After two-and-a-half years of living in New Zealand and looking to the hills, an opportunity to chase tahr had final rolled around. A friend of a friend had pulled out of a trip and I had been given the call to fill his spot.
A mid-August break in the weather meant that the ranges around Mount Cook would be a balmy two degrees during the day, but most importantly in the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, it would be clear. With my fresh DOC (Department of Conservation) permit to hunt on public land and a quick stop of at the university rec centre to borrow a tent, we were on our way north from the miserable Dunedin cold.
Punching up towards Twizel after our Friday morning lectures meant we'd arrive around lunch time at the creek system Jack had identified as a good place to start. During the drive a simple strategy was agreed on, one that boiled down to carrying the least amount of gear as far up the creek as possible, climbing the unshaded, ice-free face of the valley and hunting for the next three days. We arrived, unpacked the .270s and set off up the ‘creek’ (it was definitely a river by Australian standards) in standard Kiwi hunting garb of shorts, long johns and a Swanndri.
Climbing over the first four kilometres of scoured boulders, that were completely ice covered in the shade, started off fun. We then hit the snow, up to our thighs in places and perfectly hiding the holes between boulders and where the slippery ice was. This, I have to admit, took the wind out of our sails.
Emerging into the last bit of sun that reached the shady creek, we stopped to have a glass and a drink.
Above us in an ice-filled chute we spotted the tell-tale streaks that led to a mob of tahr that had been shot and left, unreachable in a near vertical chute. Spotting some nice bulls amongst them, we lamented a terrible waste.
At this point we resolved to climb up to the first terrace, keeping an eye out for the tahr that would start coming down from the peaks to graze as the sun crept lower. After 10 minutes of climbing a ridiculous gradient, up a slip that was effectively a dirt cliff, we paused to glass again.
At this point we saw possibly the stupidest man on earth; there was no way he was letting that trophy bull in the ice chute be wasted. In something that looked like it belonged in a bad movie, we saw him sliding down the 400-metre high ice chute with just a knife as a brake.
We quickly decided that the order of the day was to do the gentlemanly thing by watching his descent (and likely death) and pull out our personal locator beacon when required. He should have died 10 times over but fortunately he didn't. It was a lesson well learnt – people shouldn't go everywhere a tahr will. After he safely recovered his hard-earned reward we continued climbing.
As we crested another terrace, we both spotted the bull at the same time, a real-life tahr within shooting range just across a washed-out gully from us. We both dropped, with Jack using the binoculars to check that he was a shooter. We were both hoping for a representative specimen but ideally with horns towards the 13-inch mark and a nice mane. He was, and to be safe we both lined up our first bull tahr. Shooting together with two .270s he dropped on the spot, unfortunately that spot was steep, and he rolled straight down till the snow in the creek slowed him.
In full view of us, we could see he was definitely staying put. Deciding he was effectively in a freezer already and that we would walk straight past on the way out, we left him there and kept climbing.
Reaching a few hundred metres short of the 2400-metre peak as night closed in, we decided it was best to set up camp and glass, in view of planning a successful morning hunt.
After a night spent clinging to the tussocks on the very top of the icy, knife-edge ridge we were on, it was a joy to start climbing again in the pre-dawn light. Spotting a mob about 200 vertical metres above us, we shimmed around another rock face to allow us to climb up unobserved. On reaching a similar height we crawled back towards them using a large rock outcrop as cover.
With a flock of keas following our every step, we crested the outcrop about 140 metres from the mob.
Two impressive bulls caught our eye as they began to shepherd the mob towards higher ground for the day. If there ever was a chance, this was it!
We quickly drew straws and lined up our respective bulls. On the count of three we shot, both getting good hits but, playing it safe, we both sent follow-up shots to where the bulls were slowly sliding down the snowy face. Jack’s fell straight down into a rivulet that ran directly towards our tent, while mine slid and caught above a cliff.
At this point I did my biscuit. After climbing hundreds of metres vertically, the best bull, and only the second tahr I'd ever shot, was unreachable. I was ropeable at the outcome. Suddenly my bull dropped over the ledge into a reachable position.
We were over the moon, and after a bit of a breather and some playing with the keas that are very curious and strangely trusting, we moved to recover the bulls. Both had horns that measured over 10 inches from tip to base. After caping them and taking the backstraps we climbed down to our tent.
As we had a quick brunch, squalls of snow began to blow in as the wind picked up. We resolved to watch and wait and observed that the terrible weather was also driving the tahr down towards us.
Up we headed again, and, setting up in a perfect position for glassing, we spotted a mob heading down towards us.
As they came within shooting distance the first signs of hypothermia hit me. No doubt the sweat from the tough climb combined with howling wind and snow had got the best of me; I couldn't think and could barely move. I quickly added every layer of clothing that I could and set up to glass, protected from the wind by a rock while Jack stalked up on the mob.
Barely hearing the shots from his suppressed .270 he quickly dropped five in a row in what he later described as a ‘traditional Kiwi bomb up’. This approach is apparently to keep the area unfeasible for helicopter culling. Returning to the tent, the writing was on the wal; there was one hell of a blizzard coming. With me warm again, we both rushed to pack everything with the meat eventually just being stuffed anywhere it would fit in our bulging packs.
We turned towards the creek and in a near white-out dived down the scree slope. Downwards was a great deal quicker than the climb and we soon reached where the first bull had come to rest. In failing light and horizontally driven snow we quickly took what meat we could carry and a very hurried cape.
We trudged down the ankle-breaking creek through two-and-a-half hours of darkness with one near fading head torch between us — cold and nearly broken men when we reached the road. At this point we ran into the two Dutchmen that had been hunting the same valley, one being the action man who had slid down the ice.
After sharing a few stories, the time came to compare trophies. Out of his little car fridge came an enormous set of horns (13 inches) and a beautiful big, black mane.
We dropped our packs to show off our success, only to find our trophies were distressingly gone.
In a fit of complete disappointment, we said our goodbyes and packed the car.
We made the compulsory stop in Twizel to watch the All Blacks. Over a beer and a feed, we resolved that it just meant we would have to return.
We arrived back in Dunedin after midnight and signed our rifles back into the uni safe.
Back at the flat I shared, they beamed with joy as I unpacked the meat, knowing that it meant something other than two-minute noodles for the coming week. Jack suspiciously declined to take any of the meat — I should have known straight away. While tahr is a luxury for broke students, it is not a very appealing meat and is best suited for a curry.
Looking back on the three years I lived in New Zealand this trip was an absolute highlight and I've promised myself I'll get back very soon. The opportunities they have on public land totally puts any state in Australia to shame. The DOC recreational hunting model means that hunters, for free, and with very little paperwork, can access vast areas of huntable terrain. They can't exterminate populations, but they do keep them in check.
The bureaucratic nightmare faced coming back to NSW and trying to assist on public land has nearly turned me off hunting altogether.
Instead of fighting against each other we should all be collaborating to best manage the fantastic resources available here. Hunters would be doing their little bit (for free) as part of a bigger management picture.
Contributed by Nick Findlay.