South Westland Adventure

by David Eaton

There is something very special about wild and remote regions, that is, hard to deny.  Add to that the chances of encountering a majestic bull tahr or an agile chamois and you have the perfect ingredients for great adventure.  With living in the north island the magnetic pull may be to the north, but the spiritual pull is definitely to the big country of the south island and in particular the central Southern Alps and South West Land.  One day I may live closer, but in the mean time I try to head south twice a year.  Ideally a summer and a winter sojourn.  For some time I had been waiting for my son Fraser to be physically big enough to handle the rugged stuff that tends to pop up around there.  Over the last year he sprouted faster than a new set of antlers, so plans were made to head into the Douglas River in January 2005 with his older sister Kelly.  Unfortunately Kelly had to pull out and this opened the door for Fraser’s mate Kieron Waldman to go.

I had been in the same area a few weeks earlier with plenty of Tahr sighted.  Although securing ample tahr meat from young animals no bulls with horns over 11 inches were sighted.  Due to the late season with heavy accumulations of snow still clinging to slopes that would normally be covered in flowering plants, the chamois had still to make an appearance.  

The big day for the lads duly arrived and despite leaving some gear in the hut, we still had a good load on board as James Scott manoeuvred his machine skyward.  Eyes searching for a break in the cloud, which had sprinkled fresh snow over the higher slopes that morning.  No problems, as we were soon skimming across the tussock flats in a sun baked valley.  As it was Kieran’s first chopper ride and Frazer’s first into such big country, it wasn’t surprising that they both wore pretty big smiles.  Once the excitement levels settled down we sorted the gear and got camp into order.  The mountain radio aerial was strung out and I briefed the boys on what to do in case something happened to me.  During the stay they had practise doing the evening sked.

While I made a brew the spotting scope was set up and before long Fraser had spotted his first tahr.  With all the bad weather of late, the animals were generally at lower levels.  With an early dinner under our belts I was considering where to head for our first hunt when two chamois appeared in a creek right behind the hut.  And if that wasn’t good enough only a hundred metres to the side of them were six bull tahr.  Excellent, you might say.  The down side to it was that it required a fast hours climb to get into position.  The tahr had started to move up to feed as we made our way out of view up an adjacent ck bed with a tussock ridge providing cover.  Getting up hill quickly while not getting too puffed can be hard.  As the tahr had moved we had to sneak into a dip on the ridge which should provide a view of proceedings.  Pausing to steady the breathing, we then crawled onto the ridge.  The bulls were feeding towards some bluffs.  Fraser lined up on one and fired.  Unfortunately all six bulls then ran into the bluffs to be consumed by the fading light.

There was a chance that the chamois may still be in the creek so I directed the boys to move quickly but carefully to a vantage point above where the animals had been.  Peering over the edge I soon spotted one of them still feeding.  Which goes to show that one shot doesn’t disturb the area too much.  As it was now Kierons turn, he got into position.  Unfortunately the shot went a little high and only removed a patch of skin, with the chamois exiting the area quickly and soon joined by the other one which had reappeared from below us.  The direct descent back to the hut was at times challenging as we lowered ourselves into the darkness.  Although we didn’t get the desired result it had been an eventful first hunt, with much learned and things to work on.

The forecast for the following day was a cracker and so with the boys happy to rest up and generally muck around I made plans for an alpine adventure.  The greyness of dawn found me strapping crampons on as I approached the Wicks Glacier.  A downside to enjoying both hunting and mountaineering is all the gear on your back as you must always have your rifle etc with you just in case.  With a good freeze I moved upwards and onwards with relative ease.  The crevasses where generally well filled which assisted my travel as I scanned ahead for the safest route.  Using my ice axe I probed the surface to check possible snow bridges. Resting below Blizzard Peak at around 2,300 metres the vastness of the area can be overwhelming. To the south the peaks and valleys of the Landsborough stretch out before you.  I always take plenty of photos of different hillsides as you never know when you may end up there and it’s great to have photo references.  Immediately east of me Mt Sefton and just a little north Aoraki- Mt Cook stood in all their splendour.  No doubt there would be others out befriending the high places on such a day.  On Wicks Col above the Horace Walker névé I pondered the time it would take to reach Sefton. Not today.  I scratched my way onto Pioneer peak for lunch and a well earned rest.  Over the walkie talkie Fraser told me that they where up at the lake and all was okay.  I told him where I was and where I intended to go.  The plan was to hunt my way back once I got down out of the ice.

