Kotinga: Public Land Harvest

It was the perfect setting; three days of rain, a clear moonless night, an overcast morning and finally a break in the clouds allowing the sun to warm up northward faces and clearings. The perfect time for animals to stretch their legs and get in a feed of bolting high country sweet summer grass.

Growing up my dad had a .22 locked somewhere in a cupboard, during our younger years it would come with us to Wanaka to go knock over the odd rabbit on farms. One Easter up Piano Flat dad even let my brothers and I take aim at a tree and that night we drove around the river willows picking off possums under the spot light. But it wasn’t until my 4th year of University when I was down in Dunedin for a 21st that I was introduced to the true wilds. My Cousin who was studying outdoor education at the time, had access to a forestry block at Waipori. I drove mum’s Toyota Echo up the gravel roads to join them. The morning was full of plenty of fog and I got well and truly soaked trouncing through the new growth pine forests spotting pig and deer sign, I was hooked. Sure enough about two hours later, while I was in Green Island having a token run on for the Killer B’s at Green Island, the lads struck it lucky and picked up a couple of pigs. To say I was jealous was an understatement and a severe itch was cultivated.

Fast forward the following year and myself and my two flatmates from Dunedin, drew Timaru Creek in the Wanaka Roar Ballot and a plan was hatched for the three of us to head into the unknown. Again, marginal gear and even less skill was used and we managed to pick up a dumb spiker strutting into a well used wallow. Upon hindsight the wallow had belonged to an epic 14 pointer taken the week before, and had we had a few more brains and patience the next in line might not have been far away. A few Tahr were also spotted that trip and a great time was had navigating the mountains and learning that fireproof Velcro work boots are great for the pot lines of Tiwai Point Aluminium smelter, not so good in high-country rivers and scree slopes.

3 years later another day mission was hatched with my cousin, this time to Mt Summer to find a tahr or chamois or deer or basically anything brown, but the smell of dead rats and possums indicated the 1080 might have beat us to the valley and again I had to be satisfied by poop and pig rooting.

Labour Weekend, 2015 saw a third return to Timaru Creek, with the lessons of a hungover new years day journey still fresh in our minds, my mate and I walked to the top of Moonlight and Roses hut to look and walk many kms over the amazing part of the world. Three young stags spooked on our way in, and the rookie error of aiming high at some tahr on a cliff face with our brand new rifles, served a life long lesson in marksmanship.

Finally having a firearm of my own also saw me check out the Te Tapui A Fallow blocks, many times bumping these dark furred critters and Thompson’s Track of the Kaimais throughout 2016, following game trails, finding good areas and navigating the bush were all steep learning curves.

After a barrage of fire above and below at Easter 2016 halfway up a cracker spur on Thompson’s track, I decided despite the new found quality area and stag bed, for my livelihood I would find a new spot to hunt in the Kaimai jungle and probably just when I was starting to get the hang of the area, I bailed for further south and the Te Tuhi Track and Mangamuka Hut became my new go to. Again third time lucky I spooked a hind walking into the track just as I got onto the platau at the end of 2017, but with the birth of my daughter in Feb 2018 and a move to NSW, this was to be my last hunt for a while and I was left to consuming hunting films and magazines, living vicariously through peoples hunts on Instagram and chatting with the odd hunter on my podcast.

2016 saw me back down south, this time to attack the Blue River for the Wanaka Ballot. Confidence and knowledge were still minimal and 24 hours in a tent only to have the basin blasted up by some paradise ducks taught me that I mustn’t be doing something quite right as no animals were seen in one of the greatest areas of hunting history. The Herrick Trophy at NZDA Hastings, confirmed I had been in hunting mecca and I would love to go back there one day to conquer its steep spurs and hopefully its animals with fantastic bloodlines.

Tahrmageddon was a big turning point in my huting journey. Having whitnessed these beautiful animals in Timaru creek twice, I vowed that on return to NZ, I would do my utmost to get out there and enjoy the amazing outdoors of NZ and also to join NZDA wherever I ended up.

Cue 2019 and the family and I moved to Hawke’s Bay and I became a member at the Hastings branch. Through the power of Social Media, Rosie Tong recommended I head to Macintosh Plateau if I wanted to get onto some Sika. She informed me the climb in was a bit grueling but the hunting was immediate. She was not wrong, after the climb and the loss of a few gallons of sweat I met up with a fellow NZDA member by chance at the hut and determined our respective hunting zones. Executing a plan 18 months after I had last been in the bush was hugely satisfying, spooking two deer and finding some good beds and game trails was epic, the climb back out, that was soul destroying.

