When I came to New Zealand, I never thought a cow named Gilly would change my life forever.
I had three WWOOFing experiences during my time in Aotearoa, but I must admit, Gilly’s involvement in the third one made it the best.
All three experiences occurred in close quarters with each other, but I’d arranged the final one before I left California.
I was initially contacted by Ruth, who I’m insistent is one of the kindest souls I’ve ever encountered. After my week with her, she arranged for me to help out at the Stubbs’ farm.
The Stubbs consisted of the matriarch, Ann, the patriarch, Alister, his brother, Antony, and their three children Ben, Biddy, and Angus (who ran the glowworm caves), with all the spouses and children that accompanied them. They all lived on the farm, but had spread to every corner of its 1500 acres to keep their distance.
Alister and Ben tended to the farm the most, but Alister had fallen off a cliff and shattered his leg. Having no cell service, he lay bleeding in a ditch for eight hours before they found him.
His injury left Ben with all of the work, which I quickly learned was no easy task.
I arrived at the farm the night before I started work so I could get to know the family. The following morning, after Ben and I cleaned the sheep shed, we joined Ann and Alister for morning tea. For a man with a broken leg, Alister proved cheerful, and Ann one of the finest hosts I’ve ever met. They welcomed me with open arms and thankful hearts for offering my help.
When we’d finished, Ben said we had to feed the cows and move one of the herds to another paddock. He had various appointments throughout the afternoon that cut into his work time, and my first day was to be relaxed and introductory.
Ben drove around on a quad, and I sat on the back as he guided me through the curvy paths. He could have driven with his eyes closed, but hardly anyone knew the layout as well as him.
Before we started, Ben gave me a small tour around the land by his parent’s house. He revealed that Guillermo del Torro had wanted to film The Hobbit series here, but Peter Jackson changed his mind. My imagination instantly imagined the orcs running over the jagged rocks, the dangers that lay on this untouched land, and my mind lost itself in fantasy.
Then real life happened.
We stopped in the paddock of cows that needed to be moved, and I waited while Ben rounded them up. We stood by the gate as they walked through, but when the last one passed, Ben said, “Twenty-eight… Uh–oh.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Uh–oh?”
“I’m supposed to have twenty-nine. Hang on, let me count again.”
A few minutes later, he sighed and said, “Nope. Twenty-eight.”
I then learned that the cows on the Stubbs farm weren’t actually theirs; they were just paid to raise them. It wasn’t unheard of to lose cattle along the way, especially during the winter, but a conversation with the cow’s owner about its death was never an easy one to have.
Because of this, Ben and I embarked on a search for that cow.
Although we didn’t have to search the entire 1500 acres, I firmly believe it happened in the largest paddock. We hiked down to a river, followed it to a waterfall, up a massive hill, through the gorse that ripped at our skin, into the rocks, through the fields…
No sign of the cow.
I was incredibly out of shape and completely unprepared for a search this in-depth. As this was supposed to be a quick feed, neither of us had brought any water, either.
After nearly half an hour of endless search, panting and exhausted, we found it.
At the bottom of a gully.
Stuck in a pool of water its exact size.
“Ah, there you are, Gilly,” said Ben as we approached.
The balanced mixture of mud in the water made it almost impossible for the cow to free herself.
“Oh, well, now you’ve gone and done it, haven’t you, Gilly?”
I had never been so close to a cow as we sat next to it. As Ben was not prepared for a rescue, I found myself in the middle of an adventure that reminded me just how far away from home I truly was.
Needing some tools to help us out, Ben told me he had to go back to his house. In the meantime, he said my job was to stay with Gilly and make sure she didn’t drown herself.
Before he left, Ben pulled some leaves off a nearby tree and told me to feed them to her. If she didn’t want to eat, that was all right — so long as she didn’t drown herself.
As soon as Ben disappeared, I found myself staring into the eyes of the frightened beast. She made efforts to get out on her own, but looked at me like I watched her die with glee.
If only you knew of my helpless effort to save you.
With steep hills surrounding the water hole, I sat next to her as best I could. The hillside provided a further hindrance, but Gilly still attempted to free herself. She mooed at me in a way that asked to free her from her misery as I pet her. She’d wounded her spine on the branch of a tree when she fell, and she shivered from the cold.
What am I going to do?
I didn’t know where I was, or how far away Ben’s house was. He could’ve been gone five minutes or fifty. What would I say to him if Gilly did drown herself? She made a few unsuccessful attempts in Ben’s absence, but one success would have ensured her death.
Meanwhile, I pet her, prayed for her, and tried to feed her. I sang to her to calm her, and prayed for my own rescue as much as hers.
It turned out Ben’s house was only five minutes away, and he wasn’t gone ten minutes before he returned with a rope, a shovel, a chainsaw, and an ax. With those, we had to dig enough of an area out of the surrounding hillside to be able to tie the rope around the cow’s neck, turn it a full 180 degrees until it faced the way out, and then pull it out with the quad.
“You see them saving cats and dogs out of drain pipes on TV,” Ben muttered as he swung the ax into a tree root and yanked it out of his way. “This? This is real life.”
Once we had dug enough space, Ben looked at me with sad eyes. “I hate to have to tell you this, but I’m going to need you to get into there with her.”
As the coming winter had frosted the air, I laughed at his “joke.” He couldn’t expect me to get in there with her! I’d get hypothermia!
When he tied the rope around Gilly’s neck and motioned for me to join her, my heart sank.
When did my life come to this?
I soon found myself in a half-frozen mud pool with a rope tied around a 900–pound cow’s neck.
According to Ben, my next task was to make sure the knot that he specifically placed in the dead center of the cow’s jaw did not move.
Too far to the left, she’s strangled. Too far to the right, her jaw breaks. I was to stand in the pool and help curve Gilly in the right direction while holding the knot steady under her chin and avoiding her backside squishing me into the hillside.
Few moments in my life have brought me this much pressure. How would I feel if Gilly died right next to me? What if it was my fault and Ben made me call the owner and tell him what happened?
We need to get this cow out alive.
Somehow, the first phase of the rescue went well.
I climbed out of the pool soaked in mud to help with the next. Gilly, it turned out, had lost all will to live. After we had spent half an hour turning her in the right direction, she lay perfectly still.
Each time Ben turned on the quad and pulled, I held the knot right where it needed to be. Gilly’s eyes bulged, and her neck stretched so thin I thought it would snap despite my help.
At last, after an hour of pulling, stopping, reassembling and planning our next move, we pulled Gilly free. Afraid she’d find her way back in, Ben chopped down some of the smaller trees to cover the water hole.
Having lost the will to live, Gilly plopped in the spot we left her and refused to move. Unable to do anything else, we fed her, left her, and hoped she survived until morning.
The next morning, Ben couldn’t contain his shock when we found her alive.
Though my socks and shoes got soaked beyond use for the week, alas, in the end, Gilly walked free.