Shortly after daylight we glassed a group of tahr from the cabin in the valley. Most were females, drab brown, but there were a couple of younger males with them, darker in the body and lighter in the cape…and even in the distance visibly larger. The June rut was on, so we kept watching, and as if on cue, another bull appeared around the shoulder of the mountain, picking his way toward the group. He was a lot higher, just a dark dot against gray rock in binoculars. Although it was too far to see the horns perfectly, he was clearly much bigger in the body, with a long flowing mane rippling in the breeze as he walked. Yes, this was what we were looking for.
Like all of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, this mountain rose precipitously, as steep as any mountain in the world—but it could be climbed if you knew the way. The wind was wrong and the slopes too open, but that didn’t matter because from this angle there were treacherous outcroppings below the tahr. No worries. To get the wind right and reach the climbable cuts we needed to slip along the bottom and around the mountain, and then come up behind a steep ridge to reach their elevation. Then, if the wind held steady and the tahr stayed on that face, we could work across the rocks the same way the big bull had come, and with any luck shoot straight across.
Outfitter Chris Bilkey knew this mountain and where it could be climbed, and well he should; he’s hunted it for years. Come to think of it, I know it pretty well myself. Some years ago Brittany shot a fine tahr just around the corner to the left, and I shot my own best tahr straight over the mountain. To my thinking, the Himalayan tahr is New Zealand’s top animal. Her big red stags are dramatically impressive, but rarely difficult. The sambar is far more difficult to obtain, but that’s a valley hunt with much less physical challenge. The tahr is the lord of the Southern Alps, reigning over the highest and roughest country. Like our Rocky Mountain goat the bull tahr got somewhat cheated in the horn department, but also makes up for it with his long, luxurious coat and, almost unique in the world of sheep and goats, in full rut pelage his paler neck mane fluffs out like a lion in winter–an imposing and spectacular creature.
This particular area is that rarity in New Zealand hunting today: Totally free range, lots of tahr, and although it’s always a stiff climb, totally accessible on foot without the need for a helicopter drop-off. Without question, I’ll climb it again, at least once more when it’s my turn…but this was not to be my tahr. This was Donna’s tahr, owed to her for quite some time. If we could get on him, it would not be her first tahr; she took a nice one on a tough hunt a few years ago, but we were too early, concentrating on other game. The cape was less than perfect and, adding insult to injury, a local taxidermist misunderstood our directions for the mount and totally ruined it. Okay, that’s an excuse. We have enough tahr…but New Zealand is a beautiful country and these are beautiful mountains, so it’s an acceptable excuse to climb them.
Hours passed before we could climb high enough, turn the corner, and begin the lateral approach. It’s impossible to predict the outcome on any stalk because so many things can go wrong. The animals can move out—in this case almost certainly up—on their own whim. The wind can change, too many rocks can roll, and in the mountains, the weather can come down on its own whim. On this day the weather was perfect, cool but gloriously sunny, the river shimmering in the valley far below.
But since this was a mountain stalk, there was an initial unknown: Could we actually climb this mountain and reach the animals? There was a time when I never wondered such things, but as the years add up and the knees creak, it’s a question that is increasingly present. Also, I was at a disadvantage. With adrenaline flowing, Donna would get there; she’d waited a long time for a crack at a better tahr. Me, along for the ride, who knows? Daughter Brittany was with us, also along for the climb…and perhaps wondering what she’d bought into. Our friend Dr. Sadaf Khan was with us, too…she was also hunting tahr, but at the cabin, she’d lost the coin toss for first shot to Donna. But she was carrying her rifle and a double wasn’t impossible, so on her first morning in tahr country she probably had some adrenaline going. Bilkey we don’t worry about. This mountain is his office, and he makes a tough climb appear effortless.
Around the corner we found a long grassy ridge to ascend, steep as only, in my experience, the mountains of New Zealand and the Caucasus of Russia—but it wasn’t treacherous, just slow, a few steps, stop to breathe. It led us straight up to rocky faces that seemed impossibly far away…and then, after a few thousand steps and a few hundred stops, we were there and could turn the corner. The wind was still good, but of course we had no idea if the tahr were still there or had gone up into the unclimbable rocks above. But now we would sidehill laterally, moving slowly and trying to be quiet. Hey, it wasn’t my tahr, but the adrenaline was pumping anyway. This just might work!
We moved forward a few hundred yards, cuts and fingers giving
cover. Then Chris spotted some females straight ahead and a bit below, just a bit farther along the mountain from where we’d left them hours earlier. Then a younger male up above…the older bull must be there, assuming his place in the herd. He was, straight ahead, down in a little cut, just his head and shoulders visible. Chris waved the non-essentials to stay put, then ducking low he and Donna moved forward to a slight roll that just might offer a shot. Two hundred fifty yards, slide up a pack. Steep slope, left-handed shooter for a right-handed shot, not comfortable. I crawled forward and got my pack under her left elbow. Steady now, she took her time, found the bull, waited for him to turn broadside…and took the bull tahr she’d wanted for a long time. In all these years I’ve seem few mountain hunts go so smoothly. We had days of fine New Zealand hunting lying ahead, but this was a perfect day on a perfect mountain, a day worth remembering.