After 30 hours on the road, and in the air, we arrive in Christchurch, where we are welcomed warmly by Per Agerlund Jacobsen. From there, we continue on the Southern Alps road – along the mountains’ western flank, to be precise – into the least populated region of the whole country. Here, the peaks already wear a thin coat of powdery snow. It is mid-May, autumn in the southern hemisphere. By the way, hunting in the Southern Alps requires a helicopter. The dense jungle that stretches from the coast into the mountains is impenetrable.
As the helicopter gains altitude, we can see Lake Tasman to our right and the snow-covered mountain peaks of Mount Cook National Park to our left. Directly below us: lush jungle. It feels like a dinosaur might emerge at any moment! After a 20-minute flight, we unload our luggage and say goodbye to the pilot, who will pick us up in three days, at 5 p.m. Until then, if we experience an emergency, we can be located by satellite. In just under an hour, we have set up camp. Now the hunt can begin. We’ve mounted the APO-Televid on a tripod – after all, we’re surrounded by 5,000 hectares of land, and we intend to use a map and compass to find chamois.
Off we go, on our first stalk. After only 20 minutes, we are muddy and sweaty, and our hands are bleeding from trying to navigate the hostile vegetation. To cut a long story short: Clouds fill the valley, making visibility above 50 meters very poor. We decide to wait it out. After a little while, the clouds do indeed clear and we spot a young animal on a rocky outcrop. As we position ourselves, it disappears behind a cliff and a magnificent chamois buck takes its place. The rangefinder shows 183 meters, the hunting rifle rests on the shooting stick – and our first New Zealand chamois goes down.
An hour later, we find the buck lying on an avalanche path. A beautiful old animal, with two huge scent glands behind his horns: signs of a pronounced rut. By now, it’s getting dark. Time to head back down to our tent and rest up for tomorrow. At dawn, the mercury has dropped to -7 °C, but the gas stove lets us raise the temperature inside the tent a little. Even Andy, the Jack Russell terrier who never leaves Per’s side, doesn’t want to leave his sleeping bag. Outside, everything is covered in sparkling frost, including the carabiner and binoculars we left outdoors due to our cramped quarters.
We reach the ridge around midday and enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view that makes us forget the exertions of the climb. There is a group of animals about two kilometers away, and we follow the ridge line to reach them.
As we wander through this fantastically beautiful biotope, Per tells us the story of New Zealand’s first chamois herd, brought from Austria in 1907, until a characteristic whistle brings his narrative to an abrupt end.
We have been spotted by a chamois female, now warning her fellow chamois, who immediately run to the bottom of the valley and hide behind a cliff. We watch them as another chamois female appears, then disappears behind a large rock. She is alone. Then she reappears and pauses, just 164 meters from us. She will be our second New Zealand chamois. On the third day, we prepare our first two chamois, storing their meat in the sun-protected stream bed, where a few ice crystals glisten, even in the middle of the day. As always, we are accompanied by keas. These cheeky birds, native to New Zealand’s mountains, are the only known species of alpine parrot.
On the morning of the last day, when we’ve broken camp and are ready to depart, we discover a large buck sitting on a rocky outcrop about two kilometers away. It takes us three hours on foot, crossing streams, cliffs, and several hectares of prickly “monkey scrub”. The buck is 250 meters away, and we are down in the valley, when a branch which Per had grabbed for support, suddenly breaks. The chamois leaps up, but falls down several times as he flees. After minutes that feel like hours, a shooting window opens up at 320 meters. With the shot, the chamois disappears on the other side of the ridge. This area is very steep, but we decide to rope up and search for it. In the end, Per decides to continue with Andy and leaves us behind, along with the GPS transmitter for emergencies. After an hour, we spot him with our binoculars. He is carrying a huge chamois buck. The 16-year-old animal had been suffering from keratoconjunctivitis, dry membranes, in both eyes. The helicopter picks us up at 5 p.m., as promised, just before a huge storm rolls in.
It’s time for us to return to Christchurch and recharge our batteries before exploring the eastern side of New Zealand’s Alps, where we hope to encounter a near-mythical creature: Hemitragus jemlahicus, the Himalayan tahr…