Until quite recently, the Fiordland National Park of New Zealand's Southern Alps was a kind of high-rise heaven for outdoorsmen. The park's three million mountainous acres offered something spectacular and soul-satisfying to everyone with a taste for rugged activity—sheer cliffs and ice-topped 8,000-foot peaks for the mountaineer; year-round skiing on the countless glaciers; clear, tumbling trout streams aboil with rainbows and browns as long as a man's leg; and more big game, it seemed, than an army of hunters could kill in two lifetimes. Alas, no more. Today a pall of doom hangs over the country, compounded of gunsmoke, gasoline fumes and the reek of flyblown deer guts.
After an intensified five-year, government-backed campaign to eradicate New Zealand's big-game herd, Fiordland has turned into a nightmarish battleground, an antipodean cross between the late air war in Vietnam and the slaughter of the American buffalo herd a century ago. More than 50 helicopters flap the slopes, carrying hunters who zap red deer, tahr and chamois at point-blank range with telescopically sighted military rifles. Since the meat has sold to the West German venison market for as much as $1.60 a pound, unbridled competition among the chopper operators has produced a rash of sabotage and skinned knuckles galore. It may soon result in open aerial warfare.
Just as the sight of circling vultures over the fertile game plains of East Africa evokes a visceral sense of malaise in paradise, so does the presence of the meat hawks alter the mood of Fiordland. Every day, regardless of season or weather, float planes and big transport helicopters take off from the bustling resort town of Te Anau, on the park's eastern border, with tons of freshly killed meat. The image of 10 or 12 deer, open-bellied and round-eyed in death, dangling from a chopper's cargo hook, the stags still in velvet, the hinds with their unborn young tucked efficiently in their eviscerated body cavities, has stolen much of the joy from the country. Recently an English tourist stood on the neat lawn of the Te Anau Hotel and watched a chopper flail past with its grisly cargo. He shook his head sadly. "I was planning a two-day outing on the Milford Track, along with a spot of fly-fishing, you know," he said. "But now I don't know. It would be like backpacking through an abattoir."
Nonetheless, just as most hunters of today would like to have witnessed the great buffalo stands of a century ago to see how it looked when hundreds of the huge, shaggy beasts dropped to a single rifle, to feel the kick of the Sharps and smell the stink of the burning black powder, there is a compulsion to witness this slaughter—which may well be the last great hunt of human history. Moral and ecological considerations aside, it would be bloody exciting.
March 17, 1974
Deaker picked me up in front of the Te Anau Hotel at 4:30 a.m. The lake was dead flat. You could see the reflections of the snow peaks on the water, and the medicinal reek of the blue gum trees came sharply through the cold spring air. Too pretty a day for death, I thought. Deaker was driving a battered, faded Humber sedan with kiddy toys wedged under the seats. Strange transportation for a man who grosses $7,500 a day, any day he can fly. Deaker hunched over the wheel as we drove to the helicopter pad. A tall, thin young man with apple cheeks and curly dark hair, a shy demeanor, 28 years old with a wife and two sons. Cyril Richard Deaker, meat hunter. His friends call him Dick.
"I used to leave the helicopter at the pad south of town," he apologized, "but then we had this bloody business of the sabotage, you see. One bloke found sand in his motor—while he was flying, mind you—and we had two aircraft burned just last month in the hangar. The competition among the venison companies is getting a bit out of hand. Now I leave the helicopter in my neighbor's backyard. Sleep sounder that way."
The chopper was a Hiller 12E, dirty white with the words "Alpine Helicopters Ltd." stenciled on the tail. The rotor tips were painted Day-Glo orange, the better to spot them in case of a crash. The Plexiglas bubble was pearly with the morning dew, and a set of deer's feet lay beaded and stiff in the webbing of the side skids. They sell the forelegs of the deer for gun and hat racks. Indeed, they sell all of the deer except the guts. The meat goes for 75¢ a pound right now—half the price it sold for a few months ago, before cheaper Russian, Scottish and East German venison entered the European market. Since the stags are all in velvet now, it being New Zealand's spring, the hunters have a bonus: Asians prize the velvet of the red deer as an aphrodisiac, and pay $15 a pound for it. Deer tails are also favored on the aphrodisiac market. The "tusks" of the stags—those two upper teeth that Americans know only as "elk's teeth"—find a good market in the U.S. Even the unborn fawns are marketable. Their meat is tender, and their silky hides make fine leather for purses, gloves and ties.
