The 309 Road runs from Coromandel to Whitianga on the North Island. It is called that because it used to take 309 minutes in a horse-drawn carriage to go from one town to the other. It is an unsealed gravel road with lots of bends 22 km in length travelling through mostly virgin forest.At the far end of the road is the 309 Honey farm, which produces a manuka honey famous throughout New Zealand. Manuka is a moderate sized tree with tiny spiked leaves and fragrant white flowers. Captain Cook made tea from the plant. Bees harvest a rich dark honey from it.
Several kilometers from the start of the road near Coromandel there are a number of run-down buildings dating back to the early settlers. A little ways past that on the road you come to a clearing where if you slow down wild pigs may come out to greet you along with an assortment of crowing roosters and peacocks.
When we arrived we see a man across the road spreading feed on the ground on a hillside and dozens of coarse mostly black-haired pigs of all sizes scrounging, snorting and scoffing down the feed.
We stop to watch and the man beckons us forward. Some forty or fifty pigs surround him along with dozens of piglets. Intermixed with the pigs are roosters and other assorted wild birds that eat alongside the pigs. A peacock wanders past.
Stuart, as we learn is his name, has a wild-unkempt look about him like his wild pigs.
The first thing you notice is that he is bare foot amidst the trash, mud and pig droppings. His big wide-splayed feet with chunky toes grip the ground.
He has a crop of wild unmanaged grey hair, bad teeth, unshaved whiskers and clear blue and direct eyes.
He is apparently somewhat of a character in these parts. His father acquired this large tract of land after the Second World War. He was raised here in the wild environs along with his brother and sisters. It was a perfect childhood he tells us. They spent their days damming the stream and playing amidst the countless rabbits, pigs and sheep.
His brother now lives with his wife and daughter a short distance away.
Captain Cook and other early explorers brought pigs to New Zealand. A supply of pigs were carried on the long sea voyages. Some were eaten but some were let loose on remote locations the idea being that they would propagate and on return voyages there would be an abundant supply of meat. Not always a good idea. The pigs Cook left in New Zealand did propagate. In fact they liked it so much, they thrived but to the detriment of many of the native birds and flora. Now they are generally considered a nuisance and are openly hunted and also eaten. Some call them “Captain Cookers”.
In the wild, boars here can reach up to 440 lbs (200 kg) and are actively hunted by sportsmen. Fortunately Stuart’s pigs aren’t quite as large.
Currently Stuart has 43 pigs not counting the dozens of babies and piglets scurrying around.
Their hair is coarse and rough. You can pet them. Some of them if you scratch their bellies will turn over like contented dogs.
Stuart knows each of his pigs individually. Each has his or her own individual personality and habits. Some come up to greet him every morning. Even for the short time we are there, we recognize some characters.
While we are talking, Stuart suddenly yells at a small black pig that has wandered onto the road at a blind curve a short distance away.
“Get off the road!”
The pig turns and looks at him, seems to understand and then scurries off into the brush.
Some people are constantly trying to kill or pinch (steal) his pigs he tells us. One woman in town purposely hits them with her car. She says they shouldn’t be on the road.
Guys come in trucks and stop and feed his pigs and then pinch them he says. Sometimes they wait for him to leave, so he enlists his brother’s help to watch while he is gone.
Is he bitter? No, he tells us. Some people are just like that. Most are like us.
“How about the police?” I ask.
“It’s not important to them,” he says, “They tell me there’s nothing they can do.”
“It must break your heart when one goes missing.”
“It does,” he answers. “When one of them doesn’t show up at night, you know something has happened. They each have their special spot where they sleep, and when a spot is empty, you know something bad has happened.”
“That sow,” he points to a narrow black bundle of coarse fur, “came home one day with an arrow sticking out of her head. I thought I would have to put her down. Then a few days later she showed up without the arrow. It was like she was saying to me I didn’t need to put her down. She stayed in the caravan (a discarded trailer) for about a month. She had a litter at the same time so they were nursing and it was hard for her. I poured honey into the wound. It went down to the bone. Eventually there were maggots in the wound and I poured in more honey and the maggots came out.” The sow walks by. I can see an ugly cruciate scar on her left jaw
“Where do the pigs sleep?”
“Some of them sleep in the bach (pronounced batch).” Bach is a New Zealand word for a small holiday house often a beach house. In this case the bach is a dilapidated building about 12 X 12 feet made out of corrugated steel. Mud, trash and pig droppings surround it. A crude block chimney is propped up against one side.
“Others sleep in a shed and others across the road in the caravan.” He points to a broken-down trailer across the road. Where does he sleep? He sleeps in the bach too. He’s gone through a number of mattresses. The pigs destroy them. He points to two muddy shredded mattresses along side the bach. Now he sleeps up on a bunk bed. When it starts to get dark, the pigs all come in on their own. They come and go all night leaving to go to the bathroom he tells us. On cold nights, he builds a fire and tends it through the night. The tiniest pigs curl up closest to the fire sleeping three deep. He has to be careful stepping over the mass of sleeping pigs at night to stoke the fire.
Stuart tells us at one time there was a TV in the caravan. I can still see a drooping aerial poking its way above the caravan’s roof. Stuart in jest (I think) says the pigs were particularly fond of the movie Babe and the pig scenes in Charlotte’s Web.
Pigs are smart he tells us. “They can open doors and cupboards.” He tells us of one sow who opened the cabinet and removed a sack of potatoes. She took one potato and ran off up the hill leaving the rest of the pigs to take the blame.
While we talk, the pigs snort and occasionally fight. One boar tries to hump a reluctant sow.
The sow darts across the herd, the boar clinging to her back. Stuart intervenes. “You get away from her. Leave her alone.” He corrals the boar away. The boar moves around to the other side and Stuart intercepts him again. “Just leave her alone!” The boar slinks off but the rest of our time there, we see him slinking around off to the side eyeing that one particular sow.
There are dozens of piglets too. Stuart knows each one, their mother and when they were born.
Stuart is authentic. Simple but not stupid. Friendly. When we thank him for his hospitality and telling us about his pigs, he says it’s been his pleasure meeting us. He is an ambassador for the wild pigs. In our modern times, it has become a cliché but I think of Thoreau’s words.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
How refreshing to see someone truly doing their own thing.
The pigs have finished eating and are now scurrying away into the bush and up the hillside on countless pig trails.
Before leaving, once again we talk about how sad it must be when one of his pigs is taken or goes missing. Stuart becomes quiet.
He pauses for a long moment.
“They’re my mates,” he says.