Aaron Abernethy: Starlight Metal Art and Sculpture

There are many things I admire about Aaron Abernethy.

I know he has courage. It took guts for his family to move from Auckland to our little valley to live their self-sufficiency dream. And he’s a multi-talented engineer who can solve countless problems big and small. Many farmers in the valley will tell you that. Finally, anyone who’s eaten one of Aaron’s famous barbeque meals will agree that he cooks up a superb spit-roast.

But I didn’t know until very recently, that behind the engineer lies a talented artist and sculptor

Artistic Beginnings

Can you remember the very first-time that inspiration struck way back in your childhood? Not many will be nodding here, I bet, but Aaron is one who can.

“I remember very clearly the first time I did art. We had picked some flowers and I started rubbing them on the path. You can get some good colours from the centre of flowers, and the pictures last for ages on the pavement.”

From there Aaron kept on drawing and experimenting. His parents must have been exceptionally easy-going because as a teenager his experiments took the form of drawing with black Vivid Markers ALL OVER HIS BEDROOM WALLS! You can always paint over a wall, I guess, but I’m not sure that I’d have been so tolerant.

Later, as adult life and responsibilities took over, Aaron’s art faded into the background. Little did he know that in becoming an engineer and honing his welding and metalwork skills over the years, he was sowing the seeds for a new passion.

At first, Aaron was busy establishing his home and business, DBE Engineering Ltd. But then animal sculptures and figures began to form in his brain. Tentatively he began to create them using the tools of his trade — metal and a welding iron.

Into The World

It’s a huge leap from making art to putting it out for others to see. But gradually other people began to see and love Aaron’s work. In July 2018 he made a leap of faith and submitted a beautiful stag head to the Riversdale Art Exhibition.

“Why don’t you put your highland cattle sculpture at The Ivy Box” a friend suggested. “

That was a nerve-wracking thought. However, Lynda Hensman, the Queenstown artist/owner of the gallery made everything easy.

“She was so enthusiastic and professional,” says Aaron.

Over time Aaron began to feel easier offering sculptures to local businesses such as The Athol Gallery and Craftkeepers too. Then as his reputation grew, people began to offer commissions and his art expanded with a new life and direction.

It’s one thing to see Aaron’s work in a photo. It’s quite another to see it in real life. I was bowled over when I visited The Ivy Box to see Aaron’s famous stag and highland cattle heads in person.

Inspiration — Animals and Beyond

If you ever tour around Aaron and Bonnie’s little farm you’ll quickly realise that they love animals. There are hens, ducks, Kune Kune pigs — and piglets — sheep, cows, dogs, cats … a veritable menagerie.

Added to that, Aaron’s a keen hunter. But these days he’s likely to be up in the hills to shoot with a camera rather than a gun. Sure, he still brings home meat to eat, but he’d rather re-create an animal from metal than kill just to get a trophy.

Small, intricately-worked goat sculpture by Aaron Abernethy of Starlight MetalArt and Sculpture.
This small goat sculpture is proudly owned by Stacey Edmonds. Her husband commissioned it from Aaron in 2018 as a special birthday present.

So animal sculptures came first, but as commissions started to trickle in Aaron began to find inspiration in other ways. Now, when he talks to a client it is to establish their vision. It can take a while, but eventually, a theme emerges. That’s when shapes and patterns begin to form in Aaron’s mind.

Sometimes he draws them out first. At other times the vision is so clear he’ll go straight to the metal to start cutting, shaping and welding.

Koru

Large metal koru (curling frond) sculpture by Aaron Abernethy of Starlight MetalArt and Sculpture.
This sculpture was my retirement gift from Garston School, presented at the end-of-year school concert and prize giving in 2018. I’m sure the whole audience could see how delighted and surprised I was with their gorgeous gift.

Aaron was given carte blanche for my sculpture — which is often harder than meeting a specific request. Aaron says:

“I started by drawing because I’d been given a blank canvas. And I  thought about things you’ve been teaching and how you seem to love Maori, so I started with a koru shape.

But, then I was also thinking about the land and the connection between land and sea, and about being grounded and nurturing new things.

So, you can see the wave in the koru, and then all the little extra shapes are the new growth. And if you look through it (the koru wave) you can see the garden beyond.

Also, that one can stand in different ways and each way it will look different. I like that about it.”

A Special Family Gift For Garston School

"Our Family" a towering metal tree, with 5 branches, representing the Abernethy family. Presented to Garston School by Aaron Abernethy.
Clearly visible from the road as you drive by, this beautiful metal tree by Aaron Abernethy has a lovely story behind it.

Aaron wanted to acknowledge and thank Garston School for educating and nurturing his kids. He and Bonnie love Garston’s caring vibe. So, when Quinn finally graduated, Aaron created a very special family sculpture for the school.

Kathryn O’Loughlin, Garston’s Principal couldn’t have been happier with Aaron’s gift. After all, the whole Abernethy clan was a huge part of Garston School for many years.

