The Valley of a Thousand WaterfallsBy Craig Carey
- 26th Jun, 2020 Jun 26, 2020, 2:44 PM
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I didn’t want to be anywhere else at this moment as I made my way back to camp. My boots were filled with water and would not dry quickly as moisture slowly filtered down my legs from my wet clothes. The still evening air was crisp, not just from the late autumn timing, but also from the total lack of noise. A silence you nowday’s seldom find even in rural NZ.
I’d had a great day on the hill, explored some new country, had a great chance at putting an arrow through a fat red hind who fed, never knowing I was standing 25 metres from her deciding her fate. She was lucky.
Although I had never shot a red with the bow, I held off - I had no way of utilising the meat so she would live this day because of that fact only. Well that’s what I told myself. Much could have happened in the time it would have taken me to close within 20 meters, my safe shooting distance.
“Even when its reality and possibilities are explained to you, you have to see it for yourself. The wildness and unpredictability of New Zealand hunting is now a rarity in much of the rest of the world.”
Following that, I had found my way through a kilometre of dense South Island scrub and swamp to the base of a bluff reaching 500 metres up the mountain. I’d climbed steadily for 300 metres through rock jumble and fallen, smashed timber before playing with a couple of tahr amongst the rocks and ongaonga for 40 minutes.
The tahr won, but it was close. Then with an hour of daylight left I spied a bull on another face away across the river. I dashed down through the scrub to a new fording spot. My feet lost the bottom and for a moment I was out of control but I soon touched rock again and made it to the opposite bank.
Like most hunts with a longbow, the animal won the day. Fading light had me returning downstream to the hut that was home for the night. I was heading back to civilization the next day.
I was happy to be heading home after a long period in the bush; walking alone towards the smell of a fire, the glow of a candle through a little window, and the company of good mates.
The satisfaction came not just from that day, but from those preceding it. I was in these mountains with good friend and longtime hunting companion Rex and a new friend Florian who had travelled all the way from Romania to hunt bull tahr.
I had chosen a spot that I thought would offer a great chance for him, as well as adding some adventure. We had flown in nearly two weeks earlier to the head of a valley close to the main divide. The aim was to walk and hunt and explore wherever time permitted and our legs would take us.
With a bad weather forecast on drop-off, but having only this time to hunt, we quickly made our way west and down to the first hut just as the first front hit. Don’t worry I told Florian, it wont last forever. It nearly did though!
The second day brought torrential rain and fast rising water. We cut wood and settled in while fresh torrents sprang from the hills. The roar of water was all around us - a rage of sound as waterfalls appeared seemingly in the thousands. You could imagine the whole valley succumbing to water. There was nothing we could do but sit and wait.
During breaks in the rain we started to see tahr across the river. In some of the longer periods without rain we got out and explored, returning to dry our clothes ready for next day. We were relying on shooting something for meat, but it wasn’t happening so we cut our food ration in half.
An afternoon hunt saw us climb into a beautiful hanging basin. Waterfalls all the way up as we climbed, then a hidden flat and meandering stream with open edges and larger beech forest along one sheltered edge.
As we neared the final waterfall Rex looked up and suddenly got serious. Knowing he had seen something I ducked without bothering to waste time searching for it myself and moved into cover, beckoning Florian to follow.
Rex whispered that there was a bull up on the left side of a waterfall 250 metres away. I couldn’t see him, but I could see his nannies walking across the lip of the bluff and into the scrub on the right. Then there he was, following them, puffed up and impressive as they always are.
We struggled to find Florian a suitable shooting position. I whistled my best imitation of a tahr warning and he paused side on and looked our way. The rifle roared but to our dismay a puff of white powder erupted from a rock that covered the low part of his chest. None of us had seen it sticking up.
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The rifle was my brother’s faithful Brno .270. It looks a little beat up now after 20 odd years of great service, but it still shoots under an inch and nearly everyone who trys it, shoots well with it and chooses it.
This had been the case when we set a few guns, mostly bigger and fancier, in front of Florian on my 400 metre range before the trip. Looks don’t come into it, shoot-ability does when you’re facing a once in a lifetime opportunity like this.
Ammo choice was easy too, it shoots Hornady Superformance and Norma 130s to the same point of impact and as accurately as anything I can reload, so I don’t bother with anything else.
With the bull vanished, we sat under the cover of the beech trees having a brew and some salami and cheese while watching the bluffs for more movement. The rain restarted though, and soon we were trudging our way back to the hut and the kindling we had left ready for a match, to dry our clothes again.
The days went by with little break in the weather. A couple of hours clear had us all going in different directions looking for a meat animal. I headed upstream to case out a large slip. There was nothing there but across the river I saw two good bulls making their way out of the scrub for the evening.
I marked their location and cut down to the river looking for a place to cross. I soon found a good dry crossing over a jumble of large rocks. Not too many leaps needed. It was too late to chase them further, but I hoped to get Florian over there the next day.
Another day passed though, before we set off in light drizzle, climbing into position a few hours early. We found a neat little overhang and got the billy going and stripped off our wet clothes to replace them with dry and get a hot brew in us. Finally the magic hour came when the tahr begin moving.
