By Tony Kamphorst
The group of bull tahr were well and truly safe from us today, but we noted their position for future reference and headed back to the campsite as it grew dark.
The next day the weather gods smiled on us and with mostly clear skies we set off up the stream with high hopes and Mount Cook in clear view. The bulls from the previous afternoon were still in the same position but with the fine day and plenty of time ahead of us we decided to leave them for later and push further up the stream and have a look at what else was around.
My mate Jeff Borg, Kiwi local Maurice and I stuck to the stream bed and made our way deeper into the mountain range, gaining elevation steadily as we boulder hopped our way towards the head of the valley stopping at regular intervals to glass. Maurice imparted a few gems of wisdom on us Aussie greenhorns, the most valuable being to stick to the valley floor and let your eyes do the walking. No point climbing huge mountains if you don’t need to! Eventually we started to pick up on what to look for and spotted tahr regularly on the high rocky faces either side of the valley, but mostly nannies and kids. It was midday when we spotted the unmistakable figure of a lone bull tahr near the base of the bluffs.
He was soon joined by three more bulls and the little bachelor mob began making their way down towards the valley floor. We were pinned in a bit of an exposed position down by the stream so decided to hunker down in the rocks and see what the bulls were going to do as they were still very distant and pretty safe. With bulls still in view we had a bit of a snooze and snacked while we waited for them to make the next move.
Then the bulls disappeared over a ridge and we made our move; a quick game of rock-scissors-paper and I was first for a shot as we climbed a gully and poked our heads over the rise. We were just in time to glimpse a young bull disappearing over another low rocky ridge 70 metres away. We climbed higher to a good vantage point, then spotted the bulls in a rocky gut about 150 metres below.
I quickly took off my pack, adopting a prone position over some rocks, readying myself for the shot. I could see four bulls but one of them stood out with his large body size and long shaggy mane. Then Maurice confirmed it as he whispered “Take the one on the far right, down in the rocks”. The crosshairs steadied low on his chest and as the rifle shot echoed up the valley the bull tumbled down out of sight.
The rest of the tahr scattered and one young bull made the mistake of running up the hill towards us and propping at 50 metres. As it was the start of the trip and this young animal was prime meat, Jeff elected to take it and the report of the .270 was followed by the solid thump of a good hit; the tahr took off, disappearing into a scrubby gully and never came out the other side. Glancing down the hill I couldn’t believe my eyes when my bull reappeared on his feet down in the rocks below, albeit very groggy, but a couple of well-aimed shots put him down for keeps.
After all the action had subsided we went to find Jeff’s tahr, as it was closer, and took a few photos and recovered the meat. Itching to get down to my bull and check him out, we finally made our way down there and I got my hands on my first bull tahr. He taped over 11 inches and had a great shaggy cape on him, everything I had dreamed of over the years and it was an awesome moment to share with a couple of good mates. The rifle I used was also pretty special to me, it was my Dad’s old Winchester Model 70 in 25-06 Rem. which he had used to hunt these exact same valleys for tahr and chamois back in the 1980’s.
We staggered out of the valley burdened with horns, capes and meat and it was a bunch of tired but happy tahr hunters that made it back to the car well after dark after an epic fourteen hour day
on the hill.
Next day’s plan was to climb up high into the basin and try and locate the bulls that we had spotted the first afternoon, so loaded with packs and high hopes we set off.
Climbing high out of a side creek, our legs and lungs burning, we could now see a few of the higher faces that formed the sides of the basin and we duly stopped for a quick glass. Almost immediately I spotted the bulls – there were five of them, including a few really nice looking specimens. They were still a kilometre away and with two hours until dusk we reckoned if we moved quick we might be in with a shot before dark.
