A Doubtful Start, A Fantastic Finish

'We are one hundred metres under you and directly opposite. There are eight chamois running past a bluff and they should be in full view of you' 'Great news', I replied keeping my response brief. The voice of my nephew was clear and controlled but my pulse rate jumped. I slipped further below the stony ridge and gathered my thoughts and binoculars. Lying on my stomach I scanned back and forward across the small valley in front of me. It was certainly chamois country. The voice on the little walkie talkie intruded again, 'We want you to tell us what they are doing.' The use of this technology was a novelty. Not the sort of hunting aid I was used to. There was no need to answer straight away. Once I saw the mob we could start proceedings. With a rising feeling of bewilderment I scanned across the faces. 'Can you see us, can you see them?' The voice was clear and I could detect a change in intonation. An urgency in the question. 'I can't see you or the animals', I replied. 'Look for the waving patch of orange material. Only one hundred metres below you and on the face directly across from you' The communications continued back and forth with increasing frustration. 'I can't see you. I'm sorry I still don't know where to look' Finally I realised with shock that I was 180 degrees out. As soon as I turned, I saw a little orange dot waving, about eight hundred metres away on the opposite side of the main valley. Fifteen minutes later, we admitted failure. The animals had vanished.

Later we met up at the spot where the chamois had first been spotted. There was plenty of evidence that my son and nephew had not been imagining things. Footprints, skid marks, browsed herbs and droppings. I was now feeling a tad weary and negotiated a lunch stop. We had already spent a long morning up in the scrub and tussock. I wanted time to reflect on progress to date and talk strategies At dawn the previous morning we arrived on SH 7 (between Lewis Pass and Christchurch) at a point opposite the Doubtful River. Under heavy skies and with arms linked we had plunged into the Boyle River. The cold of the waist deep river was a big shock and quickly shattered my rose tinted memories of this area.

'I'm fine', said my nephew from the downstream side as the river flow became swifter. 'I'm not', I gasped. 'Let's back off'. The transition from a warm car to a cold river had softened my resolve. We stumbled backwards, and dripping wet scrambled upriver for another go. Nearby we could hear the swish of vehicles travelling towards Lewis Pass. The Lewis Pass area is characterised by beech forested slopes and easy tussock tops. Deer numbers are still on the low side.

High country trout

The riverbeds mostly provide pleasant travel and any gorges are usually well tracked. The Doubtful Valley is typical of the area and after only an hour and a half of walking we were approaching the first hut. We had not seen a single animal print over that time which wasn't very encouraging for an expedition during the roar. Suddenly my son hissed and pointed. On looking down hill I expected to see a deer but instead saw a fine trout enjoying a late morning siesta. Our core business was deer hunting and trout fishing as far as I was concerned was outside our brief. But I relented and allowed my companions enough time to land a beautiful specimen. The hut was nearby so we were soon able to enjoy a brew and some lunch. On consulting the hut book we were dismayed to learn that two other hunting parties were already in the valley. One party was headed for the top hut and the other for the Lake Man bivouac. What should we do?

Headstand next to hut

The accompanying photograph shows me outside the Doubtful Hut going through the decision making process during a rush of blood to the head. My conclusion was that we should head for the Devilskin bivouac in the Nina River catchments. This required a long walk up a side-stream and then a climb over the Devilskin Saddle. We did not know the condition of the Devilskin bivvy but DOC had obviously been upgrading local huts and toilets. Before leaving the Doubtful Hut we found someone meditating next to what could only be described as some sort of shrine. By the end of our long two-day trip we had learnt that these shrines are now often found in close proximity to newly painted huts.

New DOC toilet

The grind up to Devilskin Saddle was full of expectations but poor on delivery. Over the course of four hours travel we saw only one set of footprints. Even higher up in the shrubby slips there was nothing. When we reached the bivouac my nephew casually pulled the trout from his pack and hung it in a tree. Long gone are the days when I can happily carry an extra 10 lb of fish just for the hell of it. We hurriedly set out for a short evening hunt. On returning to the bivvy I could see my nephew and son through the trees. I set about collecting firewood while yelling some good-natured abuse at them. When I staggered into the clearing loaded with firewood I was surprised to find that the objects of my abuse were a couple of strangers. The woman and I spent a few moments establishing that my abuse had been misdirected, while at the same time the man was querying me about the fish. He had a foreign accent, and had probably not understood what was going on. In particular the size of the fish had him confused. It seemed extraordinary that such a fish would even fit into the little alpine stream nearby. In the end I let my nephew explain and by the time I had a fire going we were all on good terms. That night the boys slept outside while the seniors had the bunks.

So it was, that next morning we were resting under a layer of mist having just botched up on eight chamois. The peak above was called The Devil's Rampart. If nothing else was achievable, then at least we could bag that peak. Maybe The Devil's Rampart was an appropriate place for us. We slogged our way up into the mist to the summit. There were intermittent breaks in the cloud and I was desperately hoping that those eight chamois would appear once more. They never did.From the top it was knee jarring trip down to the bivouac, and then on to the new Nina Hut in the main valley.

On the tops looking for game

The woman we had first met at the bivvy was now in the Nina hut. After a rest and a chat we gave her the remains of our trout, in case her partner's fishing continued to be unsuccessful. The Nina valley is very picturesque and has long been a favoured D.S.A. hunting area. (A large D.S.A. hut is situated by the Lewis Pass road where the foot track starts up the valley.) A new swing bridge crosses over a most beautiful gorge about an hour from the road. At this point my nephew kindly agreed to rush on ahead. He would try to hitch hike from the Nina River back to the Doubtful River and return with our car. The chances of getting a deer at this stage were zilch..

Nicolas and I searched for trout in the deep blue pools of the gorge as dusk set in. Then we heard an almighty boom echoing around the valley. We could only speculate on what might have happened. My nephew had the walkie talkies but he soon appeared on the run. We followed him down the track and then into the forest.

Large Doubtful stag in shot in roar

After some considerable searching, we came across a very large bodied stag with a pretty good rack of antlers. This stag and its hinds had trotted alongside the track parallel with my nephew. He had seen the stag appearing and disappearing in the thick undergrowth. Dropping his pack and loading the rifle he had fired at the stag. A single crack shot from the .243 at eighty yards had dropped the mighty animal like a stone.

'I'm on the road hitch hiking. The head's on the bridge' The Lewis River used to be the final obstacle when coming out of the Nina Valley. As we approached we could see a dark lump part way across the Lewis River Bridge. The stag's head and tines were tangled in the bridge netting. It took the greatest of efforts to inch that rack back to the riverbank. The monarch of the mountains wasn't leaving his territory without a final show of resistance. When my nephew arrived in the car I was fording the river with antlers on board in the closing act of yet another wonderful adventure. I pondered over the fact that a Doubtful start to the trip had been followed by a bungled attempt at eight chamois but a stroke of good fortune in the dying moments had lead to a try in the corner. And like all good keen hunters we were already plotting our next trip.

Copyright 2006 by Steuart Laing. All Rights Reserved

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