Trip Report – Branch Subsidised Fly-In Hunting Trip in Carkeek, Tararuas
Richard O’Driscoll, Phil Gray, Steve Elgar – Author: Richard O’Driscoll
It was snowing on Mt Ruapehu as we drove south from our annual ‘summer’ holiday at Turangi. The weather didn’t look flash and I thought for sure that it would be my third cancelled DA fly-in trip. Even though there was a phone message from Duncan at lunchtime saying it was ‘all go’ I didn’t really believe it until we were all getting our safety briefing at Amalgamated Helicopters at 5:30 pm. After all, it was still pouring down as we drove through Pahiatua at 4 pm! But miraculously the weather cleared and we were on our way.
We may have been a few kilos over-weight, but JD didn’t blink too hard and we were soon airborne. After five minutes in that magic carpet that is a helicopter, Phil and I were dropped off at Arete Hut with our packs. It is scarcely believable for someone used to doing it the hard way – one minute chatting in the carpark, the next at 1300 m looking west out over Kapiti. After a few quick happy snaps, Jarred and Steve were off to Carkeek with most of the gear, where Phil and I planned to join him after traversing the tops.
Arete was a tidy little hut, not the dogbox bivy I was expecting. Phil and I chucked our gear in and headed out for an evening hunt. We headed north up the ridge towards the ‘Sika Saddle’ and were soon glassing the headwaters of the Mangahao River to the west and Arete Stream to the east. It was a magic clear crisp night, but no deer were about, and the sign was limited to a couple of oldish prints on the sidle track near the toilet. We got back to the hut at 10 pm and had a big fry-up of Phil’s prime steak.
The wind must have started about 2 am and by the time the alarm went at 5 am it was howling nor’west and we were completely clagged in. ‘I don’t mean to alarm you’ says Phil, ‘but it might pay to put all the high-points into the GPS!’ So I dug out the E-trex and soon we were on our way. Turns out Phil and I were a perfectly matched team -he was slow uphill and I was slow downhill. Despite this we made steady progress up Lancaster and onto Thompson, but the wind was biting and there were certainly no thoughts of hunting. Hard to imagine how the old cullers did this in only an old japara coat with no modern technology to guide the way!
By the time we hit Carkeek it had started to clear a little, so we dragged the binoculars out of the pack. Our frequent rest stops became ‘glassing stops’ and we could claim to be hunting. As we dropped down the ridge the upper Waiohine Flats became visible in the mist and Phil announced he could see a deer high up in the valley. He has much better eyes than me, because it was an age before I could follow his directions and actually see the stag in the leatherwood. It was a nice animal with 6-8 points and we watched it for 15 minutes until it disappeared into the leatherwood gut for good. I was rapt – I’d actually seen a deer on the Tararua tops. Five minutes later I’d seen two as Phil spotted a hind on a grass terrace further down the flats. As they were both at least a kilometre away and most of that straight down they were safe from us!
A glimpse of the Carkeek Hut toilet at the bottom of the ridge provided incentive and with the thought of one of Nan’s homemade peanut brownies in mind we scrambled up and down the last steep bits. We eventually rolled into the hut at 2 pm to find Steve asleep with the fire roaring and the ‘hut deer’ hanging in the meat safe.
Steve had seen stag in the top of the Waiohine from the chopper after they had dropped us off, seen a hind that evening, and then spotted the hind on the slip below the hut at the end of his morning bush-hunt. A great start and at least the team wouldn’t be blanked.
The cup of tea and brownies were as good as anticipated, and with the wind howling and the clag coming in again the hut was the place to be. I was contemplating an evening walk, but after the third beer and a huge feed of chops and potatoes that idea lacked any appeal, so after listening to the rubbish on the 8 pm radio sched and talking some ourselves, we had an early night.
The wind stopped and the rain started during the night, and I was the only one making it out the door at 6 am. I headed down the ridge towards Park Forks for a kilometre and then dropped over the Park River side 100 m or so and started to sidle back towards the hut. I soon hit a good game trail with great sign and I went into super stealth mode. Unfortunately the wind was gusting round a bit and despite high expectations I didn’t see or spook anything. About 9 am the mist started to clear and the sun streaked into the goblin forest. Bush hunting lost its appeal and I headed back to the hut.
Phil was out hunting the bush on the Waiohine side when I got back and Steve was chopping firewood. I had a quick cuppa and then headed up to the knob above the hut to glass. Steve joined me about 11:30 am and said ‘I’ve made a picnic, let’s go for a good look-around’. So we headed up the ridge in the warm sunshine. Stopping on the high point half way up Carkeek Ridge we looked down into the bottom of Waiohine Flats and Steve quickly found a hind sunning herself across the river from the terrace where Phil and I had spotted one the day before. She was in a great place and would have been difficult to approach from the river. She was still there when we walked back 6 hours later!