Even dashing past on the busy highway below you can see the rising branches of Aaron’s rusty-red metal tree. But when you know the story behind it, the sculpture seems all the more beautiful for it represents the Abernethy family.

In many families, Mum is the foundation. Her love and support for her family allow all the members to grow. So Aaron has shown Bonnie as the trunk of his family tree.

Aaron is the largest branch and then the other branches flow out. The Abernethy children have grown and are going out into the world.

It’s a beautiful sculpture and personally, this is my favourite of all of Aaron’s work.

Tools of the Trade

I don’t know much about working with steel so this was all new territory for me, and fascinating to learn.

Aaron uses metals such asZintec — which is steel thinly coated with zinc to protect it from rusting — and Corten, which seems to be the opposite.  Corten is weathering steel. It doesn’t need to be painted but instead, weathers to give a rust-like appearance over time. It’s not really deteriorating or rusting away, it just goes an interestingly rusty colour. You can certainly see this in action at Garston School. Already the Family Sculpture, which arrived as a shiny grey piece, is now a beautiful rusty red.

One of Aaron’s main tools is his MIG (Metal Inert Gas), welder. This has a continuous wire electrode feeding through the welding gun, which melts into the join as the welder fires up. This is a great tool for artists, I’m told, and seems to be a little like using a super-powered fiery metal glue gun. The “MIG” certainly allows Aaron to create some interesting effects on his sculptures.

Shaping The Sculpture

Of course, Aaron has many different techniques, depending on what type of sculpture he’s making.

The initial shape of Aaron's latest, rusty-red koru sculpture.
Every sculpture starts with a basic shape. Since he made my Koru last year, Aaron has been experimenting with many different koru styles. 

For this koru sculpture, Aaron cut out the basic shapes, “tacked” them together and then began to beat and shape the flat metal shapes to give them curves and contours. Then he welded them together. That’s when I took the photo (above.) Of course, this koru’s still a blank canvas. There’s a lot of detail yet to come.

Some of Aaron’s animals look as if they’re covered in fur or hair, and for this technique Aaron welds and melts hundreds of tiny pieces of metal onto the main body. It takes hours and hours of concentrated work to produce such a stunning effect.

Close-up detail of the goat sculpture showing the layers of metal and weld that creates the hairy effect.
Close-up detail of the goat sculpture showing the layers of metal and weld that creates the hairy effect.

Q & A

I had a couple of burning questions for Aaron:

“I know you’re flat out in your engineering business, so when on earth do you get time to create?”

“Tuesday nights are art nights. Even when I’ve had a bad day and I’m tired when the workshop becomes my studio then I’m in my happy place. It’s funny when you’re creating you lose all track of time. Hours go by and I have no idea.”

I love the name Starlight MetalArt. Where did that come from?

“We found on a very old map that this (mountain) range above our house was named Starlight. I just loved the name.”

Into The Future

Now that he’s finally giving his art a place in his life, Aaron’s finding that more and more shapes, sculptures and possibilities are lining up in his mind, waiting to see the light of day.

I hope they make it out — we’ll all be just that little bit richer with Aaron’s lovely sculptures to enjoy in our world.

Contact Aaron

Cellphone: +6421861042

More Artists On The Blog

Embroidery Artist Amy Baker

Furniture with flair – The Cusp

Locally-made arts and crafts at Craft Keepers

Whimsical Watercolours – Michelle Goggans

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Discover the Who, What and Why of TOML.

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Back to Basics: Who’s Who on the Revenant?

View over the mountains from Welcome Rock Trails, home of the Revenant

Here’s a quick overview, with all you need to know about The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run… When, What, Who, Where and Links to all the websites.

Nuts and Bolts – What You Need To Know

WHEN:    January 18-20, 2019

WHERE:  Welcome Rock Trails, Garston

WHAT:     The inaugural running of the Revenant, the first-ever race of its kind in New Zealand.                    

WHO…


Race Directors: Leroy de Beer

Leroy de Beer is an ex-military man with a passion for fitness and running. Originally from Pretoria, he owns PT Central  — a gym in Alexandra — as well as being a sought-after long-distance-running coach. Now, with his new business Off The Grid Events NZ first race, Leroy’s causing waves of excitement in the running community with the Revenant’s extreme challenge.

Scott Worthington

Scott Worthington’s a businessman and longtime runner, Ironman and Adventurer. Originally from Auckland, Scott and his family now love to call Alexandra their home.

He’s passionate about the outdoors and loves the synergy between The Revenant race and Welcome Rock Trails. You can read more of Scott’s story at Behind the Revenant.

Want to see a little bit more of The Revenant and its directors? Leroy and Scott give a few clues in their Race Hints video series here on Facebook.

Competitors

Many of the names of the hardy souls who’ve been selected for entry into this inaugural Adventure Run are currently a secret, but they’re a diverse bunch of men and women from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the USA.

