feature By: Gary Lewis | January, 19
A long white cloud settled on the mountain. It was snowing by nightfall. We were as far from a lonely two-track road and the truck as we had been all day. Pog Cameron, our 24-year-old guide, had his eye to the spotting scope. He had two fallow bucks spotted with a band of does in a small canyon. The closest was the smaller one; the farthest was bigger. I handed the rifle off to Sam Pyke. “There are four rounds in the magazine. Remember to put one in the pipe if you get a shot.” I handed Pyke extra cartridges.
As night fell, a storm was coming on. There were precious few minutes left to make a stalk. I shrugged into my pack and shouldered the buck’s head, then I turned to see if I could locate the truck several miles away. We were at the snowline, high on the mountain.
In the binocular, I spotted the front of the vehicle where Pog had hidden it behind the shoulder of a hill. The truck (Kiwis use the word “ute” – “utility vehicle”) was partially visible, bright blue against the autumn green-up. It was April, which is spring at home but autumn down under. And April means snow in the high country on South Island. A Kiwi would have said we were in the wop-wops, “the middle of nowhere.”
Early in the morning, fueled on coffee and granola, we had stopped in the yard of a sprawling cattle station. The landowner sized us up: a 24-year-old adrenaline junky, a 30-year-old photographer and a 51-year-old hunter and broker of words. I recognized the mental machinations behind the farmer’s furrowed brow. He could send us to the foothills, where the deer could be hunted from a road, or he could send us to the backcountry.
A small mountain range was the dominant feature on this 36,000-acre station. If there were trees, they were mainly in the yard of the farmhouse, a few Oregon firs and ornamentals and, on the mountain, small groves of stunted manuka. The canyons would be choked with matagouri, a tangle-branched thorny plant, and wild roses and vines. It looked like eastern Oregon – mule deer country. It looked like it would hurt.
The farmer unrolled a topo map and stabbed a calloused finger at the far side of the mountain. He traced the route we would take off the highway and where we would turn, where we would open gates and where we would park. “There will be a bunch of cattle in a feed lot here,” he said. “Park there. You’ll have to walk a bit.” His finger drifted across a large valley and up into tight contour lines and deep defiles we could not reach with the truck. “Those canyons are full of bloody deer,” he said. There wouldn’t be any red deer, he assured us. “The fallow deer are so aggressive, they run them off.”
Eight years ago, on my first trip to South Island, I peeled back the veneer paneling in an old sheep shed converted to sleeping quarters, exposing the wallpaper beneath – newspapers glued to the wall for insulation touting birth announcements, death notices and news of planned rabbit drives; there were advertisements of farms for sale, workers wanted, kitchen help needed, deer for sale. A glimpse back in time. Picture it the way those first Maoris saw it from their canoes 800 years ago; their destination after months at sea. Out in the deep blue waters of the South Pacific, a cloud hung on the horizon – land, at last. In the Maori tongue, they called it Aotearoa, “The land of the long white cloud.”
It was a much different land when Captain Cook mapped the coastline in 1769. By then, massive deforestation had occurred due to fires set by the Maoris. By 1788 North Island and South Island were part of a British Colony called New South Wales.
Gold was discovered on New Zealand’s South Island in 1842. The country’s biggest gold strike was made in Gabriel’s Gully in the Central Otago region in 1861. Gabriel Read, an Australian who prospected in California and in Australia, wrote of his discovery: “At a place where a kind of road crossed on a shallow bar, I shoveled away about two and a half feet of gravel, arrived at a beautiful soft slate and saw the gold shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night.”
When a small herd of cattle was found before the road topped out, Pog shut the motor off. We pulled on gloves, loaded our packs and then leaned against the bumper to steady our glasses. Pog was first to spot the deer at least a mile away up near the snowline. I located the next group, four does, fallow deer, feeding in a patch of rose bushes in the sunlight. We spent 15 minutes that way, tipped back against the truck, binoculars and the spotting scope elevated toward the mountain.
I had brought along a Nosler 48 bolt-action .22 Nosler and was not sure I had made the right choice. Fallow deer are notoriously hard to kill, especially in the breeding season, and this was the start of the rut. Ammunition contained a Nosler 55-grain E-Tip, one of the nonlead big-game options. I had hunted fallow deer before; I knew they were tough. My game plan was to limit shots to 300 yards or less, put the crosshair on bone and keep shooting.
