Beneath the Mountain Mist by Max Curtis

Published 1996 | $20–$40

Beneath the Mountain Mist: Tales of Red Deer, Thar and Chamois in New Zealand is the second autobiography written by Max Curtis.

In this book Max reminisces mainly about his stalking trips to Westland, South Island with the aim of shooting trophy red deer stags.

A keen member of the Nelson Branch of New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association (NZDA) he heard first-hand accounts of where to find big heads from stalking greats the likes of Newton and Alex McConochie, Jack and Charlie Shuttleworth, Bert Spiers, Don Cummings, Temple Sutherland, Norm Livingstone and Gordon Atkinson. He soon learned that these sportsman shot their famous heads on the advancing fringes of the main herds as they populated new valleys and catchments. The reason was simple — these animals had access to a high quality food source which translated to antler growth.

Armed with this knowledge, Max decided to focus on the Rakaia herd of Stoke Park origin, possibly because his fellow stalkers had more intimate knowledge of that herd as opposed to the Otago herd of Scottish origin found around Wanaka and South Westland. In addition, Max had spent some of his deer culling days hunting the region where the Rakaia herd could be found — you can read about this in his first book Beyond the River’s Bend (1991) and The Hunter’s review of it here.

With his goal defined, for 15 or so years Max headed south from his home in Nelson to spend two weeks hunting the roar during March and April.

Each chapter retells one roar trip, starting in 1960 and finishing with his last major expedition in 1973. It all ceased in ’73 because that was the year heli hunting finally decimated deer populations, especially stags which preferred the habitat of tussock covered mountain tops, to the point where even seeing a lone deer was unlikely.

Curiously, Max for all this stalking and shooting prowess didn’t attain his goal so he mainly writes about near misses and the misfortune that seemed to plague his attempts at securing a trophy.

That’s not to say he didn’t shoot game; many mediocre stags were taken, some very decent chamois bucks, but the most impressive heads are the bull tahr he shot. The most notable tahr heads were from the Moeraki/Paringa and Karangarua valleys with horns of 12 inches and 12 1/2 inches respectively.

An interesting quirk of this book is that horn and antler measurements are expressed in metric (cm) rather than imperial (inches) terms. The imperial system is still to this day the accepted standard so it was hard to visualize the quality of the heads referred to without pausing for thought and running some quick calculations — for your information, 1″ equals 2.54 cms. Another other quirk is that he uses “thar” rather than the now widely accepted “tahr”.

Max keeps the same style and voice he established in his first book so again it is factual in nature and somewhat reminiscent of a diary.

This book has many colour photos and a few black and white ones. They are mostly of human interest, capturing Max and his companions in some precarious places or undertaking dangerous river crossings.

For all of his experience Max seems to find himself regularly needing to make a “Hobson’s choice” — the idiom that one’s choice is a free choice in which only one option is available — to get out of a dangerous situation.

Max mentioned that he had many more tales to write about but sadly before this could be realised he passed away a mere year after this book was published. I wonder how many of these unpublished stories he got down on paper?

Overall this book doesn’t quite provide the same page turning narrative of his first book. Most chapters don’t result in shooting a trophy head (much like the reality of hunting), in fact there is only one photo of a narrow 12 point red stag shot by a friend which directly relates to a hunt written about in this book. This book is an interesting read for those familiar with Westland or wanting to read more about Max’ adventures, but I don’t recommend it as a standalone book.

The Hunter’s recommendation is: borrow it (but buy it if you want to complete the pair of Max’s books)

The Hunter’s ratings are:

  • Overall rating: 6 out of 10
  • Photos and illustrations: 3 out of 5
  • Trophy quality: 2 out of 5
  • Writing quality and style: 3.5 out of 5
  • Page-turner status: 3.5 out of 5

Publisher’s blurb

For your information the following is the book’s blurb:

Max Curtis author of Beyond the River’s Bend returns with more of his adventures in New Zealand’s outdoors.
Critics of his first book looked forward to his next. This is it, he chronicles his hunting adventures over the past thirty years in some of New Zealands’s most challenging wilderness areas as he and his friends pursue red deer, chamois and thar.
In his first book he related the story of his days as a deer culler on the West Coast. Now as a sport hunter he recounts his stories of exploration, trophy stags, buck chamois, and bull thar. No longer just a killer he now has time to search out the biggest trophy and explore new territory for even bigger ones that might exist.

Bibliographic information

Title: Beneath the Mountain Mist: Tales of red deer, thar and chamois in New Zealand
Author: O.M. (Max) Curtis (1926–1997)
Editions: 1996
Publisher: Halcyon Press, Auckland, New Zealand
ISBN: 0908685785, 9780908685783
Format: Softcover, 172 pages, 16 pages of plates, colour illustrations (some black & white), 22 cm

Book review of Beneath the Mountain Mist by Max Curtis book review.