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The Southern Traverse – Browning Pass

I believe some of our best thinking occurs in those euphoric moments hours after a successful trip into the hills; warm and dry, surrounded by good mates and family, even the dumbest idea can get a foothold.

After years of hunting in South Westland and spending many hours in a machine flying over that beautiful piece of our country, I’d always wanted to traverse the Southern Alps from the East Coast to the West Coast on foot, and in recent years, I’d often thought of re-tracing the first established pounamu trail across Browning Pass as well – a trail used by South Island Māori to move pounamu (greenstone) over the Alps for processing and trading. And there it was … the beginnings of an adventure … or possibly a dumb idea.

I sat on my thoughts for a while and decided to do a little research and a recce or two. When I was satisfied I could do it, I floated the suggestion to the boys; if their response was anything to go by, it turned out it wasn’t such a dumb idea after all! They were as keen as mustard.

The Swedish Queen

Other than the obvious challenges of walking 60km over the main divide and the pressing need for me to shed a few kilos in order to do so, I was at a crossroads as to which rifle I should take.

After two years of working on a good mate Hugh, I’d finally convinced him he needed to make room in his gun safe and that I’d gladly relieve him of one of his safe queens; after a brief discussion to agree on the price, his M96 Swedish Mauser was mine.

The ‘Swedish Queen’ was manufactured in 1919 and was officially a centenarian. Being a completely original rifle, it was a perfect opportunity for me to test my skills hunting the Southern Alps with a bare gun, and at the same time, honour the craftsmen of a bygone era. Besides, what better way to celebrate your 100th birthday than to go hunting in the Southern Alps!

Now to put a crew together …

The Team

I’m fortunate enough to be a trustee for the Soldier Sailors and Airmen’s Association of New Zealand (SSAANZ), a charity committed to supporting currently serving NZDF personnel as they transition into civilian life and also our NZDF veteran community as a whole. We do this by getting our members into the great outdoors to learn new skills, push themselves physically and generally have a good time with like-minded souls. Our motto is Unity Through Adventure, and that’s what we hope to achieve with the events we run.

With the core crew of Dave and Chris confirmed (both trustees of the charity), we set about advertising the event; in no time at all, five hearty souls agreed to join us on the traverse taking our party number to eight. Jim, T and Kohi were all serving members of the NZ Army, and Cam had transitioned out of the military some years before. We also had Richard along who’d seen Territorial service in the 70s; because of his experience as a journalist, his role on the trip was to be our photographer – at almost 60 years of age, this trek was to be a considerable achievement for Richard.

With four members of the team being experienced hunters, it was decided to use the traverse as a hunter-training opportunity for the remaining four members of the party.

With the dates, crew and route locked in, it was time to get some hill training done; long story short … I’m not as young as I thought I was, and it hurt … a lot!

Kick-off crept up on us very quickly, and in no time at all, a vanload of soldiers from the North Island descended on Lake Coleridge, keen to hit the trail and learn this beautiful art of hunting.

Day 1

We made our way up the Wilberforce Valley by vehicle to our drop-off point; the weather couldn’t have been better nor the surrounding hills any more stunning. Most of the team had never travelled a braided South Island riverbed by 4WD before, and they were mesmerised by the jaw-dropping scenery.

Bidding farewell to Ashley and Kevin, who’d used their 4WD to taxi us part way up the valley, we shouldered our packs and took the first steps of what would be – for some – a life-changing journey. We took the opportunity to utilise the skills of Jim Peffers (NZDA Hunts Course Co-ordinator) to teach us how to negotiate a braided river safely, and it goes without saying we all learnt a thing or two from Jim during the trip.

Making our way upstream we bumped into a couple of lean looking ‘mountain goats’; we asked them where all the animals were, and there was plenty of nose rubbing when they said there weren’t many around! A few more minutes of interrogation from a former customs officer and they eventually capitulated, giving us the good oil on where we’d encounter animals as the days unfolded. Our thanks go to those gentlemen; their advice, it would turn out, was spot on.

