Igniting the Passion
I went to the ADA Australian Game Exhibition in March 2015 and entered what I called the hall of dreams. Actually I spent hours in there admiring without reservation the finest collection of trophy deer that I have ever seen on display under one roof in Australia. I am sure it has inspired new hunters like I was inspired 46 years earlier.
The Royal Melbourne Show was once a big affair that showcased our rural industries. But one time in about 1969 when I went, there was something different. Tucked away in one of the halls was a display by the Victorian Deer Conservation Co-operative Ltd (the organisation no longer exists and many of its members became foundation members of the Australian Deer Association). A hand-full of deer heads were on display. One in particular was a sambar that I can distinctly remember had fascinated me. I should have known then and there that I was hooked, especially when I went back the next day. The fire had been kindled and it didn’t take much to light it.
In 1972 the first of several deer trophy exhibitions was held at the Melbourne Show Grounds and it was a joint venture between the Melbourne and Gippsland Branches of ADA. It was one that I missed.
Again at the Melbourne Show Grounds in 1981 the ADA put on a display of 223 deer trophies representing all Australian species. Unlike my visit to the Show Grounds twelve years earlier it didn’t light the fire within me, it was already ablaze. But I do know that others had the passion for deer hunting ignited at that exhibition - I saw young hunters attend for two days and they were hooked.
Do you know what we get hooked on, especially in Victoria? In Australia I have hunted fallow deer, red deer, hog deer and sambar. I would hunt them all again but there is one that is my passion, sambar! But why are sambar the passion? I don’t really know, or perhaps I do but don’t recognise it and knowing why is not important.
When hunting sambar it is often cold, wet and miserable and there are times when despair sets in. But there are times when it is the opposite. There are for some sambar hunters moments of euphoria (perhaps too strong a word?) - on second thoughts definitely not.
Deer hunting magazines rarely convey the misery that those with the passion will one day experience. The first to be defeated by the persistent rain were the boots and socks, for several hours the squelch of the water soaked boots had been with me. The next casualty was the trousers as water ran from my jacket along my legs and into the boots - no wonder they squelched. When the supposedly water-proof jacket was defeated water trickled down my back to follow the crack of my bum and soak my jocks. Nothing, not a square millimetre, was remotely dry. But there was and is a more insidious foe, I forgot to mention the cold. The tips of the fingers were freezing cold with a pain that is best likened to being hit on the fingers by a misguided hammer blow - every finger hurt. Slipping them under the armpits was a futile attempt to alleviate the pain. It is said that shivering is a defence mechanism of the body to warm itself. It did not work either!
Under such conditions, stumbling is not good and falling over is worse. I was able to regain my feet and continued the climb out. Fortunately at the time I was younger and with the fitness that only 40 weekends a year hunting sambar can bring. My fitness, probably as it has with others, fought off hypothermia and got me back to the road but it took hours to regain some warmth. Some would suggest that after such an experience only a fool would return the next weekend risking more of the same. If you have had such an experience and returned, you were not a fool, you are a sambar hunter and you are hooked!
Frustration and the Promise of Better Things to Come
The forest offered a tantalising promise that it would open up and be good stalking country. But it was a false promise and the open bush soon turned into thickets of fire-induced dogwood scrub. Their small leaves crept their way down my neck where they played their annoying game between cloth and skin (it is a tolerable discomfort). The forest whispered ‘Push on and keep looking it will get better’. Two deer were seen the day before in the head of the same gully but the promise of seeing them again was short lived. Soon it was time to climb out of the thick gully and look for greener pastures. Further around the face the scrub is gone but the forest floor is littered with bark and other debris from the eucalypts that escaped the loggers saw. Here there is no promise, only the loud frustrating crunch of forest litter under foot.
Further on the bush changed to smaller trees interspersed with prickly coprosma that was cropped low by feeding wallabies and deer. Again there was a faint promise, old deer droppings, tracks and a well established scrape under a twisted tree all tantalized. I was tired and cranky and became increasingly frustrated with myself. Thick awkward bush to push through and no deer are the rewards for bad decisions. An overgrown timber-getters track suggests an easy way out to the road. After scrambling down the steep bank I stand there dejected, wet, miserable and cold as the inner voice scolds me. ‘What are you doing idiot? All that good country you could have hunted and you end up in this miserable place!’ The inner voice is told where to go (that’s the cleaned up version).
Three or four steps further on in the mud lays a cast antler. I look at it and think nothing of it and consider it’s not worth picking up. Dejected from the frustrating morning combined with the misery of being wet to the skin, along with a dose of fatigue, influence the decision to leave it and move on. Five steps on I turn and go back and lift it from the mud. It is not a small antler as first thought, it is big and it is heavy; if he is still alive he would be a trophy stag. Finding that antler was like a shot of adrenalin and it brought new vigour and a promise. When the passion fades, as it had, it takes little to fire it up and a hand full of heavy cast antler is just what the doctor ordered. The passion was again alive and well.
