years longer and starting to find my enthusiasm flagging.

Paloma Gardens was tucked away on Clive and Nicki Higgie’s farm and was an extraordinarily eccentric and diverse range of all sorts of species planted at scale. 

I’d never seen anything like it with sculptures and structures scattered throughout.

On top of this was a building with 40-odd antique restored motorbikes in all their glory.

You need to see it to believe it.

One of our dinners was at the local high school prepared by John’s sister. 

I assumed it was going to be basic fare, but it turned out to far exceed expectations.

Marilyn and her family presented us with a genuine Peruvian banquet as it turned out she was a Spanish teacher.

Then she gave us a fantastic talk about Cuba and the evolution and politics of its rum industry.

The two days re-emphasised to all of us what an impressive range of properties and businesses as well as a wonderful array of characters we all have tucked away throughout rural New Zealand.

We are fortunate.

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