As you drive over the Otematata Saddle heading west on SH83 you are greeted with the vastness of the Mackenzie Country. This intermontane basin, largely shaped by the last Ice Age, is the heart of the high country. It is surrounded by tussock grassland, big river valleys, endless hill country and awesome mountains.
|Waitaki Hydro Scheme|
The Mackenzie country was discovered by and named after James Mackenzie, a Gaelic shepherd who – rightly or wrongly – was accused of stealing sheep from South Canterbury runs for delivery to a Southland man. Mckenzie was imprisoned and his faithful sheep dog, Friday, taken away. After a series of escapes and increasing illness, he was released in 1856 and promptly disappeared forever.
Soon after, white settlers moved into the area and began extensive grazing of sheep with supplementary cattle herds. Their homes were built of cob (clay and chopped grass) and thatched with raupo, toe toe or flax. Food was basic – mainly mutton, potatoes, damper and tea. Bullock wagons transported wool out and food staples back.
Merino sheep are still important to the region and are a symbol of the South Island heartland. The Merino is a hardy animal which ranges freely and requires only light husbandry. Its wool is the finest of any sheep and is highly prized for fashion garments.
Beef cattle and red deer complement the Merino in farming operations. Venison and antlers in velvet (sold into Asia as a tonic and aphrodisiac) return a high profit for an animal which was routinely shot as a pest prior to the 1960’s.
The romance of the high country has not disappeared with the horses and bullock wagons. Helicopters, 4WD vehicles and powerful trucks aside, it is still the natural cycle of the land, the weather and hard conditions that test the mettle of the high country people and their dogs.