I’ve heard hints that one’s a professional cyclist. Others are runners or come from the Ironman fraternity. Some are from the military, others are passionate Adventure racers. I’m willing to bet there’s at least one who’s raced in the Godzone before.

All will be revealed at the race briefing on January 18th.

SPECIAL UPDATE: Meet the competitors at the Garston Hotel from 4pm Thursday, 17th January.  

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to meet these legends of adventure.

Hosts/Venue: Tom and Katie O’Brien and Welcome Rock Trails

Welcome Rock Trails is a unique and special part of the Southland High Country. Within its boundaries, you’ll find almost every sort of terrain available in this area — river, mountain, bush, tussock, valley and a special history that’s been loving preserved and celebrated in the creation of the Welcome Rock Cycling Trail.

The Revenant fits well into the ethos of Welcome Rock. Both have a sense of the special history in the hills above Garston, a desire for minimal impact on the environment and a passion to create an experience that lasts well beyond the moment.

You can read more about Welcome Rock here in Trails and Tributes.

Sponsors

Leroy De Beer standing beside a VW Amarok V6 Ute.
Leroy De Beer and the trusty VW Amorak V6

The Revenant Race Directors are thrilled to welcome Giltrap VW Commercial as the sponsor for their inaugural Ultra Adventure Run. VW is providing vehicles for the shuttle service up to the race start, and as you can see from the Revenant Facebook page, Scott and Leroy have been using one of their super smooth and reliable Amarok V6 utes to get around on their Revenant duties.

Not Long To Go…

Running The Revenant – Men on a Mission

Revenant Ultra Adventure Run Course

I sat down with Scott Worthington of The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run to ask him about this exciting event happening here, above Garston, in January 2019.


Where the likely outcome is failure how far will you go?

SCOTT WORTHINGTON AND LEROY DE BEER

You’ve obviously got a huge passion for this race. What led you to create it?

I’m always looking for a challenge. Now there’s a race in the States called the Barkley Marathon and it’s something I’ve always looked at. It’s the ultimate running challenge and it’s a very quirky race; very difficult to get into.  It’s cryptic — you don’t even know when it opens — so even the entry process is sort of reflective of the challenge. I’ve tried three times to get in and have never had a reply.

So that’s really what created the spark. I thought; “We’ve got some pretty difficult and unique terrain in New Zealand so why not put something on here? So that’s really where it started.

Why is it called The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run?

I’ve always liked the word Revenant.

Obviously, a few people have said: “Oh you’ve named it after the movie.”

No, I haven’t!

A lot of people don’t know what revenant means but basically, it’s a spiritual thing — that’s one definition, someone’s spirit coming back from the dead.

But it’s also defined as someone who goes away for a long period of time and reemerges.

So it seemed that as we were creating a challenge where people would go off for a long period of time and there was a high probability they wouldn’t re-emerge (ie finish) anyone who did finish deserved a pretty good accolade.

I can’t think of anything better than being called a revenant, and that’s how we came up with the name.

What’s the race format and what will happen during the race?

The Revenant is a lap-based race. The competitors will go four laps and each lap is basically the same distance. They will have 60 hours to complete those laps. Each lap has to be done in the reverse direction and they will not know what the starting direction will be until they’re at the start line. So once we tell them what the first lap direction is they have to alternate after that.

Competitors also have to follow a set number of checkpoints which basically lead them around the course, but they get route choice in between. So they have to decide how to get from one checkpoint to the next.

At each checkpoint, there might be challenges or information they’ve got to digest and every time they come through they get the opportunity to give up or continue. Later in the race, there are time parameters which they have to meet. If someone’s got no hope of completing it in the time left we’ll pull them out.

The Revenant is an exciting innovation for Welcome Rock Trails. What makes this the perfect place to run an ultra-endurance event like yours?

A mountain ridge on Welcome Rock Trails, part of the route for  Revenant Ultra Adventure Run.
Is THIS part of the route for The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run?

When I first started thinking about this race I wanted to do it in a uniquely Kiwi way. The Barkley was just the beginning.

The terrain around here varies quite a bit but you’ve got to travel to get to different types like Fiordland bush, or high-country tussock. But a few years ago I did a running race that Tom put on and that’s where I saw the property.

Welcome Rock is the perfect place for The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run because within a loop of roughly 50km you can travel across just about every type of terrain that we have in the area; rocks, water, bush, tussock and more. That’s pretty unique.

Who’s running this inaugural race and what was your selection process?

The type of person that we thought would enter was going to reflect what we called the race. It’s called an Ultra Adventure Run for a reason, it’s not just 3 words strung together.

So, basically, Ultra — you’re looking for people who can do long distance; Adventure — that’s the map and compass type navigation and that’s adventure racing; And then the Run. If you’re going to finish this race in the time allowable then you’ll have to be able to run where the terrain allows.

