And now for something different

Edited version originally published in Rod & Rifle magazine.

The bush around me was quiet. Peering down the game trail into the dusk I knew I wouldn’t see anything. By the river I sat to watch the light fade. I laid back in the gloom of the bush edge and looked up at beech leaves falling silently like snowflakes. A grey robin joined me. I had seen them throughout the day, until I had the feeling it was the same bird each time. The sky purpled and then darkened as I glassed the flats. Over the valley the moon rose, nearly full.

I sighed, standing on aching knees, cold now from sitting in damp clothes, frustrated at the last three days. It was too early for roaring in the Kiwi Burn. The blood rushed to my feet and I was momentarily light-headed. As I walked back to the hut the feeling returned to my legs and the moon illuminated the tussock as if by streetlight. In the morning we would walk out. We were going to Fiordland next.

A wedding had been the reason to return, its timing at the end of March the deciding factor. For two years overseas I had missed the bush. An old friend from home was keen to hunt the South Island with me while I was back. Then, shortly before leaving Cairo, a serendipitous phone call; we were offered a wapiti block after another party pulled out.

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I lay in my sleeping bag and listened to the rain drill the tarp. Drops bounced out of the puddles, hitting the tent at an oblique angle. I shifted my attention from the sandflies on the mesh to the water on the fly. In the moment it took my eyes to adjust the droplets appeared as spheres floating in space. A foot away, Andrew read his Kindle. Mine had broken. I returned to flicking sandflies. Andy brewed up and we drank another tea. Then I lay in increasing discomfort waiting for a break in the weather to take a leak. At 7.30pm we listened to the mountain forecast – more rain – and I brewed up again from inside the tent and made two freeze-dried meals. From across the lake came a bugle, the first we’d heard all day.

In the times between the rain we hunted. We left camp before dawn, walking through the bush by headlamp, returning after dark. In the meantime we traipsed through the trackless wilderness, thrilled to have so much country to ourselves. It took roughly an hour to travel one kilometre on the map but this equated to at least two kilometres on foot as we followed meandering wapiti trails and traversed obstacles. With access to the tops restricted by bluffs we mostly hunted the valley floors, long and narrow, where one gust blowing our scent ahead of us could spoil the day’s hunt. The worst travel was over fern covered moraine fields. The mossy boulders were tough to walk over and the crown fern concealed holes and fallen logs. Some were rotten and collapsed underfoot, others would smash against the shins. Spiders wove their webs at face height in the fern. Bush lawyer and other vines had to be passed carefully, pushed aside like opening a gate. Elsewhere we became adept at reading the mud, guessing whether a misstep would mean sinking ankle deep or up to the knees. Hook grass was plentiful and climbing uphill it would catch in our arms and beards, as well as our legs. When we stopped to rest the sandflies would descend, competing with the hook grass for space on our skin. We had been told Wapiti River was a relatively easy block.

Despite the challenges we saw animals most days, including several young bulls. We discussed at length the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation’s criteria for a trophy, the way hunters justified shooting lesser animals by reference to supposed red deer genetics, and what our own standards might be. We vacillated between arguments. After investing so much it was tempting to argue that a trophy should be in the eye of the beholder, particularly since the animals we saw were the biggest we’d hunted. On the other hand we decided that hauling a set of antlers out of Fiordland should be a once-only job. The impossibility of harvesting all the meat didn’t sit well either. It would have to be a special set of antlers to justify leaving an animal to rot.

Regardless, to hear a bugle through the mist, plaintive like a howl, provided motivation to keep going. Getting in close was the highlight of the trip. One afternoon Andrew roared a stag into a frenzy while I crawled up what verged on bluffs towards roars which ended in grunts like a gorilla’s. One of his sentinels spotted me first. I froze and then slowly rolled behind a slight ridge. As I stood behind a tree the young animal advanced to investigate. Barely two metres away he caught my scent. He bolted downhill, so alarmed that he fell down a bank. Roars, nearly continuous now, still emanated from on high. I snuck up another 20 metres, panting now. Another spiker spotted me from metres away but again broke downhill. Then a final bank stood between me and what sounded like a monster. As I crested the rise I chambered a round and stood to see the stag bellowing less than five metres away. The stench of stag was so strong I felt like I was smelling his breath. Through the scope I saw three top tines on one side. The antlers were narrow though and I lifted the bolt. I roared and ran towards him. Confused, he retreated a few paces but roared back. Again I roared and charged him and he took off slowly, still not winding me. Shaking, I checked my rifle and started back down to Andrew. He was standing where I had left him, mystified, wondering at the animals that had crashed past and the confusing series of roars. We ate lunch back at the river while a pair of blue ducks fed in the rapids. As we shouldered our packs we spotted the stag, 200 metres away up the hill, silently watching us.

The last morning we woke to a bull splashing at the lake edge opposite camp. We had listened to him bugling most nights but he had been high, in bluffs, impossible to approach. Snow overnight had brought him down. A big animal but not a trophy, his bugles were both a farewell and an invitation to return.