The canyons might have been full of “bloody deer,” but it was hard to prove it to us. We crossed the long flat, worked our way past the cattle and slid under fences. I tend to judge a rancher by his fences, and I’d say this one was as good as they come. By midmorning we were well above the valley floor. From one side of a ridge we slipped over to the other and sat down to glass the opposite slope. A single, pure-white doe had caught our attention, its head down, snapping twig ends and rose hips from thorny bushes.
It was a matter of a moment before Pog spotted a white fallow buck, but the swirling wind gave us away. It could have been no more than 350 yards away, but the animal, with its pure-white coat, would not show itself again. We spent most of an hour on that deer, glassing into every bit of thornbush cover, but never saw it again. Pog finally stood to his feet, and Sam and I followed him up the ridge toward the snow and the skyline.
We began a leftward turn, crossing through canyons and over the tops of finger ridges. We glimpsed does from time to time, but the stags were in deep cover. I knew from previous hunts the types of spots where fallow deer stake out territory. On the top of a rocky outcrop and on the shoulder of a ridge, we found signs of battle where bucks had dug in their hooves to push each other around, and saplings where they had polished their antlers.
Then a buck began to grunt. Pog led us to the top of yet another ridge and up in the wind where we bent over the spotting
“Buggar,” Pog whispered. We both knew it; this was a buck we couldn’t get, but it was a buck that dreams are made of. We could not bear to leave it. Pog looked at the .22 Nosler and said, “Are you sure you can’t take a long shot?” I thought: Not at 600 yards. Not at 500 yards. Not with a 20-mph crosswind. Not with a bigger gun or heavier bullet, either. Hunting is about hunting, after all, about getting close, isn’t it?
Then another buck roared. We had arrived at the moment when the sun was sliding down. The bucks had risen from their beds. Sam Pyke spotted two fallow bucks on the far ridge. Another roared from the bottom of the canyon, and now it seemed the canyon was full of deer. On our own slope there were small bands of does. One little spike buck chased a doe around boulders and through the matagouri. The drop in temperature seemed to have kicked the breeding season into gear, and we were in the right place at the right time – almost the right place.
We scrambled 150 yards sidehill, hanging onto trees and vines to keep from sliding to our deaths, and dug the points of our boots in again to flop down in the scree. Pog flung out the legs on the spotting scope. It took 15 minutes to locate the buck again. One single antler stuck up above the wild rose and matagouri. “I got him,” Pog said. Then he pulled out his rangefinder. “Two- hundred ninety-two yards,” he said.
For the first time all day, the wind seemed to calm. It might have still been blowing on the mountain, but we were far enough down the slope of this canyon that we were out of the breeze. On my belly with the rifle snugged onto the pack, I dialed the magnification down to 6x, found the antler and followed it down, dialing up to 15x then down to 12x. The buck’s neck was visible, but there was a branch in front of it.
The bullet entered the crease behind the foreleg, plowed through the top of the heart and stopped up against the hide in the front of the chest. Dead on its feet, the deer turned hard left and streaked across the hillside right to left. I snapped one more shot, a miss, and then, when it turned to climb the hill my third bullet anchored it.
Although we were separated from the deer by just 300 yards, it took most of an hour to reach it. We left our packs, rifle and spotting scope on a rock outcrop then descended into the narrow gorge, picking our way down narrow paths. Grasping branches to break my fall, I dropped down to the creek and clawed my way through a deer tunnel in the thorns, listening to the sounds of my hunting partners scrabbling in the rocks and through the bush.
Finally out in the open, we climbed up to the buck to admire its antlers and run our fingers through its coat. Pog was the one who found the bullet, its petals in full bloom like a deadly copper flower.
With the meat, hide and head, we started down into the canyon again. I had the deer’s antlers on my shoulders and a head start, but ran into a 12-foot-high tangle of thorns and had to backtrack. By the time I hit the creek at the bottom, my partners had passed me. We each took a separate path to keep from kicking rocks down on each other.
With a rock in one hand, a higher rock in the other and a place to put the toe of my boot, I climbed the cliff and circled under an outcrop, my lungs burning, legs beyond tired. It was the golden hour, and the canyons were bloody full of deer. Sam took the rifle and a handful of cartridges, and Pog led the way. We had peeled back his veneer.
When I caught up to the two of them, they were flopped down between boulders. We were way out in the wop-wops, and the ute was miles away. It would be dark in a few minutes. I read their body language. They had spooked the does, but the buck was hidden. Then Sam tensed and turned. He chambered a round, and I heard the click of the safety. The .22 Nosler went off, and a big fallow buck tumbled down the hill. Another one to skin and another head to carry. Night fell like a blanket, and falling snow lashed our faces.