Three months after the success of our premiere night in Christchurch – an event that we put on for hunters to enjoy some films, beers, catch-ups and introductions to other hunters – I found myself staring at the back of Nick Harrison’s backpack with aching knees, worn out feet and wind punching rain into every part of my exposed outer layers and my poor attempt of a dry bag for the video camera. Even though I kept making poor excuses to Nick as to why I needed to stop for a break, I was content because I had finally found the story I had been looking for over the past five days.
Filming hunting isn’t easy. I’m sure you all know that because hunting itself isn’t easy. It’s a lot of planning, preparation, hard work, free-thinking and motivation. Out of those five qualities, I think I only possess two. I would love to make out that I’m the perfect hunting cameraman but I’m really not. My planning is below average, my preparation lets me down, and as for hard work, let’s just say I spend more time in my thoughts than I do pushing the pen across paper. Some hunters get up in the morning with their bags packed from the night before and finish their coffee in a single gulp. Meanwhile, I find myself sipping away slowly, drowning out the sound of the hunter telling me to hurry the fuck up and pack my bag because I’m going through every detail of how the hunt’s going, how the rest could go, and what shots I need to get to tell the story fluently.
But on this adventure the story wasn’t coming to me naturally.
My vision of opening the film with Nick riding up the mighty Rangitata Valley on a four-stroke motorbike, filmed with a drone slowly panning from the hunter to the heavily scared mountains that were holding back unforgiving weather from the west coast, and letting the viewer know this man was about to endure a tough journey in search of a bull tahr didn’t happen. With the long-range forecast not looking so flash, it was too risky to take the bikes with the chance we wouldn’t be able to ride out of the valley if the rivers were to come up.
So, we quickly changed plans and called in Malcolm from Station Air to fly us in – at least this would mean we would get to our destination early. I was feeling fresh and had the energy to move around and think creatively: I was ready to establish the film with some glory shots of being dropped in the mountains (something to note: when your body is worn and tired it’s difficult to find the motivation to move around and capture the best shots when opportunities arise quickly. Instead, you pull the camera up and hit record without much thought). But our plans changed again and we got dropped in a snow-covered side creek with the heavy flakes still falling and melting on the camera and causing the viewfinder to shut down for the trip. I had no idea what my camera settings were. All I could do was guess and go off what the external monitor was telling me.
But don’t get me wrong, Nick and I loved every part of this adventure. After spending our first day standing around watching our tent turn from orange to white and drinking 440ml cans of Brown Bombers, we ultimately got to know each other. I had met Nick a few years ago in Ballingers Hunting & Fishing where he’s still working managing the firearms department, but this was our first time hunting together. It was pretty clear from the start that our personalities were suited for getting this film made. Nick was patient and easy going but also a very experienced tahr hunter. The main reason I chose Nick for this film was because, to me, he represents a classic kiwi hunter. He’s tough, fit and has such stories of getting his firearms licence as soon as he was old enough and heading straight to the mountains with mates. The yarns, the laughs and the patience just carried on throughout the adventure. The following day had a slow start since the camera batteries froze, but there was a small break in the weather so we packed up camp and made our way from our first campsite down the rocky, snow-covered creek that brought us into the main valley where we planned to hunt. The break in the weather didn’t last long though. As soon as our heavy packs were on the snow started settling on us. But by the afternoon we were at our second campsite and glassing for animals. It was interesting to see Nick’s reaction to the population of tahr in this area. It had been a year since he was last here, and that was pre-cull. He was telling me about the vast numbers of tahr that held here for many years before and the ease of finding mature bulls holding significant numbers of nannies. He respected the need for the number of nannies to be thinned out, but when the first three bulls we spotted weren’t mature and holding no nannies, we started to feel a little disappointed.
