With a head grizzled grey hovering at an altitude of over six feet and with two axe handles across the waistline, my mate Bruce McKenzie is a bear of a man. Ironically, he has hunted grizzly bear once, in dense British Columbian mountain alders, but wisely aborted the attempt when he realised the giant bruin was also stalking him. A collision would have been inevitable and the outcome debatable, because both have enormous appetites. But, like wise Indians of old, he retreated to fight later and, in doing so, took something of the bear with him; the grizzly became the Kiwi hunter’s totem.
He now prowled bear-like around the small ply-clad hut in the Kaweka mountains, lumbering this way and that, menacingly. “For Christ’s sake Bruce, sit down!” I said for the tenth time. “Dinner is not going to cook any faster with you towering over me.” I’d just cut the onions for the stew.
I knew a bear with an empty stomach could be dangerous, so I was constantly armed as I roamed the kitchen. The spatula never left my hand and already I’d had cause to use it: once when he tried to pluck a half-raw piece of meat from the camp oven and a second time when he bit his own hand while trying to eat the hors d’oeuvres I’d made from cheese, crackers, and paté.
I was back for the sika rut, an annual hunt that was becoming a tradition. I say tradition because, despite the mix of hunters varying each year, elements of the hunt were becoming set in stone, like me becoming designated camp cook, for example. The one time in my life my chef’s background worked to my disadvantage.
This group was comprised of Bruce, his son ‘Horse’, a dairy farmer called Grant, and me. Grant and I were normal in the sense that we are not Sherman tanks or gas-guzzling eight cylinder American cars. Bruce and Horse are abnormal in the sense that they consumed food rather than ate it. They needed more fuel than a space shuttle. Cooking for them was like cooking for the New Zealand Army, except the New Zealand Army stopped eating at the end of the meal.
The other dilemma I faced was the fact that Bruce was quartermaster; he organised the food for the trip. Herein lay a bitter irony – he brought in enough food to feed the Girl Guides on a sleep-over. His rationale was that it was never a problem to shoot camp meat, which is really sound thinking – until the moment you speak it.
“Don’t panic Crimpy,” he mumbled, mouth full after he and Horse had consumed three days’ reserves of meat in one sitting. “We’ll shoot some camp meat tomorrow.”
Tomorrow was a sad day. And the day after. And the day after the day after.
We were fully expecting the sika to be squawking and squealing and cavorting and ca-noodling, but the silence was deafening and animal sightings proved fleeting.
On the first day Bruce and I climbed to a vantage point behind the hut and sat for long hours glassing. When fresh to a hunting block, it is a good strategy not to contaminate the area with scent but to sit and locate animals for later reference. While we did see a total of 20 animals, they were in ones and twos and hugging the tight scrub, only making appearances for a few minutes. The highlight of that day came early in the morning, just after the sun drove the morning shadows from the bush edge. Over a kilometre away, in exactly the same spot we’d seen an eight- pointer on two previous hunts, a magnificent stag stepped into the open, in a tight clearing amid the Manuka, with ivory tips glinting in the sunlight. It turned broadside, just long enough to train the spotting scope on it; its coat was still burnished red and the pattering of white ‘rain-spots’ were easily distinguishable, while the antlers rose high but without the broad sweep of a classic sika head. Still, it supported eight points and immediately became an object of my obsession, and then it was gone, melted into the vegetation like butter on toast.
However, the first objective was to secure camp meat, which proved challenging. I missed an easy yearling just outside the hut door because Bruce jinxed the shot just before I pulled the trigger by saying to Grant, “Watch this, Crimpy never misses.” Bastard!
Then we bush stalked and spooked deer. Then we bush stalked and got lost. Then we bush stalked and walked in circles. Bruce is not good company on an empty stomach. Luckily, on a cold grey day that matched the mood inside the hut, Bruce shot a lone yearling off the ‘meat safe’, a clearing that normally produced many animals. With hunger abated, we now focused on the main objective of looking for ‘boneheads’, stags carrying antlers and, in particular, ones with the desired configuration.
Bruce and I turned our attentions back to the eight-pointer we’d earmarked earlier, while Grant and Horse tried a novel approach to roaring in sika. Every day they returned much later to the hut than Bruce and I, but always having had far less interactions than us, despite the apparent abundance of sign. It wasn’t until late in the 10-day hunt we learned they were trying to attract stags with a Jetboil. It transpired that every time they stopped to have a listen, it required they have a cup of tea. In the thin mountain air, a Jetboil makes the sound of an F18 taking off, which, ironically, sent all the sika stags flying.
After several days of staking out the big sika stag, I decided a dramatic change of tactic was called for. We’d earlier stalked a few stags in the open and I passed up a small eight, but the elusive big boy had made no further appearances, so sitting in wait was not a happening thing. We’d even constructed a sniping platform from Manuka poles for a long shot across the gully, but that was fast appearing redundant. Bruce agreed repetition was not a good thing and we should try something different, which was ironical because we were lunching on this new wonder food he’d discovered: wraps made with cheese, Aunty Mabel’s Pickle, and cheap, fatty salami. (It turned out that this hunt was rapidly filling up on irony.) After nine days of Bruce’s wraps, I was growling and beginning to take on frighteningly bruin-like characteristics.
That night in the hut, I read a story in an American hunting magazine of a sheep hunter who took it to the wire and scored a magnificent trophy in the dying minutes of the last day of a two-week hunt and I thought quietly to myself, “That is what this hunt needs, a literary cliche!”
So on the last day of our hunt we threw caution to the wind and gambled on a bold stalk. From the hut, we climbed directly into the bush and methodically worked our way up ridges and down through creeks until we were at the base of the spur that led to where we thought the big stag was camped. We’d bumped a few deer along the way but not managed to call any stags in to the many fresh scrape pads we’d encountered. Bruce was anxious we get meat to take home and was now starting to prowl in a menacingly kind of way, so, with the sun on rapid descent, I made a call: “Okay, let’s go in hard and take the first animal that pops up for the freezer – to hell with the stag.”
The stalk unfolded with perfect synchronicity; we fanned out abreast as we crested the knoll and a sun-blast of light from the setting orb gave the bush edge a spectral aura. I glanced to my left and an image came into soft focus; shrubbery that vaguely resemble the shape of a stag. I shoulder my rifle and the dozing form of a sika resolved before me. He had no inkling I was there. In the last 50 metres, of the last stalk of a 10-day hunt, in last light, I closed the bolt and ended my sojourn into the Kawekas with a cliché moment.
The irony was, it wasn’t the magnificent eight-pointer I’d become obsessed with but the smaller eight I’d passed up earlier to live another day. Still, it now adorns my study wall as a European mount, where I can look upon it respectfully and reflect upon what a tremendous hunt it gave me.
And, on a more practical note, it stopped Bruce gnawing off his bear-like hand in hunger.