The chopper came in fast. It flew in a wide descending arc before flaring its nose and touching down at the hunting lodge. Leaving the engine running, the pilot jumped out and unloaded several plastic jerry cans which contained extra jet fuel.
We had been seeing this chopper and another flying in and out of the mountains all morning. With each sighting the excitement grew as we did our final gear checks and made sure our rifles were still zeroed.
With the spare fuel unloaded we began loading our gear which consisted of our packs and rifles, stores for the six days in the Alps as well as tents and camping equipment.
The chopper was loaded up. The basket on the skid was full and the rear of the cabin was stacked up around my brother AJ who had elected to take the rear seat.
The engine of the Hughes 500 throttled up and we rose about twenty metres into the air before dipping the nose and heading for the mountains.
Skimming over the foothills on our slow climb I listened through the headset to our guide Marcus and the pilot talk other hunting parties and their successes. Flying up the river it became apparent that the calm conditions in the low country were not the same in the hills. Passing the valleys that fed in from each side the chopper was being tossed around from side to side.
The head of the valley was to be our camp for the next few days however landing was proving to be quite difficult with all the weight on board and the shifting cross winds. The pilot decided to fly back down the valley, unload myself AJ and half the gear. Marcus would go in, unload and the pilot would return for us. Waiting for the helicopter to return we saw our first glimpse of where we would be hunting. Spectacular, steep and quite intimidating.
After a fairly wild ride into the valley which the pilot describes as ‘pretty loose flying,’ we watched the chopper disappear and began making camp. Marcus decided on a site protected by a large flat rock on one side and some low scrub on the other. Concentrating on making camp was very difficult. Both of us could not resist looking up on to the surrounding cliffs and open hills in the hope of spotting our first Tahr.
With the camp completed it did not take long to locate Tahr. They were probably only one kilometre away but as we were to learn they were a long way up.
It sounded like a low level jet or a huge gust of wind. When we looked toward the noise a massive dust cloud billowed up from the valley floor a kilometre or so from camp. A section of cliff face had crumbled and collapsed in a landslide. I was glad we were camped in the middle of the valley and I was reassured to have an experienced guide. This was no country for men who did not know the mountains.
It is a different type of cold in the alps. Apart from being about fifteen degrees colder than where I live in southern NSW. The cold seems to get into your bones. Thankfully we had all the right gear, though I will be taking a better sleeping bag next time.
On our first morning after steaming cups of coffee and some cereal I started to feel my toes again. All geared up we moved towards the head of the valley. A six hundred metre vertical cliff face topped with a glacier that had a waterfall pouring out of it was standing over us as we began scouring the surrounding hills for tahr.
Bull! Marcus broke the silence as he hastily began setting up his spotting scope for a closer look. ‘He’s a good one,’ came the confirmation and it wasn’t long before our first venture up the mountain began.
We followed a creek that was full of rocks of various sizes, some football size right up to some the size of cars. After about forty five minutes it was time to leave the creek bed. A sharp, near vertical climb and we were in low thick scrub. We battled our way through and emerged into a low swampy area.
The bull could still be seen up above us, but we still had quite a way to go. Our next stage was up a rocky slope. The rocks were quite stable and we made good time. It was colder up there but we were sweating. It is hard work amongst those rocks. Carefully crossing a frozen ice chute we headed into more low alpine scrub. The flax plants are very well anchored and I began to rely heavily on them as hand holds. On the other hand a bush called Spaniard easily penetrates four layers of clothing as well as your skin. This did not however stop me from lying on top of it when my fear or heights made the pain of the Spaniard look like the best option.
Breaking out of the scrub and onto tussock country Marcus, who was leading, signalled that he could see the bull. As I moved to a position in front of Marcus I saw my first bull tahr within rifle range. He was standing between two small cliffs in an opening about ten metres across. His mane was blowing forward towards his head accentuating the length of his thick coat. He looked to be all shoulders and neck.
It did not take long to find a rest as we were already down low because of the terrain. Getting in behind the rifle was very difficult as I had to aim up the hill at a very steep angle. My shot hit the bull in the chest. The scope hit me in the forehead. As I struggled to hang onto the hillside as a result of the recoil, the bull reared up and then ran around the back of some large rocks. Through the scope I could see his mane was covered with blood and under normal circumstances another shot would not have been necessary, however, just a few metres in this country can make an animal impossible to recover. ‘Hit him again’ came the order from Marcus. The next shot hit the bull in the chest again and he leapt forward plunging down off the cliff disappearing from sight.
By now blood was pouring from my forehead. I had given myself an authentic Weatherby eyebrow. A Mark V Weatherby in .270 Weatherby magnum and with a name like Edward I was then known as Ed Weatherby.
