Trusty tractor at farmer’s side over decades, across world

Ian Begg of Cromwell, reliving memories of his think-big 1993-94 world record tractor trip across...
Ian Begg of Cromwell, reliving memories of his think-big 1993-94 world record tractor trip across several continents. PHOTOS: MARY-JO TOHILL
A tractor, is a tractor, is a tractor ... but then there’s Ian Begg’s tractor. The former Wyndham Station owner talks about how this humble piece of farm machinery shaped his life. Mary-Jo Tohill reports.

People ask him: "What are you?"

He answers: "I’m still a farmer, cos I’m nothing else."

Ian Begg, the former owner of Wyndham Station in Southland has been many other things — orchardist, importer, real estate agent and developer. But the farm boy remains.

The 75-year-old was reminded of his roots when he attended Wheels at Wanaka at Easter, and was reunited with the tractor that took him 27,000km across the globe, and set a world record for the longest journey by a tractor in 1993-94.

Ian Begg’s 1976 Zephyr Sprite caravan.
Ian Begg’s 1976 Zephyr Sprite caravan.
However, the 1981 Ford F-1900 is more than just a tractor. It represents memories.

Mr Begg’s story really begins with helping develop the 5000 acres of tussock-land bought by his grandfather John Campbell Begg in 1903 into an arable farm.

He had fond memories of life on the station on the Mokoreta River, and while it was a fantastic place to grow up, it was also primitive.

"I was brought up with rat holes in the corners of the room, and I thought all houses had rat holes, otherwise how else would the rats get around?"

The farm had its own power station. His grandfather brought back the technology from his time in Australia. But the house was far from tropical.

"We’d be scratching ice off the bedroom windows, and we had a bucket of cones that lit the califont to heat the water so we could have a bath."

They built a new house in 1954, and like many houses in Southland, it was a product of the Korean [War] wool boom.

Ian Begg’s 1981 Ford F-1900.
Ian Begg’s 1981 Ford F-1900.
It was always tractors that spun his wheels. They had three Fordson Major tractors and two Willet single furrow semi swamp ploughs.

They would start ploughing in February for the following spring — any later than that and the land would be too wet and slippery.

It was a good thing he liked driving them because they were his life from when he left school — John McGlashan College in Dunedin — in 1961. His grandfather died in 1965 — "and we got hammered for death duties".

"It nearly put us off the farm, so to avoid that happening again I took over Grandfather’s estate," he said.

"I wasn’t that interested in the livestock management. I was more interested in the development programme.

"But when you drive Fordson Majors for hours, day after day, one’s mind wanders.

"And I wondered, instead of going round and round, what if I was to go in a straight line on the bloody thing. Why not go around the world?"

The idea first occurred to him as a bored 18-year-old, and he tried to get sponsorship from Massey Ferguson for the attempt. But when that was rejected, he had to wait a few decades, until he had the time and money to finance it himself.

By then, he had decided to give orcharding a try in Cromwell, in 1983.

"By the time I got to 35-36, I’d pretty much developed all that there was to develop. We’d gone from 3000 ewes to 9000 ewes. And I’d made myself work harder, and I thought this is silly. I’ve gone from 9000 lambs to drench to 12,000.

"I’d always been interested in Central Otago, from going there for holidays, and I thought if I go to live there, I can always go back to Wyndham for some of the time."

Eventually, the father of three decided to lease out the farm, and that was the state of affairs for 27 years, until it was sold 18 months ago.

"In the end I didn’t have family that would want to take it over."

So it was sold and turned into a large dairy farm run-off.

He would have preferred to sell it to a sheep farmer.

"I didn’t want to sell, but the time had come."

He admitted not having the farm had left a big gap in his life.

"I’m missing having a bit of dirt.

"I’m missing the night sky, because all the houses have got street lights and the light spills so you can’t see the stars."

There is stargazing in the family. His grandfather was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society and co-founder of the Beverly-Begg Observatory in Robin Hood Park, in Belleknowes, Dunedin. It fitted in with his philosophy to reach for the stars and to dream big.

When he had more or less moved to Central in the 1980s, he became fascinated with the development of the Clyde Dam and Lake Dunstan. He bought property at Cornish Point, across the Clutha/Kawarau River from the Cromwell Heritage Precinct and thought, "this is going to be lakefront".

"Everyone hated the idea of the lake. But I could always see the potential."

He was the original developer of Pisa Moorings, just outside Cromwell.

"I bought it [the land] in the pub one night on a handshake, and got it rezoned."

And from then on, "I threw my gumboots away".

It was right about then he started to explore the idea of a worldwide tractor trip with renewed vigour.

"I thought, Christopher Columbus went east in a ship. How hard can it be?"

Often famous last words, it was nevertheless the same philosophy he used for growing apricots and going tractoring, although he naturally knew much more about the latter than he did the former. The F-1900 tractor "wasn’t the greatest choice because it was so slow".

However, Mr Begg believed in the tortoise and hare philosophy. Its top speed was 20kmh and easy to pass, which was good from the safety aspect, he said. By 30kmh it got harder and more unsafe to pass. But to him it was more about the journey and the people you met than the speed you got there.

It would be difficult to do the journey today just because of the higher volume of truck traffic, he said. Back then it was the perfect thing to do through Route 66 in the United States, because it was basically the old motorway before the freeways were developed. And the Ford and cute 1976 Zephyr Sprite caravan it towed across the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand attracted attention wherever they went.

The trip had not yet made it into the Guinness Book of Records, despite the assurance by the editor in 1994 that it was the "longest journey by tractor ever".

All these years later it was still not in the book.

"I followed up but got nowhere."

Pam Crawford, who died of cancer two years ago, was his partner in crime and named in the record.

Mr Begg’s tractor got an airing when he did the Cure Kids Tractor Trip about 10 years ago.

He had not souped it up like many of the tractors involved, and the other participants may have thought his was frustratingly slow.

He left the fast stuff for his rally and race cars. Instrumental in developing Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell, he was an avid motor sporter of all kinds and had been rallying since 1973.

"But if you’re going to go on a tractor, you’re going to go slowly. Otherwise what’s the point in doing it?"

- By Mary-Jo Tohill

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