I sit here, three days after returning home from Whanganui, slowly making my way through all the photos I took, and realize I am still riding the wave of adrenaline that powered me through the weekend that’s just been. My first hunt. A weekend that has been years in the making, three days of disconnect from life here in Auckland, three days wandering far from any sight of my once slim comfort zone.
I have three years of spearfishing under the belt now with about half of that being spent in some pretty dark places internally, struggling with where I was and what I was doing. I’ve learned that, in my case, swimming towards the unknown has changed me in ways I never imagined it would or could, for the better. I’ve gained confidence and strength, and I’ve learned that even on the hardest days when strength and confidence are absent, I can get by, doing my best, and continuing on the path towards the things that scare and excite me.
Hunting is my next adventure, my next challenge and yet another opportunity for me to grow. I didn’t know it yet, but this weekend would teach me a lot about what I’m actually capable of in a sense of mental and physical capacity.
As expected when my alarm went off at 3:20 am Friday Morning I was wide awake, as I had been all night, staring at my phone, anxiously anticipating the days to come. As always with the tone of my alarm, came the urge to shut my eyes for a couple of minutes, but knowing the boys were on the way I jumped out of bed, threw on the clothes I had laid out the night before, and quickly headed for the kettle and coffee awaiting me in the kitchen. I managed to inhale one strong black coffee before I heard the sound of the first car arrive in my driveway, then the second.
I picked up my rifle and the last bits that weren’t already packed in my truck, locked the house up, and headed downstairs to meet Nick, Andrew, and William. Spirits were high and the fatigue I’d been rolling around with since getting up, quickly dissipated. We completed a final check… gear, guns, bolts, magazines, etc then jumped in my truck and began the journey down to Whanganui.
Our first destination was a quick stop, not far from home to meet Kitch (another Andrew) and Will from Adventure Hunting, our guides for the weekend, to pick up a Polaris, and organise some final admin for the trip. From there we convoyed all the way down to Whanganui. The trip is a little hazy due to the constant stream of naps but our weapon of a driver, Andrew, powered through and got us there safely.
Upon arrival in Whanganui, we stopped at a local cafe to meet the last member of our crew for the weekend, Fitzy. With the Warfighter Athletic truck joining our convoy, we completed the last leg just around the corner to our base for the weekend.
The old farmhouse sat below a high and wide-spanning hill and while weathered in appearance offered more than enough comfort. In fact, I believe by hunting standards it was somewhat luxurious. We had enough beds and mattresses to set up our sleeping bags on, a fireplace, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a fridge to cool our beers. I have to say I felt a little calmer knowing that we had a roof over our heads and a fire to keep us warm.
We unloaded our gear, the Polaris, and all the food and while Kitch and Will headed out to see the landowner we quickly discovered the rifle range behind the house. Before we even got set up for a shoot, we heard the buzz of the Polaris return, along with instructions to jump in. Kitch and Will had spotted a mob of deer along the road and thought it a great opportunity to get a first look.
We hooned back down to the spot and Kitch took me for a walk to see if we could put eyes on them. Anticipation was high at this point, it would be my first time actually seeing a deer in the wild. We made our way down a bank, across a small stream, and up over a hill. Though we couldn’t find them, creeping along under the trees was exhilarating. I felt my heart rate rise, I was completely present, focusing on walking quietly, keeping my rifle pointed in a safe direction, and scanning the land ahead for any sign of an animal. This whole experience took only about 20minutes, but for me, it almost went in slow motion. No animals were seen but I was finally doing it, after years of thinking about this trip, I had my boots on, and my eyes peeled.
We returned to the house and finished getting our gear squared away. We set up some targets and ensured our rifles were all dialed in. The conversation quickly turned to gear. Fitzy and William both being knowledgeable in this area made for a lot of education over the weekend, ideal for me as a new hunter with little self-control when it comes to shopping.
3:00 pm rolled around and it was time to gear up for an evening excursion. I put on my Macpac thermals, some old gym shorts, a thin Stoney Creek fleece, and a Macpac puffer jacket, a pair of Bloodline socks, my beanie, and my Lowa boots. In my backpack, I put my camera, my rangefinder, my rain layers, my knife that Gareth from Victory had given me, some snacks and water. In my pocket went a loaded magazine and some extra ammo. I collected my rifle from the rack by the front door, and we were off!
