The New Zealand Fishing and Shooting Gazette: “Red Deer at Manapouri”

Red Deer at Manapouri
by Harold T. Thomas
Volume 1, No. 4, February  1, 1928, Wellington, N.Z., pp 3-5

After the usual period of letter writing, wiring, scheming, dreaming, ordering of supplies, overhauling of old camp gear and all the other little jobs incidental to the organising of a stalking trip, I was eventually delivered at Manapouri on March 31st last, with the delightful prospect of anything up to three weeks’ stalking ahead of me on Blocks III. and IV. in the red deer area.

I had arranged for Stanley Murrell to accompany me on the trip, and found on arrival that he had already established our first base camp on the shore of Hope Arm of Lake Manapouri, with the object of first working Block III.–the Monument block referred to by Mr. Vivian Donald in his article in the November issue of this journal.

The level of the lake was very high on account of heavy rain having fallen almost continuously during the previous nine days, and although my hopes of better weather were raised by the first morning breaking beautifully fine and clear, the change was only temporary. Rain fell again the following day and continued with monotonous regularity throughout almost the whole seventeen days spent on the blocks.

The base camp at Hope Arm was reached by noon, per medium of Murrell’s steam launch and within a very few minutes I had donned full war paint, done my duty toward a venison stew, and then proceeded to make the acquaintance of my neighbours–Mr. Tapper, the genial vice-president of the Southland Acclimatisation Society, and his son Walter­–who were working Block IV. from the same base camp site as my own.

Then followed ten days of tramping, climbing, and toiling through the rain-soaked birch bush and over snow covered ridges, during which time we enjoyed the whole catalogue of experiences that go to make up the usual hard luck story of the stalker. Red deer were plentiful everywhere, but we saw no heads worth taking. We covered a lot of country, and during our travels passed through the Upper Garnock Burn Valley, the area once described by Mr. Donald as a stalker’s paradise. Here we called on Mr. Tapper, junior, and his mate, Mr. White, who were working that portion of their block from a flying camp. We found that their experience up to that time had been the same as our own—plenty of venison, but no heads.

From that valley we climbed to the snow line on Titi Roa Mountain, and saw so many tracks that we decided to establish a flying camp there and try out the eastern slopes of the mountain. The first morning out from that camp sat in one place and counted fifteen stags quietly feeding on the open snow grass. It looked as though we had located a stalker’s paradise at last, but we were doomed to disappointment, and after three days’ unsuccessful stalking around the ridges and bush in that vicinity I decided to get back to the base camp, pack up, and move down the Waiau River to Duncraigen, or Block VI., and try my luck there.

After getting back to Hope Arm, Murrell set off to walk to the homestead to arrange for the launch to come over and move us down the river, and I continued to work the bush near camp during his absence.

On comparing notes with Mr. Tapper, senior, I found he had had the unusual experience of going out in his pyjamas and shooting a stag on the lake beach, within about seventy yards of camp. This stag had been roaring during the early hours of the morning, and at daylight Mr. Tapper had the double satisfaction of putting an end to the unseemly disturbance, and bagging at the same time a nice eleven-point trophy. In spite of this one bright shot, however, his general impression appeared to be the same as my own—that good heads were decidedly scarce.

Up to this time I must have seen well over 50 stags and not one of them carried more than eight points. It will readily be understood that, as time went on, our campfire discussions gradually developed a very pessimistic note. We burned stacks of birch logs, drunk vast quantities of tea, produced enough tobacco smoke to cure a ham, and although we talked far into the night under such happy and favourable conditions, neither Mr. Tapper nor myself could advance any satisfactory theory to explain the absence of good stags. We found ourselves gradually being forced to the conclusion that through the country been over-stocked with deer, the inevitable deterioration was already far advanced. My own experiences during the next seven days, however, proved to my own satisfaction that while the area is undoubtedly over-stocked, good heads can still be found.

At this stage my luck suddenly turned, and the story becomes quite a different one, excepting that it still rained, heavier in fact, and more consistently than ever.

While waiting for the launch to come across the lake I climbed the hill behind our camp for a last look around just after daylight, and decided to have a look at a stag that was roaring close handy in the bush. After overcoming all the usual obstacles encountered in a bush stalk I had the long deferred satisfaction of downing a thirteen pointer, not a champion by any means, but a very welcome change from the six and eight pointers I had been stalking so consistently for ten days. I was back in camp with my trophy in time to pack up and have a last “korero” with Mr. Tapper before boarding the launch.

That afternoon saw us established with our gear in Murrell’s Hut, some miles down the Waiau River, near Duncraigen Mountains. I had been particularly anxious all through the trip to work the top and eastern slopes of this hill with a flying camp, but the rain was now so solid that the undertaking had to be postponed, despite my keen disappointment. I consoled myself by working the bush in the immediate vicinity of the hut, and during five days of exceedingly wet stalking managed to get fair sport.

