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Hunting with Mr Baxter

Fletcher and Izzie pushing high up into the snow line towards the nannies we’d seen from lower down in the valley.
Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
over snow-mountain shine.
Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.

 

James K Baxter
(High Country Weather, 1948)

I hated English at School and this poem by James K Baxter formed part of my School Certificate English exam. We analysed it in regard to his Christian faith, but as I’ve grown older and more mellow, I now see it in a different light.

Opportunities

It’s often believed that hunters are some sort of bloodthirsty barbarians – but, for me, the respect for an animal and the environment it lives in are paramount. A pat on the shoulder of each animal I shoot is done as a matter of course and a thank you given to the life taken and the meat it has provided.

Being aware of where we are and the environment we’re in means that I have a great respect for the opportunities that are there to put on a pack, grab your dog and rifle and go for a walk by yourself or with friends. Getting angry and upset at the things you can’t change in your life is a waste, and spending time in the hills alone or with mates is time well spent.

Being born and raised a Mainlander and moving to South Auckland in the mid-90s for work, I never fully appreciated what I had on my back doorstep in my Dunedin days. The concrete jungle is inescapable unless you make the effort to do so; it’s something that I try and do as often as possible.

Over the past four years, I’ve been heading home to the South Island to hunt at every opportunity. Through family I met Al and Fletch during this time, and we get out into the Southern Alps as often as our schedules allow. 

Heading South

The most recent trip took place in early November – when the bull tahr would possibly still be in their winter coats but generally be at lower altitudes than during the rut. Along with us on the trip was my 7-year-old heading/huntaway cross, Izzie; trained as a deer-indicating dog, she gets as excited as I do at the packing of the gear to go on a hunt.

I was taught a long time ago that there’s no better-tasting drink, at the end of a long day after the rifle has been safely put away, than a cold beer that’s been chilling in a mountain stream; it doesn’t matter the brand – if it’s cold and the only one available, you’ll drink it. For that reason, ‘bush beer’ has always been the cheapest beer at the supermarket you can find, and a can or two is always in the pack, regardless of the planned trip time.

Setting off early on Wednesday morning, with the obligatory pork belly in apple sauce pie at the Fairlie Bakehouse, we were soon making the turn onto the gravel road that led us up the valley and into the Alps. Mount Cook lilies were in full flower and scattered throughout the low country of the main river valley – a welcome sight in contrast to the grey river bed and tussock hills. Recent storms had made the track impassable in places, but a quick recce for alternative routes had us high up the valley by early afternoon.

Camp Meat

After quickly setting up camp, we were off up the nearest catchment in search of a couple of camp meat animals. The afternoon was hot – damn hot. The heat radiating off the stones in the river soon had us all looking for water and shade; water was easy, shade was impossible. So it was a case of slip, slop, slap and shorter bouts of walking to keep us cool with heaps of glassing.

It didn’t take long to identify a mob of four tahr up high in the scree above us, and the decision was made for Al and me to go after a nanny for camp meat. I swear the hills get steeper every year, but the sweat and time it took to get to the top was worth it – despite the looming clouds and the odd spit of rain – as we soon had a nanny on the ground and meat in the packs … just as the red-gold cirrus set over the hills.

Fletcher stayed down in the valley but moved up to the next scree slope to start glassing for an animal of his own. He was unsuccessful but upon hearing the shot from Al, he was back at the streambed to meet us as we came bounding down, in minutes, the scree slope that had taken hours to climb earlier that afternoon.

The walk back to camp via headlamp is always fun with Izzie backtracking the way we walked in – making short time of trying to find the easiest way back.

An Even Hotter Day

Up early the next morning for a hunt in the western catchments, we crossed the main river several times and were in the hunting area within a couple of hours. We were soon seeing animals high on the skyline but nothing of any note, so we pushed further up the creek bed. If the afternoon before was hot, today was hotter – not a cloud in the sky and twenty-odd degrees. It was going to be a hard day of climbing to get up the valley to the tops.

Midway up, Izzie started winding, but she was unable to see the mob of juvenile bulls, nannies and yearlings that were browsing the creek terrace 200m in front of us. Fletch saw them first and we all sat down to discuss what to do next. Glassing nearby, we identified a large, dark-coated bull another 500m up the valley from this mob; we began to plan a way to navigate past the family group, without spooking them, to get up to the bull.

The Best Bull

With the stalk planned with military precision, we put on our packs and set off. Not more than 10 steps taken and to our right was a group of three mature bulls standing low down in the valley in the monkey-scrub terrace we’d been sitting opposite.

A wise man once told me, “Don’t leave fish to go looking for fish.” It didn’t take long to identify the best bull to take; he was darker than the others, still had a good mane and looked around the 13″ mark.

Travelling with a dog and a firearm can be such a hassle in this day and age, so Al lets me use his .308 when I head south to hunt with him. I realise that it’s ‘far less’ of a rifle in this sort of country than the .300 Win Mag and .270 WSM that he and Fletch use, but nonetheless, at the 180m that I ranged this bull at, it was more than capable.

Steadying myself on a rock, I easily lined the bull up in the scope, called Izzie to heel with a quiet whistle and the shot was sent.

The bull dropped where he stood. In this sort of monkey-scrub, rocky terrain, a dog is invaluable at finding downed animals, and it was only a matter of time before the bull was located.

Al pulled out the tape and ran it over the horns: 13 5/16″ – my best bull to date. We propped him up for a couple of photos, then it was time to fill the packs with meat and start the long walk back to camp.

It’s always a shorter walk back to camp when you’ve secured your ‘trophy’ and the bush beer always tastes better after a successful hunt – that night, James K Baxter had a beer with me.

Christchurch Via Tekapo

The next day, we all pushed high up into the snow in the catchment closest to camp – not really intending to shoot anything but mainly as a sight-seeing exercise. Finding a mob of nannies high in the valley, we did our bit for tahr control and collected meat from them.

The trip back to Tekapo is always shorter as the promise of coffee is like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey to Al. It was a long weekend for Canterbury, and Tekapo was full of holidaymakers making the most of the fine weather – we stood out like sore thumbs and smelt like hunters. After a quick bite to eat and Al’s first coffee of the drive back, we set off back to Christchurch.

Follow Your Bliss

Driving back from a hunt always has me thinking about how easy it is to write about the hunt; what’s often hard to write about is how hunting makes us feel and why we do it. Joseph Campbell said, “If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

Bliss for me is in the hills; I can’t find bliss sitting at home. 

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