We spent that evening and the next morning glassing the faces. We managed to pull up a few more bulls holding nannies but they were still immature bulls. At this point I was capturing the hunt relatively well – I was getting the pretty shots that build the body of a hunting film. But what I was missing, and what I was afraid of missing out on, was that big mature bull that every hunter dreams of. Nick had already ticked off shooting a bull over 14” a couple of years earlier, and our intentions coming into this trip was to find something close to that calibre of bull. Ambitious? Yeah probably a little, but that’s where I get the motivation to add an extra 10 kilograms to a pack and it’s how I justify carrying an expensive camera around the mountains knowing the smallest slip could cost me a lot. We as hunters know the trophy isn’t about the length of some horns, it’s always about the adventure, memories and relationships you form through along the way. But we did decide to shift our expectations and target a bull that was mature. For Nick, it would represent a talking point for the younger generations and there would be a film he can show alongside it. It reminded me of the time I met the old boy Zeff Veronese: he had some bull tahr mounts on his garage wall that after he pointed out, led him to putting on some old DVDs in his living room of short hunting films from decades ago.
This drilled into me the importance of hunters telling their stories. And although I didn’t have the best planning, preparation or hard work, I had the free-thinking to change the perspective I was going to tell – just a little. I also had the motivation to carry on lugging the camera around.
The sound of Nick telling me to finish my coffee and pack my bags faded back in. He had spotted a decent bull up the valley. We located a rock and snow covered spur that we would follow up the base of the mountain. So we gradually made our way up, stopping a few times to check the position of the bull and to also glass the bluff systems that came into view every few hundred metres. On one occasion, halfway up, we spooked two bulls and a couple of nannies that were feeding quite low. They spooked off from about 35 metres up the face where they watched us for a short time. The only concern here was that we didn’t want them to move right along the face to where they could potentially move our bull, which at this point was out of sight. But they did spook off to the right and moved into the catchment where our targeted bull was holding. They pushed through, and the only thing Nick was thinking about at this point was getting ready to react quickly if our bull stepped out. We waited, watched and adjusted the cameras until finally, a bull stepped out.
Nick was quick on the rifle and got the range through his Zeiss Victory RF Binoculars that he had pre-installed his ammunition data into (so they calculate and display the MOA adjustments to dial the scope in). But with Nick’s experience, he quickly noticed that it wasn’t the bull we were after and decided not to pull the trigger because the bull wasn’t quite old enough. So we sat back and admired the animals moving through the catchment while we put on a fresh brew of coffee. After the excitement settled down and we talked through our plans, we got back on our feet and started pushing up the spur some more. Nick hadn’t been this far up the valley before and we both started to get distracted by the beautiful blue glacial lakes and the quirky kea that kept perching on rocks in front of us, almost insulting us for how slow we moved around the mountains. But luckily Nick caught the movement of our bull that had moved into another gut that was now opposite us. The bull and his nannies were only about 300 metres away and carried on with their routine since they hadn’t noticed us standing on the exposed spur. We calmly but quickly got our shit together. I filmed Nick preparing for his shot while moving back and forth to my Fujifilm X-T3 with a 100–400mm that I use for recording the kill shots (I also use this for my photography but I use other lenses for that). We were both lined up on the bull and with a squeeze of the trigger, Nick fired a shot into its shoulder. The bull took a few charging steps before collapsing and sliding into the icy gut below him. He was easily accessible but the ice was a little sketchy so we needed to pull out the crampons to get to him.
For any hunting film, getting an animal on ground is the gravy. There’s no way around that because it’s essentially what you’ve come to see. Any hunter who has targeted tahr has fallen in love with this species we host and if this film and our stories inspire more people to fall in love with them, then that’s more people who will be willing to stand up for them and protect them. That’s more motivation for why I create this journal and these films. The amount of conversations I have with non-hunters who have picked up the journal is unreal. They come to really appreciate what we hunters do and they see the passion we all have for our land and the animals. Storytelling is important!
The last three days of the trip were spent slowly making our way back to the road. We quickly learnt that with the weight of our packs and my Covid-19-lockdown-rested legs, it would take longer than we planned to walk out. So we headed down to a newly refurbished DOC hut to dry out and dump some gear so we could head out for a couple of day hunts in another valley. We had our bull secured for the film, so the focus here was just to have some fun and explore. We would either target another good bull for myself to shoot or at least get in close to a bull and get some beautiful shots of the wind blowing through it’s blond mane. The idea of getting in close to animals for the sole purpose of filming and photographing them is by far my favourite thing to do on a hunt, and it’s an opportunity I don’t often get because when I’m filming a rifle hunter, as soon as we’re within the 200–300 metre mark they’ll be getting ready to pull the trigger. A question I get asked a lot is, “how do you take really good animal photos?” And the main ingredient is simple: getting close. I’m not the most qualified to comment on live animal photos, but the best public land animal images I see come from guys like Blake Clinch and Richie Williams because they’re talented hunters and know the art of getting in close.
