In the Land of the Mountain Men

If Andrew and I had ever wondered before whether we’d enjoy real mountain living, our stay with our latest WWOOFing host, Chris, has erased all doubt. In the middle of beautiful nowhere at the top of the Southern Alps, New Zealand, Chris is living totally off the grid with a couple solar panels, a spring-filled water tank, and a lovely wood burning fire to heats the house. A couple decades ago, when he bought his land, his goal was to build a house on it and let the trees grow, and he’s done just that.

Chris White

Meet Chris


Chris’s home, his pride and joy.

The view from Chris’s front yard.

The view from Chris’s front yard.

Chris has spent much of his life as a horticulturalist, and offered heaps of information to us so we may also “let the trees grow” on our own land one day. Because he is in the later stages of multiple sclerosis limiting his mobility, Chris has WWOOFers to help wherever needed around the house- gathering firewood, cooking, cleaning- and for the company, as remote areas like his don’t often get any variety of visitors.

Upon our arrival, though, we met his neighbor, who lives and works a nearby piece of land several weeks at a time every couple of months.  Over the course of the two weeks we spent with Chris, we got to know his neighbor almost equally as well, but have been sworn to internet anonymity in his regard. He eventually agreed to the pseudonym “Swan Ronson” having been provided only a brief (but startling) descriptive comparison of his Parks & Recreation TV twin.

Anyway, Swan came over to Chris’s every morning for tea, and we often sat together on the front porch eating delicious homemade bread and birdwatching.

Lovely little Fantail.

Lovely little Fantail.

Weka coming out from his nest to beg for chicken scraps.

Weka coming out from his nest to beg for chicken scraps.

Most afternoons were spent reading, playing music, drawing, chopping firewood, or cooking while Swan went back to his place to prune his chestnut, hazelnut, and walnut trees.  One afternoon, we had the privilege to visit Swan’s place, which- oh by the way- happens to be a storage container that he (without a single power tool) has lined with beautiful hand hewn wood and turned into a gorgeous one-man dwelling. He took us out back and showed us how to set possum traps (to keep the critters from eating native wildlife), and casually identified a Tui overhead by the sound of its wings.

Absolutely incredible.

For several days, our stream-powered water supply had frozen over so we were without showers and rationing cooking water. All said, though, we were so proud to learn how to live abundantly without so many of the amenities we’re used to like a refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher, water heater… and loads more. Chris taught us how to make his delicious bread and gave us so many ideas for building our home and growing our own garden one day. We were thrilled to venture down the road to pick some spectacular watercress for our evening meals as well!



I’ve been doing all kinds of little sketches for the past couple months, but I haven’t devoted the effort to my sketchbook that I used to. I was itching to work on a real piece of art, and Chris was kind enough to concede to let me do a portrait of him. It’s certainly not perfect, but it felt so good to finish something that required real effort for once.


About an hour away, the nearest town is known for its gold mining industry. During one visit to Reefton, we visited with Chris’s friends at the Bearded Mining Company, and were given some great advice on panning for gold ourselves at Chris’s place.


We did finally make it out to the river to pan for gold, and while the high water level did keep us from finding any of that, we did find a few lovely little garnets that I was quite excited about. They’re my birthstones!

Just a few days left at Chris’s place and one more visit to Reefton before we move on. Read more soon!


Backcountry Backpacking

After our short visit to Queenstown, we drove to an organic garlic farm in the nearby Ida Valley. We’d planned to stay for a couple of weeks, but a particularly persistent cold that had reappeared for the third time in a month encouraged a change of plans rather quickly. Before our departure from Alexandra, we did enjoy some spectacular horseback riding, beautiful sunrises, and a visit to the Poolburn Reservoir. Lord of the Rings fans may recognize Poolburn as the set location for the Village of Rohan. For us, it was the perfect spot to enjoy an afternoon with beautiful (albeit cold) weather, a couple of beers, a gorgeous view, and no Uruk-hai to contend with.




Like I said. No Uruk-hai were there with us. Not my image.