Day One: The First Hunt.
After a short trip in the Polaris, we stopped below some hills and had a quick discussion to make a plan of attack. We would leave the ATV and make our way up and along a track then split into two groups and continue up to some ridges to start looking into basins for suitable targets. I remember my mind on the walk moving to all the what if’s, I fell behind soaking up my thoughts and working on controlling my breathing and heart rate. The temperature was dropping as fast as the sun and I quickly regretted not bringing my gloves.
We came to a fork in the track. Andrew, Fitzy, and Will headed left to move to an area where the shots would likely be longer, while myself, Kitch, William, and Nick turned right and up another track. We gained altitude quickly and though it wasn’t too far my heart rate climbed along with the lactic acid in my legs. We eventually got to the top and stopped short of the ridge. Kitch crept forward to have a look over the edge then came back with the news there were a couple of spikers down in the bottom of the valley.
After a quick chat, I made the decision that it was time to get the monkey off my back. It was all happening much faster than I had anticipated, but I went with it. We dropped our gear and I quietly inserted my magazine into my rifle, a Tikka T3x in 6.5 Creedmoor with a Hardy Suppressor and Leupold VX5 Scope. Jeremy at Rivers To Ranges put it together for me and completed the long-range verification. It was finally time to put it to the test. Until that evening, I’d only pointed it at paper targets.
I shuffled my way to the edge of the ridge, being mindful not to make too big a shape on a skyline. I ranged the deer at 230 yards dialed the required MOA into my scope and then racked back my bolt to chamber a round. I messed around for a bit getting comfortable, I quickly realised my bipod wasn’t going to be of any use from this position. I was shaking, shallow breathing, and my hands were sweaty, all the things I’d hoped to avoid at this very moment were suddenly very present and real. I had William behind me with the camera rolling, Nick to my left reminding me I had plenty of time and not to rush, and Kitch right there advising on which of the two animals to take, and when.
As advised, I powered up my VX5 to max magnification to offer the best view of the animal and placed my crosshairs just by the fold in the front shoulder as I’d been instructed. I steadied myself, slowed everything down, then took one final breath and slowly exhaled. As the end of my breath grew near, I applied pressure on the trigger softly squeezing with the pad of my finger. My lungs emptied and the shot broke, I hardly remember hearing the crack or feeling the recoil, but watched the deer drop behind a bush about 5m away from where it had been feeding. For a moment I was confused, another animal had moved out in its place, I was sure I’d seen it drop, but I couldn’t find it. I reloaded and waited, and with the feeling of Nick giving me a solid few whacks on the back, I started breathing again and realised I’d likely just taken my first deer. Kitch suggested we not celebrate until we had our eyes on the animal but inside I felt calmness, relief, and a contrasting wave of pure excitement and adrenaline.
My mind on the trip down the steep hill was filled with a buzz of anticipation. The boys showed me how to remain sideways, and keep my rifle on the outward side, pointing in a safe direction. If I fell in, I wouldn’t have a gun between myself and the ground. We made our way down to a point where Kitch stopped, turned to me with a smile and said “well done mate” or something along those lines, I couldn’t yet see the deer but he had spotted it laying not far from where I had shot it.
The 143gr bullet had hit the mark. I’d sent it through the front shoulder, and the top of the heart. I felt instant relief knowing it hadn’t suffered and I have to admit there was a moment of emotion as I kneeled down and put my hand on its side. It was warm, and there was a distinctive smell, it’s not one I can put a description too, it wasn’t bad, or good, it was just a smell I hadn’t experienced before. All the negative things I thought I’d feel, never actually eventuated. I wasn’t upset or guilty. My thoughts actually turned to how I’d get it butchered and share it with my family.
Kitch helped me get a few photos and I took a couple myself. For me this animal wasn’t a trophy, it signified the first step on my journey of sourcing food on land. A sentiment which Kitch shared, and we discussed it a number of times over the weekend.
We got to work on the messy part, which as it turned out, wasn’t bad at all. With expert instruction from Kitch I managed to get the deer gutted and cleaned up, ready for the trip back to base. I did slightly cut something I shouldn’t have, which made for a quick scramble to pull everything inside, out; we got it all clear before it contaminated the meat. I remember being surprised when I reached into the deer, about the amount of broken bone and fragments, I spend so much time shooting fish with a spear, I hadn’t really considered how destructive a bullet actually is. I was happy again knowing it had died quickly.
