Down (Under) Home: A Hunting Adventure in New Zealand
Halfway around the world, on a chamois and tahr adventure in the wild backcountry of New Zealand's south island, the author finds a familiar serenity in the hunt
The quiet here is eerie. It’s one of the first things I noticed about New Zealand. As I fill a jug for coffee from the head of a mountain stream on the South Island, there are no birds chattering or even insects humming. No coyotes howling. Even the riverbed itself is strange. The rocks—called greywacke—look like coarse stone hauled in from a quarry. The banks are lined with spear grass stout and sharp enough to pierce a calf muscle. The peaks above seem lifeless. It is, in a word, foreign. Returning to camp, I notice a small chunk of meat stuck to the outside of the tent, remnants of our savage feast the night before. David Draper is sitting in a damp chair, snapping twigs and trying to rekindle our fire, and I can tell he’s been waiting for someone else to appreciate the piece of flesh.
“It was quite a feed,” I say. He nods and smiles.
There’s more life on this island than it would seem. New Zealand is a mountain hunter’s paradise—and the meat on the tent is wild chamois, from yesterday’s hunt.
Chamois, like a variety of other big-game species, were released on the South Island in the early 1900s. Native to the European mountain ranges, they’ve thrived in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The animals are small—80 pounds or so—and jittery, with traits that bring to mind both mountain goats and pronghorns. They prefer some of the most remote and treacherous mountain country New Zealand has to offer—much of which, including the area we’re in, is open to public hunting.
We chartered a helicopter to get here. The pilot touched down in the valley just long enough for us to throw out our tents and cooking gear for base camp, then ferried us to a high saddle between two mountain peaks to begin our hunt. Below, a drainage snaked through 5 miles of rugged country to its confluence with the river, next to our camp. From our vantage, it looked like a good stone’s throw.
We could still hear the hum of the helicopter as we sat down on the saddle to glass. This part of the South Island is big country, requiring good optics (see below), but it’s deceptive and not as open as it seems. Many of the rock faces are cut by drainages whose greenery is head-high and rainforest-dense. After an hour, I picked out a lone chamois buck a thousand or more yards away. I pointed him out to our Kiwi guide, Dan Rossiter.
“That’s a good one, mate,” he said, glassing the critter himself. “We should get closer.”
Rossiter took the lead as we picked our way down the slope, followed by Scott Olmstead, editor-in-chief of American Hunter, and Draper, editor of Petersen’s Hunting. Suddenly, Rossiter motioned for us to get down. Three chamois bucks that we hadn’t seen earlier were feeding on a grassy flat 300 yards below. None were especially big, but in the backcountry, Rossiter said, you take what you get. We also liked the prospect of eating fresh chamois backstrap instead of freeze-dried chili mac.
The buck on the left separated from the others and bedded on a rock face. I was lying on my belly to the left of everyone else, doing my best to glass without getting busted.
“Crawl up there to that clump of grass, mate, and get a good rest on your pack,” Rossiter whispered. “Don’t let them see you.”
I did as I was told, pushed my pack in front of me, and laid my rifle barrel across it. The bedded buck was quartering slightly toward me, so I spun the magnification dial to 12X, steadied the crosshairs on the point of the buck’s shoulder, and waited. Draper and Olmstead were each set up on sticks, taking aim. Rossiter counted down from three, and we fired together. My buck staggered to his feet after the first shot, so I hit him again. All three chamois were down in plain sight.
After pictures and a quick lunch, we pulled our knives and set to work, cutting up the chamois and arranging quarters and skulls into our packs. All we had to do, it seemed, was walk back to camp, have us a hell of a meal, and make a satellite call for the chopper a day early.
Down and Under
As the saying goes, a lion doesn’t need to tell you it’s a lion. In the same way, Rossiter’s understated personality is part of what makes him such a badass. When he’s not guiding, he builds houses, and in his off time he hunts as much as possible, often with his daughter. This particular drainage is one of his favorites. As we hiked back toward camp, I’d catch glimpses of him sitting ahead, patiently waiting on the three Americans behind him to catch up. I’m not sure that I saw him take more than a deep breath.
The slope’s grade wasn’t of the straight-down, fall-and-you’re-dead variety, but close. Rossiter walked over it like it was tile floor. My pack was heavy with meat (though not as heavy as his), so I zigzagged down, never daring to straighten my legs for fear of hyperextending a knee.
We were less than a mile from where we started, sweating pretty good, when a buck chamois suddenly stood up from behind a lone boulder just 30 yards away. It was likely the same one we’d spotted earlier from a thousand yards above. Rossiter hissed to shoot, and Draper killed it before Olmstead or I got our guns off our shoulders.
“Best day of wild chamois hunting you’re ever going to see, mates,” Rossiter said as he quartered the animal. Then he paused. “We have a bad spot up ahead. A wee bit of brush. It takes about 45 minutes to get through it. We’d best not shoot any more.”
The brush seemed to be a conifer of some sort. Most of it was about 7 feet tall, and because of the grade, it grew perpendicular to us as much as it grew upward. Its limbs were woven as tight as a net. Plowing through it, Olmstead tore loose a muscle in his ribs—his doctor confirmed later—and we were all gouged and bloodied. During a short break, I watched Rossiter check the footing on a bush below him. He smiled, took a step forward, and disappeared from sight. I clawed my way toward him. Where he’d disappeared was a chute the diameter of a man, 75 yards long and spilling out toward the whitewater creek below.
“Dan?!” I yelled. I couldn’t have heard him over the torrent if he’d answered. I heard Draper picking his way through the brush above me.
