Hard man, hard country, hard life

Bill Cowie is a hard man living in hard country. He is so hard, in fact, that the Grim Reaper has never had much luck in his dealings with the 58-year-old Tarras farmer.

He has survived more than 20 serious accidents in a life of farming, hunting, and adventure. He has broken all his ribs, crushed his pelvis, broken his neck, severed arteries, dislocated his shoulder, smashed his knee, nearly drowned twice - yet always lives to tell the tale.

Tarras character Bill Cowie.
In short, life has given him a hell of a hiding, but Bill Cowie just keeps on going. He makes few concessions for his age: "I just push things a bit much," he admits. "I'm taking things a wee bit easier, but not much. I still do stupid bloody things."

He farms the Ardgour Valley, in the Upper Clutha, where the summers are hot and the winters brutal.

His main farming interest is deer - he has nearly 300 - but you will always find a menagerie on the Cowie farm: sheep, cattle, horses, ducks, pigs, peacocks, turkeys, and Jack Russells, which the Cowies breed.

It was to his stud "Ardgour" that he imported Appaloosa stallions Shamilar's Bobbie Breeze and Utah Fort Knox from Australia. These days, however, his interest is restricted to a handful of Appaloosas and Quarter Horses, and some warmbloods.

His parents, John and Ada Cowie, moved to the district in 1914. They had 13 children, with only Bill now left farming. He has farmed the family property in his own right for more than 20 years.

He was schooled in the district, along with the rest of the Cowie clan. "Forty-seven Cowie children went through Ardgour and Tarras Schools continuously for 67 years. When my youngest child, Nicholas, left Tarras School, that was the end of the era. An old minister used to say that if you kicked a matagouri bush and a rabbit didn't run out, a Cowie kid would."

Everyone knows Bill Cowie as Wong, a nickname he picked up from his school days. "I did a school play and I had to play the Chinaman. The name's stayed with me ever since. I had to have an umbrella up to keep the rain off me, or some bloody thing. I was just an idiot really, hopping around with the umbrella. When we had our school reunion about 20 years ago, I had to do it all again.

"My wife doesn't like it at all because she's Filipino, but it's near enough for me."

He went to boarding school in Timaru, but hated it, lasting only two terms. He started work as a rouseabout at a high country station near Kingston before going tractor driving at Ohau for about four months. He then joined the Lindis Pest Destruction Board for five years. "When I started there were thousands of rabbits. In the finish we couldn't get enough to feed our dogs. Now, we're back to where we started. They're every where. Three hundred run off a lucerne paddock the other night. It's unbelievable."

Wong went shearing for 20 years, but hated it. "I'm a high country man. I like to get way up in the hills."

Between shearing jobs he would shoot deer and go fencing in the winter, but the family farm was begin ning to take more of his time.

"As soon as I got the farm I put up deer fencing and got a licence to deer farm, although I had had deer before then. Pet deer. I was a meat hunter. I used to shoot a lot of hinds. I'd open them up and get the fawn out, but you've got to be quick. When they got up to $3000, I sold them all."

He believes he was one of the first to take velvet off a live deer - a stag nicknamed Old Horrible.

He loves the country and the farm. "It's terrific ground. All mine is irrigated. I had 600 sheep, 300 deer, 20 horses and 20 cattle on last winter. That's pretty good ground to do that. It's good healthy soil, but it won't grow any thing unless you've got water."

His early foray into deer farming was successful, but not so in other areas. "I had a hell of a hiding with cattle."

He had taken an artificial insemination course which was bearing fruit, so to speak: "I had fantastic results. I had 17 different breeds of exotics at one stage. I was one of the first to have simmentals. When the arse fell out of cattle, I was selling them for 18 pence a pounds. It was bugger all.

"I had all these fancy buggers in the paddocks. I gave most of them to my neighbour. I had a brother who took some and grazed them in his rough valleys, but they never got to be worth anything.

"I just kept on shearing."

Even today, the farm is not self-supporting. "There is not a living in the farm, by the time you pay the rates and irrigation, but it will be once I get completely stocked up with deer."

He aims to build numbers to 500, but suffered a setback a few days ago when $18,000 worth of deer bolted from a paddock and headed for the hills.