We spent the following couple days resting up at the Mantra Marina back in Queenstown and planning a week-long backpacking trip in the hopes that lots of sleep and fresh air might fix me up. We also happened upon Fergbaker- sister restaurant to nationally famous Fergberger- and sunk our teeth into the tastiest, most perfect Boston cream doughnuts that have likely ever existed. We “happened” upon the establishment twice again before we had to leave Queenstown and I still wish we’d had more.


Andrew planned our backpacking route through the Lake Sumner Conservation Park on his old NOLS maps.  Meanwhile, I bought and organized enough food to keep us well fed and happy in the wilderness for a week.



Instead of driving up the East coast to our destination, we planned to go the longer, scenic route through Haast Pass along the never-before-seen West coast. Freezing and a couple major slips along the road slowed our travel, but the spectacular views were well worth the wait.


This sign fueled multiple fits of laughter regarding the literary skills of cattle, bullheadedness, etcetera

Our backpacking trip began with gorgeous blue skies, a beautiful blue Hope River, and the happy sounds of Tui in the bush.




By 4:00 on our first afternoon, we’d lost daylight, my feet were soaked, my whole body ached, temperatures had dropped to near freezing, it started to rain, and there was absolutely positively no way I was getting out of my sleeping bag until I could feel my toes again. And yet, the next morning, we ate breakfast, packed up camp, and happily decided to hike as far as we could while the sun shone for the following six days.


The river raged several meters higher than usual and much of our hike was quite wet, but beautiful nonetheless.






Several of the following nights and days brought snow and thick frosts, but we were blessed with sweet sunshine every day while we hiked.




Three days into our trek, and the first (and only) soul we saw was a lone cow, who promply pooed and ran for the hills.

Of course, we enjoyed our time in the beautiful Southern Alps immensely, but were thrilled at the prospect of eating cheeseburgers, showers, and heat in the next town soon before we met our next host, Chris.


Nevis Bungy Jump, Then & Now

The first time Andrew came to New Zealand in 2010, he came to Queenstown and signed up to do the Nevis Highwire Bungy, an 134 meter (440 foot) bungy jump over a beautiful river cutting through trademark NZ mountains.

Several years of telling me he’d take me to go bungy jumping later, we ended up right back at the same spot. Check out the videos below to see what it’s like!


Adventures in Insulating, Trekking, and Goose Roasting

With winter’s arrival here in New Zealand, the day-to-day stock work on most farms slows down a bit. Aside from the feeding, moving, and sorting, we are often put to work on the tasks that have been waiting several months on the backburner.

At the McMillans, one of our big to-do’s was getting an old singleman’s quarters prepped, insulated, and built into a liveable space for visitors to the local mountain bike track. There was quite a way to go when we started, but we were thrilled to see things begin to take shape, and we can’t wait to see how it turns out!

Doesn’t look like much so far, but there’s lots of work to be done yet!

Doesn’t look like much so far, but there’s lots of work to be done yet!

Our first assignment was installing insulation paper between the studs of the exposed walls on the inside of the house. We got pretty quick with the staple gun eventually, and in no time, we were on to installing the tape to hold the insulation in the newly-lined pockets.

Here, you can see the wall pockets with lines of blue tape stapled above. Sorry for the lousy quality!

Here, you can see the wall pockets with lines of blue tape stapled above. Sorry for the lousy quality!

Taking a break to play with the pups. Tess loved curling up inside at our feet while we stapled away.

Taking a break to play with the pups. Tess loved curling up inside at our feet while we stapled away.

Actually installing the thick fiberglass insulation revealed a need for many more lines of tape, but a few staples later, the job was well underway, and we were able to finish in no time.

First wall of insulation done!

First wall of insulation done!

All four walls and the ceiling finished with insulation, with Shannon and Granddad’s expertly installed MDF walls in the back.

All four walls and the ceiling finished with insulation, with Shannon and Granddad’s expertly installed MDF walls in the back.

After work was done for the day, we relaxed with good reads, a bit of drawing, or even some good high country trekking.

