Valley of the Sambar, By Rhys Hillier

Australian deer hunters consider the Wonnangatta Valley to be the Mecca of the Australian hunting world, the Home of the Sambar deer. The famed and historic valley of the Sambar lies below the highest mountain peaks of the Great Alpine National Park. The National Park is situated in the South East of the continent comprising of 646,000 hectares — 1.6 million acres. It is the largest National Park in the state of Victoria and covers much of the higher areas of the Great Dividing Range, including Victoria’s highest point, Mount Bogong at 1,986 metres (6,516 ft).

The Valley is famous not only for the Sambar deer (Rusa Unicolor), which are similar in body size to North American Elk and call the nearby gulleys and ridge tops home, but also the historic and mysterious Wonnangatta station Murders, which took place 100 years ago this year and still remain unsolved.

With a near-sacred status, many of us make the annual pilgrimage to hunt with old friends and budding new hunters from all over Australia. The Wonnangatta is a magnet for the greenhorn mountain hunter who is willing to take the next step from hunting farmland-type hunting grounds up into the ‘Big Country’  as it’s often labelled due to the sheer expanse of alpine and subalpine environments. When viewed from deep inside the valley floor, these mountains seem to roll on further than the eye can see, if one were to climb high enough.

This hunt took place just before winter in May 2016 during the ‘Aus-Hunt Members Hunt’ which is an Australian based online hunting forum. The hunters come from far and wide, some driving over fifteen hours, to spend a week inside the valley chasing their elusive quarry, the Sambar deer.

Not unlike any other year, I had my Toyota Hilux packed and loaded a few days earlier than expected, said my goodbyes and departed for the four hour drive through the countryside which would lead me into the Buffalo Valley of Victoria,  known as the gateway to the “Gatta”! It’s not uncommon to be driving past hundreds — if not thousands — of deer en-route to our destination, something that many hunters do not grasp. The allure isn’t just the deer, it’s the location which screams adventure for any hunter, no matter how green or well seasoned!

Prior to the planning of this trip a Fallow deer (Dama Dama) hunter by the name of Scott who comes from Australia’s most southern island state, Tasmania, had contacted me. Scott mentioned his intentions of undertaking a backpack hunt to the mountain tops and asked if I would like to lead the adventure, having never hunted Sambar himself. Right away I knew I had a very interested, genuine, and committed hunter by my side –and that was all the convincing I needed.

Within a few days of arriving in the Valley, slowly but surely the trickle of trucks rolled into our camp nestled alongside the picturesque Wonnangatta River. The campfire smoke slowly wafted in and out of the gulleys behind camp, and the anticipation was building for the week ahead. It is always wise to hunt the valley floor for a few days to get your mountain legs into gear and also to get a feel for the terrain which varies greatly from the Eastern facing slopes to the Southern facing slopes. Only an Australian deer hunter can comprehend the differences between a good gulley and a thick as buggery gulley, and the Gatta has it all.

Nevertheless, it was three days into the hunt when the weather began to turn, and I had a feeling that now would be a good time to head up high and search for a Sambar stag! The night before I had worked up Scotty and told him to pack well but pack light and that the following morning we would begin to head up into the high country mountain tops. We set off before sunrise the next day, and after several hours we arrived on the edge of the alpine elevation around 1000m — several hundred meters lower than we were planning to hunt for the next two days.

The rain blew in slowly and while it wasn’t raining heavily the fog was thick. We didn’t let this dampen our spirits as we had a few more hours of hiking ahead of us before any glassing or hunting was to be done. Our hike proved to be short-lived as about two hours in, surrounded by a soup of fog, a stag materialized fifty meters in front of us. Working in and out of the vegetation with his head down feeding on the nutrient-rich high country grasses, we were caught totally off guard. The only words to come out of my mouth were “Shoot that thing!” as I glanced over my shoulder and dropped to my knees.

The Tasmanian hadn’t seen a Sambar stag before, let alone have one standing motionless right in front of him. The next few moments unfolded all too suddenly, and his 30-06 let out a deafening crack, which was swallowed up almost immediately by the mountain fog and dense vegetation. At the shot, the mature stag leapt off at a rate of knots, seemingly unharmed. I attempted a follow up shot with my own rifle but it too was wayward. Believing that the deer had to have been hit, we gave it some time before attempting to follow the vague prints which the deer made as he departed. The lack of blood at the shot site and the path it took to get away was obvious, and a disheartening sign that our shots hadn’t connected.

