The Gnome sniffed the air tentatively, like a fat Labrador tethered by a gossamer scent to freshly baked scones a kilometre away.
“You could be right, Crimpy – snow!”
It was spring in New Zealand: warm days, daffodils, lambs, apple blossoms, chirping birds, and signs of rebirth everywhere. Uplifting and rejuvenating after a cold winter. However, we were deep in the Southern Alps, and could little afford to be seduced by the somnolent effects of the October sun, because spring in this environment is anything but predictable.
I was on an annual tahr hunt with my good friend The Gnome, but with a twist. Joining us for his first alpine experience was my 15-year-old son Daniel, who at this nascent stage of his hunting career, was full of vim and vigour, and eager to learn. The Gnome, on the other hand, was a 40-year veteran tahr hunter, and looked every bit the part, wizened and weathered from years of prying tahr out of lofty bluffs with his beady eyes. He had dodgy knees that gave him gyp when he bent, stood straight or walked or sat for too long. They were worse at night when he tried to sleep, insufferable when he couldn’t, and unbearable in the cold. But the little bugger could still climb like a spider.
“You listen to everything The Gnome tells you, watch him like a hawk, and you’ll learn a lot about the mountains and hunting tahr,” I told my son. “But don’t call him The Gnome… he hates it.”
Daniel tried hard not to laugh, but the situation became too much for him; over my shoulder The Gnome flipped me the bird, which was appropriate enough for his sparrow-like features.
We’d pitched the large tent under a deep blue sky, having nursed the 4x4s up the wide, braided valley for well over an hour. Driving in allowed us the luxury of setting up a solid base camp from which we could do day hunts or overnight in fly camps. Along with a few luxuries of home, it also provided the security of shelter should the weather turn. But that seemed highly unlikely. It was warm, flies buzzed, and the snow had retreated so far up the mountains, they all wore receding hairlines. They were avuncular, kindly and reassuring.
The Gnome also commented on the big braided river system we’d crossed to make camp. “That’s only the second time in over 30 years I’ve seen it completely dry.”
Still, I was keen to ‘make hay’, because October in New Zealand is the month of the Indian summer and it was not uncommon for the odd late polar blast to wreck havoc on high country farms during lambing and catch unawares hunters chasing tahr or chamois. The forecast had indicated a ‘low’ later in the week, followed by a big ‘high’ – nothing surprising there.
Two days into the hunt, Daniel had acquired a lot of learning, taking his first tahr above camp – a lone nanny – before breakfast on day one. It was a bit boney after a hard winter, but I had him butcher choice cuts for camp meat; he has learned to use what he harvests, in respect of the animal. The coin flipped, and he then experienced another necessary aspect of hunting and game management: a cull. Tahr numbers are high, so we selectively thinned a selection of animals from a mob of 40 and filled our packs with more meat.
All the while, The Gnome was teaching Daniel how to navigate steep terrain safely using a mountain stick or ‘third leg’ and how to identify and assess potential hazards. I educated him in the silent language of the mountains, explaining that they always forewarn of their mood swings but often in subtle ways: a change in wind direction, a sudden temperature drop, wispy clouds up high, and an inexplicable change in animal behaviour. A good hunter is alert to these.
I indicated a huge peak at the head of the valley. Cloud was banking up on its shoulder, with the odd wisp breaking cover and darting forward like a wolf teasing its prey. “There’s some nasty stuff coming,” I suggested.
We now found ourselves overlooking a mixed herd of tahr on the opposite side of a steep catchment – over 60 in total. We had anticipated that they’d feed low later in the afternoon, but they were filtering out of the bluffs and high meadows early – just after midday. Having wintered on ‘cornflakes’, these tahr were now looking for ‘porridge and cream’, the juicy herbs and grasses that sprout at lower altitudes in spring. Their early arrival suggested the tahr’s internal barometer had warned them the weather was about to turn ugly.
I looked back at the high peak… the pack had broken cover and the wolves were now closing in. The temperature plummeted, and a splotch of wet ice hit my face. “Snow is coming!” The Gnome sniffed the air and concurred.
The objective now was to find Daniel a suitable memento of his first hunt, preferably an old bull that had served the gene pool and lived a full life; one that could be immortalised in an artful mount and one that would remind Daniel daily of the great privilege he’d experienced that October in the Southern Alps.
It wasn’t imperative this happen, of course – it is the challenge that is more important. But with the aid of our Swarovski EL 10×42 binoculars and Swarovski 65mm modular spotting scope, we drafted out the only contender from the mob. It was not super-old, but a mature big bull in good condition. While the closest tahr had fed to within 160 metres of us, this crafty sod was staying high and keeping its distance at 300 metres; it was a long shot for the youngster, but he had a cool head under pressure.
I’d constructed a makeshift benchrest from a fallen log, tree stump and daypack, and left him to shoot when he felt comfortable.
The shot from the suppressed .308 scarcely disturbed the mob but the bull buckled and careened downhill, hard hit. Tahr can take a lot of punishment and cover quite a bit of ground when the adrenaline is pumping, so Daniel readied for a second shot. Astonishingly, the bull steadied itself and began to climb with the mob and before I could signal for a shot, I lost sight of it as they jostled to cross a steep ravine. Tahr percolated up into the bluffs, then stood watching, but we couldn’t locate Daniel’s bull.
Autopsying the shot, we all agreed the animal was hard hit so, in all likelihood, would stay low. We systematically glassed the area, and I spotted a tinge of colour out of place in the matagouri well below the bluffs. There was Daniel’s bull, holed up but vigilant. Time was now of the essence: we needed to put an end to the animal’s suffering, but were also in a race against the weather. The wolves were howling.
I stayed put with a radio while Daniel and The Gnome headed upstream. I would be able to guide them to the animal should they lose sight of it but, more importantly, I was in a position to distract the bull if it got wind of their approach. I needn’t have worried. Watching through the binoculars, I saw the bull kick and roll off its ledge, followed by the echoes of the shot. Daniel had his tahr.
The terrain looked completely different once they’d climbed to retrieve the bull, but I was able to guide them straight to it.
“Good idea you staying down there with the radio,” The Gnome crackled from above.
“Yeah Gnome… it saved my old knees from not having to climb!” Even from that distance I saw him flip me the bird.
Daniel just beamed, bathing in the glow of getting his first bull tahr. And it was impressive too. A tahr of a lifetime. A big, fat, feathery snowflake settled on its nose. The Gnome sniffed the air. “Come on… time to get off the mountain.”
Daniel was about to experience yet another aspect of alpine hunting: being tent-bound for days while the wolves circled outside.