There is an excellent route that takes you above the Horace Walker Glacier and down into the valley. Two options avoid any scrub bashing.  Still very high I was suddenly aware in the corner of my eye of a large tahr making a hasty retreat in the cliffs beside me.  I had been focusing on de-balling crampons and what would happen if I slipped.  The route was loosing height and swinging around the rock buttress.  Below me a level shelf with some good sized boulders was where I planned to sit and watch for tahr.  I was expecting animals to be below me, especially as big bulls are supposed to be down in the scrub at this time of year.

No sooner than I had dropped my pack, two young bulls wandered into view above my position.  Then to their left another animal materialised from the rock wall.  Wow!  To the naked eye at 150 metres this was no ordinary tahr.  It had to be the one I had glimpsed earlier.  His bulk even in summer coat was massive and those horns looked impressive.  He surveyed his domain as only something that lives so high with the gods could.  Although the angle of shot was steep the rest was perfect.  He spun round and vanished into the rock.  Confident of a good hit and knowing that bull tahr can cover some country before falling over I waited to observe developments.  The young bulls ran off and then returned with one sitting down.  With no sign of mister big I assumed he was hidden from view up on a rock ledge.  A frozen slope lead most of the way, with a short rock scramble which put me where he’d stood.  Quickly spotting blood I eased a round into the chamber and peered over the rocky outcrop expecting him to be near by.  The blood led me across a ledge to a near vertical drop.  My eyes scanned the slopes below and way off in the distance I could see my bull lying at the base of a snow slope.  Great!  But now how to get to him?  I should have returned the way I’d come but the rock rib descending below me looked a goer.  It wasn’t long before I was digging out my 40 metre rope and looking for a crack to place a wire anchor to abseil off.  Things got progressively trickier and it was steady as you go and don’t rush.  The next anchor was a sling around a bit of a bump and the final abseil was off something you won’t see in the instruction manuals.  Finally on the snow again it was time for a drink and a couple of deep breaths.

Two and a  half hours after firing the shot I had arrived at my bull which was  an easy ten minutes from where I‘d shot from.  At least I got to use my rope.  His 13” horns looked fantastic and it was great to sit on a rock having an orange and soaking up the atmosphere.  Below me another young bull sat having similar thoughts.  Eventually it was time to head down to the hut, with the journey fairly straight forward provided you pick the right spur.  Arriving there at 7 pm it had been along and memorable day.

Over the next few days we checked out a few areas and rested tied bodies, well mine was tied.  The weather closed in as only it can on the coast, so the boys got to see how fast rivers can go up and down.  The local weka population appears to have picked up in recent years, which is great to see.  Henry the hut weka was always near by and would check out any activity going on.

The boys were keen to take a trip to the head of the lake in our blow up boat.  So with the weather fine again we walked part way around the lake before getting the pump into action.  The boat is a great asset when river levels are high as it makes it possible to access more country.  Their paddle would take them an hour each way with a bit of exploring near the Douglas glacier.  With book in hand I relaxed beside a large boulder, and watched the antics of a few tahr in the bluffs opposite.

Once they returned we stashed the boat and headed off to hunt our way back via a high sidle.  The afternoon was ticking by as we eased over a ridge where I’d earlier sighted some chamois.  Not far off a yearling chamois nibbled its dinner.  Fraser got comfy and lined the shot up.  With the boom of the rifle the chamois dropped instantly.  But before we knew what was happening the animal was up again and off.  I could see in the binos that the shot had gone a little high and must have grazed the back and shocking the spine.  It was last seen disappearing way off down the hill.  It was with some disappointment that we trudged back to the hut.  However the boat trip was still a highlight.  As the evening shadows lengthened I went off to meet a couple of trampers that were descending from the high route from Conical Knob.  On the way I pursed to watch three blue duck chicks with their parents getting a swimming lesson in a gentle back water.