So the people coming are a good cross-section. We’ve got adventure racers who are learning how to run. We’ve got runners who are learning how to navigate. They’re all on the fringe in terms of long distance.

Then we have the military aspect. Leroy, my partner who’s putting the event on, is ex-military and it was his idea to do that.

So we’ve got Navy Seals from the United States and some of our Elite Forces from New Zealand.

And that’s great because a lot of the fringe endurance athletes like to measure themselves and our people in the military are generally pretty good. So it’s a good measure.


Our goal is to create a bespoke, unique challenge that will endure.

What are your goals for this first event, and what is your vision for its future?

For this first event, our focus is really putting on the best event we possibly can.

We’ve got a great sponsor in VW Commercial, but we haven’t overly worried about how many people turn up and therefore the way we’ve publicized it has been fairly organic. We just want to make sure that the event we put on is the best it can possibly be.

And we think after that the rest will follow.

We want to establish this worldwide as a true adventure challenge.

How can people get involved in the build-up?

The race briefing and the start on January 18th will be the only times you’ll see all the competitors together.

VW Commercial has given us vehicles to transport people up to the start after the competitors have been taken up there. That’ll be a shuttle service, and that’s when we really encourage people to come — to the briefing at the Garston Hotel and the start on Welcome Rock Trails.

And how can we follow the race while it’s on?

We’ve opted not to go for live tracking because that’s notoriously unreliable, but also because of the nature of the event. The Revenant is really for the competitor, not for the supporter. It’s a bit of a back to basics sort of race.

However, we will have a live Facebook feed. There’ll be volunteers out on the course to keep an eye on things and they’ll be able to radio in snippets of information as they see the competitors go by. So that’ll be on the live feed, but you won’t be tracking individual people.


Personally, I think that this inaugural Revenant Ultra Adventure Run is an exciting new event for Welcome Rock Trails and for the village of Garston. You can be sure that I’ll be there at the start line to cheer the competitors on.   

WILL YOU BE THERE TOO?

Look out for future posts on The REVENANT

Find out more about Scott and his Revenant Ultra Adventure Run dream in Behind The Revenant: Scott Worthington

Behind The Revenant: Scott Worthington

Scott Worthington is co-creator and race director of the inaugural Revenant Ultra Adventure Run being held on Welcome Rock Trails in January 2019. It was a privilege to chat with Scott and discover a little about the Man Behind the Revenant.

Scott Worthington scrambles up through native beech forest on Welcome Rock Trails.


“What do I get out of it?
I like to see how far I can go when I have to rely on myself and no-one else. When you strip away the trimmings and see what’s left.”

Scott Worthington on the challenge of Adventure Racing

How Far Can You Go?

Something I’d always wanted to do was travel on the Trans Siberian Express. It seemed like the ultimate railway adventure. So one hot Siberian Summer my wife and I took the plunge and got on board.

It might have been easier if we’d spoken Russian.

Siberia is vast — you can travel for half a day and suddenly there, in the middle of nowhere, you see two houses and then boom they’re gone and it might be another half a day before you arrive at a station.

But for some unfathomable reason every now and then the train stops. No station — not even any houses — it just stops and people get off and wander around. And there never seems to be a signal. No lights, no whistles blowing, nothing! Even at a station, there’s no signal. People wandering around suddenly reboard and the train starts again.

For a while, we didn’t dare leave our carriage. But there was no air conditioning and it was stinking hot. So next time the train pulled up at a station loads of people got off. We decided surely it’d be safe for us to go too.

So we wandered up and down, keeping a nervous eye on our carriage door, and suddenly the train started moving. We started waving and hurrying beside it, but it just went faster.

Help! The Train Won’t Stop

Now we’re really striding out and I thought “I’ve got to get Sue on the train,” so I threw her into the open doorway.

But now I’m actually running to keep up and the door’s getting away on me so in desperation I wait till the next carriage door comes along AND IT’S CLOSED. Now I’m in serious trouble — I’ve got to get on board!

So I leapt at the door-step and hung on for dear life.

STILL THE TRAIN DOESN’T STOP. I look up and there’s my wife’s head, poking out of the window and she’s yelling something I can’t hear. Then, suddenly, every window in both carriages opens up and all along heads are poking out of the train, yelling and hooting — I’m just the world’s best entertainment.

I had to get inside the train. The only thing I could think of was to get around the end of the carriage and onto the gangway that sways over the couplings.

So I peered around the corner and saw it. A gangway, a wobbly chain and a handle, all looking too far away for comfort. I’d have to leap around the corner and grab onto the vertical handlebar beside the door.

So that’s what I did. To hoots and hollers from all the spectators I edged to the corner and launched myself at the handlebar. Somehow I grabbed it — and got a toehold on the gangway. After that, getting on board was a piece of cake.

We didn’t get off the train again.

Surely I’ve seen this scene in a Bruce Willis thriller?

