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I try to sleep, but my mind is restless with anticipation. Huddling deeper into my sleeping bag I toss and turn, imagining what the final hunt may bring. Lying in complete darkness in the early hours of the morning I mull over the events of previous week’s adventures. My watch slowly ticks through the night hours and my mind continues its wander. The last thirteen days of hunting solo in the Victorian High Country had taken its toll, I was growing tired both physically and emotionally.
My alarm wakes me with a fright in its boisterous pre-dawn wake-up call. Reluctantly, I crawl out of my cosy sleeping bag and pull on a warm merino base layer, bracing for the bitter sub-zero winter temperatures.
I reach for the swags’ zipper, slowly peeling back the outer shell exposing myself to the elements. The ground lay covered in a blanket of miniscule white crystals of frost, while a raw silence hangs thickly in the crisp dawn air. Swiftly wiping a dense layer of ice off my boots I drag them on, struggling to unravel their twisted and frozen laces. The ice melts a little under my hands as I begin lacing them up, enough for my fingers and palms to become wet. It’s only been seconds since leaving the protection of my swag and already my skin feels bitterly cold; I open and close my fists repeatedly, trying to get the blood flowing again.
Rushing over to what remains of the small campfire from the night before I crouch down and reach out desperately searching for any warmth. Staring deeply into the coals, small whispers of smoke drift away into the surrounding darkness. I reach forward, prodding what remains of the dense mountain log from the night before. It erupts back to life, sending vibrant, glowing flames towering high into the darkness above. The billy soon whistled to life, the lid rattled loosely as steam escaped around it’s bent and battered edges, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee filling the crisp morning air.
Standing alone in the dark an hour before sunrise, I take a draw from a cup of coffee to counter the welcomed minus ninedegree chill. Looking up into the pitchblack void above I ponder the thought of finally achieving my goal of harvesting a mature Sambar stag momentarily before shouldering my pack for one final hunt and set off into the eerie darkness.
Running on pure excitement and adrenaline, I make my way up the steep alpine spur, guided only by the faint yellow glow of my head torch from above. The first glimmers of the new day peak over the ridge afar and the vibrant morning sun begins illuminating the pasty white bark of the prehistoric eucalypts that tower high above me. Feeling dwarfed beneath these towering fossils, I continue to gain elevation as I slowly negotiate my way through the cluster of soaring giants. A voyeur to the wilderness waking up around me, nature lay undisturbed.
The ground is sodden underfoot and the foliage drenched, a thick fog had blanketed the entire gully floor below. My riflescope is foggy on the outside as I confirm its integrity by wiping away the condensation. Surveying a well-defined game trail, I notice fresh tracks in the damp soil. Delicate footprints looking faintly like those of a child walking on hands and feet tracked across the dew-dampened game trail indicating a deer moving along the ridgeline ahead. Slowing my pace, I move inconspicuously, constantly scanning for any signs of movement ahead. With the morning breeze now blowing directly into my face I push on, glassing every few steps and following the array of fresh prints etched into the damp hillside. I proceed over a prominent saddle and begin descending into the neighbouring gully head.
The first few hours pass with no animals seen. As I sit down to re-energise, I reach for a protein bar from the top of my pack. Leaning my back against a rock I close my eyes momentarily, enjoying the sun’s warmth. The sweet perfume of the eucalypt forest drifts into my nostrils as I reflect on the beauty of nature.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a Sambar hind moving through a dense patch of timber no more than thirty meters from my position, her dense brown coat glowing in the vibrant morning sun. A small yearling cautiously moves out from a patch of cover just below, energetically prancing over to its now wary mother. I sit motionless, watching the deer feed undisturbed, listening to their every breath, just admiring the mountaineers. I was mesmerised and totally engrossed in their presence. Rummaging through my pack, I search furiously for my camera. The hind momentarily catches sight of my movement and honks, sending a shivering blast right through me. Unaware of what I was and naturally inquisitive, she holds her ground before steadily moving toward me for closer inspection. At a mere 12 meters, the hind finally got my scent and vanished seamlessly into the surrounding bush, her yearling trailing close behind. A truly humbling and intimate experience I’ll never forget. A mere few hours of the day had passed and yet already it had been filled with memorable moments – the kind of unique experiences, quiet contemplations, and interactions with the natural world that for us hunters are lasting and the real rewards of time spent afield.
Captivated by the experience, I perched my half-eaten protein bar on a fallen tree by my side and began scanning the surrounding bush with my binoculars in search of anything, from the flicker of an ear, a horizontal backline or a pair of glossy white antler tips moving gracefully through the thick scrub.
It was now mid-morning as I continue to scan the area, noticing abundant fresh rub trees and luscious grassy feeding areas high on the opposite face above. It appears to be the perfect habitat for a Sambar deer. Descending cautiously to the gully floor and crossing a small fast flowing creek, I begin to make my way up the now sun-drenched face to investigate further.
