When he was a Taranaki dairy farmer, Dad would occasionally enlist the support of the owners of big machinery to do useful stuff on the farm and otherwise entertain him. This included bulldozers to flatten and fill things up topographically. It included backhoe diggers to dig drains and holes. Use of gear like this was generally one off in nature as the earth, once moved, generally doesn’t come back. In those days the Resource Management Act had not been invented.
Dad was an avid spectator when such gear arrived and was busying itself moving his farm around. He could even be a deckchair supervisor when needs required. He loves a sideshow like this.
As well as the one-off big gear, there was also the regular foray of a hedgecutting contractor who owned and operated a device that could have starred in a Mad Max movie. This contraption probably inspired the development of the more genial rotary lawn mower. It was about 100 times bigger than a rotary mower -- one that cut vertically, rather than horizontally. The uncovered spinning blade was about 3 metres in diameter. It was powered by a massive V8 whose motive force was transferred to the blade by unshielded belts. The frame that held all of this together was made of welded steel girders that were raised and lowered hydraulically to adjust the angle of cut.
All of these thrashing mechanicals sat atop one of those flat-nosed, all-wheel-drive ex-World War II trucks. The operator sat in a cage clad in steel sheeting and wire mesh to stop them being festooned with hedging material flung hither and yon by the blade in full flight. A competing venture had a similar contraption mounted on a WWII Bren gun carrier. These things would have weighed many tonnes. All very Apocalypse Now it was. Health and safety in employment matters had, in the 1960s, yet to trouble the imaginations of regulators.
South and central Taranaki farms are adorned with hedges for protection from the prevailing salt-laden southwest wind. These hedges are either barberry (Berberis glaucocarpa) or boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum), hardy species whose prickles easily inhibit the progress of animals larger than rabbits. Both species are classified as pest plants despite their ubiquitousness and utility.
Left unmanaged, boxthorn grows to about 6 metres in height, and at least a similar distance in width. A friend of Mum and Dad’s bought a property at Otakeho, near Manaia, that had a house in a hedge on his property that he didn’t know about until the blade of a motorised hedgecutter tore it and the hedge to shreds.
Boxthorn’s thorns are impressive, capable of penetrating even the stoutest of tractor tyres and the soles of unwary gumboots. Ouch. Mum and Dad’s farm had hedges comprising both of these species of hedge.
So it’s easy to see the appeal of motorised hedgecutting equipment, particularly once this had been invented by enterprising engineers in the 1950s. The owners of such machines roamed from farm to farm, usually working their way steadily along the highways and byways of this region. What they charged was regarded as good value, particularly when compared to the time and effort required to do a similar task with a hand-held slasher. There were few cutting alternatives.
Discarded hedge material was heaped up and burned, a task generally left to the property owner. Palls of smoke followed the path of the hedgecutter around the countryside.
The operators of this gear were legend. They stared death in the face constantly, usually through a haze of engine fumes and tobacco smoke. Eye and hearing protection was unheard of, yet few met with serious harm. Luck and indeed life can be good like that at times.
Half of Mum and Dad’s road hedge was beneath the local electricity supply lines. When the hedgecutter was working beneath, the wires were tossed around furiously in the ensuing breeze. Larger pieces of wood and lengths of fence wire tossed upwards into these would cause sparks and even power outages. A concrete power pole along that stretch to this day bears a scar where the tip of the furiously rotating blade connected with it.
The neighbours across the road had a hole in the end of a concrete-walled shed that had been inadvertently penetrated by a wayward hedgecutter blade. The blade in question had earlier parted company with the rest of the machine when its attaching axle sheared through, walking a couple of hundred metres along the countryside before coming to rest in the shed. Other than the shed, nothing else was harmed, although a flock of turkeys was a bit unsettled. Removing the blade from the impaled shed required the services of a rather large tractor.
Although functional, hedgecutters were problematic and unforgiving. They were also top heavy, thanks to the mass of steel girders, rods, pulleys, a massive engine and its fuel tank all built well on top of, rather than within the chassis of the large truck that moved all of this around.
South and central Taranaki may look flat to those who drive through it, admiring its cows, scenic vistas and spectacular alpine grandeur. And it sort of is, apart being dissected by rivers and streams, sometimes with steeply sloping banks leading into them. Mum and Dad’s place was no exception, covering a topographical spectrum from gently undulating to quite steepish. Operators of any machinery were expected to take due care when roaming across its slopes.
One day the hedgecutter operator had just finished trimming one stretch of hedge, had powered down the large flailing blade and started his transit to the next stretch of hedge. He turned his machine a bit too sharply on the face of a slope and it toppled over, landing on the still spinning blade. Upon contacting the ground, the blade stopped turning. Unfortunately the Laws of Physics came into play, with the circular momentum of the blade being transferred to the truck now sitting on top of it. The operator had the presence of mind to recognise his predicament and kill the engine. However the truck spun for several revolutions before slowing to a halt.
When all of this had come to rest, the door of the cab swung open and the operator fell out, stumbling to his feet before wandering away in a strangely spiraling path. Before we could hurry over and ask how he was, Dad and I had to first recover from our hysterical laughter. We’re caring like that.
Soon after we had attached a tractor and righted the dislodged hedgecutter, its operator was off and away to finish the last of Mum and Dad’s hedges before starting on the neighbour’s. We then had to pile up and burn the clippings before having to wait a few years for the next sideshow.