Several issues ago, in this very magazine, Peter Burke self-identified himself as a ‘grumpy old deer hunter’. Now that I am in the first quarter of my seventh decade, retired, with a bung knee, unfit and fat, I think I should also come out and identify as a ‘grumpy old deer hunter’. (Some will have an opinion that I have been a grumpy bastard all my life…)
As I write – April 2020 – there are plenty of reasons to be grumpy: home detention, businesses closing, fishing banned, duck hunting banned, hog and sambar deer hunting effectively banned…and…infuriating old ladies picking up every packet of mince in the supermarket and then putting it back!
I try and cope through these difficult times by way of my books, photographs and, often, YouTube. I get great enjoyment by watching Aussie deer hunters out and about: Bolt Action Productions, Deer Diary and Into the Mountains are all favourites. I particularly enjoy Daz Horkins’ work on Into the Mountains as he is not only an amiable fellow, his cohort all seem the same way and they all are linked to ADA’s Westernport branch in some way. As a founding member of Westernport, it’s a bit like watching your mates.
The amount of flash gear these guys have is amazing! Space-age rifles, binoculars to see into NSW, EPERBs, Rinos, Garmin wrist gadgets, Jet Boils, dehydrated roast dinners, water suckers, camelbacks, Hennessey Hammocks, Sea to Summit sleeping mats, video cameras, tripods, rangefinders, iPhones and portable solar panels. That’s just the start…they have designer thermals, ‘layering systems’, puffer jackets, and super-efficient storm gear…not to mention the (now mandatory) gaiters in a flash new material.
Back the way we were, in the ’70s and ’80s, we had none of this stuff. It was either unavailable, or too expensive in the days of 17 per cent interest rates.
For our first backpacking trip, my mates and I tooled up with all the gear we had on hand. The plan was always to establish a base camp and hunt the surrounding area.
The author in his 1980s hunting attire, with pack and rifle.
My pack was a Flinders Ranges ‘Venturer’ that I bought at Moloney’s in Melbourne in the 1970s. I still have it. The other guys had aluminium-framed jobs in the American style…garish, bulky and uncomfortable…with bugger-all capacity. Sleeping bags varied. Mine was a Fairy Down ‘Mummy’ model that I saved up for and bought after a terrible night in a pool of water at Raspberry Creek in mid-winter during the early ’70s. My bag was warm – too warm actually – and when zipped up inside it was totally claustrophobic! I really did feel like a mummy. Our sleeping mats were closed-cell foam from Aussie Disposals. Later, I progressed to a Thermarest, and on the first trip managed to fill it with pin holes after clambering through a blackberry thicket.
The tents were also from Aussie Disposals. Three-man walled jobs made of nylon. Light, but not necessarily waterproof. We always left the poles at home and relied on local timber. When cold at night and lying on rocks that we could feel through the mattresses, it was character-building. There is no greater experience than lying for 12 hours in a flimsy dripping tent, on rocks, in a gale.
‘What time is it?’ ‘Ten pm.’ ‘Oh Jesus!’
Camping gear was minimal. A couple of billies and a frying pan and plate, knife, fork, spoon and cup each were all we took. Trangia stoves were all the rage with bushwalkers, but I could not justify one. I always took a military-style hexamine cooker, but we never used it. We just lit a fire. If it was raining, we would light it under a rock overhang or under a leaning tree. We always managed a hot drink and a feed. Eventually.
Drinking water was from the river or nearest creek…sometimes from a puddle and occasionally the water dripping off the rocks. We never carried water. Never thought of it.
Our usual diet comprised a log of salami, a block of cheese and cracker biscuits. Muesli or porridge for breakfast and – of course – tons of Rosella savoury rice for dinner. Blocks of chocolate, homemade trail mix and meat, onions and fruit eased the pain for the first one or two days. Cask ‘jumpabout’ was also a staple for the first few days.
One cold and blustery night, in our camp hacked out of a blackberry thicket, Mike produced a two-litre bottle of Stones Mac from his pack. We rejoiced…and slept without noticing the rocks under our beds!
Navigation gear was a Silva compass, a watch with hands, a Contact-covered topographic map and, mostly, a wet finger in the air. As a Rogainer and surveyor I was confident navigating by map and compass and we never really had any problems.
Our communications were primitive. As portable radios were in their infancy, there was not much to choose from. The mumbled words among the secretive hound boys at the back of an ADA Melbourne Branch meeting often included the term ‘Lafayette’. It turned out that a Lafayette was the ultimate radio for hunters. We had to get some. We finally tracked down a second-hand pair and what a prize they were…about the size and weight of a litre carton of milk, with an aerial that extended forever, these radios were state-of-the-art. They did not work too well, ran out of power quickly and were heavy to carry. By day two of a hunt, the batteries were usually flat. That did not matter, as we never had anything to report anyway!
We soon decided that the best place for a Lafayette was in the shed at home.
Mates Mike and Banjo crossing the Moroka River in 1985.
Our cameras were 35mm SLRs. Mine an Olympus OM2. I soon gave up carrying additional lenses and never thought of a tripod. Doug Read made me a ‘screw-in universal camera holder’ for self-portraits about 30 years ago and I still have it.
For many years, my most expensive item of hunting clothing was my full-zip Swanndri, which I purchased from Ron Martyn at Melbourne Firearms in Ringwood. That Swanny was as warm as toast and windproof…it also was too hot to hunt in (for me anyway) and ‘weighed a tonne’ when wet. It always went on backpack trips with me, but I usually only wore it when sitting around in camp. I also used it as my pillow – even when it was wet. In those cases, you had to wear a beanie to bed as well.
Other clothing was whatever you had at home…stretch jeans, tracksuit pants, army greens, shorts, a woollen jumper and the ubiquitous flannelette shirt. After a few years, I lashed out on some thermals. They kept you warm, but boy did they stink. Of course, we always wore a chequered woollen bush shirt, and the best ones came from Great Divide Clothing at Healesville. I still have my favourite one of those.
We started out in Blundstones, and after burnt soles a couple of times, soon moved to Dunlop KT 26 runners, Carribee Hikers and then to Hi-Tech boots.
Over the past 30 years I have tried many brands of boot but have ended up sticking with Hi-Tech ‘Altitudes’ for the past 10 years. I like the look of the current Lowas…but do I really need another pair of boots?
Our boots never left our feet until bedtime. We just plunged through rivers and creeks using a stick as a brace. (It is a recipe for disaster to cross a rocky riverbed in bare feet.)
After a few days of being cold, wet, hungry and exhausted, we would make it back to the truck, crack a tinny and head for home. Not much was said until we had a chance to stop at the first town out of the bush and re-fuelled on fish and chips and hamburgers. We craved fat! After that, the pressure was off, and we began to relax on the long drive home.
It does not take too long to forget about the ‘rough’ trips, and by the time we made it home we had already planned the next one.
We were uncontrollably drawn to the mountains. We fished, hunted, explored and were swallowed by the wilderness. There was no greater joy than to be out there…we were free.
It was never about the size of the trophy or the fish, it was about having the chance, the opportunity, to be in the natural environment and the lifelong memories that we now cherish.
I’m sure that Daz and his cohort feel the same. Despite all that fancy gear!
Contributed by Mark Blundell