The mountains of New Zealand are steap and rugged - even by Alaska standards. Here is what you need to know in order to survive your hunting adventure in the Southern Alps.
If you are going to hunt New Zealand, you can hunt the mountains, or you can steer clear of the big stuff and hunt the hill country. Real quick, here are the species that will likely take you into big mountain country...
Tahr and chamois are definitely included as ‘mountain game’ and live on the east and west coasts of the Southern Alps. Red deer are often found in the alpine, so they would qualify as well. Fallow deer and most of the other deer species (Sika, Rusa, Sambar) are typically found at lower elevations and are more prevalent on the North Island.
The bottom line is that if you want to do a tahr, chamois or free-range red deer hunt in New Zealand, you’ve got to go into it with your eyes wide open and be prepared for the mountains.
The Southern Alps of New Zealand are legitimate mountains. What they lack in total elevation, they more than make up for in steep, technical, and downright shitty terrain that is broken up by torrential rivers, glaciers and rock faces that range from the tops of the peaks to river bottom gorges.
I don’t mean to offend anyone here but if you think you are mountain savvy because you have hiked the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) or you've done a little peak bagging in Colorado, you need to read this article very carefully.
If you want a bit of sobering reading, just google ‘missing persons’ and any number of keywords for hiking (tramping) or hunting in New Zealand’s Southern Alps and you will get enough search results to keep you reading late into the night.
In fact, just in June of 2019 (the month I’m writing this), there were two separate men that went missing in the mountains of the South Island and whose bodies were just recently recovered.
In case you are wondering, or your bullshit meter is starting to ping, I am NOT being overly-dramatic or blowing this out of proportion. Mucking about in New Zealand’s Southern Alps was an eye-opener to me and I consider myself to be a mountain savvy hunter.
Here is my advice for planning any hunt in New Zealand:
Sticking to these five guidelines will help you navigate New Zealand’s treacherous terrain and (sometimes) brutal weather and live to tell about it. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to go prepared and keep your head straight and your feet on the ground.
Stick To The East Coast
The East Coast of New Zealand’s Southern Alps is not inherently safer than the West Coast, but on average is has milder terrain, better weather and in many cases better access.
I’m not exactly sure how to describe the West Coast of those Southern Alps to you except maybe this -- unless you live on a cliff, you will be shocked at how steep and gnarly those mountains are. They are just downright shitty. You can not get around in them easily - and there are many many areas - whole ridges and basins in fact - that you would literally need climbing gear just to get into.
I went into those mountains very confident that I would be able to handle anything that I encountered with ease. After three days of just trying to figure out how to navigate the terrain close to our camp, I knew I would need to rethink not only my over-inflated confidence level but also my technical skills, gear and inexperience before tackling those mountains again.
The East Coast is broader country and is generally easier to get around in, but it is still very steep and can be covered by cliffs, bluffs, glaciers and snow drifts.
No matter what mountains you hunt in New Zealand you really have to be very careful and know your limits.
If you have less than 2-3 seasons minimum of off trail, backcountry mountain or canyon hunting experience (I’m talking about the worst sheep and goat terrain you can find), I would highly recommend finding someone with significantly more mountain experience than you to go with you.
If you don’t have significant alpine experience, or some kind of technical mountaineering experience including solid survival skills, river crossing, and rock climbing experience, I’d stay away from the West Coast.
Stay In Easy Country
Don’t be stupid. There is relatively mild country in the Southern Alps. Find it and hunt it. Do not get yourself into steep, technical terrain where you have a much higher likelihood of getting hurt or dying. There is nothing in New Zealand that is worth it.
Beware of large cliffs, small bluffs and everything in between. Be very careful of following creek bottoms and watch for gorges that you might be tempted to try and push through instead of going around.
Stay away from glaciers and ice fields unless you are a very experienced alpine climber and you and your partners are prepared and have the gear you will need to navigate ice and crevasses.
Be very, very careful around rivers and streams. A lot of people go missing in river bottoms when they attempt to cross after a heavy rain has raised the river level to unsafe levels. If you have to cross a river or stream to access country, make sure that you can get weather updates and race out of the mountains if rain is coming, or take enough food and shelter to wait out unsafe crossing conditions.
