Her hands are weathered from the demands of the outdoors, but her fingernails are painted. Laura Douglas is counting off a list of misfortunes to a group of young women gathered beneath snow-capped mountain ranges, on a farm in Kingston, south of Queenstown.
One summer, she confesses, she miscalculated a boat ramp while backing a trailer into Lake Manapōuri, bellying it over the edge and leaving queues of holidaymakers waiting for over an hour. As a teenager, she destroyed a wheel rim on her father’s brand new car by continuing to drive with a flat tyre. She also admits to making mistakes in the dating world.
We all exchange knowing laughs, appreciative of Laura’s honesty. After all, it’s the mistakes she’s made that have brought us all together.
We’re a mixed group of women standing out in the crisp southern air carrying the earthy smell of hay.
This is the base for Laura’s venture, Real Country.
Three years ago, Laura booked a one-way ticket home, swapping stilettos and a successful Auckland corporate career for gumboots and the great outdoors.
She grew up in these parts, where hunting, fishing, horse riding and chipping-in on the family sheep farm were favourite pastimes. Returning to grass roots was an important decision for Laura and restored a diminishing sense of wellbeing. It also gave her a business opportunity, offering a taste of rural New Zealand through a range of activities including what brings us here today: The Southern Girl Finishing School.
Traditionally, a finishing school is a preparation for entry into society. The one curated by Laura isn’t all that dissimilar. It aims to build confidence in girls and women and to teach good old Southern nous.
Laura reckons rural people have a natural advantage over urban folk, due to their often isolated lives.
“Rural kids are often left to work things out on their own because we can’t easily get someone in to help or fix it,” she says. “Extra hands are always needed, and kids play their part working on the farm doing coordinated and physical tasks, like fixing fences or drenching sheep. So, by the time we grow up, we’re streaks ahead of our townie friends. We’re used to problem solving and have more confidence in our abilities to do unfamiliar tasks because we’ve always just given it a go.”
Throughout the day, Laura imparts lessons and life skills such as how to reverse a trailer, jump-start a tractor, secure loads with strops and tie-downs, crack a stock whip, tame an animal, target shoot and wire a fence.
Her trusty co-workers Barry the pig, Buster the lamb, Lad the farm dog and puppies Katy Perry and Faith Hill are never far away. They’re quick to remedy any of the visitors’ nerves with gentle bunts to our ankles, angling for a belly rub or a scratch behind the ears.
Over a barbecue lunch, we chat about life’s ups and downs and how it’s not always easy and straightforward. Life had been difficult, Laura explained.
“I was deeply unhappy and unsatisfied with my life; it wasn’t rewarding or fulfilling to work in an office for someone else and to feel like a replaceable cog in a big machine,” she says. “People say I was very brave to leave my old life to build Real Country, but I don't see it that way. To me, it was necessary and even if I failed, at least I would be closer to doing something worthwhile.”
She attributes her practical farming upbringing to holding her steadfast through uncertain times and believes that confidence is built by performing unfamiliar tasks and being prepared to try. Giving it a go, basically.
Many who stand beside me today have a direct affiliation with farms; the skills learnt will translate literally in their day-to-day. One woman from Wellington recently married a Southland farmer and shares her reason for being here: to offer better help, after driving the 4WD through wire fences when trying to lend a hand and creating more of a mess to clean up.
I find myself taking a metaphoric approach. Living in central Auckland, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be required to reverse a trailer loaded with hay bales through a narrow gate, or crack a stock whip, but I can already feel my chest puff up with pride at the thought of at least knowing how to, if push came to shove. I’d also have a firm hand on the situation if I suffered a flat tyre in a remote location or came across a frightened animal on the road.
Reported by Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue