New Zealand Tahr
Stalking Bulls in the Southern Alps
It was early afternoon when Kerri arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand. She was coming over from Nome, Alaska for a backcountry hunting excursion. It was a 5 day hunt that we were about to embark on in the Southern Alps. We loaded her gear from the flight and had just enough time to sight in the rifle and head up the river valley to put our eyes on the hill sides before dark. Tahr was our target animal and Kerri’s goal was to take home a large mature bull. It was early May and the weather was starting to show early signs of winter. There was a light dusting of snow on the tops of the mountain peaks. As it was the beginning of the rut, this would mean the mature bulls would be at any altitude in the mountains in search of their females for the onset of the rut.
As we drove up the river valley the sun began to fade and the mountains we were approaching came straight up from the valley floor like skyscrapers. We were just coming into Tahr country and our eyes began to scan the steep slopes in hope to find a big bull. We only had limited time before it was dark, so I wanted to look at a few specific areas on our way up the valley. We approached the first area and I pulled the Land Cruiser over to take a closer look with our optics. There is no mistaking a big bull on the mountainside. Their black bodies and bleach blonde manes make them similar to the look of a grizzly bear on the side of a mountain. We scanned through the bluffs and benches and I found 3 different bulls on our first stop. I thought to myself, wow, there is one bull up there that is going to be hard to beat no matter how many places and how long we look. I noted where he was and we got back in the vehicle and continued on. We still had some ground to cover and driving up the river bed is slow going with several river crossings and boulders to navigate around. We stopped a couple more times on our way up the valley and noted a handful more bulls that were potential shooters, but nothing that matched the first bull we spotted. There was a valley near the hut we were heading to that I wanted to explore the following morning because it is known to produce big bulls.
We approached the early 1900’s style hut with just a few minutes before it was fully dark, unloaded our gear, and went inside for the evening. Candles and an old open fireplace lit the room. Staying in an old hut like this is the type of stay that is rugged and cozy, it brings a sense of pride to a hunter because of the history it brings to mind, by being out of the elements only warmed by campfire, just as the early settlers would have experienced. We cooked up dinner then went to our bunks and crawled into our sleeping bags to settle in for the night.
Morning came early and the warmth of the sleeping bag was difficult to leave, but the thought of a big bull was enough to get us up and start the morning off with a good feed of bacon and eggs. Our boots were out on the ground just as light began to enter the sky. The morning sky was fiery red and purple with the beautiful peaks of the southern alps starting to glimmer in the sun light. What a morning for hunting. The side creek we were heading up led into the main river where our hut was located. This creek was very steep on each side and grassy tussocks and gravel covered the hill sides. It was a perfect place for big bulls to roam, and that much more challenging of an area for us on foot.
Hopping from boulder to boulder we made our way up the creek bed and the red glow of the morning began to make its way down the peaks. We scanned the hillsides for Tahr and moved methodically in the creek being cautious to not give our presence away. A young bull and nanny fed into our sights 200 yards above, and we watched them feed along in front of us. We continued our way up the valley stopping periodically to glass the mountain sides. We spotted several shooter bulls throughout the day, but none were near the size of the first bull we spotted from the day before. We decided it wasn’t worth the few hours hike up the steep ridges knowing there were definite larger bulls in the area. It was time to high tail it back and move our camp out of the hut and back towards the homestead before dark, so we could position ourselves to go after that first bull we spotted. That’s just what we did. We quickly packed up the hut and were off in hopes we could spot that bull again before dark. Thankfully in the last bit of daylight we made it to the area we first spotted him and to our luck he was still fairly close to the same ridge as the day before. With him showing up now two days in a row, I sensed he would be in the same vicinity at first light, so we headed back towards the homestead to eat and put our game plan together for the morning hunt. Judging by where the bull was, it was going to be at least a 2-3 hour hike to get up to the same level as the bull. He was with a group of nannies (female Tahr) and in rugged terrain which certainly adds extra sets of challenges we would have to navigate.
The alarm clock rang and it was time for breakfast. Bacon, eggs, and hot coffee to wash it down. It was the fuel we needed to get us prepared for the steep climb ahead of us. We approached the base of the mountain as the grey of the morning started to show. I wanted to make sure the bull was still near the same ridge before we blazed up after him, as the terrain was very steep, and our approach would have to change if he had moved too far. We began glassing up the ridge and, we spotted the grand daddy bull still up on the same ridge. To our surprise there was another bull a few hundred yards below him with one nanny. We only glanced at this lower bull and noted where he was so we could be undetected on our stalk up. Whether it was an emotional tie or just the pure challenge of hiking to the top and out smarting a group of nannies our sights were set on the big bull above. There was no mistaking this big bull. He towered tall above the other Tahr and his black coat and blonde mane glimmered in the sun. He was what any Tahr hunter dreamed of getting their sights on.