After setting up camp for the night and having a quick feed, we split the group in two and following the mountain goats’ advice, decided to glass the hills around us. Dave and the team spotted reds feeding out in the open, and Chris and myself spotted chamois feeding on the faces directly opposite camp. Chris, although experienced as a hunter, had never glassed chamois before and it was impressive to watch him quickly get his eye in, spotting mobs of those animals and also lone bucks moving with purpose through the hills. To see animals thriving in their environment is sometimes as fulfilling as claiming them with a well-placed shot.

Day 2

After a successful morning spent teaching the boys how to glass, with deer being sighted high above camp, Day 2 saw us move upriver only for progress to be interrupted by one of the team spotting a fine, well-conditioned red stag browsing within range. This interlude proved a great opportunity to introduce the team to a ‘hunter ethics’ lesson. With sharpshooter qualified personnel constituting some of the team, making the shot wasn’t a concern – we were confident about that; but the overriding questions of what to do with the meat and the effort required to haul a trophy head of his class over the pass and down the West Coast proved the deciding factors. As eager as we were, we decided against taking the shot; this served as a good lesson to our newer hunters about the reason we hunt and how important recovering meat and selecting your animal is. We watched spellbound as this regal creature moved into cover, all secretly hoping to see him again another day.

Day 2 on the river came to a close with a well-earned bath for some and a nap in the hut for others. Fortunately, the bug had taken hold, and the crew were keen to put their new-found skills to the test; a couple of hunts were planned with four of the team setting out for a chamois and four setting off for a red.

In no time at all, Chris, T and Richard had located a lone chamois buck at 500m feeding on a rocky outcrop, and the planning process rapidly kicked into gear. The boys considered wind, elevation, terrain, distance and the shooter’s capabilities; they took their time as the animal was unaware of their presence and came to the conclusion that closing the distance was out of the question. Given the shooter’s experience and confidence, the shot was taken.

A Tikka T3 chambered in .308 topped with good glass is a hard combination to beat, and matched with a capable shooter, the results were hardly surprising. After a hard climb up the scree, Chris payed respects to his fallen buck and once the obligatory photo session was complete, Chris had his first chammy on his back – you’d have to go a long way to see a bigger smile!

We enjoyed chammy back steaks for dinner, and with endorphins still flowing, the mood in the hut was infectious. Unfortunately, the chamois enacted revenge on some of the team given the noises and smells emanating from sleeping bags that night! Humorous, to say the least; horrific for the uninitiated!

Day 3

The morning loomed with the sight of Browning Pass resplendent in the mist. This only added to the mystique of conquering what we all knew would be, given our pack weights, our longest day. Shortly after getting under way, the cry of chamois resonated through the hills; sure enough, a great-looking buck was making his way at speed across a scree face and the call for me to have a go with the Swede could be heard.

With seven sets of eyes watching, I raised my Leica binocular rangefinders and found him at 410m; he was well outside my self-imposed shooting distance of 300m, but thankfully the terrain was forgiving and the buck extremely photogenic as he decided to stand atop a rock and give us one of his best Austrian poses. This stroke of luck bought me time and space to close my distance to 277m, locate a suitable prone position and set up for the shot. Base good, support solid, breathing controlled, sight alignment perfect, trigger pressure … BOOM! … missed … bugger!

I failed to see the fall of shot given the distance but reloaded instinctively, hoping he’d present me with a follow-up shot. From behind me, almost immediately, I heard the call of “High!” from a team member who was watching through his binos; I adjusted my aiming point accordingly and loosed another shot – the buck crumpled as the 144gr 6.5 x 55 round found its mark.

After dropping packs and with T close at my side, we climbed the face in an attempt to locate the fallen buck; after a short but intense climb, we found him, and my hunter’s heart quickened – he was a beauty!

After paying due respects to our quarry, we carried him off the hill and took the opportunity to hold a field butchery lesson with the team; dressed out and meat distributed, we turned our attention to conquering the pass. “Happy 100th birthday, old girl – thank you.”

Being the only Navy man surrounded by soldiers, I couldn’t resist the urge to pump up how thorough Navy marksmanship training is; my comments were met with several passive aggressive murmurings which I won’t repeat here!

