Tahr Hunting in the South Island of New Zealand
It was our last free weekend in the South Island before the annual migration to go back up north just after Labour Weekend began, and the spring had been rainy and windy so we hadn’t been out as much as we had hoped. The last few hunts had been local, and I was keen to explore the beauty of the backcountry a little further afield and head up to DoC land behind Lilybank station between the Godley and the Macaulay valleys. Once again, the forecast didn’t look great, and last minute change of plans were required, sacrificing potential good hunting grounds for the comfort and safety of huts! Scotty and I rock, paper, scissor’d to make the decision for the Macaulay or the Godley—I was keen for the Macaulay, as I had heard rumors regarding the McKenzie Alpine Trust hut, and Scotty was keen for the Godley as he had harvested his best Tahr up there a few years ago. I won (rock!), and we took a right hand turn at the junction to continue up the river bed.
Supposedly, you are able to drive easily to the hut doors, however soon after we began the drive up the “marked” river bed, it became clear that the drive wouldn’t be as easy as anticipated. The markers were few and far between, with many cairns indicating alternative routes. Scotty was driving, with me navigating, and I think both jobs were as hard as each other, and both of us were getting more and more frustrated with each other and the unidentifiable route! One wrong turn too many, and we pulled up next to the old waterfall hut which had burnt down to go for a quick walk and gather our thoughts. The gully straight above looked good, so we went vertical and explored the gully directly above the hut. We gained height quickly, and keeping my head down for a few minutes while I trudged up, I was surprised turning around to look down the valley to see how high I was.
The gully opened up, and turned into really nice Tahr country, and we continued up and found a good spot to glass the ridge line. The cloud was quite low, and it was difficult to see anything, so Scotty made last call, “One more glass and we will head back to the Ute.” Typical, he lifted the bino’s straight onto a bull tahr running across the scree! I found him quickly, and followed him through my binoculars—he was behaving really strange, heading straight to a mob of nannies grouped up on the ridge. I haven’t seen a bull act like that; he was moving so fast towards the mob and then chased them from the area. He soon settled, and we made the decision to get closer to him to get a better look. With a quick dash over the open country, we were soon hidden behind the hill and made the climb up to a rocky outcrop with a good view to the bull. We were able to sit and have a good watch, no more bizarre behavior, but he settled down into the scrub and was soon hidden from view. This was our prompt to head back down to the Ute, and continue the drive up to the hut. Luckily, being so high up meant we were able to identify the correct route to continue on.
Just as dark was starting to set in, we pulled up to the hut—it was a novelty being able to drive straight to the hut doors, as it is usually at least some hard yards put in!
There were two other people at the hut already, a couple who had ski toured up and over from the Godley to Sibbald Peak and down to the hut that morning. Once we got over how incredible the hut was—running water, gas stove, solar-powered lights, 3 big tahr, a big Chamois and a beautiful red stag on the wall—we had a cup of tea, and swapped stories before retiring to one of the 14 beds. We had agreed on an early start with the other couple at the hut, they were planning a long walk out down the river bed, and work just on dawn before we headed up the valley.
The morning clouds quickly lifted, and we took it slowly as we had the whole day ahead of us. We walked for about 45 minutes, stopping fairly regularly to glass the mountains on either side.
There were plenty of tahr to be seen, with bull groups of around of four to five. They were all sitting quite high on the tops, but it was reassuring to see so many animals. We sat and watched each group for a while before heading a little further up the valley, and took note of a nice looking group with what looked like a decent size bull, planning to check them out again on the way back down. Just after lunch we lay down and took a midday nap in the sun, Scotty waking with a red face and me waking feeling super refreshed!
We continued on glassing up the valley, and stopped for a fair amount of time looking up to some really nice tahr country. Scotty had bet me a bottle of my favorite rosé if I could find a Tahr before him; just as I located a bull in my binoculars, he had located one too! We could see three bulls meandering at the top of the ridge, and quickly moved behind a large rock in the middle of the valley to sit and watch them for a while. It was early afternoon, and about an hour later the bulls began to make their way down along the ridge. Keeping them in our vision, we could make out where they would be heading, and after a short time we made the decision to climb and get closer to them.
The climb was straight up, and about halfway up, our dog Yuki started pointing. It took us a while to see what she was pointing, and soon located a wallaby sitting in the scrub just in front of us—I didn’t realize wallaby were this far over and was surprised to see him here; he was a big boy. Yuki and the wallaby had a stare down for a little while (Yuki hadn’t ever seen one) before the wallaby bounced off. Yuki stayed put until he was out of sight, and we continued up to the ridge.
As we gained ground and got closer to the ridge, we slowed down keeping an eye out for the group of bulls. Once we got to the ridge, there was still no sign of where they had gone, and we followed the ridge down to where we got bluffed out. There was still no sign of the tahr…and from where we had seen them, there was nowhere that they could have gone! Yuki was showing some interest, but not enough to have a clear idea of their location. Perplexed, we spent the next half hour wandering the tops, puzzled as to what had happened to them. Eventually we realized that they had completely outsmarted us, either finding a crevasse under the bluffs where we couldn’t see them, or heading up and over to the next bluff system on the other side of the waterfall.
