Chamois Bowhunt in New Zealand

By Brett Vercoe

First printed in The Australian Archery Journal, Edition No 21© Australian Bowhunters Journal Pty Limited

Hunting mate Mick Watts and I had both successfully hunted red deer during the 1992 "roar" and at the conclusion of that trip we both vowed to return to the land of the "Long White Cloud" the following year to sample more of that country's ample hunting opportunities. In particular I was keen to again try for chamois after 1earning many valuable lessons on my last unsuccessful South Island chamois hunting trip in 1991. This time things would be different!

Mick was quick to accept the challenge of a chamois hunt despite the harsh conditions and rugged terrain we would have to contend with and so our planning began late in May 1992.

At last the 1st of May 1993 was upon us and after being dropped off at Kingsford Smith Airport by bow hunting mate Lee Dalli we found ourselves comfortably seated aboard QF45 destined for Christchurch.

A short two and half hour flight saw us descending over the awesome spectacle of the Southern Alps, as we approached the South Island Capital. This was Mick's first view of the 3000 metre peaks that make up the snow capped dividing range and I knew he was suitably impressed as his jaw dropped and his nose pressed against the glass!

We arrived in time to meet up with Roger Smales and his better half Veller, good bow hunting friends living on the outskirts of Christchurch. We had a terrific meal of "whitebait", a real New Zealand specialty, and over beers we talked bow hunting until the small hours. Roger is Vice President of the Canterbury Bow hunting Society and is one of the most experienced chamois bow hunters in New Zealand. After many trips chasing these wily antelope Roger has amassed a wealth of information regarding their habits, locations and effective hunting techniques. He has taken two chamois with the bow and this tally has as far as I know only been bettered by one other person, fellow kiwi bow hunter Dave Gousmett with three to his credit.

Veller is also an accomplished bow hunter, having taken many fine goats, in addition to being a top shot on the range and a very good cook!

Sunday morning saw us boarding a coach for Mt. Cook where we would begin the first stage of our two week hunting trip. Our base camp for this stage was a sheep station located on the shores of Lake Ohau. The manager of this sheep station was a keen rifle hunter. Here we prepared our gear and practised in preparation for our first trip into the mountains the following day. Our hopes were high as a number of chamois and tahr had been taken by rifle hunters in our hunting area a month or so previously.

On Monday morning the station manager, Mick and I loaded up a 4WD and spent two hours driving up the stony bed of the Hopkins River. We parked the vehicle, loaded our packs and began the two hour climb from the valley floor through the beech forest to Cullers Biv, a very small two-man hut located on the edge of the bush line at about 1800 metres. The climb from the "alley floor required the use of ropes. on some of the steeper sections. We settled in and went for an afternoon hunt, but apart from some fresh stag sign nothing was sighted.

The encampment that the author and his companion hunted from.

Next day we climbed to the Dasler Pinnacles at about 2500 metres where we saw fresh tahr tracks in the deep snow, but again no animals sighted. We split up and I checked out some tussock basins to the west where I found game pads cut deep with the passage of many hoofed animals in addition to sign scattered throughout the area. Unfortunately it appeared that the animals had moved out of the area about a month previously, perhaps due to the pressure placed on them by previous hunters. That afternoon snow and rain fell on the mountain.

The station manager was pessimistic about the weather and wanted to head for home which meant we had to go with him. Mick and I were very disappointed about this because we felt we could have found the location of those animals given time. After a very slippery trip back to the truck we returned to base camp.

Mick and I hunted the range behind the property in an area where I had seen a big buck at 80 metres in 1991, but still no game sighted. We used a huge scree slope to run down off the mountain late in the afternoon, zigzagging from side to side so as not to get bowled over by the mini avalanches we created.

Thursday we travelled south to Lake Benmore and hunted the rugged backblocks of a sheep station where at last Mick got to see his first chamois. I stalked in on a lone buck and got to within 50 metres before the breeze shifted and he bolted. After running about 100 metres he stopped to look back and then slowly wandered up a steep face across the valley within easy rifle range.

The station manager liked to lead the party from about 50 metres in front and had no idea about camouflage, stealth or stalking. He charged over a crest and immediately spooked about eight chamois located directly across the gully from us. They whistled shrilly and stared at him intently at about 170 metres. Our kiwi mate began imitating their emergency whistle and when I queried him about this he told me that it makes them stand up so you can shoot them.

