Doing The Hard Yards

Doing The Hard Yards

Hunting and Wildlife Magazine - Summer Issue 223

Words By: Ben Frame

During July 2023, I found myself between jobs and with a bit of time to kill. Having been living back up in the North Island for a couple of years since university, I had noticed that my perspective of cold had changed a wee bit. Anything under 10 degrees was getting damn chilly. I decided I was getting soft, and the solution was a couple weeks Tahr hunting in South Westland. I thought that this would sort me out.  

So, here I was trudging up a remote West Coast valley with 10 days of food stuffed in my poor 75L pack. The only remote sense of company I had with me was the squeaking of my pack in protest, as I marched along. Before long, I had completely forgotten about life’s trifles, and was focused on the objective of this trip. To explore as much as possible of a remote West Coast valley system, take some live animal pictures and as a bonus try to find a mature bull Tahr.

Day one saw me chased up the valley by sandflies for a gruelling 20km slog to a hut for the night. I took my time trying to look after the body with many more days ahead. I picked up a number of Tahr above the bush line along the way and had a close encounter with a middle-aged bull on the other side of the river. I managed a couple photos before leaving him to grow and hopefully get a bit smarter.   

I woke early on day two to cross the large frozen riverbed, before pushing further up the valley. I lazily crossed a grassy swamp expecting only knee-deep water and quickly got a West Coast education when I found myself mid-chest in freezing cold water. This forced me to keep moving in the morning sun that was rising above the surrounding 2000m peaks. Making reasonable time to the end of the main valley, I attempted to cross the now gorged main river to head up a side tributary, but common sense prevailed and onto option B it was. I continued onwards until I reached the edge of the bush line and made camp for a couple of nights. I managed a short afternoon glass in the hope of finding animals for the morning but very few animals were seen. My mind was starting to wonder whether the Tahr culls had already begun for the year as it was deathly quiet.

Day three broke with grey skies and a relentless drizzle. I trudged through West Coast monkey scrub until I was drenched to the bone and dreaming for the sun to come out. Slowly but surely the weather began to clear, revealing a pristine bluebird day. My thoughts quickly changed from finding ways to keep myself warm to scouting the promising alpine basin I was in for animals.   

I struggled at first to find any animals but eventually I picked up a good mob of Tahr sunning themselves just below the bluffs on the sunny side of the valley. The mob was 500 yards away and moving through the scrub, a number of bulls were identified with promising horns, so a closer investigation was needed.   

Kicking into action, I backtracked and dropped into an avalanche chute to hide myself from view as I closed the distance to around 350 yards. To my relief the mob was still in the same place when I crawled up into sight again. I set up the camera and tried to assess the larger bulls in the mob, but with them wandering through the scrub, assessment was difficult. After a lot of contemplation, I decided there was a couple of mature bulls in the mob.

Setting up I used a large rock and my rubber seat pad to get enough height for the steeply angled shot. I waited for what seemed like a couple hours for the right bull to be in view and also be broadside for the critical placing of the shot. My eyes started playing tricks on me as I continuously stared through my rifle scope, wishing the bull to play ball.  

Eventually the moment arrived, and I had been waiting long enough. The boom of my thunder stick echoed around the valley and a solid thud was heard from across the valley. I was confident the job was complete, but the bull dropped out of sight into an avalanche chute, so I was left wondering how good my shot was.

The mob of Tahr that I had believed to be about 18-20 in number, erupted all over the hill side. There were Tahr everywhere in a quantity twice that. Nannies ran down the hill past my shooting position and into the scrub, a couple of very old scrub bulls materialised from nowhere and darted for heavier cover. I noticed that all the Tahr were running down into the scrub and not up into the bluffs as I would expect normally, guess those helicopters may had been busy after all. 

I made my way cautiously over to where I had last seen my bull dive into the avalanche chute. There he lay, a magnificent big bull, skinny from the shortly finished rutting period. Relieved, I took in the moment. An epic spot, with epic scenery and rich with history from the first settlers in the area.  

With the sun already starting to descend for the afternoon, I got to work with a few photos to reflect on the moment, skinning out the bull and boning out the best cuts of meat. It was late in the afternoon by the time I was done and had started the two-hour march back to camp for some well-earned rest.  

Snow fell overnight, leaving a nice dusting covering the tops and surrounding peaks. I was stoked to measure my head and find it went just over 13” inches and was 7 ½ years of age. After a sleep in I reflected on a great day with a morning brew and contemplated my plans for the rest of the trip. I decided I wanted to try for a winter Chamois skin for the floor. I had seen a mob further down the valley. Loading up the gear, I set off back down the valley to camp on the river flats in search of my new goal and with plenty of unexplored country in mind.

Day five started off with an encounter with four young bull Tahr in a dry creek bed as I worked by way up a side creek. The bulls had no idea I was only 50 metres away and I was able to photograph them for 20 minutes before slipping away unnoticed. This made my morning; I have started to appreciate these moments much more as I get slightly longer in the tooth.

Unfortunately, the day went downhill from there as I pushed hard up a gorgy creek with slippery house sized boulders hindering progress. I slowly inched towards the destination but quickly realized that I would never make it to the alpine basin ahead.

A small fall onto my backpack later, and my head torch was doing the blink of doom. Not a good sign halfway through the trip. I admitted defeat and pulled the pin on this side creek, returning to camp. On my way back to camp, I had a close encounter with two young stags crossing the main river 30m in front of me in the fading light. They appeared to be both spikers with branching tops as they were missing their brow tines. Either spikers or not great genetics, I gave them the benefit of the doubt as the only deer spotted for the trip and off they walked after a couple photos.   

Day six brought 60mm of rain in the early morning and over my morning brew I decided that I wasn’t able to hunt properly in the short winter days without a head torch, so it was out to the shop to buy a new one and a spare (which I had forgotten). I took a moment to enjoy the remarkable landscape around me. Towering peaks, 2000m above my campsite, covered in snow and ice, that’s a view I could get used to.

A stocktake on my food revealed I had well overpacked as I still had at least a weeks’ worth. So, with a heavy load on my back, I slowly marched down the valley to the carpark. The hours crawled by, and the kilometres slowly disappeared until the carpark was in sight. By the time I reached the car I was already thinking about where I was going to go next, and due to the amount of talking to myself, I was going to need a friend. 

It was a little bittersweet to cut the trip short, I felt I had left so much country to be explored and knew that I would be back someday to see the rest of this magnificent South Westland valley. The rugged country had taught me some lessons and earned my every increasing respect for the power of nature.

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