Dark Forest Deep Sea, by Richard Hall
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From: Dark Forest Deep Sea, by Richard Hall
A HOOK IN MY HEART
On a dark river at the end of a lonely road I found it. For me, it needed to happen when I was on my own, away from the city, away from the people, immersed only in the simplicity of nature. There is no way to ignore it then. If you go out there on your own, I mean just you and the wilderness, it will breathe right down into your soul and you will know what I am talking about. In the wild there is an element that cannot be seen, or be tasted, heard or smelt – it can only be felt, and it is a feeling of enchantment.
My romantic notion that day had been to drive and find a lonely road. To drive through a forest. To be on my own. To fish for a trout in my favourite season, autumn. I’d followed the bleached bones of Mount Allan Road weaving through blackened pines, stones crackling in unison as my tyres rumbled over them. The road eventually dissolved into a thicket of willow saplings and gorse, so I parked and followed an overgrown goat track, waving my fishing rod carefully to avoid snagging it on the branches. A twig poked me in the eye. I sat for a moment to let the tears wash the irritation away. The leaves of the willows were turning yellow. I could smell autumn in the air.
The Taieri River was the colour of black tea. A slick strap like molasses writhing over the land, taking on the character of the lonely tributaries that poured into it hundreds of kilometres upstream. Born of a desert, it ran through steppe, golden grasslands and schist rock plains before finally reaching out into the Pacific Ocean.
For trout fishing I only needed three things: my rod, a net and the archetypal fisherman’s vest festooned with hooks, lines, zips and pockets. I assembled the two-piece fly-fishing rod, cursing at the slowness of the process, my thumbs in the way. A hook caught in the webbing of my hand and I eased it out gently before the barb took hold of more flesh. The complexity of the equipment frustrated me. It always felt like it took too long to get ready.
I stripped line from the reel and fed it through the rod guides. I hadn’t let out enough, so that when I reached the last guide, it pulled tight then snapped back to the reel with an audible ping. Cursing the fiddly process, I patiently let out more line, passing it through all the guides and out to the tip. To the end of the line I tied sections of thin nylon tippet and leader. Like a dog trembling at the bowl for dinner, my hands shook in anticipation.
With the technical work complete, I looked up at the river and the trees. The green and yellow colours of the willows swooned in the temporary myopia as I refocused my eyes. I dipped my boots into the water’s edge and waded into serenity.
I set about the motions of casting the feathered artificial fly, working the rod mechanically back and forth like a metronome, the line flowing overhead in graceful loops. Casting this speck of feathers and wire, weighing less than a gram, was achieved by using a weighted line impregnated with an element like lead. I cast upstream, as I had read you’re supposed to, but wondered what the authors of fishing books would make of my attempt. At best I could manage 15 metres. I blushed in embarrassment at my poor cast, which was perplexing given that no one else was there to see it.
Why should I worry? The fly came to rest on the surface of the water, pinching the edges of the surface film and pulling them against its body like a robe. It meandered through micro whirls and ripples on the oily river. With every cast the line uncoiled, stretching out like the tongue of a lizard, letting the clear tippet fall delicately. The fly rode high on the water, drifting side to side within the eddies, waiting for a trout to sup it down. Time took on the quality of the river, a mysterious and endless flow.
At last, an unsuspecting brown trout emerged from the water – barely.
He pierced the surface film with his lips agape. I glimpsed the dark hole of his mouth as it opened, sucking in a drool of water and my hook at the same time. I waited for the trout to turn his head back down and then I lifted the rod, setting the hook in the corner of his mouth. The fight was on.
After an hour of having no tension in the line (except the occasional tangle and ensuing tug of war with a submerged willow branch), the weight of the fish came as a shock. The energy of the life attached to the end of my line was electrifying. He peeled line from the reel, bending the rod, heading toward the nearest bank, then rock, then overhanging tree branch. His familiarity with the process made me wonder if he had done this before. I controlled the tension by pinching the line between my fingers. With each run, the reel wailed out the clicking zizz that sets all fishermen’s hearts pounding.
I did not doubt the fish was terrified, but there was no escaping it – this is the way we catch a fish. I did the best I could to keep my nerves calm and not put too much pressure on, while always keeping the tension. I did the best I could to keep my own heart from beating out of my chest. Especially when the fish rose to the surface, jumped out of the water and shook his head with such violence that I feared he would tear the fly out.
I have lost many fish while bringing them to the landing net. Or worse, discovered that the net was in the car when a trout was at my side! The net is my partner. The end of the line is so thin and fragile (part of the disguise) that I cannot lift a trout out of the water on my own. The net is a triangle, with one flat side that can be pressed against the stream bed, providing a large area to scoop with. That day I unhooked the folding contraption from a karabiner at the nape of my neck. An ungainly affair that required me to divert concentration away from the fish – a dangerous time. As he came closer he started to roll onto his back like a tiny whale. I saw the white of his belly, and coaxed him towards the yawning net. He darted away more than once, appearing to know what the contraption meant. At last he succumbed. I lifted his limp frame up from the grasp of the river. I sensed he had accepted defeat.
When I’d arrived there was sunshine, but during this fight the wind had come up, scattering jaundiced willow leaves across the water and clouds across the sky. A skiff of rain came through, then some hail, then back to shale grey. While I had been fishing, battling my fish, landing it in my net, four seasons had passed on that river, as though I’d been there a year. Like time-lapse photography, this place had thrown all its beauty at me, and I could see it reflected in the fish that now lay in my net. His skin was a rich and variegated woody-brown at the top, dappled with iridescent beads and blotches of red, white and black. His belly was shot with pure white. I marvelled at how glossy he was, at his vitality. The time lost in the battle caught up with me and became concentrated in that moment as I stared at the fish in my hands.