Mick and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. The chamois mob were in and around a patch of scrub low on a creek and any bow hunter worth his salt could have had a good chance at stalking in on them had they not got the jump on us. "What's wrong? I could get the lot with my 8mm at this range", said our kiwi mate. Mick and I realised then that this guy had no idea what bow hunting was all about and it was time for us to move on to happier hunting grounds!

Friday saw us packed and again cruising south on a coach bound for Haast on the West Coast. As we crossed the Divide, Mick was relieved to see a continuous blanket of thick forest in contrast to the stark, open appearance of the Mackenzie Country we had been hunting in. "This looks more promising", he said.

That night we stayed with a contact of mine who works as a shooter on board one of three machines flying out of Haast. He showed us many of the stag heads that had been taken during the recent "roar" and I was amazed at the size of some of the 14 and 16 pointers. "Gutty" as he is known also showed me some footage taken over his shoulder whilst shooting from the chopper on a recent meat hunt.

Mick and I were both disappointed to see deer after deer one moment charging majestically across the tussock and the next somersaulting in an ungainly tangle of lifeless limbs. No differentiation is made between yearling, hinds or massive stags and it struck me as a waste to see them killed for low meat prices when they have such great potential as a drawcard to recreational hunters from all over the world bringing big export dollars to the New Zealand economy.

The next few days were supposed to be spent hunting the river valleys south of Jackson Bay for red deer using a boat for transport, (there are no roads south of Jackson Bay), however huge seas and constant rain wrecked our plans. Out of sheer frustration Mick and I hiked six hours south along a muddy track in the rain, crossing two steep ridges and fording two swollen rivers in an attempt to reach a hut on the Stafford River. Darkness beat us in the end and we pitched camp on a gravel riverbed for the night not long after spooking a deer feeding on a river flat. The next day dawned clear and revealed the hut about 400 metres from where we had spent a cool, damp night!

Our next problem occurred when we entered the hut and found that the 20 litre drum of provisions left there for us had been knocked off! After much searching and scratching about Mick and I located an antique can of baked beans which looked like it had been labelled around the 1950's! This can of beans coupled with a few chocolate bars was all we had to eat for three days. A T-bone steak wouldn't have tasted any better than those beans at the time. Oh well, they say any experience that doesn't kill you is educational.

Mick Watts chilling out as he hunts for chamois. The rugged New Zealand Alps are for serious bowhunters only.

Mick and I were very impressed with the Stafford after seeing fresh tracks and sign throughout the valley. At one stage I began to stalk in on a stag that was giving a half-hearted roar but he eventually lost interest before I could locate him.

This area would be a productive place to hunt the "roar", however on this trip time, wind, weather and unfamiliar terrain led to stage two of our trip being unsuccessful. We trudged back to Jackson Bay in the rain empty handed, having reached day eleven of our trip with not a shot fired. On that sobering note Mick and I prepared for stage three of our South Island hunt.

After drying some of our clothes out and repacking, Mick and I took our gear to the Haast Hotel where we were to meet two of New Zealand's top rifle hunters, Ron Stilwell and Steve Hogg. Ron and Steve each have a great number of trophy animals to their name including chamois, tahr and some magnificent red stags, the best being a 305 Douglas Point animal taken during the 1991 "roar".

Steve arrived alone that afternoon due to Ron's wife suddenly taking ill and requiring hospitalisation. Steve, Mick and I discussed our forthcoming chamois hunt over a few beers before heading up the West Coast in Steve's vehicle toward Fox Glacier. The plan was to take a chopper into an area that Steve knew harboured a good chamois population and we would spike camp above the. bush line with them. Heavy weather meant we couldn't fly in that afternoon so we spent a relaxing evening with some of Steve's friends who had a farm on the coast. We went to bed late that night after a few rums, hoping for good weather in the morning.