It was a full two hours as we climbed a steep landslip, pushing up and up towards the tahr, which were feeding on a near vertical face around a big rocky scree slope. With only moments of shooting light left Jeff moved forward to a good shooting position and as a big bull presented himself in front of us at a little over 200 metres, Jeff took the shot. A puff of shattered rock erupted behind the bull and just above his back, a clean miss. The startled bull ran a few metres and propped so Jeff quickly reloaded and shot again… and again … and again. I made my way up to Jeff as the last of the bulls disappeared from view and the light faded. Jeff was understandably gutted after all the effort we had put in to result in four shots and four clean misses, the only thing we could think of was that he must have bumped his scope on a rock the day before and put it out. This was later confirmed when Jeff checked his rifle and found it was shooting 8 inches high at 90 metres, no wonder his shots were going over the top.
With darkness imminent, we needed a place to camp quickly. We had a few tense moments as we scrambled round the rocky scree slope in the twilight looking desperately for somewhere with less than a 45 degree slope and space enough to sleep both of us. Finally a godsend came in the form of a small rocky bowl set into the mountainside, it was far from perfect but it would have to do.
What followed was probably the most uncomfortable night either of us had ever had on the hill, the rocks left only enough space for one of our single-man tents so Jeff elected to stretch his fly over some bushes and sleep in his bivvy bag. The ground was far from flat so I ended up slipping down and piling up against the downhill wall of my tent which in turn tore the pegs out and I just resigned myself to lying there in the tangled mess until the heavens opened up and it began to rain. Jeff also lost the battle against gravity and slid out from under his fly pushing all his gear with him so we both awoke at dawn very stiff, sore and to top things off wet and cold as well.
Heavy cloud rolled in just after dawn reducing visibility to a few metres, we tried accessing the tops in the hope that the cloud would clear but pulled the pin after things got a bit too steep for safety and visibility had not improved. The closest we came to a tahr was one whistling above us and dislodging stones that came raining down out of the foggy gloom.
That night we were back in civilisation drying out gear and planning our next move, so next day we set off up the stream once again with our packs laden with enough food and gear for three days in the mountains. Making camp in a nice sheltered beech forest halfway up the valley we grabbed packs and rifles and headed off up the valley for a quick glass before it got dark.
Our afternoon hunt got cut short by a ripper or a rainstorm that drenched us to the bone, but just before the cloud rolled in and ruined all visibility I managed to spot a bull and a mob of nannies up high on a little grassy bench in the bluffs. We noted the bull’s position for the morning and headed back for another classic cold, wet and uncomfortable night.
Come morning we were blessed with clear skies and headed straight back to locate the bull from the afternoon before; he was out feeding with his nannies right where we left him. We chose what looked to be the safest ascent route and starting pushing upwards.
Three hours later we sidled across the last steep shingle slide at the base of the bluffs and peered around the corner into the steep rocky gut where we had last seen the bull, which had obviously retreated into the rocks to hide during the day so we decided to wait them out. An hour passed without incident then over the cold wind whipping down the valley we both heard a faint tahr whistle. The noise came again and this time I swore it came from above us. We were sitting rather precariously with our backs against a rocky cliff and I eased out and looked straight up to see the silhouette of a bull tahr 60 metres above looking straight down at us from the cliff edge.
I quickly signalled to Jeff who wasted no time in pointing his rifle skywards and putting a good shot into the bull, seconds later I heard rocks clattering and Jeff yelled “Look out mate, he’s coming down!”. As small rocks rained down around us I hugged the cliff face and waited for over 100 kilograms of bull tahr to fall from the sky and squash me like a grape. Fortunately it never came, the bull must have got snagged up in a crevice on the way down and disappeared from sight.
Jeff’s elation of shooting a trophy tahr quickly turned to despair as it was obvious we had very little chance of retrieving this bull, but about a minute later we heard rocks rumbling and watched in disbelief as the bull came tumbling down the nearby rocky gut in a mini avalanche of shingle and came to rest just a few metres below us. By some extraordinary luck the mortally wounded bull had found his way out of the inaccessible bluffs to land at our feet… you’ve gotta have a win every now and then I suppose!
The pack out the next day was a bit of a struggle, with gear soaking wet and a tahr cape and horns the packs weighed a ton and with all the recent rain the stream was roaring and difficult to negotiate. But we made it out safely and finally knew we would both be going home with trophy bulls that we had well and truly earned, and a classic NZ experience to go with it.