Eight hours on the stand
Cam Ferguson leans against the gate of the far stand of the Moketenui Station woolshed and breathes out.
He looks at his left hand, the fingers covered in bandages. He looks down at the floor beneath him, smooth after years of sheep being dragged across it. He looks at his moccasins, a well-used pair.
He doesn't speak. It is 6.59am.
"One minute mate," referee Doug Oliver says.
Today the tough Waipawa 27-year-old will try to break one of shearing's toughest records; the eight-hour lamb record.
Eight hours of pure endurance and application, both physically and mentally. He's been shearing every day for the last two weeks at the King Country shed to prepare – but today's the day.
Ferguson's the reigning Golden Shears and shearing world champion. In the last 18 months, almost out of nowhere, he's become the hottest property in shearing.
A dozen other shearers, stationed around the pen behind the gate, watch him. The men, fellow shearers, have been assembled to make sure the front pen is always chocka with lambs.
Three of them are armed with stopwatches to make sure Ferguson's on track time-wise too. The current record is 735. He'll will have to shear a lamb every 37 seconds to break it.
Ferguson's their man. They look at him like soldiers look at their commanding officer before he leads them over the top. They'd would do anything for him. Nothing is said. Nothing needs to be said.
Thirty seconds. Old pro David Fagan watches Ferguson mentally prepare himself. The two have been rivals recently but there's no animosity. Fagan's been mentoring the young gun in the leadup to this attempt. He knows how tough a day like today will be. He's been there. He's got absolute faith in Ferguson.
Twenty seconds. Ferguson doesn't acknowledge the words. All he's thinking about is that first lamb. That first blow. He stretches his legs.
Ten seconds. The woolshed, with around 40 people in it, is dead quiet. All eyes on Ferguson. Right now he's Sir Ed at Base Camp, Sonny Bill waiting in the backline, Usain Bolt in the starting blocks.
He's all heart. All guts. All Waipawa. All Ngati Kahungunu.
Ferguson shuts his eyes. His mind is clear. He's focused.
"Five ... four ... three."
No movement. Completely calm.
"Two ... one..."
He opens his eyes. Let's do it.
Ferguson swings open the gate and it begins. The first lamb is grabbed under the front legs and flipped on to its back. He drags it to the stand with an understated urgency.
Ferguson reaches for the cord and pulls. The handpiece grinds into life. The lamb's head is pushed between his knees and he cranes his back down.
First blow of the day is to the belly, like all will be, then to the inside of the back legs. Two long strokes up the side then on to the head, a blow to the scalp and the wool flies away. Up the neck, a long even blow , and over the back.
Harvey Pairama, braced against the gate, counts him off on the stopwatch. He's known Ferguson since he was a little fella. "Thirty-three ... four ... five ... six ... seven," he says.
To the back again, and down the back legs. Over the shoulders. Inside again, and out. Former Tuakau shearer, and genuine hard nut, Digger Balme, also with a stopwatch, calls it "time ".
The last blow to the back, then down the chute. The first one down.
THE woolshed at Moketenui Station is like the Eden Park of Kiwi shearing. Located five minutes out of Benneydale heading toward Te Kuiti, it's owned by Peter Bird and has been the home of tumbling records for the last decade.
Four big boards hang above the entrance with record tallies by Stacey Te Huia, Matt Smith, Marg and Ingrid Baynes. Te Huia and Ingrid are here today, helping out.
It's a fast shed, thanks to the sheep on the station. The lambs to be used were selected from more than 8000. Drafted, redrafted, and drafted again, 1400 of the best looking lambs were herded to the shed for the record attempt. Every lamb must have at least 0.9kg of wool on its body.
Referees will assess the lambs in 40-sheep mobs on skin cuts and wool remaining on the body.
A score is given out of for each mob. If it's less than 12, Ferguson's fine. If it's more than 15, the referees could potentially stop the record attempt.
Ferguson's day will be divided up into four two-hour runs. There'll be a half-hour break between the first two runs, and the last two, and an hour for lunch in the middle of the day.
The shearer will grab a shower with every break, stretch and get liquids and food into him.
TWENTY minutes in and Ferguson's got his rhythm going. The boys in the back fill the pens. The front pen cannot slip below five lambs in it; it would cost Ferguson precious seconds going deeper to grab one. The handpiece falls down on the 27th lamb.
The shed darkens. The power has died. This could be a disaster.
Ferguson retreats to his family, with wife Teresa and baby daughter Kalyah there. Fagan gets on the phone. A generator is on its way. But how will this break affect the shearer? All his timing out of kilter, all his mental organisation.
If Ferguson's bothered, he's not showing it. It's not in his blood.
The son of a Pakeha shearer and a Ngati Kahungunu rousie, Ferguson's a big strong unit with a solid frame. A quiet, almost shy guy, Ferguson likes to let his hard work tell his stories.
The thing you notice first about him is his eyes. Eyes that pierce you with intensity, fearlessness. Look at his eyes and you see why he's a champion.
The last 18 months had been big ones for Ferguson, who has been shearing since his early teens.