In speaking with Kerri we were in luck because he was still on the ridge and the approach was doable for us to climb in concealment. We tossed our packs on and started the accent for the day. The loose rock made for a challenging accent and the progress was slow with us trying to make as little noise as possible. We climbed for a good hour before I knew we better take a break so when the time came Kerri would have her breath and a steady hand. Out of curiosity while we rested I wanted to have a look on the other side of the ridge we were climbing up, just to be sure there wasn’t anything we were missing. I eased my way over to have a look, and to my amazement, less than 200 yards away, stood a massive bull Tahr.
I studied his features before going to tell Kerri, the base of his horns were thicker than a soda can and they came straight off his head and curled back and in. He was all of 13” and he was in a full winter coat, black body and blonde mane; it was a bull that would be crazy to pass up. I was amazed that two bulls of this calibre were so close together though not surprised as it is the rut. I crawled back to Kerri cautiously and unseen, and told her about the bull and I wanted her to have a look. She crept over and laid eyes on this new bull and she had no doubt, she was all in to have a go at him.
We were way up the steep rugged mountain side with plenty of grass all around us, so as we crawled into position our noise and bodies were concealed well. We crawled up to a patch of grass that put the bull in full field of view. Kerri laid prone and flipped the bipods out on the .7mm Rem Mag. The bull was in pursuit of a particular female and he was pushing her around, lip curling and displaying his magnificent size the whole time. We waited until he presented us a broad side shot, but this female was keeping him moving. It was a game of patience and he finally paused broadside for a split second and as Kerri flipped the safety off the bull turned again. I could see this was going to be a waiting game and as we were in a perfect position, there was no need to hurry a shot.
As we were watching them both Kerri kept her bead on the bull following his movements through the scope. The bull turned broadside again and I said to Kerri “take him if you have him in your sights,” and as I barely finished my sentence, KA-Boom! Kerri rang out a shot. As I watched through my binoculars I could see the impact of the .7mm on the bull as he went over the ridge out of sight!
It was high fives all around, but I did not want to celebrate too early, because bull Tahr are notorious for being tough animals to put down for the count. Kerri affirmed she felt good about the shot she had taken and I was just as confident, but we still waited some time before we started towards the spot the bull was last seen standing. The terrain dropped down a small gully and back up to the other side where the bull stood 200 yards above and across from us. We went down the first small gully and began to approach the far ridge and the tussock grass we approached was thicker than it appeared from where we shot. As we crest the top of the small gully we could see how the terrain laid. It was a steep grassy hillside that went across for about 80 yards before it dropped off into a deep gorge. By the direction the bull ran appeared he probably fell down into the gorge and out of site. Tussock grass in New Zealand can be up to 6 feet high making blood trailing extremely difficult in some circumstances. We started scanning the area for blood and worked our way over to the gorge. As we made it to the gorge with no blood yet spotted it seemed clear that this bull must have went down and maybe he had died in the bottom.
There was no choice but going down into the gorge so we could see everything in it. I scaled down the loose rock and had a look around the boulder filled gorge, but nothing to be seen. As I looked around I heard some rocks tumble from above and there was a bull walking up from below. I thought, “no way that couldn’t be! What a tough animal to go all the way down that gorge and back up the other side.” I watched the bull disappear up and over the edge of the gorge and I hiked back up to find Kerri. This bull that just appeared had very similar characteristics but I wasn’t convinced it was Kerri’s bull. The shot Kerri made was to good for this bull to be moving the way he was, and the tussock grass could have easily concealed a dead bull as we walked by. I knew Kerri had made a good shot, and I wanted to double check before we pressed on after this bull that ‘could be’ hers. I back tracked to the area we last saw the bull after the shot and I began tracking once again. I scanned the grass in hopes to see at least a spec of blood to give me a clue to where he could have gone. I looked back across to the ridge where Kerri had taken the shot from and then towards the gully I had just hiked down. I tried to imagine the path the bull would have taken, I read the lay of the land as I slowly made my way along stopping every few yards to re-assess where I was and inspect each tussock grass for any signs of blood. I did this for about 40 yards and I stopped one more time to look up the hill towards Kerri and then back down towards my feet and in the tall grass he laid! Big Bull Down. I hooted and hollered and signalled for Kerri to come on down. She approached with excitement and relief on her face and let out a victory shout. We high fived several times and examined her magnificent New Zealand trophy. Kerri gazed in amazement of her beautiful Tahr, with his beautiful long thick winter coat and bleach blonde mane. An old Tahr he was, with thick long horns. Kerri re-played the whole hunt, talking about the climb, stalk, setting up for the shot, and the other bull that came up from the gully after the shot, the large Tahr that was above us, to finding her dream Tahr. Nothing but gratitude was on both our minds. Respecting the animal’s life that was taken, Kerri must have said it a dozen times I am so happy we got him. We looked out over the valley that we were high above and gazed at the snowy peaks in the distance while we soaked in the excitement of the hunt.
Many photos were taken, the skin & meat removed from the old bull Tahr, and now packed up with heavy loaded packs for the afternoon hike down, as any mountain hunter will attest to, is always a moment to reflect on…how lucky are we!