Good Lessons and What it is All About
The warmth of a good fire is perhaps the sambar hunter’s best friend in winter. Along the road, further from camp was well seasoned dead timber, perfect firewood. The search for firewood carried with it a reward. Over a distance of about six hundred metres, four different sets of fresh sambar tracks crossed the road in one direction. I had been taught well. Look, look and look some more for a good sambar hunter is always looking first for the deer and secondly for their fresh sign that can lead the hunter to the deer.
Chainsaws make a lot of noise, so the primary concern was if I should cut the wood and risk alarming the deer. Call me a fool if you want. With little thought to the consequences the saw was revved into action resulting in a good supply of firewood for my camp.
Three hours later the Toyota is parked in the sawdust from my firewood foray (or should I say wood cutting folly). No more than 50 metres from the vehicle were the first set of sambar tracks that crossed the road into a thicket of wattle scrub. The leaf litter from the wattles was quiet under foot and they were tall and straight enough that it was not difficult to move cautiously and quietly through them. What did I say earlier? ‘Look, look and look some more……. first for the deer and secondly for their fresh sign.’ There was no sound as the deer rose to its feet and turned to run, but the rattle of the wattles as its bulk forces them aside drew my eyes to the fleeing shape of the deer. When following the tracks from the road I should have looked harder for the deer and not concluded that a deer would have cleared out at the sound of the chainsaw feverishly working nearby.
In the haste to follow the fleeing deer and assume where it was headed the splayed running marks were lost several times but like a dog I cast around to find them again. This game was soon lost for the deer showed no sign of slowing down. There was nothing for it but to head around into the country where the other fresh tracks were headed and it was worth a detour to look at a wallow on the way. A young hind lifted her head to stare and with a bark it was soon on its way. That’s torn it - if a stag is there he would be alerted by the hind’s alarm call.
This patch of country was well known to me and if the thick, steep gully ahead was crossed, I would soon be in good stalking country and that was where the other deer tracks on the road were headed. Knowing one’s country and building on that knowledge is a big advantage.
The big disadvantage is when the light starts to fade bringing the realisation that it will soon be over. Out of the thick gully and on the edge of the good country the very fresh rubs, perhaps only a day old, were the trigger and the promise that he was there. No time is left for the niceties or the caution of slow and careful stalking; it is time to move quickly. With only ten minutes of shooting light there is an urgency to look and move. Caution is thrown to the wind with no time to stop. The abundance of fresh sign enforces the urgency to look while on the move. ‘He’s here, he’s here … look’. The conversation in a hunters mind rarely stops!
Climbing to the bench that held a good wallow the sambar stag is seen in the fading light - eyes locked onto the intruder. He is the obsession personified. The reflex actions of years of experience and practice take over. There is no time to pause as such circumstances are usually short lived. As the rifle comes up he is assessed, the long brow tines of a mature sambar stag, and it is safe to shoot. The safety comes off as the scope momentarily pauses in line with his front leg and on the centre of his chest. The shot shatters the silence and he falls instantly. From seeing him to firing the shot has taken less time than it has to read this description. It may appear rushed, but it is not; it is the result of years of practice and discipline.
The sound of the shot caused a nearby hind to bark in alarm, breaking into a run. She takes another hind with her and they make good their escape.
As I stood looking at the stag, euphoria and emotion arrived. If they fail to turn up it is time to stop being a sambar hunter. Fortunately for those of us with the passion, the twins of euphoria and emotion always arrive. It matters little to me that this is not a great stag or the stag that I had been looking for. This one was not the one that had left the fresh rubs as witness to his presence; the stag at my feet was in hard velvet, he was a second stag!
I was there to hunt and success was the reward that was welcomed with open arms. I often think that it may have just been luck, but it wasn’t. It was more, it was perseverance and effort driven by a will and the application of hard learnt knowledge and skill. There was the will to follow the sign left on the road. There was the effort and perseverance involved in looking. There was the application of knowledge to look where the deer would be. There was the skill to shoot fast and straight. It was more than luck.
The stag was dead but it was not over. Sambar stags are big and they are heavy. I was by myself and it was time for the hard task of meat and trophy recovery. This is the final test of the hunter’s resolve because the pack straps will cut into ones shoulders and your lungs will feel like they will burst as you slog up the hill (if a hunter has a weak heart they will be in trouble or at least die doing what they love). Legs will be jelly-like and the relief of putting down the last load is only bettered by the realisation that it is done.
As the crow flies the undisturbed stag and the two hinds in his company were five hundred metres from where the firewood was cut. It was a day of rewards and lessons. It was also a day without the misery, when the wet and cold combined with disappointment were absent. It was a day of passion.