As the helicopter touched down on an impossibly narrow saddle between two rocky peaks, we piled out, grabbing rifles and packs. The pilot dropped the chopper off the side of the ridge and whisked around the mountainside out of view. The heartbeat of the rotors echoed away, replaced only by wind pouring over the grassy swale.
My friends Scott Olmsted and Will Brantley were grinning like madmen, and I’m sure I carried the same wild look.
A winding chopper ride through the rugged valleys funneling into New Zealand’s Makarora River tends to feed that kind of crazed adrenaline-fueled madness. Even Dan Rossiter, our Kiwi-born guide, wore a wide smile. A part-time guide for Glen Dene, Rossiter was happy to be away from his day job as a builder and back into the wilderness he loves.
Five minutes earlier we’d dropped off our camping gear alongside the river a few miles below us, with the plan to hike down the valley in the hopes of finding a chamois or two on the way. We’d spend the night in the wilderness, then hike back up one of the surrounding ridges the next morning to do it all over again. Hopefully, by the time the rotors whipped back into earshot in a few days, we’d have three chamois to ferry back to civilization. Until then, it was just four guys on a backcountry hunt in some of the wildest country on the planet.
No photos you’ve ever seen or words you’ve read—including these—can do New Zealand justice. It’s more beautiful than you can imagine. The people are friendlier than anywhere I’ve traveled. And the hunting as difficult as you want to make it. Sure, there are plenty of opportunities for wildly crowned red stag behind tall fences, but there’s also some of the toughest terrain on the planet with chamois, tahr, and red deer running free, available to any hunter willing to put in the work to find them.
With three chamois to find in 2½ days, we took an admittedly easier route with the chopper ride, but easy is relative here. As we’d soon find out, the descent to camp would present a formidable challenge, but at the moment we were still wide-eyed and innocent to the country. Dan and Scott planted themselves on one side of the saddle, while Will and I took the opposite. Soon we were all pressed into our binoculars, scanning the cirque that formed below us.
I’m not sure who found the first chamois, but soon we were all picking out the small, goat-like animals from the rocky slides. Will spotted one nice trophy about halfway between us and camp, then I noticed another skittering up the cliffs to our right. Though the chamois isn’t native to New Zealand, the species seems born for the country. The small ram had no problem ascending the crags and soon disappeared into one of the many folds that fell away down valley.
Will spotted three chamois straight below, one nice ram with a couple smaller friends feeding in the tall grass hummocks. Three chamois. Three hunters. And one guide who knew an opportunity when he saw it. Dan floated down the steep grade, while the three Americans stumbled, slid, and all but fell down the mountain until we were within 300 yards of the small band of rams. Will, younger and fitter than Scott and me, was in the lead, so he set up on the larger ram. Scott took the middle, and I found the third chamois in my scope.
Three simultaneous shots echoed as one, and three rams bucked. Will’s fell where it stood, while Scott and I cycled our bolts and put the other two down for good. Unbelievable. We had 2½ days to find three chamois, and within a couple hours of being dropped off, we had all three cut up and in our packs for the hike out. New Zealand again had offered up its indescribable gifts.
We made decent time clattering over the gravel on our way down. About halfway to camp, a chamois ram popped up from behind a large boulder, the only spot of shade in the valley. I’m not sure who was more surprised. The ram or us. Hands scrambled for rifles, but I managed to work my bolt first. The ram took the 175-grain bullet without so much as a flinch before going down to another round seconds later. The four of us looked at each other and broke into those now familiar mad grins.
Those grins quickly turned into grimaces. Dan had warned us of a “bad spot” ahead. “Shouldn’t take us more than 45 minutes,” he promised. “But, mates, the brush is thick in there. Steep going.”
The bad spot was worse than anything I’ve encountered anywhere. Near-vertical walls covered with shrub, vine, and scrub brush. More than once I looked past the wrist-thick branches I stood on to see nothing but rarified air between me and rushing creek below. One snap and I’d plummet into the water or, worse, onto jagged rocks. For nearly two hours, we scratched, clawed, tripped, slid, and fell through the jungle, before breaking through into the wide, flat opening where our camp gear sat in a pile.
As the sun performed a premature disappearing act behind the high ridge, we got a fire blazing. Will produced a flask, which started making the rounds. Dan passed out cans of Speight’s Ale. As we carved out pieces of freshly killed chamois and fried it over the flames, I looked around at my friends. Through the flickering light, I saw faces scratched and worn, beaming with boozy smiles of satisfaction. I blinked away the weariness, reached across the fire for another piece of bloody meat, and matched their mad grins with one of my own.