By Rob Suisted – First Published Rod&Rifle May/Jun 1993.
Late Sunday night. Six of us lying in bivvy bags, above a West Coast ravine, in the pitch black. Wondering? Wondering about Phil’ s injuries? Wondering when the gorge would end? Wondering when the rain would start? Such was our luck.
Yet another South Island excursion had been instigated and this one was going off about as smoothly as a West Coast river-bed.
Friday evening saw myself on the road from Tawa, picking up Paul Sinclair enroute to the Interislander. “Ferries cancelled due to weather conditions,” blurted the 5 pm news.
Saturday – Day of frustration. Paul, Joe Hubmann, Chris Mclean and myself biding time with other hunters heading south for the roar. Phil and David Suisted had just spent ten days tramping to the head of the Waiatoto River and back. The plan was to meet them at Nelson Creek on Saturday morning as both were keen to see what the roar would produce.
Sunday morning was a mad dash for Westland hoping they were still vocal. Mind you a fair bit of time was spent rarking up road side stags, eh Chris. The rendezvous was kept and the six of us sped towards our destination. “Sorry there’s four parties up there already, D.O.C. has slipped up. You’ll have to head up the next valley,” Bill the local station holder advised.
Disadvantages were immediately obvious. The old overgrown track sidled in for six hours above continuous gorge. Would the smaller valley have enough scope for six people for seven days? However Phil was quick to remind us of a large 15 pointer shot in the valley two years previously. This had of course played a big role in selecting this area of north Westland for this year’s trip.
While eleventh hour packing operations were effected at the road end two green Christchurch hunters covered to the eyebrows with hook grass emerged. “Treacherous country lads, overgrown, no deer around the hut, big possums though.” These final words echoed as we set forth.
Perhaps one hour in the track cuts across a wet slimey waterfall chute hundreds of feet above the main gorge. Phil, in the front crossed. As he is climbing out the other side he falters. Unfamiliar, the rifle he has is a hinderance to balance.
He slowly slid to the edge before plunging 12 feet to land on a terrace before plummeting with a sickly cry onto rocks another 20 feet below. This frozen moment was watched by all. Miraculously Phil’s on his feet cursing about snapping a borrowed rifle. After tending injuries we all moved off, more than a little shaken, into the increasing gloom with the majority of the trip in to go.
This is what had caused all the anxiety. The wondering that night.
Time was most important now, having recently finished a degree in zoology and with job hunting going as it was I had lots of time to hunt, yet here we were, working to a tight schedule, one with two days missing already.
The last hours to the old NZFS hut were done Monday morning. Chris and Joe eagerly sort gear and set off to fly camp on the tops, hoping to be back Thursday as the weather was stable. Phil and David began familiarising themselves with the camp oven as Paul and I set off for a ‘reccy.’ After many hours of stalking river terraces before climbing the valley walls it seemed Bill was correct about low animal numbers. All we returned to camp with was hoarse throats. Phil, true to form had whipped up a batch of hot scones to devour after tea.
Next morning Paul and I were off up river to fly camp. After travelling along a terrace for an hour we arrived at the head of some extensive flats. On past an old rotting carcass we set the camp in bush at the start of the next gorge. Little sign was found on the flats, the real interest lay with all the fresh wallows and rubbings inside the bush edge for perhaps one kilometre up the river. Some of the rubbings went at least seven feet high. Our camp was placed to take advantage of this area.
Both of us had doubts as to whether the roar had started properly as it was the beginning of April and the weather had been very mild with no roaring heard yet. We decided to spend the rest of the day stalking silently in an effort to locate the area this stag was in.
I had the higher beat and quickly became disappointed with what I saw. Coprosmas growing in profusion, untouched and hence no deer sign. Areas of old rubbings were evident. Paul spent his time painstakingly searching the lower levels. He confirmed the lack of sign and saw the unchecked palatables, but was able to put up several animals. As each of us returned to camp we found yet more stag sign along the fringes. Truly large hoof prints surrounded the wallows, yet we hadn’t found any evidence of him holding hinds. Wednesday morning was greeted with drizzle. Pikaus are loaded and we set off up valley into the wind. Immediately more stag sign was found, all relatively fresh, we were pretty certain it was the same fella. No mistaking those prints. The sign continues for perhaps two kilometres upriver. It seems this stag has staked three kilometres of valley floor as his territory and we can’t for the life of us work out where he’s at.