The report from the rile shots seem to echo on for minutes, bouncing of one side of the valley and back again. We carefully made our way across another frozen chute which I freely admit scared the hell out of me, but with the bull in sight I pushed on to reach my trophy. AJ and Marcus were both really happy for me. It was one of those great moments, a spectacular place a long desired trophy and two good friends to share it with. The bull measured twelve and a half inches and he was ten years old.
After caping the bull and the adrenalin wearing off I realised just where I was. My old fear of heights came back and I remembered that I’m not Bear Grylls, and I was happy to begin our descent.
The mountain radio crackled as the weather forecast was broadcast. The distant faint voice of the broadcaster made it seem very real that we were a long way from civilization. JUST THE WAY I LIKE IT. I loved hearing the different parties of hunters and trampers calling in with messages for home or delaying their helicopter pick up. From Arthurs Pass to Fiordland we heard from different groups of adventurers.
The next few days passed with many trips up into the mountains but we could not quite get to where the tahr were located. One day our path was blocked by huge rocks in a flowing creek. We tried climbing up under the waterfall but ran out of options near the top. Another day we climbed a scree slope. The ridge we were on became sharper and sharper until it was impossible to carry on safely. We saw a large chunk of ice break off the glacier ad crash down to earth. It looked to be the size of a large two story house. When it hit the ground after falling for about five hundred metres it exploded into tiny pieces. Another day a chamois was sighted on an open face. A beautiful animal and a great reason to visit again next year.
The last morning broke cold and clear and once again we were heading up another steep rocky creek in pursuit of a bull Marcus had spotted the night before. He was nearly at the very top of the mountain, but we had surveyed what looked to be a possible track and it looked like reasonable going. AJ, who’s left knee has been rebuilt a couple of times, had declared the night before that he could not climb anymore. Marcus showed him the bull in the spotting scope and reminded him he would be back at work on Monday and with that it was AJ who led the charge up the mountain.
At three hundred and seventy metres the bull could be seen sitting in the mouth of a small cave. We decided to drop back down into a frozen water course and clinging to the tussock and flax we would try to close the distance.
The three of us crouched low in a small depression behind some rocks. I ranged the bull at one hundred and seventy metres. He was sitting down facing towards us. Marcus asked if AJ was comfortable taking a shot while he was sitting or we could wait him out until he stood. Looking through his scope he confirmed he had an excellent rest and he was confident in his shot. I reminded him of the climb we had just done, but he was sure he could pull the shot off.
Another big alpine rifle report bounced around the valleys and cliffs as the tahr jumped to his feet and ran across open country and up onto a rocky bluff. Another shot from his .270win and the bull disappeared over the hill and out of sight.
Marcus suggested I stay in that position and cover the open ground to the right while he and AJ went forward. We were confident the bull was hit but he had moved freely enough for us to be concerned about just how far he might go.
How are things back at the farm? Who gives a damn when you’re out here!
Time passes slowly as my attention went from the open rocky hillside I was covering for an escaping tahr, and the progress the others were making up the steep slope ahead. We were only a couple of hundred metres from the top of the mountain and Marcus later told us he had never climbed so high for a tahr before.
The body language was unmistakeable as Marcus reached the point where the tahr had disappeared. He had spotted the bull sitting down below the bank on the other side. AJ struggled to match Marcus up the last part of the climb. His knee by this time was making more noise than the gravel beneath his boots. Upon catching up he fired a couple of rounds in quick succession at close range flattening the old bull. He measured twelve and a quarter inches and was twelve years old.
With his arms pointing skyward holding his rifle high above his head, a mountain blanketed in snow behind him and Marcus patting him on the back is an image I will never forget. The hills had not been kind to a less than perfect knee and I know the week had truly tested him.
We lay on top of the gear as the chopper touched down so nothing was picked up by the storm the rotors created. Loaded up and heading down the valley I thought about the remarkable hunting experience we had just had. I’m sure guides don’t come any better than Marcus Pinney. He is relaxed and great company with enough dirty jokes to easily fill a six day excursion. Raewyn, his partner is also very cool. She picked us up at Hokitika airport and made sure we were right at home the whole time at their lodge. The accommodation at their home is fantastic with motel type self contained rooms each with an ensuite and after a week in the Alps it was the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in.
The South Island of New Zealand is a truly special place. From the police who issued us with our firearms permits to customs, they make it very easy to take your rifle over there.
If you are after a true wilderness hunting trip and a hard earned trophy, there could be no better place than New Zealand and there could be no better outfitter than Wilderness Trophy Hunting and Marcus Pinney.