Editor's Note: The first part of this story appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of Covertside.
We traveled to the Eastern Bay of Plenty Kennels in New Zealand with Rick and Shirley-Ann Mannering for our second hunt. We were the same passengers they had transported to Rerewhakaaitu the day before, but we had aged considerably in twenty-four hours. Three stiff old warriors now filled the back seat. Oliver Russell, who had yesterday satisfied his need to familiarize himself with the techniques of jumping wire, had expunged some of the pain by the decision to follow today’s hunt in a car. Dennis Foster and I were making the most of our martyrdom by deciding to hunt despite the pain of aching limbs. At this point I eulogized on the restorative qualities of Pinot Noir and vowed to double last night’s dosage, after this hunt, in the certain knowledge that I would reap twice the benefit I had last night.
King Louis was raring to go. I had a little difficulty hoisting the saddle over his back and also reaching high enough to get the bridle over his ears. Mounting required the assistance of four people, two towing ropes one horse truck with a high ramp, an adjacent tree with a strong horizontal limb and some sturdy block and tackle. It really was not difficult after that until Louis started to move. Boy is my chiropractor going to make a fortune out of me when I get home. I would not have minded but I had ridden for an hour at the beginning of July in preparation for these two hunts.
Above the Kennels was a mountain, which even from the vantage point of Louis’s back seemed to be of Himalayan proportions. Someone made the ridiculous statement that we were going to have to climb that to get to our hunting ground. How many stirrup cups have you had already? When reality hit that our hunting grounds were indeed in the clouds, I was faced with a dilemma. Do I get off this horse now or climb the mountain? The only way to get me off the horse at that moment was to shoot me.
As we sipped a stirrup cup, Eastern Bay of Plenty Master Bernard Virbickas addressed the mounted throng and made us all very welcome. He introduced huntsman, Asher Bower, we would have twelve and a half couple of hounds out today and we climbed the zigzag path into the fairy tale land above. At the top the plateau of hunting ground was a verdant, grassy undulating landscape with a mystical quality. Topping all of this for sheer, too good to be true, pinch yourself to make sure you are really there, doubting of one’s own senses, was a smoking maritime volcano, right there in the Bay of Plenty.
The top of this entire plateau was both covert and open hunt country, an amphitheatre ripe for la chasse to begin. Hounds were already drawing a large patch of the grassland, their noses down and tails in the air. Huntsman Bower was quietly letting them work through their systematic process, confident that at this moment they needed no guidance from him. A wire fence appeared in front of us and several people jumped it. Tony Leahy was just ahead of me and, noticing that there was a gap nearby he said, “We don’t have to jump it.” His rationale was based on the etiquette that when in full flight we stay with hounds by whatever means necessary, but save your horse for when he needs to jump. That was Tony Leahy’s rationale, not mine. Tony is, to say the least, a little younger than me and fit as a flea from hunting coyotes and wild boar and bobcats and a whole bunch of other stuff. He rides every day of his life and twice on Sunday. I on the other hand was too damn stiff to so much as trot into that fence.
We sat still in this quiet vantage spot for several minutes, watching the hounds do what they would do with or without human intervention or encouragement. We didn’t have long to wait. One lead hound gave tongue almost hesitantly until he was sure, then more aggressively bursting into that unmistakable deep throated howl which signalled to his fellow choristers that it is music time. Without the need of a conductor’s baton the whole pack is on the beat and singing like angels or devils depending how you look at it. The main body the field paused briefly then galloped off like all the devils in hell were after them. Our little clique of veterans sat and watched until we could discern what direction the chase was going to take and plan our strategy as to what route would get us to the action with the least amount of hardship.
Most horses anticipate the gear change when other horses start to gallop away from them, but I whispered to Louis to wait for the contact from my lower leg, but he leapt into action in a manor inconsistent with my state of health. I must confess, with the benefit of hindsight, that his was the correct course of action. Had he not followed the instincts of a hunter, I would probably have sat there until my malady dissipated or until my bleached bones were picked clean by vultures. (Does New Zealand even have vultures?)
As we cantered towards the first unavoidable fence, it was make or break time. I am not normally one to dwell upon the morbid, but if one has to die, the notion of dying on the hunting field seems a much more romantic demise than some ghastly disease. However two elements were not conducive to dying today: I am not quite old enough and back home the hunting season was only starting. If I was to die hunting it would surely be at the end of a particularly good season. Approaching the fence, I stood in the stirrups, lifted my upper body to take as much weight as possible off my lower back and with all the gentle aviation skills that Louis possesses, he flew the fence and upon landing came down gently with soft knees to cushion the landing. It still hurt so I screamed at him to take easy next time.
The hunting was good. Hounds swung one direction and then another and continued to give good tongue. The fences did not come at me as fast as they had done yesterday and I continued the strategy of only jumping when necessary. After a dozen or so there was some ease in the agony. Even if pain had not abated, I would not have wished to be anywhere else on earth. All the senses were alert even the cloud patterns in an ever changing sky enhanced the feeling of really being alive. Before long we were in the valley in the middle of the mountain top. The music stopped. The Hare had won his freedom. It felt like being in the crater of a volcano. Thankfully there was no smoke or hot lava, just green grass and tranquillity; even with a hundred people, a hundred horses and twelve and a half couple of hounds.
The huntsman gathered his hounds and led them straight through the middle of the smiling field, each of whom turned and followed. Among the rising chatter, each recounted stories of how well or badly they had taken a particular fence. Before long, hounds picked up the scent of another hare. This time I stayed with the main body of followers. This country needs a fit horse and Louis was up for any challenge. We climbed the steep hill and jumped a few more fences, and then the quarry veered to the right.
I noticed Andrew Morison, President of the New Zealand Hunting Association (NZHA) along with Ivan, Bruce, Dennis and a few others were once again slipping further up the hill for what I will call a strategic over view of the proceedings. I am a middling scholar only or I would have learned from the earlier experience that the further one is from the hounds in the early part of the chase, the more ground one has to make up later. From this new vantage point, the views were breath taking and we could watch the chase from our grandstand saddles.
We could see the hare weaving and dodging at a colossal speed and we could see the hounds on the line of scent, occasionally losing then picking it up again. At one point the hare looped and tricked the pack into a split. This chase went on for some considerable time and the field were galloping around in circles trying to keep up and having the time of their lives. I would normally be right there with them, but today I was enjoying the view. Maybe I am getting old.
For five minutes or so hare, hounds and most of the field were out of sight, but the choir never stopped singing. We knew exactly where they were from the wonderful cacophony they were creating. There was a small lake a distance in front of us. The hare emerged and ran left to right straight across the front of it, closely followed by three hounds. The next time he came into view there was only one hound with him and he was very close. Suddenly the hound lunged forward and caught the hare by the neck. The hound rolled right over him and got back to his feet. There was no movement from the hare. The death was instant.
There was another chase that day, where three hares overlapped and all three got away. By any standards, this was a great days hunting. So was yesterday. Both huntsmen and both packs gave us exceptional sport. Yesterday, I was more focused on the jumping of unfamiliar fences. Today, I was more focused on the hunting. Had we hunted the two packs or two venues in the opposite order my focus would still have been the same. I loved both days. Huntsmen Asher Bower and Tim Spetch, your blood should be bottled. Hospitality in the Bay of Plenty is an art form. The spit roast in the Marquee after the hunt was a gastronomic delight, and the “medicinal benefit” of the New Zealand pinot noir which accompanied it gave enormous ease to my back muscles. It should be available on prescription.