The Te Anau Club was a surprisingly busy centre on this quiet Sunday afternoon as my brother Ross and I pulled up. The saw-toothed silhouette of the forbidding Murchison Ranges looked down on a car park crowded with 4-wheel drives, boats and hunting folk. It was the briefing for the first balloted wapiti hunt for the year.
The speakers soon made clear that managed hunting for the magnificent wapiti elk of Fiordland is the result of a strong partnership between New Zealand’s conservation authorities, environmental organisations, and the game hunting community. We heard how wapiti and red deer are managed by helicopter harvesting and recreational hunting to minimise harm to Fiordland’s natural environment, and to produce a hunting experience matching the best in the world.
Roy Sloan, president of the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation gave us a run down on the commercial harvest over spring and summer, which is intentionally biased towards females and red deer. He warned us to expect a high proportion of males in the herd this season, and therefore to take care in deciding whether to shoot.
On this subject, the Foundation gave us an excellent illustrated guide on how to recognise a true 45-inch trophy wapiti: a filled-out belly, large hindquarters, coronets buried in the hair, and antlers about two and a half times the head length with six points apiece. We were to draw on this simple advice later in our adventure.
Greg Lind, the operations manager for Fiordland National Park praised the relationship between the Department of Conservation and the Foundation. Few visitors apart from deer hunters want to spend time exploring some of the most isolated wilderness on earth and our presence is a rare opportunity to gather information of great practical value for conservation.
He is concerned about the future of keas, those brassy, mischievous, alpine parrots that live only on the South Island of New Zealand. Their wild population may be as low as 5,000. Tamsin Orr-Walker, chair of the Kea Conservation Trust, impressed on us the value of our kea sightings.
At first light we were loading our dry bags and packs at the Fiordland Helicopters hangar for our flight in to the Doon River block. Happily, the Murchison Ranges were lit by the morning sun rather than smothered in thick cloud, as we swept across Lake Te Anua and into the lee of their towering flanks.
Our helicopter climbed through a wide opening in the mountains and along the broadly dished McIvor valley. It was the bed of an old glacier and now it cradled a series of pools, swamps and grasslands that looked ideal for deer. We landed on a small flat overlooking a beautiful lake. Three keas screeched a welcome as we carried our gear in to a campsite sheltered in beech forest. Once the sound of the helicopter had faded it felt like we were the only people on earth.
While the billy was boiling we strung up the antenna for our mountain radio. Like so many aspects of life in New Zealand volunteers developed the mountain radio equipment and operate the receivers. The scheduled broadcasts were a comforting link to the outside world, and a chance to listen in to the experiences of other hunting parties. Even better, the radio could link us through to the phones of vital contacts such as Fiordland Helicopters.
Our first exploratory hikes from camp were a strikingly different experience to bush walking in Australia. The land is a jumble of boulders draped in a deep layer of soggy mosses and herbs and lichens. It was like walking on a vast doona laid over a bombed town. As soon as we left the open land around the lake and entered the beech forest we faced another kind of obstacle; logs and branches and tree roots lying at every angle and wrapped in mops of plant life, a bit like the rollers in an automatic carwash.
After a while we started to get the hang of moving through this landscape. The only large animals now that the moas have gone are of course the deer and they have had a century or so to work out the most efficient paths. We began to get an eye for the faint signs of the deer trails, a bare patch on a stick or a rock, a glimpse of mud in the velvet greenery. We learned to trust these tracks even though they seemed to lead us in random directions.
Steady rain accompanied us back to camp that night and all the next day as we ventured further up and down the valley. The grasslands around the lakes were dotted with deer pellets, and we found a few thrashed bushes. Actually seeing a deer was becoming frustrating and we wondered if they had moved higher for some reason. We could see bare patches in the forest on the valley rim and when the evening radio forecast fine weather we packed for a bivvy on the tops.
We were followed for part of our climb by a weka, a handsome bird about the size of a bantam hen, with no fear of people at all. It came up to peck my rifle and then my boot as we rested for a minute.
They reckon one kilometre an hour is pretty fair going in this country. That evening we slumped on a tiny square of dry sphagnum atop the ridge after a day climbing up the indescribably difficult valley wall. The jumbled landscape was tipped sharply upwards and there were no deer tracks to follow. All day we had passed packs and rifles to one another, crawled on all fours under logs and around boulders, and fallen thigh deep into cracks that were pleasingly padded with soggy peat. Our GPS showed we had moved 4.7 kilometres in five and a half hours.