The carry back up the 200 or so metre hill, was something I hadn’t thought about when I pulled the trigger. The sun and temperature had dropped, but Kitch assured me that I wouldn’t need to put my warm layers back on. Within about 10m the reality of getting this up the hill hit home. It was a small animal and compared to some of the stories that were shared over the weekend, this was a walk in the park. For a designer from Auckland however, it was a bit of a shock to the system. My hours upon hours of walking in preparation for this hunt helped, but what I lacked was pure strength in my legs, something I am now working on.
We got there in the end, the last 10m was almost a step and a break, then another step and a break, but Kitch patiently coached me up a fence line to the top where William and Nick were waiting with a couple of eager high fives. I had blood all over me, in my hair, down my back, and up my arms, but I couldn’t have been happier. I was worn out but ecstatic.
The sun was now heading below the skyline and there was a bit of time left for William and Nick to move over to another vantage point in search of another target. We dropped back off the ridge and separated, William and Nick, headed for their new spot, while myself and Kitch ended up back on the same ridge to spend the remaining light glassing out onto the other side of the valley.
We spotted more deer, a big pig, even a big black cat roaming around. In a more relaxed state, it was awesome to just watch them feed and do their thing. No other animals were taken that night and knowing I had a deer on the ground allowed me to really soak up the end of the day. As we made the walk back to the Polaris by headlight we caught up with Fitzy, Andrew, and Will, it was a brisk trip back to the farmhouse and my mind quickly shot forward to what was still to come the following day.
Back at the farmhouse, we ended the first evening with an epic and well earned feed of the heart from my deer (bloody amazing) lamb racks, garlic bread, potatoes and salad. Kitch and Will pulled out their hidden chef skills and ensured we were all very well fed. We sat around the farmhouse and had a brief yarn but with everyone fading, and another big day ahead we pulled pin and decided to get some sleep.
I’d jumped into bed the night before, so pumped up on adrenaline, that for the second night in a row, I’d been wide awake all night in anticipation of what was still to come. On a normal day, I battle with lack of sleep, it’s an anxiety trigger for me, and I struggle with simple tasks.
As everyone emerged and we began making plans, my anxiety settled, and the tiredness seemed to slide away. I remember at the time thinking it was strange that I felt so unusually good for not having slept in a few nights, I began to remind myself of the promise I’d made before this trip that I’d make the most of it.
The plan for the morning was to make our way along the tops of the hills up behind the farmhouse, the opposite direction to where we’d been the night before. We stopped part way up and dropped off Nick and William who would hunt their way up the remaining part of the rise, to meet up with us later in the morning.
We reached the top and again made the call to split up. Kitch, Andrew and I would continue on foot along a treeline towards some areas that were worthy of a look while Fitzy and Will positioned themselves looking over another small valley.
I can’t remember exactly how long the walk was, but I remember valuable conversations about tactics and strategies for hunting in New Zealand. We discussed the animal behavior, and other important facets that a new hunter should absorb and remember. Having Andrew and Kitch with me, both being experienced hunters, made for a lot of awesome learning.
We checked our spots and took our time to search and glass areas of interest. The sun was now well up and quickly making the four layers I was wearing redundant. In the light of day, we realised we were so high we had a pretty spectacular view of the tops of the Southern Alps. There were many things on this trip that blew my mind, that was definitely one of them.
Over the space of the morning, we saw a number of animals, none we decided to take, but I was still frothing on just seeing them running around and feeding. On the way back to the Polaris we met up with the others and spotted some stags. William, Nick and Will, crept into a shooting position but unfortunately the deer had other ideas and returned to the thick bush.
The morning had been another amazing experience of learning and insight into hunting. We made our way back to the farmhouse for a rest and some more coffee. Along the way, we stopped and Andrew bagged himself a good turkey, and later in the day, I got to watch it get processed into meat ready for feasting back at home… another first for me.
The remainder of Saturday up until our evening hunt was spent refueling and having some fun on the shooting range at the back of the farmhouse. It really started to set in for me the disconnect from life here in Auckland. We had no reception and for the first time in a long time, my mind (and I think everyone else’s) was far away from work. I see the benefits in breaks of this nature. Though I was running on fumes, I was relaxed and focused only on what we were doing.