But no! This is the tale that comes straight to Scott Worthington’s mind when I ask about his most memorable, cliff-hanger adventure. Suddenly I understand how Scott can envisage a race as hair-raising as The Revenant.

Adventure and Risk — They’re in Scott’s DNA.

Scott Worthington comes from a family of adventurers. You could say it’s in his blood. How far back the trait goes it’s impossible to tell. Certainly, Scott’s grandfather had it in spades.

Growing up in tough circumstances in pre-war England he’d emigrated to New Zealand as far away as he could get. But England was still home, and his urge to protect it was strong. As soon as France fell he enlisted in the army.

He ended up in the 21st regiment as a radio operator in the Long Range Corps (forerunner of the SAS). Somehow he survived all the big battles and made it back to New Zealand. Scott grew up hearing his grandfather’s confidences — good and bad, terrible and scary — and learned what it meant to be tough and to survive.

“My Dad was an outdoorsman too,” says Scott. He went on this amazing adventure and spent three years cycling around Europe. Of course, this was motivation enough for Scott to want to do it too.

The Journey Toward Endurance and Adventure

So, aged 18, Scott boarded the last commercial passenger boat sailing from New Zealand to England and six weeks later he embarked on his own two-year cycling odyssey around Europe.

Back home in Auckland, he spotted a commotion near the park. It seemed to be a bike race — which turned into a run. “It’s the latest sporting craze. They call it Ironman,” his fellow spectators said.

Scott decided that running a marathon after riding a 180km bike race sounded like just his cup of tea.

No one mentioned that you kicked the whole shebang off with a nearly-4km swim first. That was a slight problem since Scott’s swimming skills were of the “flounder back to the boat” variety.

But if you try hard enough you can overcome anything. So Scott began to haunt the local pool, swimming length after length until flounder turned to flying-fish.


It’s taking on an almost impossible task and seeing how far you can go.

Time For a New Challenge

After a while, Scott decided that he was as good at Ironman as he was going to get. He needed a new challenge.

Enter adventure racing. Now, this was something he could really get his teeth into.

Adventure racing is a multi-disciplinary team or solo sport involving navigation over an unmarked wilderness course. A race can extend over hours, days or even weeks and stretch participants to the limits of endurance and courage.

You need fitness, wit, courage, skill, communication, teamwork and absolute determination to succeed to complete such a race.

Scott is hooked on the combination.

He’s competed in the legendary New Zealand Godzone races several times and often trains by doing mountainous solo adventure challenges.

But the one race that Scott has never entered — and not for want of trying — is the infamous Barkley Marathon.

So what do you do if you’ve tried three times but haven’t found the secret recipe to enter the Barkley Marathon? If you’re Scott Worthington you get cracking on starting your own unique race.

Creating The Revenant; A Kiwi Ultra Adventure Run

TScott and Leroy surveying the mountain scenery and planning the Revenant Ultra Adventure Run
Planning is well underway for The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run on Welcome Rock Trails in the Garvie Mountains above Garston, New Zealand.

It was actually Leroy de Beer, of adventure company Off The Grid Events who came up with the idea of a New Zealand Barkley-style Adventure run and Scott couldn’t wait to be involved.

The Barkley may have been the inspiration, but The Revenant is a New Zealand race and has features that are pure Kiwi.

The exact course, the competitors, the selection process, the finish line… these are all a closely-guarded secret right now, but I can tell you that developing the race has taken thousands of hours of planning and exploration and every step has been taken with meticulous attention to detail. This inaugural Revenant Adventure Run at Welcome Rock Trails will be a race to remember for a lifetime.

Small, tantalising hints keep appearing on The Revenant Facebook page. Some competitors are coming from all over the world, some from closer to home.

One decided to sail halfway across the globe — as a “small side adventure”—  in order to take part.

Another decided to turn a scheduled meeting with Scott into a training run and spent a day and night running miles through the Florida swamps (risking bears and alligators along the way) and still made it in time for lunch.

These are the sorts of men and women who dare to challenge themselves in ways the rest of us can only stare in amazement at.

I can’t wait to meet them.

Welcome Rock Trails

2019 Update

The inaugural Revenant Ultra Adventure Run was indeed a challenging affair – beyond the expectations of any of the competitors.

Wrapping Up The Revenant: A Legend Is Born


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Weather Matters on the Farm

Is The Weather Changing?

There is still fierce opposition in some quarters about whether the weather is changing and the whole climate change debate.

It seems to me that humankind has indisputably contributed to the raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And don’t get me started on plastic mountains in the ocean! Or how we’re chopping down our rainforests.

Whether or not you agree with climate change, we really need a radical overhaul in the way we treat our environment — local, national and planet-wide.

This week I took a look back at some memorable weather moments on the farm in Garston. Snow, rain, wind, storms, droughts and of course many, many lovely days. We’ve had them all and more in the 35 years I’ve lived in this beautiful place.

View over snow-covered mountainside and farm paddocks in Garston, winter, 2015.
Wintry weather over the farm in Garston, 2015. 

