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Tracking tahr in the mountains of New Zealand

Tracking tahr in mountainous wilderness is exhilarating but tough, as Thomas Nissen discovers when he goes stalking in New Zealand

The two helicopters take off almost simultaneously, leaving us in pristine mountain wilderness on the far side of the world. We’re a full day’s hike from civilisation in one of New Zealand’s most remote regions, drawn here to hunt for wild tahr. Our survival for the next six days will depend on our ability and nature’s whims.

There are four of us in the hunting party: my Danish friend Henrik Pedersen, his boss, another hunter who goes by the name of Doctor Schou, and me. We quickly set up camp. It’s tiring work in the deep snow, but the scenery — white mountain peaks that slice razor-sharp into the sky — makes us forget our burning muscles in our eagerness to explore. As soon as our base is established, we head out for a quick afternoon hunt. For 25-year-old Henrik, this will be the last hunt of his 18-month stay in New Zealand.


Annoying as hell

We wade uphill through knee-deep snow. One heavy step follows the next and we sink through the snow’s crust as we shift our weight from one leg to the other. It is tough going and annoying as hell, but eventually, we near the summit where the tahr — large, sure-footed, goat-like creatures — tend to roam. Sure enough, we soon see a small group of them tripping down a steep track a little way above us. None of the hunters tries to take a shot as the day hurries towards night, but we know where to start early the following day.

When Henrik arrived in New Zealand 18 months earlier, he had no idea that he would be part of a hunting expedition like this. A carpenter by trade, he had decided to subsidise an extended stay here by working as a window fitter. He hoped to spend his free time building up a network of sporting contacts for future expeditions to the country.

The surroundings are beautiful but the going is extremely tough

He didn’t know then that the man who hired him, Per Agerlund Jacobsen, didn’t only install windows — he was also an outfitter who organised hunting trips. Henrik was still suffering from jet lag after the flight from Europe when his new employer arranged for his first hunt in his temporary homeland. Less than 24 hours after landing, he had bagged his first New Zealand wild boar and two fallow deer for the freezer. And so it continued for the next 18 months.

The hunter installed many windows, but he also had the pleasure of acting as a hunting guide during the outfitter’s busier periods. Now it was time for Henrik to
leave and the tahr hunt was a last clap on the shoulder from his appreciative boss, the culmination of a happy working relationship.


Ice-cold river

When the going gets tough a little after noon the following day, Henrik and I have repositioned ourselves under the trail where we expect the tahr to appear later. Through our binoculars, we can see Henrik’s boss and Dr Schou crossing the Landsborough River hundreds of metres below us. It may seem insane to climb a snow-capped mountain with the ever-present risk of an avalanche, as Henrik and I had just done, but to wade thigh-deep through an ice-cold river in the middle of winter, then spend the rest of the day in wet boots in the snow, is flat-out crazy. Henrik and I are only pleased that the problem is theirs and not ours.

Suddenly, a young tahr buck appears nearby, putting a halt to our thoughts about our fellow hunters’ sanity. The animal is a couple of hundred metres above us, but Henrik holds his shot. He wants to take one of the older animals still in the rocks higher up. In time, the beast skips back up the mountainside, seemingly oblivious.

The tahr, a goat-like animal, was introduced to the New Zealand alps more than 100 years ago

We return to watching our two friends’ crazy expedition across the valley. By now, they are tiny dots working their way along a dried-up riverbed. A small group of tahr is on the mountainside just above them, and it’s clear the pair are stalking them. We watch the Doc line up his shot before felling what turns out to be the trip’s most beautiful buck, both in terms of horn length and mane.

It may have been my imagination, but I could have sworn I heard the Doctor’s signature ‘He he he he’ laugh as he was congratulated by Per — who no doubt gave the successful hunter one of his characteristic rock ‘n’ roll salutes.


Sheer slope

The evening is almost upon us when a female tahr arrives on the ridge above us. She is soon joined by another, then more still until a small group stands surveying the descent. After a few minutes, the leading female begins to make her way deftly down the sheer-sided slope. The rest get ready to follow. Third in line is a buck, silhouetted in the last light of the day.

Henrik prepares to shoot. The distance is around 270m. Everything is going fast now; the second tahr has made it down from the ledge. The buck sticks its head out, eyeing the toeholds. It isn’t far enough forward for the bullet to be released. If Henrik shoots while the beast is still on the ridge, it could fall backwards and drop 200m to 300m down the mountainside, where we may not be able to locate it. Patience is the only option at this point.

Scanning the wilderness for signs of the tahr — a keen eye is as vital as physical fitness

We are lucky with the wind; the buck never catches our scent. After seconds that feel like an age, the animal moves along the ridge and presents his broadside. The young hunter doesn’t hesitate for a moment and at first it seems like he’s hit the tahr perfectly — the buck jumps, sending females and kids scattering. Henrik later explains he planned to hit the animal high on the shoulder, which would have been instant. We all seek to cause minimal suffering but it doesn’t always work out.

Fortunately for Henrik, the buck runs the right way, stops and takes another bullet to the shoulder. However, it hasn’t read the script and it still doesn’t fall, but instead jumps again. It pauses momentarily before making its last leap to regain the heights. The moment of hesitation is thankfully fatal as Henrik drops it with his third bullet.

The day’s light is almost lost and we agree that there’s no safe way to reach and retrieve the animal before dark. Part of the problem is that it’s tricky
to descend along a sheer slope at night with only the light of a headtorch. Worse, the heavy wet snow is likely to freeze to ice as the temperature drops, which means we’d need to put crampons on our boots and steer our way down with ice axes. We decide not to take the risk and to pick up the tahr the following day instead. There are few scavengers around.



The rest of the trip proves equally successful, but none of us sleeps well. It is raining and the heavy drops against the tent are deafening. It’s not only the noise that keeps Henrik awake, though. He is worrying that the helicopters may not be able to pick us up in such inclement weather. If we get trapped here for more than two days, he will miss his flight back.

Per is also uneasy — though in his case the cause is a painful toe. He injured it in a minor fall a few days ago and the nail has turned blue. But as he took two tahr bucks on the same day, he considers that the trip is going well. He’s a wild type of hunter and suffering minor injuries is all part of the quest to him.

The weather is no better the following day. Nevertheless, we pack everything up in case the helicopters can reach us. Hours pass and uncertainty grows, but then
the choppers crest the mountain to settle lightly on the snow, much to the relief of more than one heart. We stow our stuff and clamber gratefully onboard. As we slide through scattered clouds and over the mountain passes, we reflect on our adventure, Henrik’s last in New Zealand. At least on this trip.

“There’s no safe way to reach and retrieve the shot tahr before dark”