As the evening sun started to settle, we parked up where we had the night before and made our way back up the track to the top of the big valleys. This time I split off with Fitzy and Will to head to the vantage point that offered longer shots. Nick and Kitch went to the right to the spot I’d shot my deer the night before, while Andrew and William were back towards the farmhouse on their own brotherly mission stalking up a big area of bush we’d checked out earlier that morning.
After a bit of walking and clambering over a few fences, Will, Fitzy, and I made it to our spot for the evening. We set up on a bit of a mound looking out over a hill face covered in bush, a track, and areas of open ground. We had about a 180-degree view and it appeared to be the perfect spot to find some targets.
We sat and in the light of the fading sun we scoured the opposite face for any sign of an animal.
As the air got cooler and the sky darker it suddenly hit me just how fatigued I was. I was feeling dizzy and not super comfortable with where I was. Rather than sit there and fester internally, which is my go-to, I let the boys know I was feeling a bit shit and that I’d leave the shooting up to them. A quick can of coke gave me the sugar hit I needed to at least get back into a mindset of enjoying where we were and what we were doing.
An hour or so passed and we started to see some action. Deer were coming out to feed and I took much pleasure in laying in the cold wet grass, watching them through my scope. We assessed all the animals we could see and crept our way down into a slightly better shooting position. Fitzy spotted one he liked the look of, from memory, it was a little over 300yards away and decided it was his turn to have a crack. A very well-placed shot saw his target drop on the spot and the wave of adrenaline I’d been waiting for came flooding back. The quiet and peaceful tone of glassing and quiet chat had been quickly transitioned to more high fives and the sound of Will humorously updating Kitch via the radio.
We waited until the light no longer allowed us to hunt and under the beams of our head torches, we made our way back to meet up with Nick and Kitch who had also had a successful evening with a couple of animals on the ground. After a quick stop to sort them we were back in the Polaris with a spotlight in hand, making the most of the private land we were lucky enough to be on.
It was a slow and exciting trip back to base, scouring the hillsides for those reflective eyes. Just as I started to debrief the awesome weekend in my head we spotted a deer up on a hill and I decided to add one more to my meat tally for the weekend. I crouched down against a post and put my arm through a fence to reach around and rest my rifle, I took aim and in a very uncomfortable position managed to get it on the ground. With Will’s instruction, I cleaned it out and dragged it back down to the guys waiting in the Polaris. What an epic way to end the weekend!
We arrived back at the farmhouse to the smell of dinner cooking. Andrew and William had beat us back. They too had a successful evening with a nice spiker hanging on the porch. We finished the big day, feasting on venison sausages and cold beer. We all had meat to take home and we were all shattered, well, I was anyway. With a full belly and an exhausted mind and body, I climbed into my sleeping bag…..and to my horror, enjoyed another evening of little sleep broken by the still pumping adrenaline and excitement. To be honest, at that point I didn’t care.
In the morning we packed our gear, hooked up the Polaris, loaded our animals, and said a huge thank you to Kitch and Will who had made our weekend one to remember. The whole Adventure Hunting experience taught me a lot about myself and introduced me to a whole new world of sourcing my own food.
I spent the long drive home thinking about how I’ve led a mostly safe adulthood, behind the walls of strict, anxiety-driven boundaries. I’ve used my company Fuel Media as an excuse to stay sheltered and disconnected from anything that pushes me into learning, growing, and developing. I’ve avoided pain, struggle, and been guided by my overwhelming fear of failure. The outcome has been years of generalized anxiety, panic and at times immense struggle, with everyday life.
Along with the tangible and edible outcomes of this trip, I came away with a new found confidence in what I’m capable of. It showed me a new level of how comfortable I can be even when my comfort zone is far from sight.
I hope my story inspires others to take a leap of faith and try something new. While it may be hard, and at times seem impossible, in the end I promise you will look back with more strength and drive to make the most of every awesome opportunity life has to offer us.
In closing, I’d like to say a huge thank you to Kitch and Will from Adventure Hunting, your guiding, experience, and patience, made something I knew I’d struggle with, downright epic! And the crew, William, Nick, Andrew and Fitzy you all added to it immensely in your own ways, whether you realise it or not.