The Hills of New Zealand, By Chad Mathis

I sit idly, and thankfully restful in the Christchurch airport before a long flight home having visited, and hunted, New Zealand for the first time. This trip came together after winning the hunt of a lifetime with Joseph Peter of Hard Yards Hunting, through a subscription contest The Journal of Mountain Hunting held. My good friend, Erik Mitchell, joined me and Joseph gladly accommodated our request to hunt red stag during the roar. We would later learn that the roar is often slightly embellished through dramatic hunt reenactments shown on television, with farm-raised stag playing the part of a wild stag.

Joseph was easily able to locate the pair of us in the airport, being less than inconspicuous in otherwise intended camouflage apparel, and we quickly headed out to a private ranch where our adventures awaited. The pair of us, being slightly north of 300 pounds each and statistically fit to compose one side of an offensive line, knew and feared we might be in for a rude awakening in the field based on Joseph’s resemblance of a lean wide receiver. Not yet did we fully understand the impact the terrain, beyond Joseph’s and his staff’s physical prowess, would have on us. Our feet, legs, lungs, back – you get the point. 

Before arriving in camp at the base of some New Zealand ‘hills,’ we took time to stock up on some camp essentials like food, toilet paper, beer, and whiskey. The whiskey later proved to be essential in numbing the many aches and pains referenced prior. We also stopped alongside some high fences where we observed first-hand how many of the trophy hunts are scripted; using farm-raised stags whose horns reach immense proportions, otherwise unattainable in the wild by the red deer pursued by Joseph and his team. Red deer, as with all mammals in New Zealand, are considered an invasive species and aren’t regulated, despite their potential to consistently continue to beneficially impact the country through management. Joseph appropriately established expectations on the stag we would likely pursue not bound by high fences and politely remained muted on our presumed fitness for the pursuit. 

Upon arriving at camp, we were greeted by two other gentlemen having climbing abilities exceeding the average mountain goat, Tim, and Jimmy. Both helped us confirm zero on the rifles of choice, Tikka T3’s with suppressors, and then served up red deer steaks for dinner, harvested by camp mates visiting from Malaysia and Australia who had earlier successes. It should be noted that the twelve-year-old son of one of the hunters ate like he was part of our offensive line or lived a previously malnourished life with no intent to revisit that misery; no amount of scrambled eggs could satiate his hunger and no amount of meat was spared from this young man’s gullet.

The camp accommodations, though somewhat spartan, were generous with hot showers, an outhouse, mattresses, and electricity, though no internet — yes, we did survive. Having endured a day or so of travel, we were eager for rest and to begin the hunt in the morning. After readying our packs to include snacks and sandwiches, we headed out. Riding in a ’94 Land Cruiser outfitted with the steering wheel on the wrong (right) side, a snorkel tube, all-terrain tires and a workhorse diesel engine, we ascended to the base of the so-called New Zealand ‘hills’. Although they lacked the snow, overall elevation and the glaciers of proper New Zealand mountains, these hills matched their counterparts in steepness, lack of any substantial foothold, and were further complemented with vicious plants waiting to scratch and tear at the flesh, such as the dreaded matagouri with spines suitable for torture or the Spaniard grass whose spear tips preferred to break off and fester in my hands rather than merely inflict immediate pain. With terrain so steep and inhospitable, these landscape bastards often posed as handholds, but offered no help or remorse for the unfortunate quick grasp to prevent a fall down what I’ll reluctantly call a hillside — often exceeding sixty-degrees of inclination.    

The first day we split up and traversed what might have been two miles as the crow flies, but what surely exceeded five miles over the terrain. Every gulley or ‘gut’ as Joseph and his crew referred to them, bellowed with the roar of a wild stag — free-range and organic — and just as many Tahr. Spotting these animals was a unique talent in which our self-described Kiwi-Sherpas excelled. The shrubs and grasses covering the hillsides/cliff faces allowed views in excess of 1000 yards, and our guides were keenly adept at distinguishing animals with the naked eye we could only make out with their focused optics. Though Joseph was accustomed to the spot and stalk style of hunting, he adapted to a style I more preferred, the sit and wait. Employing this technique, a young 5 x 5 stag crossed the ridge and grazed towards us, allowing me a close encounter with this red deer whose body size approximated that of a large mule deer.

Meanwhile, Erik, as guided by Tim, ventured from one ridge to another and was exposed to at least as much of the New Zealand flora and fauna. We had both also seen numerous sign of wild boar who uproot the shrubs and grasses in many areas scavenging for food. By dusk, neither of us had taken a shot, despite having seen more wild game than in many entire hunting seasons in the lower 48, but both of us were more concerned with making it down the hills safely. Once in the valley, the reportedly ‘not far’ land cruiser was at least a couple miles away as darkness descended. It was at this time I started asking and learning about what a full or ¾ shank boot was and how it might help traverse the terrain. Not completely forsaken by Mother Nature, we made it back to the truck and headed back to camp for another welcome meal prepared by Jimmy, complemented by an appetizer of ibuprofen downed with a shot of whiskey, and followed by planning for the next day’s adventure. 

That night, Erik and I commiserated and developed new, more appropriate descriptive phrases to better describe the type of mountain hunting specialized in by Hard Yards Hunting. Unfortunately, the descriptive phrases we crafted to replace the ‘Hard’ in Hard Yards Hunting are not suitable for print. Admittedly, this condemnation was more an admission of our failure to physically prepare for the hunt, as fully disclosed and cautioned prior by Joseph. Regardless, Joseph pitied us and planned a hunt less physically demanding the next day where we drove to many locations, glassed for distant animals and then stalked in close enough for a shot. Erik was the first to achieve success, taking an older stag mid-morning. After picking this well-concealed stag out from the countryside, Erik’s guide, Tim, moved him into position for a prone shot at about 250 yards, roaring back at the stag to induce him out of his bed. With that and a well-placed shot or two, the stag roared no more and the guides quickly descended and ascended (there is no proverbial downhill in New Zealand) on the animal to prepare it for transport to camp. 

