Hunting divine valley, part 1

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It is important to remember that we almost didn’t go hunting at all. Planning in the earliest stages centered around guides, but that was expensive and just not something I wanted to do. DIY was ideal, but without an entry point research on exactly where to hunt Himalayan Tahr in New Zealand was daunting. I spent hours flipping through the DOCs website, trying to ID the distinctive green hut Steven Rinella and the Meat Eater crew hunted out of during what remains my favorite episode of that show, before giving up.

M made the breakthrough, looking at the various non-DOC websites, and after not too long finding our hut. A name gave us a map and Google results to look at, which snowballed quickly into a good plan. We’d need to rent a proper 4×4 to get up the valley far enough for a reasonable hike in, and get my rifle into the country and around with us after the hunting, but after we ID’d that hut everything fell into place fairly easily.

And no, I’m not giving any more than hints as to where we actually were.

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Soon enough we were there.  Less than 24 hours after landing in the country we had a Mitsubishi full of gear and groceries easily making the river crossing at the end of the maintained road, and less than an hour later bogging down in a small stream crossing.  Turns out the 4 wheel drive wasn’t actually engaged, and once it was we ground out of the hole the back wheels had dug in the gravel and were on our very slow, very scenic way.

R0000150This is not where we got stuck, but close enough in appearance.  On the way out we couldn’t pick the spot out of a dozen or so such places.

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There was a strong probability that neither the pregnant M nor my acrophobic mom or stepdad would be able to accompany me on any steep stalk which might be necessary, and our destination was chosen for the scenery it would provide them, as well as the hunting it would hopefully provide me.  This aspect did not disappoint, fortuitous, as the drive gave us plenty of time.  A two-track was distinguishable most of the time the first day, but progress was rarely above 10 mph, and often well below 5.  Thankfully Dick is a patient and generally exceptional driver, so I just got to sit back and gawk.  It was like having driving access to Alaska.

The day grew long, and driver and passengers both got fatigued.  We had plenty of daylight left when we made the first hut, which was occupied by local “hunters” who were obviously and primarily interested in drinking beer and trying to hit each other in the head with a rugby ball.  But the hut had a rainwater tank, outhouse, and decent places to camp.  The constant 25 mph wind made it easy to get out of earshot of our neighbors, and the info we had on the area promised that the road ahead “deteriorated considerably” before running out altogether.  Camp would be made here.

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The neighbors were a bit annoying, and M inauspiciously managed to melt a hole in our only cook pot.  (When “they” say don’t put an empty aluminum pot on a backpacking stove, even for 15 seconds, they aren’t kidding.)  Our New Zealand-made freeze dried dinner had us regretting not importing more Mountain House meals, but we were here, we had made it, and the weather was fine.

I was not surprised that our fellows were not about when we made coffee early and got back on the road, which soon truly stretched any meaningful definition.  2-3 mph cobble crawling was the rule, but for a good while it still seemed faster than walking.

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Until it didn’t.  Everyone seemed happy to be on their feet, moving easily up-valley in the pleasantly cool morning.  My number one concern for the whole New Zealand trip had been weather shutting down the limited time we had set aside to hunt, and being out with a rifle and pack in absolutely perfect summer conditions made all my other cares tiny.

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The concept of this hunting trip had been to follow in Rinella’s footsteps, but soon enough this became far more literal and immediate.  I’ve yet to read exactly how Canada Geese came to call New Zealand home, but I do know they’re considered a nuisance animal with no protection, both from reading it on the DOC website and (of course) from seeing Rinella shoot one with his 7mm Rem mag on television.  I wanted to shoot a goose, to check zero, get a bit of meat, and take revenge on the silly creature which is the Canada Goose (if you’ve repeatedly bumped them downriver in a packraft as often as I have, engendering a groundhog day’s on inane squonks each time,  you understand).

After a mile of walking, we saw some geese out ahead.  I crept forward, trying to close in to a reasonable distance.  The trick of course being not just to hit one center mass and bring about an explosion of feathers, but hit it high and close to the neck, guaranteeing a quick kill and intact breast meat.  My first shot I rushed from a hasty rest atop a boulder and missed the goose as it waddled out of sight.  For the second I took more time, getting prone on my pack behind a patch of scrub, with folded ridgerest under the butt.  At first, I was only mostly sure I got a good hit, but glassing confirmed that the dark lump off in the distance was a dead goose.  M scurried ahead and grabbed it, while Dick had the presence of mind to stay back and range it.

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260 yards, with a perfect hit.  I had evaluated the shot as far, but not too far, and with a 150 yard zero instinctively held just over the back.  Ideal placement, and a serious confidence booster.

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We had a snack, took the breasts, and carried on.

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Easy walking while the road bed lasted gave plenty of leisure to head-swivel and drink in the endless detail.

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The final stretch without any hint of road was short, but with plenty of moraine debris was plenty slow.  Being on schedule, and with daylight running towards 10pm, there was no hurry.

