When my hubby, Baz, and I first landed on New Zealand soil – our first overseas trip after the pandemic – I took a long moment to take in my surroundings. The air feels cleaner here, and the atmosphere, the people and places … well, for me, NZ has always felt like home. Much like the connection one feels to hunting through our ancestry, I feel the same connection to my Māori ancestors and my surroundings whenever I’m here. The mountains beckon, and I could lose myself in nature for a time. I suppose that’s what keeps me coming back after all.
Roaring Death Blades
We crashed at our mate Owen’s for the night, and then the three of us – Baz, Owen and I – drove to where we’d be taking a chopper ride to camp. We were packed to capacity with gear and food and ready to rough it out for anywhere up to a week if weather permitted.
I can’t say I enjoyed the chopper ride in; my mind doesn’t seem to appreciate or comprehend the idea of being propelled above the ground by giant, roaring death blades. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but it is literally where my mind goes whenever I have to fly in one of those things. Still, our pilot Malcolm’s jovial disposition made the trip a little easier to stomach – that and clinging to Owen’s side whenever I felt the slightest jolt!
Doubts and Anxiety
With my stomach already aflutter with nerves from the chopper flight, I then became wracked with the feeling that I was out of my depth. Not fit enough, not accurate enough, not experienced enough. I’ve only been hunting for the last four years and not as privy to opportunity as most. Being a full-time mum to seven kids keeps me busier than the average person and finding time to hunt in between home life and responsibilities can be difficult. I’m lucky to have my hubby and Owen as well as a large community of well-respected hunter friends, both in person and on social media, to guide and support me through my journey.
Being dropped off at camp put pause on any anxiety I may have had. I stood surrounded by snow-peaked mountains framing a clear blue sky. The only sounds were of the breeze rustling against our tents, the lapping of water from the river and the chatter of the guys as we set up camp before setting out for our first day of hunting.
It was a hard first day, especially when my legs were not seasoned for the gruelling hike upwards. We moved through spike bush that pierced any skin it encountered, and across shale faces that would send you sliding back to where you’d come from if you weren’t sure-footed. We jumped from rock to rock, navigating across rivers. Finally, we arrived at a position from which we could glass and, if we spotted a bull, shoot.
By this time, I was bruised and scratched; my calves were burning but my mind was calm. I was under the presumption that Baz was shooting, so I was solely focused on keeping up with the guys. But suddenly, after watching some animals through his binos, Baz turned to me and said, “Ayah – you’re up!” I suppose, in hindsight, I’m grateful that I didn’t have time to let doubt cloud my thoughts.
I scrambled into position, trying to get as comfortable as one could be at the angle I was on, setting my sights on the bull. I waited till my crosshairs lined up broadside, took a deep breath in and slowly pulled the trigger back as I breathed out my shot. I struck home and my bull was knocked off his feet. I could hear Baz and Owen rejoicing behind me, but the powerful blast of the gun had me slightly disorientated. A whirring sound could be heard overhead; a chopper in the distance threatened to send my dying bull into a panic, and so I wasted no time in placing a second shot in his chest. He tumbled down the mountain before finally coming to rest.
It’s a bittersweet moment when your hunt comes to an end, but nothing can describe the overwhelming wave of appreciation I felt for that moment and the life I’d taken. The memory of the experience is one I can take back to Australia – a memory and a bit of home to take with me.
But the hunt wasn’t over yet – we had two more days.
It takes a strong will to keep on climbing when your entire body is begging you to stop. During our second day of hiking through tahr country, my body tried to give up on me so many times, but my mind told me to keep going … just a few more steps, a pause, short deep breaths, and again on repeat until we reach that next peak. It’s much easier to trick the mind into taking one step at a time than to contemplate the thousands of steps it takes to complete a hunt like this one.
We’d just finished climbing a face so steep that I had to use clumps of tussock to place my feet on as I anchored my body with what felt like the last of my remaining strength. Little did I know we were only halfway through the hard work! We took a short stop beneath a waterfall to refill our bottles and watched tahr through our binoculars and spotting scope as they grazed on the opposite face.
After spotting a good bull, Owen urged Baz to take up the rifle from where we lay, and when I say ‘lay’, I mean we were practically vertical using the mountain as a backrest. Baz had to wedge his heel to stop himself and the rifle from sliding. It was a position that only someone with his years of hunting and skill behind the rifle could make work – and he did. He let off a few rounds, confident his bull was dead as we headed off to retrieve him.
Struggling Through Snow
After a couple of hours, we stopped for a break and a snack; chocolate, crackers and elk salami are a welcome reward after hours of climbing. And when you experience the breathtaking scenery from the tops, it all becomes worth it.
After reaching the edge of one mountain, we’d do a quick glass of our surroundings and then – step by agonisingly slow step – work our way across the snow-covered face. Baz carved out the way, stomping a foundation for us to follow, before realising the snow had become too hard to carve through with just his weight. He signalled for us to turn back, which meant not only retracing our steps but also heading back towards the top … that calf-burning climb back up before a slow and slippery descent to where Baz’s bull lay.
I’d never feared the snow before this day. The images in movies of the soft, delicate and almost fluffy-looking snow cast a stark contrast to what I was experiencing … fast and uncontrollable sliding where you have to slam your body into clumps of plants poking through the white snow in order to stop … zigzagging through snow so deep that it’s a struggle to pull your weight out without slipping face forward and sliding to what you can only pray is more mountain and not a sheer drop! Amazingly though, you endure it, and you enjoy it, because the adventure is what it’s all about – the adrenalin-spiking feeling you get from the hunt, the climactic pull of the trigger or bow, and the elation and relief when you’re back around a warm campfire sharing the day’s stories.
Back to Camp
We found Baz’s bull and awkwardly took our photos. The sun had already begun to fade, and we had to make our descent back to camp in the dark. It was slow with the extra weight of Baz’s tahr. Each step was carefully placed, but we did it – we even made it to camp before Owen, who’d gone back to look for his binoculars. I didn’t envy that mission, but Owen is a New Zealand guide and navigates the mountains better than anyone I’ve ever met. He arrived back at camp with binoculars in hand soon after us.
I spent the following day relaxing with Baz and allowing my body time to recover, while Owen hunted his tahr solo. Although it was late and he was wet from the rain, he was still smiling at his success as he brought his prize back to camp. We messaged the chopper for retrieval the following morning and toasted our success over the fire that night.