Tahr Hunting in the South Island
Hunting guide Zane Mirfin in the South Island high country. It's not an easy environment, but the reward is worth it.
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, Snow worries when you set your sights on the kings of the mountain, 30 September 2017
Hunting guide Zane Mirfin in the South Island high country. It's not an easy environment, but the reward is worth it.
In a lifetime of great outdoor adventures, hunting the alpine mountain tops has always been one of my first loves.
Up high in magical country, with eye-popping vistas to every point of the compass, it just doesn't get any better. Then there are the wild alpine animals themselves, Himalayan tahr that are wild and free and magnificent in every respect.
Tahr truly are Kings of the Mountain being superbly adapted to a harsh life amongst the rocky snow-clad crags.
Pete Gamble hunting tahr in the evening in the South Island high country.
The bulls dwarf the females, being dark faced with curving horns, long flowing blonde manes, and are the animals of hunters dreams. Bull tahr never come easy but the effort involved is worth every bucket-load of sweat you expire in their pursuit upon steep hills and rocky bluffs.
Tahr have been in New Zealand for more than a century, first introduced via Britain from Himalayan stock in 1904 near Mt Cook / Aorangi.
Ranging from the Rakaia headwaters in the north to the Landsborough in the South, they are the only recreationally huntable herd on the planet although NZ stock have been exported to South America where they are currently being bred up as a tourist hunting resource to rival New Zealand in the future.
Idyllic alpine camping in the snow when the sun shone.
At a recent meeting of the Nelson Branch meeting of the NZ Deerstalkers Association (NZDA) we were fortunate to have Snow Hewetson of Marlborough Branch (tahr hunter, guide, national executive member and representative on the Tahr Interest Group) as a guest speaker to outline the history, politics and value of tahr in New Zealand.
Different stakeholders have historically sought different outcomes for tahr from eradication, commercial meat recovery and trophy hunting through to recreational hunting.
It was sobering listening trying to understand the politics surrounding a world class resource like tahr and the ongoing mis-management of this herd within New Zealand.
In some ways it is a miracle there are any left after the intense commercial helicopter hunting for export carcasses in the 1970's. Since that time DOC search and destroy missions and Aerially Assisted Trophy Hunting (AATH) by wealthy overseas hunters have often made it difficult for Kiwi hunters to obtain a decent trophy bull tahr.
There have been some advances though with most cull animals now being females and the young, with identifiable bulls being left for recreational hunting purposes.
Fortunately at the current time according to Snow we have the best tahr hunting since the early 1960's. Whether this resource will endure against the might of bureaucracy is anyone's guess but the good news is that tahr now have an established economic value and there will always be an important reservoir of animals present on private and leasehold land.
It just so happened I had an alpine tahr hunt planned with Australian Pete Gamble of Melbourne and Snow Hewetson's words of wisdom made the anticipation even greater and I could hardly wait.
Pete is a great bloke, a true gentleman, and highly experienced alpine climber, skier, and snow patroller. Pete has even been fortunate to have successfully climbed Mt Cook on two previous occasions among many other New Zealand adventures, including fly fishing the South Island.
We had great fun in our many emails planning our hunting trip, with Pete nicknaming me 'Master' after the blind master Po on the 1970's hit TV series Kung Fu starring actor David Carradine. I nicknamed Pete 'Grasshopper' (Carradine's junior character name) and that's what we called each other most of the time in the mountains.
The spring weather forecast was pretty savage with a cold polar beast bearing down on the country and forecast snow to low levels. Indeed I only just made it through a snow-bound Lewis Pass in the Hilux enroute for tar country.
I suggested to Pete by email that we position close to the helicopter base ready for action as soon as the weather cleared.
Pete replied "Master Zane, You are the calm and restful breeze that tames the violent sea…you have taught me that to suppress a truth is to give it a force beyond endurance. Clearly we must proceed as you instruct. There is no other way.
"The praying mantis teaches us speed and patience Master. As no elements of nature are in conflict, an enforced stay will remove conflict within ourselves and allow us to discover a harmony of body and mind in accord with the flow of the Universe… We shall seek the dragon (helicopter) and ride the wind on the morrow…"
From the air, there was snow everywhere, deep snow.
