March 2019 rolled around without too much of a plan. Russ and I had both had a year of change and responsibility. We often talked about the days not so long ago when we were able to head out weekend after weekend for six weeks in a row, as well as for week-long adventures in the Alps; there are no regrets for the time we spent chasing our passion.
With responsibility comes a lack of free time, so when the week we’d lined up for the end of March turned up with the worst forecast you could imagine, the bottom lip was well and truly out.
We didn’t want to try and change the plan, so we headed to an old stomping ground – a place we know and love – with just a day of good weather up our sleeve before a Mother Nature bomb was due to hamper five days of fun, presumably to clear up only when we had to be out and back to the real world.
Checking Things Out
We wandered our familiar route early in the day to a big ridge that we often used as a vantage. We pulled up a matagouri bush pew and cracked out the gas cooker for a series of well-earned cuppas.
We always like to have a good look in the catchment before we set up camp. Every time we’ve done this, we’ve seen mature animals, and every time we camp there, within a day, all game has deserted the valley. The last time we’d sat on the ridge, we’d spied a 14″ bull tahr that we ambushed the next day; we’d never have gotten him without a good plan.
The evening ticked by, but nothing monstrous showed up. We saw a few deer and a couple of bulls which made the time worthwhile, but we
were without a plan for tomorrow – our one good day of weather.
It was good to be back at the hut; you’ve got to be happy to be away from phone reception and the problems of the world, and somehow a good feed is so much better in the hills. We savoured the rest of the evening before settling down with only a loose plan to get up early and have a go at it the next day.
Early Morning Success
A dawn leak in the scrub by the hut turned into a stag hunt. I was still in my undies when I spotted a nice 14-point stag which got Russell promptly out of bed with the trusty old .308. The trip was off to a surprise success. We hopped up the hill to find ourselves standing over a nice trophy before our morning coffee.
We were so unprepared, we didn’t even take a phone, let alone a camera; but that didn’t worry us – we weren’t there to show the world … we were just there to hunt and be there.
Chasing a Good Bull
We left the hut without any expectations for the day, but not half an hour up the valley, we picked up a bull on his own a kilometre ahead of us. The spotting scope came out of the bag; he was a nice young specimen – a good one to watch for a bit and hope to catch up with again in the future.
I always like taking my time in likely spots; it’s amazing how often there’s an animal in residence where and when you get the feeling that you’re looking at a good spot. That day, it paid dividends to linger – we only got a glimpse of a good bull as he snuck into a thicket of matagouri, but we knew he was worth pursuing. We clambered up the lee side of a handy ridge, out of sight and downwind from him, to a possie with a good view of where he’d vanished.
We searched hard with the binos for over an hour, but he didn’t show himself. It wasn’t until we’d given up and gave away our presence that he suddenly popped his head out of a patch of bush and showed his position. We were quick enough to get the spotter on him and decide he was worthy of a place on the wall back home, but unfortunately, not quick enough to poke a hole in him.
The day then turned to some of the most ferocious weather I’ve experienced in the hills.
After we got out, we heard how the bridge across the Waiho River at Franz Josef had washed out, which wasn’t so hard to imagine after what we’d witnessed in the mountains not so far away from the headwaters of the glaciers.
On the wander back to the hut, we crossed a river flat which happened to have some resident deer lurking around the outskirts. A quick decision had us flatten a fawn for a bit of sustenance for the days ahead, which turned out to be one of the better decisions of the trip. We enjoyed venison stew, cooked all day over the fire, for the next two days while we were hut-bound. The feed was topped off by a packet of Maggi Cheesy Mash that Russ found in his old box of rations, many years past its best-before date – what a shame it’s no longer found on supermarket shelves.
We had four days of absolute mud weather; when it wasn’t pouring down, it blew like hell. We poked our heads out each day but soon headed back to the shelter of the smokey old hut. As disappointing as the weather was, it was still good just to be there.
One day, right in the middle of the day between heavy showers of rain, we snuck out and glassed a bit of country we hadn’t looked into yet; we spotted a big old stag following a hind across an open face and disappearing into the scrub. I managed to get a bit of video footage of him which we played over and over in the hut.
He was a good mature animal, heavy and long, but looked to be missing a tine on the tops on his right antler; from the long-range footage, we couldn’t make out if he had any bez tines either – that footage was analysed frequently as we waited for the weather to calm itself. We had an out-of-date long-range forecast that reckoned we’d have a good day for our last one in the hills, so this stag was on the hit list for that day.
The Big Old Stag
We woke early on our last day in the hills to a minter of a day. Cabin fever was rampant, so we were out of bed well before daylight; the stars were shining and there wasn’t a breath of wind. We mowed down breakfast and found our way a couple of kilometres from the hut by head torch, seating ourselves down right where we’d been when we saw the stag a couple of days before. Coffee was brewing as we waited for daylight.
I’d just turned the cooker off when a roar rang out from our side of the valley, way up in the distance. Excited, we drank our coffee as the early light broke. Above us, there was a shingle scree, and a stone moved; a deer was walking across the middle of it … it was just light enough to see him with the naked eye. It’s at this time of day good optics pay dividends; my Swaros showed me the deer was a big stag, and my scope showed me
he was our stag.
I didn’t muck about; I chambered a round and got settled before I let out a low groan which stopped the beast in his tracks. The morning silence was broken by the crack of my 6.5×284, and he rolled down the scree into a thicket at the bottom.
We had a thrashing session through some of the thickest most serious matagouri I’ve ever seen to get to our prize. It took us the best part of an hour to travel the 250 yards the bullet managed in less than a second, but we were rewarded with a clonker of an old boy lying in the scrub. He wasn’t the tidiest of heads, but an old boy – heavy timbered, 36″ long with huge trez, and a body that was unmovable. Four days of crap weather was very quickly forgotten.
A Lone Bull
We still had the day up our sleeve, so we wandered up the valley and searched for something else. A mob of bulls was picked up in a set of unapproachable bluffs. We sat and watched them over many a brew in the hope they’d move from their safety and wander our way – but they didn’t.
Instead, further up the valley, a lone bull appeared an hour before dark – a good-looking older animal. Russ was as keen as mustard to put the crosshairs on him, so we did our best to close in on him. We hoped he was just over the ridge as we poked our noses over, and sure enough … there he was: a big old bull – 13″, we reckoned.
Just like I’d done earlier in the day, Russ got himself behind the rifle and had the 150gr SST buried in that tahr’s chest as quick as the blink of an eye. Another nice old animal – just shy of 13″ but as old as we’d thought.
Heck, we’d had some luck considering the horrendous weather we’d put up with. The worst thing was we had to head off the next day and still had a serious walk back to camp.
It was midnight by the time we got back, but the walk was eventful enough with a hind and yearling appearing in our head torches only 20 yards ahead of us at one point. The deer numbers are certainly up in many places at the moment – it wasn’t long ago when we’d hardly seen a deer in the valley that we’d hunted this trip.
Home we went with another collection of good mature animals and memories that’ll last a lifetime. We have a lot of fun in the hills – we just don’t get there as often as we used to … nor as often as we’d like to, but that just makes us savour the moments we do get.