The trout’s mouth slowly opened and closed as I drew him up out of the net. I had one hand under his tail and the other under his head, cradling him. He was mortally tired and this was where his journey would end. I pushed my index finger into his gill slit, so it emerged out the other side of his body. Pulling downward, I separated the lower section of the gill plate from the body in a quick and merciful movement, breaking a main artery. His life blood drained back into the waters that had borne him.
I placed the trout into the green canvas sack that was slung over my shoulder. I felt like a pioneer – someone I wanted to be, a fisherman out in the hills doing what I loved. I had collected my food – one fish was enough for me – and I returned to the car for the most surreal drive I have ever taken. An observer looking in the driver’s window would not think anything special had happened at all. Everything would have looked the same as on my arrival – just a guy in a car. However I can recall the feeling of that drive some 15 years later. The Kate Bush song ‘Running Up That Hill’ was playing on CD, and something in the music triggered in me a sense of the strangeness of life and my part in the natural world. In the closing light of dusk, racing down that lonely no-exit road through thousands of silent pine trees, the trout safely within my haversack in the back, I felt whole. I was doing what I was meant to be doing. It was my experience alone.
THE LIGHTNING IN THE RIVER
In our family, the catching of eels was not considered fishing but something that everyone did. We’d been catching them in the Hakataramea River for five generations. My very first memories were of sitting on the banks of the ‘Haka’ at night, four years old, being told to keep the torch switched off and patiently waiting for an eel to bite the cumbersome fishing tackle we held. We had a fire burning on the riverbank. Family lore dictated it would attract eels, as if they were spirits. For a child this bestowed an enchantment on these enigmatic creatures. Fear and excitement charged my four-year-old nervous system the very first time I watched an eel being hauled from the river on a pitch-black night. The fire roared on the riverbank, lighting up the expectant faces of my cousins who had gathered in a circle to watch, and the eldest, Stewart, thumped the eel’s head into the ground with a large piece of wood, as gruesome little boys will.
Another time we were sitting by the water’s edge, our eeling lines out, the full moon glowing like a white-hot poker in the sky. We used a thick nylon line with a large hook on the end that would make any purist angler wince, and the bait was rotting rabbit liver, killed by our cousins several weeks earlier. The secret was to allow the bait to fester in an empty golden syrup tin in the sun for a few days, until the tin was bulging at the sides and almost spherical. The flanged lid was popped off with an old screwdriver and burgundy chunks of fetid meat were spooned out of the can with the latest pocket knife or hollow-handled survival knife that we’d got for Christmas. The bait, pasted like pâté onto a Jurassic hook, was better suited for catching sharks in the ocean. The grisly meal was secured in place with a piece of bailing twine, a nasty kind of thick, frayed multi-stranded string that my farming cousins would use to tie hay bales together. It was nearly impossible to form any kind of knot in it. The sinker was a disused spark plug from a car engine and a piece of driftwood made for a makeshift reel. These devices were plopped into the stream with an effective casting range of about two metres.
Our whole family sat swaddled in woollen blankets, the kind that have a Scottish tartan pattern on them, popular in New Zealand about 30 years ago. The tassels at the edges of the blanket felt like sandpaper on our bare legs, and competed with the chilly night air to raise goosebumps on our skin. As kids, having little patience, we’d constantly test the line to see if an eel was biting and ask for the torch to be turned on as we thought we ‘had one’ on the hook. The torch beam would almost always reveal that we had slowly pulled the line in while ‘just checking it’ with our little tugs. Sitting at our feet would be the spark plug, bleached rabbit liver and ugly binder twine tangled in the mint sprigs that grew on the banks of the river, and no eel.
That night was a bit different. I felt a tug on my line and pulled hard to set the hook. There was some more tugging for a moment and my dad switched on the torch. The white belly of a trout arched away from the surface doing underwater somersaults to escape the light.
‘What was that?’ Mum said.
‘It’s not an eel,’ I replied, unbelieving. ‘What the heck is it then?’
‘I actually think it might have been a trout,’ she said. ‘Quick, quick, get that line back in the water now! You other lot need to get yours out pronto!’
I worried that Mum’s eagerness for her son’s success might be clouding her judgement, and I dismissed her as the exuberant parent, but hoped that she was right.
‘Dean! Get your line out of the way,’ I hissed at my brother, as mine tangled in the stems of grass and I looked for someone other than myself to blame. ‘Turn off the torch! No, turn it back on. Dean!’ I threw the line in again and the plop of the gear sent ripples through the reflection of the moon.
‘Can you see it?’ Dean said.
‘Shh, you’ll scare it,’
‘What can you feel, Richard – any bites?’ said Dad.
‘No. Nothing …’ my heart sank like a sinker. The line felt dead in my hands. Two minutes passed. No one spoke. The willows ran their leathery fingers through the air, and the stream glugged beneath.
‘Oh, it’s there, it’s really there again! I can feel it now!’ Tug, tug, tug – my underwater counterpart made three strong pulls as if yanking the cord of a light switch. ‘Please turn the torch on! Over here, over here,’ Dad snapped the beam on to reveal a large trout flailing in paroxysmal arches. I ran up the bank – half in fear of the trout and half so I could drag it out before it escaped.
I now know that what happened that night was not legal. The river is a ‘fly fishing only’ area and we were using real bait. But this was a ‘once in a blue moon’ event and I was young. Two parents saw their son catch the first fish of his life and let him keep it. That makes them good people.
