A cold wind at the cleared lookout point at the top of the No. 1 Line track . We sit, bundled in parkas, eating bier sticks, looking out over the headwaters of Matanganui Stream; we sit, studying the far mountainside, the slips and clearings, wondering whether we might see a deer  feeding in a sheltered place in the sun.
Whenever I've seen a deer among these mountains, something changes; the life already here seems to intensify. I remember how, years ago, I watched someone shoot a chamois  on a wild mountainside near the Whitcombe Pass, in the Southern Alps. As the echoes of the gunshot faded, something essential seemed to vanish from the mountain. A life taken, another kind of life diminished.
Yet many would have applauded the act—those who argue for the destruction of introduced ungulates as well as those who hunt and would have respected the clean shot. Chamois were introduced to New Zealand's South Island 100 years ago; my ancestors arrived here only a few decades earlier, roughly the same time red deer were released. How long must you inhabit a place before you're accepted? How do you earn the right to call a place home? Is it a matter of time, or of engagement? What you cannot escape is that while you might call this your home, others might refuse you that right.
I cinch the parka hood tighter against the wind. High up, near the crest of the range, among the snowgrass on a small spur, a clearing in the leatherwood — a form, a colour, the possibility of a deer, bedded down for the afternoon. A deer or wishful thinking? An animal or its imagined form? I don't know. I'll never know. I'm 75% sure it is a deer, but later I'll think back and say I'm 75% sure it's not.
It doesn't matter. Deer do live there, in the basin, among the low, scrubby bush, coming out at night, at unpredictable times to feed on the open slips, the erosion scars, the edges of the feeder streams. You see their trails; if you make your way over there — a mission — you'll find their shit, the trampled and eaten-out understorey here and there. You'll sense their lives, the life of the constantly hunted animal, fear on the edge of need, unrelenting vigilance. To see them you need great skill, long experience, an eye for the out-of-place, a sense of imminent encounter. And luck.
And, always, they'll see you first.
This is the life of the hunted animal.
1. I took Rob up the track for a bit of exercise and to show him what I could of where I live. The weather didn't allow much more than that. We did climb Knights Track to the top of the Ngamoko Range the next day, but ended up trudging through snow, in a howling gale, inside the cloud, visibility down to about 100 metres. The tarn on top had frozen solid; icicles hung from the small bank by the edge. Wild and wonderful—and the antithesis of the forecast.
2. Red deer, Cervus elaphus scoticus, are the most abundant of the seven species of deer in New Zealand (excluding moose, which no one has seen for decades and which might or might not still survive in Fiordland). All deer in New Zealand were introduced here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and are now considered destructive pests by some, magnificent game animals by others, and a resource by farmers and commercial hunters. Some people recognise they're all those things and more.
3. Chamois (usually pronounced "shammy" by NZ hunters), Rupicapra rupicapra, were introduced here in 1907 and spread rapidly throughout the Southern Alps. Forsyth and Clarke (2001) point out that environmental damage caused by chamois is unknown although presumed to occur in some plant communities [Forsyth DM, Clarke CMH 2001. Advances in New Zealand mammalogy 1990–2000: Chamois. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 31(1): 243–249. Online pdf (840 Kb) ].
1. Near the top of the No. 1 Line track, a week or so ago.
2. I photographed this chamois in Arthurs Pass National Park in early 2004. The photo's heavily cropped, as I didn't have the big lens, and — of course — the chamois had bedded down in a spot almost impossible to stalk. That's his summer coat.
Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor