By Tim Coles – First Published Rod&Rifle Jul/Aug 1998.
“Good Luck” were Joe’s parting words before swinging the Toyota out of the Walls Whare carpark, leaving me with my pack and rifle.
‘Luck? – Joe’ I thought, Joe just remembering to return in five days time to pick me up would be all the luck I’d need from him. It was the Roar (my first) and having already shot a stag this season didn’t dampen my enthusiasm to get another, on the open tops this time I hoped.
With a six hour slog ahead of me to reach the first hut and a lot more climbing in the following days I set a comfortable pace. It would be unwise to burn myself out at the start racing up the steep Tararua terrain. I took a breather on Cone Saddle before continuing the ascent. A few times I thought I’d made the top only to see the track rise away in front of me through the beech. I eventually reached Cone peak, that commanding vantage point would have revealed splendid vistas all around I’m sure. Just my luck that low cloud had cut visibility to 20 metres.
Descending the spur to my destination my legs were feeling the effects of all the climbing I’d done.
At the meeting place of the Hector River with Neill Creek I sighted Neill Forks Hut, an old Forest Service six bunker. It was then that I realised I had dropped my swannie somewhere up the last spur, well, it was April 1 and I certainly thought myself a fool as it took an hour and a half extra leg work to retrieve the thing. Arriving at the hut a second time I crashed on the nearest bunk.
Next morning I stashed some food for my return and began the journey to Maungahuka Hut, the steepness of the country making for a hard slog the whole way. However, the prospect of getting to the open tops urged me on and lessened the fatigue in my legs. Reaching the ‘ghost forest’ where moss covered and hung from everything, I knew I was nearing tussock country.
Climbing down Maungahuka peak an orange roof and dark tarn appeared before me, Maungahuka Hut at last, another old Forest Service hut. With two days invested in climbing to reach this place I certainly hoped the sky would clear whilst I was here.Good luck finally! In the evening the cloud allowed for a looksee with the binoculars. The twin Tararua Peaks looked spectacular in the multi-coloured sunset as did the colours reflecting in the tarn. To the west Kapiti Island Bird Sanctuary stood prominently off the coast.
Walking north along the ridge to glass the tussock benches I glanced to the east and stood marvelling at the sight I saw. The sun low down in the west cast my shadow out across the top of the cloud laying in the eastern valley, the Spectre Of The Brocken! With sharp definition, my huge outline stretched from ridge top to ridge top for the entire width of the valley. I gazed upon the rare view until the sun dipped below the edge of the earth. Maybe my luck was taking a turn for the better. To cap off the great twilight a stag roared in the bush down to the north.
The chilly dawn was clear and I would have to get a wriggle on if I wanted to see anything before the cloud closed in for the day. Meat Safe Spur to the south didn’t live up to its name, its cloak of tussock revealing no movement. I returned to glass the area of open guts and spurs east of the hut, no life there either. A hearty roar over to the north perked me up no end, the stag I’d heard last night?
On a bench 500 metres away near the bushedge the binoculars picked up the lone figure of a deer. As he roared once more a quiver went through my body, even from this distance the stag seemed to be all antler!
I took a bearing on his location before ducking behind a long fold in the ground which I could follow unobserved to within 100 metres of the big boy, A third of the way down I sneaked a look over tussocks at him, fixing a longing stare at the bobbing antlers – he was on the move. Only a few steps at a time but I knew I’d have to get down there pronto before he had a chance to recede back into the bush. I gave a low moan to tease him into sticking around which he answered by unleashing a deep roar in return, his antlers seemed more alluring the closer I got.
Reaching the end of the cover I poked my head up to survey the area, he was gone from sight! A little distraught I gave a grunt and to my relief, the stag roared back from an area of small knolls and guts on the bush margin but was still hidden from me.
Walking along the undulating ground I tensely scanned every hump and hollow as he could appear anywhere. All my senses were on the edge of their seats.
Suddenly there he was – in full view. Eighty metres separated us. I raised the .303 in a flash. He swung his head to face me. I lined up on his shoulder and eased off a shot. Immediately he lunged from sight. I ran to where the stag had last stood, looking around I could not see him. The ground was covered with large prints, some old, some new, he obviously hung out here a lot. I then spotted some slots in amongst the tussock, the skid marks told of his headlong charge into a leatherwood gut, great! I didn’t relish the prospect of having to find a dead deer in that lot.There was no doubt that the shot connected but I couldn’t locate any blood. I spent half an hour struggling through the restrictive vegetation, combing back and forth. The upshot of it all was numerous scratches and the possibility I’d lost (or missed) a big stag. My bad luck had returned with vengeance.
For a different perspective of all the leatherwood, I climbed the little spur on its far side. I can’t describe the feeling when I spotted a hint of red skin beneath two large leatherwoods on the opposite side of the gut. It was just the rump I could see, firmly fixing the spot in my head I entered the labyrinth, crawling the last 10 metres.
His final resting place amid some quite thick leatherwood specimens paid testimony to the power of a rampaging stag. Pulling back a branch I caught my breath, laying before me was the biggest rack I’d seen. Grabbing the antlers I twisted the heavy head around to count the points … 13, lucky for some. I was lucky to have found him, the cloud soon came in obliterating all from sight.
Even with adrenalin pumping I knew I had no show of hauling the stag out of the confined space. Unceremoniously I took the head, hind legs, back and inside backsteaks and floated my way along the ridge to the hut for a celebratory brew.
I then had my first opportunity to carefully examine the antlers. 13 points, I checked twice to be sure. Pleasing brow tines, especially the left. The right bez was only two inches though and the left could have been longer but was good considering. Trez tines and front tops were all very decent. The four back tops could have been longer as well I suppose but matched successfully. The lucky thirteenth point sat in the crown of the right antler. Overall nice timber thickness and a balanced head.
To reduce weight for the carry down to Neill Forks I boned out the meat and cut all the tissue off the head, I even used an old bowsaw blade that was about to cut most of the skull off.
The rest of the day was spent in solitary confinement in the cloud enshrouded hut reading the logbook from cover to cover. A tramper had written he’d been in the hut for one week in similar conditions to what I now faced except the cloud hadn’t cleared once. This guy never found the toilet (which sits at the far end of the tarn), I could believe it. I wasn’t lucky enough for the cloud to clear in the evening which prevented another hunt.
The cloud was still in the next morning as I retraced the track back along the tops and dropped into the bush for my return to Neill Forks hut. Cloud gave way to light rain the lower I got, now at least I could glass the slips up Maungahuka Stream. I picked out a single hind amongst some young mahoe but I had my quota of meat so she was safe.
From Concertina Knob I could see the upper Hector river for the first time, plenty of grassy slips – some quite big scarred the valley and were tempting enough to possibly be the object of a future trip. Thankfully the day was mostly downhill right to the hut and I wasn’t too buggered. I didn’t look forward to the steep climb the next day though.
Bright and early under a fine dawn sky I set off up the spur for Cone Ridge with the head tied on my pack. The tines got hooked a couple of times but didn’t provide the hindrance I thought they would. Three quarters of the way to the ridge an unexpected explosion in the pepperwood to my right was the only evidence I got that a deer had been nearby. I did not even think of taking off the pack to go after it, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get it on again. A distant roar in Clem Creek and the wonderful sight of three tui in a grove of kamahi singing away were the only highlights of the remaining hike to Walls Whare carpark.
Witnessing The Spectre Of Brocken was worth the trip alone but I’d still keep the head and this is what I was thinking as the Toyota turned up. Joe had thankfully remembered our rendezvous, his greeting was “Any luck?”