It was now hot, so after a sandwich I stretched out in the sun and had a nap. Steve reckoned it was too warm to sleep so he kept looking. He woke me at 3 pm with the news he’d found another deer. What a guy – he finds deer for you when you sleep! As we watched one spiker became two and it was an easy decision to head towards them even though they were on the side of a nasty steep gully.
Our initial plan was to get down to the rocky outcrop above them and shoot from there. However it was at least 400 m from the deer when we got there and without a range-finder and with the animals partly obscured in the leatherwood it wasn’t a shot either of us wanted to make. Now I can understand why some guys have special long-range rifles.
After watching for another 30 minutes and with the wind gusting straight down we decided to come round from the other side and went up and over Carkeek peak. When we got to where we wanted to go down it looked very different and we couldn’t see the deer. We waited 45 minutes and there was still no sign, but after some debate about whether they were just bedded down or whether they had got our wind and disappeared, we decided that there were easier deer and headed back up the ridge.
We stopped in the saddle between the two high points on Carkeek ridge about 6 pm and started to glass. We had only been there 5 minutes when Steve muttered ‘Yes!’ He’d seen a flicker with his naked eye and the binoculars revealed a hind emerging from the bush. ‘Let’s get down there quick before she’s out in the open’ Steve said and we were off. The first 200 m was in plain view but we made it down into a small gully out of sight. A quick glance showed the hind head-down with her bum facing us and Steve gave me a big grin and thumbs up. Only 100 m unsighted to a shooting position she was as good as ours. Wrong – we both felt the gust of wind hit our backs as we got down the gully and were rapidly chambering rounds. Steve got to the knob first in time to see two rumps disappearing into the bush. The ‘if onlys’started and we quickly decided we should have taken the long way instead of the direct route.
Still there were two hours of light left and we headed a bit further down the ridge to glass another bush edge. I decided I’d head down and get into a shooting position before anything appeared so went down about 300 m so the bush edge was all within range. Steve stayed on the ridge. My plan was to sit until dark and Steve’s last words were that he would have a quick look over the other side and he’d be back at the hut before dark.
Nothing appeared in front of me, but I swear I heard a fawn call and even looked around to see if it was Steve trying to get my attention. I headed back on dark and met Phil outside the hut at 9:45 pm. No sign of Steve. After a quick debrief we decided to hang a light on the toilet that would be visible from up the ridge and give him a bit longer to appear. I decided that Steve must have got a deer, and was delighted to be proved right 30 minutes later when we finally saw a headlight coming down the ridge. A shattered and bloodied Steve chucked a set of hindquarters on the chopping block and gave us a quick account of how he’d spied a hind lying down at the bottom of a steep ridge, taken a couple of photos, shot her, and then had a mission in the leatherwood to get down there and back up with the meat.
A feed of schnitzel and mashed potato and a couple of VBs soon had Steve in a slightly better frame of mind and we hit the bunks after a long and successful day when we’d seen 7 deer between us.
Another clear morning when I looked out at 5 am Monday, so I grabbed the rifle and headed up the ridge again. A cold southeast wind was blowing, but conditions were ideal and I was surprised I didn’t see anything in 3 hours of looking from all the vantage points. Perhaps JD was right and it was a couple of weeks too early for the deer to be up high.
Steve had mentioned he’d left the shoulders from his hind on a bush where he’d shot her and I tried to get down there and recover the meat. I wasn’t even game to get down the rocky ridge to where he had shot from, let alone get over the side, so I could well understand the mission he’d had the previous evening.
When I got back at 9 am the others were just finishing boning out the venison. I had a quick look on the hut slip (nothing again) and then we had a massive brunch of steak and eggs to try and get the weight down for the trip out – at least that was the theory. Dining was interrupted when Steve was attacked by a giant ichnumen wasp, which later posed for a photo on his hat.
After a good clean-up we were ready on the heli-pad at 11 am. Some happy trampers will no doubt be delighted to find the half-dozen beers and tin of fruit we left! JD buzzed in to pick us up at 12:15 pm and we had a scenic flight back to Holdsworth checking out various slips on the way. I actually felt better about my morning’s failure when we didn’t spook out any deer from all the favoured possies.
We heard in the ‘de-brief’ back at Phil’s that another two groups had been successful with Lee getting an 8-pointer at Cow Creek and Graham shooting one at Totara Flats so all in all a pretty good weekend for Wairarapa DA. I’ll definitely be lining up again next year!