As a manager in a local government office, my dad spent most of his days talking to people, but back in his childhood, when he’d lived on a farm, he learnt a lot about the world of animals. Dad showed us how to gut the illicit trout; the first time I had seen it done. He pressed the knife tip into the trout’s belly and it made a sound like something piercing dry leather.
‘It twitched!’ Dean said, his nine-year-old brain logging every moment. ‘I saw it twitch, Dad, is it really dead?’
‘Yes it is. Now just keep back, you kids, give me some space here okay.’ Dad thumped the head of the fish with the butt of the pocket knife a couple more times to be extra sure. He loved animals and it was not in his nature to enjoy the post-mortem, especially one with his ghoulish children in attendance, sports-casting every detail back to him.
‘Is that its guts, Dad?’ I said.
‘Yes it is.’
‘Did I see its heart beating, Dad?’ said Dean.
‘I think I saw its heart beating.’
‘No, you did not. Now sit back over there a bit. I can’t see. You boys are in the light.’ His hands fumbled with the innards. He wasn’t used to this. Dad’s pocket knife was better suited to opening our Christmas presents. He carefully removed the heart and laid it gently on a stone by his boot, hoping the shadows would dispel our curiosity. Dean would not let it go.
‘I saw it beat, Dad.’
‘Okay, give us a look here.’ He tapped the heart with the side of its knife. The cardiac muscle responded to the jolt by pulsing just the once.
‘Urgh!’ Dean and I were transfixed in fear and fascination. We saw from that one movement exactly what the organ was made to do; it looked like a pump. My brother and I realised then what this creature had just given up – and that we were made of the very same thing.
Mum had grown up in Timaru, a small town not far north of where we lived. She had met my dad and they had fallen in love at a young age – town mouse meets country mouse. She didn’t know much about preparing fish for cooking but must have seen her father do it, and she promised to execute the same rites on mine. My mother did the best she could filleting that fish and such a celebration was made of it as a meal. We were told that it would be the most delicious food we’d ever taste.
Her wariness of fish bones meant Mum had reduced the size of the fillets markedly, but this did not concern my brother or me. The fish crackled in the frying pan on the gas hob of our tiny 1960s caravan, caramelising on the black metal. Mum stabbed at these sizzling slabs in an attempt to liberate them from the pan but still preserve their appearance. We had all inherited my mum and dad’s obsessive fear of fish bones, and trout have an extra set which are hard to remove. No doubt, this fear had its genesis in meals prepared by my grandfather. Mum spooned the bald fillets onto our polycarbonate camping plates and each of us picked through them in a search of bones she’d missed. This rummaging made the fish seem pre-digested before it met our lips. It did not matter to us – we were so proud of the glorious trout and the chance to say we had eaten something we had caught ourselves.
Fishing started my journey and my love for the wilderness. I was 12 years old, so I could do it on my own. There were no exceptionally dangerous weapons involved and I didn’t need to go far from home. The enchantment that beguiled me into fishing was to flow over into the act of hunting, which I wasn’t to take up until a decade later at 22. It is worth pointing out that there is a difference between hunting and the practice called ‘shooting’. I had been rabbit shooting when I was a boy – on my cousins’ farm, Pineridge, near Waimate. One night when I was 10, it was deemed okay by my fretting mum for Dean and I to go out with our cousins on the back of their Hilux ute to help control the rabbit population. They used shotguns and a spotlight and raced around paddocks at breakneck speed. Portable wire gates mounted on the back of the truck stopped us falling off. They shook and clattered as if they were the possessed bones of an elephant skeleton. One by one the dead rabbits piled up beside us on the wooden planks of the ute, their blood pooling in the creases between the slats, looking like spilt oil in the dim light.
In between exciting chases, when the ute was idling across a barren paddock, an image would flash up in front of us – dead rabbits, some strewn, others piled in a mound. This stroboscopic vision would happen when the spotlight reflected off the rear window of the truck, or when one of our cousins dropped the light, and what I glimpsed then was seared into my mind.
We returned to the house with wild eyes, offering rabbits to the farm dogs on the way, tossing them from the ute as we drove past the kennels near the homestead. The dogs, vague growling shapes in the darkness, made hideous crunching noises as each carcass was upended from the deck of the ute and hurled into their grinding jaws. We didn’t hear the rabbits hit the ground, or the dogs catching them in mid-flight and eating them whole.
‘That’s enough!’ yelled my cousin Stewart finally, as we selected yet another rabbit for the dogs, eager to please these expectant beasts. ‘The fur binds up their insides,’ he said. ‘It’s a bit tough on their guts if they have too much.’
We related these stories with a passion to our horrified mother when we burst through the door of the house. Our eyes wide already were made wider still trying to accommodate the bright tungsten bulbs of the farm kitchen.
In New Zealand, we call this shooting. The distinction from hunting is a personal one. Hunting is the entire act of stalking, where the principle of fair chase applies. The quarry needs to have a fair chance of getting away. Shooting is the mere act of pulling a trigger and often done just for the purpose of controlling pests – there is nothing more to it.
I got my firearms licence when I was 22 years old. The same number as the calibre of my first rifle, a .22 LR – one I still own today. I went to visit my parents across town at their villa in Roslyn. They’d not long shifted to Dunedin.
‘I got my gun licence!’ I blurted.
‘That’s great, Richard, but where will you use it?’ said Dad.
‘I’ll rely on the kindness of farmers. I just want to hunt for rabbits, like at Uncle John and Aunty Sandy’s farm,’ I said, although I hardly believed it myself.
