Many hunters believe that to hunt New Zealand one must be in tip-top physical shape in order to hike up steep mountainsides in pursuit of red stags and other game. While that is true of many hunts in this Pacific island nation, SCI member Merlin Wheeler says it’s not the case with Craig Dempster’s Horn and Antler Safaris. Wheeler and friend Pete Wheat hunted with Dempster this past May on the South Island. Wheeler took a red stag, Wheat took a fallow deer, and both took arapawa rams despite Wheat’s hip-replacement surgery only five months prior.
“This was not a difficult hunt,” says Wheeler. Although he says some of the terrain is very mountainous, a network of crisscrossing roads and two-tracks makes access easy on UTVs. Dempster hunts a private ranch located on the South Island’s Canterbury Plain, about a 2.5-hour drive south of Christchurch. It encompasses 5,000 acres, which Wheeler says includes wide, flat expanses that give way to undulating foothills leading to the Southern Alps. While it is high-fenced, the area offers fair chase hunting atop open hilltops, steep rocky slopes and scrub-filled valley bottoms.
The highest elevations are 2,500 to 3,000 feet. Hunters glass from vantage points onto other hillsides and into the valleys, spotting for trophies. Guides then develop a stalking plan suited to the hunters’ personal fitness levels and abilities. Wheeler says the red stags hang out on the upper levels in fairly accessible areas, whereas the fallow deer are found in the heavy brush of the bottoms. He says the area is well stocked with quality game and that this past season was a particularly good year for antler growth. “There was no shortage of stags that would score from 350 to 500,” says Wheeler. “And there were plenty of choice fallow deer as well.”
Although he could have shot a 500-point bull, he says wall space in his home would not allow him to hang such a trophy, so he told his guide to help him find one in the 340- to 380-range, with more width and mass than height. He says he looked over more than 20 stags that fit his criteria before taking a brute that scores 370 1/8. He says the guides field-judged the trophies and there was never a question about what they were shooting. “Tell them what you want, and they will find it,” he says.
The guides were two young men in their 20s, Malcolm Elderton and Hunter Dain. Wheeler says both have excellent game eyes, able to spot anything from wallabies and rabbits, to pigs, rams and stags feeding on the hillsides a mile away. Once they spotted something the hunters were interested in, Wheeler says both guides worked within their physical limitations to help them stalk their animals.
None of the shots were over 300 yards. Wheeler took his red stag at 190 yards and his ram at 90 yards. Wheat took his fallow deer at 125 yards. “They were very understanding and worked with us at our pace, making every effort to ensure we enjoyed our hunt,” says Wheeler. “I have worked with several guides over the years, and these two gentlemen are at the top of the list, a sheer pleasure to hunt with.” They finished their hunt two days early, and Wheeler says their guides took them trout fishing and to a salmon farm for only the additional cost of a fishing license.
Wheeler and Wheat borrowed firearms from Dempster instead of taking their own rifles. They were given Howa rifles in .270 and 7mm Rem. Mag. with suppressors and bipods. Wheeler describes them as well used but very accurate and more than adequate. All the animals they shot dropped immediately. He strongly recommends using the outfitter-provided rifles rather than traveling with guns.
The hunting area is a 30 minute-drive from Horn and Antler’s base in the town of Waimate, a small rural town on the east coast of the South Island. Accommodations are in the Dempsters’ family home, a modern house with four bedrooms and a shared bathroom for clients. Wheeler describes it as very comfortable but warns, “If you want a fancy lodge, this is not it.” Homestyle meals are served in the dining room, with clients, guides and hosts dining together. Meals feature lots of venison, local cheese boards and local beers and wines. Wheeler says they enjoyed red stag, fallow deer backstraps and regional deserts made from locally grown black plums. “Meals were spectacular,” says Wheeler, “as was the hospitality.” He describes Dempster and wife Jenny as fun-loving hosts who keep their clients laughing and make them feel at home.
In addition to the hunting, Wheeler says Jenny Dempster also entertained their wives on escorted tours. She accompanied the ladies to numerous cultural and natural sites on day tours and an overnight tour. They visited Katiki Point to see the yellow-eyed penguins and fur seals; the mysterious, spherical boulders of Moeraki; unusual native birds at Kiwi Birdlife Park; the historic gold-mining town of Arrowtown; the wineries of the Gibbston wine region and numerous other attractions. “This was particularly valuable to us, as our wives were not at all interested in the hunting,” says Wheeler. “Knowing our wives were well cared for and entertained was important.”
Postscript: Dempster also offers hunting for Himalayan tahr and Alpine chamois in a mountain concession area. These are free-range, spot-and-stalk hunts in a wilderness area. Access is only available by helicopter, but clients stay in the hunting area using a spike camp as a base. Camps are either tented with air mattresses and sleeping bags, or in heated cabins during the cooler moths. Dempster provides all the camping gear. He hunts from numerous locations to suit all types of personal fitness levels and abilities.