Weather And Water

Last Summer was a hot, dry one. The faithful stream which feeds our farm and two houses dwindled to a trickle. Day after day the sun beat down, the thirsty sheep drank more water than ever, and the pool which feeds our precious water pipe came within an inch of failing.

Dry weather took it's toll. Our farm's water supply creek, reduced to a trickle in January 2018.
Just a trickle left in our precious creek. January 2018.

But Spring this year has been the opposite: sun — sure — but also wind, snow and so much rain! Our lovely stream is transformed from trickle to torrent. Now instead of drying up, our water pipe is in danger of being washed away.

Water supply creek in flood, November 2018.
The trickle has changed to a torrent. November 2018.

When you work outside the weather plays a huge part in your life. You’re at the mercy of the elements day in, day out. And no one is quite so vulnerable to the whims of the weather gods as a farmer.

Weather Varies Throughout The Valley

When glaciers carved out the Upper Mataura Valley in the last ice age they left a narrow river valley and a series of terraces rising up towards the mountain ranges which line the valley east and west. This formation gives the weather gods plenty of ways to play their tricks.

It’s only a small valley by world standards, but the weather in one part can be completely different from what’s happening in another. I well remember one desperate summer when day after day afternoon rain bands swept up the valley floor but left our farm on the terraces parched.

That was the year that we put a mob of sheep out on the back road every day so they could graze the roadside while we guarded them and warned the occasional car that drove by. We even tried cutting down willow branches to give them some extra greenery to eat that summer.

A Hailstorm! Where?

1991, early evening. Thunderclouds covered the mountains and loomed above our little farmhouse. Windows rattled and the house shook as thunder pealed overhead. Goodness knows where Terry was – somewhere out on the farm. But the kids and I didn’t know whether to dance in the rain or cower under the bed.

Then came the hailstones. I’ve never seen anything like it. They poured in torrents and formed a fountain shooting down the carport roof and off the end of the gutter pipes.

I was due at a school meeting but I phoned Kitty (from the next door farm) who was coming to babysit.

“Don’t come yet ” I yelled down the phone line.

“I’m not going anywhere in this,” she hollered back.

Then, just like that, the hail stopped. So Kitty braved the slick road round to our place and I dashed down to Garston school. Just three kilometres away, and not a hailstone in sight. No wonder they were disbelieving when I said why I was late.

Etched In Our Memories

But none of those weather memories can compare to the wall of water which swept out Blackmore Creek and down the road towards our two thousand sheep and lambs one fateful summer evening.

Stormy weather looms. Storm clouds brewing over Garston.
Storm clouds brewing late on a hot afternoon.

January 2001. It was a hot, hazy day — and we had spent it bringing sheep and lambs down to the holding paddocks beside the woolshed, ready for weaning the next morning.

It’s quite a tricky job — lambs and ewes are notoriously hard to move. While the majority of them will run where you want them to, there are always lambs which bolt in the opposite direction — and ewes that are determined to search back through the mob for their missing lambs.

However, by evening the woolshed paddocks were filled with a great noisy mass of sheep and lambs. Gradually they settled enough to eat and to drink from Blackmore Creek, which winds through our farm on its way to the Mataura River.

On this fateful day, towering storm clouds had built up over the mountains as they often do on hot afternoons. Thunder rumbled occasionally but no rain fell on the milling mob of sheep and lambs and we were pleased about that. A thunderstorm over the outside yards would have meant we’d be working with drenched sheep and slippery mud the next day.

Flash Flood

By 8 o’clock the clouds over the mountains were thick and black. It was clearly teeming up there. Most of us were just relieved it wasn’t pouring on the sheep but Terry was nervous. He could hear a rumbling in the hills that I didn’t even notice.

Abruptly — for no reason that I could see — he dashed out of the house and headed to the hill paddock above our house where he could spot the creek as it came down the mountain.

Casually we watched, wondering why he was driving up there. Suddenly his truck spun around and shot back down the paddock at high speed. At the gate, Terry leapt out, dashed towards his dogs and yelled at me —  “Get help! There’s a flood on the way!”

Action time!

Down to the woolshed we dashed with one purpose in mind — to get the sheep away from the creek paddocks and onto higher ground.

Chaos reigned: dogs barking, kids screaming, sheep bleating and Terry yelling orders which no one heard. Suddenly into this confusion burst Andrew — the neighbour I’d called for help — bringing more dog-power and urgency. He had come dashing down ahead of the flood and he’d seen the wall of water sweeping down the narrow gully towards us.

Minutes later the last animal was hustled through the gate onto the hill above the woolshed. James, his new partner Lizette — making her first visit to the farm — and 7-year-old Chris dashed across the bridge in their truck seconds before the wave broke across it.

On it swept, spreading across the paddocks, inundating gardens and flooding the State Highway as it crashed its way towards the Mataura River.