‘You’ll need to be careful out there, Richard,’ Mum called from the other room. ‘Guns can be dangerous.’
It seemed impossible really. How would I fit in? I was starting a PhD at Otago University, and I’d worked so hard for the past four years as an undergraduate to get that opportunity. Yet I also felt like I had lost my connection to the wild – like I wouldn’t fit there any more. Anxious to make my plan successful I got out of town as soon as I could, picking a random location in the hinterland behind Waikouaiti – an area seldom visited, except by the people who live or work there.
I drove my unlikely black sports car (I could not afford a 4WD at the time) down Ramrock Road. The car was far too low for such a rough shingle road and I felt every stone. I arrived at a farm. Its location determined purely on the basis of when I was brave enough to stop and go into a farmhouse to ask.
The farmer was a nice old codger with prickly grey stubble across his chin. His silver hair was tossed and messy and he greeted me with a dozen angry fox terriers yapping around him. They charged in unison, biting the cuffs of my hunting pants like enraged fire ants. Their needle teeth pierced the thin skin of my ankles. I tried to keep a straight face for the important introduction.
The farmer seemed unconcerned at the ravaging of my ankles, and extended his kindness by shaking my hand roughly and telling me I could indeed go for a hunt. He did not have much land for me, though, and said I should ask another guy down the road, who might be able to help if I wanted more space. So I thanked him, turned my car around in his yard and drove to meet the next farmer as he’d advised.
Over a decade later Andrew Noone still remembers the low-slung out-of-place sports car crawling up his gravelled driveway – farmers have incredible memories. I parked up by the porch of the farmhouse. I could feel the manic barking of the huntaway dogs chained in the yard, pounding into my chest, making me aware of my own racing heart. I felt shy, embarrassed and even a bit like an intruder.
‘G’day,’ said Andrew, his carefully cropped hair matching the colour of his immaculate moleskin trousers. I imagined he kept his farm like he dressed. I gulped.
‘Um, hi,’ I said, nearly struck dumb by his greeting, which hung in the air like ozone after a lightning strike. ‘Ah, I’m a rabbit shooter, and I’m just wondering if it would be okay if I … well, if I, I mean … do you have a place I could go and shoot rabbits?’
His demeanour immediately became more friendly. Here was a transaction that most farmers understand.
‘I’m sorry, eh, but this place is spoken for,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I’ve got a guy who comes out here from Dunedin. So it’s sort of his call. I can’t really let more people on.’
Bugger. I knew I wasn’t going to have the courage to keep putting my nerves through this. But Andrew was still talking. ‘My brother owns a farm over the hill,’ he said. ‘You could try him. I don’t think he has anyone heading over there much. You’ll have to get hold of him on the phone, though. He’s probably not at home. He doesn’t live on the farm. He’ll be out in the paddocks.’
It all sounded very hard, but I thanked Andrew and he gave me his brother’s details.
‘Call him anything you like,’ said Andrew. ‘Chaz, Chucky, Charlie, whatever, he won’t mind.’ So that night I went home and called Charles.
Charles was a ‘true’ New Zealand farmer. The type of farmer that city people read about in books. The ones they show in a car commercial, so city folks can see how tough a Toyota Hilux is. The one in a worm drench advertisement that comes on the television right after the news at six and before the weather. Charles is the guy that I am standing beside on a sunny east Otago day at the age of 22, staring out at a vast series of rolling tussock hills that ramble out to a distant coastline. I am barely able to believe that all of this is his farm and that I can go anywhere to hunt rabbits on it. I feel like the luckiest guy alive.
I used up a lifetime hunting rabbits on Charles’s farm, all in just five short years. It was my place, my Valhalla. Me alone. No one else lived on the property, not even Charles. It was an incredible, lonely, quiet place that spoke to me every time I visited. If it is possible to fall in love with land, then I had fallen head over heels with his farm. And I knew in my heart that this place had chosen me.
At the entrance to Charles’ place you would hardly believe there was anything beyond. A nondescript wire gate hung from a wooden post that had once been a railway sleeper. It was hard to tell if the post held up the fence or if the fence was holding up the post. The sagging strands of wire looked tired from their toil. The driveway was long and peppered with crumbly gravel, looking as if the fields had drawn back to reveal it rather than being made by the hands of people. It turned to the right abruptly, seeming to disappear, a road to nowhere. Short grass established itself in the middle of the track, a telltale sign that it bore nothing other than Charles’s high-riding Hilux ute. At the edges, the tussocks whipped up from the ground like a lion’s mane, stretching out apparently uninterrupted for kilometres in every direction.
The farm was steep as a hen’s face, or so goes the old hunting adage. Behind me stood the sombre granite dome of Hikaroroa Mount Watkin. It was the highest point in the land. From here, the billowing hills rose and fell as far as I could see, the farm track dipping in and out of view the only indication of human settlement. There were the farm sheds and the shearing quarters, huddled in the middle of the farm two kilometres in, but you couldn’t see them from the front gate.
Driving on that track could not be rushed. It gouged its way like a deep scratch through the hills, with dizzying drops at each side. Charles regaled me once with a story about how he’d once felt his ute start to roll. At that first sensation he’d stepped out of the driver’s door, knowing the vehicle was about to be lost. The steering wheel left his hand like a dropped hammer and the ute careered away to its oblivion. If someone had been in the passenger seat they could have plummeted to their death in one of those peaceful valleys, coming to rest in amongst the wild flowers and the potted hoof prints of roaming cattle. For this reason, he’d often asked me to get out of the truck and walk.