Deaker lights off the engine and the big, bright rotors begin their hollow flapping. Ominous, I think. But why? Then the connection comes: Vietnam and the gunships. When the engine is sufficiently warm, Dick lifts off and hovers over me. I snap a line attached to a 44-gallon gasoline drum into the hook on the chopper's belly, then scramble onto the skid and into the bubble as Deaker powers up, up and away into the mountains. The earth recedes at a frightening rate. This chopper, I know, is capable of only 80 mph flat-out, but its rate of climb, like that of all its cousins, is conducive to acrophobia. We flop-flop our way up Lake Te Anau; trout are rising in the glassy bays. At the estuary of the Eglinton River we drift down over meadows gaudy with lupine—pink, purple, yellow—and drop the gas drum on a dirt road, next to a Land Rover.
"My shooter and his pal are just up the road," Dick said as we refueled the helicopter. "They're probably foot hunting. That's how it all began, you know, with foot hunting—these blokes would just pack a water bottle and a rifle back into the bush and knock down maybe 20 deer a day. Then when the market for meat started to go up they went to Land Rovers, then jet boats, then fixed-wing aircraft, and now it's gotten to helicopters."
We heard a couple of shots up the road. Dim and distant, the echoes bounced back from the forested faces of the Earl Mountains just north of us.
"That'll be Sid and Gary," Deaker said. "I'll just pop up there and pluck their deer."
No question about it, I thought. Two shots, two deer. These men must be good with a rifle. As Deaker sloped off, I rehearsed what I knew of the history of this slaughter.
Like all lonely colonists far from home, the early Kiwis (as New Zealanders call themselves in honor of their famous bird) had the best of intentions when they introduced the European red deer to their islands back in 1851. In those days, though, the concept of natural balance was only dimly perceived. Since there were no predators save man on the islands, and the men were too few and too busy to have much effect on the red-deer herd, the animals promptly went on a procreative binge that ultimately rivaled that of the infamous rabbits of Australia. Along with such other introduced species as the American wapiti, the sambar, sika and rusa deer of Asia, chamois from the Swiss Alps and the shaggy Himalayan goat known as tahr, the red deer were soon thought of as pests. They all competed with sheep for grazing land, and their nonstop gnawing along the steep uplands soon caused extensive erosion.
After a hard-eyed survey in the late 1940s, the government passed a Noxious Animals Act in 1956 that in effect pronounced the death sentence on all New Zealand big game. Government cullers tramped the mountains of the North and South Islands, gunning down game by the ton without making the slightest dent in the population. At its maximum, the wild herd numbered some six million animals—double the human population of the islands. Most of the carcasses were left to rot, since it was too difficult to get them out of the rugged backcountry. A few trophy hunters from abroad took some fine specimens, but the safari business never was a major economic input to New Zealand's struggling agrarian economy. Then, several years ago a burgeoning market for venison opened up in Germany. Coincidentally, the New Zealand government lowered its tariff barriers on helicopters. Market and technology came together, at first with a barely audible stutter, then with an ear-shattering, nonstop blend of gunfire and rotor beat that threatens to wipe out the herd.
Last year, which may well have been the equivalent of the 1881-82 buffalo season in the U.S., the last big killing year, New Zealand exported $8 million worth of venison. At a dressed weight of 100 pounds per animal and a top price of $1.60 a pound, that comes to 50,000 head. No one keeps track of the deer that die of wounds, or the meat that falls inaccessible into the steep gorges and canyons of the Southern Alps. Whatever the numbers, this is no doubt the climax....
The sudden slap of approaching rotors snapped me out of history back into the moment. Deaker was returning with the kill. Two deer carcasses twisted slowly from the hook as he swept in. They dropped with a limp thud on the dirt road. One was a four-point stag, and I tentatively felt his velvet before scrambling aboard the chopper. It was an odd sensation, vaguely obscene. All the dead deer I had seen in my life had been killed in the autumn, when antlers are hard and honed to a fighting edge. These antlers felt soft and fuzzy.