After a few training hikes up Te Mata peak carrying my daughter in the front pack, my hunting boots on my feet and back pack filled with stuff I was more confident in heading back. What a difference a bit of climbing in the legs made, even with a full back. I ventured through the same area on my way to the hut to not find anything in the swirling wind and evening August sun. Arriving at the hut I had a great evening yarning to two ladies also early into their hunting careers who were members of NZDA Wellington and involved in Farming.

The next day I explored North of the hut in the rain, and then after a some snacks and a cuppa back at the hut, made the slow walk, hunting out in two minds of what to do. Still with a swirling wind but much improved weather I chanced my arm and went off the track. Finding an amazing area heavy with sign I took it easy, only to have the swirling wind ruin my fun as I crept up a small hill. It was bang, crash, a couple of mews in vein and shit! as the deer disappeared into god knows where. I was doing this thing almost right.

By the end of the month, our president Ben, must have taken pity on me and brought me out to the edge of his farm, where we collected a meat animal. A few sika calls from a good mob and then a further 100m walk had me lining up a hind and us heading back to Havelock North to hang it in the chiller and me filling the freezer and sharing some of the most amazing tasting meat with friends. Slightly bitter sweet; Amazing to have the greatest wild free range food, but I couldn’t help the feelings I’d cheated the system.

Cue the weekend prior to Xmas. Alex and Billie had gone up to her mothers prior to Xmas and I still had work until Xmas eve. I planned to head out on the Friday after work. Not getting to pack that morning, meant I had quite a few reservations about heading out that night, but I gave myself a kick up the arse and got out there. I arrived at the car park at 8:30 and knew whilst the perfect time to spot deer, it would also mean walking in the dark. Loading up my pack I began to walk, sure enough rounding the first bend, still up on the plateau, I spooked a hind feeding on the track side in the bracken, she was off down the hill before I could know what to do and for good measure gave me a hearty squeal once well out of view. I was on guard. The rifle didn’t make it to walking up the hill before it was strapped to the pack and the head torch was on, it was one foot in front of the other up to Mackintosh. Another deer spooked in the dark and the sound of Ruru kept me entertained as I made it to the top. It was a beautiful clear night with a slight chill in the air after the day’s rain and inclement weather the previous days, no moon, perfect.

At 10pm a deer let out a series of hee haw calls back down the track a bit. Once unloaded at the hut I went to check the long drop and sure enough I was being watched by a stag, mincing not 20m from the hut. Was this the weekend?

Next day I enjoyed the hut to myself and a sleep in, I was re-energized and as the morning was overcast not too worried. I got packed up and decided to head up Mackintosh spur. The morning was good, the countryside impressive and the bird life frequent, tuis, tomtits, fantails, ruru, kereru, cookoos and quails. Back to the hut for lunch, coffee and a nap.

It was about 2pm when I left the hut, and got straight onto game sign heading down the spur this time towards the Donald River. Upon reaching a clearing my senses were piked especially by fresh prints and sign. Then on the edge of a clearing I spied a mass in exact same colour to the hind from the night before and I raised my rifle scope to have a closer look; a fallen contorta branch, just at that moment of chuckling to myself, in the edge of my field of view a head raised and began to chew, that was a deer, and it was oblivious to my presence.

I got to a better position in the hope of a rest beside a juvenile contorta tree and tried to find what I thought was a hind in my scope. As I finally locked on to its front shoulder a larger head entered my field of view, 6 maybe even splitting into 8 soft velvety points, nose in the air eyes locked on me. I resisted and let him grow and took aim on my target over his head. I let the 7mm, 162gr projectile fly and heard the thud. The stag and a second stag took off and my quarry stumbled into the low lying manuka scrub. I was shaking. Had I just done it, then a touch of panic set in. I must now find it, and being the height of the day with the sun out, I need to gut it and get it out of here.

After a short search I found what was actually a young spiker under a tree and it moved off a little more. I let it sit for a moment more before going in with my knife to finish the job as I had been shown cutting the jugular and breaking it’s neck. I felt bad, but it was swift, there was no time to dwell as the sun was beating down, I was sweating and already the flies were coming. I got to work and 10 mins later with various frustrating points of the guts being stuck in various places I had the cavity emptied and able to cool, and I had a heart to take home to enjoy.

Now I could bask in the success, the shaking stopped, my breath returned. I’d done it, I was now a hunter.

It was a long 2 hour walk out, excruciating but I had the carcass and most incredible summer spotted Sika skin hung in Ben’s chiller. The meat is already being shared, enjoyed and loved and the skin is waiting to go to the taxidermist to be preserved as a flat skin for the floor to match my back of the farm red skin, my first deer.

It’s a moment that will last forever, and whilst some may never understand or try to fathom what it means, I know for me it’s something I will always cherish and never get old of retelling.

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