As the dull whine of the helicopter faded into the distance, we looked around at our new home for the next four days. The topo map we’d been looking at just 30 minutes earlier at the hanger certainly didn’t do the terrain justice. I guess they never do. Massive peaks shot up around us, partially obscured by the swirling cloud. This was it. Fiorldland. We had finally made it.
As a photographer and a hunter, I’ve aways wanted to explore this special corner of New Zealand. I’ve been fortunate to visit some incredible places in my line of work but there was something about the sheer scale of the landscapes of Fiordland that kept it on my bucket list. So when I got the call from a client asking if could pack a camera and head south, I quickly rearranged my hectic pre-christmas calendar and booked flights.
A couple of weeks out, the weather was looking grim with torrential rain in the forecast. At least we’d get some good shots of the new jackets and tents I thought, if my new camera survived the trip.
Fast-forward to day one and the sun was starting to poke through as we set up our camp. The plan was to climb high in search of a chamois then work our way down the valley over the next few days to look for a deer. My companions for the trip were Aaron and Adam – a couple of tourist boat captains from Milford who spent the majority of their days off hunting the back blocks of Fiordland.
After a couple of false chamois sightings, we finally located a group on the opposite side of the valley up high. It was 3pm and the chamois were over two kilometers away. We were in for a punishing start to the trip. It’s tough taking photos when you’re busy trying to suck enough air to sustain your burning legs. I was thankful to not be carrying Adam’s hefty 7mm Remington Magnum as we made our way up the steep slope in the punishing summer sun.
A couple of hours later, things finally started to level out. We slowly approached the ridge where we’d spotted the chamois, poking our heads over carefully. There was no sign of the group but we did spot a lone male feeding up a small creek. A plan was quickly hatched and we crept in using a narrow gut as cover. At 230 metres Adam settled in behind the rifle. The chamois knew something was up but with the wind in our faces, he couldn’t work out what we were. A loud boom then a second shot to seal the deal and the chamois was down.
He wasn’t a trophy by any stretch. But the boys assured me the butcher in Te Anau could convert him into a delicious texan chilli and cheese sausage for the Christmas bbq. After a couple of photos, we loaded up the packs and carried on towards the top ridge.
No other animals were spotted that day but as we dragged our weary bodies into camp I had a quiet moment of reflection. Here we were exploring one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand while a global pandemic forced millions around the world into lockdown. After a hectic year I was certainly grateful to call this place home.
Over the nextcouple of days we worked our way down the main valley in search of deer, which turned out to be plentiful in this particular catchment. One evening we spotted a total of nine young stags, all of which were in velvet and still growing out their antlers. Since we were still a full day’s walk from our pickup point, we took the opportunity to sneak in as close as we could and even put the drone up to get some close up shots from above.
That night the infamous Fiordland rain made it’s debut and decided to stick around for the following day. Although this meant we could photograph the wet weather gear, it also proved near-fatal for my new Canon R6, which experienced a fogged sensor towards the end of the trip. Despite the technical difficulties and damp conditions, our spirits were high as we trudged into camp for our last night. The rain had eased and although my dry items of clothing were dwindling, our pick-up point for the following morning was just a stone’s throw from camp. This meant it was time to tip over some Christmas venison.
After half an hour of searching the the binoculars, Aaron spotted a likely candidate; a young stag across the valley feeding on the edge of the bush. It was already 8.30pm and our remaining light was fading. The plan was to drop down to the river below and creep up the opposite face to within 150 meters of the our target. However as we descended the stag stopped feeding and locked onto us. With our options running out, Arron found a nearby rock and settled in behind the rifle. From a respectable 350 metres, Aaron placed the shot just behind the shoulder. The result was one dead deer, 2 happy hunters and a relieved photographer.
Working in these sorts of place is hugely challenging but also very rewarding. You’re often up against the weather, the terrain and the animals. However when these variables come together you feel very lucky to be walking through these mountains with a camera in hand.
All in all, the trip was a huge success. We covered some awesome country and more than fulfilled the client’s brief. It’s given me a taste for Fiordland and fueled my hunger to return.
I urge you, If you get the chance to visit this remote part of New Zealand, seize it with everything you have. You won’t regret it. To see more from our trip, look up Bushbuck Outdoors on Facebook and Instagram or follow Fiordland Boys Hunting NZ on Youtube.