We had been getting a lot of feedback that people wanted to see a Fallow episode, and to us that really only meant one herd – the Caples/Greenstone Fallow deer. This is an historic herd in an historic place.
The area began its anthropogenic history as the primary route from the West Coast to Central Otago by early Maori, and the first Europeans to see it were the runholders David McKellar and George Gunn in 1862. In fact the name ‘Greenstone’ was translated from the Maori name for the valley – Pounamu – as they used this valley on their travels searching for the rock of the same name. For many years the pack route up the Greenstone and down the Hollyford was the only land access to the West Coast and the remote settlement at Martins Bay. The first runholders began farming in the Caples and Greenstone in 1868, and the original homestead of Birchdale Station still stands.
Eighteen Fallow were captured in Tasmania and released from the shores of Lake Wakatipu circa 1887, and have since spread through the Greenstone and Caples Valleys. Over time they spread down the Pass Burn into the Mavora Lakes area but never seem to have been attracted to the Hollyford or Eglinton. My personal theory is that as the Hollyford was never intensively grazed like the other valleys, it was less preferable habitat to the grazing Fallow deer. Culling first began in 1937 with 440 animals shot and recreational access wasn’t publically available until 1971. The Caples also bears notoriety as one of the few areas where 1080 was trialled as a deer control method, in 1958. By 1981, the Greenstone and Caples were gazetted as part of the 16,500ha Wakatipu Recreational Hunting Area (RHA) recognizing the particular recreational value of this herd.
Back to the present day. This was to be the first trip I couldn’t wriggle out of being the subject of the filming, so the pig hunter jokes were going to be flying thick and fast! But it was an awesome chance to see behind the scenes of NZ Hunter Adventures from a guest’s perspective. I’ve hunted Fallow a lot up north and been fortunate enough to secure some nice bucks but this truly wild, historic herd had always held huge appeal. It was even-stevens this trip though; while our expectations were zero, Willie, Emil and I all had our names on the ballot so we were going to draw straws between the three of us for the first shot at a good buck – if we managed to see one.
We zoomed up the beginnings of the Routeburn, passing endless French and German tourists, then turned off up to Key Summit. It was an easy way to get altitude – basically a four lane highway all the way up – the best intro to an NZ Hunter marathon I could have hoped for!
We only made it a couple of ks along the ridge with a kind wind blowing in our faces before we couldn’t resist stopping to have a glass. The old sage Willie (someone had to be the old sage – Greg got left behind this time) pronounced that there just had to be some deer living in that scree, and of course he spotted the first one. Muesli bar to him.
Fortunately as Willie went to glass the other side I was the first to spot the stag – muesli bar to me! Barely two hours into the trip and we’d seen a stag. Everyone was pretty excited. The spotter soon heralded less excitement as it was a middle-aged animal that could probably do with a bullet, but there was no way we were carrying packs full of Red stag for the next five days unless he was a big boy!
After perusing the spotter a while, I turned around to find two tourists making their way up to our perch. We must have looked quite unusual to them with our tuatara pyjamas, huge packs and rifle. In contrast, they looked as if they’d stepped off the express train from Paris, sporting their activewear and running shoes. We made conversation and pointed out what we were looking at; they were thrilled to see large animals in this environment. I’ve always found foreign travellers so much more interested in and accepting of hunting than our own trampers. Visitors haven’t been raised with the ‘pest’ dogma and love the chance to see and learn about such large, beautiful animals. Another tramper did ask later if we were ever worried we might shoot someone! She couldn’t really explain her thought process more than ‘gun’ equals ‘scary’.
By the time we climbed up the next step in the range, that kind wind had done a U-turn and was merrily wafting our scent down the whole range and it stayed that way the entire time we were up there.
As we were wandering along, the silence was shattered by the most atypical city noise you could imagine. A police siren boomed out on the Milford road below us, so loudly it sounded like it was coming down the ridge for us! This seems like a small anecdote but man it reinforced that despite being surrounded by towering peaks and rugged Fiordland terrain, we weren’t far removed from human influence.