The shearing quarters made me wonder. Physically, they were easy to understand. The main building was painted pure white with a green roof. It had a small kitchen, a lounge and two little bedrooms, all filled with the musty smell of abandonment. I wondered what stories had taken place there. I never took the time to ask Charles about the history of the farm. It can’t always have been so lonely? Who were the shepherds who came to work? What did this place mean to them? To me, the shearing quarters were a sanctuary, where I could rest from the hunting, have a cup of tea and contemplate.
On my first visit to Charles’ farm, it was lunchtime before I could start hunting. Charles loved to talk, and when I arrived in the morning, he insisted on brewing me a cup of tea. He led me into the shearing quarters past oilskin jackets and boxes of fencing staples, he was in no rush. Charles leaned back on the stainless steel kitchen bench and I took a seat. We compared notes on New Zealand geography and exchanged stories on where we had been. Charles clearly loved his farm and most of the year would be found working on it, but every summer he and his brother would go for a 4WD trip somewhere else in New Zealand. They’d pick places they’d never been, and, it seemed, at random. He pulled a milk bottle from the fridge, uncapped it and sniffed. His eyes narrowed. He took a second sniff, then poured the milk into two cups and set the bottle back in the fridge amongst sheep vaccines and bottles of beer. He told me about the farm boundaries and the names of his neighbours.
Charles pulled the cord on the 1950s zip water heater, but the large white cylinder delayed its boil until we’d talked about my cousins and how I knew a bit about farms, and about the strange sports car I owned and that my dad might know Charles’ brother through council connections. Charles’ voice had a hard tone in it, no doubt forged by decades of calling ‘wayleggo’ after farm dogs mustering sheep in high winds.
‘You take milk?’ he said.
‘Just black is fine.’ I’d seen the look on his face when he’d sniffed it.
‘You don’t catch too many other buggers up here chasing rabbits,’ he said. ‘Right, yeah, you should do okay though. They mostly stick around the yards.’
The boiled water was poured into mugs etched from the swirling of a thousand teaspoons. Charles prodded the tea bags with a weathered index finger – soil from years of work on the land had worn into his hand like a tattoo.
‘You know, the best time is on dark,’ Charles said before taking a sip of his tea. ‘That’s when the rabbits come out. I’ll be around the yards this afternoon, but you help yourself. You just go for it. Don’t worry about me, eh. I’ve just got some crutching to do on a few ewes and the likes, you know, check the dogs and stuff. I won’t get in your way. You’ll see where I am.’
I sensed the apprehension in his voice, as if he were worried about how careful I’d be. It may have seemed strange to him that I would start hunting rabbits at midday, given that they were more active at dusk and dawn. ‘I’ll just take it easy and get to know the place,’ I replied. I wanted to be there as long as I could.
We finished our tea and Charles went off to the woolshed. I put on my camouflage clothing, and threaded a belt around my waist that held a green canvas bag full of .22 LR cartridges. The bullets were about the size of a pea, but they were still a lethal piece of ammunition.
I had only walked 50 metres and crossed one fence when I spied two rabbits on a farm track right under some old pines. They were sunning themselves, resting in the middle of the day. I shot a round into each of the rabbits, one after the other. I worked the rifle bolt quickly to make sure I got both.
I slit the bellies of each and hit their chests with the heel of my hand, pushing the guts down into the cut paunch. They sagged out a little. ‘Charles would have heard those shots,’ I muttered to myself. I hoped it did not worry him. I’d only been gone 10 minutes and was already blazing off rounds! I lifted the first rabbit by the forelegs and wheeled it in a small arch so the bowels flew away deep into the gorse. I did the same to the second and then plucked the remaining innards from higher up inside both carcasses. I looked up from my butchery and saw some trickery in the landscape. The farm wasn’t just an ocean of tussock as it had looked from the top road, but was far more diverse when viewed from the interior. There were patches of green grass, large sections of gorse, mānuka and rocky outcrops.
The rabbit’s blood started to dry and crack on my hands, so I pasted my palms over the grass a couple of times. A final dusting on my thighs convinced me they were clean and then I picked up the .22. I let my shoulders drop and took a deep breath – now I could relax and explore.
The shearing quarters were on a high point, so I walked down into the main gully, losing some height in the process. A large tract of gorse filled an intersecting gully, the delicate yellow flowers smelling like coconut. Farmers and conservationists generally hate this invasive prickly plant, but I had the luxury of indulgence and simply enjoyed it for the smell. At the bottom of the gully were the mānuka trees, covered in tiny white flowers that exuded the funky scent of pollen. More rabbits lay stretched out on the grass, keeping safely within metres of their prickly refuge. This place seemed hidden from the eyes of the world. Few would have come here, I thought.
The two rabbits I held in my left hand were getting heavy so I wove the hind legs of each over my belt, feeding one leg through a slit cut in the Achilles heel of the other to create a loop with a toggle. The rabbits hung about my waist like a furry kilt, leaving my hands free. And off I set again.
My circular hunt took me back to the sheds, where I met up with Charles. He was leaning on a fence post with his diesel ute ticking away behind him.
‘You got some then, eh?’ He seemed a bit surprised, but he was doing his best to hide it.
‘Yeah, these guys were just sunbathing, I got them down here not long after I left.’
From that point forward I think Charles seemed both impressed with my ability and depressed by the number of rabbits I shot. I was welcome to hunt there anytime, he said. It became my place as well.
One afternoon, a year later, I saw a couple of wild goats across the same mānuka gully where I’d shot the rabbits. They were sauntering on the opposite side, taking in the warmth of the sun, and heading down towards a thick stand of trees. I’d heard of people shooting goats with a .22 LR, but I didn’t have permission from Charles to shoot anything other than rabbits. There was no way of contacting him right then, he wasn’t on the farm, so I watched the goats saunter out of view. I called him that night to get his permission and he said it would be okay.
