Just north of Christchurch lies a slice of WWOOFing heaven on an alpaca farm just outside the small town of Kaiapoi. Seriously, it’s paradise. We could start with my private apartment. Nestled in the gardens of the main house, I had two bedrooms, a glorious Queen bed, my own kitchen (including a fridge stocked with bacon and ice-cream) and a lounge with Internet and TV, all serviced with full central heating and air-conditioning (I used both). After a month of camping, I almost cried.
In return for this accommodation and having all my meals cooked for me (meaning that my own kitchen was essentially a glorified midnight snack facility), I got to play with alpacas for a week. Apparently this counts as ‘work’, in the same way that looking after a room full of fluffy kittens is technically work, but obviously not really. After 3-4 hours of helping out on the alpaca farm, I’d wander around to see if I could make myself useful in other ways, but was mostly ordered to sit and watch the cricket on TV or play poker with the family, while exotic cocktails were thrust into my hands – the latest results of the molecular gastronomy experiments going on in the kitchen. I was even allowed to take a BMW out when I needed to go anywhere (I found excuses). Suffice to say, this was the greatest WWOOFing ever constructed by mankind.
Working with the alpacas themselves was a surprising highlight. They’re fascinating animals, combining the wooliness of sheep with the idiocy of sheep, the flock mentality of sheep, and the irascibility of sheep. Occasionally they’re friendly, but mostly they run away from you (handy when you’re trying to herd them) or spit in your face (handy when you’re concerned that there isn’t enough chewed up grass plastered to your bare skin). They like it when you feed them hay and they really, really hate it when you cut their toenails. My guru Charlotte (a human, not an alpaca) and I spent many hilarious hours in the paddocks: one of us with an alpaca in a headlock, gripping their neck and their ear to prevent them from moving, the other with a pair of clippers, trying desperately to hold on to a wildly kicking leg.
Apart from cutting toenails, one of my biggest jobs was to assist with spit-offs. In this glorious activity, the potential pregnancy of females is ascertained by shoving them one-by-one into a pen with a horny male and seeing if they’re up for it. A pregnant female will tear around the pen in a frenzy, desperately fleeing the chasing male and usually spitting venomously in his (or any) direction. At this point, they’re quickly released and their likely childbearing duly noted. A female who isn’t pregnant will generally put up a bit of a fuss as the male tries to mount her, before eventually acquiescing and sitting down in preparation for the mating. At this point, the male has to be dragged back off her, screeching in protest at his increasingly severe case of blue balls, while the female – disappointed – is shoved back through the gate.
Usually the mating doesn’t take place at that point (for example, if the female is the male’s mother :|) but sometimes it’s allowed. Alpaca mating can take around 40 minutes (great, now I’m being made to feel inadequate by camelids) but the males can’t always be trusted to pay enough attention to what they’re doing (pfft, men!). In particular, they don’t always manage to get it in. They’re happily thrusting up and down on top of their mate (as she stares exasperatedly out into the mid-distance), but sadly they’re nowhere close. To check that they’re actually, y’know, doing it, you literally have to look for penetration, and then potentially jostle the male around a bit until he works out where to put his junk. Not many things make you feel quite as dirty as when you’ve played an active role in alpaca sex.
Beyond acting as a camelid matchmaker, I helped restrain alpacas so the vet could perform ultrasounds, and assisted with dressing a crea’s injured leg. Crea are baby alpacas – carried in their mother for 11 months, and up and walking within a couple of hours once they’re born. Alpacas are fuzzy and adorable and – despite their grumpiness – even-tempered enough to make great pets. They’re also bred for their wool and for competition. The best male specimens can be sold all over the world – particularly to Australia and Europe, with the prospect of China as a large future market. It wasn’t that long ago that they arrived in New Zealand from South America, but they’re certainly here to stay. And because I’m sure you’re wondering, you know what alpacas say when you tell them they’re being shipped to the other side of the world? Alpaca bag.
AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. No, but in all seriousness, they can’t speak English.
Snapshots of NZ