Wednesday morning dawned clear and it looked as if our luck might. change at last. The pressure was really on now with our flight home just two full days away. We crammed our gear into the chopper and about ten exciting minutes later we off loaded it all about 1400 metres above sea level. The view from the machine was awesome as we flew within metres of ridge tops only to see them fall away dramatically on the other side. Not that Steve got to see much of the view. He politely volunteered to get in the back, sitting on the floor of the chopper with hunting and camping gear stacked around and over him! Steve had directed the pilot to a ridge top where we would set up camp. Through experience Steve knew that this area would not "stink up" the surrounding areas with our scent or camp odours. No sooner were we unloaded than the chopper was up and over the ridge, falling away to the coast in a clatter of rotor blades.

Steve discussed the lay of the land with us and suggested that Mick and I go for a hunt while he set up camp. We parted a few minutes later with a last warning from Steve, "If fog starts to roll in on you, get back to camp quick smart or else you could spend the night lost".

Mick and I split up and headed in different directions. I chose to follow the ridge on which we were camped down to the edge of the bush line and then followed a trail running across the edge of a steep cliff. About 15 minutes out from camp I detected a movement on a slip surrounded by dense bush about 100 metres below the cliff edge. With the aid of binoculars I saw a lone chamois slowly moving around the slip face, but despite being so close there was just no way I could get near him. The intervening ground was too steep and the scrub too thick.

I backed around the cliff and found a creek/waterfall that might take me down to his level. About 30 metres down and I dislodged a huge boulder about the size of a Volkswagen which roared off down the steep chute with me skidding along behind it for about 10 metres! I clawed to a stop, turned around and climbed straight back to the top of the cliff. No chamois is worth that I thought to myself!

I decided then to check out a huge scrubby basin to the south of camp where Steve had suggested we might see an animal. As I stalked across the top of the rocky bluffs dropping into that drainage I stopped and glassed the basin for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. At about 1.45pm I was glassing along the creek at the bottom of the basin when a chamois suddenly appeared from a patch of scrub and began feeding uphill. I immediately knew that this was my opportunity because the wind was drifting steadily uphill and the roar of the cascading creek would allow me to get in close on the animal.

Centuries of torrential rainfall had scoured deep rocky watercourses through the many guts leading down into the basin and I scrambled down one of these dry creek beds, (mostly on my backside), hopping from rock to rock and jumping or climbing the steeper drops. Fortunately thick tussock grew along the edges of this trench and in some places I was moving through a tunnel formed by the overhanging grasses.

Every few minutes I slowly peered above the grass and glassed for the chamois and each time I saw him still feeding unaware of the danger. About 20 minutes after beginning my descent I neared the floor of the basin and now intervening scrub blocked my view of the animal and his view of me. When I thought I was within about 100 metres I dropped my jacket, binoculars and pack and begin my final stalk. Checking the wind I moved slightly uphill from where I thought the chamois should be and slowly crept in through the scrub.

I peered around a bush and there he was, feeding around some boulders right on the creek with his head down. I used a fold in the land as cover and quickly moved up to a bush only 28 metres from the unsuspecting chamois. I drew my 74 pound bow and slowly peered around the bush to see him broadside and slowly walking. I concentrated on an area low behind his front leg, and as he paused I released the arrow and watched the fletching punch through that spot. The chamois flinched and bounded to the top of a boulder about eight metres from where he had been hit. I froze in position and could see the curios expression on his face as he looked around trying to figure out what had happened. As I watched I was blood hosing out low on either side of his chest and within about five seconds he got the wobbly boot and toppled off the boulder into tussock.

The hunting party alighting from the helicopter.

I remember saying to myself over and over again, you've done it, you've done it! The chamois didn't flinch but still I hesitated before approaching him. What if he gets up and with a surge of adrenalin charges over the steep cliffs nearby? Not likely, no animal survives a wound like that, he's yours and you've earned him! I stumbled around like a drunk for a while and then studied the first chamois I had ever seen at close hand. He was a mature buck with a great skin, however he lacked good horns due to the common West Coast problem of horn rot.

I slung the buck over my shoulders then turned and looked toward camp about 400 metres above me. I took about four steps before putting him back down again! Perhaps I should get the guys to come down here! It took me about 80 minutes to climb back to camp and thick fog was moving up the mountain as I walked toward Mick and told him the news. He was just as excited as I was! Steve wandered in amongst much backslapping and hand shaking as a blanket of fog settled in on our little campsite and the temperature plummeted below zero. Unfortunately Mick and Steve had not seen many animals but our hopes were high for tomorrow's hunt.

