The redoubtable pair of Tony Kamphorst and Jeff Borg self-guided on a hunt for chamois in the NZ Alps above Lake Wanaka.
It was bitterly cold as I stepped out of the car, wished Jeff good luck with his hunt and watched the hire car disappear down the windy mountain road that skirted the edge of Lake Wanaka. Although it was still well before sunrise I looked up and saw the snowy peaks of the mountain tops glowing pure white through the pre dawn gloom. It was a long way to the tops but that was where I wanted to be so I began the knee jarring climb up the creek bed.
Despite the icy breeze wafting down off the snow covered tops within minutes I was sweating from the exertion and had taken off my heavy jacket and kept climbing clad in only shorts and a fleece t shirt over my thermals. I made good time and by the time the first rays of sunlight were hitting the Mount Aspiring mountain range behind me I checked my GPS and realised I had gained over 400 meters in elevation… the creek was deceptively steep. It was now light enough to glass and I stopped to scan the tussock covered benches and slips between the snow line and the bush line but nothing moved. We had been told by the local DOC office that there were chamois in this area but despite putting in a couple of big days in the three days previously Jeff and I were yet to lay eyes on of these elusive little creatures. The only animal sighted had been a solitary bull tahr by Jeff the afternoon before in another catchment further south, which was where he had returned to hunt today.
This was to be our last day on the hill and I was determined to make the most of it, so upwards and onwards it was. So far the creek had been my best access to the tops but soon I was confronted with sheer slippery rock faces and waterfalls. I was bluffed out so it was time to leave the creek bed and attack the ridges. I spent some time with my binoculars picking a spur that would lead me all the way to the tops then the battle with the scrub began. The mountainside was choked in matagouri that would catch and claw at my pack, clothes and rifle making the ascent an energy sapping struggle where at times my feet never touched the ground but finally I cleared the scrub and broke out into the open tussock and spaniard covered tops.
I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and have a glass, half of the catchment was bathed in the early morning sunshine while the other half was still in the cold shadow of the mountain. I scoured the valley from top to bottom with my binoculars, from the snow covered rocky peaks to the dark, wet beech forest down in the creek gorge but forty minutes of careful glassing produced nothing. I was seriously starting to doubt that these chamois existed.
I decided to keep pushing on and soon my boots were crunching through patches of ice and snow that appeared amongst the tussock as I steadily climbed higher, with lungs burning and legs aching I pushed up the ridge with eyes down concentrating on the climb. That’s when I looked down and noticed a single hoof print in the snow, a closer inspection revealed a few more tracks and a few fresh droppings… these mythical creatures did exist!
The long ridge I was climbing was now bathed in sunlight and looking up to the skyline and rocky peaks above me the pure white of the snow had a stunning contrast with the bright blue autumn sky. By now I had climbed quite high and I stood at the base of a snow field that ran right up to the rocky peaks on the skyline, a few hundred meters further up there was a large boulder that stood out from its surroundings so I decided to aim for that and keep climbing, with the intention of gaining a bit more height before dropping over into a large rocky basin for a glass.
I glanced up at the boulder every now and then as I climbed to keep my bearings, then all of a sudden I looked up and perched right on the pinnacle of the boulder looking down on me was a chamois.
For a few short seconds I was in awe, silhouetted against the bright white backdrop of the snow the dark chocolate chammy buck looked like something straight out of a magazine. Then my mind clicked that I was finally looking at the animal that I had worked so hard to find.
Throwing myself flat amongst the snow and the spainyard I cranked a round into the old 25-06 and got him in the scope. Shit, he’s looking straight at me and looking pretty nervous. With no time to take my pack off and use it as a rest I took a lean over a few snow covered clumps of tussock and tried to steady my breathing as I lined him up. How far? Not sure… but the buck looked pretty bloody small in the scope so I’m guessing between 200 to 300 meters. Close enough.
I wasn’t sure if my heart was still pounding from the physical exertion of the climb or I had buck fever but either way the crosshairs were wobbling like all hell. I took a breath, slowly exhaled and held waiting for the right moment. The moment the crosshairs steadied on the bucks chest for a second I took up the last few ounces of pressure on the trigger. BOOM!. The shot echoed across the valley and for a brief moment when my view through the scope recovered from the recoil I saw the chamois cartwheeling down the mountainside before disappearing out of sight.
I enjoyed a brief moment of sheer elation and even let slip a bit of a yahoo before composing myself and thinking about the task ahead, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my very limited experience of hunting the New Zealand alps is that shooting the animal is only half the battle. You still have to recover it.
Struggling up the ridge as quick as my legs would take me I eventually reached the boulder and started looking where I last saw the buck… nothing. After another ten minutes of careful searching I finally picked up a smear of blood on the snow and shortly after found a well-defined track where the dead animal had fallen and slid down the mountain, gathering speed as gravity took hold and skipping and bouncing its way down through the snow and tussocks.
I followed the marks right up to where they disappeared over a steep edge and my heart sunk. I went as close to the edge as I dared but was faced with a near vertical face dropping away into a gorge, my hard won chamois had sailed over the edge into parts unknown.
Sitting down for a moment I gathered my thoughts, there was no way in hell that I was going after the buck the way he had gone but I still wasn’t giving up. Slightly further down the main ridge was a knife-edge spur that came out and back around and I figured if I could get on that spur I could glass back onto the face where I had lost the buck and maybe pick him up in the binos. Reaching my vantage point I had barely put the binos to my eyes when I spotted a dark chocolate bundle of fur and horns tangled in the matagouri clinging precariously to the face. I’d found my buck!
Even though I’d found the buck and I could see him plain as day I almost had to walk away and leave him. He’d come to rest in a hell of a spot and I had to keep telling myself that no trophy is worth risking your life for. But I thought long and hard about and studied a series of rocky pinnacles that made their way down the face, if I could climb down them I could get to less than ten meters of my buck and then judge the situation from there.
It all went to plan and despite a few hairy bits I made it to the last jumble of rocks feeling confident that I could climb back out the way that I had come. Now I just had to reach the buck, I couldn’t see him but had memorised his position and taking a length of rope from my pack I left my gear and started sidling across the face.
It was every bit as steep as it looked but my saving grace was the matagouri and the usually loathsome spikey spainyard I was now clinging onto for dear life praying the roots would hold. Finally almost two hours after I had shot him I finally got my hands on my chammy buck. After another fifteen minutes of mucking around with the rope and crossing back and forwards across the face I managed to drag him up to safety in the rocks and breathed a sigh of relief. What an epic!
After a few happy snaps and caping the buck out I made my way back up and out to safer ground without incident and began the long hike back down off the mountain to the lake. A few hours later I staggered out of the creek bed and up onto the roadside totally exhausted. It was still a couple of hours before dark and seeing as Jeff had the car I was faced with a five kilometre walk along the road back to the campground. Before long my weary legs and boots were finding a rhythm on the bitumen and with the weight of a chammy head and cape stashed safely in my pack I couldn’t help but smile. I’m not sure when but one things for sure, I’ll be back to hunt these elusive little animals of the NZ alps.