The Cattle Muster – New Zealand Mustering in the 70s – Bob’s Farm Stories

I was reading the paper after tea one night during February in the early seventies when the phone went. It was my friend Taffy, who said he was passing through Waimate and wanted to see me. I invited him to come out and half an hour later he was knocking on the door.

Wild Cattle in Fiordland

A friend of his had told him about a big mob of wild cattle down in Fiordland that DOC (Department of Conservation, New Zealand) wanted removed from the forest area and they were there for the taking. Neither he, nor Taffy were cattlemen of any sort but he said, he thought of me. “You could do it Bob,” he said, “You’ve got the horses and dogs and I’ll help”.

We sat and talked  about it for a couple of hours and I thought: “maybe?” Sounds like a lot of hard work but there could be quite a lot of money to be picked up.


Next day, as Taffy and I were looking around the farm at the cattle and the recently weaned lambs, he remarked that it was only cattle that we’d be working with, not sheep as well, and there’d be no fences or gates to worry about. “That’s where you’re wrong my friend,” I told him, “A large yard or corral would have to be built to hold them in and quieten them so they can be driven out.” He admitted that he hadn’t thought of that. “I knew you’d know how to do it,” he said, “When do we start?”

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“Hang on a minute mate,” I replied, “We will need a couple of good keen men to help; it’s not going to be easy. We’ve got to get men, horses, and cattle dogs down there as well as a camp of some sort and all the gear to build the corral, as well as find the cattle”. Taffy assured me that he would be able to find the cattle and that he had a mate at Five Rivers who had cattle and deer and would probably help us.

Found the Cattle

A couple of weeks later the phone went a bit after nine thirty and I knew before he spoke who it would be. “I found them,” said Taffy, “There must be a hundred or more”.

“Whereabouts?” I asked him, “Did you count them, are they easy to get at, what’s the country like, is there a road near it, and are there any yards near, what about fences?”

“Yes!” he replied. I could tell he was so excited about it all and being a man of few words I couldn’t really expect more. I also knew that I shouldn’t have fired a whole lot of questions at him, so I repeated, “Where abouts Taffy?” He replied, telling me that the cattle were in the bush a couple of hours walk from that little lifestyle block that was raffled.

Its relatively easy country, the bush isn’t too thick, and the cattle were red with white faces and didn’t appear to be too wild. He said that his mate at Five Rivers was keen to help and would bring his horse and dogs in his horse float.

“Whoa Taffy!” I said, “I haven’t decided to go yet”. But we both knew, deep down, that it was a new challenge that neither of us could resist. I got hold of my mate Frank at Milton and he was keen. He was a rodeo rider of high repute and mustering wild cattle was something he had dreamed about since he worked with me many years ago.

Meeting at Lake Wanaka

Taffy also had another friend so there would be five of us which should be enough. A couple of weeks later we met at the Lake Wanaka camping grounds. Taffy’s mate Alf from Five Rivers arrived with two horses and three dogs in his horse float. I had the GMC truck with an eighteen foot cattle crate on, with two more horses in it plus my two best cattle dogs. There was also a box of dog tucker and half-a-dozen bags of chaff for the horses.

I had picked up Frank in Milton but Taffy’s other mate Charlie hadn’t arrived yet. I found Taffy talking to his friend, the owner of the camp. I was surprised to see Denise (Taffy’s fiancee) there too, she said that she would be the cook and was looking forward to going back to the little hut by the beach. Taffy’s mate Charlie rang to say he would be held up for a couple of days but would catch up with us there. 

We set off after an early breakfast, over to Lake Hawea and up its western shore, over the little ridge that separates the two lakes to the north eastern side of Lake Wanaka and up to Makaroara. From there it’s uphill all the way to the top of the Haast Pass and then down the Western side, following the river down to the coast to Haast township. This is one of the most beautiful drives over the main divide, especially when viewed from the cabin of a GMC truck.

