Packs Heavy: Highlights from Expedition NZ by Doug Stuart – First Lite Performance Hunting
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Packs Heavy: Highlights from Expedition NZ by Doug Stuart

Posted by Ford Van Fossan on
DSC01537_600_451 "USA." The author and First Lite's Ford Van Fossan showing off their patriotism in New Zealand's backcountry.

Go hunting in New Zealand and you’ll have the trip of a lifetime. You’ll also have far less cash when it’s over. Between the flights, the rental car, the food, the helicopter rides, and the hostels, the costs add up quickly.

Which begs the question: as a hunter, how do you justify such a trip?

 For the first few days, Ford and I each felt the pressure of this question. One answer was  obvious: shoot something. Yet obviously, there is more to hunting than killing.  Ford mentioned at one point that hunting was really just a way to experience New Zealand’s rugged high country. But I still caught myself mentally rehearsing how I would explain to friends without hunting backgrounds that I didn’t bag anything. I planned to go with the classic it’s-called-hunting-not-shooting line.

In the end, we wouldn’t need to do any explaining. We were lucky enough to each bag a chamois. And those successes freed us up to realize a simple truth about this country. Whether you’re shooting a chammy or just taking the guns for a walk, New Zealand does not disappoint.

 

*    *    *

 “Are you the hunters?”

A friendly-looking man with a mustache, short shorts, and crocs asks us this question as he approaches our car. We’ve just driven two and a half hours to the tiny town of Makarora deep in the Southern Alps of the South Island to meet up with someone named Harvey, a helicopter pilot who will fly us into the backcountry. After driving with nothing more than a handwritten map from a friend and instructions to “ask for Harvey,” we can’t believe our luck -- our how small New Zealand can sometimes feel amidst these millions of acres of wilderness. This guy is our pilot.

DSC01648_600_451 "The chammy are thick in this valley." Ford and "Helicopter" Harvey Hutton, of Backcountry Helicopters, in the Airbus Squirrel.

We load the gear into a small, blue helicopter -- the same one First Lite’s founders Scott Robinson and Kenton Carruth used on their trip to NZ -- and we take off toward the nearest mountain top.

If there had been a soundtrack playing at that moment, it would have been the theme song to Jurassic Park. As we crest the top of the mountain, we come into a gorgeous valley bound by jagged peaks and with a glacial river snaking below. New Zealand has not disappointed.

P1040850_600_451 "Be here Monday at 10 am." The author stays low as the helicopter lifts off.

We fly around a few more bends until we land at a public hut where we’ll be staying for the next few days. “Be here Monday at 10 am,” Harvey says in a way that is at once supremely casual and deadly serious. Then he lifts off and flies away. Good thing Ford has a watch.

Over the next few days, we hunt hard. On the first morning, Ford spots a beautiful 4x4  stag bedded down on a the mountainside. But after a long stalk, we spook him and the stag melts away into the bush. It’s disappointing, especially since we did not connect with a stag on our hunt the previous week despite spotting several hinds and a dandy 5X5. I again think about what I’ll tell my friends back home if I return with nothing.

P1040858_600_451 "Backcountry Lux." Public huts are scattered throughout New Zealand's remote high county.

The next day we decide to make for a hanging valley we flew over on the flight in -- the one where the next sequel to Jurassic Park will be filmed. However, to get there will require us to climb up a steep gorge through thick jungle.

After an hour of hiking up the right side of the river, New Zealand defeats us. The brush is too thick, and we’re forced to turn back. Painfully, we retrace our steps and eventually find a spot on the river that can be crossed. We drop our packs, and I hop over the stream onto a high rock and hoist myself up. Ford hands me the packs and the guns, and then follows.

We then do some scouting and finally find a path outside the stream -- that leads into large bushes that are almost, but not quite, too thick to pass through. We throw ourselves at the small openings between the bushes and slowly gain ground against the mountain. It feels like we’re football players tackling practice dummies.

