Two Old Goats—Chasing Free-Range Tahr in New Zealand

I first met Phillip about 10 years ago in the Frank Church Wilderness of Idaho. He was packing a rifle and hunting elk, while I had my trusty recurve and was chasing bighorns. We both failed to connect on game, but we developed a lasting friendship. Under the tutelage of fellow traditionalists Mike Schlegel and Jim Akenson, Phillip became a traditional bowhunter too, and he now hunts with a longbow and a video camera in his native New Zealand. Seven years ago, I went down under and chased chamois about the mountains with Phillip and his friend Bruce. He was now offering a second invitation to me and my friend Mark Penninger, and we jumped at the chance to go. I had warned Mark that my life had never depended on the roots of vegetation as much as it did during the five days I’d hunted there before. Mark laughed and said he was game.

Phillip has been trying to make a film about traditional bowhunting in New Zealand. There is a host of game there, all imported decades ago since the only native mammal was a bat. However, the New Zealand government considers all non-native animals vermin. There are essentially no tags, no licenses, no limits, and no rules. It is legal to chase game down with helicopters until it is exhausted and to shoot whole herds with semi-automatic rifles. In fact, the government actually does this when it think the populations in certain areas have grown too high.

Unfortunately, they won’t tell you which ranges they have just decimated or which ones they may cull next week. If you choose your hunting area poorly, the game may have been eliminated recently. You can actually net-gun free-range animals, haul them off to a ranch, and sell them live for fenced operations to put in enclosures for “trophy hunters.” Some of my American bowhunting friends thought it would be great to have 365-day seasons. However, if you hunt game that has been pressured this hard, you’re hunting very wary animals.

I was going to go for 20 days, although the trip takes about three travel days each way. Mark was going to do the same, but he was taking his family and planned to hunt for a week and sightsee the rest of the time. My focus was to be the Himalayan tahr. Originally from their namesake mountains in Asia, these members of the goat family were brought to New Zealand a hundred years ago and have flourished since their arrival.

Phil lives near Auckland on the North Island, and the tahr live on the South Island. After spending a week hunting sika and fallow deer, we spent a day traveling, looking at the marvelous scenery, and enjoying being in a foreign land. The weather was a wet mess. We hoped for a change, but didn’t see much sign of one on our trip south. Trees were blown over the road and mudslides abounded. The three-hour ferry crossing invited seasickness, but the waves finally calmed as we reached the South Island, and the next day broke clear and sunny.

We had previously contracted a helicopter to get us up into the mountains. In New Zealand, there are very few roads into the high country. Most hunters arrange for a chopper to get them into tahr habitat on the high ridges to start their hunt. Nothing comes easy in this rugged land, however. Although the weather looked great, our chopper could not fly due to high winds in the mountains and one more day would be lost. We were now down to four days due to Mark’s timetable.

Finally we took off the next morning, landed, set up camp, and headed out to scout. Phillip had been there several years prior, and the area was crawling with tahr then. Apparently government gunners had paid a visit in the interim. We did spot a few tahr on a distant, inaccessible peak, but despite the magnificent scenery the terrain around camp seemed barren of game.

Late in the day Phil spotted a group of three chamois 300 yards below us. The good news was that they were legal game (as is everything.) The bad news was that chamois and tahr do not co-inhabit the same areas, which meant that our tahr hunt was less likely to be successful. This was steep, boulder-strewn country filled with slippery tussock grass along with lots of “Spaniards.” This plant is ubiquitous there and is so named because the plant tips stab you like Spanish swords, frequently drawing blood. I did manage to circle around and close the gap to 100 yards. The chamois were just entering their rut, and the male harassed the others over into the next canyon, eliminating any chance of a shot. That hunt was over, and we trudged back to camp.

As the weather cleared, the temperatures soared. Trying to find the heavy-haired goats remained difficult, as they preferred the shade the thick brush provided. The next day we headed out in the opposite direction and spied a tahr on the very crest of the mountain. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so off we went, climbing through the scree and shale, slipping, falling, and slowly gaining altitude. We never did make the summit, nor did we ever spot that elusive tahr again.

The next day we went back to our original spotting area on the appropriately named Devastation Creek. The chamois reappeared below us in the same spot we’d seen them before, and off I went. This time an errant breeze blew them out at 80 yards. Once again we saw no tahr before we eventually headed back to camp.

For our evening hunt, we elected to split up and go in different directions. I went low below camp, as we had not really looked hard there previously. I had been carrying my big pack, but this evening I just took my fanny pack since I was only going on a short hunt and I was tired of packing the extra weight. That was a decision I would come to regret.

I slid down several hundred feet of boulder ridges, tussock grass, and Spaniards until I found a good spot to glass from and hunkered down. Soon, much to my amazement, a mature male tahr appeared 100 yards away at my level. By some stroke of luck he continued to walk in my direction, winding through the huge boulders scattered on the mountainside on a route that would take him 25 yards below me.

I was positioned in a deep “V” between massive rock formations, with some tall flax plants in front to provide cover. As he approached, I merely had to rise above the flax for a reasonable shot. I am fairly adept with my recurve at that distance, but I sometimes have trouble picking a spot on a game animal. This was a poor time to demonstrate that fault but I did, and the arrow struck solid rock under his chest. Amazingly, he just jumped back a few feet, analyzed the situation poorly, and proceeded to walk right over the arrow, retracing his former steps. This time I was focused and put a shaft right where I intended.