Lunch yielded little other than a good feed of soudles (two minute noodles with a soup sachet thrown in, probably my favourite part of the trip) so we planned to make our way over to the Greenstone side and glass down in to the valley for the evening. It felt like we’d only been up there a few hours but short, late autumn days were making their presence known.
We didn’t actually see a whole lot in the main Greenstone, just a couple of does below us and a small family group further down the valley. As we were looking around, thinking about leaving, Willie snapped his binos up behind me and said “There’s one!”
I looked around, fixed my gaze on the shape 900 yards away and then spent several seconds trying to figure it out. It wasn’t a Red, it wasn’t a chamois, was it a Fallow doe? No, it was a bull tahr! A very lost one, several hundred kilometres south of the exclusion zone.
He was a young bull with huge tips but he needed shooting regardless. There’s plenty of tahr within the feral range – the Reds, chamois and Fallow don’t need competition from these effective breeders down here. Unfortunately, he was already 900 yards away and climbing so hopefully he was just a lone wanderer.
We took that as our cue and packed up shortly afterwards. It was a nice still night with a spectacular view looking across at the Earl and Darren mountains so we had a cuppa and yarned away under the stars while our Back Country meals brewed.
The next morning we were up and away reasonably early, aiming to have brekkie on the hill. Halfway up the next sizeable step in the range, I realized my binos weren’t around my neck (they normally live in a bino harness but all my usual methods were thrown out the window to work in with how Willie and Emil hunt). Willie spotted a Red hind and yearling crossing a slip so while he tried to film them, I emptied my pack. No binos. Bugger – sorry boys – I’ll meet you round the corner.
I got my skates on and jogged all the way back to camp. No binos. Crap. I carried on all the way over to where we had glassed from the night before and I still couldn’t find them. I combed the ground between there and camp, looked under every tussock bush at the campsite and still no f%^king expensive EL Range Swarovskis!
I slogged it all the way back to my pack, muttering darkly to myself about expensive bloody binoculars and hunting with other people’s gear. I was also rehearsing how to tell Samantha that we were blowing a couple of thousand on a pair of ELs, only to give them straight to Willie to replace a pair I’d lost.
When I got to my pack, I threw it on and kept pushing to catch up with the guys. Once I had, I emptied every possible container – and lo and behold – the binoculars were in the dry bag with my sleeping bag. Who knows how they got there but at least I hadn’t lost them; just the inevitable ribbing from the boys on camera to deal with now!
Oh well, with a several-kilometre warm up I was ready for breakfast and it was now past lunchtime! But we didn’t have time to lose so we carried on moving, down a steep little step and out onto a rocky point to glass down in the valley while we had a late breakfast. We saw more Fallow around where the family group was, and even a buck, but he was nothing huge so as soon as we’d eaten we carried on up to the highest point of the trip at 1600m – somewhat above usual Fallow altitude.
Prior to setting out on the trip, we knew the bucks were most likely to be down on the flats where the does were. Fallow deer are grazers, not browsers like Reds or any of our other species. This means they love grass, and the cattle-grazed flats of the Greenstone and Caples provide them with plenty of that. We were hoping to find a few adventurous family groups of does up high with bucks servicing them late in the rut. It’s a fact the bucks come up to the bushline post-rut, but we’d now established the does had little interest in being up there.
Either way, we were well on the lookout for Reds or chamois before we dropped down into the main valley either that night or the next morning, so we settled in for a glass from our vantage point. Much to my surprise, I spotted the first of the next species, which brought us up to four for two days – not what we expected in Fiordland! A lone chamois doe was tucked up across the valley, basking in the early afternoon sunshine.
