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Wapiti from the Whitewater

By David Eaton – First Published Rod&Rifle Vol. 1 Issue.5

As we took a pew in the well appointed lounge bar, the Aratika slowly pulled out of port and began its regular journey towards Picton. However, for Craig Hay and myself, there was no hint of regularity about our intentions on this occasion for we were embarking on a five week hunting trip in the South Island which would be highlighted by a three week stint hunting the majestic Wapiti. The date was March 17th 1980 and since we needn’t be in Te Anau until the night of the 22nd for the briefing of all successful block holders by Park Board rangers prior to the Trophy Shoot, we had several days in hand. So after a very pleasant ferry trip the car clambered its way down the ramp and we sped off in the direction of the deep south. Nightfall found us camped near Waimate which borders onto the Hunter Hills, home of the Red Necked Wallaby. So after spending two days there and enjoying some great sport we carried on towards those beckoning mountains of Fiordland. As we shouldered the brow of a hill we looked out across Lake Te Anau and there before us stood the Murchison and Kepler Mountains in all their splendour. My mind momentarily flicked back to two years earlier when I had wandered over the tops high above Bligh Sound and heard the heart-stopping bugle of a mature wapiti bull — would I again be so spell bound?

It was Friday afternoon when we checked into Wapiti Lodge which has full facilities and is ideal for hunting parties and is greatly discounted for New Zealand Deerstalkers Association members. Saturday was dedicated to packing our gear, looking at the deer at Wapiti Park on the road to Manapouri and receiving our two-way radios, data kits and do’s and don’ts from the Park Board.

I lifted my head and peered unconsciously through the curtains, my eyes revealed a calm, cloudy morning and in the distance I could hear the droning of a Mt Cook Airline’s floatplane as it carted off the first party to their block.

It was all on, 11am found Craig and yours truly standing on the jetty beside a large pile of equipment ready to be swept away into the uncertainties of the coastal fiords.

Mike, the pilot, brought the small plane steeply round and we dropped in on the mouth of the Whitewater River which flows into George Sound about halfway to the actual coast.

Nudging the aircraft into the shore we wasted no time in unloading our gear onto the tidal flats which were uncovered thankfully, so no wet backside! It was 12.15pm and with the plane now disappearing into the cloudless sky we stood in silent awe as we realised our isolation from the outside world and took in the superb beauty that encircled us. But we weren’t there to watch the tide come in so on discovering the well used campsite which had a fresh set of wapiti tracks across it, we erected our 9′ by 9′ tent on the true right bank and collected ample dry wood.

The radio crackled as a voice came over telling us of a cold front coming, but as the morning conditions were perfect we packed sufficient food for five days and headed off up the valley. The going was generally good with the river low and excellent time was made until about 2.30pm when I was confronted by a yearling which ran unknowingly onto the river flats where I shot it. Earlier we had sighted an animal disappearing into thick vegetation but no shot had been possible so, it was out with the knife and off with the meat. Loaded up, we plodded on until finally arriving at what we would later call F. Camp as it was situated by a large pool near the forks of the south-east tributary and the main river. Steady rain began to fall as I got the fire going but there was no trouble in preparing dinner and the usual evening brew — milo.

Dawn revealed a wonderfully fine morning so with the venison hanging in a nearby tree and one of our tent flies left up to act as a second base camp we set a course for the lake at the head of the east branch of the Whitewater. Travel consisted mainly of following the now overgrown deer trails with the occasional crawl, and curse, through windfalls, supplejack and other Fiordland obstacles. It must have been about 9.00am when we heard our first bugle of the trip, but alas, it originated from the opposite direction to that of our destination so was filed away and forgotten. We reached the lake by late morning and what we could see of the country beyond made us keen to keep going. Progress around the left side of the lake was frustrating at times but our hearts leapt as on topping a massive rock slide Craig asked expectantly what the object was at the lake head. I didn’t have to look twice through the scope to confirm that what was basking in the sun on the beach was in fact a large hybrid bull. However, it wasn’t until we had closed in a bit that we discovered that the beast had only one antler, but since Craig hadn’t shot one of these bulls before, he stalked off along the bush edge and dispatched the animal with a clean shot through the neck with his .308. The animal must have had a bad fall while in the velvet as several teeth were broken and the right antler was a 3″ stub, and the left 38″ in length.