My studies meant I had to wait a whole week to return. I didn’t bother with a cup of tea, I just grabbed my hunting pack from the boot of the car and slung my rifle on my shoulder. Today, I thought, I will become a real hunter.
It was cold, and cloudy, not sunny like the week before. I hoped the goats would still be there despite the unwelcoming weather. I was wearing my green Swanndri and flicked the prickly collar in close. Goosebumps rose on my forearms under the fabric. Leaden clouds seemed to draw all the gold out of the tussock, making the land look more desolate than usual. The stillness gave everything an air of anticipation.
Rabbits seem like alien creatures, as they are so small and lead such different lives to us. Goats, being larger, seem more akin to human beings. When an animal is the same size as you (or close to), it is easier to empathise with the creature, and to shudder at the visceral experience of what death might be like.
I carefully thumbed brass rifle cartridges into the magazine of my rifle and set out with binoculars in hand, charging straight down the hill past the clumps of gorse where most of the rabbits lived. In my haste, I sent them running helter-skelter. When I arrived at the point where I had seen the goats, they were nowhere to be seen.
The scale of the land had changed as I found myself looking further than I had before. I now had a reason to scan hills kilometres away from me, and this made the place seem different: bigger, more surreal. I scanned and scanned, then decided I could justify walking down through the stand of mānuka into which the goats had disappeared last week, and then onwards. I felt like an explorer setting off into an uncharted land. No place for a rabbit hunter.
I pushed my way through the mānuka until I came to a place where one gully joined another and the forest retreated. Tussock dominated here, rising up to my waist in parts. At the junction of the two gullies a massive stony outcrop stood resolute, flanked by a series of ash-grey cliffs. The grey of the sky was only about two tones lighter than the rocks. My eyes worked their way up to a hill a hundred metres away, and found a mob of goats, white as sheets, milling about with their backs to the wind, grazing along the face of the hill. They had not seen me. I rolled a camouflage mask over my face. The mesh smelt of my own breath and dried saliva from a rabbit shoot. I collected my thoughts and then squirmed through scrub and tussock to get to the goats, pressing thistles into my hands and knees as I went. Cursing and suppressing the pain of it.
I knew two things I needed to do for a humane kill. I had to be within 30 metres of them and should aim for the neck. I got myself into position and our worlds boiled down to just me and them. I could hear their teeth cutting blades of grass as they cropped mouthfuls from the closest plants.
I picked a goat at random and took aim squarely at her neck. I felt very uncomfortable about what I was doing – it almost felt wrong – but I stuck to the plan. I knew what I wanted and that was to be a real hunter, one that shot big game and had amazing experiences in the backcountry. I wanted to know where my food came from and what it meant to be an integrated part of the wilderness. I wanted to actually partake, instead of watching passively.
I expected to pull that trigger and become that person.
I pulled the trigger and all hell broke loose.
I heard the bullet zip through the air and make a soft whack into the neck of the nanny goat. I winced. The other goats surged around the wounded one like a tide, 20 of them, and then they charged away. The churning group ran in unison, including the one I had shot. A wave of responsibility overcame me as adrenaline flooded my veins. My whole focus was on killing her in a humane way.
I desperately fired another five shots, working hard to keep track of her in the sea of white. I discovered afterwards that each bullet would have been fatal on its own – but death often takes longer than you think (except for in the movies). I stumbled over to where I saw her drop, with little care for my own footing. And there she was, lying on the ground, motionless; all signs of life gone from her eyes.
I felt terrible that I had shot her. There will be some hunters who will read this and won’t be able to identify with that emotion. But I believe that if spoken to alone, many would report a similar empathy for animals they have killed. I’d regretted it the instant I fired the bullet, but my becoming a ‘real hunter’ was germinating in my mind. Two things I battled to reconcile as I stared down at the dead goat: Was it wrong to kill things? Was it good to be a hunter? It was a struggle and I did not have a mentor there to put a hand on my shoulder and tell me that it was all right to feel like that.
I was too stubborn. I was in love with being on my own. I’d brought this situation upon myself.
I came to my senses and thought about what to do next. I had to take the meat from the dead goat, out of respect for her, and carry her back like a real hunter. So I left the goat where she lay and walked two kilometres back up the hill to the shearing quarters to fetch some rope and a shovel. I was gone an hour.
To a seasoned hunter, this is madness. It pains me now to think I did this, but it is the way it happened. Returning with the rope and shovel, I did the gutting, and put her horrid stinking gut bag into a hole I dug alongside her. I tied her bony front leg to her bony back leg, doing the same to the other side, thus forming a ‘backpack’ like I’d seen in the books. I hoisted the skinny, uncomfortable carcass onto my back. Blood oozed down my tailbone, pooling on my beltline before drizzling into my shorts and underwear, soaking me to the skin.
The animal’s head banged into my own at every second step, and I laboured up that steep, steep hill, to arrive at the shearing quarters at dusk. The oppressive cloud in the hills did not relent. It seemed determined to crush us all against the land. Darkness would arrive quickly. The thought worried me.
I was buggered by the time I got to the car and dropped the goat on the ground without ceremony. Her wet carcass made a nauseating lutt sound as it hit the earth. I cut her back legs off by striking through the hairless skin of her groin with my knife, and then through the hip joint and out the other side, because that made sense. Then I did the same to the shoulders and dumped the rest of the carcass in the offal pit which Charles had for the remains of sheep (not the usual practice for a hunter at all – I learnt later – waste from a carcass is normally left in the field). I skinned the legs, put the meat in a canvas bag and drove the winding road back to Dunedin.
