By Mike McClunie
The Jacobs or Makawhio River is tucked in between the Karangarua and Mahitahi Valleys. It runs westwards from its headwaters, guarded by the huge sheer faced walls of the Bannock Brae Range to the south and the Bare Rocky Range to the north.
The lower stretch of the river is a popular whitebait and trout fishing destination and big cunning browns can be seen cruising their beats in the gin-clear water below the SH6 bridge at the settlement of Jacobs River. Most of the upper river is within the Hooker Landsborough Wilderness Area and is a no-landing zone, except during the Tahr Ballot period from May to July. Contact DOC in Haast regarding these sites. There isn’t a walking track up the valley either, so access is fairly limited. Helicopter access into the valley and mountain lands below the Wilderness Area is allowed year round. There are some good opportunities for hunting the Big Three here and also feral goats on the south side of the river. The upper valley is rugged, steep and formidable and about as close to perfect as a tahr could wish for. But the tahr wasn’t what brought the early stalkers here. It was those Scottish stags, on their quest for new feeding grounds. Such was the ruggedness of the head of this valley that instead of invading from the east via the Landsborough as they did in the neighbouring rivers, deer populated from the lower Mahitahi. The first sighting was a stag in 1937. One of these first stalkers was Fred Stratford, who witnessed the herds of stags spending summer in the upper valley and then returning to the hind country of the Mahitahi for the rut. In 1951 Fred shot a 12 pointer at close range in the bush that went 46” long and 43” wide and the following year he got two that were 44” wide, a twelve that was 46” long, and a seventeen that went 47” in length – truly huge trophies! One of the best trips us McClunie boys have done together recently was into this country. Our target wasn’t the huge red stags of the days gone by, but just to have a walk about and search for a decent tahr or chamois and plenty of meat for Wayne’s and my hungry little families. Game meat is great way to fill the freezer and just a bit more fun than walking around the meat section of a supermarket! Chamois meat has great flavour but is tough; sausages and mince are the best for these wiry little beasts. Tahr is good, especially young ones and big old bulls are good minced and mixed with venison; or remove the large leg muscles and get them corned.
There is another DOC heli-pad in this area that could be used as an alternative access to the head of the Harkness valley. It is the Otorehinaiti Saddle heli-pad and is at the very most southern part of the valley.
James Scott flew us in and we set up our camp above the scrub on a small tussock bench close to a creek, and soon had our three man MacPac tent set up with a fly stretched out from a nearby bluff for cooking and sitting out the rain. Rain is almost always a part of a South Westland adventure and I wasn’t taking any risks so I had a full kit of Swazi gear, including a new Tahr Anorak. Getting out bashing through the wet scrub on a cold rainy day wasn’t going to faze me this time! Just after camp was set up I noticed a set of what could only be deer’s ears above a big boulder in the scrub across the creek. No handy venison ever escapes Wayne and after a short sneak around to a handy shooting rock, we had lots of it. Sitting under the fly having a cuppa later that day I glassed a big bull tahr mooching around amongst the flaxes and scrub in an old avalanche chute. It had been pretty wet and there were a lot of animals spotted about, but this one stood out. His mane was bleached from the winter’s exposure to the elements and he wasn’t hard to pick up, even at the distance he was at. There was a lot of light left in the day, so the decision was easy – I filled my day bag quickly and started down the most direct course to close the distance between us. In the mountains sometimes the most direct route isn’t always the quickest. This became obvious pretty quickly and after some serious scrub bashing and boulder negotiating, I knew this wasn’t going to be my way of return! From down in the creek below where I last saw the bull I started glassing. Three buck chamois materialised from the alpine scrub and began playing around on the slip in front of me. I was contemplating shooting the largest, which was around the 9.5” mark, but I kept focused on my goal, which was still hidden from me in the scrub far above. I finally picked him up at about 400m range working his way uphill. This is the first time I could judge his horns and I was impressed, they seemed to be as wide as his body and the scrub parted around them as he forged his way up through it. Wasting no time, I sneaked out of sight of the chamois and climbed with the wind behind me until my lungs nearly burst; this bull wasn’t getting away! I spotted him again briefly at 30m – no chance at a shot, but plenty of clear tussock country beyond him. I knew he had winded me and I climbed quickly to the small ridge he’d disappeared over. The next time I saw him was at over a hundred metres, across the avalanche chute and heading up across the tussock to the shelter of some serious scrubby bluffs. No time was wasted in diving onto a flax bush, chambering a round and shooting the moving animal. The shot was below average, but succeeded in breaking his spine and dropping him – a second shot and he was mine. On getting over to him I realised I had just killed a serious bull, the old boy had spent 14 years walking these mountains, with 13” horns worn back in typical West Coast fashion and at 11” wide, it’s a really neat trophy. Back at camp via a higher more pleasant route, the boys were pretty impressed – dad had stalked a chamois and left it and Wayne had chased a couple of bulls, but never got a decent look at them. The next day was a nice one and Wayne and I went down valley and dad hunted close to camp (you’re allowed to do that when you’re 69!) We were en route towards a good looking bull when Wayne spotted a lone buck chamois across the river on top of a house-sized boulder. A look through the binos confirmed that it was a big one and, due to the scarceness of big buck chamois these days, the tahr hunt was aborted. A stalk through the scrub to a boulder which would have us 200m from the buck went perfectly. With Wayne settled in behind his .308 we waited for the buck to stand. The horns looked exceptional. He was a clever animal, sitting with his head upwind watching for danger up valley with the wind coming
from behind him to warn of danger from downstream. As he stood the valley echoed with the boom which signalled the end of the buck. He was a ripper, 10.5” and at 11 years old with wide horns – another great head on day two of our hunt. We continued after the big bull later and unfortunately Wayne missed the 270m shot uphill at the feeding bull. When we got back to camp, we found that dad had shot a nice buck as well – the meat safe was filling up. Next morning had Wayne and me hunting together with the plan that I would shoot the chamois and him the tahr. Well this is tahr country, and we soon had a couple of bulls spotted, and after another great stalk and a wait, Wayne had his bull. Nothing great, but the photos I took of his mate from a few metres made the whole trip worth it. If you are contemplating a trip into this valley, get in touch with DOC in Haast and put your name in for a tahr block in the ballot period. It’s as steep and rugged as it gets, but you don’t come to Westland for an easy time do you? Copyright 2015 NZRod&Rifle