In a country like New Zealand, where the population sits at somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-10 times as many sheep as people, it's reasonable that there would be sheep shearers around every corner. Combine that with the natural human tendency to compete and it just makes sense that you'd also find sheep shearing competitions, which is exactly what Casey did in the Hokitika public library. Randomly perusing a book, Shear Hard Work by Hazel Riseborough, she noticed continuous mention of Golden Shears and the competition in Masterton. A little bit of research further let us in on the little secret that not only was the competition happening during the time we'd be passing north from Wellington, but the day we were reading about it was also the last day to write or fax (yes, fax) in for tickets. So we did.
What made it a double win was that this year the Golden Shears competition (annual) was also hosting the World Championships - next to occur in Ireland in 2014. Excellent. Think World Cup. Think Olympics. Think athletes from 25 different countries descending on New Zealand to prove their abilities on the world stage. Then tone it down a bit (a lot) to a community gymnasium in a little town with not a whole lot else going on.
The morning half of the competition included several NZ-centric rounds, all part of the Golden Shears part of the event, though no less exciting than what was to come later. We got our feet wet watching some machine shearing heats (listen above) followed by the surprisingly tense and exciting (seriously) wool pressing championships, first team, then solo men's. In the team event, the local Goodyear brothers, Jeremy and Vinny, went against two guys from the South Island and won by a mile. In the solo event, it was 7x Champion Jeremy vs. the younger Vinny. What is a wool pressing event? It's readying the baler, piling in 160kg of raw wool by hand, cinching it down, properly securing the bale and removing it. Typing that just now doesn't begin to illustrate it, but watching them actually do it, there's no question they're every bit athletes.
Listen in to that event here:
And the results:
The afternoon was perhaps slightly slower paced, with only one event at a time and all eyes on the main stage, but the stakes were raised. World Championship Round One for Woolhandling (another ridiculously athletic event aimed at high speed gathering and separating of different wools), Blade shearing (the old school scissors), and Machine Shearing. We learned the ropes of the scoring and judging (speed, a judge on stage tracking mistakes made while shearing, and then another judge behind the stage to grade the end result of the sheep) from some of our neighbors in the audience who, totally by chance, happened to be the American team, including the only female blade shearer in the competition as well as an older blade shearer hailing from Boston.
Finding events like this is like stepping into a whole alternate universe sometimes. It's easy to think of a wool sweater that itched when you were a kid, but seeing an entire culture immersed in the art and science of raising, shearing, handling, and processing wool from sheep is something that, I would venture to guess, never even crosses most of our minds, despite the fact that it's important and worthwhile and, in places like this, entirely entertaining.