By Mike Freeman – First Published Rod&Rifle Jan/Feb 1990.
It was 5am and bitterly cold outside and I purposely kept silent and still, hoping that Phil would stay put in his sleeping bag, but no, within minutes of stopping snoring he was up and about arranging his gear for the day.
“Come on you lazy sod, you had better get a move on if you want to get a bull thar today, we have got a way to go yet” he said half jokingly. Mumbling all the profanities I could think of, I shuffled to the door of the hut and peered outside — “great weather” — I said sarcastically — “its snowing”.
“Yeah, well it probably won’t last, its not settling anyway” he replied nonchalantly.
Breakfast was a slow affair, as we waited anxiously for the first signs of daylight. It finally came and with it a cold southwest wind blew directly down the valley, and with the odd snow squall hardly made for encouraging hunting conditions.
While I packed the Suzuki, Phil set up his spotting scope and glassed directly across from the hut. ‘There’s a chamois buck up there” he said matter of factly, “not a bad one either he’s about 100 metres below the ridge” — I had a quick look through the scope, confirmed its position but indicated that we should get a move on the warm interior of the jeep was too inviting.
Picking our way slowly up the riverbed we headed for the top hut some 14 kms further on. We had been told that if the river was at all up — to give it a miss with the vehicle and walk up. But we were lucky, even though the area had been subjected to weeks of rain bearing norwesters, the last 48 hours had been calm and mild, until this morning, but the regular river crossings proved no obstacle to the jeep.
By the time we reached the hut, the sun was up and was trying to pierce the sullen looking clouds above. Once inside we got out the map of the area and gave it the once over. ‘I reckon, if there are any thar around they will probably be up that side creek below the hut’ Phil said knowledgeably — ‘I have not been up there before but judging by the map it l@ks ideal thar country’.
By this stage with the sun doing its best to break through that cloud I was starting to get really keen -and suggested that we head off straight away. ‘No real hurry’ replied Phil — ‘its still early in the morning, its the bulls we want to see, it won’t be till later this afternoon before they move down off the bluffs.’
We headed off anyway figuring that we would climb up the creek bed as far as practical and if necessary rest up until later on.
Initially the creek did not look too bad, but after numerous river crossings the sides closed in and exposed huge bluff systems which towered above us, ran for several hundred metres and then gave way to lush spring meadows followed by the typical scree which spewed down into the creek bed.
‘Looks ideal thar country Phil’ I said making out I knew what I ‘was talking about and not reminding him of the fact that in all my years of hunting I had only hunted thar on three occasions. That last time being about seven years ago when I had shot a couple of nannies and blown the chance to score a bull which I had not seen until I had emptied my magazine.
It’s not everyday you an Invitation to hunt with a professional grade and Phil Wilson of Kiwi Hunting Safaris is one of the best and although it was short notice, and I had just returned from Australia after visiting Expo and looking up old friends and was terribly unfit, I eagerly snapped up the invitation.
‘Excellent (tahr)country’ he finally replied – ‘tell you what – if we don’t see at least 10 thar – I will make tea tonight.”
‘You’re on’ I laughed ‘ obviously you have heard of my culinary talents.’
We moved on ever upwards, slowly but surely examining through our binoculars every inch of ground that opened up before us. The creek bed opened up finally and as there were some excellent looking bluffs away to our left Phil suggested that we give them a real going over before heading any higher.
I lay back and using a hebe for a rest started to methodically search the bluffs. Phil did the same and for about 10 minutes not a word was spoken as we examined the country around us.
Suddenly it happened — the cream looking boulder which I had fixed my eyes on started to move followed by another and yet another. ‘Thar’ I said — right at the bottom of that bluff system directly opposite.
Phil immediately picked them up and to our amazement we kept on picking up animals until we finally admitted there were at least 12 quietly feeding right in the middle of the day. Getting his spotting scope out Phil observed that in all probability they would be only nannies and yearlings. The spotting scope confirmed this but I was not disappointed as just watching them was satisfying enough.
I half entertained the idea of climbing up opposite to get some photographs but there was still a considerable distance before we got into the head of the creek proper. We had a quick bite of lunch and were about to move on when I spotted another two nannies further along the ridge from the main mob. It was fairly obvious that these thar had not been disturbed for some time and there was also a fair few in this catchment.
We moved on. The weather had brightened up considerably although the wind, coming directly off the snow was bitterly cold and I was glad, that even though it was early October, I had worn my warmest clothing.
It was about 3.00pm when Phil finally that we climb out of the main creek bed and onto a face which afforded us a panoramic view of the opposite side
‘If there are any bulls about, they should start moving about within the next hour’ remarked Phil as once again he started to set up his spotting scope.
We both scanned the bluff system opposite and immediately picked up thar tracks everywhere in the snow — plenty of tracks alright but where were the animals that had made them?
It was almost an hour later when I heard the magical words ‘bull thar’ quietly uttered by Phil — ‘Where?’ I asked frantically — ‘In the top of those bluffs further up on our right’ he replied ‘There’s three of them all good bulls too’.
What followed will live in my memory for ever as the three thar ran headlong down through a very deep snow chute, their manes flowing in the wind and the powdery snow spraying everywhere. They would run down the chute to a bare ridge, up again and then jump off into the snow.
Two of the bulls were already changing into their summer coats but the third still retained his black winter skin and this made him look bulkier than the others.
Phil remarked that if they did not move down through the bluffs, they would be very difficult to get to considering the amount of snow directly below them.