Besides their long golden manes, these old males are covered in thick, lengthy black hair, making their anatomy hard to visualize. As I heard the resounding crack of my arrow hitting his shoulder bone, I realized I had aimed too far forward. All was not lost though, as I could see I had at least eight inches of penetration on this fairly thin-chested animal. He left in a hurry the way he had come. At 40 yards he stopped on a rock, surveyed his domain, and seemed puzzled. He then reached back, sniffed my feathers and hit high gear. I went down to where he had been and discovered a substantial blood trail in the rocks. Then I looked at my watch and knew it would be dark soon. We would have to pick up the trail in the morning.

The way I had come from camp was fairly treacherous, and I not so cleverly decided to take a different route back. Darkness would soon be upon the mountain, so I scurried ahead, climbing over several ridges and fully expecting to see camp at any moment. I finally came to the last ridge. I had been on this same ridgeline the day before, so now I knew that I was about a half-mile mile from camp and above it. The terrain however was filled with so many obstacles that it would not have been prudent to continue. It was steep, slippery, and filled with potentially leg-breaking holes among the boulders. I finally found a little flat spot that might hold me for the night and took inventory of the paltry amount of gear in my fanny pack. I did have a Mylar survival bag, a beanie for my bald head, a pullover balaclava, and a headlamp. It could have been worse. Hoping I wouldn’t roll around much in my sleep, I settled in for what would be a very long night.

Fortunately it didn’t freeze as it had the night before, but I was truly miserable. A Mylar bag will retain your body heat, but if you have any moisture on your skin or clothes, it condenses inside the bag and makes it dripping wet. My pants were still quite damp, so I was generating lots of condensation. I knew I would have to get up periodically, turn the bag inside out, and let the wind dry it (and me) while losing body heat. It would be dark for 12 hours, which I decided to break up into three four-hour shifts. Between drying sessions, I could do little more than lie in the fetal position with my hands in my armpits, shaking to generate heat.

I was also concerned about what my companions were thinking, for I had put them in a bad spot. I would never forgive myself if one of them were injured trying to find me. Later I learned that Mark had already come up with my eulogy and was formulating what he would tell my wife, as he assumed I had died in that unforgiving terrain. Phil, on the other hand, was more optimistic and hoped that I was just injured in a fall or lost. They knew I had set out below camp, and they had tried to find me after nightfall. I realized that they would never think that I was now actually above them.

Phil had brought along a mountain radio with which we could contact volunteers for emergency aid. He had called in, notified them that I was missing, and arranged to call again at 8:30 the following morning. If I had not been found, search and rescue would become involved. I had already presumed this to be the scenario, and knew I had to travel quickly once dawn arrived. Besides, I had a trophy tahr to locate!

The night crept by slowly as I counted the minutes, watched the stars, and shook constantly to generate heat. If I slept, it was for no more than a few minutes because I was so cold. When the sky finally began to lighten, I gathered my gear, put on my headlamp, and cautiously dropped down through the boulder fields, moving as fast as possible. I arrived in camp with an hour to spare before Phil’s call to search and rescue, much to everyone’s relief. With no idea I had circled above them the night before, they were planning to look for me again below camp.

Although I had now been up for 24 hours, I felt wide-awake and eager to get back on the tahr’s trail. One might ask how, if I couldn’t find camp, I was going to get back to where I had shot the tahr. I did feel confident however, as I wasn’t taking any more “shortcuts” as I had the night before. Indeed, in quick fashion Phil and I found the spot I had shot from and started to track. Initially there was lots of blood but that began to dwindle, and we had to put our noses on the ground. There were a few backups but one or the other of us always regained the blood trail, and off we would go with new enthusiasm.

After a couple of hours however, I felt my energy level crashing. We had found three bedding spots with lots of blood that was still wet and couldn’t believe he was still on the move. Tahr have a reputation for being tough, and we were discovering that it was well deserved. In an exhausted, defeatist mode, I finally asked Phil how much longer we should continue. He responded with the correct answer: “ Until we find the animal or completely run out blood sign.”

Thirty yards later, the old goat erupted from the brush with the arrow still in his chest and crashed down 20 yards beyond. He was obviously done for, but I needed to put another arrow in him. I did, and this time I gave him the double-lung hit he deserved the night before.

My first arrow had indeed hit his shoulder bone covered in that magnificent hair, and it only managed to penetrate one lung. Unfortunately he had been going downhill all this time, and it was going to be a long, steep pack back to camp. On the last shot, I had positioned myself below the animal expecting him to bolt uphill, but he blew right by me anyway. Fortunately, in his death tumble his horns got caught up on a limb that kept him from tumbling over another steep drop.

Finally, despite getting lost and spending a very cold night out, the beast was ours. After we took pictures and removed the hide and meat, the struggle to regain altitude began in earnest. By this time, I didn’t have much left in the tank. Phil carried my bow as I grunted my way forward, pulling myself uphill from knee to knee by grabbing the vegetation. The Spaniards seemed to be everywhere, and I sustained a puncture wound when I knelt on one. This later became so seriously infected that I needed to stick a knife in the wound to drain it.

A tent never looked so good. I collapsed, “stuffed” in the New Zealand vernacular. Then I began to have the worst muscle cramps of my life. I had to have my partners take my boots off, for if I did any bending, my quads or hamstrings would lock up. I knew the problem was dehydration. I had vigorously trained for this hunt, but without adequate water I had put myself in a dangerous situation. In any event, the helicopter was coming for us in the morning, and we could drink to our hearts content after that.

Equipment note: On this hunt, Tom carried Eclipse broadheads and his trustworthy 55# Blacktail takedown recurve, which is now in Norm Johnson’s shop getting a well deserved refinishing.

2018-06-04T18:32:06+00:00

About the Author:

Frequent contributor Tom Vanasche is an emergency room physician from Albany, Oregon.

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