I’ve always found these great rolling seas of tussock alluring, top it with the clean white snow against an aching blue sky and I feel small and humbled. Just the kind of country I like to hunt in. Winding our way up the gravel roads I felt stresses I didn’t even know where there lifting off my chest.
Emil and I strolled in to the hut with a few luxuries slowing us down, arriving in time to appreciate the landscape before cold and darkness drove us indoors. Given we were on a purely recreational trip with no pressure for success we didn’t get up ‘til about 8.30-9. After a quick brekkie we plodded across the flats and up a leading spur onto the main ridge. As we wandered, getting a feel for the area, we spotted two small, isolated groups of tahr but nothing worthy of investigation. Carrying on up we settled in to glass just as it began to rain that icy, miserable, wintry rain.
Not long after I spotted a mob of stags 1.5ks distant. Surprisingly they were on the dark side of the ridge, obviously preferring the chill in the lee to the driving wind and rain. All of the stags were very pale, almost Wapiti-like in pelage. Straining the Swaro through the rain we saw a young stag first, then another young one, both grazing. Then I panned up to the right and spotted a big stag lying down. I took a photo on the Nikon and knew he was well worth investigating.
It wasn’t going to be a straightforward stalk – he had the wind and it was 1pm already. With such vast country we found we were constantly underestimating distances and times, so the stalk took even longer than anticipated. Despite my weak protest (I’m allergic to altitude gain) Emil suggested we dropped down in front of us and head up the opposite face quite a way in order to contour across two gullies. We maneuvered carefully as we were in sight most of the time, fortunately the veils of rain kept us hidden.
In the last gut disaster struck. We got busted by two nannies. We stared them down for a bit, but after having a bit of a conference between us we decided we wouldn’t win that contest and rolled the dice. We dropped down out of sight for the last 20m to the ridge where we could see across the main valley to the stag and just hoped they wouldn’t create a ruckus. Fortunately, they let us move off without too much fuss.
Freezing cold and drizzling, it had been quite a climb to get to the stag’s level and I’d elected to leave the raincoat off because I get hot when I’m exerting, I sure regretted it now as I was pretty wet and bloody frozen.
Ranged at bang on 500yds we set up Greg’s rifle, the camera and the spotter on a marginal little rest - there was a beautiful big, flat rock above us but it was in full view of the tahr. Once I had set up and we had given each other the all clear I settled the crosshairs on the stag. There was a strong up-valley breeze so I allowed three inches of windage but didn’t need any of it, it seems velocity counts for a lot! Squeezing off the crisp trigger the 7mm Stumpy absolutely drilled him. Handshakes all round, bloody rapt!
As all gamblers will tell you, you’ve gotta keep going when your lucks in, so I suggested we hop around the face a little and look for more tahr. I was still trying to clear the lenses on my bino’s when Emil stuttered ‘ttttahhr, lots of tahr!’ through blue, chattering lips.
I left Emil to watch them while I gathered everything up as it looked like we should stay and look over the tahr before we headed to my stag. Binos, camera, and rifle were soaked in the steady, frozen rain.
When I made it back to Emil he’d spotted Reds as well! Eventually we made out seven Reds and heaps of tahr, we’d struck the jackpot. Despite the size of the stag we had just shot, the rest look like they’d been dropped there straight from the Ureweras. Terrible condition with shocking heads - one even had an antler out to the side! If there hadn’t been a whole mob of tahr right there he would’ve been a tempting character trophy. They were spooky after the unsuppressed shot and cut up to the right, slowly filing over into the next catchment.
The tahr were much less spooked so we decided to get closer and find a better rest, eventually finding a nice bare spur clear of the big tussock 500 yards from them. There were tahr everywhere, it was hard work keeping track of what we’d already studied, so it took a while to settle on the shooter. Once we’d established we were looking at the same animal we agreed he was clearly the best bull with the most age.
It was frustrating setting up for the shot and also keeping track of which bull was which. After a lot of ‘No the one of the left, the other left! No, the one with his head up’ Emil pulled off a great shot with shivering hands. Something about those Europeans, they know the cold!
It was now 3.30 and I was thrilled to be moving and warming up. As we dropped down the group of tahr also crossed the same creek heading in the opposite direction, but we saw no better bulls. I tried getting a few pictures but the camera battery was having an absolute tantrum in the cold. Crossing the creek on to the dark side of the hill was like walking into a chiller. We nearly needed crampons on the way up to the bull, purely from water seepage that had frozen into hard, slick ice.
We emerged right on the scree the bull was standing on, he had to be somewhere nearby. Emil found him quickly, dropped right on the spot. He had an attractive set of 12 ½ inch horns and showed 8 years of age, unfortunately his big winter mane was a bit bedraggled by the rain. We hurried through the photo and butchery session as I wanted light for photos with my stag as well!
