In the early days of European settlement, moving stock ‘on the hoof’ was the only means of land transport. Rivers, bush, tussock and scrub made the going tough for drovers and their stock. The mountainous terrain of the South Island offered special challenges. A route up the Awatere Valley through what became Molesworth Station provided a link between Marlborough and Canterbury. A coach road built over Arthur’s Pass in 1866 gave drovers easier access to the goldfields of the West Coast.
By the start of the 20th century much of the bush had been cleared for farming and roads were better, making the drover’s job easier. Growing markets for stock and the developing networks of saleyards and freezing works meant steady work for drovers. Much of the work was local – day trips, or short droves of a few days.
Many rivers to cross
In the early days of droving stock the greatest difficulty was crossing rivers. In February 1856 Frederick Wilson and his men spent nine days taking 4,000 sheep across the Rakaia River – getting just 300 across in the first four days and another 600 in the next two. Eventually the main mob crossed in about two hours. When rivers were in flood, men and stock simply had to wait until conditions improved. One mob travelling to Lake Wānaka waited at the Waitaki River for three months until its level fell.
The long drove, lasting several weeks to two or three months, has been part of New Zealand’s history from the 1840s until the 1990s. Many long droves were organised by dealers with an eye to making a dollar. Stock, generally cattle, were bought in one region, and driven and fattened on the ‘long acre’ (the grass on the side of the road) for weeks as they travelled slowly to another area.
For example, cattle were bought at the Gisborne sale in autumn, driven to the Rangitīkei or Manawatū over two to three months, and sold in the spring sales in Feilding – hopefully for a profit. While the dealer usually had to pay a drover and holding-paddock fees, he could effectively winter his stock without having to pay for feed.
The big drove
For over 50 years Ken Lewis organised one of New Zealand’s biggest cattle droves. He contracted to collect cattle from stations in the far north, and drove them around 250 kilometres to their new owners at Whangārei – taking four or five weeks. In 1982, Lewis and his team drove 2,000 cattle at a cost of $9 a head.
Women and children
Droving was largely men’s work, although women and children did help where necessary. It was not uncommon to see a young boy on his pony leading a mob, while watching out for open gates and places where stock might wander away. For many it was a job they grew to love.
With thousands of men overseas during the Second World War, almost 4,000 New Zealand women were recruited into the Land Services. Working as land girls introduced some to the art of droving. Other women worked on family farms, where droving was part of the normal farming activities. Women might also accompany their husbands and help with droves. In the 1960s, a number of families began travelling in caravans on droves. The wife went ahead of the mob in a truck towing the caravan, stopping to make smokos and meals along the way – a luxury for the drover used to roughing it.
Droving in the 2000s
In the early 2000s droving was largely a thing of the past. In some areas the occasional drove still took place, but they were very different from the droves of old. Council bylaws required permits when taking stock through towns, and motorists had to be warned of stock on the road by pilot vehicles with lights flashing or council-approved warning signs.
Ferry across the Pūkaki
The Pūkaki River in the Mackenzie Country was a fast and dangerous torrent that formed a barrier to travellers and stock. Often sheep simply refused to cross the river and shepherds had to carry them over. Ben Ohau Station kept a heavy, five-oared whaleboat for use as a stock and passenger ferry, and sometimes took whole flocks across.
Before bridges were built, ferries and punts enabled settlers, goods, drovers and stock to cross rivers in relative safety. Sometimes the ferryman simply used a rowboat. On larger, swifter rivers, like the Clutha, punts were more common. With large mobs, the drovers would make many trips to ferry all the stock across the river, and the animals often scattered while workers were busy with the next load. The charge was a set rate per head, with a reduced price for larger numbers.
Isolated communities on some rivers and lakes relied on steamers and launches. The Earnslaw, on Lake Wakatipu, was the best known. The stations around the lake’s shores relied on her to bring supplies and to carry their sheep out to market. Makeshift pens were put on the deck, and animals were loaded up a ramp.