Continuing upriver the scrub layer is reached. Strong wind and rain turn us around. After lunch we returned to the bush where the wind had reversed allowing hunting of the beautiful bush terraces above the flats and gorges on the way back to camp. We found a well hidden cave with the skeleton of a old hind in it. All her legs had been broken, and healed at some time in her life. Testimony to her habitat.
We stopped for a break on a terrace above the river. The view contained 70 metres of river bed. Rifles leant against a tree, I was crouched peering into the depths of the pikau while Paul was at the edge, “splashing his boots.”
“Stag! Stag!” came a stifled cry from Paul’s throat. Looking out through the mingimingi a large stag was visible 60 metres off, travelling up the river bed. Paul was playing the corpse. “He’s looking straight at me.” Peering out again all I remember is the huge bodied stag with white points hanging high above his head, nose in the air he was frantically trying to scent. The now static shape of Paul in the bush obviously concerned him. I was about to crawl below shrub height to get a rifle and poke the barrel out through beech roots. With a bead on him I told Paul to grab his rifle, “He’s yours.” Paul unselfishly replied “No I can’t move, he’ll see me. You take him.” Chambering a round into the .270 the crosshairs centred on the animal as it broke into a stiff legged gait towards the opposite bank. A quick shot had no immediate effect. Three strides, and the stag collapses onto his chest but recovers and heads our way. A second shot clean misses as the stag bounds the last water channel and disappears. Paul got his rifle and headed off, hoping to intercept the stag at the back of the terrace. Unloading, I was not far behind.
No sight of the stag crossing through the bush, silence. Where is he? Slowly we circled through the bush, out into the river bed where he had been standing. “He’s hit hard Rob, the way he fell he shouldn’t have got far.” No blood was visible as we followed his tracks. Minutes tick by. “We’ve got him Paul, over here.” A hoof, was sticking out of the riverside scrub. He’d collapsed after jumping the river. “He’s massive.”
Lying in the scrub was the biggest bodied, acrid smelling stag, sporting the largest head either of us had seen and were ever likely too. We stood dumbfounded. The old white faced stage carried 12 points and measured 38 x 37 inches. Unfortunately one bey tine was broken.
Many thoughts raced past. Thoughts of elation, thoughts of sadness for Paul. It was just as much his stag as it was mine. Fortunate for me, unfortunate for him. “That’s the way it happens” he says. I only hope I would be as sporting in the same situation. A great hunting companion.
An extended photo session began before the head skin was removed. Last but not least the heart is taken for tucker. Speed was essential as we were keen to head back to the hut before the river rose and darkness descended. Back at camp gear was thrown into packs before being hoisted onto shoulders. The two hour trip up turned into a three hour bush bash, back through massive windfalls. Euphoria made the perpetual job of untangling tines from the undergrowth insignificant. On arrival at the hut, double takes came from Phil and David. The story of the mighty stag was retold many times that night. He was an old boy, white face with balding forehead and missing eye teeth.
Phil, Paul and David travelled back up river the next day to hunt and recover meat from the stag, while I spent many hours headskinning and fleshing the skull. Joe and Chris arrived a few hours after dark with stories of stags. Chris had picked up a heavy nine pointer, while Joe embarrassingly admitted losing another while trying to get that extra photo of him first. Both had heard sporadic roaring but were unimpressed by animal numbers.
Friday was an early start. Joe and Chris heading up river, Phil and David onto the western tops and Paul and I on to the eastern. Paul carried the rifle while I had the video camera. High hopes of the usual morning mist lifting didn’t eventuate. Some beautiful country was seen yet no stags induced to roar. Disappointed and wet we returned for pikelets. At the hut was an old rotting antler someone had found. It had been from my stag, showing he had starting to go back. This one had seven long points.
Next morning everyone was up and packing – large quantities of food were rodent proofed before we set off. We were all carrying extra weight, whether it was meat, antlers or headskin, or in Phil’s case still carrying severe bruising and swelling. The trip out was a fast and uneventful one for all except Paul, who managed to fall and wedge himself into a large hole, unnoticed by the group, extracting himself fifteen minutes later with difficulty.
Back at Bill’s place the six of us were kindly feed and yarns exchanged for hours. Then off to the local for some serious imbibing. Accommodation was easy, bivvy bags rolled out in Nelson Creek Domain in the small hours of Sunday morning. The last laugh of the trip went to the wekas. Paul had just dreamed he’d been pulled off a horse by his ear. After screaming everyone awake it became apparent that the real cause was a weka trying to lever him from his bag by an earlobe.
Another South Island trip had redeemed itself with one fantastic sight to remember. The image of this massive stag standing with it’s head in the air, would be etched in my memory for a long time to come.