I walked in the door of my flat to find a room full of flatmates sitting in various states of repose, playing video games and reading books. The five of them had returned from doing the usual things they’d do on a Saturday afternoon – going to the library, the movies, a café. I strode across the living room floor unnoticed, still dressed in my hunting gear, redolent of goat, with a bag of meat in my arms. When I reached the kitchen I examined our variegated stock of plates. I pulled a couple out and put chunks of goat meat on them, but the plates looked like they came out of a doll’s house set. None seemed anywhere near large enough.
I commandeered the roasting pan and tipped the meat into it, then returned to the living room and slumped into the couch alongside Andy. I watched Dave threaten a man with a bat, then drag him out of his car and drive off with it.
‘Dave, what’s this?’ I said. ‘It’s brutal!’
‘Grand Theft Auto 3,’ Dave said, engrossed, as he drove across a park, smashed a fire hydrant and nearly ran two cyclists over. ‘Andy bought it this morning. It’s just come out on Playstation.’
‘You had a good afternoon?’ Andy asked me, casually looking up from his book, but keeping his head supported by his index finger and thumb.
‘Yeah, it was a big day, I was at Charles’ –’
I heard Pete open the fridge door in the kitchen. It was his turn to cook tea.
There was a moment’s silence.
‘Whoa! What’s this? Who got all this meat? Was this you, Dick!’
‘Yeah, I got it,’ I said. I found him in the kitchen marvelling at the plum-coloured hindquarters dwarfing all the other items in the fridge.
‘Those are from a goat I shot today at Charles’ farm,’ I said, not letting on all the anguish I’d gone through to get them.
‘Dude, that’s awesome! There’s heaps of meat. Well done, mate!’
The others came to, peering through the doorway for a look. And with Pete’s words, my anguish at killing the goat disappeared.
I looked at my experience through new eyes – his eyes. I saw what I had done could provide a lot of meat. I saw what I had done was something different from everyday life: different from cafés, different from libraries, different from picking lumps of plastic-covered meat off supermarket shelves. I saw that I could do things I had not thought myself capable. I’d thought I was a careful scientist living in the city, but now I knew who I was. I was a hunter, a true hunter and I would never look back. It was in my blood.
Over a decade later I was lying on my belly on a stony riverbed, surrounded by a dense beech forest. It was the beginning of spring. The rounded river stones pressed into my stomach like bony knuckles. The sky was wan grey, the same colour as the stones. I was 900 kilometres from where I’d shot that goat. I lay motionless, my hands outstretched, gripping the black plastic stock of my rifle, drawing it in close to my side. The grasses that pushed up through the stones nodded their seed heads in the faint breeze. I was staring at a glimpse of deer in a thicket of bush.
Until now, no human eye had likely ever seen this animal. I guessed it had lived its whole life in complete secrecy, working its way around this secluded valley. An alternative reality, totally separate from our own world.
Like shadows, the brown legs of the deer flickered through saplings, as if they were made from the branches themselves. The only clue they belonged to an animal was that they moved differently to the subtle breeze and were out of time with the sway of the wood and the leaves. The damp breath from the trees had sapped my energy that afternoon, and the blood in my arms and legs glugged like treacle. I was tired. But once I’d realised I was looking at a deer, I’d come alive.
I crawled across the river stones and boulders as flat as I could. So close that my knees, elbows, belly, toes, chest and sometimes my face, were all moulded into the earth. A tiny finger of a stream blocked my way, forcing me to form an arch with my body so that only the toes of my boots and the pads of my hands were in contact with the stream bed. The rest of me hovered, like Fata Morgana, just 10 centimetres above. My nose millimetres from the water.
I never took my eyes off the deer. When it looked up, if I was still in view, I would have to freeze for as long as it took for the deer to look away. Once I was across the streamlet I was out of view, behind a large clump of reeds. I settled my chest on the riverbank. My thighs curved into the clay and my chin came to rest on the top of the bank as if I was a child peering at a neighbour over the fence. The soil pushed up heavily into my chest so that I could feel my body rise and fall with each breath.
I nestled the rifle into the reeds. It sounded like the slow-motion snapping of a matchstick, as each hollow grass fibre broke against the rifle stock. Then I waited for the deer to present a shot. I was precise, calm and cold about it, as if we’d rehearsed this together. As if it was always meant to happen.
The deer stepped out from the safety of the mānuka thicket. I could see he was a young stag. He dropped his head to the ground to take in the scent of the grass, his graceful neck outstretched. With no hesitation I placed the cross hairs in the rifle scope on that neck and pulled the trigger. He fell to the ground instantly and I suddenly felt alone.
This happened in the Ruahines, arguably the most rugged and windswept mountain range in the North Island. The North was my new home. Māori call it Te Ika a Māui, meaning ‘The Fish of Māui’. This demi-god pulled up the North Island from the sea, while in his canoe, Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island. I had never thought I would make such a move. It was the love for a woman named Angela that had drawn me there. I’d packed up my entire South Island life into Old Yeller, my trusty Hilux – so-called on account of its colour – and driven 13 hours northwards to live with Angela in Wellington. I like to think there is a poetic connection here with the story of Māui. The ute was my canoe and I’d pulled up the North Island, like a fish, into my life.
The first year in the North Island had been hard because I’d struggled to find places to go hunting and I didn’t have my dog, Jack, left behind for practical reasons. He wasn’t suited to the city environment. I’d been worried I would never live the adventurous life of a hunter again, but this deer in the Ruahines had put that worry to rest.