We contoured around and I was thrilled seeing those white tips standing proud above the tussock. He was a pretty big animal in poor condition, but an ancient stag. We sent Emil’s Dad a photo and he said if it was in Poland he would have said 14, maybe older, but given harshness of the environment here it was likely 10-12 - either way he was as big as he would ever get.
I was delighted with the stag, he was 38 Inches long and a physically imposing head. Despite only carrying 9 points there was a real feeling of maturity and size with the length, width and great hooking brow tines. There was a suggestion of another royal on his weak side, but even in his younger days I doubt he sported beys. Looking at him was a good reminder that it’s a truly big stag that cracks that magic 40-inch mark, but the real trophy with this fella lay in his age. There was no remorse of potential not yet reached, or future stags not sired, this stag had given all he had to give to the herd and was saved from a painful winter trying to chew tough alpine scrub with worn old teeth.
We mucked around getting a few photos, but we were very conscious of the long walk home in the dark so whipped some lean winter venison from his frame and dropped down. It was more gorgey at the bottom than we expected so headlights were donned well before the flats. It was amazing how iced up just normal flat ground was, it felt like walking on concrete until we hit the Matagouri where it was more insulated.
Finally, we stopped for lunch at 8.30pm. Cheese and crackers were demolished in short order and we had a sit down for 20 minutes or so as the rain had eased. It wasn’t long after we started moving again that poor old Emil was attacked by a bristly black monster from the scrub. We’d only gone a couple hundred metres and I heard something crashing purposefully in scrub. By the time we realised it was coming for us not running away, a boar of about 150lb smashed into an old fence two feet from Emil. He leapt about 6 feet in the air and scrambled back, the fence saved him without a doubt. Ol’ boris came for another go, then realized the fence was stopping him so he slipped through and started chomping and grinding his tusks in the scrub next to us in full attack mode.
There was cussing and headlamp beams flicking around every which way, it must have looked like a Hollywood fight scene. We finally got the gun off the pack but by then he had backed away. I’ve never come across a pig so angry without any provocation, it must have been the smell of blood during a hard winter. There were a few nervous glances behind us as we pressed on into the Matagouri!
It was a big walk back to hut, the low pass we had to go through was a grind with full packs, but we were chirpy with success. Antlers as well as horns made the weight feel good and the weather had cleared so the bits that weren’t uphill were quite pleasant. What a day, an ancient old tussock country stag and a 12 ½ inch bull tahr shot within an hour of each other and less than 500m apart. We thought that was a once in a lifetime chance, but our trip wasn’t over yet …
Originally Emil and I had a big West Coast trip planned, but the weather put paid to that. The luxury of the East Coast was that we could simply bail out to the bach for a few days to wait weather out, which is exactly what we did the morning after getting back to the hut.
Having had so much success on the last trip, we decided to go prospecting at an area we didn’t expect to see much in, what I’d call a low odds trip. On arrival the valley looked exciting, with heaps of cover and heaps of tucker, we couldn’t keep the grins off our faces. Once we had enough altitude we parked up on a knob and spotted a few tahr, some hinds and one young stag – promising!
Fog rolled in, so we went for a big walk to find water then set up the tent. It was perfect timing really, as soon as the tent was up it began to clear. As the evening deepened, we saw a few deer but nothing of interest until Emil spotted a big maned bull feeding out into a small clearing. He was an impressive animal, judging the horns from that distance was a long shot even with the swaro spotter but it was hard not to get excited. In homage to his cape and sheer presence we referred to him as the Silverback after that, like the gorilla.
It was getting late now but I thought I had better pay closer attention to the warmer scrub country and spotted a pretty younger 12 mowing into the speargrasss. It was pretty dark at this point and Emil said ‘Look there’s a hind next to him’. This ‘hind’ was a huge old stag! Almost white in the twilight with antlers clearly longer than the 12. It was way too late to do anything but crawl into bed, so it was two very excited hunters tucking into their Back Country’s that night.
First light found us up high glassing hard. We spotted them in all of 30 seconds so we threw all the gear we could need for a day into the packs and flew down the face. Slaloming down through the trees, we were praying we didn’t bump into any other animals and spook the stags. In minutes we came out at a perfect lookout, I immediately started setting up the camera and spotter while Emil organised himself for a shot. I was fortunate enough to catch the two stags sparring on film, but that’s where our good fortune ended as they never stopped moving long enough for a shot. Right at the start Emil had a brief window where the stag was partly obscured by a shrub but I cautioned him to wait for a better shot, after their disappearance I began regretting it.
