The Itch-Scratch Cycle

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The bull as he moved down the ridge towards us.
The bull as he moved down the ridge towards us.

Words By James Allen, Images: James Cruikshank

The “Itch-Scratch Cycle” is a phenomenon that is most commonly associated with skin conditions such as eczema. Basically, the skin feels itchy which leads to scratching which then causes the skin to feel even more itchy which in turn can perpetuate the disease.

The Himalayan Tahr is rightfully regarded as one of the South Pacific’s premier game animals and for good reason. The sheer beauty of the country they call home is only matched by the toughness of the quarry and the conditions they live in. The terrain of the mountain hunt with its breathtaking changes in altitude provides both a physical and metaphorical backdrop with the highest of highs and lowest of lows a constant companion.

After getting a mild taste of the New Zealand Alps during a Tahr and Chamois hunt in 2016 I knew that I needed to get back into the mountains as soon as life would allow. With a desire to experience a rut hunt I started making serious plans in 2017 to hunt the first week of June 2019. Despite the long lead time it seemed from the outset that the whole trip was going to be a bust. Life and career changes saw my hunting partner reluctantly pull out and my fitness and practice regime take a serious hit early on in the piece. The proposed Department of Conservation cull that was to see some 10,000 animals culled

1. At least the rain had stopped.
1. At least the rain had stopped.

from public land only added to my nervousness as June 2019 got closer and I seriously thought about pulling the pin on the hunt and leaving the itch unscratched. A lot of conversations with my NZ contact saw me decide to stay the course albeit with some slight changes to our initial plans.

I ramped up the fitness training in October, a new rifle and scope combination was put together in February and load development was completed in March. Rifle was a Winchester M70 Extreme Weather in 270W topped with a Z3 4-12 x 50 BT shooting a 130g Nosler Accubond hand load. Whilst not the lightest combo on the market it certainly isn’t too offensive to carry.

June finally arrived and I touched down at Christchurch airport just before midnight the day before the hunt was to start. Despite the uncertainty about importing firearms following the Christchurch shooting my interaction with the NZ police was as straightforward and friendly. A quick check of paperwork, pay the fee and on to more serious things like discussing where I would be hunting and commenting on the weather. The fact that it was absolutely bucketing down rain and looked to stay that way for the immediate future meant that the West Coast was going to be a no go for the next four to five days unless I was keen to swap hunting time for drinking time at the local pub. Now, I love a beer as much as the next guy but I hadn’t come to NZ for the Speights.

The rain hadn’t dropped off at all the next morning but after a planning session over a couple of coffees we left Christchurch and headed west. The good news was that the rain stopped about 2 hours after we left the city. The bad news was that it was replaced by snow and the chance of getting a flight into the hills that day were looking remote. Fortunately the gods of hunting smiled upon us and the skies cleared long enough for us to get into the air and we headed off to our spot for the week.

River crossings were a common occurrence as we worked our way up the valley.
River crossings were a common occurrence as we worked our way up the valley.

“I don’t know what’s under that snow so I will hold it in a hover while you two jump out and unload.” came the call over the radio from the pilot as we approached camp. A quick drop of gear at camp and with daypacks assembled we headed out towards the head of the valley to spend the few remaining hours of daylight glassing the bluffs and tops for Tahr.

I think we were about five hundred meters from camp when the walking through the knee deep snow had me wishing I had packed my snow shoes and toboggan. Not knowing what lay beneath the surface made each step a bit of a lucky dip. However, I was stoked to be back in the mountains and whilst only a few immature bulls, nannies and kids were spotted high

The start of the first climb. The smile would soon disappear.
The start of the first climb. The smile would soon disappear.

on the tops I went to bed that night excited about what the next few days would deliver.

Conditions were clear and cold with a reasonable breeze as we left camp in the dark the following morning and once again made our way towards the head of the valley. We soon glassed up a herd about a mile up river that was going to be worth a second look so we slowly worked our way upstream and started to climb to a better vantage point. It was late afternoon by the time we were in position and the temperature was dropping fast in the shadows of the higher peaks as we sat and watched a solid bull through the spotter. The image of his mane blowing in the wind, his incredible body mass and a solid set of horns made the decision that he was definitely worth shooting. A solid rest on a snow covered boulder made the 350 metre shot on a steep upward angle challenging but doable. The bull jolted but didn’t fall at the first hit but the second shot was true and he staggered and fell out of sight into a snow and ice covered chute. The nannies milled around in confusion and as the herd moved off about twenty minutes later the big bull wasn’t with them and we were confident that he was dead. Now all we had to do was to go and get him. It was now about three thirty and the sound of localised avalanches off the nearby ice face at the river head dictated that the old bull would need to spend another night on the mountain before we could retrieve him.