We continued to pursue an animal for me; I was willing to take a stag or tahr, having seen and been duly impressed with both. The red deer for its royal crown and the tahr for its majestic coat, both splendid and stunning, not to mention as much meat as we could consume in country, to include salami Joseph had processed from other harvested game. After spotting and passing on many animals, a misfire and a clean miss witnessed by Jimmy through his ten-power binoculars, the light on the steep hillsides was beginning to give way to shadows. Down in a valley, way down, and very steeply down, steep to the point where it seemed one misstep would drop me another thousand feet in elevation, Tim and Jimmy heard and spotted a roaring stag. Of course, I couldn’t see the stag with my naked eye. Through the spotting scope, the stag did look impressive, though he was far away and far below us. I was eager for a successful hunt, but also mindful of the distance, grade, and terrain. I was equally aware of the toll another day of hunting would take, even at this fat-boy pace succumbed to by our forgiving guides. After some negotiation ruling out climbing back up out of the valley and instead, following a 4×4 trail and small stream out of the valley where we could meet up with Tim and Erik in the well-armored Land Cruiser, I committed to pursue the stag.

Each step was more treacherous than the next and felt like climbing down a ladder with a slip-n-slide for rungs through thickets of matagouri and Spaniard grass, both clawing at my hands and legs. As we descended, a younger stag intersected us, roaring and searching for hinds, largely ignoring us, but caught the attention of the stag we pursued. The younger stag noticed us as we remained stationary, grasping at anything to maintain position on the face of the mountain. He continued casually moving away , having his interest split between finding the object of his desire, and as we soon learned, distancing himself from his larger competitor.

With the younger stag having passed, we continued our downhill trek, but were soon surprised to find the stag we were pursuing to now be ascending towards us; it appeared this stag was intent on finding and chasing away the younger stag. Now stunned by the fact the stag was actually coming towards me and covering quite a bit of ground, we remained still and let the beast do the work for us. With the terrain so steep, we could not see the animal below us more than fifty yards away, we only caught glimpses of his horns as he scoured the steep terrain, following the probable path of the younger stag. Jimmy roared a couple times to further guide the stag, and when he presented himself at a mercifully short fifty or so yards, it was a quick, clean kill. That’s when the real work started and our Kiwi-Sherpas took over. 

Erik and I had earlier remarked how great it would be to both fill our tags that day — there are no actual tags in New Zealand or typical hunting regulations — and for Joseph and his team to bring in a yet unseen wild hog we could roast. After returning to camp, we were astounded and enthused to learn Joseph did take a hog that day. Needless to say, this gave purpose to our next day; foraging for the necessary ingredients and supplies to roast a hog. We were intent on building a cinder block pit and roasting the pig southern style using hardwood coals. The reality is in New Zealand, there isn’t a lot of hardwood or even a lot of barbecue. What hardwood trees do exist are protected. Similar to mesquite, the matagouri grows large and can reportedly be used for barbecuing and smoking; however, bushes that size were not readily available. While scavenging for pit supplies at the ranch, the rancher offered up one of his ‘constructions,’ a rotating spit he made himself. With that, we headed to the nearest town to find seasonings, apple juice, vinegar and whatever else could be of use to roast a hog. In the end, we crafted a rub, an injection for the meat, and bought a livestock syringe to pump the hog full of juicy goodness. We also procured every available bag of lump and pressed charcoal in the small town. In the end, the hog still needed a couple more hours to be fall off the bone tender, but we enjoyed pork sandwiches, regardless.

This epicurean shortcoming, though much appreciated by all, provided even more motivation to return and share some of our country’s traditions with the Kiwis. Double the amount of charcoal or a ute (Kiwi for pickup) bed full of matagouri and a full sixteen hours for the hog to roast will be essential when we return to ensure our guides experience a proper pig roast.

Providing purpose to the next day, Jimmy guided us through the more hospitable terrain of concrete sidewalks and souvenir shops where we again found success, each of us purchasing locally made merino wool with possum hair and silk garments for our wives, who themselves were visiting together stateside. The surety of satisfaction with which we purchased these items was far less than that possessed by Joseph and his guides for our endeavors in the field or as simple tour guides; we sincerely appreciated their zest and desire to share with us as much of the history and culture of New Zealand as possible. We continued to see a portion of the drivable higher country where reservoirs were harnessed to provide more than half of New Zealand’s electricity and where glaciers and snow capped mountains, proper New Zealand mountains, were all the more imposing. Rising from the ground with ferocity and intensity, their endless peaks not stopping until surpassing the clouds. We did manage to survive hordes of competing tourists just as intent upon seeing as much of this unique country as possible. And, I would be remiss if I did not mention the fantastic meat pies we discovered in Fairlee. 

I will not soon forget the roar of the stag, the beautiful tahr, the intense New Zealand terrain, or those exquisite meat pies filled with savory goodness all wrapped with a crisp, pastry-like crust. Most importantly, I will not soon forget the hospitality, skill and dogged determination of the Hard Yards team and how they went out of their way to make this a remarkable experience for us. Tim often remarked, in what would become our favorite Kiwi idiom, “We’re not here to #&$% spiders,” to underscore the purpose of our actions and provide motivation for an uphill trek. I think I might always remember this saying and will surely always treasure this once in a lifetime adventure.

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