In March, the Te Aute College old boy became the youngest Golden Shears open shearing champion in 21 years when he won a spectacular final at his first attempt in Masterton. Before the comp, the TAB ranked him fourth most likely to win the shearing championships. An outside chance.
He was up against some well-known shearers, including 16-time open shearing champion Fagan and Dion King, 2006 open champion and current world record holder for the most lambs shorn in nine hours.
But he beat `em all, going on to represent New Zealand in the world shearing championships held in Wales in July, which he also cleaned up in. But he's not always been at the top. Not at all.
Hine Aramoana, watching her grandson shear for the first time in a shed, remembers his "naughty days" back in Hawke's Bay.
"He used to get up to a bit of trouble," she says. "Some bad stuff. But he's got out of that.
"He's got a beautiful wife and a beautiful little girl now," she says. "He's worked so hard. I'm proud of him."
The generator arrives and before long, he's back into it. The day will now finish at six, not five.
By the end of the first run he's shorn 186, but three have been tossed because of cuts or too much wool being left on their bodies. Some early nerves. The first smoko shoots by and he's back into it.
The assembled crowd, sitting on wool bales around the shed, are your classic cross-section of rural New Zealand. Labourers, shearers, contractors, digger drivers, old farmers and their long-suffering wives. Hard men. Honest sorts. There's a big Central Hawke's Bay contingent up too, to cheer on their boy. They're a vocal lot. "Come on boy." "Come on Cam."
The stereo pumps. It's loud. In any record attempt, or any long day at the shed for that matter, music is crucial. It's the shed's heartbeat.
The music's high tempo. It has to have that constant, driving beat. From Lady Gaga to Audioslave and anything good that pumps.
Record-holder Ivan Scott looks down at Ferguson from a spot up on a wool bale.
scott is looking nervous, and is reluctant to chat. The lean Irishman set his record in 2008, and is clearly worried it might fall today.
"He's going well yeah," he says. "That power break this morning would have been tough for him."
Scott knows what's going on in Ferguson's head. He knows what focus is required. "You're just thinking about the job itself. Shearing this lamb, then the next one. That's it yeah."
Time passes quickly. The second run is ending. Ferguson will knock off 188 lambs in it, with none taken out for poor cuts or too much wool.
He makes the shearing look like poetry, true poetry, because like any art-form, the shearing isn't the paint or the brush that's slapped across the canvas. It's all the moments that lead up to it. Ferguson has had all of those. Every up. Every down.
His legs moving as he shears, the sweat dripping from his forehead, the combs across the lamb's skin, the wool falling to the floor – like Pablo Neruda's lines of love, his technique is simple, elegant, understated, and above all, honest.
Off to lunch, a big feed of chops and kumara, some stretches, a few sage words from Fagan who's been sharpening up Ferguson's combs.
He selected his two favourite combs for the attempt. These are changed every hour – with each sharpened four times during the day.
Fagan reckons the young buck of Kiwi shearing's looking good.
"He's done the hard yards," he says. "He's got the right focus. You just have to block everything out."
Ferguson's boys in the pens are feeling confident too.
Rod Sutton, a record breaking shearer from Porangahau, reckons he's on track, but wants the boys to continue the good work they've been doing in the pens.
"We're half the battle," he says. "We've got to have this right or Cam can't get anything done. If he goes searching for lambs, that's precious seconds."
Into it again. Ferguson remains silent. Focused. The run passes, he's shorn 187, meaning 179 will be needed on the last run for the record.
He starts without fanfare, grabbing the gate with the same urgency as he did in the first run. The minutes tick by. He changes combs for the last time at 5pm. The crowd is massive now, filling the shed which had reached 29 degrees Celsius in the late-afternoon.
Ferguson's tracking along well, but it will be tight. The boys know he's going to beat the target, but he needs every lamb he can for the final figure in case some are taken off the tally for cuts. The crowd is so loud.
Ferguson shuts it all out. He exists only in the moment. His mind was clear. He doesn't feel the heat of the handpiece, or his muscles screaming. He could hardly hear Harvey, Digger, or any of the crowd. Everything is automatic.
IT is 5.59pm. "One minute to go," Oliver says.
Ferguson doesn't respond. He just reaches for the gate again and slams it open.
Another lamb under the legs, another blow to its belly. Pairama calls out the count. "10 seconds bro ..."
The same long strokes up the side. Then the head, the neck. Same as ever.
"Twenty ... ' To the back again, and down the back legs. Over the shoulders.
"Thirty bro ... one ... two ... three ... "
Pairama's starring at Ferguson's face. His eyes. Pairama is beaming, his heart pumping. He's inspired. "Come man, smash it out."
Inside again, and out. Same as always. "Four ... five ... " The last blow to the back. "Six ... seven ... "
He pulls the cord, grips the lamb deliberately as ever, and pushes it down the chute. Ferguson stands and looks at Pairama. They embrace. The crowd cheers.
Seven hundred and forty-two lambs. A world record. Ferguson smiles and looks around. His family, the boys, Fagan, the judges, the crowd smile back.
He still doesn't speak.
He doesn't have to. His handpiece has done that for him.