David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ Stories: Echo of fatal shooting rings on 10 years after death

David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.

Today Andy Harland tells them about the day a hunter shot his son Hamish.

Day 17: Taumarunui

The day Andy Harland turned 50, his youngest son, Hamish, came up to him and asked: "What do you want to do for your birthday?"

The next day, Hamish would be dead, so the precious nature of that day isn't lost on Andy, even a decade down the track.

"Let's go for a run," Andy told him, and the two men headed off into the bush in the central North Island, near National Park. Andy's eyes glaze just talking about it. "It was a beautiful bush track. I call it Hamish's track now."

As birthdays went, for a grown man celebrating with his adult son it couldn't really have got any better.

Later, the two of them went for a hunt, part of a plan to lure Andy away from the surprise party being planned.

When they came out of the bush, Hamish waved his hand at Andy's old green bush shirt and said: "Dad, you've got to get rid of that thing. There's too many idiots in the bush."

Hamish was wearing a bright orange jacket, intended to distinguish him from their quarry.

Hamish Harland was a born hunter. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Hamish Harland was a born hunter. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Andy, a former undercover police officer, gave a bit of a snort. "Hamish," he said, "it doesn't matter what you wear. I don't look like a deer."

That night they all got on it. People came from all over, family and friends and stories and good times and love. The photographs from that night show them all tight and bonded together, like how it would always be.

It was such a night that early the next morning, when Dave Alkers, the man who fired the fatal shot, turned up to collect his mate for a hunt, he knocked and knocked but couldn't rouse him.

Dave drove off, then stopped. "It was the roar and he knew Hamish would be pissed off he missed out," says Andy. He came back and banged on the door until Hamish woke.

Hamish's mother, Gill, found out her son had died when she heard screaming from the house. A police car had rolled up the driveway, and Hamish's girlfriend saw it coming and started screaming, even before it came to a stop. Gill, who was in a field out the back, was called: "Come quick, the police are here."

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In that moment, Gill says, "it could have been Andy or Hamish". Both men were away on their own adventures in their beloved bush.

Gill carried alone the knowledge Hamish had died until Andy got back that evening.

"I got back late," he says. "I opened the [car] door and Callum is sitting there serious."

"What's the matter with you?" said Andy.

He replied: "We've lost Hamish."

"No, he won't be lost," said Andy, thinking: "He knows the bush too bloody well. How could he be lost?"

"We'll go look for him," he told Callum, one of his other four boys.

He didn't connect Hamish and death with what Callum was saying, even when told more clearly: "Hamish has been shot."

Those words came from a long way away and followed Andy up to the door and into the house. Inside, family and others sat with nothing but misery across every face.

The words caught up and out went Andy's legs. His long body crumpled to nothing, straight down from where he stood, into a heap on the floor. "The next two years are a blur," he says.

Except this. "I went to see Dave the next day and made him tell everything."

Tell me how it happened, he said, step by step through the hunt, second by second until the fatal bullet was fired. So get inside the mind of a hunter, as Andy sees it, and understand why Hamish died.

"Hunters look for little things. Fresh deer shit, a mark on a tree, a broken twig. These deer are so much better in the bush than us. We're just clumsy idiots in the bush compared with deer. If you're going to get deer on a regular basis, you have to be good."

Dave was really good. "He would see things other people didn't see."

This is how those really good hunters get so many more deer, he says. "Dave was an extremely good hunter. He's picked up Hamish's eye. There's a leaf on the pepperwood tree. He thought that was the ear. There was a deer 20 metres ahead so he could hear a deer."

Time freezes as all the pieces come together. All the hunts in a life, all the lessons learned, every sign the bush has to offer coalesce into the certainty of a deer over the sights of the hunter's rifle. It is as if the hunter is gifted with an extra-sensory perception which resolves clues from the environment and experience into a deer, invisible to anyone without the same special gifts.

The finger squeezes the trigger, sending a bullet barrelling out of the rifle. Every time, except for that time, Dave saw a deer.

The extra-sensory perception became an assumption. And that's what got Hamish killed. Andy explains: "It's the simple matter of identifying it is a deer beyond all doubt."

Andy's hunted his whole life and, he reckons, "shot a quarter of the deer that Dave shot".

Andy would have it that he doesn't derive from clues and experience a special kind of sight - revealing deer where others see nothing. "Dave has done it year after year, day after day. He's just run out of luck."

Andy, though, says nothing looks like a deer except for a deer, as long as you check.

"I'd see something in the bush and I'd think 'it's a deer'. Every time except one time, off runs a deer and I think, 'Ah, I should have shot'."

There was that one time he was stalking a stag which had bolted. Creeping through the bush, he hears it and starts to see it as clues and experience start to pull together a deer moving through the bush. The rifle went up, the safety came off and Andy's eye sighted down the scope.

"You know what I saw in the scope? I saw a f***ing leg. To this day it still gives me the shits."

Shaking hands lowered the rifle, the bullet was chambered out of the rifle and Andy sat and thought how he'd nearly fired on a man riding a horse.

Orange jackets? He still gives a bit of a snort. "I hate them taking the responsibility off the guy with the gun to identify the target."

It's one hell of a bleak story and doesn't do justice to the love they had for Hamish. He was one for the ages, says Andy. Strong! He'd come up behind his dad and lift him in the air from the legs. Once, he walked straight into a crowd of Mongrel Mob members and eyed up their leader before laying him out with a single punch.

And there was the bush. He loved the bush. The final photograph taken of Hamish was half an hour before he died. It shows only his feet, scrubbing up the bush floor to release bugs for birds to eat. That final photograph has one in between Hamish's feet, feasting on an unexpected bounty.

Hunting was Hamish's heritage. He was the fifth generation to live in these hills, and at least the fourth generation to have hunted here. Andy's great-grandfather was an engineer out here, his granddad a tunneller for the railway.

Andy's dad was born in public works camps, and then it was Andy's turn to grow up in this incredible landscape. "I shot my first rabbit when I was 7, was hunting by myself by 11 and shot my first deer at 14."

But Andy didn't touch a rifle for nine years after Hamish was killed. "I'm not against guns or against hunting," he says. "I never stopped going into the bush."

He just stopped shooting. Callum went out and shot a few deer. "Dad, Hamish wouldn't want you be like that," he told Andy later.

It took him nine years. When finally he picked up a .22 and went out to shoot a couple of rabbits, Gill says his hands were shaking.

How everything has changed, he says. Hamish is still part of their daily lives, just a yearning, painful part which will never be at ease. As Gill says: "It's like a sentence that haunts you for the rest of your life."

When Hamish's pig dog Rusty died, they buried him with Hamish in the cemetery nearby. Rusty went in from above and there are plots reserved on either side for Andy and Gill. They'll grieve for their son until they die, and then join him.

The pain sits so close to the surface almost anything might set it off. Andy was reading a newspaper story the other day and it started him crying. "I feel hypersensitive to other people's pain."

Dave has moved but still lives locally. Andy still sees him around, but it is what it is. Dave never backed away from what happened. He pleaded guilty to careless use of a firearm causing death and was sentenced to nine months' jail.

What else do you do, asks Andy? "He can't do anything. He can't take the bullet back. He can't bring Hamish back. He can only take responsibility like a man is meant to."

Nothing makes the pain go away.

"If it would help me or Gill or help Hamish to hit him, then I'd hit him. If it was any help to kill him, then I'd go and kill him. The fact he took responsibility straight away is the reason he is alive today."

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