Brushing the damp and spiky foliage aside, I ascend a prominent game trail. Pausing mid stride, I sense a small fluctuation in the air currents from above. Silently drawing the wind checker from my hip pocket and holding at arm’s length, I squeeze its sides softly, releasing a fine mist into the atmosphere. My thoughts are confirmed as the haze of white powder whirls around and slowly drifts back toward me.
There’s a perfect cool breeze in my face and damp ground lay underfoot, masking the sound of my stalk through the bush.
I crouch down to examine a fresh cluster of large, glossy droppings beside the well-used game trail. Removing any guesswork, I pick up a pellet. Still warm, I squeeze its firm glazed exterior between my thumb and index finger. Its soft olive-green interior emits a pungent herbaceous smell, confirming that the droppings are extremely fresh.
The faintest crack of a twig from above catches my attention. Still crouched, I pause and remain motionless. My senses working in overdrive to determine the nature of the unexplained noise. I sit patiently for several minutes, listening for any movement to no avail.
After slowly moving off I cautiously begin ascending towards the noise. Climbing higher, I follow fresh tracks passing a group of freshly used rub trees. A clump of Eucalypt saplings lay bare to the elements, their branches torn and ragged beyond repair. Neat plies of bark shavings lay of the ground surrounding their spindly trunks, undoubtedly decimated by a Sambar stag.
The sun shines directly into my eyes as I continue to ascend the steep alpine face. Straining my eyes, I scan through the bush where the shade allows my eyes to focus. Glancing across to my left, a horizontal backline catches my eye through a small gap in the dense understory a mere fifty yards away. Standing broadside and partially concealed the stag stood motionless, fully alert to my presence, fixated on my every movement. His bat like ears swivelling constantly in an endless search for danger. The stag’s awesome bulk made him appear ponderous. His coarse dark brown coat silhouetted perfectly against the bright glare of the morning sun. I make brief eye contact and it feels as if the stag is staring into the depths of my soul. I had stalked right into his domain and caught him off guard. Taking a half step to the right, I slowly raise the rifle and chamber a round, steadying myself for an offhand shot. Trying to compose myself, the quivering crosshairs pause on the high point of the stag’s shoulder before gently squeezing the trigger. The piercing roar of the .300 Magnum echoes throughout the valley for what seemed like an eternity.
Lurching forward on impact, the stag fell instantly, tumbling wildly downhill. My heart skips a beat. Unable to determine his position through the thick bracken, I listen carefully, hearing the stag crashing down the hillside below. I catch a glimpse of the stag’s antlers as he comes to rest on the slope some 60 yards below. My heart is pumping, palms sweaty and I’m shaking uncontrollably like nothing before. I unshoulder my pack and sit down unable to control my emotions. I take a few moments to let the whole experience sink in, giving the stag time to expire peacefully.
Losing my footing on a loose rock, I slip down the steep slope. I didn’t even register the impact of the sharp rocks in pure relief. I regain my footing and stand there gapemouthed. Ten meters away, tangled in the bracken is a beauty. Laying my eyes on the stag’s antlers protruding from a small cluster of bush, I was relieved. Pulling the twisted antlers from underneath the stags front I let out a shout, punching the air in elation. An indescribable rush of emotions instantly overtook me. I was overwhelmed. Remorse, guilt, sadness combined with a whole host of other emotions flooded my mind, giving way almost immediately to a feeling of grace and thankfulness.
My gaze returned to the stag, absolute stillness and silence dominated the peaceful moment. The mountains stood silently in the background as I ran my hands along the stag’s antlers, taking the time to respect and admire its majesty. Part stripped of velvet, the pasty white antlers lay exposed to the elements.
After several photos, I started the long, gruelling process of butchering and caping the stag on the steep alpine spur before filling my pack with free range organic red meat that would provide many wonderful meals of lean venison for months to come.
It was an almost vertical climb to the ridge above where I would make the long, arduous trek down the other side back toward camp. The decision to push directly uphill through the dense understorey was tough to commit to, especially when carrying a pack full of venison and with a head and cape to recover, however it was the most direct route available given the topography. It’s times like this when the Moroka.30 backpack comes into its own, making weapon carry so effortless when both hands are needed to scale the steep alpine faces.
My legs are like jelly as I stumble the last few meters to the ute. Rushing down to the small mountain stream below, my mouth parched from fatigue. Sweat beads off my forehead as I unshoulder my pack and rest it against the undercut riverbank. Bending down, I scoop a hand through the icy cold water quenching my thirst.
Solo hunting certainly comes with numerous added risks, especially in such inhospitable terrain. It’s physically demanding and pushes mental strength to new levels. However, overcoming challenges in these environments make it all the more rewarding. Hunting alone in remote gully systems was unquestionably challenging, there were times of immense struggle leaving me reflecting on what exactly I had gotten myself into. Yet I wouldn’t change it for a thing, it’s all part of it. Hunting, for me is a vessel for the soul and the actual harvest of an animal is such a small part of the overall experience. This adventure was like nothing I had dreamed of and is etched deep into my memory forever. I now find myself with an ever-increasing hunger to return to the mountains to test my skills, dedication and motivation against the elements and intellect of the almighty Sambar deer once more.