Aerial drone view, north side of Lake Wanaka at Makarora, South
North side of Lake Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand

Travelling South

After a quick lunch on the beach we travelled south on the only road that leads to Jackson’s Bay where we turn inland and arrived at the little village of Paroa. I stopped there as I wanted to make contact with Mike, the proprietor of the Hotel that we had met on a previous occasion. He suggested that we have a meal at the hotel and stay the night as the track in to the little cottage was a bit overgrown.

This we did and had a great old talk about the raffle and what a difference it had made to Paroa and put it on the map. Somehow, Taffy’s name had got onto the ownership papers of the lifestyle block and he hadn’t known.

Next morning, I said to Taffy, “You go first, it’s your ‘B’ road, take my chainsaw and make it wide enough so it doesn’t knock the mirrors off the truck, I’ll load up the horses.” I caught the horses, who had spent the night in a little paddock behind the pub, took them down to the creek for a drink, and gave them a bit of chaff to firm up the green grass they had been eating all night.

I had a yarn with Mike about the cattle and he said that two or three different blokes had attempted to get them out without success. “You’ll have to be careful,” he said. I was surprised how far they had got down the track, but although I had taken the mirrors off, they had made a good job and not many branches touched the cab.

When I caught up with them, I found that Alf and Frank were riding on the front of the two vehicles with chainsaws in hand and Denise and Taffy were driving. We arrived at the little cottage just before lunch and, according to Denise, everything was just as they had left it nearly a year ago.

Building the Holding Area

Alf, who was a farmer, had brought about fifty electric fence standards and a unit that ran off a car battery, so the horse paddock was made in about half an hour with the little creek flowing through one corner of it. We had a good look around and decided where the holding area should be and where the wings would be most effective. Then we started building, cutting down tall saplings and tying them onto trees using vines, as well as used baling twine that Alf and I had brought.

I had also brought some gates off my cattle yards at home, as the easiest way to quieten cattle is to have them in a small area and move among them, as well as putting them through gates. I had designed the holding area with a narrow waist so that it could be made into two areas. We could put the cattle forward and then open up the back entrance to bring in more cattle if we didn’t get them all the first time.

Meanwhile, Taffy was away looking for the cattle. When he didn’t come back the first night, Denise was worried that he might have got lost or injured or something, but I assured her that Taffy never got lost and was not likely to be injured as it wasn’t steep country.

He might have fallen out of a tree that he might have climbed for a wider view but it was most unlikely. He was probably having difficulty finding the cattle as they had a huge area to forage in, and sure enough, he turned up the next night with good news. There were more than he thought and they were further away than the last time he saw them, but they appeared to be heading in this direction.

It took us a week to build the holding area and the two wings that were about 150m long. They were shaped like a V, the top one followed a little ridge and, as cattle usually tend to break up hill, it would guide them into the holding area of about one acre or perhaps a bit more. The front area, about a quarter of that size, was also finished and had extra rails which were also heavier and stronger, as we intended to put the cattle into there to teach them about fences.

Starting the Muster

At last the day came to test all the theories; we left the camp early all mounted on horse-back, Charlie had joined us during the week with a good team of cattle dogs and his rodeo roping horse and, like us all, was keen to get started. Taffy led the way as he knew the country better than us and reckoned he knew where the cattle would be, he didn’t.

However, he wasn’t far out. We had spread out to cover as much ground as possible and there was a call on the two-way radio from Alf that he had seen some cattle from the top of a hill which should be in sight for most of us. That is the big problem when mustering in the bush as we could not call out loud until we were in position behind the cattle. I think the dogs could smell them because they were now running around instead of following along behind, we had to keep them quiet too as a dog barking now would start the cattle off in the wrong direction.

We joined Alf on his hill and decided on our plan. We would have to go further to the east to make sure that we were getting all the cattle in the mob, so we were spread out over a mile or so when I gave the word over the radio to make a bit of noise. As mustering boss, I’d put myself in the middle with Taffy and Frank either side of me and Alf and Charlie on the wings. I had put Charlie on the hill side, this was the way I thought the cattle would go and his big team of dogs seemed to be in good control and able to keep them in sight.

