It was early spring. The days were getting longer and the snow was melting. I decided it was once again time to venture into the untamed and remote parts of the Victorian high country to experience the awesome landscape, the resident wildlife and have an adventure. Finding a paradise untouched by others is getting harder these days with more of us backpacking well away from roads and tracks. My mission was to photograph Sambar deer. It was my intention to get to a place where not too many hunters get to. The Snowy Bluff Wilderness (part of Alpine National Park) located roughly between Licola and Dargo is such a place.
As well as being in wilderness, the rigors’ and self reliance of backpacking through rugged bush land adds to the experience of seeing wild Sambar in a breathtaking environment.
It is my intention to not provide exact details of the location. One of the challenges of hunting is to explore new areas and discover for yourself a ‘special’ place. I have few of these special places, all of which are on public land, and accessible by the intrepid person.
I first went to this particular area in 2010. Back then after studying maps I identified a location that looked promising and intriguing. The walk in wasn’t too difficult, as the shrubs and regrowth from the 2007 bush fires wasn’t overly thick. After 2010 I returned in 2011, both times accompanied by mates (Cliff in 2010 and Cliff and Rod in 2011). My first two trips were fantastic and I was keen to return.
This time I was joined by Danny a keen deer hunter who chooses to hunt deer with a firearm and who likes the adventure as much as anything else. Having responsible mates with firearms join me wasn’t a problem. We often go in separate directions from the camp site and hunt alone. I wear a blaze orange high vis cap so I can be seen. My hunting mates and I all love seeing Sambar and the country we were going to would be big enough to fulfil each other’s needs!
In my earlier years the first and foremost goal was to shoot deer. However, photography has replaced my desire to shoot. So for me the ultimate challenge and reward is taking images of wild deer. I suppose I call myself a passive hunter – one who searches for and seeks out deer with the final act being the press of a camera shutter.
Outwitting and outsmarting an animal with an acute sense of smell and hearing, in their domain, is what I like best about Sambar hunting. Successfully photographing wild deer by manually operating a camera is trickier than shooting deer. I am reliant on the animal staying in position long enough for me to focus. There is every possibility that the animal will be moving and I will miss out on getting a photo. All it takes is a crack of a stepped on stick at a considerable distance, often more than 100 metres, and the animal is alerted and fleeing.
This would be a three day trip so we need not worry about packing dehydrated or freeze dried food. The bare essentials would do – we would basically carry pasta for carbohydrates and chocolate for energy. Because safety was a primary concern in this rugged and remote country we would carry adequate first aid items and a personal locator beacon. The accommodation would be a fly and bivy bag for Danny and a One Planet Gunyah tent for me. At less than 1.2kg respectively this was considered lightweight camping. With Danny carrying his 30-06 centrefire and me with my digital SLR Nikon, a 300mm lens and a Gitzo tripod we were evenly packed.
After the walk in, and pitching camp, we got the bino’s out and a had a good glass around. Ten minutes later Danny picked up a good size Sambar stag on the opposite face. It was thought to be about 700 metres away as it walked along fairly open country slowly descending at right angles to us towards the river. My range finder only operated out to 500m. At this distance we estimated the stag had a 25 inch head (width of antlers).
With not much daylight left Danny was content to stay put so I thought I would drop down from the campsite in an effort to get a closer picture. With two hours of daylight left and the extremely difficult terrain there was no way that I was going to get very close to this animal that afternoon, however a potentially closer photo was possible. Because we were camped high up on the side of a hill I used my GPS to mark a waypoint ensuring a quick return to camp.
I descended at an angle towards the stag, stopping every few minutes to keep track of it as it moved along the face. All of a sudden I put up a couple of young spikers directly in front of me. With a clatter of hooves they both charged off. I had been so focussed on the stag across the gully that I wasn’t watching out for animals ahead! I continued on. After 20 mins of both making an angled drop the stag decides to change direction and move slowly back uphill into heavy cover. I was still over 500 m away with a big gorge in between me and it so the stalk was over. That’s deer photography. You can never count on a close encounter with a Stag. It is a very rare experience.
A concern in this country is the availability of water as we would be camping and generally hunting well above the river. I was half way down to the river so I decided to drop down and fill up my water bottles.
There was good fresh sign everywhere so I kept my eyes peeled. I soon picked up a couple of young deer just across the river. I stalked to within 120 metres, sat and watched two spikers feed in the fading light before dusk. It wasn’t possible to get closer without crossing the river in full view and spooking the animals. I quietly observed them feeding while taking a few photo’s.
Sunset in September is at 6.00 PM. By 6.20 there was insufficient light for further photo’s so I started my climb back up to camp. With a bit of help from my head torch I arrived back at camp at 7.00 PM to rest in front of a camp fire with Danny, have a meal and talk about the day’s events.
The next morning we picked up some deer through the bino’s a good distance away but as far as we could tell there were no stags amongst them. They were moving amongst the trees and shrubs. Anyhow we decided to get closer and spent the next hour closing the gap. As often is the case, by the time we got within a 100 metres from where we had last seen the deer there was no sign whatsoever – they had disappeared. For the rest of the day we walked and glassed high and low seeing a few deer but they were all moving and too far away for a stalk.
We covered a fair bit of ground that day and saw some nice country but I did not get any opportunities for good photo’s. The highlight was probably disturbing a small Sambar calf lying concealed in the grass only 10 metres away and watching it awkwardly run off. It was too quick for a sharp photo.
We filled our bottles with water and headed back to camp. The next day it was time to pack up and head back to the road and our vehicle.
Danny and me on the way out.
Walking out of country like this with our packs and camping gear requires a good level of fitness. There are steep ascents and descents with obstacles such as rocks and unstable ground to contend with. We were exhausted by the time we finally made it back to the car. The physical demands and subsequent fatigue are all part of the hunting experience. It was an excellent hunt in an inspirational area.