First-time hunter John Shaw spends a magical three days in the Waitaki hills.
Although I have spent many an hour mountain-biking the back country of Waitaki, my home district, I had never been on a hunting trip.
It was time that was remedied, so into the great blue, grey, windy, snowy, rainy, misty yonder I went for three days, during which Otago threw the lot at us. It began well, the Friday of our leaving dawning with a blue sky. After a morning's drive in Shanon's ute (which could get us in only so far) we were prepared for a two-hour walk to the hut at 800m elevation, our home for the next three days.
Word came through that the track was rideable so out came the four-wheel bike, a welcome relief. With trailer in tow, our transport climbed and slid its way through mud and icy snow. Eventually, a high-point clearing appeared where the hut sat on the edge of a large native beech forest. Some of these magnificent trees looked to be well over 100 years old. Beech are known to live for up to 300 years and I half expected to find Frodo hiding behind one of the bigger trunks.
While the hut was basic, it had everything we needed for a comfortable and enjoyable stay. Heating and cooking was on a coal range, which was fired up immediately. I had never operated one before so that was going to be interesting. After a bite to eat and a few coffees, it was time to assemble our day gear, make sure we all had radio contact and head out for our first look at what was on offer.
The only shooting for me was to be from behind a camera, but my three travelling companions were all experienced hunters and knew their firearms and the area intimately. It was a privilege to be among them. Deer numbers are up, so any kills by our group meant fewer for the helicopter shooters to have to deal with.
As we walked along the track, I soon realised this hunting lark was not to be taken lightly. My companions' eyes were trained on every nook and cranny on the slopes and ridges, constantly scanning for movement and changes in shape and colour.
Regular stops were made to get the "binos" (binoculars) out. It was a struggle for a newby to see what the others saw, even with a 135mm SLR camera lens pressed against my nose. The matagouri, tussock, speargrass and manuka-covered slopes provided good cover for the deer that the guys knew were there.
After negotiating three days in this terrain, I have a new-found respect for all of this vegetation, which I previously learned to detest on a mountain bike. These flora are all as strong as an ox and very handy to grab hold of on steep terrain, sometimes in great haste.
We split into two groups, and Shanon and I set off over a fence into a target area in a Department of Conservation reserve, the appropriate licence having been procured before we left on the trip. Aaron and Howard headed in another direction.
From a stand of rocks that almost looked like the ruins of a medieval castle, Shanon and I spied a stag lying behind some flax at the base of the slope. After firing at the animal, Shanon headed down quickly, with yours truly trying to keep up. Over a ledge he went and down into vastly thicker native flora and some small stands of beech.
This was both amazing and nightmarish (in equal parts I would say). The term bush lawyer, also known as climbing blackberry, refers to a thorny, vine-like creature that, if not treated with the utmost respect, will rip the clothes off your back and anything off your head. Note to self: If you don't put your glasses away in your pack they are likely to be dislodged. What followed was a panicked search in dark undergrowth, in fading light, which did luckily end in success: breathe a huge sigh of relief.
There were large areas of beech forest in the Doc reserve, interspersed with small clearings and hillsides dotted with tightly packed flax, matagouri and manuka. It was easy to see how one could get lost without good landmarks, maps and a compass to navigate by.
Higher snow-capped peaks and slopes peered down on us as we searched for the animal; sadly without success. We eventually fought our way back up to the track that we knew would lead us to the warmth and comfort of the hut. Upon reaching the final ascent — by this time in complete darkness — the headlamps went on. As we moved forward, Aaron and Howard's lights were sometimes visible. We knew their route back was a tough one on narrow cattle tracks and through tightly packed manuka scrub. They were in good spirits, though, as from earlier radio contact we knew their afternoon had been a success. The weight of the freshly cut venison in their packs and the 12-point antlers on their backs kept their pace slow and measured. Finally, a track through beech forest led us directly to familiar red iron cladding. It had been a long but very exciting day.
After an early rise and breakfast on day two, it was time to take out the big 150-600mm lens on the monopod.
The sunrises here are nothing short of breath-taking. The deep red dawn light strengthened as we started our trek to the target area. It was truly spectacular.
Over a few fences and down a sometimes very icy cattle track, we made our way to the morning's hunting location; a successful one this time.
Watching it all unfold from a grandstand position was like watching a suspense movie.
The weather conditions were much windier and more overcast so after an hour and a-half anchored in one spot, my cold feet got the better of me and I headed back to home base, leaving Shanon to pack the meat and head back when he was finished. The kettle would be on with hot water for a cuppa when he got back.
Day three was Sunday so it seemed appropriate for a slower pace and a later start. Shanon, however, had other ideas after setting off early. The rest of us headed out after a leisurely breakfast and coffee with the intention of staying closer to the hut. From our position on the second ridge, we heard two shots ring out and had a radio call asking for help finding and dealing with shot animals. In a split second the Sunday jaunt we envisaged became a distant memory.
The animals were on steep terrain so locating them in the manuka scrub and returning to the hut was another challenging affair, but no-one was complaining about more fresh venison. It was a fitting way to finish a very successful hunting trip.
After a coal range fry-up, packing the trailer, restocking the firewood and cleaning the hut, Shanon fired up the four-wheeler and we headed home.
Shanon and Aaron have been coming to these parts for more than 10 years. Their knowledge of the area is nothing short of encyclopedic. It was an unforgettable weekend.