Willie quickly got the spotter on her and she looked well and truly worthy of further investigation. The configuration of doe horns is quite different to the bucks. Often much lighter and taller with less hook, they are very difficult to appraise but certainly trophies in their own right. Maturity is an even more important consideration as chamois do not breed quickly like our other species, so it’s vital to actually preserve the breeding unit and only target old barren does. Fortunately, it was the rut so it was telling that she was on her own and in great condition, which indicated she probably hadn’t suckled a kid over summer.
We quickly resolved to get closer, ditching the bulk of our gear on the way and closing to 400 yards. The wind was swirling horribly, and we were skirting above some phenomenal Red country so my eyes kept straying below us to make sure we didn’t bump a monster stag from his bed.
Once we crested the rise on our bellies, the wind was blowing strongly across and Mrs Chamois was alert to something, she just wasn’t quite sure what. Four hundred yards isn’t normally much of a worry, but with a strong crosswind and an unfamiliar rifle, I was deferring to Willie’s judgement. He told me to hold on her upwind shoulder and I gave it an extra two inches for good measure. The cameras were rolling just for a little added pressure, and Willie said “Go” while there was a lull. The wind was building again and just as I pulled the trigger he said “Wait!” but it was too late, the bullet was on its way. Luckily I’d given it a little extra and it took her in the downwind shoulder, a clean kill. Yeehaa, animal down!
We quickly hopped over the scree to where she was and performed the obligatory photoshoot, with me looking like a stunned mullet on the wrong side of the camera. The boys were kind as always, Willie stepping up the pig hunting jokes and Emil trying to catch me on camera saying things I wouldn’t say in public! Thankfully that was all over quickly and we headed back to set up camp and have lunch, at sunset.
We split up that evening to glass the last minutes of light. I was looking up the valley but didn’t see much and Willie and Emil were glassing down and saw a handful, including some bucks. It was clear as we went to bed but unfortunately the forecast rain arrived before daybreak so it was a miserable pack up.
With rain gear head-to-toe and pack covers bound, we headed for the flats. It was a cruisy drop in elevation and we croaked our way down through the bush, seeing a little sign, but not getting any responses. We’d removed our rain gear in the bush to be quieter but it meant we were now saturated, with the rain only intensifying. Halfway down we capitulated and put it all back on. We stalked out onto the grass edge without seeing a thing; the Fallow were far too smart to be out in that weather.
With such miserable weather and the wind up our backsides, we crossed the river to the main track and went on autopilot. We trudged down the valley for a few hours and set up camp where we would be in striking distance of some of the broken country our whole plan revolved around.
My previous experience told me that this late in the rut it was highly unlikely we were going to see a mature buck out in the open with the does and young bucks. But, I suggested that if we watched the broken stuff for a while, hopefully we’d catch one feeding in a sheltered area or moving between family groups as he did the rounds looking for cycling hinds. We’d also caught up with friends of Willie’s, Ed Smith and Phil Crouchley before the trip as they’d just come out of here, and they’d tipped us off that this area was worth checking out.
We hunted back upriver on dark rather than scent tomorrow’s area. It was still raining intermittently but we were treated to a sighting of a pure white doe, something I hadn’t seen before, even in private herds. A middle-aged buck came out of the treeline right on dark but we didn’t see any big boys so we headed back to a miserable wet camp. Not much filming happened that night!
We took a while to get out of bed the next day. The prospect of wet clothes didn’t appeal and the damned wind had turned around, again, and was blowing straight towards where we wanted to hunt. Eventually we got underway with a break in the weather and tried to circle out away from the face in question, hoping the wind might not ruin it.
Willie had just finished cussing about the wind when we finally got to a spot we could glass from. I was looking way up on the face when he exclaimed something along the lines of “Buck! Big buck!” and there may have been a couple of other words thrown in as well!
I looked along where he was gesturing and immediately saw a huge set of palms rising up out of the matagouri. The buck was on a ridge a mere 300 yards away and it didn’t take a genius to realise that not only was he a shooter but we had only seconds to make the shot.