With all of that said, I was now battling my way up a hill face the next day with Nick leading the charge. We had spent the morning cruising up the valley stopping often to glass the mountain faces. We had spotted an alright bull moving through the lower end of a snowy bluff system and we made the call to go after him. After a couple of hours climbing and pushing through the scrub, we found ourselves at a standstill on a razor back ridge. Death was half a foot to our left, and a slip that promised a certain end was just to our right. In Nick’s mind it wasn’t too bad but I had to decide for myself to call it quits here. However, we weren’t just going to turn around and head down, we decided to sit on the little knob and hope for the bull to move down towards us eventually. The spot was a pain in the ass to park up on: we were on a shaded face from the evening sun sitting on patches of snow that cooled us right down. As our patience wore thin and the cold started to hit our core, we started throwing rocks to create some interesting noise for the tahr. Not long after, I looked up and 100 metres away two nannies stuck their heads over to investigate the sound. We sat still and snapped some images knowing that a bull was sure to follow and, sure enough, one did. Nick and I weren’t hidden very well but the tahr still couldn’t make us out. They moved into 70 metres whistling away as I snapped some images. I was happy with the footage and images I had taken so we decided to have some fun with it. Nick got on all fours and started moving around the ridge. It was exciting to spend the time learning more about these animals and I find that this is always the case when hunting without the intention of shooting. The bull got pretty excited by the look of Nick, to the point where I noticed the bull had an erection and started keeping a very tight eye on his nannies. These encounters are always the peak of any hunting trip for me. Getting to interact with a beautiful wild animal like a bull tahr and seeing them walk.
This is usually where the story would end. The next day we tidied the hut, packed our bags and set off on the 20 kilometre walk through torrential rain to the pick up point we had previously arranged with Nick’s father. The walk wasn’t eventful but our morale was high with banter still bouncing between Nick and I like it was day one. I had the time to think through how this film was going to play out because I still didn’t feel like the story was there and the trip just felt like any other I had been on. Don’t get me wrong, the trip was epic! But when isn’t a multi-day tahr hunt epic? For this film I wanted something special. As we ticked up the kilometres under our feet and our legs were feeling the full effect of our heavy packs, we started talking about what might have changed in the world over the week, what the next bad thing on the news would be, and Nick’s ‘lads trip’ here next weekend. That’s when it started to click for me: this film shouldn’t be about trying to find a giant record book bull tahr, it should be a film that represents hunters! The climax of this film shouldn’t be the moment the bullet makes impact on the bull’s shoulder, because that’s not how it feels for us hunters. If that’s the only reason why we hunt – to see an animal die – then why do we keep going back? Why do we challenge ourselves and push ourselves to the limits? It’s simply because it’s who we are. We are in a cycle. We get sick of the day-to day-bullshit, work, stress, and news. So we plan, we prepare, we get excited and that keeps us going. The day comes and the phone calls stop, the emails stop, the news stops. We have clear heads to focus, to think, to survive and enjoy the moment. When the trip finishes we’re refreshed and ready to tackle the day-to-day with family and friends with patience and calmness. But, the bullshit always comes back and that’s when this cycle repeats itself.
This is the story I want to show.
A lot has changed since this adventure. As I wrote this story the news of DOC releasing their new plan to exterminate these beautiful animals came out. I’m not going to get into detail about this here, but it does make me really appreciate these encounters with bull tahr, and I want to encourage you to give this a go. Spend some time trying to move in as close as you can and just observe their behaviour. You’ll learn so much that’ll better your hunting abilities, but you’ll also walk away with a huge smile. Or even better, take a good camera with you because I know that no matter what happens to these animals, I’ll always have some images to look back on where a bull tahr has his mane fluffed up, lips curled and is asserting his dominance as the king of the mountains.