"Somebody left the bloody gate over the road open. It could have been me, but I'm bloody sure it wasn't. We had not long put the deer on that side of the road."

A paddock which had 49 18-month-old spikers (males) was reduced to 16 by the time he discovered it.

"Two came home again this morning. They should all come home again within the next month because it's mating season. They'll be lining up against the fence trying to get in - that's if some bastard doesn't go and shoot them on me, but there's no panic at this stage."

He earns extra money through a variety of jobs, mostly deer fencing at present. "I've been doing fencing for bloody years. There are a lot of people going into deer farming. I charge $12 an hour, which is pretty cheap, but I reckon you're better doing it and coming home at night than charging a lot more and having to move all round the country to get work."

He is, it transpires, a dab hand with explosives - or blasting, as he prefers to call it. "That's why I'm so bloody deaf. You wouldn't believe some of the things I have to do. Once, I had to blow the concrete floor out of an oats shed. The roof was still on, with no holes in it."

It is clear from the cluttered paddocks around his home that Bill Cowie is a hoarder. "My junk," he confesses. "Yesterday, I brought home a bloody good turnip box off a roller drill. And a Van guard motor. A bloody good Vanguard motor!"

Why? "Otherwise, they'll dump it. It's bloody good stuff. It's the old story: one man's junk is another's treasure.

"All my neighbours, if they want something, they just come and borrow it. There is enough to go around everybody, really."

Has he ever thrown anything out? "Not much that's any good," he says.

"My wife doesn't like my wheeling and dealing. She can't understand it at all."

Such hoarding has given him a collection of eight tractors, two bulldozers, two or three windrowers, and "I don't know how many cars", not to mention three International trucks, three Land Rovers, and three Bedfords.

Bill Cowie has always lived on the edge, so it comes as no surprise that he falls off it occasionally. "I've had my fair share of accidents. In fact, I've had heaps of them.

"I should have got drowned twice. I once got tipped in the Clutha in flood. I ran along the bottom with my leg in plaster from another accident. I just kept on swimming. It was half a mile before I could get out."

Another time he was swept away with his father-in-law on his back while crossing a river in East Matukituki. "I had him on my back, and two rifles. I was in thigh gumboots. He held me under for a start. I set off and swam. We got to the other side and it was all bluff."

They finally managed to make dry land.

The adventures continued, such as the Cessna plane that aquaplaned and nearly flipped, hurling him off the drum of petrol on which he was seated. That same trip he slashed a wrist artery while cutting up a deer after dark, but did not realise it until he returned to camp.

"Another day I was trying to get down to a chamois. I slipped and managed to stop only a few feet from a 1000ft drop. I was digging my rifle barrel in to stop me."

He has been hurt in a motorcycle accident, busted his ribs when bucked off a bulldozer, and come to grief in his four-wheel-drive. "I got knocked out when I rolled my Land Rover once and I don't remem ber some things as I should."

His favourite short-wheelbase Land Rover is the stuff of legends. He once had 13 big stags strapped on, but the record is 19 deer. The effort did, however, bust two suspension springs.

"My jetboat is pretty famous, too. I can carry a tonne of meat in her, but she's dynamite to drive. You can't turn sharp or that."

Its nickname, the Flying Shithouse, stems from the outhouse-like structure the previous owner built on it to shelter from the weather.

Bill Cowie considers himself a hunter at heart, and yearns for the day he can return to his old haunts. "I used to fly into a deer block in Mount Aspiring. I'd camp there for three or four days. It was nine minutes flying in, or nine hours of walking."

He started when venison fetched just six pence a pound, most of it bound for export to Germany. His best haul was 27 deer.

"Near the finish it was real good money, and so enjoyable, too; right up in the bush and mountains - no-one to annoy you but the helicopters coming through."

He has four sons from his first marriage, and now lives in the three-bedroom family home with his second wife, Connie. Life has been disrupted lately, with a new ceiling and fresh paint going into the kitchen.

"The guy that built the house did a terrible job. The plumber did a damn sight worse. It's made out of sundried bricks. It was built during the Depression."

But then Bill Cowie is not one to hang around the house.

"Every morning I go out that gate at 7 o'clock and come home about 5.30. I'm always busy doing something."

But what next, is anybody's guess.