Unfortunately, after four hours of walking around in the thick fog with rain continuing to fall, the search was called off for the day and we set up a camp right at the shot site in hope that the next day would bring joy for the Tasmanian.

The rain settled right in that night. Between the driving rain, and the uneasy feeling from the day’s events, my Tasmanian hunting mate didn’t get a wink of sleep. I tried to keep his spirits high but personally didn’t like the chances we would find the stag. Some wise words when this sort of thing happens, be it missing or losing a mature stag; these deer are quite possibly the strongest willed animal I’ve ever encountered. After seeing many appear to ‘soak up’ shots from all angles with all calibres over the years, I had to realistically say “Sh*t Happens Mate.”

It was sixteen hours later when the rain eased up and we had finally been given a chance to get out of the tents. As I peeked out the tent it was a welcoming sight to see blue skies and a great big yellow ball rising over the hills. We broke camp and decided to head off on our own exploring for a while, making a plan to meet up again in a couple of hours.

In previous years visits to the Gatta, I had found a big slope on which I had imagined deer had to be feeding across as they passed one valley to another, it was just a matter of right place, right time. I cautiously picked my way in this general direction, alert and determined not to be caught off guard again by a stag. A few hours later I was perched up high on a rocky outcrop, overlooking a deep valley where I could easily glass a fair patch of land straight across a gulley. Knowing that after the previous days cold, wet weather, this kind of sunny face is just the thing a Sambar wants; with the sun hitting the face on a cold morning they tend to favour these areas for a morning graze, especially after a bout of poor weather.

After two hours behind the binos, I picked up the rear end of a Sambar way off in a little gut behind some Alpine Gum trees and quickly went about ranging the distance. The rangefinder read 330 meters to the near tree. As the sun shone straight onto his back, I waited for what seemed an eternity as the stag meandered back and forth following his nose for the most succulent grasses. When he stepped out into the clear I noticed the deer was wearing a set of good-looking antlers!

I took some moments to set up my backpack for a shooting rest among the rocks and waited for the broadside opportunity to present itself. Nestling in behind my 7mm-08 Kimber Montana shooting a 140gr Woodleigh bullet, I took a few deep breaths. Before the trip, I had been shooting out to 350m testing the field drop out the back of the farm here in Victoria, and I was confident with the range.

The stag finally presented a shot, as he continued to feed unaware on the opposing face. I took aim through the 2-7x Leupold, giving what I call a backline hold, and squeezed off a shot. The stag jumped forward and bolted, contouring the open face about a hundred yards before looking around totally unsure of what had just made that crack and thud on the earth below him.

Cycling the right-handed bolt as quick as a lefty can, I lined up as he looked back over his far shoulder, searching for the source of the noise. I now overestimated the distance he had covered in length but in fact, the straight line distance from the first shot was no further. “Kimberly” sang out once more and in an unfortunate fate for the stag, I struck him in the neck and it was the end of his run. I was elated that I had secured a stag on the open face, a scene I had envisioned numerous times in years past.

Scott and I made contact as I contoured into where I thought the stag had gone down. Scott had heard the first shot and after finding the deer in his binos was able to watch the fatal shot and guide me into the exact location it was last seen. I soon found a heavy bloody trail directly downhill, resulting in a beautiful stag with twenty-seven inches of freshly rubbed out, rock-hard, ‘Wonnangatta Valley’ antler!

Absolutely wrapped — Aussie slang for elated — for myself and no doubt a tough gig to watch for the Tasmanian after yesterday’s events, but Scott was just as bloody pumped as I was on the whole ordeal!

We spent some time with the stag, taking a bunch of photos along with some video before deciding to hit the ridge toward the saddle that would eventually get us back to camp in a more direct route. Due to bushfire regrowth, some areas are severely ‘affected’ and it makes even bush bashing a bit of a challenge, let alone hunting in it. Nonetheless, we got to camp fairly buggered but decided to pack up and head back to the base camp in the valley. The chance to dry out and catch the last few Aushunt members still in camp was too hard to pass up.

The next few nights were spent in camp around the fire with several glasses of scotch and grilled steaks. Talkin’ the talk with the fellas who had been out there walkin’ the walk the days prior. That’s what some of us enjoy about the Sambar hunting in remote places, everyone comes back to camp with a new story to tell about the one that did, or didn’t quite get away.

Posted by jomh