Browning Pass

Reaching the top of Browning Pass and with the West Coast beckoning, the team took stock of what they’d achieved. There’s a special bond forged in the New Zealand Defence Force, and it made me proud to see the boys bring their training to bear and support Richard, our roving reporter, who wasn’t confident on the slippery steep terrain; I don’t think Richard would have survived in the RNZAF – the narrow track over the pass definitely induced some knee-knocking moments!

Browning Pass became an infamous part of local Māori legend as it was the scene of much fighting between the Ngai Tahu in the east and Ngati Wairangi in the west over control of the route and its precious pounamu. At the top of the pass sits Lake Browning, and when Māori brought pounamu out of the West Coast, they’d place it in the lake overnight to lift the tapu inherent with such a precious resource. Those of us with pounamu did the same, submerging our taonga in the freezing water – I swear mine felt lighter afterwards.

Into Harmen Hut trod eight weary souls; the West Coast terrain was acutely different to the Canterbury braided river systems we’d negotiated, and to say it was a ‘track’ we were following would be a fair stretch of the imagination.

Torrential rain and gale-force winds that night reinforced to us that we were indeed on the West Coast. “Hard as Woodpecker’s lips, these Coasters”, said Jim, and we all knew why.

With more chamois in the pot and a belly full of hot sweet tea, sleep came easy.

Day 4

As we descended into the prehistoric rainforest that dominates the mighty West Coast, looking down the Arahura Valley before turning left to head over the Styx Pass, we couldn’t help but wonder at the resilience and sheer determination of those who’d gone before – Māori and European … she’s hard country, even on a good day, let alone in flax sandals.

Dropping into the Styx River, the pace quickened, and the odd tune could be heard as the boys sensed a hut was nearby; deer sign was plentiful, and Chris was as keen as we’d seen him. After setting up for the night in Grassy Flat Hut, it didn’t take him long to put on every piece of Hunters Element clothing he could find and set out to try his luck.

Success was his, and right on dark, Chris secured himself a well-conditioned 5-point red stag with a cracking neck shot. Returning to the hut laden with meat, he relived the stalk as we set about dressing out his animal; venison steaks for tea with great company and a roaring game of cards on the go … heaven!

Day 5

All the heavy rain saw us very concerned about making it across the river safely; however, the team packed up and were keen to hit the trail, eager to see the journey through.

There are many factors when making decisions in the wilderness, and experience can never be underestimated when deciding about river crossings, weather or route planning; we were very lucky to have members in the team who had experience to burn. The decision was made to push off and make for our pick-up point; as we neared the crossing point, we collectively breathed a sigh of relief as we saw the river was safe to cross.

The track down the Styx River was memorable, mainly due to the rain which seemed to strike every time we decided to take our rest; unperturbed, the team pushed on with those fishermen in the group spotting brown trout in a few places. Mental note: set two days aside for fishing the next time we walk the Styx River – what a resource!

The End of Our Journey

The white van accompanied by my smiling wife, Jo, signalled the end of our journey across the Southern Alps. Wet clothes off, dry clothes on, but the van didn’t seem to smell any better for it – poor Jo! Hokitika, hot chips and a brew … let the stories commence.

For those of us who’ve long since left the Defence Force, it was great to connect with our currently serving personnel T, Kohi and Jim and with our veterans Dave, Chris, Cam and Richard and to share this wonderful country we all served to protect.

Quite naturally, there was a strong sense of pride at our achievement but also a real sense of sadness at reaching the end of our journey; the latter feeling was very similar to the post-deployment blues most personnel experience upon return to New Zealand from operations overseas – but I suppose therein lies the beauty. Being a member of SSAANZ, we look forward to the next ‘dumb idea’ so we can get back into the hills and do it all over again!

Unity through adventure … onward!

Prologue: The very next day, T and Kohi managed to get shots away on their first deer; T connected with a beautiful shot on a red hind, but unfortunately, the wind affected Kohi’s shot on a young red stag. Regardless, everyone headed north with fresh venison and two more hunters were welcomed into the fold.

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