Before the winter snow was due to settle in, fellow Huru Adventurer Tom Smedley and myself decided on a trip up the Rangitata headwaters and into the mountains in search of Himalayan Tahr.
We drove down from Christchurch on ANZAC weekend, popping into Ashburton briefly to discuss plans and borrow a spotting scope off a good mate of ours. It was then on to Mesoptamia where we each pitched a tent in the dark at the base of our walk the following morning. During the night the winds picked up to gale force, keeping the frost away but creating an absolute racket. My little one-man tent stood up to the challenge being low to the ground, however Tom’s tent which he had ‘rangi’d’ from a music festival, I quote, “passed with a C-“. After a bit of breaky and a pack up of camp, we loaded heavy packs on to our backs and headed into the mountains towards the hut we would be staying in for the next few days. As we left the rain came down which we knew was forecast to do, soaking our clothes and packs, making the walk a whole stretch harder. The path followed a riverbed which kept bluffing us out, forcing us to continuously cross the river. The last half hour saw us climbing up a steep track and on to the hut. Such a welcome site!
The hut was an old rusty musterer’s hut with a holey roof and no dry firewood in sight. The names of previous musterers dating back to the mid 1900’s were etched into the walls and was a reminder of the historic use of the land we were now hunting on.
Arriving at midday we unloaded, hung our wet clothes up on the rafters in an attempt to dry the gear as best as possible, and caught up on a couple of missed hours sleep from the night before due to the wind. It was at this point I realized that a couple of mice had bitten holes into the bottom of my packliner (probably from the garage back home), and my sleeping bag which was situated in the bottom of my pack was soaked. Feeling deflated I threw the damp sleeping bag over myself and tried to use my body heat to dry it as best as possible.
In the late afternoon, another hunter arrived and we glassed the surrounding country with the only animal being seen – a chamios, at a distance far too far away to stalk with the remaining light left in the day. A hot dinner consisting of 80% dehydrated mash potato lifted the spirits and a drier sleeping bag indicated things were significantly improving.
We woke in the morning to ice on the inside of the windows and not a breath of wind nor a rain cloud in sight outside. A crisp, cold, South Canterbury morning. Before breakfast was even on the cards the binos were out glassing the country opposite the hut where Tom had encountered animals on a previous occasion. Eventually the cold got the best of us and with no luck spotting early animals, our attentions turned to getting a brew on and having some breakfast.
Once back glassing for animals I decided to walk 10 minutes around the corner to open up further country that couldn’t be seen from our spot in the morning. With no success Tom also joined me around the corner, and shortly after he spotted a tahr bedded down on a rocky outcrop just above the valley floor. All our previous efforts and been scoping out the mid to high altitudes where we expected to see tahr, yet here was one right under our nose! (Still on the other side of the valley). We paced back to the hut and came up with a plan of attack. The other hunter who had also been relatively unsuccessful at spotting early animals was gearing up to head to the tops for a better view. His plans quickly changed when he caught wind of us having spotted a tahr, as he believed there were likely to be more animals around nearby. With two rifles between the three of us we set off back around the corner to where the bedded down tahr lay in the sun. Sure enough it was still there at home among the rocky bluffs. Glassing for another 10 minutes around the area it was concluded that the animal was alone and the range finder indicated the animal was sitting across the valley at a distance of 350m. Being on the edge of a bluff ourselves, it seemed unlikely that there was any other option apart from having a long shot. The 270. caliber rifle Tom held in his hands was well capable of making the shot however to be frankly honest we had no idea how the rifle was shooting much beyond 200m.
As Tom lined the animal in his sight, the other hunter also took aim as back up in case of a miss.
The stealth mode we were in was broken by the crack of rifles being fired as magazines were emptied and shots fell short. Being startled by the projectiles heading its way the tahr and about a dozen or so other tahr (which had previously been out of sight), frantically ran for cover. Safety for them was found in a shady gully out of range and out of sight of the two barrels aimed in their direction. Giving it a few minutes to die down and discussing what may have gone wrong or what we could have done differently, a new plan was constructed for the rest of the day. We were to head back down our side of the valley, up the river, and back up on the other side to where we had last spotted the tahr. It was a long shot but we knew animals were over there.
We headed back down the steep track we had climbed the day before and pushed on further up river. Eventually we chose a spot where it looked like we could climb up the other side and sidle around to where we had last seen the tahr. However, compared to the Himalayan Mountain Tahr, our climbing abilities were certainly stretched, having to help one another over come crumbly rocky bluffs, hanging on to tree roots – our only source of stable support. Once above the rocky bluffs the steep mountain side was dominated by open tussock land and spaniard grass. We found a great spot for a quick bite to eat and discussed how bagging an animal was not the main reason we had all gotten into hunting. It was more about the places it takes you and the adventures that coincide with every hunting trip, successful or not.
For the rest of the day we followed tahr sign around the mountain but fell short on locating anymore animals. The trouble was, once we had committed to entering the tahr country, we had significantly reduced the amount of country we were able to glass due to the steep terrain and multiple ridgelines that defined the surrounding mountains. Being worn out from the day’s adventures and the morning’s excitement, reluctantly we bashed our way down and back up the other side once again towards the hut.
The morning of day three dawned with excitement as a mob of tahr were spotted crossing a shingle scree across another valley to the left of the hut. Straight out of the sleeping bag and without a morning brew, we got the animals in the spotting scope and the range finder told a similar story to yesterday with the animals around 350m away. More than a dozen tahr were scattered through the native forest, rocky outcrops and open tussock land. It was awesome to see so early in the day. Having been spotted first by the other hunter he decided to have the first crack and in the morning rush we only had one rifle set up. Unfortunately the result was much the same as yesterday. A few misses and the tahr were off running well out of range and up to the top of the ridge line. All I could do was watch the animals through the binos as they headed to safety, escaping us once again on this trip. During the shooting the other hunter had failed to secure the rifle tight against his shoulder and the recoil of the rifle sent the scope bang smack into his eyebrow. As if missing the animal wasn’t bad enough, he now had a nice new scar with nothing to show for it!
We all ate breakfast keeping an eye on the tahr now disappearing over the far ridge, disappointed we had to walk out that day. We packed up, tidied the hut and headed back to the truck. It was primo seeing so many animals on the trip and our appreciation for the tahr and the environment they inhabit vastly increased. During our numerous river crossings on the way back towards home, we were already discussing what we were going to do when we would be back for another adventure…