Finally, after another couple hours and a few hotspots, we can see the steep glacial fans Harvey said would hold chammy. We sit down to rest, eat a quick lunch, and start glassing.

Within minutes, we spot the first alpine chamois either of us has ever laid eyes on. On the very top of the high chute in front of us, we spot three of them. After closer inspection with the spotting scope, we revise that number to five. Then one of us notices that two chutes over, there are 3 chammy grazing quietly. And there’s a buck in the chute in between them.

P1040947_600_451 "Chammy valley." Harvey was not wrong about the numbers of chamois in this hanging valley.

Did we mention that New Zealand doesn’t disappoint?

 We plan our attack. At this point, the two groups have more or less merged into the chute on the left. We decide to move up the spine of the hill below the chammy as this will offer us plenty of cover until we get close enough for a shot. After crossing to the base of the hillside, we drop everything we don’t need. The light packs feel good, and more than anything, we’re ready to do this. It’s maybe 3 pm, we have plenty of daylight left, and we’re downwind from the chammy. Perfect.

We climb quickly in our excitement, doing our best to stay out of sight but also continually checking that the chammy haven’t moved away. Finally, we get within range and chamber a round. We creep closer. Ford is in front of me, and we’re about to get up and move again when suddenly a buck appears on the horizon, looking in our direction.

We freeze. Ford slowly sets down his gun on its tripod and takes aim. Behind Ford, I don’t move as I don’t want to scare away the bull. Ford pulls the trigger, and -- despite boxes of rounds at the range over the past months -- misses completely.

 All hell breaks loose. It’s like Big Buck Hunter. Chamois in the distance run up and over the top of the mountain. The buck bolts away but a doe comes into view.  She runs down the hill along the ridge line and stops. Ford fires again and finds redemption. She’s down.

P1040963_600_451 "We did it." The alpine chamois.

We’ve done it. Though we had already philosophically justified a no-kill hunt to ourselves, I don’t think either of us had truly gotten rid of our fear of failure.  A 168 grain bullet banishes the we’ve-come-all-this-way sentiment in an instant. Though it shouldn’t have mattered, the joy of our accomplishment was undeniable.

After some less than brief celebrations, some self-congratulatory comments (“and they said we needed a guide”), and more than a few photos for First Lite, we get to work quartering the critter. Then, with heavy packs and both trekking poles finally in hand, we descend the slope to make camp.

That night, we put aside our packets of dehydrated food and reach instead for fresh meat. We start with the tenderloin and take a minute to spice the meat before cooking it. Being the proud Marylander that he is, Ford has brought Old Bay Seasoning all the way to New Zealand. And it pays off tonight. We rub the meat with salt and pepper, pour some oil in our pan, and sear it over the WhisperLite.

DSC01577_600_455 "Salt, pepper and Old Bay Season." After days of dehydrating meals, seared chamois was a welcome change.

The tenderloin is a little gamey but the backstrap is out of this world. We hang the quarters under a rocky overhang next to our tent (No predators in New Zealand) and retire for a hard sleep.

The next morning, we wake up feeling victorious. And why wouldn’t we? We came to New Zealand on a hunting trip, and we’ve just harvested an animal  successfully. Our trip is validated. But I realize that while our trip is justified, my personal trip is not.

I live in Washington, D.C. -- no one’s picture of mountain country.  Most of my friends have never fired a gun before, let alone hunted. To many, this trip sounded pretty lavish, and so I felt even more pressure to make good on my reasons for flying all the way to New Zealand. To top it off, I don’t have nearly as much experience hunting as Ford does. Coming back empty-handed would make the whole trip look foolish. Why did I think I could step up into the big leagues so soon?

So now that Ford’s bagged a chammy, I’m itching to do the same. The next morning we eat neck meat for breakfast and get to glassing   And eventually, we spot chammy in the same chute they were in the day before. However, we don’t have a ton of time left since we’ll need to head back to the hut today -- a 4-5 hour hike out with at least one chammy on our backs. And it’s already about 11:00 am.

DSC01500_600_451 "The view." New Zealand's scenery never failed to impress.