1 km north, Scotts Creek was flooding too, leaving its farmers equally stunned. And yet, in the whole valley, these were the only two streams affected. All the water in that intense thunderstorm was concentrated in one narrow band — flooding the two streams and leaving every other waterway untouched.

What A Mess

You wouldn’t believe the mess that a flood leaves behind. Our road and all its culverts were washed out. The fences were piled high with torn branches, bushes and mud. The water swept away everything in its path and left it high and dry on all our fences. It took weeks of effort to clear the mess away. And more weeks to repair the damage.

Fences piled high with debris after the flash flood. Garston 2001.
Fences piled high with debris outside the woolshed. As you can probably guess, we postponed the weaning for a week that year.

Andrew’s water system on Blackmore Creek was destroyed — but not ours, thank goodness.

For weeks afterwards the kids and I wandered up and down Blackmore Creek and marvelled at the path of destruction. The mud-covered bushes high above showed just how far that wave had reached.

Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached.
Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached. We are so thankful for the warning rumble that alerted Terry to the potential disaster.

Farmers Are NEVER Happy With The Weather

My farmer lives and breathes the weather. He is always out in it, rain…hail…snow…wind…sunshine, and so are his animals and crops.

As you can imagine, it’s not a lot of fun for a sheep out in the wet and cold. We have sheltering trees and bushes in most of the paddocks, and of course, they have their woolly coats for protection, but they still look miserable in the sodden paddocks on a rainy day.

However, too little rain is equally bad. When the dry weather goes on and on the ground dries out and the grass doesn’t grow. The sheep lie panting under the trees and are constantly looking for food.

Even when I think the weather is perfect, something will be wrong with it from a farmer’s point of view. Inevitably that nice drop of rain in a dry year seems to come just after we’ve cut the grass for hay.

In a really good year (weather-wise) I’ve even heard farmers muttering about “too much grass” on occasion.

Weather Matters

When I first came to the valley way back in 1981 I used to phone home to Auckland on an expensive toll call once a month.

When I hung up my landlady would always say “What’s the weather like up there?”

Well, that wasn’t a question I ever thought of asking. Still very much a city chick, the weather wasn’t important to me back then. But nowadays, I’ve lived so long on the farm that I understand just how much the weather matters.

I don’t phone home much these days — but thanks to the world wide web I message my Mum daily, and you can be sure that now we always mention the weather.

Blue sky and sunshine weather. The view South overlooking the green farm in late spring.
But still, often the weather is beautiful.  And the valley looks green and lush after all that rain.  November 2018.

And Your Weather Is…?

I often thankfully remark that whatever the weather gods are throwing at us in Garston, its always far worse somewhere else in New Zealand. Our weather is mild and kind compared to the extremes some of you face in the world every year.

What are your best and worst weather memories? Comment below – and/or share a photo on Time of my Life’s Facebook page.


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Garston Hunny Shop: Bene and the Bees

Sign outside the Garston Hunny Shop

Q: What do Beekeeping, Scotland and a tall lanky Kiwi have in common? A: Garston Hunny Shop owner Benedicte Sparks loves them all.

And It’s probably lucky for Garston honey lovers that Scotland has such a cold, damp climate. If Scottish summers had been better, Bene might never have left the country that she describes as “beautiful — such a beautiful country… and the people are so friendly.”

But after 12 years of getting dressed up to go out, only to have to cover up with a coat or risk getting soaked Bene decided to find warmer pastures. It was a long road that eventually brought this petite, dynamic Frenchwoman to the other two loves of her life.

Bene Sparks, always happy to serve up some of her delicious honey in the Garston Hunny Shop.
Bene Sparks is always happy to serve up some of her delicious honey in the Garston Hunny Shop.

In The Beginning

Dijon… Paris… France. To my ears exotic, exciting, magical faraway places that I dream of visiting. To Bene, they were just home. And like any teenager, she didn’t find them the least bit exciting. School was particularly boring. She left at 16, served in a bookshop for a while, and then moved to the bright lights of Paris to work for a dictionary publisher.

Ah, Paris!  City of dreams and romance. The Louvre… Eiffel Tower… shopping… cafes on the left bank and not a honey bee in sight. Bene wasn’t really into honey at that point, but she quickly discovered that she wasn’t into publishing either.

A chance meeting with a Scottish lad who spoke a smattering of French gave Bene a new direction.

“I’d love to learn English,” she told him. Six months later — when she’d almost forgotten her chance remark —  a language school brochure landed in her mailbox.

So Bene — still a teenager — packed her bags again and moved to Scotland to study English. Her sister drove her there, dropped her on the doorstep of her new home, waved goodbye — and left!

A Prince and a Punk in Scotland

Well, there was no turning back, so Bene picked up those bags and went in to meet her new flatmates — a Swiss who was into punk and a boy from Nepal who turned out to be a prince.

“On my very first night in Scotland, my new Swiss flatmate said, ‘We’re off to a concert in Glasgow. You should come!’”