‘Hell theres’ another four bulls back along the ridge’ Phil observed ‘and easier to get to’ I soon picked them up — the animals were in two’s about 200 metres apart but lower by far than the original ones.
‘The three at the top are definitely bigger, we will wait a while and see if they drop down’ — ‘thats alright by me’ I replied, I already had fixed ideas on trying for the big black one — a magnificent trophy — well at least to me.
It was not long before the sun going down obscured our view and the thar seemed to vanish. ‘We are going to have to move quickly if we want to get one, we will drop back down to the creek, see which is the most accessible and go for it’ said Phil with a degree of urgency creeping in to his voice.
We reached the creek bed within a few minutes and Phil immediately scanned the bluffs with his bino’s — ‘you beauts’ he remarked excitedly ‘that big black one and one of the others have moved below the bluffs’ — ‘do you reckon you can make it’ he asked — ‘we have not much time and we will have to go flat out to get into a good position’. ‘Go for it’ I said confidently — forgetting the fact that at 40 years of age and being unfit for this terrain it was hardly going to be an afternoon stroll.
Phil was gone in an instant, almost running, boulder hopping until he was into the snow — straight up the hill he charged and he did not slow down.
My lungs screamed at me to stop as I tried to keep behind him, floundering up the hill, falling over and crashing through the soft powdery snow until finally he could see the thar now with the naked eye — surely I could shoot him from here, but no, the moment I reached the shelter of the rocks, Phil was off again, beckoning me to follow.
He amazed me how quickly he moved across the snow, superbly fit, hardly making a noise and at the same time beckoning me onwards. Then it happened, he stopped, crouched low behind the huge rock and stated matter of factly – ‘they have seen us’ — ‘take a deep breath and take him as soon as possible’.
I threw myself in against the rock, took my day pack off and placed my rifle over it. For the first time, I looked through my scope and tried to estimate the distance — about 250 metres I reckoned — both thar stood nervously looking down and across to us – the big black one standing majestically on the ridge line just above the other bull.
‘The lighter coloured one is a bigger bull Mike’ Phil remarked — ‘he is 13 inches for sure’ — but I was already committed, it was the black one or nothing.
I quietly chambered a cartridge into my Anschutz — .270 and took deliberate aim at the bull’s shoulder. The rifle smacked into my shoulder as I absorbed the recoil — ‘you missed’ said Phil ‘the bullet went right in line with his chest — aim further back’.
Incredibly the thar had not started to run and again I fired — again I missed, and this time both thar were going flat out up the ridge. ‘Take your time’ said Phil, but no I had to have another go, but this time the only reaction was for the bulls to disappear over the ridge.
I’ve lost him I thought almost panic stricken and in the depths of despair ‘don’t worry’ I heard my mate say — ‘just reload your magazine — there is a chance they will come back over further up the ridge so they can get into the bluffs.’
I could not believe that I had missed what should have been an easy shot and blamed everything bar myself for it.
Then it happened, the black bull reappeared closely followed by the other one and started to climb into the bluff system. Phil reckoned that they were about 375 metres — this is it I thought — one last chance — I aimed well above his spine and further back than the other shots and squeezed the I never heard it hit but the big black one gave an involuntary jerk and slowly but surely rolled over and over until finally he came to rest lying on his back I had him.
The lighter coloured bull never hesitated and in seconds was out of sight into his domain.
Phil shook me by the hand while I just shook my head in disbelief. ‘Unfortunately we will have to leave him there until tomorrow’ he stated ‘we will have to walk out in the dark as it is, so we better get a move on.
It was well and truly dark by the time we got back to the creek but with the aid of torches we slowly made our way back down through the gorges. It was a cold night and this coupled with the numerous river crossings drained the last of the energy from my body. It seemed an eternity until finally we reached the tussock flat where we knew the hut was situated.
We had hardly spoken on the way out but now as we reached the hut door Phil could not resist it — ‘by the way’ he said gleefully — ‘you have to cook tea tonight — we saw over 10 thar.’
In actual fact we had seen over 30 animals for the day, the most thar I had ever seen.
I did not sleep well that night as I worried about the weather — would it hold so that I could recover my bull.
It was barely daylight when we left the hut and it was uncomfortable having to don wet clothing and boots but it looked as though we were in for a storm so little time was spent in worrying about the cold and no stops where made to glass the surrounding slopes.
Another three thar were seen on the skyline but they were hardly given a second glance as we climbed steadily to where I had shot from the night before.
The storm clouds were starting to gather as we gained the sanctuary of the rocky outcrop and Phil volunteered to quickly move up to the fallen one and drop him back down a convenient snow slide to easier ground for head skinning.
It was obvious Phil was at home in this type of country as he skillfully made his way into the bluffs. It was already starting to snow as he reached the bull and after a quick rest he pushed the thar into space. I watched anxiously as it floated down to hit the snow and slide to within 5 metres of where I stood.
I was quickly joined by Phil who without prompting ran his tape measure over the bull’s horns — ’11 ½ inches’ said Phil almost apologetically — ‘not one for the record books but a good trophy none the less’.
It was good enough for me though and I was elated. The weather was now really starting to pack it in so we hurried to get some photo’s and then carefully removed the head skin. Finally we were done and once again headed off back down the creek oblivious to the snow which threatened to envelop us.
The trip was suddenly over and I remarked to Phil that for years I had yearned to get a good bull thar and that if I did I would never go after them again. But now looking back at those mountains and knowing that the thar are back — I’m not so sure — maybe but just maybe I could get a 12 inch bull.