Our plan of attack is essentially the same as yesterday’s. We climb the mountain quickly, and I’m already planning just how I’ll hold the chammy in my grip-and-grin photo. We should get the valley in the background, I think.

 Finally, we’re in range of a chammy. Ford sights her in at 177 yards. She’s standing on the spine of a hill, broadside. I couldn’t ask for a better chance. I can practically already taste the meat. I lay my gun on my pack, and prep the shot. I pull the trigger. It’s a clean shot -- into the air above her.

If you’re ever looking to have a soul-searching moment, spend months training for a costly trip to a country halfway around the world and fail at your main goal. Everything I had been working toward was summarized in that one shot. A search for blood confirms that I’ve missed her completely.

It’s noon now. We’re running out of time. Even if I had gotten the doe, we’d be rushing to quarter her, get back to camp, pack up our tent and gear, and then make the 4-5 hour back to our hut before nightfall. We hike back down to the valley floor and talk about what to do. The sensible thing would be to pack out now and have a leisurely walk back. But Ford, I think, senses how bummed I am, and we agree to see if we can find another chammy and give ourselves -- or rather me -- one more chance.

Once again, New Zealand delivers. We find three chammy up high in a chute on the other side of the valley. They’re feeding almost up against where the grass ends and the rock of the mountain face begins.

So we get going. We move up quickly until we’re about 300 yards below them. Then we start to creep up. But we failed to realize from the valley floor that there are folds in the hillside. So we keep peeking above a fold expecting to see the chammy, and see nothing.

Finally, we’re about to hit the end of the chute. We’re starting to think that maybe the chammy moved on while we were hiking up. We crawl up over this last bend when Ford becomes motionless. He’s spotted the bedded chammy about 60 yards away, and it’s looking right at us. We hold our positions for several minutes. Then I  hand Ford my pack, and he rests it on the ground in front him. Slowly, I pull up beside him and rest the gun on the pack. I take a moment to zoom out my scope and get the doe in my crosshairs.

I pull the trigger. As I move the scope away from my face, my heart sinks. I see a chammy moving on the left. She’s running quickly over to another doe, and then they both effortlessly hop over the mountainside. There’s no way we can follow them.

I’m crushed. In the same day,  I’ve somehow missed two good chances to bag a chammy, the last one at 60 yards. We get up without talking and go look for blood. All the while, I begin to think about how I should probably just give up hunting -- or at least stick to the white tail deer of the east coast for the foreseeable future.

But as we walk up, we realize that we glassed three chammy from the valley floor but only saw two get up and leave. Sure enough, we then see the chammy. She’s down! It’s a clean shot through the boiler room. Celebrations ensue.

DSC01609_600_451 "The winning team." The author, his chammy and Ford pose for the self timer.

So we pack out happy and heavy, each with a chammy on his back. Our excitement is momentarily diminished over the next few hours by one of the most gruelling hikes that either of us has ever experienced. In an attempt to find a better route back to the hut, we take a chance and keep to the left of the river going down to the valley floor. It’s a big mistake, and we pay for it. The terrain is thick with trees, brush, and steep drop offs. For the last 200 yards, we slide down the forest floor with our packs above us, letting gravity pull us down.

Finally, we stumble out onto the valley floor. It’s about 7 pm, and although it’s starting to get cool, we are sweating too much to care. We hoist our packs back on, resume our internal celebrations, and head back to the hut. We collapse into bed, and in the morning, Harvey comes to get us in his helicopter. It’s been a good hunt.

DSC01638_600_451 "Ticket home." Doug and the chammy quarters wait for the Squirrel.

Now, we’re back home, each with a whole chammy in the freezer, waiting to be eaten. We already know we’ll be back to New Zealand sometime soon. But for now, we’re savoring the meat and the experience, and the truth that New Zealand does not disappoint.

Doug Stuart is an old high school buddy of First Lite's Ford Van Fossan. He lives in Washington D.C. but is currently plotting his return to the Mountain West.

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