Middle Eastern Sheep Brothel Whips: The Adventures of a Small-Town Taranaki Saddler
When Mark the Saddler opens up shop for the day, he doesn’t know what he’s going to find.
Some days he repairs old saddles or old furniture, other days he makes whips for the local brothel.
Mark Cullimore, or Mark the Saddler as he is better known, moved into a shed on the outskirts of Inglewood about a year ago.
Saddles hang from the rafters, a sign outside says ‘toot for service’ and Mark is dressed in a bush shirt and rubber boots, the perfect uniform for a man who has spent most of his life to work the leather and the earth.
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At 66, he’s tried to retire from the saddle game a few times, but says as soon as you hear there’s a saddler in town, people keep coming in with work.
Mark’s journey began at the age of 14 when he left school and accepted a position as a Federated Farmer Cadet on a farm near Cambridge.
“My brother was a rancher, that’s all I ever wanted to do when I was growing up, it was just to be like my brother and be a rancher, so that’s what I did,” a- he declared.
“Everything was done on horseback back then, there were no motorbikes, so you had to maintain your own saddles, dog collars and stuff like that.”
As his leatherwork developed, other shepherds began to ask him if he could fix a saddle for them or make them a dog collar.
“After a while I thought I wasn’t going to do this for free anymore, so it became what I do now.
“At the beginning my job was quite difficult, there was no finesse in everything I did at the time, then after a while it just needed to improve and when you start charging for things you must do it properly.”
One of his favorite things about the upholstery business is the variety of work people bring in – from steering wheel covers for local hotrod cars to people’s antique furniture.
But Mark says it can also be a strange undertaking at times.
“When I had a shop in Kerikeri, the local brothel came all the time and asked me to make whips and other things.
“People would come and say, ‘Look, my husband likes to be ridden, can you saddle him?’ So I measured him for a saddle, so his wife could come home and ride him with this new saddle I made for her.
But the strange happenings in Mark’s life weren’t limited to his leatherwork.
He and his partner Debie, who worked as a veterinary technician, moved to Australia around 25 years ago to earn some money.
From there, Debie found herself in the Middle East working for a sheikh near Doha, Qatar.
“It’s really strange, the sheikh there, they look at everything by pictures and say, ‘I want this’.
“One day the sheikh looked in a book and saw these cows and said, ‘I want a dairy unit developed’, and said to these people in Australia, ‘you bring whoever you want, and I pay you and pay for your plane ticket.
Shortly after, the same sheikh looked in a book and saw a sheep.
“So Deb phoned me and said, ‘Listen, now he wants to develop a sheep farm here, can you come? So I went and started doing this for him.
Although it was a great experience for them, Mark says it was also “a weird place.”
“They would build these beautiful roads all the way through their farms, beautiful tarsus roads, and they would have a game where they would chase their employees in their Rolls-Royces and Ferraris.”
Back in Australia, there was “a bit of a stench” about the cattle being exported to the Middle East and the way the cattle were being treated.
“It kind of ended our relationship with the sheikh there, because things got a little difficult, and it was also during Al-Qaeda, so there was a bit of a turmoil between the Australia and the Middle East.
“We were the only two Europeans on that farm at the time and we had these sneaky looks, so we got by. But it was a good experience.”
After the Middle East they worked in Australia before moving to the South Island where they ran a dairy farm and dairy goat farm for a time.
“Then we came here, because Deb’s kids all live here, mine live in Auckland and we just wanted to be closer to them.”
The couple raise a pair of thoroughbred racehorses, ‘Ricki Ricardo’ and ‘Here comes Lucy’ and wake up at 4am every morning to take them to Stratford Racecourse.
Although his upholstery is busy, Mark says his work is “a dying art” and there aren’t many people getting into the business.
“I don’t know how long this would go on anyway, because things are computer-based these days.
“The saddles are all cut by the thousands at a time and they are assembled in five minutes flat. It used to take you two weeks to make a saddle, so I don’t think my trade would last long once I’m gone. It’s a shame, I guess.
But despite an influx of cheap, overseas-made goods, Mark says people are still keen to fix their gear, “people have their favorites that grandfathers left them, and they want to be restored.”
He grabs a saddle and demonstrates how to ‘rip the guts out’ while explaining that saddle makers often used to sign their name and the date they made the saddle underneath, ‘little pieces of history’ .
Sometimes saddlers would roll up pieces of newspaper and stuff them underneath for stuffing.
“I really like taking them out and reading the news in Australia 80 years ago.
“I’ll never get rich from this, but it keeps me busy, it gives me something to do. I think I will continue to do so until the day I die.