***

We had a weekend to get back to Wellington and decided to drive up the West Coast. Leaving Te Anau before dawn on a frosty Saturday we had hopes for a quick hunt up one of the innumerable river valleys that SH7 crosses. From Haast onwards we speculated at the number of animals in every likely looking catchment. We whipped our heads around at every Toyota Hilux Surf we passed parked on the side of the road. “They’d be a few animals up there,” one of us would say. “Yeah, I reckon,” would be the reply. The ferry was booked for Sunday afternoon though and by the time we reached Hokitika we conceded that a successful hunt in unfamiliar country was improbable. We drove on up the coast, marveling at the endless bush.

Restless in Wellington, I borrowed a car the day before my departure and headed to old hunting grounds in Rimutaka Forest Park. I arrived before the gate opened at 8am and shortly afterwards I was jogging along the Five Mile track. The bush smelled fresh in the morning cool, slightly pungent with the clean smell of decaying leaf litter. Bellbirds and warblers sang their morning chorus. The bush was exotic after Fiordland; nikau palms and punga, along with tangles of supplejack. The ratas were still in bloom, red flowers fading to orange. My mind wandered back to my first tramping trip, along the same track some two decades earlier. My big sister had carried my pack but I had wanted the trampers we saw to know that the tiny pen knife dangling from the zipper was mine. I recalled my dismay at the long-drop toilet when we reached the hut, a squeamishness I never entirely conquered.

With no need to consult the map I left the Orongorongo valley, immediately alert to the sounds of the forest and to the dry leaves crunching under my boots. The wallows were still where I remembered them but hadn’t been recently used. The muddy edges were dry and the sediment slowly settling in the water.

Suddenly a stag above me, 30 metres away. I loaded and fired into his neck. Rather than drop on the spot he ran off. I was confident of the shot though as I listened to him crash off. Expecting to find blood where he had been standing I instead found nothing. No obvious hoof prints lead away so I visualised his path based on my glimpse of him fleeing. In places the bush was so thick I would only find him would if I stood on him. I followed my nose, nostrils straining at the faint musk of stag until it blended with the fermented smell of the beech. Eventually there was nothing. Had I missed? I was uncertain but after two hours of searching and rerunning the scenario in my mind there was nothing left to go on. I quit the hunt with the consolation that at least I had seen no blood and perhaps I had pulled the shot.

Without much hope for further hunting I continued on, enjoying the walk. Further along I heard a moan from a tight gut below me. Then a gust blew down into it and there was silence. I guessed he had winded me. I sat in a sheltered spot and listened to a kereru flapping overhead. I caught a glimpse of it flying upwards into a stall, momentarily stationary at the apex of its trajectory before plunging earthwards. A fantail flitted about on a nearby pepperwood bush. I grew sleepy in the dappled sunlight. The sweat cooled on my wool shirt. I wouldn’t see hear anything more I decided. That was ok.

Turnaround time approached as I gave a final roar into the headwaters of the creek where I had heard the stag. Almost immediately two moans floated out across the valley. I retreated downhill to get the breeze right. The bush engulfed me as I stepped off the ridge, which dropped into a creek choked with fallen trees. The two animals continued roaring as I waded through the undergrowth. Even forgoing stealth the going was tortuous. An hour later, I’d closed the distance to the loudest stag from 200 metres to 20. An opening in the bush provided a field of fire through which I could see ferns moving. I moaned quietly to get the stag’s attention. He moved and I saw brown through the green. The fur materialised into the chest of a deer standing broadside. I worked the bolt and rested the crosshairs behind the shoulder. The concussion of the rifle reverberated across the valley and when it rolled away I could hear him kicking his last. The other stag kept roaring.

There was no elation as I picked my way over to the fallen beast. He lay in a tangle of vines, antlers wrapped in supplejack. An even spread, not bad for the Rimutakas, a missing bez tine leaving him with nine points. I began a difficult butchery job, taking all the meat I could carry, and the head. The sense of satisfaction started to sink in. Only the nagging possibility of having left another stag unfound spoiled the moment.

My thoughts shifted to the gate to the park closing at 6pm. Leaving the hindquarters in a tree for Andrew to pick up in the weekend, I hurried back to the main valley. A DOC worker sitting in his truck called me a good keen man and handed me his beer. “To give you a boost for the walk back,” he said. There was no time for walking though and I jogged along the track like I had that morning.

***

I am on a plane now, wondering when I will next be back in New Zealand. The meat from the stag is ageing in friends’ fridges. My gear stashed at my old man’s house for next time. I think about what I will tell people when they ask me about my trip. How I’ll answer when they ask why I spent so much time hunting, and why do I enjoy it so much. I think about how I’ll try to explain to them that its not just about killing an animal. That it’s a part of it, but what comes before and after is equally important. I think of the bush and the birds and the camaraderie of the hills. Life reduced to its simplest needs and the simple joy of being alive. I think how what we have in New Zealand is unique; that we truly don’t know how lucky we are. I think of my next trip.

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