We talked excitedly about the recent turn of luck as we hovered around the tiny white spirit stove for warmth. Steve cooked up a meal fit for kings and the mood was cheery around camp despite the biting cold. Our water supply was a little tarn right near camp and I was surprised to see it freeze over by 6.30 in the evening! Not long after this we were forced to move into the cover of our tents because a white layer of ice was constantly forming over our clothing!

The morning revealed clear skies and a thick crust of ice covering the entire landscape. Steve pointed to a high ridge above us and there we saw the silhouette of a chamois staring down on our camp with interest. He stood there for about ten minutes as we had breakfast and donned our frozen boots, Steve headed off up the ridge with his rifle and Mick and I dropped back down into the basin to photograph, video and skin my chamois.

After finishing these chores Mick and I were stalking along the creek toward the head of the basin when the breeze did a complete reversal. Almost immediately we saw three good chamois appear from different locations above us, all peering down at Mick and I from their lofty viewpoints. The three animals slowly climbed higher eventually disappearing over the skyline.

Mick and I decided to again split up and I kept climbing toward the high bluffs due east of camp, in the general direction Steve had taken that morning. Later that afternoon I saw a number of chamois scattered over the mountain and twice I got to within 100 metres, but too much open ground meant that a stalk was futile. Late in the afternoon I as climbing a narrow ridge when I saw a lone chamois bedded on a steep spur. I saw a bluff directly above him and knew that I could get to the top of it undetected with a bit of luck.

About ten minutes later I was approaching the top of the bluff with arrow nocked, but as I peered over the edge I saw a chamois about 100 metres down the spur staring at me and whistling loudly. I relaxed my grip on the string and let my bow arm drop, how could he have known I was sneaking up on him? Suddenly a blur of movement about 40 metres directly below me caught my eye and there he was, the original chamois had been there all the time, it was a second animal that I had spotted further down the spur.

I yelled out at the animal and he stopped, facing directly away from me on a boulder 40 metres below and 20 metres out from me. I quickly drew back on him, a:1d released. The moment I relaxed the string t realised that I had aimed for 40 metres when I should have shot for the 20 metres horizontal distance. I watched the arrow sail harmlessly past his nose, missing it by just a few centimetres, before he charged off down the slope in panic.

I sat down and cursed myself loudly, had I been prepared for the shot I would never have made such a stupid mistake, the animal had caught me completely off guard and I had blown what should have been an easy opportunity. As I worked my way back toward camp late in the afternoon I saw a mob of five animals working their way up the bluffs toward me, but I simply ran out of time and left them before they came within bow range.

Each of us had a close encounter story to tell over dinner that night, but unfortunately neither Steve, Mick or I took an animal that day. Steve is one of the most ethical rifle hunters I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and I am sure that he passed up many opportunities on lesser animals while looking for an exceptional trophy.

Early next morning we surfaced after another freezing night to see bad weather approaching from the coast. The wind was already blowing fine rain onto the slopes and within a short period the mountain would be covered in liquid. I grabbed a UHF radio that I had brought with me and made , contact with our mate on the coast. His message was short and simple, bad weather was closing in fast and we had 15 minutes to pack up can1p and be ready for the chopper. If we left it any later we could be stuck on the mountain or face a dangerous descent with back packs.

As I closed my pack the chopper cleared the ridge and banked hard over toward us, landing right next to our campsite. We roughly loaded our equipment and scrambled aboard the machine sensing the pilot's need for haste. He lifted the chopper off the ridge and we swooped down toward the coast.

Brett Vercoe with his chamois.

Apologies to all for the poor quality of this image.

That night Steve, Mick and I met up with Ron Stilwell at his home in Cromwell for a night of beers, yarns and good food. A great way to spend our last evening in New Zealand and a good opportunity for us to thank both Ron and Steve for their fantastic hospitality.

Next morning Mick and I boarded a late bus for Christchurch that got us to the airport with ten minutes up our sleeve. Roger and Veller met us at the barrier and congratulated us on the success of our hunt. Their parting question was "Are you coming over next year?" My answer . "You bet".