Dawn the next morning saw us up river once again studying photos of the location of yesterday’s bull and the imposing terrain as we tried to map out a route to the where we believed the bull had fallen. We soon worked out a plan and started the climb up the snow covered mountain. It also marked the start of what was to be the most physically demanding, mentally challenging and ultimately disappointing thirty six hours of hunting I have yet experienced. Several attempts via different routes were made over the next day and a half before the terrain, weather and safety made calling the bull as “unrecoverable” the only sensible option left. With a family at home, and a NZ local (who I swear is 50% Tahr) calling it as too dangerous, I know we made the right decision but that didn’t help as I tried to get to sleep that night. I had plenty of “What ifs?” to ponder as we sat out the bad weather for the next twenty four hours in camp.

 

The weather broke at lunch time the next day and we quickly made tracks through the fresh snow to a position where we had seen a good herd of Tahr two days earlier when we had been climbing to reach the unrecovered bull. As we glassed the herd and looked for ways to get within shooting distance a fight broke out on the rocky slope between the old bull we had our eye on and a younger bull who was keen for a crack at the title. The sight of the two bulls battling it out for dominance was amazing to watch as they displayed feats of incredible dexterity and determination as they fought amongst the snow covered cliffs. The fight took an unexpected turn when the younger bull took control and chased the older bull down off the mountain with a few stumbles and falls along the way. They were heading straight towards us at a full gallop before the younger bull stopped, turned and slowly made his way back up the ridgeline to the herd.

Looking up towards where we first spotted the mob.
Looking up towards where we first spotted the mob.

The older bull continued down the hill towards us as we hurriedly moved into a clearer position to get a better look at him and get ready for a shot. He stopped on the edge of some scrub and looked directly at us with more than a hint of suspicion at our presence. Twenty minutes can seem like an eternity when you are lying face down in the snow, gloves off, trying to get set for a shot. “He is a good size old bull, but he is busted off on one side if that makes any difference too you” whispered Jim as he kept evaluating the bull through the spotter. It did make a difference to me as it ticked the character box on the trophy checklist. A cat and mouse game ensued as the bull dropped in and out of the many nooks and crannies on the face in front of us and even started to walk back up the mountain towards the herd up on the tops.

Improvised rest in the snow.
Improvised rest in the snow.

He finally presented a shot at a ranged 340 metres and I dialled the turrets to 350 metres and took it. “Low” was the call from Jim and I followed up with another as he headed towards the scrub. The rushed shot missed but it was enough to turn the bull and he headed downhill briefly out of site in a deep gully. A quick sprint to a new position had me lining up for a shot as the bull came into view as he approached a ridgeline that would take him out of sight. A solid shoulder shot put him down for keeps and the shaking in my hands from the cold and exertion was replaced with shaking of relief and raw emotion. The first shot had hit him low in the chest but hadn’t hampered his progress too much and was certainly testament to the toughness of these animals.

James with his hard-won trophy bull tahr.
James with his hard-won trophy bull tahr.

Some quick photos in fading light, a toast to the scarred old bull and a solid hike back to camp as darkness fell topped off a great afternoon. Sleep was difficult again that night but for other reasons as a slight touch of adrenalin still flowed through my veins.

Reflection
Reflection

Prior to going on this hunt I had decided that I wanted something a bit more challenging and that I was prepared to do it tough and work hard for a different experience to my last NZ hunt. I certainly got that plus some and at one stage as we climbed in places that no sane man should climb trying to reach my first bull I commented to Jim that he had certainly dialled the tough factor up to 11. The weather, the terrain, the disappointment followed by excitement all combined to make this the

Loaded up and walking out.
Loaded up and walking out.

type of hunt that I had dreamt of. I had my bull and whilst he probably wasn’t as big as the unrecovered bull he has a great mane, solid mass and character aplenty, which in conjunction with the experience of watching him being run off from the herd makes him a trophy that means so much more to me than length or size alone.

I must admit that I embarked on this hunt looking to “settle scores” and finish the business that I felt was left unfinished after my first trip in 2016. But as the week played out, and even more so now I am back at home and work, I have begun to realise that for me Tahr hunting is not a business that I can finish, or a score that I can settle or even an itch that I can scratch. It appears that the “Itch-Scratch Cycle” doesn’t just apply to eczema.

Magnificent but daunting country.
Magnificent but daunting country.
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