Hunting in the high country
When filmmaker and keen outdoorsmen Struan Purdie got the word that his wife was heading to the big smoke for a girl’s trip, he didn’t waste any time organising an expedition into the Canterbury high country. As Struan found out, there’s something wonderfully Kiwi about three generations coming together to camp, hunt, and pass on invaluable life lessons that can only be learned in the wild.
It’s incredible how much power an outboard loses at altitude. Our somewhat overpowered 4.7 metre Buccaneer normally screams along with its Johnson 115hp, but this morning was a bit different. Packed to the brim with gear and people, we slowly ambled onto the plane across the glassy waters of Lake Tennyson. We were just over 3500 feet above sea level. The plan for the weekend was hatched when my wife announced a girl’s trip to Auckland. I figured it was the perfect opportunity to introduce my three-year-old son Milo to a spot of camping and hunting in the Canterbury high country. Lake Tennyson has always been a special place for me, with countless nights spent under the stars with my own father as a kid. I fired off a message to Dad to see if he wanted to join and before long word got round the extended family with my uncle, cousin and sister-in-law all jumping on board with kids in tow.
After a couple of ferry-loads up the lake from the trucks, we set up camp and started collecting wood for the fire. Spending time in the high country with young children certainly complicates the logistics as there’s a fair bit of required gear, but in other ways it simplifies things. Normally on a trip like this one, it would be a quick bite to eat then up the hill in search of deer or chamois for the afternoon, often returning well after dark. But this time, we had to adjust the pace somewhat. We spent a lazy afternoon throwing stones then building a makeshift swing in the forest. I realised these were the memories I cherished when I was young so it was pretty special to have a hand in creating these for my boy.
We did manage an evening hike up above the bush line with the whole gang. While my uncle stalked the top basins for a careless deer, the rest of us got the kids schooled up on a crucial skill that would set them up for life: running down scree slopes. For any North Islanders reading, scree slopes are the Southern Alps’ natural escalators – long strips of deep stones that you can run and slide down. If you get a good one, it can be a fast-track ticket off the tops after a long day hunting, often dropping up to a thousand meters in elevation right to the valley floor. It was a shaky start for the kids with a couple of initial face plants into the rough gravel as they sorted their balance. After a while, however, we had them leaning back in proper form with arms out and heels dug in as they raced each other down the rocky bank. Needless to say, any deer in the immediate vicinity were well and truly alerted to our presence and had hightailed it out of there. With the sun gone for the day the temperatures started to plummet, so we headed back down to camp to get the fire roaring. We spent the evening cooking marshmallows and drinking wine before climbing into bed for another adventure in the morning.
My earliest memory of Lake Tennyson was spilling a cup of water which instantly froze as it hit the ground, and Sunday morning was about that cold. The plan was for my uncle and I to head away for an early hunt while Dad and the rest of the gang had a sleep in. We boated across the lake and set off climbing the opposite face. Our plan was to gain some elevation then sidle into an adjacent catchment that had held good a mob of deer the last time we’d been here. By the time we had gained enough height, the sun was on us and we slowly inched our way forward, glassing each gully carefully. Before long, I spotted a lone chamois below us which looked half reasonable. With the wind up swirling, he soon caught our wind and started trotting off, quickly followed by two more chamois that had materialised from somewhere below. My uncle crouched down and steadied the rifle. I gave a quick hoot to stop the chamois in its tracks and boom – it crumpled on the spot. As we picked our way down the steep gut, we were pleasantly surprised with a solid 9.5 inch buck chamois. It was late April and he was already in full rut, shacked up with his mate who curiously hung around for 20 minutes and watched us from across the gut. We quickly stripped off the meat and headed back to camp to check on the rest of the crew. Half way there we were met by my cousin and his two kids who had gone for morning wander up the valley in search of a deer. Despite having no luck, the kids had a blast exploring the braided river and using the binoculars to scan the grassy flats.
When we got back to camp, we debriefed the rest of the team who inspected the chamois head, poking and prodding and learning as only kids do. It had been an awesome weekend, full of adventure and good people. Being in the high country is so good for kids. It might take a bit more effort than lumping them in front of a screen or taking them to a playground but I reckon it pays off in the long run. I think back to when my dad introduced me to it and I’m eternally grateful to have inherited a lifelong passion that fuels not only my recreation but also my mental health. It’s become a huge part of my life and I’m looking forward to sharing more of that with my little family.
Article by: Struan Purdie