I approached the animal. His white belly bulged from the ground like a blister. His legs were struck rigid, pointing straight out like a chair that had been kicked over. Heady notes of deer musk beat up at me, so distinctly animal, and shockingly different to the perfume of the forest. I sat there, resting my hand on the coarse hair of his shoulder, pondering on how unlikely it was for me to sit with him, this other animal. And how unlikely it was that our paths had crossed in these thousands of acres of forest.
I began the perfunctory task of dressing the deer out for meat, making an incision into his bulbous paunch and sliding the knife back and forth to open it. I kept my index finger over the blade tip to prevent it sticking into the gut and spilling its contents onto the meat. Bilious guts spilled out like a burst sack of pumpkins onto the dusty river stones with much less blood than many had imagined. I heaved on the internal pipes and tubes so that the oesophagus and windpipe separated from the neck. With my arm shoulder-deep, I drew the rest of the vital organs out, then skinned around the neck and peeled back the capsule covering the atlas joint, by giving little flicks with the tip of the knife.
By applying pressure, I split the joint with a graunch and removed the animal’s head. I did this to prevent his skull from banging into mine during the walk out. I punched the knife point through the Achilles heel in the deer’s rear legs. Some careful skinning of his front legs allowed me to fashion a T-shaped toggle from the front hoof, which I threaded through the hole in the Achilles, turning the entire 60-kilogram carcass into a makeshift backpack.
I lay down and relaxed my back against his open belly. Unlike my first goat, the opening nearly swallowed me whole. I wriggled to position his sternum in between my shoulder blades. Then I threaded my arms through the awkward bony legs as if they were the shoulder straps of a pack and rolled onto my side, bearing the full weight of the carcass.
I could feel a sickening pressure in my knees with this extra weight, as I didn’t weigh much more than 60 kilograms myself. And so began a skittering walk down the river towards the hut where my companions were waiting.
It took me an hour to arrive at the hut. The yellow torchlight inside looked so inviting as I emerged from the tenebrous night. A trickle of cold deer blood ran down the small of my back and I shivered. I was aware of the musky smell of the animal again. I’d got used to it on the walk, but the torches had drawn my attention away. I refocused. I still had a few hundred metres between me and human life.
Scott opened the door of the hut with a steaming bowl of noodles in his hand. ‘You got one, mate!’ he yelled out. His voice had a brazen quality that cut through the eeriness of the night air. ‘Awesome. Cam shot one too, just up the other fork in the river.’
Scott, Cam and Ross had been in the hut since dusk. Cam’s deer hung silently from a lone tree nearby. I hung my deer alongside, then rummaged around in the depths of my hunting pack and presented Scott with the heart from the deer, which he took inside for us to eat immediately. Out of respect for the animal we always eat everything we can, including the heart. It does not need to be hung and rested like muscle, which doesn’t become meat until 24 hours after death. It takes a long time for a squeamish town-boy to get the courage to eat a heart. But in reality, it is just another piece of meat and is delicious.
I placed the heart on a round of firewood, the rough wood grain leaving dimples in the meat, and sliced it into lengthwise sections about a centimetre thick. I dissected the valves and connective tissue as these are hard to chew. They felt like strands of dental floss. Cam prepared a hot frying pan on the log burner and the gaudy heart steaks were tossed in together with nothing other than some butter, salt and pepper. He prodded the steaks around the pan with the point of his knife as they sizzled. The aroma was intoxicating, like a mild beef steak searing on a grill, and not at all like offal is perceived to smell.
‘How do we like heart?’ I asked Ross, the youngest of us. ‘It’s good,’ he grunted as he stuffed his mouth full. ‘Does it give you a heart-on?’ I joked. Cam rolled his eyes while Scott sniggered, and the evening dissolved into off-colour jokes and our making fools of ourselves.
I’d met Scott and his brother-in-law Cam at a local hunting club in Wellington. Cam introduced himself to me first, and then a much larger, rougher-looking fella approached me and nearly crushed my hand shaking it. That was Scott. Cam worked as a project manager for large electricity corporations. He was a serious and dedicated hunter who lived to be out in the hills on his own. Scott was a glazier, with massive hands that looked as if they’d need no gloves when snapping large windowpanes in two.
We all settled in for the night, revelling in the remote darkness and silence of the Ruahines. The day before we’d been stuck up on the mountain top, trapped by wicked winds gusting over 200 kilometres per hour. They had been so strong we could not leave the top hut for the first few hours of the dawn, as it was impossible to stand up in the gale. It had thrown rocks the size of golf balls, picking them up from one side of the ridge and hurling them into the corrugated iron of the hut with a loud bang. The elements had driven us down into the valley. And so we slept.
Back in the city after that curious weekend, I sought out my old hunting mate, Gruff. ‘I’m worried, Gruff. I felt nothing when I shot that deer the other day. I mean I wasn’t even shaking or anything. It just seemed a bit ordinary.’
‘That isn’t losing touch with hunting, mate,’ he said. ‘That’s just the next stage. You’re growing up.’
I think he was right. I’d got over the shock of the hunting experience and had reached an enlightenment perhaps? Being familiar with the visceral realities of hunting meant I could step outside the rawness of the experience. I was not overwhelmed by it any more. The enchantment of hunting had remained, however, and has been that way ever since. It is there from the moment I smell the tussock, the forest, the heat of the sun on rocks. And it’s there in the smell of blood, sweat and mud ingrained in my jersey as I fall asleep using it as a pillow in a mountain hut, under a heaven studded with glittering stars.