Camp was erected a mere 30 metres from where the carcass lay. That afternoon I hunted the nearby bush but only managed to see one hind although there appeared to have been animals about a few weeks earlier going by the amount of sign. With a full moon creeping over the ridge top and the crackle of the fire, we felt that the trip was definitely heading in our favour that night.

It was with great difficulty that we emerged from our pits the following morning as although the sky was clear, a heavy frost had bedded down around us. This however was what we wanted so with the day packs shouldered we headed off up towards the saddle which connects with the Madman Stream.

Frozen tarns and a slight breeze greeted us at the saddle which was perfect with tussock clearings scattered amongst various alpine vegetation. Yet there wasn’t any bugling or other noises for that matter excluding the occasional scream from a passing kea. A lack of fresh sign was also noted. Deciding we had better investigate the tops in the vicinity of Expedition Peak we headed off and with Craig a few minutes behind I attained the ridge top and peered over. Below me were vast scrub and tussock benches, which after careful scanning, revealed nothing. Photo time I thought, so it was out with the camera. Finding an appropriate rock to stand on I started clicking away until a very defiant roar came up from down on one of those benches half a km away. Needless to say I dropped off the sky line and immediately located the culprit through my 4 x 40 scope. He was then roaring continuously and moving in a general path towards me. Craig had now joined me again so the stalk was on. I intended to travel along the ridge for a while and then commence sidling in the direction of the beast. Then, after not hearing from him for a period we entered into a gut with the wind direction causing me some concern but we had only one route to follow owing to bluffs. Having just started to sidle around, a massive roar echoed up around us! I glanced back at Craig — he had frozen. I turned with the knowledge that I had missed big stags back in the Tararuas and that now I must remember what I had learned from such incidents. The bolt was closed when I peeped over the bluff, and there coming steadily upwards was the stag. Sitting, I examined the hybrid’s timber, making out good tops, so lining up my 30-06 I waited until he turned slightly, giving me a perfect shoulder shot at 100 metres, dropping him on the spot. With the careful descent down to the stag over, my heart was pounding profusely as I counted the twelve points and I yelled out in victory for having finally obtained a trophy to be proud of – 32″ length, 37″ spread.

Back at camp after a fairly uneventful trip with the head I noticed the clouds getting heavy and by mid afternoon the rain had arrived, but no matter how hard it poured my spirits could not be dampened on that day.

The following day brought calm, clear weather again so we set off making our way back towards base camp, spending a night at F. Camp en-route.

On seeing the big tent in the middle of the campsite I had a surge of self satisfaction for managing to bring out the head without damaging it, or myself for that matter.

During the following three days we experienced the type of climatic conditions we had expected – thunderstorms, gale force winds, snow and hail. But since we were well set up we passed the time comfortably eating scones, fresh fish and other delicacies, as well as reading.

Finally the weather broke and with blue sky overhead we once again headed up the valley, this time to hunt the west branch, and if the weather held out sufficiently, the first tributary also. The next few days brought little joy to either of us with only the occasional far off roar heard and a couple of cows sighted. The fine conditions were holding well so with the third day upon us I wandered off up onto a fairly level bush and scrub ridge. It was here that after some very careful stalking I managed to secure a pretty ten pointer and a massive eight pointer with a 39″ spread. Thankfully the bush conditions and terrain enabled me to carry both heads back to our fly camp that night where we once again spent the evening around a sparking and boisterous fire.

Dawn brought with it a day in which we would travel back through F. Camp and up the first tributary, the day was anything but uneventful for while at F Camp for lunch I took a plunge into the massive river hole, much to the dismay of Craig who wisely stayed dry and warm on the gravel. Then, as we neared the forks of the main river and the first tributary, I thought it was time for a rest and reclined on a large river boulder in the sun.