My tale would not be complete without recording here that the time spent in the hut was made far happier than it would otherwise have been, by the companionship of one Watty Bilanski, a local identity who was living there while splitting posts for Murrell’s station. Watty is a character. He has all the skill of the real old-time bushman, he is possessed of a happy sporting disposition with the hunting instinct very highly developed, and the things he can do with a camp-over are simply astonishing.

The first morning out from the hut I shot a young stag for meat before going more than one hundred yards, and after having a look at two more that both failed to interest me, I was suddenly attracted by an extraordinarily strong roar, and as usual, immediately conjured up a mental picture of a world-beating head. I shot this stag after a most interesting stalk and found him to be the biggest bodied stag I have ever seen, and I seriously doubt whether I shall ever see a bigger one. I was interested to receive a letter just recently from the taxidermist who is mounting my trophies, in which he refers to this stag’s head skin as being the biggest he has ever handled. Unfortunately the antlers were not altogether in keeping with the other measurements. The old fellow must have been well past his prime, but still carried a rough, irregular head with fourteen points. Watty had come along to see the fun, and in spite of all I could say he insisted on carrying home a load of meat. My taste may be peculiar, but as venison I prefer them younger. The following day a very pretty ten-pointer was added to the bag from the same bush.

On the fifth day in this locality we decided on a one day trip to the top of Duncraigen, but we had no sooner reached the open tussock top than the rain and mist come down like a blanket, making it almost impossible to see beyond a few yards. We therefore started back for the hut and arrived just at dark thoroughly soaked, tired and hungry. An iron roof, a roaring fire, and a hot meal from Watty’s camp oven, however, soon put us in a different frame of mind.

During the whole trip I had carried with me a very definite “hunch” that I would have better luck if I could get on to the lower end of the block six and with only two days left for stalking and feeling that I still had my good head to get, we decided to hit out with the flying tent and defy the weather. After a tramp of about eight miles we decided on a camping site and after eating a hurry-up lunch I left Murrell to fix the camp and set out through the bush for a likely ridge about two miles further on. I had already secured our supply of meat within fifty yards of the camp–a nice young spiker.

On arriving at the ridge I saw some hinds in an open patch and almost immediately heard a very promising roar in the bush higher up. After a stalk of about half a mile through the bush I located the stag standing in a most awkward position behind a fallen tree at a distance of about one hundred and thirty yards, and I saw right away that he carried a head in a difference class to the other I had bagged. Here at last was the stag I had come so far to get, but the question now was how to get him? I had just about decided on trying a neck shot, there being nothing else to shoot at, when he suddenly moved off, broke into a trot, swung round the end of the fallen tree and come straight for where I was standing grunting as he came. I realised that he must have heard me, and as the wind was in my favour he was coming to see what or who, was intruding on his domain, so I simply waited for him to run into my arms. He stopped about twenty yards away and as he reared out his defiance to the world at large he certainly made a wonderful picture. He was very lean and tucked up, but still looked brim full of fight. I tramped back to camp with his fifteen-point head on my back felling that the whole trip had been made well worthwhile by the thrills of that one stalk.

I was back on the same ridge just after daylight the next morning, and after having a look at six different stags shot a very nice thirteen-pointer. His head has since been mounted as being the second best trophy of the hunt, so it will be seen that all my luck came at the end of the trip, and my “hunch” had completely justified itself.

The next day was Sunday, and we were due back at Manapouri homestead, which meant a long and weary tramp with a heavy load, but I could not resist the temptation of a last look at that particular patch of country, and I was on the now familiar spot again bright and early. The deer had taken the hint and I saw nothing but an odd hind or two, so returned to camp, had a good solid meal, packed up and hit the trail for Manapouri and Auckland.

While reading over this rambling yarn I have to admit that after all it is not to be wondered at if the uninitiated regard all hunters as being more or less insane. We go off into the bush each year, emerge some days or week later, lean, hungry and bewhiskered with all terrible tale of trials and troubles, and yet we always go back from more. Mine is just the same old story. I tell of weary tramps in drenching rain, of much toil and many disappointments, yet the real impression in my own mind is that the whole trip was easily the finest holiday I have ever enjoyed. It was one of those rare occasions when anticipation was equaled if not surpassed by realisation. The whole atmosphere of the Fiord country, the rugged grandeur of snow clad peaks, the placid beauty of the lakes and the almost awe-inspiring suggestion of eternal silence have an irresistible appeal for me, and I am certainly going back for more, if not in just the same spot, at least in its very near vicinity—and I am not leaving my return any later than the next stalking season.

Bibliographic information

Title: “Red Deer at Manapouri”, The New Zealand Fishing and Shooting Gazette
Author: Harold T. Thomas
Edition: Pages 3-5, Vol. 1, no. 4 (Feb. 1, 1928)

The New Zealand Fishing and Shooting Gazette