Just the other day, we finally made it up to the top of the mountains behind the house. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, and of course, the view was spectacular.

View From Above

On the way up to the top. The buildings near the bottom of the photo include the shearing shed, workshop, garage, stables, house, and a few others.

Andrew almost at the top.

Andrew almost at the top.

Crags at the top of the mountain.

Crags at the top of the mountain.

Hilltop Panorama

I don’t know if you guys remember the thorny, painful matagouri from one of our first posts, but we’ve found something even better more terrifying: gorse. It’s deceivingly pretty, prickly, not bendy in the slightest, and pokes through even our thick Cactus workwear. It is most unfortunate stuff.

Highland Gorse

Anyway, beside going on long, lovely hikes, we also had the opportunity to taste our very first goose! After a couple wild ideas and just a bit of prep, we went out with Ross to shoot a couple wild geese. We then proceeded to cut the legs, heads, and wings off, then scald, pluck, and gut them until they were just right for the perfect roast.

Blowtorching a Goose

Scalding the hairs off with a blowtorch. NBD.

24 hours later, we made out own spectacular goose dinner with some pretty tasty roasted parsnips and potatoes on the side. Goose is definitely going on the family menu from now on!

Beautiful Roast Goose

YUM. I could eat at least a thousand of these.



Chasing Rams

Occasionally, a rogue sheep or cow will escape from its paddock and get into trouble. When that happens, we are tasked with returning the animal to its mob. Sometimes, we chase the animal back. Other times, we tackle it and carry it on the back of a quad bike.

In this case, a ram had escaped from his home with some old ewes (old lady sheep) and had gotten in with the young hoggets (sexy young lady sheep). He wasn’t too thrilled when we foiled his plan, but we did learn that Andrew has a knack for tackling stock.

Check out the video below to see the ram go home from Andrew’s perspective!


High Country Grazing at Glenfellen

After a month on the deer farm near Invercargill, we were pretty excited to head back up into high country. So much of NZ is picturesque for loads of different reasons, but our favorite part so far is the mountains. Places like Glenfellen make it hard to consider living anywhere else! The McMillans’ farm has been in the family for several generations, and they were quick to welcome us warmly into the mix upon our arrival. We so enjoyed the hundreds of cups of tea, many episodes of Breaking Bad, and long conversations in the living room in the evenings we had with Judi, Ross, Shannon, and Mandy.

McMillan Family

Shannon, Kait, Andrew, Judi, and Ross. Sadly, Mandy had already headed back to Austalia.

One thing we’ve learned about this lifestyle is that we do very well to have a morning routine, which is pretty typical for farmers. With the McMillans, we woke up at 7:30 every morning, had tea and toast around 7:45, and were out the door and jumping in the truck with the dogs to shift dairy cows just after 8:00.

Morning Sunrise on Hills

Beautiful sunrise view from the hilltop paddocks.

Hilltop Paddock Panorama

Though the McMillans are not dairy farmers themselves, they do graze cows for dairy farmers through winter while they are not milking along with a couple paddocks of sheep as well.

Hungry Heifers

Hungry heifers waiting for us to move the line over so they can get breakfast.

Morning Fog

Andrew lining up the new break in the kale paddock as a thick bank of fog rolls in.

Since the stock obviously can’t/won’t ration their own food throughout the winter,  we shift the electric breaks periodically to give them more turnips/kale/swedes when they need it. Andrew and I start by tipping over and unwrapping a new roll of baleage for each of the three mobs of cows.

As you can see, the baleage was a hit.

As you can see, the baleage was a hit.

Afterwards, I move the break off the electricity. I keep the reel taut while he works down the paddock, shifting the line and the standards that support it 10 meters at a time. The cows rush forward, eagerly grabbing as many turnip leaves as they can fit in their mouths, drooling, mooing, and pushing one another all the while.

Reaching under the line for tasty fresh turnips.

Reaching under the line for tasty fresh turnips.

