Water, Sheep and Kangaroos
Feb 21, 2008
Water, Sheep and Kangaroos
The tour description sounded marvelous. Not only could we see the sought-after sheepdogs on a working ranch outside of Hobart, Tasmania, but they threw in lunch, a waterfall, and “Australia’s most popular animals”.
So we took the bait, in spite of our “no-structured-tour policy”. So did thirty of our sometimes phlegmatic shipmates. We boarded the bus for the one hour ride into the interior and watched the city become suburbs, then slowly turn into beautiful rolling farmland. Lack of meaningful rainfall had turned the rolling hills brown, and except for the occasional flock of sheep, it was just our bus, the driver and the wide open farmlands of Tasmania. Macaroon, it reminded me of Contra Costa County about 2 million people ago.
The first stop was a waterfall, touted as one of Tasmania’s treasures. As waterfalls go I would give it about a below average 3.5 on the Case Global Waterfall Index (CGWI). However, as with so many good things in life, the pleasure was all in the seeking, and “Russell Falls” was no exception. Along the path were cute wallabies, birds and a thick moss-covered forest that looked like a place Hobbits would hang out. (Editors note: The wallaby is essentially a miniature kangaroo!)
Next stop was the sheep ranch. The 23-year old son of the owner met our group next to a pasture hosting several hundred sheep scattered randomly across the size of twenty football fields. Chained to the fence posts were two Australian sheepdogs named Billie and Kip, his –year junior. After an introduction to sheep farming, the dogs were let off their chains, and stood rigidly in front of the young farmer, waiting for the command to get to work.
A subtle hand signal and the dogs shot into the pasture like little rockets. They split up as they approached the outer perimeter of the sheep, which quickly responded by bunching together. Once pulled together, the dogs began to move them towards all of us, and had this not been a demonstration, the dogs could have moved them into a barn, or another pasture as instructed by the ranch hand.
It was time for the shearing demonstration!
Our tour group by this time was quite spread out, so the young rancher used a well-known hand signal to tell the bus driver it was time to round up our group. The bus driver shot quickly out to the perimeter of our tour group and we all responded by bunching together. The driver effortlessly moved us toward the shearing barn, pausing occasionally to round up a stray tourist and pretty soon we were gently herded into the shearing barn.
The rancher gave the driver the next hour off for lunch as a reward but chained him back up to the bus’s bumper.
The shearing demonstration was actually quite interesting but looked a wee bit stressful for the one sheep that was singled out for our edification and amusement. The shearer held the wool-laden animal in a pretzel hold worthy of Hulk Hogan as the electric shears stripped him of his sheephood.
The entire process took only four minutes, and quickly the wool lay on the floor like unwanted clothes in an Old Navy fitting room. The wholesale value of the raw wool at this stage was about $200.00 per shearing of Merino wool. The wool is graded and then sold to middlemen that keep it moving up the wool manufacturing chain. The shearing team (shearer and roustabout) can shear one sheep every four minutes, and are paid “by the sheep”, so it’s a scene built for speed, not beauty. The shearing team gets about $2.70 per shorn sheep. The ranch has an average of about 3000 sheep at any one shearing time so you do the math.
We were then shepherded to the farmhouse for a lunch cooked by the family that owned the ranch, and then they moved our group deftly onto the bus for our last stop, the Bonorong Wildlife Park.
It was quite frankly, a bit pathetic
Outside the t-shirt shop was a gaggle of other tour busses all jockeying for parking spots as tourists poured through the gates. Inside there were several dozen tired and slightly dazed kangaroos lying around in the dirt as hundreds of tourist tried to get them to do something. “Hop, damn you!” they cried. “Show me your pouch… I paid good money, so be a kangaroo…like… in the movies!” “Hey, where’s Roo?” With Canon camera and Panasonic camcorders shoved in their faces, the kangaroos barely responded, but must have thought to themselves, “We’re sure glad they sedate us so heavily before these idiots get here each morning”.
We finally couldn’t take it anymore and returned to the bus. We decided to wait until Sydney before declaring the animals of Australia a lost cause. We understand there’s a zoo there that actually considers the dignity of both kangaroos and humans with a great deal more respect. As far as we were concerned, the true Tasmanian devils were the shysters that created that little tourist trap.
Back to the ship, back to the dining room, and out of complete respect for a certain naked and chilly little sheep somewhere in the ranchlands of Tasmania, I declined the lamb with mint sauce and enjoyed a salad with light vinaigrette.
Good night from the Bass Straight off the coast of Australia.