My mate and I had been planning a trip for an eternity, but combined we seem to be the busiest two people on the planet. As a consequence a lot of time had gone by with no action. However plans were made to hit the Ruahines for a weekend, and they finally eventuated.
Climbing the first ridge was rough. This was my first proper hunt since my accident and my body was so out of condition that my legs were complaining and my heart pounding in my ears. Early on I blundered into a tree nettle which quickly alerted me to its presence. My companion did short, fast bursts up the hill, meaning that by the time I caught up he had already rested! It was more comfortable when we stalked more slowly through promising areas, although I felt about as stealthy as a steam train teetering on the shale and loose rock in the bush. There was a ton of sign, some of it fresh, but no cover or feed in sight. We wondered if deer frequented this area as they moved between feeding areas. Sometimes the smell of them was so strong, the heart rate would go up and it seemed it would be a matter of seconds before the crash of a spooked animal. But not today.
Going bush is such a great way to see what a person is really made of. You can see the best of a person – the super-fit, smiling as they spring easily from rocks or glide down a slippery slope, leaving you on your arse with twigs in your hair – and you can see the worst of a person – swearing at the supplejack when the blood sugar drops too low (me), bedraggled and sore after a rough night in a tent (me), or too bone-tired to smile (me again). The one thing that made me really laugh out loud was when I was following my mate down the hill and he slipped, somehow making a hole in a ponga tree trunk. It then shot a continuous stream of orange liquid spurting horizontally and wetting his head, face and neck. It was the first time I had seen a ponga piss on someone and I regret not taking a photo or video.
After a mammoth trek upriver, a grueling up -hill slog where I pulled a number of unhappy faces at the amount of supplejack, camp was sorted and we climbed up another ridge to check out sunny faces and grassy guts from the tops.
As the day wore on the temperature dropped steadily. There was a very strong sou’wester which managed to push us around a bit, and was quite discouraging for hunting in. We decided to fill in the early afternoon with napping in the grass, but with the biting cold getting through 5 layers (including a puffer jacket) time moved very slowly. Lying back-to-back was the only way to reclaim some warmth, before we retreated and found a spot where the sun actually reached our skin. Thawing out frozen hands whilst having a “Jeremy Kyle” session, I learned a whole lot of new things about my hunting companion. The slips were empty that evening and fair enough, if I were a deer I wouldn’t be hanging about in that kind of wind either. Back to camp with me leading the way, high fives when I managed to find our tent. I have a terrible sense of direction and kept looking to my mate for guidance. He just looked away each time and so it was a fair achievement for me that we didn’t end up falling off a cliff.
The appreciation for your gear is reinforced at camp – your cooker which will still provide a hot meal or drink in howling wind, and the shelter of your tent. Even basic food tastes amazing when you have climbed steep slippery hills, crossed slips and bush-bashed with a rifle in-hand for hours. One Christmas Jase and I walked 10 hours and I swear that even my bones were exhausted. A foil pack of hot tortellini and half a bottle of port was to this day still the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I think that is the beauty of the outdoors. When you get home you really appreciate everything, especially a hot shower. It is good to get back to basics.
The night was rough with frequent awakenings. Temperature regulation was difficult at both extremes, and all the while the wind hissed through the trees. The ground was surprisingly hard beneath my inflatable mat (upgrade needed I think) and I experienced painful cramps in my legs several times during the night. As a result we slept in rather longer than we had anticipated, but after a coffee we once again felt alive. The climb to the tops wasn’t nearly as bad on day two; the sun was warmer and the wind was less. Still the slips were empty of deer (they were probably bedded down by then) so we explored the surrounding bush.
A few promising wallows were discovered, as well as some stag sign, a deer bed, and the smaller prints of a yearling. This time when I lead us back to camp there was far less uncertainty, and my companion said he had trouble keeping up. I only needed guidance once as I was tempted by a spur after losing the main ridge, so I was very pleased with myself when we made it back to the tent. Too tired for high fives though.
The trek out down the river was beautiful, and made me
feel very grateful to have the opportunity to explore such amazing country. The river banks were lined with tall grasses and Buddleia on the flats, and overhanging gorgy cliff faces bearing the jungle-like kiekie in others. The water was clear and lazy pools looked promising for trout. Still, it was good to reach the car, strip off sticky hunting gear and finally sit down! I realised too that carrying the rifle around had managed to straighten out my busted elbow, and it was the first time since February that it had felt normal. We didn’t manage to get a deer this trip, but part of the thrill of proper hunting is that your quarry is never guaranteed. I gained a lot, including valuable experience, much respect for my companion, some decent exercise and a number of bruises. A trip into the bush is never wasted.