Most of the time, everything goes beautifully and Andrew is back up the hill in no time. On particularly hungry mornings, however, the cows tend to push through the fence and we end up running, jumping, yelling, and often cursing at them.  You’d be amazed at how little several thousand volts of electric shock does to a cow who is already committed to getting the leaves on the other side of the fence. Fortunately, we often have Pip or Ben around to help us move the cows back in the right direction before too long. Here, sweet Ben and I waited in the turnip fields for Andrew to get back to the top of the hill. Ben in Turnips

Sweet Ben

Watching Ross work the dogs from up high on the mountain is definitely a favorite activity. We so enjoy seeing the slower moving cows pick up the pace, change direction, and join together in accordance with the fast movements of the little barking dots that shoot across the field. It’s amazing how quickly a job can get done when the dogs are ready and willing to help.

Ross & the Dogs

Pip & Ben balancing in the back of truck after coming back from a big job.

Pip & Ben balancing in the back of truck after coming back from a big job.

Here’s a quick little peek into life around working dogs. As you can see, they LOVE what they do! Every time they see the quad bike going, they are ready to go.

On one of our first nights here, Shannon brought home a very small (and very mischievous) addition to the McMillan dogs. Tess, a nine-week-old chocolate lab will learn to be a duck dog eventually. For now, she is a totally fearless escape artist extraordinaire who has a LOT to say bark. As you’d expect, we adore her.

Silly Tess playing in the grass.

Silly Tess playing in the grass.

Stay tuned; more to come about the McMillans next!


A Little Something Extra: Hand-Drawn Maps v2

As promised, I have been working on my hand-drawn maps! My next re-creation: The Province of Skyrim. For those who don’t know, Skyrim is a map from the Elder Scrolls PC games (I’m a nerd, I can’t help it). Some of the proportions are off, but I’ll just call that artistic license. Overall, I am quite pleased. I started with pencil in sections then used difference sized pens to trace over – in my opinion it makes it look more professional. Kait just goes straight into her art with pen. She’s a boss.


The Province of Skyrim


The Province of Skyrim – Northeast Region


The Province of Skyrim – Northwest Region


The Province of Skyrim – Southeastern Region


Coming up next: either A Song of Ice and Fire maps for all you Game of Thrones people, or some maps of Middle Earth things for the LoTR fans. I’m leaning towards Game of Thrones at the moment.



Feeding Out

Feeding out is one of our favorite jobs…

We attach the bale feeder to the truck and I (because I’m surprisingly good at backing up trailers) back up the feeder to a new bale. The wrapping gets cut off the bale, Marion and Kait hook the bale onto the feeder with giant claw looking hooks, and I crank the pulley to pull the bale securely onto the feeder. Marion usually makes a comment about how the hay smells just like bubble bath at this stage. It’s not a shared opinion, but it definitely smells weird.

Making our way across the farm, paddock by paddock, we feed out the hay, nearly always followed by a mob of hungry deer (or sheep, or cows). Lots of running and jumping and slogging through the mud are involved, as someone has to open and close gates and the baleage machine must be engaged and disengaged at every stop.

I don’t need to describe the whole thing, because we have a GoPro video! I knew this thing would come in handy. Apologies for the scratched lens. . . I have replaced it with a clean one (Thanks Andy) for future videos.



A Little Something Extra: Hand-Drawn Maps

Early on in my life, I thought architecture would be a good career choice for me. I was constantly playing with legos, K’NEX, and trying to build models of airplanes and cars (I loved planes but never had patience enough as a young kid). Once I got into middle school and started experiencing music, I was sure that was what I would be doing as an adult. Then in college, I changed my career path again after spending a life changing three months in New Zealand with NOLS.

I found on that trip that I had an untapped love for maps and navigation, which I consider a combination the geometric ideas behind architecture and the flowing lines of melody in music. So I went to school to get my degree in Geographic Information Sciences – it appealed to my love of computers and maps. Combine this all with an affinity for fictional fantasy books, and it’s not surprise I might enjoy hand drawing my own maps, which is exactly what I’ve recently started trying.