We started off very slowly as I wanted the cattle to walk and not gallop. There seemed to be cattle everywhere all going in the right direction, ‘fingers crossed’, they keep going that way. By keeping to the higher ground I was able to keep them in sight and by getting Alf or Charlie to move up or back as necessary, to keep them going in the right direction. That was Taffy’s job, navigator, and we could all hear his directions. I had really no idea where we were in relation to the camp as I was concentrating on keeping the cattle together and going forward.

I felt hungry and looked at my watch and was astounded to see that it was nearly three o’clock. I asked Taffy how far it would be to the camp. He replied, “About four hours at our present speed”. I was loath to try and speed things up as everything seemed to be going so well. I had a munch on my lunch as I rode along and then had a feeling that the cattle were moving faster. There was only the occasional bark of somebody’s dog and the odd moo from the cattle but I felt uneasy.

Rough mountain landscape near Lake Hawea, New Zealand
Mountain landscape near Lake Hawea, South island, New Zealand

Lost the Cattle

Suddenly all the cattle disappeared over a ridge, “Can anybody see the cattle?” I asked on the radio. A silence, then four “No’s”. “Up to that ridge quick!” I shouted into the radio. We all took off at a gallop, got to the ridge! No cattle…

“Where the hell have they gone?” I shouted. “No need to shout,” Charlie said, “I think they might have gone my way, there’s a bit of a ravine out to my left, I’ll have a quick look,” and he vanished. Ten minutes later, I heard dogs barking so I called him on the radio, no reply. I called Taffy, “Go and see what’s happened to Charlie.” “I’m half way there,” he responded and a couple of minutes later, “He needs a hand!…. several!”

We all took off in that direction, except Alf who went back at a gallop the way we had come and disappeared over the hill. I could now hear Charlie on the radio saying, “I think I lost half of them, the buggers turned down the ravine and took off at a gallop and by the time I realized what was happening it was too late.” Alf’s voice came out of the radio, “I’ve got them, stay where you are, should be with you in twenty minutes”

Then, we could hear dogs barking and cattle calling from way down the valley. In half an hour they were all in one mob again, but now that they had been spooked they would take a lot more handling to get them home. With five of us in a U-shaped formation we hassled them along, but after the run down and back up the ravine they were starting to tire, which probably was a good thing, although hard on men, horses, and dogs.

Night Falls

As we got nearer to the fenced-in area, it was getting dark and the cattle, us, the horses, and the dogs were all about exhausted, but we recognized the lay of the land and managed to get the cattle in the right place. They followed the top fence along, went through the gap and before they came back we had the rails up and tied on. We met them with dogs barking and men shouting so they stopped before hitting the rails and perhaps breaking out. We had no idea how many cattle we had but we rode round the enclosure for about an hour to settle them down, which they eventually did in the dark. We hoped they would still all be there in the morning.

When we had unsaddled and fed our horses and the dogs we went into the cottage as we called it now, as Taffy had acquired some building materials and added on a couple of bedrooms. Denise had been busy while we were away and had cooked us a meal of venison and five veggies, followed by a steam pudding with proper sauce. I might have known that Taffy would have shot a deer while looking for the cattle and Denise had done a great job of turning it into a five star meal. Five very tired cowboys turned in early and were soon making the roof rattle with their loud snoring.


I was up early next morning to check that the cattle were still there, some were as I could hear them lowing quietly which was a good sign. On my circuit of examination around the enclosure, I only found one place where any rails were broken but it didn’t look as if any cattle had got out. I used a couple of branches to reinforce the rails temporally and went on round. There looked to be a good number of cattle and they were in good condition and didn’t look to be too wild. I was very happy with our efforts.

After breakfast, I got Alf and Charlie to saddle up and see if they could move the cattle into the front area so we could get a count. I told them to be very careful of the bulls and Taffy and I both took our rifles, I had intended to shoot any bulls that gave trouble while we were mustering but the occasion didn’t occur, but in the yards it could be a different story.

There was a huge bull that seemed to be the boss that looked dangerous and he was. He had a go at Alf’s horse but got the crack of a whip on the end of his nose, then he spotted me and turned his attention my way. He started coming towards me, increased his speed to a fast trot. I’m sure he didn’t see the fence between us, but I’d been expecting something like this and dropped him with a single shot between the eyes. We dragged him out with Taffy’s Land Cruiser; he’d make good dog tucker.

