Chasing Smoke

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs


You might even find an admission of guilt here!

Submitted: April 05, 2018

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Submitted: April 05, 2018

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Government Hill is now a forest-clad, flat-topped hill west of Otepopo, and I don’t even need to look it up to remind myself of its height, it’s somehow etched into my brain. The hill is thirteen hundred and ninety five feet above sea level. Curiously enough from the main road looking up the gully to the north of Government Hill is an ugly, little knob known as The Devil’s Elbow, it looks to be opposite, a trick of perspective, it’s some five miles further to the west. There are two trigs, known survey points, on top of Government Hill, which I regularly used to check with my prismatic compass, to establish the magnetic declination, which is important to know when plotting a chain and compass survey onto a chart.

There’s a seldom-used road that skirts the hill, more or less on the twelve hundred foot contour. The north branch of the river, the one that eventually flows past our house, is far below, and the slope is ,as steep as a hen’s face, stretching all the way down to reach the river! About a third of the way up the other side, among recolonising Manuka scrub there was a big area of pig rooting. Wild pigs dig up the soil in their search for worms and grass grubs. As well they are rather partial to young bracken fern roots. We would never go across there to shoot pigs because it was private property and anyway, it would be a strenuous carry out of the carcass. But it was a good place to monitor them, we knew that mobs of pigs travelled in a reliable circuit, visiting different patches of rooting throughout the forest. Seeing them there, we could usually predict where they would turn up next.

The sheeprun across the river comprised some nineteen-odd thousand acres and at the time it was undeveloped. But that was about to change when Peter bought it. He built a new house almost directly above the patch of pig rooting that we so fondly gazed upon. As well he improved the access road and began cultivation, utilizing one of the oldest tools known to man – fire. He got into trouble with the Catchment Board over one of his fires and I was roped into going along as an adviser for an onsite meeting! The Catchment Board had imposed a regulation that there needed to be a ten percent cover of snow when burning Danthonia tussock. Peter had burnt it with no snow cover!  I watched and listened to them bicker, because Peter was fuming and the Board resolved to slap a fine on him to tune of ten thousand dollars! It helped that I knew one of the Catchment Board reps fairly well, when I told them the ten percent snow cover was poppycock because the tussock would never be dry enough to burn with snow around it! Even by lighting every tussock individually would be hopelessly impractical. I told them they had better come up with a fairer criteria. Peter got off with a warning and the Catchment Board promised to do more research on burning Danthonia. Nice, fresh tussock regrowth was a main source of sheep fodder on a sheeprun like Peter’s.

Although there was never a confrontation, Peter and I didn’t quite see eye to eye. To my mind the best firebreaks are green pasture and after that, green native scrub. Peter on the other hand wanted as much grazing for his sheep as possible and didn’t like scrub regrowth. Over the years I noticed the native scrub around the patch of pig rooting was thriving and the pig rooting was slowly disappearing. Good, the green belt was thickening making the forest just a bit safer. Every forester likes fireproof boundaries!

I was dismayed when I saw wisps of smoke rising above Government Hill and knew it was coming from Peter’s side of the gulley! So I climbed in my truck to investigate. Peter was down at the pig rooting, lighting, without much success, Manuka bushes and other dry clumps of native scrub. I made the long descent carrying a shovel over my shoulder. A shovel is an excellent firefighting tool! You can swat fires out with it, you can throw soil over a fire with it and you can hold it up by your face to shield against the heat from a sudden flare-up. I’m not talking about huge raging fires, but even then, a shovel is your friend.

I wasn’t too sure what I was going to do when I got down there, but Peter was off-side. He should have come to me for a burning permit – mind you, he wouldn’t have been given one, but that’s beside the point. I decided against a confrontation, instead, I was below him, and unsighted by him, so I began swatting out his little fires. As fast as he lit them, I would just as fast put them out. It was a shady face, late afternoon and the fuel wasn’t really dry enough, so the fire wasn’t going to get going anyway. He spent a couple of hours trying to get the fire going and I spent a couple of hours extinguishing them! He eventually gave up and never tried again. He had no clue that I was down there! The long trek up the steep hill was mitigated by my success, and I was grinning!

Happily the bush regenerated and now provides a perfect firebreak for the forest, which is under new ownership, but that doesn’t matter. In the thirty or so intervening years, attitudes have changed and the sheeprun, under new ownership, is staunchly into conservation and they attract tourists as a business enterprise. I still meet Peter from time to time and he still has no idea what I did, this is the first time that I admit to doing the deed.


© Copyright 2018 moa rider. All rights reserved.

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