With the forecast for continued fine weather it looked like summer may have finally arrived.  A plan was hatched for an assault on the slopes between the Gladiator and the Pommel.  In the early light of dawn the lake was as smooth as glass, only disturbed by me ferrying the boys across in the boat.  Placing a couple of large rocks in the boat so it wouldn’t blow away, we headed uphill.  Once out of the scrub it was careful as you go and it wasn’t long before we nearly stood on a young bull feeding in the tall tussocks.  He was off and so were we, but in different directions.  As we angled up under some bluff systems a single nanny was spotted in a handy location.        

With a good rest, Kieron secured his first tahr with a well placed shot at 150 metres.  The animal dropped into a gully where we butchered it and stashed everything under a damp rock.  Watching the animal fall and checking it all out afterwards was very exciting for him.

As the day warmed we found a high point to relax at until it was time for an evening hunt.  Spread out like a mob of tahr the hours ticked by.  At 6 pm we started to drift our way around the faces picking up Kieron’s animal as we went.  On previous days there had been a few good mobs hanging about but with the better weather they had moved higher to near the main ridge tops.  Never the less we found a spot to glass from and could see animals in most areas except where we were.  A couple of Rock Wren hoped around, providing some entertainment.  As we went to move off Fraser spotted a tahr straight ahead.  The stalk was on and we closed into within 100 metres.  With his shot the animal dropped with another jumping up which he shot also. Big smiles all round and one very happy teenager.  Taking what we could it was time to head down and cover as much country as possible before dark.  We kind of fell through the bush with me having to remind the boys to take it a little bit carefully as a fall could have annoying results.  Again it had been a long but successful day, managing to hit the sack just before midnight.  

We all slept in and relaxed around camp the following day.  After an early dinner I went up near the lake to check out some young bulls with photographs in mind.  I found them but they had seen me first.  We exchanged steers for awhile and they gradually moved off out of the scrub and up into the bluffs.  After that I glassed the slopes under the Pommel with one bull looking like he needed closer inspection.  Back at camp I had just enough light for a quick glass around which produced two chamois where they’d been the first night.  

Our last full day started early as we creep through the scrub and into a creek bed that would take us around behind where the chamois had been.  As we stuck our head over every bump and scanned the view in              
front of us, we were progressively running out of country.  Surely the animals must be nearby?  Sitting at a high vantage point we rested and pondered where they may be.  Possibly they had been in a small gut out of site, so we headed back down keeping a watchful eye open. A few minutes later we were hugging the ground as two chamois feed in some bluffy terrain to our right.  Sliding on our bellies we crawled across about one hundred metres to a ridge line that afforded a perfect view eighty metres from our quarry.   They were starting to get a bit edgy as Fraser shot his first chamois, with Kieron getting into position quickly to get his also. Nine days after their first attempt they had now succeeded.  I had two excited companions as we checked out the chamois and took horns, meat and skins back down to the hut.

As the day was still young I left them to sort things out and headed off up valley for one last evening hunt.  The plan was to check out the other mature bull and get some more meat to take home.  By mid day the temperature was soaring, with clear skies and no wind.  Climbing high, I settled in to wait for the shadows to lengthen and for the tahr to start moving around.  Time was ticking by and one group that should have appeared near my position failed to show, so I dropped down towards where the bulls had been seem the previous day.  Sure enough they were happily grazing undisturbed.  With the breeze in my face I lay watching several younger bulls feeding in a line towards me at less than one hundred metres.  The big black bull materialised a little further down the tussock slope.  Having ascertained that his horns were around twelve inches and would make another hunter very happy I continued to watch him.  He looked unsettled and kept scenting the breeze.  He was clearly not happy and soon departed into the nearby scrub.

A few nannies were grazing near by also and with day light fading it was time to make some noise.  With five shots five tahr lay close by.  Luckily I’d brought the big pack to fill up.  I find that right on dark tahr despite been shot at can come quiet close and do not appear to recognise you as a threat.  On this occasion a number of young bulls milled about and even the large bull came past on his way to higher ground.  
A very quick butchering session followed as a couple of nasty catarats required negotiating before dark.  Once on my established route a pleasant evening’s wander had me back for a late dinner.

Our last day was spent relaxing and getting all the meat, heads and skins ready for the flight out.  It had been a great trip with two young hunters getting a life times worth of memories.