Most importantly, be aware of your surroundings, always stay alert and plan ahead on a day-by-day AND moment-by-moment basis. If you ever think you are getting outside of your comfort zone, back up, retreat and stay safe.
Wait On Good Weather
Aside from the terrain in New Zealand, the weather can be brutal. Weather systems coming off of the ocean slam into the west side of the range and can bring winds of over 100 mph and heavy rainfall (more like torrential downpour). Although the Southern Alps push clouds up and create a rain shadow on the eastern side, heavy storms still punch through the mountains and can create heavy winds and heavy rains on the East Coast as well.
If the high winds aren’t enough to rattle you while tromping around in the mountains, the rains can swell rivers and creeks into raging torrents making crossing impossible.
I was super stoked to get into West Coast tahr country during our two weeks in New Zealand. We had really poor weather for the first ten days and I would have been willing to push it and try to get into the mountains even if it meant toughing out bad weather.
Luckily we had friends who dropped a little knowledge on us and soon had us googling historic wind speeds and rainfall on the West Coast because I was having a really difficult time believing their stories. My bullshit meter was pegging but it turns out they weren’t stretching the truth at all and we stayed away from the West Coast until a good weather window opened up.
If you are going into the East Coast of the Southern Alps, you still need to watch the weather closely for rain and high winds.
You can use the website MetVuw for checking the weather forecast in New Zealand. You will want to spend a bit of time before you go, familiarizing yourself with converting mms of precipitation to inches and learning how to read the wind speeds, but it's a great resource.
Go With A Partner
Aside from just being plain careful and smart about hunting in the mountains, going with a good, capable partner is the smartest thing that you can do to be safe.
A couple things about going with a partner though…
Go with someone that you have hunted with before. If you haven’t done a backcountry hunt with someone that you are considering going to New Zealand with, make sure and plan one in the mountains back home and spend at least a couple of nights out together. You really want to make sure that you get along well and can trust each other in the mountains. Your life might literally depend on that person.
Also, make sure that you choose someone with at least equal skills and experience level as you have. The Southern Alps are not a good place to take a newbie. Save that for somewhere closer to home. DO NOT go with someone who takes excessive risks or is reckless!
Working together with a good partner in the mountains and being able to rely on each other’s judgement and experience not only makes the hunt more enjoyable, but it is far safer than going alone, or going with someone who is inexperienced and out of their comfort zone.
You should always have either a Sat phone or a Satellite texting device with an SOS function like a Garmin inReach.
It is always a one, but I highly recommend having a backup along, in case one gets lost or does not function properly. Since you will be hunting with a partner, this is easily accomplished by you both carrying a device.
Make sure that all Sat devices are functioning properly, that they have service, they have minutes or a subscription paid for and that you test them before you go. Just as important, make sure that everyone in your party knows where each device is and how to use it.
I went to New Zealand feeling prepared for anything that the mountains had to offer and honestly I was very humbled.
As a sheep and mountain goat hunting guide in Alaska, I frequently take clients (who often identify as keen mountain hunters) into conditions that push them well past their comfort zones. I found myself in a few situations in the mountains of the West Coast of New Zealand where I was on the outer edge of my comfort zone and that was in some of the milder terrain that we encountered (to get anywhere else, we would have needed ropes and harnesses). We were just not able to access all of the country that we wanted to during that hunt.
My goals for returning to NZ are to build my own alpine skills and experience in Alaska and invest in more alpine gear such as harnesses, ropes, ice axes, crampons, etc. so that I can be safer and better prepared in the Southern Alps.
I want to be able to hunt safer, not be able to push farther and be riskier. I really like my wife and kiddos :-)
The bottom line is this -- if you aren’t a very experienced sheep or goat hunter in BC, the Yukon or Alaska or an experienced mountaineer or alpinist, stay away from the West Coast of New Zealand and be very careful on the East Coast.
I’m not trying to scare you, but just give you solid bit of good advice. You can absolutely have a great tahr hunt in NZ with just average mountain hunting experience, a good kit of gear and some solid fitness, but if you aren’t careful, you could easily get in over your head in those mountains and find yourself in unsafe conditions and a potentially life-threatening situation.
It's better to know now what the risks are and have time to prepare for it than to discover the risks on the mountain!