A chilling and chilly end

Candle day. So many candles to my credit now, they’d not fit on an average sized cake. Not that I need cake any longer. At my age I don’t need much really—a few hours with the pig dogs, a pleasant stroll and I’ll be content.

Mother Nature has turned it on for me. There’s a full moon reluctant to leave the western horizon and a rising sun scrambling up in the east. There’s a cracking frost lying among the golds and reds of late autumn and there’s a pair of homebred dogs, mother and son, who share my enthusiasm for an outing.

As I accelerate towards Spot X, a couple of latefeeding stags break for cover. Their route is uphill, with many an obstacle. Their heart rate is red-lining as they strive towards top speed and that smooth flowing gallop, which will run them clean away from me. I try to interrupt their flow with my ute, to panic them into turning back or making a faux pas but they gain the last few metres they need just in time.

On toward the end of the block; a narrow tongue of mature pines, which is occasionally the hide-out for pigs that roam the adjoining farms in the moonlight. To the left and to the right, a long jog away, there are groves of oaks. Acorns are currently dropping to the ground and wild pigs love ‘em. Vitamins, fats and carbohydrates wrapped in a husk that a hungry grunter can crack-roll-spit in mere seconds.

Dogs out, collars on, goosebumps, piddling and all the pre-hunt rigmarole. Then we’re off—yee-ha!

The dogs can smell evidence of a moonlight wanderer on the pineneedles covering the old forest track. There is an urgency to them, which tells me we’re in for a rapid run real soon. No time then to rue the flat-battery on the tracking receiver, just watch the dogs, then track their scuff marks in the damp soil as they race out of sight.

For almost a kilometre the dogs’ prints are visible on the track. They’ve been flying, tracking at top speed as their quarry jogs towards his daytime den. It’s then I hear the ruckus ahead and then comes the dread.

The dogs are holding. They’re between the forest track and the river. The river has carved a narrow gorge between rock walls over a period of centuries. The rock walls are ragged, rugged and bluffy. On the ledges and in the crevices, vegetation has got a root-hold—sycamore saplings, barberry thickets, blackberry tangles—even wee terraces of rank grass. In places the drop-off is significant—a dog holding a pig could die here.

Dread becomes joy as I stampede from pine edge to scrub belt. There, far below, the dogs and pig have reached rock-bottom and now they all splash and struggle in the river bed.

My turn to navigate the gorge-wall now. To detour around the prickle thickets and crawl among the pig tunnels. Then there’s a section that stops me in my tracks. Sheer, no hand-holds, a dry dirt surface that won’t hold a boot-print nor the human adjoined to it. I clutch my rifle to my bosom, plonk my bum at the top and wriggle to the edge.

In a shower of dust, I slide pell-mell. My feet strike the base of a tree, its lower branches tear my face. Ouch!

I place my rifle and gear among the large boulders at the river’s edge, then wade in to help the dogs. Their young boar is full of fight and he’s better equipped for the conditions than they are. Poaka has been crossing this river every night, travelling from bed to feed; he knows it well and he sure can swim.

After wading navel-deep, stumbling over slippery boulders, wrestling in the river sand and generally getting wet, cold and bedraggled, I assist my mates in overcoming their quarry. They’re exhausted, saturated, bruised and bleeding and I’m not much better off. Despite that, I’m ridiculously happy. Wet and tired dogs are a huge relief; it could have been far worse.

I float the boar back across the river and prep his carcass before tethering it to a submerged branch. The chill water will cool it and keep the flies off till I find a way back. Then it’s yet another deep crossing back to the foot of the bluffs, followed by a hands-and-knees crawl back to the forest track.

Its only seven degrees when we arrive home but the sun has begun to warm the world. The neighbouring farmer gives me permission to cross his paddock to retrieve Poaka from the river bed, the dogs are now housed and fed, my saturated clothes and boots are shed. A hot cuppa out on the porch then, no candles, no cake but as birthdays go, this one is gold.

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