Chris was born, an only son, to a young single mother in a small rural town in New Zealand. There were no family members who hunted and school did not interest him, but he grew up an avid reader. One day Chris picked up a book written for children, Pack & Rifle, by Philip Holden. It was about a professional hunter and Chris said it resonated with him sparking his interest. Then he read many books about hunting.
At the age of 16, he obtained his New Zealand firearms license and for $150 purchased a WWII .303 Enfield rifle, turning it into a sporter. He went into the bush alone, shot his first deer, a red stag, and considered himself a big game hunter.
A few weeks after that hunt, passing a retirement home, he saw a red stag on display and stopped to find the owner. There he met Eric Gillespie who shared stories of his life as a guide stalking red stags for notable clients in the early 1930s. Chris then decided he wanted to be a guide.
Chris explains the journey from his aspiration to the present. “In the mid-90s, I met the late Bob Penfeld, then owner of Hunt Australia/Hunt New Zealand, who offered me a job guiding all over the South Pacific. At that time, he was the only outfitter specializing in all 15 species in the South Pacific, mainly taken free range. I hunted with many of the greats of the hunting world and many remain friends. While working out of one of the hunting camps, I met my wife Peggy.”
Chris continues with the next chapter. “When Bob sold his safari company, Peggy and I started our own outfitting business, Chris Bilkey Track & Trail Safaris. We utilized the experience and knowledge gained in more than 25 years as a PH and combined it with our own safaris from around the world. Our main aim is to give hunters an experience we would expect if we were booking a safari for ourselves. Our moto is ‘Personal Professional Safaris’ working from our base in Geraldine, on the South Island of New Zealand.”
Bilkey’s Safaris main hunting area consists of 30,000 acres of private land hunted over the past two decades. On this ground there is some of the best free range walk-up hunting available, along with managed trophy red stag herd and fallow deer, rams and wapiti, chamois, goats and all the other South Pacific species of game can also be hunted.
Chris comments on what distinguishes his operation from others. “After hunting Ibex, tur and Rocky Mountain goat in the mountains of Asia and Alaska, a tahr hunt in New Zealand ranks as one of the greatest mountain hunt experiences a hunter will have. To be able to offer a quality free range foot hunt for tahr and trophy class red stags, two of New Zealand’s most desired game, within the same hunting area is one of the things that sets us apart from other New Zealand safari companies.”
Over the years, Chris has used various rifles and now personally uses a Blaser R8 in 7mm Rem. Mag for mountain hunting and a CZ 550 in .416 Rigby for backup on buffalo hunts in Australia.
”I like my hunters to use whatever rifles they shoot well while on safari. Rifles chambered for .30-06 and .300 H&H cartridges have worked fine for over 100 years and still work well today,” Chris stated.
Peggy works at teaching their community the benefits of trophy hunting. They run an open home for Scouts and school groups, showing them the trophies skins/hides collected on their safaris worldwide. They gift meat from their hunters to community members.
Chris details his work with SCI. “I have been involved with SCI for many years and now being a Master Measurer of trophies for the Record Book has helped me better understand the goals and awards hunters seek. I have guided first time safari hunters to reach their goals and have seen a youth or novice hunter take their first big game. I have had some of the great names in the hunting world achieve their goals with me and I am humbled to be part of their journey. One of the most memorable is Renee Snider, SCI Diana Award winner and the first woman to receive the Weatherby Award.
Chris continued. “All hunters are important to us, but one hunt last year is a milestone. It was a hunt for a free range whitetail buck for Larry Higgins who had shot all of the game available free range in the South Pacific. Over the years we have hunted together many times. If we did not get what Larry was after, he would re-book and try again. He was missing a New Zealand free range whitetail buck, one of the most difficult trophies to hunt in this country. We had the worst luck on this animal and while president of SCI, Larry put hunting on hold. After stepping down, he tried again. This time luck was on his side and he shot a high scoring whitetail buck. I was happy to be part of his journey.”