After a lifetime of training, it’s now time for Daryl Crimp’s son Daniel to take his fledgling flight in New Zealand’s Southern Alps
The looks on the faces of those milling about the jetty at Lake Rotoroa were uniform: mild admiration morphing through surprise to disbelief, before all agreeing that concern was more appropriate.
My son was dressed similarly to the rest of the raggedy bunch; long lean legs under the skin of camo’ thermals, overdressed with baggy shorts, topped with Merino long sleeved vest, alpine jacket and gloves…all were dressed for New Zealand’s Southern Alps. What separated my son from the group was a decapitating smile – and his age. And his inexperience.
He’d just idled off the jetty, nosed the 3.8m Smartwave plastic dinghy through 180 degrees to point south, and squirted the throttle of the ‘thirty-horse’ enough to pop the boat onto the plane.
Accompanying him was a heavy pack, a rifle, a tonne of enthusiasm laced with excitement, and none of the trepidation the onlookers were feeling on his behalf.
With Mount Misery looming, he was now flying – not literally – but if the lake was the ceiling of the world, this 16-year-old was now in orbit..
“Is that your son,” one of the trampers asked as he foisted a pack into their boat.
“Yes,” I said as I watched the boat wake feather, fade and ultimately break the link between father and son.
The conversation rattled back and forth between the cluster and me but the guts of it – they couldn’t believe I’d let a ‘young kid’ head alone into the mountains for several days.
Alpine hunting in New Zealand is risky and not for the inexperienced. It was Daniel’s first solo alpine hunt and, admittedly, he was very young for such an opportunity but age is not always a determiner of readiness.
“It’s a bit risky tackling the mountains at that age, don’t you think?”
“A chick with strong wings will leave the nest when it’s ready to fly,” I replied.
“Aren’t you worried about him?” a woman asked.
“Ah well, you never stop worrying about your kids,” I said softly, and turned to walk away.
They didn’t have time to hear his story and I didn’t have time for a lecture. Besides, I was going hunting too, albeit an old man’s hunt on flat ground, lasting a long lazy afternoon.
The boat motor now was a mosquito in the distance. I pulled the Garmin InReach from my pocket, turned it on and impatiently watched the screen cycle through the warm up. Scrolling through the menu, I selected Messages and read his ‘Checking in, all OK’ message. I replied by typing, “Good luck son, enjoy the experience.”
The link between father and son was now restored.
Next, I logged on to TrackMe website and map through my smartphone and was able to see his progress in real time. The ‘mosquito’ had already made the head of the lake and a steep climb faced the young nimrod, but those camo’ thermals masked powerful young legs that craved such challenges.
I reflected on my own youthful alpine adventures; how burning leg muscles fuelled the will to climb higher, go harder, and last longer. How overcoming adversity built inner strength and confidence, and how pushing through the pain barrier ‘moulded moral fibre and strengthened intestinal fortitude!’
How each blizzard, scary river crossing, precarious bluff ascent and flooded tent was character building. Even the little things like eating the succulent tiny alpine berries called mountain oranges, slipping on carpet grass, or struggling back to camp long after dark, blood-soaked and labouring under venison quarters, were building blocks to shaping a better stalker.
Daniel had hunted with me from the age of seven and I carefully nurtured his passion by only introducing new skills when I felt he was ready – regardless of age.
He thought he was tagging along and having fun, and had no idea he was part of a deliberate process that would ultimately see our roles reverse. Every ‘first’ was calculated: when to learn how to gralloch an animal, packing out his own kill, butchering meat, cooking his catch, and that momentous first solo hunt (where the tiny little bugger shot a dream whitetail head on Stewart Island).
However, Alpine hunting is in a league of its own and the decision to give him wings was not made lightly. His mother trusted my decision but it came with a silent caveat.
My wife is an Australian of Dutch-Italian extraction; a beautiful person but it is like being married to a hand grenade – the only difference being, a hand grenade gives you an eight second delay before it explodes!
If anything were to happen to her golden haired little wonder boy, longevity would be a word immediately redacted from my thesaurus. My intestinal fortitude was quavering.
Back in the field, I refocused on the immediate priority – a fallow for the table. Slipping into stalk mode, I ignored the InReach vibrating in my day pack while I inched toward the two fallow feeding away from me.
I would answer Daniel’s call shortly, quietly parking the idea he may be messaging to say he’d fallen over a bluff. I quelled the feelings of rising panic and sickening thoughts of shrapnel tearing my face off, and focused on the deer.
Closing in for a head-shot absorbed time but in the hunter’s realm it is a plentiful commodity. Only when the animal dropped to the shot from the .308 did I check my messages: “Close to three hinds – should I shoot one?”
I responded immediately, “You are not up there to ‘copulate’ with spiders – take no prisoners!”
My directive flew into space, bounced off a satellite and beeped at Daniel a second later. Amazing – as the crow flies, I was only a dozen miles from my son yet I was talking to him via the stars.
“Too late, they walked off and wouldn’t stop for a shot,” beeped back his reply.
“Next time, shout a loud sharp UURGH – they’ll stop and look, long enough to take a shot.” This delivered to Daniel from the heavens. A lesson from God. The process never stops.
I busied myself with the task at hand; gutting my hind and dragging it the 50m to where I could get the Honda Pioneer side-by-side. Old man hunting. The InReach buzzed again.
I wondered how long before satellites could transmit decapitating smiles through the ether and felt a sense of pride welling up. I could imagine the flood of emotions engulfing my son at this moment and it teleported me back to a different era. I had to wait three days before I could share my first alpine stag success with my own father.
It transpired that Daniel had decided to return to camp via a different route; ‘no point retreading dead ground.’ Slipping down a spur, he came upon two stags sleeping.
Crawling to within 30m, he thrust the Browning X-Bolt .223 over his daypack – and whistled softly. One stag lifted its head and lethargically looked ahead, but promptly went back to sleep at the tap to the back of its skull.
Another antlered head raised to the shot, but the dozy animal wouldn’t run at Daniel’s shouts so he resorted to throwing stones at it before it moved off and allowed him to butcher his kill.
Under a heavy pack, he eventually trudged off through the tussock against a backdrop of lofty peaks and the setting sun. I watched the little red ‘blips’ tracking his progress, on a map on my smartphone: footsteps that marked the tread of a more experienced and confident hunter.
I smiled and felt the emotions flood over me. Key among them was relief. After all, I’d just dodged a hand grenade.