It was a Thursday night and I was at home checking the coastal conditions deciding if whether it was suitable for a weekend mid-winter dive or fishing mission. The sea swell was up and a strong South West’er was forecast to hit. Sometimes Mother Nature misses the memo and plan B has to be conjured up.
My phone rings and a good mate of mine Mitch Hutson was on about a weekend adventure in North Canterbury targeting red meat. Realistically “of course I’m keen” was the only ever answer that crossed my mind and after a quick yarn and a verbally drafted plan, I was packing my gear to set off the following day.
Mitch knocked off work early and by mid day we were heading up the coast to towards some hunting ground neither of us had ventured into before. By the time we arrived at the beginning of our walk, there was only another hour of light left in the day. For the first 2.5km we followed our nose up a river bed heading towards the mountains. Our goal to reach a track that would lead us to a DOC hut where we could spend the night. With the amount of sign around it seemed at any moment an animal would pop out of the bush edge and on to the river flats. Unfortunately for us this didn’t happen and darkness arrived fast before we could find the beginning of the marked track. Luckily we were appropriately prepared with a topographical map of the area and a GPS unit. These tools guided us in the right direction and following the odd rock cairn here and there, led us to the start of the track. Initially it had us climbing up and over a foothill of the mountain system we were entering, avoiding a steep gorge riddled with deep pools which would have been impossible to go through on a hot summers day let alone a cold wintery night. The track we were on was appropriately labelled as an ‘expert’ track online, and the GPS saved us on a couple of occasions when we got temporarily lost along the poorly marked route. Eventually we dropped back into the river bed above the gorge and by 8 pm we made it to our the destination of the hut.
In the hut we met a lone hunter by the name of Steve whom was getting back into the hunting scene after a few years out of the game. He informed us of the previous nights antics where a couple of possum surveyors had brought with them a diesel generator (the luxuries a helicopter drop off can provide). They had hooked up a T.V unit and were watching western films all night. What a laugh that would of been arriving to!
Arriving at the hut later than expected, we had a quick dinner and then made a plan of attack for the following day before jumping in the fart sacks for some much needed kip. The plan was to walk up the shingle scree situated behind the hut, hopefully acting as a shortcut to the tops where we would be in prime position for hunting first light. From Steve’s advice it was likely to save us a couple of hours walk before the inevitable climb anyway if we continued along the track.
I was wide awake at 5 am when Mitch’s alarm went off thanks to the nasal roaring thundering from the other end of the hut. The snoring only stopped when the head torches came on and the morning brew started to boil. Leaving most of our gear at the hut we packed lightly for a days hunting and began heading towards the scree chute. We had no idea what we were in for as we hadn’t seen our immediate surroundings in anything but moonlight. For every step we took we slid back two, as the steepness of the slope was highly underestimated. Hugging one side of the scree slope we managed to slowly climb our way up hanging on to the vegetation along the bush edge. It took us an hour and a half to reach the top, having to over come some dodgy rock climbs that I think we were both thankful we did in the dark without daylight highlighting the drop below. Another 30 min bash through thick supple jack vines and manuka scrub saw us break into the sub alpine zone just in time for first light. We perched on a false peak around 950m above sea level and glassed the country exposed to the morning sun. Being still in the shade ourselves it was an icy cold morning and we gave the area a good look over for 45 minutes before firing the cooker for a hot drink. We then headed towards higher ground to get a better view and open up more country to glass for animals.
It was a very strange morning. The sun was up, the sky was blue, yet one miserable looking cloud was in wintery mode dropping a light dusting of snow on us. However, the sun came up trumps and burnt away the low lying cloud and before long we were taking off our jackets and stuffing them into the bottom of our packs. Halfway up to our intended glassing location at 1200m we had a quick look across the valley on the other side of the river we had walked up the day before. It didn’t take long before Mitch spotted a couple of deer in an opening surrounded by thick beech forest. As we watched them we noticed more and more deer concluding the final tally to be a mob of 6 deer. Where they were located would have taken the majority of the day to reach and involved a horrendous climb, so for now the deer on the other side were safe from us.
Excited to see a big mob of deer quite early on in the day we were encouraged and continued to the peak we were aiming for where we sat down and ate a couple of well earned sandwiches. We had a beautiful view of the coastline, with the ocean being a unusual but welcome sight compared to many previous hunting adventures. After the bite to eat, Mitch and I took opposite sides of a rocky outcrop, covering as much country as we could with the binoculars. I followed a well defined game trail on an opposing sunny face and saw the outline of what looked like two animals grazing. I kept the binos focused on the shapes to confirm whether they were deer or not before calling Mitch over, but it did not matter as almost simultaneously Mitch had spotted a nice looking yearling hind only 300 metres below us. The deer was feeding down to an open clearing near the bottom of a small valley we were situated on top of. We spent 15 minutes watching the deer’s behaviour and activity whilst discussing the best method to stalk in and make a shot.
