My wife, Barb, and I were precariously perched 3,000 feet up on a very steep and slippery New Zealand mountainside. Two hundred-twenty yards directly above us lay two bedded Himalayan bull tahrs, almost totally hidden by huge clumps of tussock grasses. Making matters worse was the fact that the early morning fog was filtering down the mountain and making visibility difficult.
Our hunting guides, Kirk, a life-long New Zealander, and Trevor, a native Michigander, had years of guiding experiences from the Yukon to Mexico and everywhere in between. Unlike many guides who I have had over the years, these two men were totally wired and focused to make sure that I had the most positive and successful hunt of my life. It was obvious from our first handshake that they were unflinchingly determined to make this happen.
Kirk had his 60x spotting scope glued to the bigger bull and could barely see one ear and part of a horn. Trevor helped me arrange my bipod in a steadier manner and whispered to me, “Bill, just chill. He is eventually going to stand and when he does you have to shoot him!”
I was totally exhausted from the zigzag climb up the 45-degree slope. My breathing was labored and my upper thighs were severely cramped and aching. Knowing that a world-class trophy animal was directly in my crosshairs, while three other sets of eyes were intently scrutinizing everything that was transpiring, did nothing to stop my hands from trembling like a belt sander in the hands of a mere child.
More than an hour passed, but in an instant everything changed as Kirk exclaimed, “He’s up! Take him directly in front of his chest. Now!”
All I could see through my Leupold scope was the tahr’s head and one horn, as well as a small part of his neck and chest that was not concealed by the bunch grasses.
Kirk was adamant, “See his head, see his neck? Aim just left of the big clump of tussock that is obscuring part of his chest! You have to shoot him now!”
I eased off the safety, steadied my rifle and squeezed off a round. The .280 Remington boomed and the tahr exploded out of his lair—full blast down the mountainside and disappeared over a ledge 125 yards to our left.
We all had heard a deep thud shortly after the rifle discharged. Both guides leaped to their feet, high-fived each other and me and shouted that the tahr was a monster—the biggest one they had seen shot in years.
Barb joined the celebration as we all stood and breathed a sigh of relief. I was so sure that I would fold at crunch time, knowing that on occasion my shooting prowess had gone south just like my golf swing did some twenty-five years ago.
We scrambled across the slope and, after what seemed like an eternity, located the beautiful trophy. The tahr was piled up not more than 75 yards from where he absorbed the impact of my shot and was even bigger than the guides had imagined.
His horns measured 14 inches and the bases were 9 inches in circumference. Kirk counted the rings on his horns and aged the tahr at and unbelievable 9 1/2 years. We admired the trophy, held its horns in our hands, and felt the total exhilaration and sense of accomplishment that all successful hunters experience.
This incredible journey began on March 21, as Barb and I boarded a flight in Fort Myers, FL, en route to Christchurch, New Zealand. Twelve and a half hours later, we arrived safely in Auckland. We quickly boarded another flight to Christchurch where we were met by our guides and then rode one and a half hours to the Woodbury Safari Lodge near Geraldine.
Our hosts, Lindsay and Kim Fraser, were very cordial and inviting and their rustic lodge was 5-star, to say the least. After unpacking our gear and freshening up, we were treated to a gourmet meal and a very relaxing evening.
The next day Barb accompanied the two guides and me on the previously described tahr hunt. We all agreed that the first day’s hunt would be very hard to top. Little did we know that our second day of hunting—this time for European red stag—would take no “second fiddle” to any previous hunting experience.
Our stag hunt was on foot and took place in terrain that was as spectacular and scenic as any I have ever seen. Barb and I and our two guides walked up a beautiful grassy draw that was ringed with huge stands of deep blue-green Douglas fir on one side and thick and heavy grassy cover on the opposite side. Ginormous limestone outcroppings that had been heavily eroded over many eons dotted the landscape and erupted out of lush green hillsides as if they were the fossilized molars of long extinct dinosaurs.
After a long walk up the draw, we peeked over the side of an almost vertical ravine and spotted a lone stag bedded on the far hillside. We ranged him at 230 yards but, before we could set up, he caught our scent and bolted out, up, and over the ridge.
Two hours later, while traversing our way up another challenging ridge, we heard the distinctive mating call—a “roar”—of a mature stag. As we crested the top, we quickly surmised that the stag was bedded along a stream some 200 yards below us in a perilously deep and narrow ravine.