“Another stream further up the valley looked easier so we broke the rule and followed it down to the river. It proved to be, as we thought, a cinch, until we find that it had brought us out above a raging, shear-sided gorge.”
While we waited a young bull appeared. We needed meat, but now wasn’t the time. It was good to be close to game though. Unfortunately the larger bulls never showed, just a few nannies and kids.
With dark approaching and rain starting to increase, we made our way down. The rule of the mountains is that in these circumstances you take the route you know. However the route up had been difficult. Another stream further up the valley looked easier so we broke the rule and followed it down to the river.
It proved to be, as we thought, a cinch, until we find that it had brought us out above a raging, shear-sided gorge. Hmmm. Dumbarses! We had broken good mountain protocol, and would pay for it.
It was dark now and the rain was pelting down. I worried what must be going through Florian’s mind as we sidled across through scrub, climbing huge rocks, winding our way up and around this gorge. Then with the roar of water ahead, Rex and I feared the worst.
We were knackered and wet and my torch batteries were about to expire. We pressed on and dropped down onto a small beach. Amazing! Thankfully the roar was a chute the river cut through, and we could avoid it. Then the whole river passed under a huge slab of rock/cave with plenty of room.
We came out the other side into country we recognised. Our crossing point was just a hundred metres away. We could relax. Florian was certainly getting a Kiwi adventure! He would later state that this was beyond anything he could imagine.
“It was dark now and the rain was pelting down. I worried what must be going through Florian’s mind as we sidled across through scrub, climbing huge rocks, winding our way up and around this gorge. Then with the roar of water ahead, Rex and I feared the worst.”
The rain turned to snow up high, and with it some finer weather was forecast, so we elected to make for the next hut down valley and spend a day hunting from there. I could see Florian’s disappointment at the prospect of leaving. He had understandably come to the conclusion that his chances of taking a bull were fading.
We had lost eight days to rain. The river had risen to within a metre and a half of the hut. It had ruled our lives as every decision had to factor in whether we could recross it should it start raining again while we were hunting on the other side. Small side creeks had become deep torrents, cutting us off.
I felt for Florian. It’s a long way to come to experience something like this. Rex and I had one last special spot up our sleeves though, and hadn’t given up. We elected not to get Florian’s hopes up by telling him, that would only bring further despair should our spot not shine through.
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In steady rain we set off and trudged the next three hours around and down our valley through soaking, steep West Coast forest. We saw a couple of sodden deer below us trying to feed on the river bank, but nothing worth chasing.
Finally we reached the turnoff to the spot we had in mind and dropped our packs. Florian, not knowing what was going on, just wanted to keep going to the hut and some dry clothes. Although the rain had stopped for an hour, our packs weighed heavier with the days of continual soaking.
It must have been so much worse for Florian, coming all this way to a kind of hunting he couldn’t anticipate. Even when its reality and possibilities are explained to you, you have to see it for yourself. The wildness and unpredictability of New Zealand hunting is now a rarity in much of the rest of the world.
Rex and I climbed to a vantage point that overlooked another small creek and bluff system. Immediately we picked up a bull by the creek 600 metres upstream. I raced back and gestured to Florian to come.
We were setting up a stalking route when Rex said, “Look!” Not 200 metres away another bull, a good one too, had walked out of the scrub. A feeling of delight washes over me - we’ve done it, Florian will get his bull. It will be a trophy head he can look at and remember for his lifetime.
“Florian settles in behind the rifle. I start talking him through the process, trying to calm the situation. Rex reads out numbers from the range finder. Three hundred and forty. Three hundred and fifty, Three fifty seven. The bull pauses and a shot rings out. The spray of mist from his chest and the shocked jump says it all.”
But the cold and wet, the sudden adrenalin, excitement and hope, all have taken their toll and I am devastated when the shot is a clear miss over the bull’s back and he takes off. The look on Florian and Rex’s faces are the same. Open mouthed shock and despair. No words.
Then the bull reappears further off and we regather ourselves. Florian settles in behind the rifle. I start talking him through the process, trying to calm the situation.
Rex reads out numbers from the range finder. Three hundred and forty. Three hundred and fifty, Three fifty seven. The bull pauses and a shot rings out. The spray of mist from his chest and the shocked jump says it all.
Florian reloads and fires again. Another good impact and the bull turns down hill. We top up the rifle with cartridges, just in case, but they’re not needed, the bull tumbles through the air to land on flatter ground 60 metres lower. Now we have words!
We congratulate Florian and then work out our route to the bull. He is lower than us, but it will still take some time and effort as everything does in this country.
At least we’re doing it from a position of success. We photograph and cape out the bull and make our way to our night’s accommodation, arriving four hours late and as the sun is setting.
The next day is the one I described at the start, and Florian decides to stay at camp and prepare his hard-won trophy while Rex and I go our separate ways to explore and look for something for ourselves.
We both arrive back empty handed that night and next day we make the last tramp to the road and civilization where fish & chips and a cold beer await us that evening.
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