A few years ago on a father-son hunting trip, George’s son was shocked at the small amount his father could carry and suggested he get some packgoats, after reading about them in America. George has always been keen on animals; as a child, if it crawled, he kept it, so it took little persuasion to decide to follow up on his son’s suggestion. ‘We do a lot of tramping, and although we’re quite minimalistic with what we take, we’re still carrying 12-13kg each. We’re not as young as we used to be, so having packgoats means we’d be able to carry a daypack and the goats could carry everything else.’
Just over two and a half years ago George and his wife Hilary got four 5-day old goats; two Boer, one Saarnen, and one Toggenburg, all neutered males. The original plan was to keep two for themselves and train two up to sell on, but they’ve become attached to them. George says, ‘it’s like having children, you can’t sell off the excess ones.’
They’ve all got different personalities and abilities. Milo – so named because he has an all brown head like the well-known chocolate flavoured drink – is the herd leader; his job is to protect the herd. He usually travels at the back of the pack, but if anyone falls behind he bleats.
Corrie is the ‘cuddle goat’. He loves being cuddled, scratched and groomed. ‘You can often use him as a pillow,’ says George, ‘but he’s a bit lazy as a goat.’
Ash is the ‘sensitive one, but the most athletic and one of the fittest’.
Tec is at the bottom of the pecking order of the four, but naturally goes at the front of the pack. ‘He’s one of the stronger goats, and will follow you anywhere, right on your heels. He’s also Hilary’s favourite,’ says George as he smiles. ‘Ash likes to go in front too, but only when he remembers to.’
They’re not fully grown yet; classed as teenagers and in training. George says: ‘They still need to bulk out a little, get more muscular and improve their strength and endurance before they can start carrying any real weight. They’ll be classed as fully grown at four years old, when they’ll be able to carry around 20kg. It’s a long term financial and time investment, but worth it. The longest trip we can do at the moment is seven days, any longer than that and the weight of the food is too much for us to carry, so having the goats will allow us to do extended trips into the mountains.’
Training starts at a very young age, introducing them to as many experiences that they might encounter on the trails as possible. Goats are naturally scared of water, so George and Hilary had to get them used to crossing rivers. George says: ‘Apparently you only have the first three months to get them used to water, otherwise they’ll always remain shy of it, so we started by standing them in a fish tray full of water and feeding them their milk. We’ve also got a little stream that runs at the bottom of our property and we used to walk them through there, getting them to follow their milk bottle.’
They also need to get used to different land surfaces like scree and rock, and weather such as snow, as well as build up their fitness and endurance, just like humans do. ‘We take them out and about in lots of different environments, making sure we include plenty of hillwork; that slow and steady grind. The longest day they’ve done so far is 13 hours which included a fair bit of elevation. They were a little tired at the end of that day,’ George laughs. ‘At the moment they just wear empty pack saddles, but we’ll start to build up the saddle panniers with weight slowly.’
They’ve mainly kept local to Geraldine so far, choosing areas depending on the permissions for pack animals detailed in each area’s Conservation Management Strategy.
The goats enjoy hiking and being out in the hills. They’re not led, rather they follow, with either George or Hilary going at the front, and the other behind. George says: ‘People think they’ll just run away, but that’s just like expecting your family to run away! We’re their mother, father and goat leaders. They’re herd animals, so hate being left alone and get really distressed if they’re separated. They know and respond to their names, and they’ll do what you want them to do, although,’ he laughs, ‘only if it ties in with what they want to do.’
The only thing they don’t enjoy are the three-wire bridges; bridges with wire netting on the bottom that you can see through. George says: ‘They look down and don’t like it. They’re fine with any solid floor bridges; apparently dogs are the same. They will cross them, but need a bit of encouragement.’
The goats have their own wardrobes: wearing high-vis so they can be seen and avoid being shot by hunters, and emperor-purple raincoats when the weather is less than ideal.
Overnight tramps see the goats tethered outside, but George tells of the first time camping with them: ‘we were idealistic, thinking ‘we’ll set up tents, the goats will be outside, they’ll hear us inside the tent and be happy, we’ll get up in the morning and off we go.’ In reality, 11pm at night the goats were jumping on the tent and trying to get in and join us. It got to 1am and we had to un-pitch the tent, pack up everything, move to a bigger area and tether them up so they wouldn’t jump on the tent.’
People love to see them out and about on the trails, and they always attract attention. George says: ‘Goats are ideal pack animals for several reasons, but the most important one is that they’re human-friendly and not intimidating. We often get asked if people can take photographs and if they can touch and pet them. They always make people smile.’