All three of us, with the wind in our faces, belly-crawled across the side of the ravine and closed the gap to within 125 yards of the bedded animal. The waiting game was on and after 30 minutes, the stag slowly stood and began to raise his front leg.
We all knew what was going to happen. Kirk immediately urged, “Take him now! Take him! The .280 Remington barked and the stag hunched high and flipped a full 360, head over heels into the creek bottom.
We were at its side in seconds and marveled at the lack of “ground shrinkage”—the stag was an enormous 10 x 10 and later measured out at 371 3/8 inches of antlers. Barb took one look at me, smiled, and said, “I am so proud of you. This is the trophy of a lifetime!” We all nodded our heads in total agreement.
While Trevor caped and quartered the animal, Barb and Kirk hiked back to get the Toyota truck. Then we loaded all our gear and the stag into the bed and headed back to the lodge.
Have you ever heard of the old saying, “Three’s a charm?” Well, our third and last day of hunting was even more exciting than the first two days. Barb took a break and went to a local festival with our hostess and her two daughters while my two guides and I ventured to an area not unlike the scenery in such movies as Vertical Limit, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogy—all filmed in New Zealand.
The mountains were socked-in with thick fog from about 3,500 feet and up, so we decided to drop down just low enough to be below the fog cover. The guides were “studying” an area with an almost scary pitch when they suggested that we should all go on a “walk.” Remember reading in World History class about the Bataan Death March?
They had no mercy on me. We began a vertical climb that within the first hundred yards I wanted to throw in the towel and call it a day. The only way I could walk sideways without cascading down the mountain was to grab the nearest clump of thick tussock grass on my high side and pull myself along to the next clump of grass. I tried to keep my eyes focused in front of me instead of on the thousand-foot drop that clutched at my every step.
After what seemed like hours, I finally labored to the top where our walking became far more horizontal and not so vertical. It turned out to be a spectacularly beautiful early autumn day. The brilliant sunshine was illuminated against a picture-perfect sky blue backdrop punctuated by intermittent puffy snow white cloud formations.
All of that was complemented by a sea of limitless lush green grasses that blanketed the valley floor below. There was just the slightest hint of a gentle breeze with mild and inviting temperatures in the high 60s.
Early in the afternoon, Kirk spotted about a dozen Arapawa sheep grazing on a plunging and cavernous hillside. They were 440 yards below us. We quickly closed the distance to about 300 yards.
The group of sheep fed together in a bunch, so it took us a long time to observe them with our spotting scopes before we could determine which was the biggest ram. He had an oversized jet-black face and thick, deep rust colored wool dreadlocks. His massive horns sported full curls with a major-league spread.
An endless amount of time elapsed and the sheep still had not put any significant space between themselves. Trevor had way more patience than I. He saw that I was frustrated with not being able to shoot. He nudged my shoulder and said, “We have all afternoon, Bill. Just hang in there and you will get your chance.”
Finally, after forever and a day, the big ram separated from the flock and gave me an opportunity. Although I know my .280 Remington far better than I know my wife of 41 years, this was not the kind of shot that I was enamored about taking. He was 330 yards directly below me at a very severe angle.
Kirk tapped me on the shoulder and I knew that was the all-clear signal and squeezed the trigger. At the report, the ram dropped but instantly got back up. Immediately the ram got back with all his buddies and moved up and down the mountain as a group. He bedded down and I sneaked and slid down to within 220 yards of the sheep. The big ram stood up and I leveled the crosshairs a little lower than I normally would aim. Both the guides said in unison, “Shoot, Bill, shoot!” I did and the ram dropped in his tracks.
This was the third day of my hunt and the third round of high-fives and “atta boys!” The guides were elated. We clambered down the slope and could not believe how big the ram was. Its heavy and spiraled horns each stretched the tape to a mind-boggling 37 inches. All three of us were hooting and jumping up and down. One has to be a very hard-core hunter to remotely understand this sophomoric behavior.
We capped off our final evening at the lodge by watching the brilliant orange and yellow sunset over nearby mountain tops through the massive wall of glass fronting the great room of the lodge. I looked at Barb and said, “It may never get any better than this!” She smiled and nodded her head in agreement.
That night, the skies finally cleared. Barb and I stood side by side, peered into the heavens and then saw the Southern Cross for our very first and, most likely, last time. Standing there together I could faintly hear in the far recesses of my mind, Crosby, Stills & Nash singing their 1982 hit, “Southern Cross.”–Bill Benigni