“Brantley, I can’t see a damn thing,” he yelled. “Which way?”
I wasn’t quite ready to reveal that Rossiter had vanished before my eyes. But then I saw a flash of movement at the bottom of the chute. Rossiter leaned in, smiled, and motioned for me to come on down. I turned to Draper. “This way!”
The sun was setting when we reached the valley floor. Rossiter began erecting the tents as Draper fished through the cooking supplies. Olmstead and I gathered firewood and then retrieved three chamois backstraps for the four of us.
We formed an assembly line around the fire: meat, seasonings, butter, skillet, and flask of whiskey. We worked by the light of headlamps. Olmstead sliced, Draper seasoned, and I fried. Rossiter manned the plate of cooked meat and passed the flask, which never lingered for very long in one place. We sipped off the threads between dripping mouthfuls of chamois meat.
With the plate empty, Draper stood and brought three more backstraps to the circle, one of which he cut in half and simply tossed into the glowing coals of our fire. We scraped the ash off the meat 15 minutes later and ate rare slices of it from the blades of our pocketknives. For all that seemed strange in this land, this was a scene familiar to any hunter, anywhere, as far back as you care to go. Maybe the next day we’d eat a vegetable. But this night was for fire and meat and blades, a proper hunting-camp meal fit for a bunch of damned savages. Nobody howled at the moon that night, but we probably all considered it.
The next morning, gathered again around the fire, we sip coffee, admire the chunk of backstrap on the tent, and wait for the hum of the helicopter. It’ll be hard to leave a camp like this, but we’re not done. Rossiter wants to take us tahr hunting.
Like chamois, Himalayan tahr were introduced to New Zealand in the last century. They are heavy, goatlike animals, three times the size of chamois. Both sexes have horns, but a good bull’s will measure 12-plus inches and be as thick as a man’s forearm. In the winter, bulls develop magnificent manes. Though they’re listed as threatened in much of their native range, they’re so plentiful in areas of the South Island that government sharpshooters are employed to control them. For the most part, though, hunters manage their numbers—and many consider them to be New Zealand’s finest trophy.
It’s February, early fall here, and at this time of the year, small herds of tahr spend midday loafing in high-elevation areas, then move down to grassy benches late in the evening to feed. After the short helicopter ride, we drive three hours to the outskirts of a sheep farm, where we plan to hunt. It’s still the four of us, plus Bre Lewis, who traveled from the States to work for the outfitter during the season. Arriving an hour before dark, we motor along a riverbed toward an old sheepherder’s hut that will be our camp. We move slowly, glassing as we go. Tahr are on the move, and Rossiter spots a bull. After a quick stalk, Olmstead kills it with a single shot.
The hut is lined with bunks, dusty linens, and a fireplace, but it has no power or running water. Lewis strikes a small propane stove, and she and Rossiter begin cooking. We build a roaring blaze, drink a little more whiskey, and sample the backstrap from Olmstead’s bull. It’s tender and so mild, it’s almost bland. None of us are upright much longer.
Rossiter’s headlamp wakes me before my alarm. He’s already dressed to hunt and making coffee, and we leave the hut just as the sky is becoming pale.
Plenty of tahr are on their feet at daybreak, but our stalks don’t pan out. At lunchtime, Rossiter stops the truck on a warm flat along the river, and we eat while glassing the peaks and doze on our packs. I’m nodding off when, from behind a spotting scope, Rossiter says, “Check this one out, mate.”
The bull is bedded halfway up the mountain, across the river a mile away, with 15 nannies. He’s probably a 12-incher, with an especially thick mane for this early in the season. Best of all, he’s lying in a meadow at the edge of a treeline, and I like the idea of sneaking in close to him.
We cross the river in Rossiter’s truck, then slip into the timber below the herd. It’s the first scope of big woods I’ve seen, and the understory is soft and quiet. We move quickly up the face, stopping at a bubbling creek to fill our canteens.
At the wood’s edge, we drop to our knees and crawl into the meadow. We’re 100 yards from where we’d last seen the bull, and at first it seems the herd has disappeared. Then a single nanny appears from behind a fold in the terrain above us. The rest of the herd files into sight, walking right to us. Rossiter is hissing for me to shoot, but the bull is in the back, and I can only see the top of his horns. Finally, I shoulder my rifle and sit up just high enough to see to the base of the bull’s neck and the top of his chest. That’s enough. I shoot offhand, and he drops where he stands.
It’s quiet here again. But not foreign anymore. At least, not for the moment. Knives work, meat gets tightened against pack frames, and hunters retell the details of the chase. It sounds like home in any hemisphere.
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Tough Glass for Rugged Country
Mountain hunters live by their optics, and on this hunt, I was using Bushnell’s new Forge line of binoculars and riflescopes. I did my glassing with a pair of 10×42 binos ($576) that feature fully multicoated optics, waterproof construction, and an EXO Barrier that resists water, fog, and debris. They were comfortable for extended glassing sessions, tough, and outstanding for the price.
The Forge line also includes a suite of scopes built for long-range shooting. Bragging about shot distance is not my thing (I much prefer sneaking in close to a critter when I can), but there’s nothing wrong with being prepared for a long poke, especially in the mountains. Due to the rugged country, shots on this hunt in particular tended to be longer. The scope I used was a 4.5–27×50 with a 30mm tube ($1,020). It was clear, and featured side parallax adjustment, locking zero-stop turrets, the EXO Barrier, and a host of other features. Most impressive to me? Everyone in camp beat the hell out of these scopes for a week, and not one lost its zero.