There was a small group of nannies across the other side of the waterfall, and we decided to make our way further up the ridge to get closer to them. We found a nice spot to set up, and have a look through the binos for a while. They were feeding about 300m away from our spot, and I haven’t had too much experience with longer range shots, so Scotty was giving me lessons on where to aim and the logistics behind the bullet trajectory. The nannies were completely unaware of our presence, and we had a great spot to line up a shot, and knowing Scotty was going to be able to step in if I had a bad shot I decided to line up one of the nannies and take fire. After what seemed like forever, and contemplating all aspects of a long range shot, I fired…and completely missed! The group broke and ran, but stopped not far from where they were feeding; I was able to locate a nanny again easily in my scope. One more go, and I aimed 3 inches above the shoulder, breath in, breath out, and a squeeze of the trigger. The animal was hit! She ran off down the bluff system, limping as I had shot her in the foot. Scotty was able to quickly line her up, and took her with a good solid hit to her front shoulder with his Sako 300 WSM and she dropped like a dead weight. She tumbled off the bluff, down the waterfall, bounced and continued over the next bluff and down the waterfall below, unfortunately landing at the bottom of a complex bluff system. She lay next to another animal who had suffered the same fate, and we had to leave her to rest there, as recovery would have been too dangerous for us.
Just as we were about to head back down to the valley floor, a Kea flew over and landed on a rock a stone’s throw away from us. He chilled for a little while before flying away, and we took that as a sign to begin the descent down.
We got to the scrub where the wallaby had been, and Yuki located him and locked on point. She then (misbehaving!) couldn’t help herself this time and shot off after him as he broke. While it was comical watching both Yuki and the wallaby bound over the scrub, Scotty was whistling to call her off, and at the same time slightly worried as there were a couple of bluffs and waterfalls in the area. When she disappeared over the side, slight panic set in and we set off to find Yuki as fast as possible. Scotty found her in the river bed at the bottom of the waterfall, soaked from head to toe and looking proud as punch standing over the drowned and now dead wallaby. There were no bite marks in the wallaby, and Yuki isn’t one to kill, so she must have somehow drowned it in the river. We dragged him out, and let Yuki pose with her trophy!
It was getting late in the afternoon, so once the excitement of the wallaby wore off, we headed back down the valley and headed for the hut. About 3/4 of the walk home, we stopped and glassed up to the ridge that we had noted the nice looking bulls earlier that morning. There were 4 of them, and they had come down and were feeding low. Watching through the binoculars, we could identify 2 bigger ones and 2 smaller ones. Scotty made the decision to get closer, and if they looked good enough, to try and take one. Because they were so low down, and the valley was quite open, I stayed behind a rock with Yuki while Scotty headed up on his own to try and decrease our chance of being seen. I watched carefully through the binos and soon saw him get into position. The two bigger bulls were in good sight, and I could see them both through the binos, wondering which one Scotty would go for. I head the fire of Scotty’s rifle, and saw the closer bull bolt and then go down about 50m away. Knowing Scotty had had a good hit, I waited for his signal (it was now dark, and saw him flash the light at me twice), and I let Yuki lead me up to where the bull had fallen. She found the bull and Scotty easily, and I could see that while he was a beautiful animal, and had a pretty good spread on his head, he wasn’t close to the 13” tahr Scotty has been looking for. I helped drag it to an easier spot for processes, and we butchered it as quickly as possible. We split the meat between our packs, before heading back to the hut for some well-deserved dinner.
Once we arrived back at the hut, the fire had some embers left and we stoked it up to get it going again. Dinner was a step up from dehydrated meals since we could drive the Ute straight to the hut; although if we had planned properly, we could have had a 5-star meal of roast chook, as the fire has an oven beneath it which we were able to easily get to 200°C. After desert, we headed back to the bunks for a well-earned sleep, planning to sleep in the next morning since the weather was due to come in a bit the next day.
We woke to rain and fog, and had a cruisy morning—me reading my book and Scotty going through the visitors book. He noticed someone had mentioned seeing a sallaby in 2004, so wondered if possibly it could have been the same one that we had seen?! The weather had turned quite cold, and we spent the morning stoking the fire and keeping one eye out the window. After cabin fever got the better of us, we decided to rug up and rain jacket up, and head out and up Thoms stream just across from the hut.
The rain had set in, and the river was running fairly high, and it wasn’t long before I was soaked! Luckily base layers remained dry, and we made our way up the stream and just around the corner before finding a nice steep bluff system to climb up. The cloud was sitting quite low and it was hard to see any animals—they all would have been sitting too high to see from the valley floor.
The ascent was very steep! And I was crawling up on my hands and knees watching for rocks falling from Scotty up above me. We found a small crevasse to climb up that would give us a good look to a bluff system up above, and clambered up before finding a nice spot to wedge ourselves into to set up and glass above.
Our hard work paid off, and we soon located a small group of bulls in the cliffs about 200m away. They weren’t big animals, but I have only had one tahr—nearly exactly a year to the day previously, and was keen to get another under my belt. I was able to set myself up behind a couple of scrubs and find the mob in my scope before locating a small bull in easy range. Scotty set up next to me, and we identified and confirmed which animals each of us would take. Even though I had next to no feeling in my fingers due to the cold, I was able to load my rifle and place the cross hairs perfectly on the front shoulder of the bull. Scotty and I indicated to each other that we were ready to fire, and I gently squeezed the trigger, keeping the bull in my scope and I saw the bullet hit him solidly behind the shoulder blade. He stumbled a little bit, and unsure if my shot was enough, I quickly found his shoulder in the crosshairs as he steadied, and fired again—this time sending him tumbling down off the rock he was standing on. Scotty had had a solid shot also, and we let Yuki run ahead to lead us up to the animals. It was a tough climb up as my hands were numb and toes were starting to freeze too. Yuki was running up, stopping and looking back at us as if to ask why we were taking so long, before turning around and making her way back up to the bulls again. About half way up, one of the young bulls re-appeared at the top of a rocky outcrop looking slightly bewildered. We both jumped down behind a scrub bush each, and Scotty called Yuki to get in behind. I lined up the young animal easily, and with one shot knocked him straight off his perch. Two tahr in one day for me! We continued up to located the animals, both my bulls were quite small but I was still stoked!! Hopefully my next one is a decent size!