We were seated three abreast in the close quarters of the Hiller's cockpit. Dick was wearing a crash helmet with a built-in radio: a spaceman crouched over the mysterious controls, all concentration. I was crowded tight against the door on his right, all nerves. On his left sprawled his younger brother Sid, 25, the shooter, a 20-shot, .308-caliber Belgian F.N. rifle between his knees. The contrast in dress was time-warping. Sid could have passed for Young Wild West—he wore a green woolen capote, of the sort the mountain men favored, ripped and bloodstained, with a bandolier over his shoulder and a sheathed Green River gutting knife on his belt. His hands were huge and nicked with many cuts, already bloody from cleaning the first two deer. As we pounded up the first face into the mountains, his eyes searched through the heavy bush for deer. The snags of dead beech trees poked through the lush undergrowth not 30 feet below us. The sound of the straining engine made conversation impossible.
At the top of the first long, bushy slope Sid tensed. Then he pointed, and Dick banked the chopper steeply to the left. Three hinds—female red deer—galloped clear of the cover and raced uphill just ahead of the helicopter. Sid leaned out of the left-hand door and brought the scope to his eye. The first deer dropped at the shot—I could see the guard hairs fly on her long, straining neck. A good clean kill at 25 yards, the deer and chopper both moving at about 40 miles an hour. The rifle banged again, and the empty brass clattered against the Plexiglas bubble; the second deer clattered head over heels through the boulders. The third hind, by now, had reached cover near a deep gorge. Dick dropped back below her and then eased slowly up to where she was hiding, altering the pitch of the blades as he climbed. The sound of the approaching rotors turned the trick: she vaulted uphill again, into the open. But before Sid could shoot, the deer committed suicide. She leaped out into the chasm of the gorge, and as we swept overhead we could see her tumbling a good 2,000 feet to her death, bouncing and breaking as she fell. Dick angled the chopper uphill once again.
The hunting technique was to sweep the ridge just below timberline, driving deer up into the lichen-grown boulders where they could be more easily shot and retrieved. But since mountains are uneven and the deer have already grown spooky of the chopper beat, it is best to approach a ridge line very low, at brush-top level, then pop over the ridge and thus surprise anything browsing on the far side. This makes for tricky flying, particularly in a helicopter, which cannot long abide the thin air of 6,000-feet elevations, not to mention the random up-drafts that are the major hazard of those faces. The rest of the morning passed in a swirl of violent impressions: the chopper hanging at impossible angles, engine screaming with the overload as Sid banged away at elongated blurs of panic that finally fell and turned into dead deer.
A stag and a hind on an open slope, staring up wide-eyed, their ears pricked forward in curiosity, then fleeing as we swept in. She died first, the bullet taking her spang on top of the head. He fell to a neck shot, cartwheeling sideways downhill, his head bent back, loose....
A hind sprinting downhill toward a beech copse, staring wildly behind her until the bullet sent her out of control, head over heels, to catch up finally in the edge of what might have been safety, her hooves waving goodby to us as we flapped past....
A large green parrot called a kea that overflew us from right to left as we angled up a long, dark valley. The kea stared back over its shoulder at the strange, loud metal bird beneath it, then banked steeply to follow. The kea is a meat eater. Often a chopper crew will find as many as a dozen of them on a carcass when they return for the pickup. Then it is useless to stop; keas can clean a 200-pound carcass in half an hour....
Popping over a ridge into the full blast of the rising sun, the rock dropping away beneath us—sheer, bright with melting snow-water, black in the shadows, over a pit of incandescent clouds—the scene glimpsed only for an instant, transcending vertigo with its beauty. Seen from that angle, in that sort of a moment, hell might not be so bad a place....
The big, 10-point stag trapped in the underbrush beneath us, staring up open-mouthed, thrashed as Sid blazed away at him. A full five rounds, with the stag wincing at each impact, his jaw working madly as if he were uttering some powerful curse in red-deer language. His left eye rolling, pale blue in the heightening light—later, gutting him, we discover that he is blind in that eye, probably the result of catching it on a thorn during some earlier, panic-stricken flight from the meat hawks....