We all tore our packs off, throwing jackets, tripods, cameras and dry bags left, right and centre. Willie jumped on the gun as it had been strapped to his pack – no time to draw straws now! I got the zoom camera on him and Emil stood back and filmed the panic. Willie was ready first and I was struggling to get the focus working on an unfamiliar camera. You can hear Willie’s progressively louder calls of “Are you on it? Are you on it?!” on the audio, which was hilarious to play back.
Eventually I got there and no sooner had I said “On it” than the shot rang out. Willie had been watching the buck the whole time, agonising as it followed a doe toward cover, but these boys are absolute professionals and if you don’t get it on camera, it didn’t happen, so he had to wait.
We’d had concerns about the rifle when I shot my chamois as it seemed to drift further right than the wind justified, but in the heat of the moment Willie had forgotten all about that. He remembered immediately afterward so he was wringing his hands about how well the buck was hit. We’d heard a solid hit, and the shaky playback showed him dive forward like a hit animal.
To be absolutely sure, we sat around and waited a good 30 minutes. Poor Willie was tearing his hair out; the buck of a lifetime could be stone dead or it could have sneaked out one of the gully systems never to be seen again so he was torn between elation and despair. Eventually the rain threatened again so I suggested they go before I couldn’t spot for them. I stayed back with the spotter and a radio to make sure they didn’t spook him and that they were in the right spot.
I guided them in with little fuss, and soon they were standing at the buck’s last seen position. I could see slumped shoulders as they turned in circles and my heart dropped, but the cloud rolled in and hid them momentarily. When it cleared, I could see both of them throwing their hands in the air in celebration – they’d found him!
I hurried across and I could see their grins from 100 yards away. When I got close enough to the buck to see, I was blown away, he was even better than I’d thought from the glimpse I’d had of him on the hoof. He was in a league of his own compared to the spindly young bucks we’d seen all week. We had no expectations of shooting any buck this trip, so I certainly never imagined we’d stumble across anything like this.
Willie was on cloud nine and rightly so; this was a proper buck, a perfect example of the famous dark chocolate, beech-stained bucks that have roamed the valley since the turn of the century. In the early days before game parks stepped up the quality of Fallow genetics available, this was the premier place in New Zealand to hunt a trophy buck. Animals of 230+ DS came out of here before culling and poisoning took its toll. They’re still here though, and Willie’s buck was proof.
My initial reaction was to rate the buck at around 200-210 DS, but I didn’t want to open my big trap on national television too confidently so I suggested 190-200 DS as Fallow heads are notoriously difficult to judge. I later ran a tape over it and it came out at roughly 205 DS. Regardless, it was a beautifully proportioned buck with elegant palms and the squarer shape of a mature animal.
We took our time taking a thousand photos and filming the aftermath, with a couple of interludes hiding under our raincoats. It was a moment to be enjoyed and I could see the tension completely leave Willie as the aim of the episode was accomplished, as well as securing a magnificent trophy for himself – something that hadn’t happened for a few seasons! He has a lot of pressure to succeed. It’s all well and good to not get anything when you’re hunting for yourself, but when there’s a million plus viewers and sponsors expecting a series even better than the last, every trip into the hills has to count.
Once we’d done the filming, Willie set to caping so I picked up a set of binos and cast them around the area. Initially I’d suggested that as we were pretty low on the face and there was obviously a doe cycling here, perhaps we should retreat and watch here again that night and the following morning. But as I looked up the valley, blow me down if I didn’t see a sizeable buck standing way out in the valley in the middle of the day. He was several kilometres distant but through the rain and cloud I could make out decent length and a bit of palm. For him to be visible at that distance he was surely worthy of closer inspection, so that cemented our plans for the evening.
After the caping and butchery we donned now considerably heavier packs and headed up towards the buck. It took us a while but we sneaked closer and closer to another broken area of old burnt-off beech now colonized in matagouri and manuka with rich, fresh grass all around.
