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Back to the Big Country

Steve with his bull. The winter mane really sets off this magnificent game animal. Photo: K. Whitelaw

By Kevin Whitelaw – First Published Rod&Rifle Mar/Apr 1993.

I recall with pleasure the happy days spent hunting the big country beyond Lake Tekapo some 26 years ago. The late John Murphy and I took two trophy thar and a splendid chamois in the Macauley valley where we also saw 23 stags in one day’s hunting.

The hunting was grand then, in and around the famous Godley valley, halcyon days in an uncomplicated and relaxed atmosphere.

Last July I resolved to return to this alpine region of huge mountains and rough valleys to hunt again for the magnificent thar. There were four of us, Hamish, John, Steve and myself and we had been in for a week after thar on the steep bluffs. Hamish and Steve had both taken bulls, a 12.75 inch beauty for Hamish and what was to prove an irretrievable bull for Steve which still lay on a ledge down a steep bluff.

Every day we had watched through our spotting scope a group of thar that contained a nice bull, but despite some daring climbing we had not been able to get close enough for a shot.

All the animals were high up on steep bluff systems under the skyline and unbeknown to us a big snow and chill was only a week away. At the moment the snow afforded reasonable going and was in good condition.

That evening while again glassing thar in between cooking the evening meal we laid plans for the next day’s hunt. John and Hamish would tackle the country behind the hut again while Steve and I would hunt at the head of the valley. Outside the sky was clear and the air cold as the snow covered peaks stood out in sharp relief. A hard frost seemed likely, but our radio forecast cloud, nor’ west wind and of course rain.

Just past first light next morning four hunters decked out like Himalayan climbers left the warm confines of the old hut. Steve and myself felt positively indecent as we drove up the valley to eliminate some of the tramping. The frost was a real Mackenzie country special, intense cold with dry air and the promise of a fine day. Leaving the vehicle we set out to the accompaniment of a lonely kea and the muffled noise of the river.

I had hunted this valley by climbing the northwest face, but the snow conditions forced us to start from a different part of the valley floor.

Steve forged ahead leaving a neat trail of footprints and before long our layers of clothing were coming off, although in this region it is wise to be well prepared.

Some two hours later we reached a vantage point where we could rest and glass the magnificent panorama before us. Rocky bluffs, snow-covered slopes and near-vertical peaks. a day like this it was good to be alive.

Steve saw the first thar, a group of eight in the bluffs. They were quite safe where they were. Soon we could pick out thar here and there in the early morning sun and then suddenly a big bull was spotted in a wide expanse of bluffs with three other thar nearby. He looked magnificent, with excellent horns and a long dark coat with a creamy mane. Our position was bad as we were directly underneath him and to make matters worse a slight nor’west was coming across our face.

The animals seemed content however and have not detected us, but we could not move. The shot would have to be taken from where we were – 600 metres straight up hill. According to a longstanding agreement that Steve and I had, it was my shot and I stood in against the rock and aimed the Sako upward, trying to centre the bull in the reticle of the 4 x 32 Pecar. Although I went through the motion several times. I just could not get comfortable for the shot. “You take it Steve,” I said as he quickly got into position with his B.S.A. Hunter .308. The crack split the calm of the morning as under the 150 grain Spitzer went away. Watching through binoculars I saw the bull pitch from the bluff and plummet several hundred feet to disappear from sight. What a shot, the grin on Steve’s face said it all. Now we had to try and recover the animal.

It was all steep hill work, picking our way up through the snow until we came to a steep gut that showed a spot or two of blood. Making our way down we found the bull under snowgrass and snow at the bottom. It was a fine trophy, over 12 inches and the head had sustained minimal damage in the spectacular fall. Perfect for the taxidermist. Clearing a place we sat and had food and reflected on the marvellous panorama of mountains that lay before us. Above, two thar watched us from the top of a bluff.

Soon it was time to go and we caped out the bull and packed the horns and headskin in our pikaus and retraced our steps downhill. The nor’west drift  was now accompanied by mare’s tails, perhaps the forecast was right. Back at the hut I swung the billy over a brew we enthused about the hunt and that majestic game animal, the bull thar. I hope he will always live in the Southern Alps, not in the long gone vast herds, but in numbers that are not in conflict with the alpine flora.


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