After the killing came the acrobatics. By 7 a.m. all the deer we had not shot were safely hidden deep in the bush. Now it was necessary to go back over the 20 or 30 square miles of mountain slope we had hunted and retrieve the dead deer, carry them to an open ridge and gut them prior to bringing them back down the mountain. "Three paunches equal the weight of one live deer," Dick said. "The legal load of this Hiller is 800 pounds, but it can actually carry 1,000. That amounts to 10 or 12 gutted carcasses." He guided the chopper unerringly through the broken maze of rock and bush to the precise point where each deer lay. "I know all the little wee clearings up here better than I know my brother's face," Dick yelled over the roar of the motor. For the first time that morning Sid's face relaxed into a smile. He looked about 16 years old. Shooting, he might have passed for 40.
They dropped me on a high, open ridge, along with the carcasses of three deer, while they flew off for the others. Jumping from the skid onto the uneven rock I got a feeling of how it must be for the shooter, who also doubles as retriever and gutter—constantly in and out of the chopper, often having to drop 10 or 12 feet into rough undergrowth and patches of spiny "bush lawyer,' the New Zealand equivalent of North America's catbrier. The helicopter vaulted away, its powerful downdraft splattering me with blood and mucus from the dead deer. Then a moment of silence.
I looked out over the huge country. Directly to the south spread Lake Te Anau, long and dark blue, a mountain lake reminiscent of Tahoe without the casinos. The silence gave way to an ominous buzz, and I immediately thought: rattlesnake! But New Zealand has no poisonous snakes of any variety. The buzz came from the swarm of bush flies that immediately materialized out of God knows where—there was no bush within half a mile—and settled like a blue electric blanket on the dead deer. A blanket that twitched and bulged and squirmed and snarled.
Back and forth the helicopter scuttled, each time dropping a few more carcasses onto the limp pile. Then Dick landed and shut down the engine. The brothers broke out their knives, honed them busily on their steels and set to work gutting. It took no more than half a minute per deer. Time is money to the meat hawks: it costs about $75 an hour to operate a helicopter, so everything is done on the double. A miasma of blood and offal filled the air, adding an appropriate odor to the ugly sound of the flies. Four of the hinds carried unborn fawns, "slinkies," the meat hawks call them, and the word is apt. They stashed the slippery, scrawny, spotted bodies back in the empty bellies of their mothers. One of the hinds was in milk, and for the first time Dick seemed upset. He looked out over the mountains.
"There's a poor little bugger out there somewhere that will bloody starve," he said. "What a bloody-poor thing it is to shoot them at this time of the year." Then he looked at the ground around us, poking with his boot through the tussock for old deer droppings. They were everywhere. "These droppings are six or eight years old," he said. "You can see how many deer there were then. Look at these deer here"—and he kicked the blind stag—"they're all ratty. Rats is what they bloody are. Not at all fit. Because we harass them so they can't bloody eat. There were better bloody heads in the old days. How can a bloody deer get a chance to live the good life when any bloody joker can buy a helicopter and start hunting anytime he wants?"
He worked his way around the heap, his almost girlishly pretty face warped with sullen anger, then signaled Sid to hook up the gutted deer. There were 10 of them—it had been ¬£ slow morning—and Dick intended to carry them all out at the same time. With my added weight, equal to that of a fair-sized gutless stag, I reckoned we would be well over the Hiller's maximum-load limit.
"Not to worry," said Dick with a vicious grin. "We autorotate down the mountain, and unless the motor's buggered we'll make it." We lurched backward off the ridge, and Dick laid the chopper over on her side, like a platform diver doing a back dive with a half twist, and we skidded back down the mountain, the bubble shaking furiously and the shadows of the deer dangling beneath us showing on the sheer rock faces as we fell. "Chap was working under a helicopter one day, hooking up a pile of chamois," Dick yelled, noticing my interest in the shadows. "When he jumped back to wave the pilot away with the load, he suddenly found himself upside down with the carcasses, over 2,000 feet of nothing. Seems a chamois horn had hooked into his sock and whipped him upside down. Luckily the pilot saw his bloody shadow waving madly down there with the load and made a soft drop, or else the bugger would be bloody tucker for the Germans. Ha! ha!"
