A Horse Called Cow

After years of listening to other people talk about it, I eventually went to New Zealand. It was a long time ago and it was during one summer. I was there for twenty four days altogether and saw a great deal of both the main islands. I’ve returned to the South Island since and seen places I missed on my first trip. But I’m sure I could return to the Land of the Long White Cloud for as long again and still not have seen anything like all of it. Most of you who have been to New Zealand would, I’m sure, agree.

Which was your favourite island – the North or the South? That question has been asked by so many, seemingly wanting confirmation of their own views. I find it difficult to answer. The South Island has its wonderful mountains and rain forests. The North Island has its magnificent thermal areas. And yes, both had their disappointments for me, because expectations had been built too high by some of my friends. You probably already have your own favourite parts of New Zealand, perhaps even if you haven’t been there in person!

So, let me tell you something which you may not have seen or heard about. It is almost certainly not still there, because so many years have passed since I saw it. It was a horse named cow. On one side anyway!

Along the stunningly beautiful road to Milford, where the rain forest makes you drool, there is a great deal to see. Water cascades down its twisting and turning and plunging courses, through chasms and gullies, over rocks, sometimes meandering more slowly along more tranquil landscapes. Mountain peaks soar high above, today piercing fluffy white clouds, tomorrow shrouded in forbidding grey swirls of precipitation which makes the fungi, lichens and tree ferns shine with life. A cheeky and inquisitive Kea bird in a roadside car park uses its unbelievably strong beak to vigorously attack a plastic grocery store bag which a thoughtless tourist has left hanging from a tree.

Along this magical route there is a turn-off. Eleven kilometres after emerging from the one-in-ten gradient downward run through the solid rock 1.2Km long Homer tunnel, there is another road leading into the Hollyford River. It took me to Gunn’s Camp five hundred metres above sea level with its old cabins and signpost proclaiming “NZ’s MOST IMPORTANT PROJECT – HOLLYWOOD-WESTLAND ROAD 80K”.

This was a political message far away from the eyes of New Zealand’s then leaders in Wellington. And, since they tend to stick to the major routes, it was also a message unseen by most tourists travelling to or from Milford. Not everyone would have shared the view that a road should be constructed through from here to the Westland region, and it was a somewhat surprising message to find at a place where trampers – hikers, walkers, trekkers, bushwalkers if you prefer – could camp. But, no doubt, the proponents had expressed their message in other ways as well as on this little seen signpost.

But I hadn’t come to see this signpost, or to consider the merits of a new road. I had come looking for a horse, supposedly called “cow”. I had read a throwaway comment in my 1991 Lonely Planet Guidebook and thought I may as well take a look, as I was so close. And there it was. Not close enough to get a decent photo and, seemingly, camera shy as it kept moving and hiding each time I pointed my camera lens in its direction. But I did get one image which proves the key part of my story to be true. Painted on one side was the word “COW”. On the other side, of which I did not manage to get a photo, it read “HORSE”.


Why? The answer was simple. The horse’s owner, one Murray Gunn, was worried that shooters aiming at “anything brown that moved” might mistake his horse for a deer, unless he labelled it. After painting “HORSE” in large white letters on one side of his favourite horse, he just decided to paint “COW” on the other side! Apparently if you walk the Hollyford Track from Gunn’s Camp, your guides might also tell you that this Fiordland character said “city slickers wouldn’t know the difference and sometimes he needed the milk”.

The horse called cow was just one of the many tourist attractions in New Zealand when I first visited. Not as famous as many others, but interesting nevertheless.

By way of a postscript, Murray Gunn is also famous for having presented New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Helen Clark, with a memento after she decided that, perhaps, free trade in nuclear arms with the USA may not be the most beneficial thing for her country after all. Murray Gunn died in 2014 at the age of 89.

– Brian Rope


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