In fact, we had real trouble finding somewhere we could alight to camp.
As the helicopter disappeared into the distance, the silence became deafening as we set up camp. Fortunately Pete had bought his snow shovel, destined for an avalanche course at Wanaka he was attending the following week.
With the shovel we dug the top metre of loose snow down and packed down a hard base to set up my two alpine tents. Pete even taught me how to build a snow wall and also how to bury tent pegs sideways in the snow for maximum hold. Cooking was pretty challenging at altitude too, and I resolved to update some of my gear when I returned to civilisation.
Our first hunt in the afternoon was an exercise in exhaustion, bashing through thigh deep snow up-valley.
We took turns at leading and breaking a trail that would become known as the "tahr highway" over coming days.
The weather had turned for the worst with heavy snowfall and near whiteout conditions, when I spied a group of tahr watching us from above but within shoot-able distance at 84 metres.
At the shot with my 7mm Mauser, Pete had his first tahr. Not bad for a guy who had never shot anything bigger than a rabbit before.
The next day broke bright and clear and we climbed high among the snow and crags where Pete shot a bull with a stellar shot at 397 metres. On our third day we spied a bull resplendent on a rock outcrop that Pete took cleanly at 241 metres through the rangefinder. It hadn't always been this good and I regaled Pete with tales from earlier tahr hunting trips with my father and brother in the 1980's when animal numbers were beyond pitiful.
Perhaps the last day of hunting was the best.
The weather was deteriorating with strong wind, rain, and slushy melting snow making for hard work on the hill.
We'd been watching a mob of tahr from camp each morning and had left them for the last day. Climbing high, we were sheltering from the wind when a tahr walked into view at 28 metres.
I congratulated Pete on the shot, then saw that he'd been whacked by the scope between his eyes and was bleeding profusely. At the next shot another bull crumpled on the spot.
The only trouble was recovering the animal in tiger country where any slip was a one-way ticket to oblivion. It was invigorating stuff, but the highlight was watching a group of magnificent bulls defiantly standing their ground at 160 metres, with thick horns, wind-swept manes and black flanks.
Across a rocky chasm they were easy targets but it takes in excess of a decade to grow a good trophy bull and there was no point in wasting quality animals we were unable to retrieve.
We shot some nannies instead watching the carcases plummet off the bluffs, bouncing off rocky outcrops and destined for the black abyss below. It was a power finish and all we had to do was to make it safely back to camp in one piece after darkness fell.
Back to civilisation the next morning, we enjoyed eggs benedict and latte coffee together, and said our goodbyes.
On the long drive home to Nelson, Grasshopper sent me an email that made me smile.
"Master Zane, You have instructed that there are two strengths…the strength of the body and the strength of the spirit. The body is the arrow. The spirit is the bow. You have taught me to use the strength of the spirit, Master".
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 6 February 2017
Izaak Mirfin, 14, with double wallaby success.
On the hunt for wallabies in the Waitaki Valley
"They have to be here somewhere" I whispered to Ike, 14, as we looked with naked eye and binoculars for game I had spotted from far below.
We'd climbed high and crawled the final few metres across a dry, dusty, and rocky ridge, through prickly matagouri bushes, while the wind fair howled around and above us. Finding a near perfect shooting platform, Ike settled down behind the 7x57 Mauser rifle with bipod fully extended.
"There's one" Ike murmured excitedly, as I ranged the animal at 86 metres true ballistic range (TBR) through my rangefinder. 'HOLD LO 5' my device told me as I quietly instructed Ike to screw the rifle scope up to 9x magnification and aim 5cm low.
In Search of Wallabies: Ike, Rosie, and Jake with their grandfather Stuart Mirfin.
At the shot the animal slumped forward and Ike reloaded the bolt action rifle as another appeared from nowhere. The big old buck was a real beauty, about a metre tall, weighing perhaps 25 kilos, and at 129 metres was dead out of luck with a crack shot like Ike behind the rifle.
