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The Ruakumaras: by Bill McLeod

22/06/2021 1:05 PM | Bob McMillan (Administrator)

Keith, Kit and I started out from Tarndale homestead to hunt stags in the Raukumara range. Keith was keen to get more trophy heads to enter into the branch competitions. He was an old Fiordland  and Stewart Island culler with huge experience in the back country. He had been a Field Officer for years and had been our boss when Kit and I were hunting in the Auckland Conservancy. He had asked me to accompany him. We planned on two weeks of hunting. I contacted Kit and asked him to come with us, he was a great mate in a hunting camp, very tolerant, we’d spent months hunting together.

Keith went on the first chopper flight taking with him the camp gear and tucker. He was going to drop a food supply at the Green hut and then over the range to the Great Unknown River to establish our first camp. The chopper was soon back so Kit and I climbed on and we were away. Flying over mountain ranges in a chopper is so cool.

Got to where Keith had landed, disembarked and helped with setting up camp. We used a sheet of heavy polythene stretched over a ridge pole for our shelter. Cut bundles of big branches, then smaller branches, then fern for our beds. These beds are really comfortable. The key is to get big branches down first to form a platform. Also helps if the ground gets a bit soggy, some elevation is welcome. A bit of a thatch down each side of the shelter and enough overhang of the plastic and you have a good camp.The fireplace is important. Good backlog and some side logs to support the billy hooks, green pole over the fire and you are set. We did all our cooking over the fire in billies and frypans. 

We hunted hard for quite a few days, this was totally new country to all of us so we split up to explore as much as we could. This is where your topo map and compass are absolutely necessary, more valuable than your rifle. Most of the terrain is steep to very steep covered in heavy, dense bush. In earlier hunts a bit further north along the range we’d found deer numbers very light. You may see two deer in two weeks hunting but the size of the stags compensated for the low numbers.

Keith said one evening that he had heard some roaring at the top of the range to our south and would hunt the area the next day. Kit and I had been having a pretty lean time of it so we were impressed that Keith came back the next night to tell us that had shot a number of stags with the combined number of points totalling 32. We had intended to only shoot big trophy stags but it was clearly too much for Keith having that many opportunities. He didn’t bring a head back with him, they were too small. 

A couple of days later we packed up and set off up the Great Unknown, over the top of the range and down a small stream which was probably the right one to get us out onto the main Mangaone stream then back up to the Green Hut. We were still very high up the side creek when we saw a hind in the river. Keith got very excited and said we need the meat, his rifle wasn’t going straight so someone had to shoot it. He was almost gibbering with anxiety that we needed the meat. Kit said “You go for it” so I shot it. Keith was most impressed. Took some steak and got going again. It was a huge days travel and we were thankful to eventually get to Green Hut. 

We were all exhausted by the days effort, particularly Keith. He was always a pretty tough old rooster so his level of exhaustion was noticeable to both Kit and I. 

We had a bit of a rest day the next day, just camp chores and a bit of exploring later on. I climbed the ridge behind the hut and heard roaring from two places, further up from where I turned around the previous day and some way over the other side of the river toward the top of the range. Keith stayed in the hut all day. 

Next morning Keith wasn’t keen on going anywhere so I said to Kit “Let's have a go at the ones on our side.” We climbed to the top of our side of the range to where we could hear some strong roaring. The wind favoured us so we closed the gap to where I thought my roars could be heard by the stags. Giving some roars I had some good responses. I always use my cupped hands to focus the roar, I just can’t be bothered with carrying a roaring horn, can’t see the point when you can use your hands which are already attached to your body. While the stag was roaring we closed the gap. Finally we were within close proximity of the still roaring stag. The bush was very thick and difficult to move through quietly. 

I said to Kit that I would stay in position and keep challenging the stag while he moved in to try for a shot. This enables the hunter to move while the stag is preoccupied with a more distant noise. Quite a lot of time passed with the stag still responding to my challenges. Then a shot, just one. Made my way in toward where the shot was fired and found Kit standing over a huge stag. He was over the moon.

We butchered the stag and separated the head. Packed the lot down to the hut which was another demanding task. I could still hear a lot of roaring over the river near the top of the next range and there was another stag roaring, he sounded like a young animal, running up and down the other side of the river about half way up to the top giving a roar from time to time. 

Kit was really happy with his stag so said he would stay in camp the next day with Keith who said he thought he had gout in his leg so wasn’t going anywhere. I decided that I would have a go at the stags I’d heard across the river so started a huge hunt to get to them. It wasn’t until I got nearly to the top of the range on the other side of the river that I could hear what appeared to be several stags challenging vigorously. Planning my approach to have the wind in my favour,  I closed in on the stags. Because they were busy challenging each other there was no point in me adding to the racket. The bush in the Raukumaras hadn’t been chewed out by the recently colonising deer so was very dense. I was cutting through a particularly dense gut when I saw a stag really quite close in. Couldn’t see the head, just the neck and face. To shoot or not ?There was not going to be any time to assess the head so the decision was instant. 

He went down to the shot. I was using my 308 loaded with 180 grain round noses, a combination which had worked very well for me in the past, I had confidence in the  rifle. Checked him, he was a small nine pointer. Then ahead of me there was a roar. Stalking in as quick as I reasonably could, I closed in towards the noise. I wasn’t expecting the stag to hang around so was a bit rushed when pushing out onto a bit of clearer spur. The stag and I saw each other at the same time and he bolted into the thick bush, just enough time for me to see a good head. Bugger. What to do? The wind was still in my favour so I gave my best roar and started to follow in his general direction. Creeping along,  giving the odd roar I got a hell of a surprise to see him charge out of some thick stuff in front of me. Fatal mistake for him. Checked and found him to be a very strong eleven pointer, a beaut trophy. Took the head and started towards camp which was miles away. 

Hadn’t gone far when I saw the head and neck of another stag just down the ridge from me. Again, couldn’t assess the head, so on the remote chance he was the holding stag, got him as well. He was smallish eight, clearly a satellite stag just hanging around to challenge the big boy like the first stag. Time was against me now so I had to put the pace on to make it to camp. Crashing down the big ridge which I hoped would drop me into the river across from camp I was surprised to see another stag moving across in front of me. Again, I could not check the size of his head but because he was the closest deer I had seen to camp and we would need his meat, lowered him as well. He was a six pointer. Hung his back legs in a tree, took his steaks, and made my way down, crossed the river, then the long slog up to camp.Brutal day, but worth it. In camp that night I took some delight in telling Keith that I’d got stags totalling 34 points. Normally it’s very poor form to rub it in. 

Next day Keith was even worse so we made a plan that someone would have to go out to the station and get a chopper to carry him out. It was a big admission for Keith to make that he was incapable of continuing, he was more used to being the top dog. 

Kit and I discussed who should go to the station and he said in no uncertain terms that I should go. I had worked for the bloke in charge of the Forest Service in the area so he would know who he was talking to. 

Started the next morning at first light. Without a pack, I could hit a running pace in some places. Got to the station where the manager’s wife was home, made the phone call to Trevor in Gisborne who said he would sort it and I was to stay at the station. The pilot knew the location where Kit and Keith were. I had made it to the station by midday. Saw the chopper heading into the hills and waited for them to come out. So pleased to see the chopper deposit them in the front yard of the station. Kit said he thought that I would be lucky to get to the station by nightfall so he went for a look up the river about midday. He said he was amazed to see the chopper come and had to scurry back to the hut to pack up. It was even good for me because the chopper carried my pack and the head out for me.

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