What happened next was certainly the highest point in Craig’s hunting career so far, it all started when Craig exited from the bush and joined me in the sun. A roar echoed out of the bush and across the river to us, that’s what we need more of I thought! As I had already shot three bulls I suggested to Craig that he cross the river and investigate the stag which was a course of action he was only to eager to oblige with. In the meantime I would roar back in an attempt to draw the animal nearer. Craig  was only half across, waist deep in water with an unloaded rifle when the massive beast confronted him, standing front on not 40 metres distant. For me, watching the situation, excitement stirred within and I watched in horror as Craig loaded and aimed with visible shaking; which was much out of character for him. The shot caught the beast in the gut, it quickly turned and plunged off into the bush while Craig floundered his way to the bank and into the scrub. I had meanwhile dropped my roaring tube (a piece of PVC piping) grabbed my rifle and darted across the river in hot pursuit. Luckily the animal wasn’t feeling too healthy after the medicine he had received so after a short stalk Craig administered a lethal dose through the neck, and boy, was he happy! On inspecting the kill Craig had obtained a heavy 12 point hybrid with a spread of 31″ and a length of 37″. Removing the usual bits — head, eye teeth, jawbone, tail and back steaks we returned to finish our rest in the sun. One more hybrid hind was sighted that afternoon near the forks, were we hung the heads in a suitable tree and by 5.00pm we had erected camp and settled down for the night.

 

With the rays of the sun now starting to warm my face I descended into the tussock and scrub basin; two hours earlier I had left camp with the intention of getting to where I now stood. It had required a lot of work, but climbing in Fiordland always does. The area appeared to be deserted so I gave a few bugles, no reply. This seemed strange in such an ideal location but on searching the slopes to my left I spotted a beautiful cow moving up through some scrub.

Next I noticed the immense bulk of a wapiti bull striding out of thick bush. I gave a couple more bugles and got an immediate response. Although still some 300 metres away I could make out massive brow tines, heavy timber and very reasonable royals.

The surrounding country didn’t permit a direct stalk, so keeping the ridge line between myself and the bull I closed in to about 150 metres and with a short crawl through the wavering tussock, positioned myself in readiness for the shot to come. One more bugle was sufficient to bring him clear of the scrub. Standing now in full view he uttered his final challenge which I answered immediately with 180 grains through the shoulder. With the bull down I approached eagerly but halted as the cow accompanying the bull stood not 10 metres away and simply stared at me. What a photo I thought but the camera was in my day pack on my back. Then gradually, almost sadly, the cow left it’s mate’s side and drifted into the scrub. With the cow gone I quickly dropped to the bull’s side and examined the antlers which were massive and of the true wapiti shape. The head, with 12 points, heavy timber and reasonable size (37″ length, 29″ spread, one brow tine of 18″) meant that I had obtained what I had come for.

I wandered off along the tops with my trophy until reaching the highest point of the ridge where a good rest was taken. While there I let out a few loud bugles and got an instant response from four different animals. Though tempted to descend and investigate these animals, I thought it best to concentrate on getting off the tops and back to camp with my cumbersome trophy. That was just what I did but not before I had to endure some extremely hazardous bluffs and bush which just weren’t designed for travelling through anyway. When finally reaching our fly camp Craig was still out so I collapsed on my pit and fell asleep. Craig turned up just on dark with the story of how a large stag had cunningly eluded him, and of sighting three hinds to the east of where I had been. Then, as the still of the evening encroached around us, a weka made its presence felt with daring raids through the fly and insistent bobbing and wobbling about, so after hiding the spoons we drifted off into the land of dreams.

It was to the beat of weka feet on my head that I faced the new day. Packs were loaded, shouldered and our final return trip to base camp was underway. The main river was now very low, permitting easier travel in places with some wading up to the chest been very enjoyable if not for the fact that I had three large heads plus pack to carry and Craig with his big twelve plus pack was also well laden.

It was Easter Sunday so we got stuck into a few Easter eggs. We checked in with ZKEW base to report all well and to enquire about other hunters.

Although we still had about fiye days left  the trip was in reality effectively over. We would spend the following days relaxing around camp and nearby areas. The sun shone every day and with our heads cleaned up it seemed like a real holiday, even the sandflies weren’t as bad as usual. We made a point of enjoying some of the great fishing that the area has to offer with many a giant blue cod to feast on and ample mussels collected at low tide. I still had a desire to explore and be part of a few hidden valleys but in Fiordland a lifetime isn’t long enough to truly become part of it.

At 12.00 noon on April 11th we heard the drone of an aircraft steadily grow louder until it finally appeared above George Sound and swept down to our beach head where civilization had ceased to exist.

When eventually seated with tines pointed in every direction the plane powered out into open water and crawled its way skyward towards Te Anau.

During the 35 minute flight out I had time to reflect on our trip. We had had only 4 ½ wet days in total, enjoyed some fantastic sport and succeeded in all ways possible while being in the most inhuman terrain in New Zealand. Yes, Fiordland and the Wapiti that live within it are one of the greatest sporting assets our country has.

 

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