In hindsight, the safety pins and punk outfit should have set off alarm bells in Bene’s mind but she was so relieved to hear someone speaking French that she went to the concert anyway.

“I felt very unsafe in my little French skirt with all the skinheads and punk music,” Bene recalls.

So there she was —  a teenager in a foreign land — and no wonder she was scared. Life is infinitely more difficult when you don’t speak the language. She had just two choices: run home or learn English FAST!

Slinking back with her tail between her legs didn’t seem like a great option so Bene knuckled down at school. Full immersion is the way to go, of course, and after a few months, Bene could speak well enough to land a job.

Scotland is a beautiful country and Bene quickly grew to love everything except the climate. But Scotland is renowned for its rain, and in the end, Bene had had enough of that, so she and a friend decided to see the world.

Round The World

So many countries; too many experiences to recount. But after nearly a year of travelling together Bene and her friend were still talking to each other — a minor miracle — when they reached Australia. By that time they definitely needed a break from travelling and each other. So they settled in Sydney and went their separate ways.

If they’d landed in Melbourne then Bene might never have come to New Zealand. She’s since been to Melbourne and loves its cosmopolitan vibe. But living in squalid digs in Sydney and working for peanuts wasn’t much fun and Australia’s such a vast country that it’s hard to travel around if you have no money. So Bene saved up enough for an airfare and moved on.

The logical next step, of course, was New Zealand.

A Land To Love

First, a stint in Auckland followed by a kiwifruit season in Te Puke —  Bene was slowly working her way south. Eventually, she discovered Queenstown, as most traveller-workers do in the end.

Like many a Scot before her, Bene had at last found a country with the beauty and friendliness of Scotland but without the chilly summers and depressing damp. Then she fell in love with Tony Sparks, and that sealed the deal.

Garston

The opportunity to move even further south came when Tony and Bene bought the Garston Hotel. The tall Kiwi and the tiny Frenchwoman brought new energy to the Garston Hotel, and business boomed.

But running a country pub is exhausting, and you can only do it for so long. So eventually, they sold the pub and settled down to renovate the old stone building next door and to begin their next ventures — The Garston Stables and the Hunny Shop —  just across the road.

Beehives in the Hunny Shop's bee-friendly garden.
Bene’s beehives — supplying Garston with delicious local honey.

Bene and her Garston Bees

Bene’s right into bees now, but she didn’t expect to fall quite so crazily in love with them when she joined Matt Menlove’s local beekeeping course.

“I was interested and I wanted to help save the bees,” she says.

There’s so much to learn, too. Matt’s lessons were only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to knowing about bees. Bene’s constantly finding new information and new challenges.

Every year is different because no two seasons are the same. Spring could be warm and dry one year and cold and wet the next. Even more confusing for bees and the plants they feed on, this year Spring started early and has been alternating between the two states all season. Consequently, the bees got ready to swarm around the end of October and Bene had to keep a close eye on them so that she could separate out the new queen and her followers and move them to a new hive before they actually swarmed.

It’s A Honey Bee’s Life

Bees need good food and Bene has made sure that there’s plenty around for her particular pets. She’s in the never-ending process of creating an extensive garden around the stone cottage, filled with bee-friendly plants.

Honey bees need both pollen and nectar from the flowers to feed the hive, but they also inadvertently transfer the dusty pollen from flower to flower as they forage, and so ensure that the flowers are fertilized. Of course, that leads to fruit, seed production and eventually more flowers. It’s an elegant cycle.

Bee on a nectar-filled white flower.
Bees and flowers. You can’t beat nature’s elegant cycle.

The Garston Hunny Shop

If you add many bees and lots of flowers together you get an abundant supply of honey, so why not have a honey shop? Thus began the Hunny Shop, Bene’s Garston tribute to all things honey.

It’s fun to go into the bright orange-and-yellow shop. There’s honey to taste and buy, as well as pills, potions, lotions and Bene’s very own honey-based cosmetics line “Abelha.” The walls are covered with bee information, too, so you can learn while you browse.

You can even have an escorted “bee experience” if you like, and visit the beehives to see first-hand where your honey came from. After all that, who wouldn’t want to buy a delicious honey-filled pot?

Finally, when you get home and regretfully lap up the last drop of your Garston Honey, you can buy more online at the Hunny Shop’ Shopify store.


Decorative wooden cabinet displaying honey products.
Just a few of the delicious honey products on display at the Garston Hunny Shop.

Doing Her Bit

It’s great to make a contribution to the world around you, and most of us have our own unique way of making things a little better.

Bene’s style mixes French flair with downright hard work. She’s doing her bit to save the bees — and bringing more visitors to the vibrant little business hub of Garston.

Next time you’re dashing to Queenstown, or buzzing South, stop into Garston and relax with a coffee, food, gifts and gorgeous honey-to-go.

Nothing could be better than that.

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