Making the decision to climb down slowly, we had to time our moves in response to when the deer had her head down feeding as not to gain any unwanted attention. On the drop down into position Mother Nature had one last trick up her sleeve trying to deny us of the venison we were after. When the deer was first spotted the wind was in a perfect direction, right in our face keeping our scent away from the deer. However upon starting our stalk the wind did a complete 180 change and blew our wind straight up the deer’s rump! We had now closed the gap to around 200 metres, but she was on to us. Rather than feeding down she was now alert, facing up the hill, looking over her shoulder in our direction and ready to zip into cover at a moments notice. It wasn’t the ideal location but a shot had to be made soon or we’d lose our opportunity. As I kept a steady watch with the binos, Mitch climbed down another 20 metres searching for a better vantage point. With the deer looking our way a shot rang out from below me. Expecting to see the animal drop or run, I was surprised to see it standing in the exact same position. Completely unfazed about the bullet which had just fractionally missed its mark over the top of her. Moments later another shot rang out, this time on target and the deer dropped instantly.
To make sure we could successfully find the downed animal, I stayed on the adjacent hillside and guided Mitch to his kill with arm gestures. Having to walk down and back up the other side of a small basin we didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
It was a beautiful sight to see up close as the freezers were chocker with fish but sadly lacking in any wild red meat. Even though the sun was high in the sky, being winter it lacked in strength meaning it was highly unlikely for the meat to spoil during the butchering process.
It was quite a process deboning the whole animal out, we both share the same mindset that if possible, no part of the animal should be wasted. This is not only out of respect for the animal we had killed, but also due to our love of venison. After harvesting all the meat we could take off the young hind, we loaded the meat in our packs and made the decision to walk back up to the tops in the hope of coming across another deer in the late afternoon. I had a taste for the action now and was keen to bag my own.
Walking back uphill was a lot different and the weight of the protein in our packs was definitely felt. Reaching the tops again we settled down in a great spot to glass a face just to our right hoping an animal would show itself rising out of the bush to enjoy the last of the sun. We sat there, already satisfied with our hunt and made the decision after 45 minutes of glassing, to head back to the hut for a well deserved back country meal. If we were making good time we could even try for a walk out and make the local fish and chippy before it closes!
Going down was a lot easier, the scree slope that put us to the test in the morning was conquered in minutes on the descent. Reaching the hut with an hour of light left in the day we smashed a muesli bar and packed up ready for the walk out. We both knew it would make it an extremely long day but the thought of a cold beer and a warm bed at our mates bach in hindsight, clouded our commonsense.
Darkness fell quicker than expected and we were still in the riverbed looking for our track markers to guide us back into the bush and over the gorge. The combination of darkness and fatigue made us walk straight passed our mark and we were soon disorientated and confused as to where to head. The GPS and topo map had the track around 200m off where it actually was as we had learned the night before. Walking up and down the cold damp river bed looking for markers was frustrating to say the least. At times we thought about heading back to the hut and trying again in the morning. We also had tents in our packs so even a fly camp somewhere was an option on the cards. We walked so far down the river that it became too gorgey and we had to turn around. Walking in the opposite direction to the vehicle, in the darkness of winter, with heavy packs, was mentally draining. We both decided to take 5 minutes and sat down trying to gather our thoughts. Considering ourselves experienced outdoorsmen, being beaten was not an option. As we sat and had a drink of water we heard something russle along the bush edge. Shining the headtorches toward the direction of the noise revealed a plastic bag tied to a tree. Right next to the plastic bag lay an orange triangle marker. The bloody marker we’d been searching for for the last two hours!
From that moment on we knew we were back on track and it was a great feeling to be heading back towards the vehicle. Up and over the gorge we headed, walking passed familiar landmarks that boosted our confidence. Dropping down and hitting the last stretch of the river bed was awesome as the moonlight led the way. As the vehicle loomed we both checked the time. 10:30pm. If I’m being honest I absolutely love the wilderness and an adventure but I couldn’t wait for a scoop of chips and a speights!
All in all in was an outstanding mid-winter adventure and looking back I wouldnt have it go any other way! Cheers to Mitch for sharing the vension too. Legend.
Until next time,