Adventures in New Zealand
Posted on April 08 2021
This campfire story is from the lovely Audrey Watson's archive of adventures. Audrey is an ecologist, enthusiastic outdoors woman, recreational and professional deer management officer here in the UK and one of the few women approved witnesses for the Deer Stalking Level 2 certificate. You can read more about Audrey over in our main blog. This is an interesting account of her experience searching for Red Deer off the beaten track in New Zealand.
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My campfire story is probably a little different from the adventures of PHs in Africa. It isn’t daring or have tales of life-threatening encounters. Rather, it is the story of my first overseas hunting trip.
I have since hunted plains game in Namibia and wild boar in Croatia and, of course, stalk deer here in the UK both recreationally and professionally but my first trip to New Zealand was for our honeymoon in 2006 and a hunt was part of that trip.
As well as spending time visiting family there and doing the touristy bits, a cousin invited us to go hunting with him and a couple of his friends during the red deer rut or the “roar” as they call it on the Upper Hurunui River in South Island. Red deer eat the native flora and threaten the understory of the “bush”, preventing beech seedlings from regenerating so, from my ecological perspective, the trip was more than just to experience how the Kiwis hunt. It would let me see first hand the impact that deer, imported back in the 1850s, were having on the native flora and fauna.
We set off from Christchurch and drove for over 2.5 hours on good roads and then along a 4x4 track to the road end where we had to leave the vehicles and carry everything with us on our backs. Ten minutes out of the truck and heading for the swing bridge to start on the hiking trail, we encountered a feral cat. As you must shoot these in NZ, my husband shouldered the borrowed rifle and shot it, saying “Well, even if I don’t shoot anything else all trip, I’ve shot something!” Tempting fate……
We then set off on the trail and walked for about four and a half hours along the McMillan stream on gravel flats and beech forest, crisscrossing the stream at various intervals to follow the hiking trail to arrive eventually at the Three Mile Stream Department of Conservation Hut. There are over 900 of these huts owned by the D.O.C across New Zealand to provide shelter and overnight accommodation for hikers and hunters and range from large, relatively “luxurious” structures to basic ones with no facilities. The Three Mile hut is a standard hut so had mattresses, water and a wood-burning stove, but the toilet was a “long drop”….which is as the name suggests!
We got ourselves sorted and then made a simple dinner of canned food then sat outside the hut listening stags roaring across the valley. The lads tried to get them to roar back by using a piece of plastic flexible drainpipe to mimic the roaring.
One thing that struck me as I watched the New Zealand lads was how different their “take” on hunting was, especially their clothing. Here in the UK, we wear green or camouflage for our hunting and shooting, and have different coats, trousers, hats, for each season. Yes, there are lots of hunters there who do so too but these lads: no, they wore shorts and T shirts over merino base layers – mostly brightly coloured striped leggings and stout boots. No blending into the woodland for them.
The other difference, they explained, was the fact that we were not going to be dragging any carcasses out if we did shoot any due to the sheer distance involved. The lads explained that we would only take the back-straps and rear legs off and carry those out. That was such a contrast to me as I like to use every last bit of a carcass once I have got it home and butchered it but I completely understood and was not about to offer to drag any huge red stag back to the 4 x 4!
Next day, we split up. The lads went across the river to where they had heard red stags roaring and my husband and I took the map and headed off above the hut deep into the forest. The weather was glorious: a perfect NZ autumn day with sunshine and pleasant temperatures.
After a couple of hours or so, we sat down overlooking a bowl and, as we sat, became aware of movement to our right. Suddenly, a group of red hinds appeared and, just as we saw them, they saw us, so our only chance of a shot was gone! However, it stirred us to stop enjoying the sunshine and set off again in pursuit of other chances.
We meandered through the lovely beech forest listening to the Bellbirds and Tui singing, but saw no more deer. Watching the time and estimating how far we had to get back to the hut, we followed the map to head back down to the river. Unfortunately, at some point, we misread the map and ended up on the top of the most enormous cliff. I have never considered myself frightened of heights but, at that very moment, I discovered I had indeed developed a fear of heights. I sat down and wouldn’t move until my husband persuaded me I had to get up as time was moving on. We consulted the map thoroughly to work out the route back and, after carefully following a ridge, we descended back to the river, emerging some way upstream of the hut. We did glimpse movement in the trees as a couple more deer ran off but had no chance of a shot.
Now, I seem to attract every biting insect but they never touch my husband and, boy, did the sandflies on that river let me know that! I thought Scottish midges were bad but the bites those little black flies gave me on my arms, my face and even my ankles were vicious! When we got back to the hut, the lads were back and they quickly boiled up a kettle of water on the wood stove and told me to hold the hottest compress I could stand against the bites in order to stop them itching…and it worked. The pain of the boiling water probably masked the itch!!
We were also rather dismayed to find that, despite the fact that we had booked the hut out for the 5 of us, we were joined by 2 more hunters. Now, the hut slept 7 in two bedrooms (3 in one and 4 in the other) and, since my husband and I had been given the one room to ourselves (it was our honeymoon after all), it meant that one of the new hunters had to sleep in the room between the two bedrooms. Did I feel guilty? No, I didn’t! They had turned up on spec and we had booked it!
I’d love to say we shot at least one red stag on the trip but, alas, it wasn’t to be. The lads heard but didn’t see any and we only saw the group of hinds we spooked.
Next day, we retraced the 4 and a half hour walk back to the trucks and headed off. The family has a bache, or holiday cottage, on the Hurunui and, knowing my ecological background and interest in non-native species control, our cousin did a detour and took us to the bache to check the possum traps there.
Possums are a problem in New Zealand as they threaten native wildlife by competing with them for food, such as fruits and leaves, resulting in complete defoliation if densities are too high. They compete with birds for nest sites in trees but are also known to eat the eggs and chicks of native birds. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that they spread TB to cattle and deer.
As with the Animal Welfare legislation in the UK, live capture traps in NZ have to be checked every day, but there is no law stating how often kill traps must be checked in NZ. We found a few stinking carcasses in the traps and soon disposed of those, before resetting the traps, having a quick cup of tea and then heading back to Christchurch for a much needed shower and good meal that wasn’t out of a can!!
I absolutely loved the whole experience, bites included, and, as I say, have now hunted in various countries. I have been back to New Zealand twice …once to do my Churchill Fellowship and once to swim in the World Masters Games, so neither involved any hunting. Maybe next time!
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If you're looking for a professional to witness one of your DSC2 stalks we highly recommend Audrey Watson. You can reach her by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.