The Southern Passage
October 06, 2016
A hunter finds his home away from home in the Ben McLeod Mountain range of New Zealand's South Island.
The plane finally touched down on the tarmac of Christchurch airport. After a full 24 hours of flying, I immediately jumped in a righthand-drive Toyota and traveled two hours through the Canterbury region — one of the few flat pieces of ground in the Land of the Kiwi.
From this fertile, massive remnant of an old blown volcano, we stopped at the town of Ashburton, the last place for a pint and some grub before heading into the Ben McLeod Mountain Range. Here the Southern Alps sweep upwards from the Rangitata Valley in jagged steps of grass-covered granite.
Ever-increasing skyward, the mountains climb, until they are lost in the eternal banks of clouds that cloak the country much of the year. The ale is good; the fish and chips are better. The tranquility of the Canterbury region sets the mood for the rest of the trip.
Our small cabin looks out over the Rangitata River snaking its way to the ocean. The cabin is understated and rugged, but somehow perfect. It is not a lodge or a guesthouse, but a hunter's cabin that has been used by locals for generations. Faded black and white photos are tacked to the walls, racks from stags long gone hang outside, hand-scrawled scores from long-forgotten card games are taped behind the door. Dog-eared and faded hunting books and magazines spanning three decades are piled on a chair in the corner.
It is old and quaint, and the air is full of memories of past hunters sitting around the roaring fire swapping tales. Our group is a good one. Barton Dobbs from Zeiss, Dick Churchley from Red Hawk Rifles, and Monty Deboer from Hornady make up the U.S. contingent while Julian Dann, Darryl Butterick, and Bill Davis are locals from South Canterbury Hunting Safaris. I had never hunted with any of them before this trip, but I feel they are the kind of guys you would want to return here with.
We want to hunt different species, so our group decides to split up. Monty and Dick want stag, so Julian takes them to the low-lying hill country surrounding the Rangitata Valley. The land is owned by Mesopotamia Station, a multigeneration working cattle ranch. The Station is 80,000 hectares of some of the most fertile country in the valley. Trout and salmon spawn in the numerous gin-clear, pea-gravel streams, while the stag roars echo in all directions from the hills.
The morning's mist hangs in the valley, and the stags appear like ghosts. A shot rings out, a stag falls. The hunters are elated and a bit in awe of the awesome crenellated mass that is a New Zealand stag. By the end of the day, another Hornady bullet yields another stag. The hunters are elated but sorry it is over so quickly.
Excited for the following day's hunt and unable to sleep, I became captivated by the southern sky. With no light pollution the stars seem so close you could almost grab them. It got me thinking about what America must have been like when it was young and unpopulated. 150 years ago there was a saying: "Go West, young man." Today, if you are a hunter, it really should be, "Go South, young man."
I have never seen a place quite like South Canterbury. New Zealand. It is one of the most scenic and unspoiled countries I have ever visited, with some of the finest hunting around.
At first light, Barton and I head to the high country with Bill Davis. It is a tough hunt, which is why we picked it. Steep country tears the legs and burns the lungs. Hiking poles are a must, as are stiff boots, a comfortable pack, and a featherweight rifle topped with a scope that can hit at long range. Glassing, glassing, and more glassing — it is a game of covering miles with eyes not legs.
When a single mature bull is spotted, it is time for Barton to get in position. Unaware we are there, the bull works parallel down the opposite mountain ridge and finally gets within range. A shot reverberates up the valley. The bull stumbles to the bottom of the draw and permanently plants where the icy cold stream runs from the melting snow. It will be a long but wonderfully satisfying hike out with his meat and hide.
We hike back up the mountain. Sweat runs down my back even though the day is chilly. With Barton tagged out, it is my turn to try for a tahr. I am the last one still hunting, and I enjoy it that way. We take a break on a large boulder and survey the country. There are thousands of valleys, ridges, and mountains stretching into the blue haze of sky. I absently wonder how many tahr must inhabit the Ben McLeod Range, let alone in all of New Zealand. Are there some so far into the backcountry they have never seen a man? Quite possibly. We finally reach the top of the mountain.
It shelves off into high alpine grasses. There we catch a band of bedded bull tahr. A coal black bull with blonde tips stands on the edge of the group to stretch. He is magnificent, his long neck mane blowing in the high mountain wind. The image through the Zeiss looks surreal. I squeeze the trigger, and the rifle, scope, and bullet doing their jobs perfectly, the tahr drops back down into his bed.