Other animals thumped away through the vegetation, too fast and elusive to offer a target, but it had been yet another successful stalk on the wallabies of the Waitaki Valley.
Kurow is a long drive from Richmond, but it had long been a goal of my father Stuart to take his grandkids wallaby hunting, something he had done with my brother and I as boys.
In the intervening years during and after university I had hunted wallabies often in the Hunter Hills near Waimate but never before in the Hakataramea region, and never before with my nephews Lochy and Ryan, and my own kids.
The kids were excited and a delight to take hunting over several days, but high winds and rain made for difficult hunting conditions but always a most excellent family adventure.
Everyone wanted to hunt with Grandad Stuart, 74, and we made sure all kids got a fair share of Grandad out there for afternoons on the hill.
Wallabies are most active at the change of light, with midday hunting virtually a waste of time as the animals seek shelter and shade from the heat of the day. Actually there wasn't much summer happening down South, with strong cold winds, and it reminded me of US author Mark Twain who famously said "The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco".
The kids were well rugged up in camo fleece and windbreakers and determined to have a good time.
Using rifle calibres .22 hornet, .223, .243, and 7x57 we stalked the hills in three separate teams (including brother Scott) in search of wallabies. Jake, 16, also used a shotgun with some success, firing SG buckshot containing 12 lead pellets at the rapidly departing wallabies jumped at short range. One thing the kids soon learned was that wallabies are tough critters that can really soak up some lead.
In some ways they are a challenging target with a small head and chest area but large powerful hind legs that can propel them forward at great speed to safety.
Looking for all the world like giant rats on stilts, the Australian marsupials have impressive claws, large padded feet, and are fully covered in soft fur. Being one man's trash and another man's treasure, wallabies are reviled as a pest by sheep farmers but welcomed as a valuable hunting resource by local recreational hunters.
Actually there about five or six species of wallaby living wild in New Zealand but most of them restricted to Kawau and Rangitoto Islands having been first released by New Zealand Governor Sir George Grey in about 1870.
For practical purposes though, there are two main populations of huntable wallaby in New Zealand with the smaller Dama or Tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii) around Lake Tarawera and Rotorua area in the North Island, and the much larger Red-Necked or Bennet's Wallaby (Macropus rufogrisea) widely colonised throughout South Canterbury in the Waimate, Fairlie, and Timaru areas.
They continue their expansion outwards with wallabies now being seen in Twizel and the southern bank of the Waitaki enroute to Otago. In some ways they are wily and adaptable marsupials with high fecundity, breeding like there is no tomorrow.
Apparently females can have a young one at foot, a baby in the pouch, and be pregnant with another – all at the same time.
With three wallabies equalling the grass eating efforts of a merino sheep, control efforts haven't been especially successful with sporadic and uncoordinated efforts enabling wallabies to flourish.
Bureaucratic efforts by regional councils and now-defunct Wallaby Boards have had minimal impact with wallaby virtually impervious to 1080 poison, cyanide, and shooting.
Many landowners now employ helicopter shooting using shotguns and buckshot to thin wallaby populations but the wallabies learn fast, holding tight to cover, resisting rotor-wash and even screaming sirens at short range. As a recreational hunter it is a reassuring thought to know that the wallaby as a hunting resource will always be with us.
Wallabies are totally edible, and also yield high quality pelts for ornamental rugs with a distinctive long tail, the key to their extraordinary balance and warp speed in escape.
Charli, 11, decided not to hunt this time but Stuart's other five grandkids all successfully harvested many wallabies each. Rosie, 13, was rapt to shoot five wallabies in total and Jake shot more than a dozen. Each kid wanted a wallaby skin to take home as a souvenir of success, and we skinned and salted six hides to make the journey home
On our last hunt, the rain poured down as Jake and I slugged it out back to the Hilux, wet as shags.
Fifty metres from the truck, a sodden and miserable wallaby broke cover and bounded across our path and up the hill, but making the fatal mistake of stopping to look back. It was a great finish to a magical few days hunting the wallabies of the Waitaki.