Meanwhile, the horsemen had got the mob into the small enclosure that we called the yard and we got a count. I was surprised that we had rounded up one hundred and forty head. While in the smaller yard, we noticed a small bull have a go at the fence, he would back off and then charge it, then repeat the performance. If we hadn’t shot him quickly he would have broken out, it was probably him that had done the damage in the night. Taffy skinned and dressed him and pulled him up in a high tree and we enjoyed steak and beef in many different guises while we were there.

More Cattle

I insisted that when anybody was in with the cattle that he was covered by a rifleman and that there must be two or more men in with the cattle. I was surprised how quickly they quietened down and would go through the gates without any trouble. One morning, I heard a cattle beast calling from way outside the enclosures so Taffy and the three others went out to investigate.

About three hours later they called on the radio to say they had found a mob of about thirty and were on their way in with them. I had to break the rule about always two people in the yard, but I saddled up my horse and moved the mob into the yard and shut them in. I was then able to open the outside rails at the narrow end of the V and ride out to help bring in the new mob.

The use of the two way radios was invaluable for the whole operation and, in this case, Taffy wanted me to be half a mile south east of the top wing. It wasn’t long before I spotted the cattle coming towards me so I moved further south till they were nearly up to me then showed myself. They veered away exactly as we wanted them and only closed in when they got to the wing.

They ran along it with us close behind and were through the gap into the big enclosure before they realized where they were. Charlie went up and opened the gate and the big mob came out and joined them, a very easy addition to our mob.

After tea that night, Taffy said he wanted to have a look further to the east as he hadn’t been in that area. He wanted to go alone but I persuaded him to take a mate as it would be safer and they could cover more country. They arrived back after dark, with the news that they had found a mob of about fifty and had started them coming this way, but had to leave them as it was starting to get dark.

Double Take

Taffy, Alf, and Charlie took our fresh horses and left before daylight next morning. At ten o’clock, Taffy called on the radio to say they had found them again and would like some help. Frank and I moved all the cattle into the yard, opened up the back entrance and took off to go and meet them.

Around noon we spotted cattle grazing on a leading ridge in front of us so we moved down into the gully so we would be able to get passed them. On attaining the ridge again I was surprised to see them in the same place, so called Taffy to find out what was going on. He said, “Where the hell are you? I’ve been trying to call you for half an hour.” I told him in which direction we were from the single pine-tree we used as a landmark.

“We’re on the other side of it and our cattle are going well,” he said. “So are ours,” I replied “You got some too?” There was surprise in his voice, “Must be twenty five or more,” I informed him. After some discussion, we decided that we would probably meet up on a ridge between us so we worked our cattle down into the valley and they seemed to get onto a cattle track that was heading in the right direction.

“Probably leads down to water,” explained Frank, “Could be the creek near the yards,” and sure enough our mob made a bee-line in that direction. We joined up with Taffy’s mob a couple of miles before reaching the yards and because it was ‘our’ country we knew which way they would go and had a man in strategic positions and they were in the enclosure before they  knew it. So we had another hundred or so, A lot more than we had expected.


We had a long discussion after tea that night, Alf, Charlie, and I wanted to get back to our farms. We had been away longer than we’d planned. We’d also planned to drive the cattle out but we now reckoned that there were too many for the unfenced roads and we would probably lose too many on the way.

Alf suggested that we could truck them to his place at Five Rivers but Frank, who lived in Milton, reckoned that Alexandra was the nearest big sale yards and there were two big transport outfits there. We left Taffy and Denise at the camp and went down to the pub to use their phone, but didn’t get passed the bar for a while. We all seemed to have developed a terrible thirst.

Frank rang a mate of his who was a stock agent and when he heard that we had 270 cattle for sale he became very helpful. He said things were a bit slack at the moment, there weren’t many cattle coming forward so there was a good demand.  He said he would arrange transport and a holding paddock and we were to ring him in the morning to find out what arrangements he had been able to make.

We returned to the bar and had another couple just to congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

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