We settled on a fringe of beech that extended down on the flats with an excellent view across to the broken country, but also up to where we had seen the better buck. What comes as a surprise to many people is that the unforested flats are outside the permit, as they are owned by Ngai Tahu. Permission to hunt them must be obtained from Greenstone Station.
Not long after we had settled in, three deer materialized on the other side. I didn’t make much comment but passed the info on to spotter-man Willie. When he exclaimed in excitement I thought I’d missed a big buck somewhere, but what he was drawing attention to was the state of the young buck’s antlers. We could see the poor bugger had not just snapped his antler (a common occurrence with such fierce fighting animals) he had ripped off a portion of his skull under the pedicle! There was a small, light-coloured patch where his brain was visible and the antler lay back along his head, tangled with the other.
This was irresistible to Emil. We often appreciate non-typicals, but the Europeans are fanatical. With species like Roebuck where there are so many the same, the opportunity to shoot something completely unique is a rare trophy. I was more than happy to offer the shot to him. With the capable DPT suppressor fitted and because it was so early in the evening, I still had a chance later if something huge happened to wander out.
It was glorious watching Emil squirm in front of the camera after watching him grin at me from behind it for four days! But he got his part over and done with far too quickly. He lay behind the rifle and I got to play with his big camera and film the two of them taking the shot. Of course, there was no drama with the deadly Dane behind the gun; his shot took the buck in the heart. It ran off to the left but it was dead on its feet.
With such a cool May evening we were comfortable in leaving it overnight, so we resumed glassing positions. Emil and Willie started setting up camp while I kept vigil and magically, the good buck we had seen earlier materialized out in the middle of a terrace, hundreds of metres from the beech. He was safe out in the open where he was, but it was a great chance to evaluate him. He was an interesting animal; on antler configuration alone he wasn’t a shooter, and his behavior suggested a younger buck but his body characteristics hinted that he might be a bit older than we thought. Regardless, while he was pretty long in the beam he was still too weak in the palm.
We retired to the camp supremely satisfied with the trip’s progress. Eager for dry gear and fresh hot venison, we lit a smoky beech fire under the shelter of the canopy, where the idea of the fire was far nicer than the fire itself. Steady rain set in. I mucked about trying to raise the dead with wet wood while the boys head skinned Willie’s buck, all clad in our rain gear. Trying hard to raise our spirits, we stone-grilled some venison and chamois, but while it was delicious, we were somewhat damp. Emil suggested our nightly ritual of a giant 2L MSR pot of hot chocolate and I suggested we have it in the tent. I swear I’d barely blinked before the boys had thrown away all pretence of enjoying our night by the fire, stripped off sodden gear and dived in their sleeping bags!
The next morning the guys went and retrieved Emil’s buck while I set about hanging all our sodden gear out to dry. The sun didn’t reach us until midday but it was worth drying the 10 kgs of moisture out of our gear as despite our best efforts last night, we hadn’t eaten nearly enough meat to lighten the packs! We all had 30+ kg to heft out of the valley, and we had to be clear of the boundary for the next crew that evening.
With that in mind we aimed to be in position to hunt the upper, Upper Greenstone that evening. I was looking forward to that; we had seen a buck of some description there from up the top and it felt like wilder country. The lower reaches are heavily influenced by people, the cattle graze the flats (which is fantastic as Fallow need fresh grass so cattle/Fallow is a symbiotic relationship) the main walking track is practically a four lane highway and it’s dotted with private huts and shelters with various organizations profiting from the surrounding national park.
Unfortunately as we slogged along the fringes of the upper flats with our backs breaking we didn’t see a single deer, just some does on the upper reaches of the main flats. So we flogged our legs as far as McKellar hut and thankfully let the packs crash down.
The hut was immense and full of amenities that are only available to the hordes that pour through over summer. What really capped off the night though was two bottles of Red wine and a packet of Whittakers chocolate that we found in the kitchen! Some ambitious Greenstone trampers had decided to ditch a little weight after the first stint from the carpark, much to our appreciation.