We spent all day waiting, spotting the big bull again as well as other tahr. Two huge spikers made an appearance, coming home late from the snowline above. The day stretched on and it became quite an exercise in will to keep glassing, keep looking, be patient and diligent. Then at last light a stag appeared on the clearing. He was large bodied and pale but closer inspection revealed it was only a younger 8. We hung in there until we wouldn’t have even recognized the stag if he walked out in front of us so we had to admit defeat and head back to camp, feeling a bit sorry for ourselves. After the optimism of the previous evening and morning the reality of outwitting big public land stags was a bit sobering.
The next morning we were at the lookout before daylight, freezing in the bitter clear cold but nothing showed, it was demoralizing. Later in the morning Emil spotted two young stags fighting up high but strangely no animals down the left end and no tahr at all, highly unusual and we couldn’t explain it. The weather had changed from warm overcast to icy cloudless skies, so perhaps that was it?
As is usual for me I was anxious about the gullies we couldn’t see into, so I scouted a new lookout. I’m glad we did as we found a little gem much closer to the clearings. The stag face was now 500 yards instead of 700 and ol’ Silverback’s clearing was 700 not 900 … much more interesting. The only downsides were that it was quite exposed and the shooting platform was tricky.
Despite the lack of stags, with the morning sunshine finally warming our bones we were feeling positive. Until we spotted two hunters on the far ridge. We went through all the phases of righteous indignation, waving Emil’s blue jacket and grizzling to each other, how dare they poach our spot! When we calmed down and accepted that this was public land, not our land, it started to make sense as to why we hadn’t seen anything down that end.
With the hunters looking as though they were going to stalk through the face we were watching and absolutely destroy our plans we started frantically rushing to find either the stags or the bull. Initially we were going to focus on the stags first as tahr are far less flighty than cagey old stags.
After an hour the big bull ambled out onto a gutter to the side of a little pocket of wilding pines with some nannies and two younger bulls. He presented a marginal shot at 720 but given what happened last time we hesitated we decided to take the shot. I had complete confidence in Greg’s rifle after its performance earlier in the trip, but the contorted position I was in left little to be desired. I settled the crosshairs on the rear of his vitals (the shoulder was obscured) breezed my finger over the spectacularly crisp trigger and felt the recoil thump into by bicep - yes I was that contorted! He dropped at the shot, but our celebration was a little muted as we didn’t want that stag being ‘one that got away’.
After the hours of intense glassing we thought we were due some noodles as celebration, taking no more than 10 minutes off the binoculars. But before I’d even raised my bino’s to resume I looked down, just the other side of the pocket of wildings, and spotted two large pale shapes on a clearing that weren’t there before. The Leica’s leapt to my eyes and confirmed both stags. Excitedly I whisper-shouted ‘Stags! Your stag, both stags!!’
It was amazing how quickly we swung into action. We knew in advance from the nature of the country that we’d have only moments to make a shot, but to see a plan come together so seamlessly is always satisfying. Camera on, spotter set while Emil got behind the rifle and ranged the animal, it was a practiced routine by now.
Emil fired in less than 30 seconds from when we saw them. The shot absolutely drilled him, not even a kick. The 12 hung around but he was far too young, he had the makings of a proper 300DS beauty someday so when Emil asked if I wanted to shoot I declined.
The celebration was loud, excited and immensely satisfying. I didn’t realise the pressure we were putting ourselves under until the goal was achieved. Subconsciously we’d both been searching so hard for each others animal that we’d become so deeply invested in the success of the trip it almost felt like relief to have succeeded. But what a trip, two awesome animals in less than 15 minutes from the same shooting position, we thought the last time we did it was impressive enough!
Joyously we headed to the stag first, practically skipping downstream - even the horrid tangled Matagouri didn’t dampen our spirits. Emil’s stag was wonderful - a shapely 14 with a few broken tines reminding us how hard he must have fought in the roar. After the usual photos so we could preserve that moment we took a pack full of meat and cut across to my bull.
Just before we got there something crashed through the scrub practically at my feet and given the proximity and the debacle from last trip I assumed a pig, but lo and behold a decent bull tahr popped his head up! Unfortunately, he was far too quick for the camera. The gloom of the forest, the strong musk of the tahr and his powerful, broad build cast my thoughts to how terrifying it would be to have the same encounter with a bear!
Carrying on only another 80m we found my bull resplendent in the tussock. He sported a magnificent cape, that great silver mane that earnt him his moniker flowed down over his shoulders, heightening the impression of huge bulk. He was younger than I expected to be carrying such good length, moderate bases had my estimate a little high, his long horn taped out at a fraction under 13”, scoring 42 1/2DS. We took more photos, then the cape and meat and headed up the far side of the gorge to circle round back to our tent, arriving without the aid of headlamps for a change!