Nevertheless, there was a clear blue sky all around and the views were breathtaking over Lakes Te Anau, Hankinson and McIvor and across to Mount Pisgah. We glassed the open areas till dark and again in the chill of first light next morning but there was no trace of deer up there. We breakfasted in sunshine, and gazed down on fog-filled valleys, pierced by sharp mountain peaks.
By the time we had picked our way down, the fog had lifted, the lake was clear, and the weather so calm that we couldn’t resist a swim. Warm sun, long grass and bare feet had us nervously scanning the ground and reassuring ourselves that there were no snakes in this country. In fact, there were no leaches, spiders, ticks, ants or flies either. The only unpleasant creatures are the sandflies. Even the plants were mostly kind; no prickles or seeds or cutting leaves, apart from a spiny thing called Spanish speargrass, found in open areas.
The lake was refreshing and the sun continued to shine, drying our gear and warming us through. What a paradise! Of course, this was Fiordland, so it was never going to last, and the radio brought news of a change the following evening: ‘rain, heavy falls, downpours, strong winds and severe gales on exposed areas’. We would have to batten down camp tomorrow, but not before an early morning sortie.
Just as we reached the area we wanted to explore the next morning we were treated to our first roar of the trip. It was such a deep, short burst of sound that we both thought at first it was a distant gunshot. But it sounded again and again, and then a reply from the face behind us. It was such a moment to be in this fabulous land with a primeval sound that has enthralled humans since the beginning of time. Ross had a roaring horn and tried a few calls, mimicking the sounds the two beasts were making. Before long Ross was having a meaningful conversation with the nearest stag and we started to stalk in on his voice.
He led us back through a grassy clearing, over a small moraine and onto a hidden swamp with a house-sized boulder in the middle of it and water gurgling into the ground at its base. There was a fresh wallow and muddy trails leading off in three directions. We followed his retreating calls up the side of a steep creek until all went quiet. We wondered if Ross’s deep voice, amplified by the horn, was a bit too intimidating and perhaps a softer tone would have given the stag confidence to stand his ground!
We spent the afternoon preparing for the coming weather and that night it came as prophesied. Thunderstorms crackled up the valley, gusts whipped our tarp and rain gushed from the black sky. The rumble and rush of waterfalls grew louder through the night. Despite the rain it was quite warm, and that may have been why the bulls stopped roaring. Whatever it was, the only noise in the bush as we hunted over the next few days was the drip of rain and the bellow of waterfalls. Finally, the rain eased and the forecast for our last full day was for ‘some clear patches’.
Early next morning we were rewarded with the sight of a fine-looking wapiti cross bull quietly grazing across the other side of a small lake. He was an eight pointer, with a yellow-brown body framed by a dark brown cape and legs, and behind him was a larger bull. Unfortunately, they had gone by the time we crept around to a closer vantage point, but we had worked up a plan for that evening.
We were back overlooking the spot, with the sun going down and the usually fickle breeze gently fanning our faces. Despite our vigilance, a russet coated spiker appeared below us as if he’d unfurled from the ground and with him was a second, superb looking beast. He stood proudly with his deep chested, chocolate-grey body, massive neck and thick, beautifully shaped antlers. What a trophy! As he turned away and bent down to graze, his arched antlers framed his huge creamy bum and the tops stood higher than his shoulders. He tipped his head towards the uppity spiker and feigned to spar, prompting the young one to skip away. They had no sense of our presence and it was a straightforward shot at about seventy metres.
But was he really a trophy? He sure had size and style but what were those characteristics we should look for? Well, the antlers were only about twice the length of his head. His belly nipped in athletically behind the chest and we could only count ten points. So, it wasn’t a difficult decision.
Instead we relished the experience, sitting in this special place watching a magnificent wapiti and his consort feeding, strutting and sparring until the light was almost gone. To finish Ross gave a roar through the horn and we bent over laughing as the bull whipped around, thrust out his chest and struck a belligerent pose in our direction. He trotted quickly across the wind, trying to get our scent, and then it was too dark to see any more. We switched on our headlights, prompting an alarm bark from the darkness, and wended our way back to camp feeling contented and euphoric.
Our last night had yet another treat. A full moon laid silver over our valley and the clear sky brought a chill to start the bulls roaring from every side. Ross egged them on with his little trumpet and the mountains rang with a thrilling symphony of life on earth’s cycle of renewal; challenge, combat, and the chance to sire next year’s offspring.