With the spare time we have while WWOOFing, I’m trying to draw some of my favorite maps. I started with the map from the Inheritance Cycle books written by Christopher Paolini. I’ve read the four books too many times and know the map almost completely by heart. I’m quite pleasantly surprised at how well it turned out!

Here’s the original so you can compare!

Source: http://inheritance.wikia.com/wiki/Map_of_Alaga%C3%ABsia

Source: http://inheritance.wikia.com/wiki/Map_of_Alaga%C3%ABsia

Alagaesia Map

Full Map of Alagaesia


The Beor Mountains

The Beor Mountains

Alagaesia Map - The Empire

The Empire

Alagaesia Map - The Hadarac Desert

The Hadarac Desert

I am currently working on a map of the Province of Skyrim from Elder Scrolls V, so we’ll post that once it’s finished.


Bad Weather Won’t Stop a Deer Farm

Since we arrived here at the Cook-Angus deer farm on the 5th, the weather has been insane. Ungodly amounts of rain, gale force winds, hail, and the odd little bit of snow have marked the beginning of our very first New Zealand winter. Because of that, we’ve ended lots of our days soaking wet, chilly, and covered in any combination of hay, animal poo, and profound quantities of mud.

My feet are in here somewhere.

My feet are in here somewhere.

Unfortunately, we ‘ve been more inclined to shower and have tea at the end of a long, messy day instead of sitting down to write a detailed blog as of late. That said, we hope you’ll forgive us for the lack of posts. ☺

Several hundred deer dot the hills here on the farm. There are red deer and fallow deer, separated into different paddocks by age and gender.

Red Deer on Cook-Angus Farm

Because deer are exceptional jumpers and only recently domesticated (relative to sheep, cattle, and the sort), the fences between paddocks are quite tall, and we are frequently moving escapees back into their respective herds.


Richard and Peggy welcomed us into their family when we arrived, and we’ve since learned loads about everything from international venison markets to Settlers of Catan from everyone.

Richard teaching us about the merits of different antler formations and the international velvet market.

Richard teaching us about the merits of different antler formations and the international velvet market.

Massive antlers from last year… Richard’s feet in the background for scale.

Massive antlers from last year… Richard’s feet in the background for scale.

Playing a homemade Settlers of Catan with the kids after dinner

Playing a homemade Settlers of Catan with the kids after dinner

Marion (our new WWOOFing friend from Germany) has been here for several months as well, and the three of us have settled into a pretty great daily routine together as well, taking care of the animals, building, painting… the lot.

Marion and Andrew working out plans for the tunnel house

Marion and Andrew working out plans for the tunnel house.

We’ve been working on a few big projects during our stay: erecting a tunnel house for the fallow deer, painting a boat, and moving and building several fences. Our day-to-day, though, involves a lot of basic animal care like cleaning the stables, feeding out hay baleage, and herding animals, along with the occasional odd job.

Herding isn’t always as easy as you’d expect. These sheep seemed stuck on the idea that they should huddle in the corner exactly next to the GIANT OPEN GATE Andrew and I were trying to push them through.

Herding isn’t always as easy as you’d expect. These sheep seemed stuck on the idea that they should huddle in the corner exactly next to the GIANT OPEN GATE Andrew and I were trying to push them through.

Andrew keeping an eye on the fire we built to boil some antlers.

Andrew keeping an eye on the fire we built to boil some antlers.

The cows waste NO time getting into the baleage when it’s feeding time.

The cows waste NO time getting into the baleage when it’s feeding time.

No matter where we are on the farm, the animals keep us company. Whether it’s Squeaky, the friendly pet deer, Ernie, the unexpectedly sweet and charming bull, Cash, the herding dog who mostly just chases cars instead, or any number of horses, cats, or chickens, we ALWAYS have visitors.

Squeaky the Fallow Deer
Ernie the Bull
Cash the Huntaway Mix
Hoppy and Betty

Keep an eye out: we’ve got GoPro video to post next!

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