That night I invited Dick, Sid, their foot-hunting partner, Gary Hollows, and wives to a bit of tucker at the Te Anau Hotel. Plenty of drinks went down before dinner, and plenty of wine went down along with it. There is no 24-hour-abstinence rule for meat-hawking helicopter pilots. "Oh, I'll have a crook head in the morning," Dick allowed. "I've been drunk every night this week, and we're still flying. The main hazards to this job are booze and bad weather. Put them bloody together and you get bits of men and machines scattered all down the mountain."
"We've had some close ones," said Gary Hollows. Gary is a tanned, muscular Kiwi of 35 with a ready smile, much more relaxed than the Deaker brothers, probably because he hunts mainly afoot and only now and then goes up in the chopper. "Remember that time you lost cyclic control and I had to jump 30 feet off the skid? I hit the rock with my rifle in my hand and all the meat squirted out from under my fingertips."
"I thought he was buggered," Dick said.
"Yeah," grinned Gary. "If I hadn't jumped they'd have pushed me anyway. Once you're out on the skid, you're expendable. Right?"
The talk veered and swooped like a hunting helicopter, settling finally on the joys of foot hunting, a mode that has practically disappeared from New Zealand with the ascendancy of the highly organized choppers.
"Bloody shame that it's going," said Gary. "Bloody shame that the deer are going, too. When there were plenty, any bloke could grab his rifle and hike up into the bush—away up there where no one had set foot before—and deerstalk to his heart's content. Fried liver for breakfast and tenderloin for tea—that's the caper. Plenty of cold water to drink up there where the bloody trout haven't ever seen a line before. I always pack a little breakdown spinning rod with me for when I'm tired of killing. You travel light: sneakers and no socks for wading the streams, a poncho and a down-filled sleeping bag, a knife, a light rifle—I shot a .222—and plenty of ammo, some tea and biscuits and sugar and salt and a mess kit, a gutting knife. That's about it. None of this high bloody technology. None of these bloody petrol drums...."
"They ought to knock off, just about knock off right bloody now," mumbled Dick. "They ought to abolish the Noxious Animals Act and put a season on deer shooting and license the meat hunters. They ought to close the season from October to after the roaring, what you Yanks call the rut, about the end of March. It would be easy to cull the herds back with helicopters if they got out of hand again. The way it is now, you get deer that have been wounded only a few days before, deer with holes in their ears, legs shot off, bullets through their necks. They shouldn't be running around out there like that. What gets me most is the slinkies. Sometimes you open up a hind and the slinky is trying to breathe. You whip it out and you fly down the mountain and get it to the deer farm. Gary once gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a slinky. They ought to knock off...."
Then why don't they?
"There's the money," Dick admitted. "New Zealand's streets are scarcely paved with gold. You've got to get ahead, way ahead, if you don't want to get trapped into some bloody shopkeeper's life. Oh, I'm a good enough helicopter pilot now to make a go anywhere, without hunting. But beyond the money, if I'm to be perfectly honest, there's the thrill of it. Where else is this kind of thing possible in a world that's slowly going soft? It's bloody adventure, is what it is. That's come to be a kind of silly word, I suppose, but it still means something."
Later in the week Deaker dropped me off on the north branch of the Clinton River, high in the mountains above Milford Sound. He doubted that anyone had ever fished this stretch of the river before, and indeed on my first clumsy cast with a nymph I hooked—and lost—a large rainbow trout. In five successive pools I caught five fish, each weighing in excess of five pounds. Now and then, as I waded the icy, strong river, with the sunlight glinting on the boulders and the bright pink sides of the leaping, outraged trout, I would hear the distant beat of the chopper working around the high peaks above the timberline. I would look up and see the predatory insect-shape of the machine, a deadly dot against the snowfields and the sky and the bare rock. Once I thought I could hear the popping of Sid's rifle. I imagined the deer, a hind probably, heavy with her slinky, lurching uphill away from the horrid beating sound, looking up, then falling to thrash her life away against the gaudy lichens....
When the trout came to the gravel beach, beaten, its gills working heavily, I slipped the fly loose from its jaw and worked the fish back and forth for a while through the water. Then I released it. It swam slowly at first, then faster and faster, until it fetched up at its holding place in the center of the stream. When I looked up, the helicopter had disappeared. But not for long, I thought.