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There are people pictured above.

The final approach featured a sporty creek crossing and some steep sidehilling on talus, making the hut feel like a proper walk-in only affair.

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I can’t emphasize enough how sublime and ridiculous this location is.  To one side is a steep tributary creek issuing from a deep, sinuous canyon.  To the other is a semi-major glacial river, terminating in a large lake.  Above is a craggy slope cut through with cliffs and hanging gardens.  And in the middle of it all is a green, rectangular metal box with beds.  Possibly the coolest location of any man-made structure in which I’ve ever slept.

After unpacking and having lunch, M and I took off one way to glass for critters.  Mom and Dick would go the other way, and we’d meet for dinner and share information.

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In country this big, steep, and barren it doesn’t take much walking to reveal new vistas, and we found a good place to set up and glass.

M took a nap while I worked the binos on the tripod.

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In a fairly timely fashion (<1 hour) I was on a nanny tahr with kid, way across the valley (brown dots right of center, 2/3 of the way to the top).

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I had first noticed dual tracks across a steep snowfield, and followed them to the only logical conclusion, a hanging ramp below a hanging meadow, south-facing and (in the southern hemisphere) therefore shaded and green.  The tahr were feeding in a leisurely fashion, and would I assume stay in the general area, but the approach (around the lake, ford the river, climb the slope) was too long for anything less than a full day.  Tomorrow, perhaps.

I glassed other places for a while longer, periodically checking in on the tahr.  When nothing else became visible, M and I headed back to the hut.

We were within a few hundred yards when we saw my parents off across the rock field, waving wildly at us.  Dick came over and revealed that they had a short hike earlier that afternoon; making it a mere 200 yards before spooking a chamois up out of its bed low in the cliffs.  They had been watching it wander the same cliffs for the past few hours, feeding, sleeping, cooling off by sticking it’s head under small waterfalls.  Dick and I crept forward.  He said it was right around the next corner, I chambered a round and undid my sternum strap, and we snuck around, staying close to the rock.

There is was, the unmistakable, odd figure of a chamois, standing calmly on the very edge of a sloping black ledge dripping with water.  The chamois was munching grass and had not seen us.  At that point I went on auto-pilot, moving out and right, sitting, taking off my pack, setting up for a seated shot with pack as rest.  Lined up on the chamois (a bit high, in retrospect, as he was 40 feet off the deck) and let fly.  Bang, thwack, and the chamois was falling off his narrow perch and landing rather brutally in the talus below.  My high shot had spined him, which was not immediately fatal, and I shot again, also high, due to excitement and not compensating for the 150 yard zero.  A bit more flopping, and the chamois was dead.

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Our hunting trip, hardly a day old, and on the second full day of the trip, was a success, 200 yards from the hut.  Most importantly, and unbelievably, everyone had been right there to be a part of it.

On their trip Steve Rinella also shot a chamois in a unexpected and unexpectedly close to camp place, so a parallels were growing, oddly.

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The chamois did break off his left horn in the fall, and not everyone could keep their eyes open in one photo, but these are small objections.  Photos of dead animals and smiling humans may seem strange to non-hunters; just let me tell you that they’re exactly like summit photos, only far more emotionally complex.

For me, it was the best thing that could have possibly happen.  Dick, who has taught me a lot about hunting the past few years, admitted over dinner that his extensive hunting resume did not include any alpine critters because his fear of heights never made such a thing palatable.  I was immensely satisfied that I had been able to plan a successful hunt, and even more pleased that circumstance had conspired to let all members bear witness to the full set of details.

We separated and cleaned the skull, removed the loins and back hams, and retreated to the hut for a dinner of goose (not very good) and NZ-made freeze dried (also not good).  Food could not dampen our spirits, not with a chamois skull and meat hanging in bags from the huts support cables.  Soon enough, a full day in our heads, we went to bed.

R0000255The chamois’ home range; we approached and shot from the left side of this photo, the chamois was perched atop the dark, wet slab in the center-right.

When I woke up and went outside to urinate in the middle of the night the milky way was on display in a way rarely seen in our modern world.  I would never have guessed that tomorrow the trip would only get better.

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12 thoughts on “Hunting divine valley, part 1

  1. That is totally where I thought you were!!! When we were there, my husband drove part way out the road, and wanted to keep on going (our vehicle and our toddler insisted on turning around), but we had no idea how far it actually went. It is fun to be somewhere and think “I bet if you only could get back there…” and then a few months later, read a story of someone who did. Looking forward to the rest of the story.

  2. Awesome shots, awesome story.

    As someone who has endured a pile of NZ Freeze Dry – interested to know how the Mountain House meals are better? Genuine interest… 🙂

      1. Interesting. Might have to get some of it send down here to try out. Yes. The local stuff is notorious for not totally rehydrating.

        1. M house is the only freeze dried worth eating. The other US brands are not so good. Similar issues to the green bagged NZ stuff.

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