Lost and Found Kim Swan

I know they’re there; I heard them fighting a few evenings back. Back when the wind was misbehaving. There were at least four, maybe more, their battlefield just too tough for this mere mortal to enter.

I’m back. There is a different wind this time, and my mind-set is different too. I’m up for it. Up for entering the battlefield to see what I can see, and to get up close and personal with a contestant, should he be worthy of my affection.

I do everything right. Leave the vehicle far away, loop up around the block so the wind is my friend not foe. All the while I can hear that ‘it’s on’ once again.

One stag is a lazy roarer whereas another bellows with great vigour. Yet another offers his voice from above and another, he sounds like a stag crossed with a ‘cow – mooooaar.’ I sight the lazy fella with my binoculars, he’s laying down dead-centre of all the activity, a tidy 12 pointer.

My challenge, and I choose to accept it, is to close in on these stags. To join them in their well-chosen site. It will be tough, the toughest hunt of the roar thus far, but this evening I am prepared to fight for a win.

I contour towards Sleepy, its steep here, crazy steep, with loose powder-dry soil, rolling stones, dry crackly leaves. There are rock outcrops and narrow gutters and thickets of matagouri overlaid with tangles of bush lawyer.

I force myself through the thickets, squeeze along game trails, ‘spider-woman’ the outcrops but, as I get within easy shooting range, Sleepy and Vigour move into a gully out of sight. Getting onto Sleepy’ s bed is hell; he is certainly not Dopey.

Torn and bleeding I eventually sneak into position, ready to shoot into the gully where I last heard the stags fighting. It is silent.

Nothing. No roaring, no crackling vegetation, they have gone.

Did they catch a sniff of me on a back eddy? Did a sneaky hind hear me and lead them away? What did I do wrong? Was it me, or was it just a progression on the battlefield that drew my quarry away?

I wait, bummed-out after so much hard work and anticipation. It would be easy to drop my lip and skulk off having lost this game with the big boys in their most difficult of playgrounds but not today, today I am not that girl.

‘Gotcha’ – I hear a stag’s guttural grunt in the native bush above me.

Then Vigour chucks in a couple of his loud and angry roars before it all goes silent again.

Now I get it. I didn’t do anything wrong earlier; it was indeed a battlefield progression that had occurred naturally. Sleepy had had a gutsful of all the bluster from the other contestants so he drove his hind deep into impenetrable vegetation and hid.

Vigour rants and raves then stomps off the wrong way before Sleepy and his girl climb up through the bluffs and native, quiet and elusive. Only when they’ve made like mountain goats and found a fortress on a terrace high above do they relax their guard.

Nightfall is approaching but danged if I will give up without one more attempt. I boost up the steep face until I’m confronted with a wall of vegetation so tight and interwoven no animal, not even a pig has ventured within. Stumped!

Then I notice the series of rocks, which line the crest of the skinny spur, big gnarly rocks protruding above the scrub, each one a hop, skip or jump from the next. I clamber up the face like Sir Ed and then I hop, and I skip, and I jump. I can. I will.

The last rock delivers me onto the tiniest of clearings, just 10 metres in diameter and hemmed-in by matagouri and stunted coprosma. Sleepy is secreted by bush, just 40 metres away and oblivious of my approach. He roars regularly, comfortable now no opponent can approach his lair.

I am done. I can get no closer.

I cannot roar Sleepy out – I cannot roar at all. Huge bullish bellows are not me; my trachea is not of the correct dimensions and nor are my testicles. My hind-call is ineffectual – he already has a receptive hottie. That leaves me with deception – I can do deception – I can be a timid interloper, a spiker looking for love.

I back into that last convenient rock, sit down, wind my scope to 3x and click the safety off. Ready. I beat the drought-dried shrub beside me and grunt. Sleepy roars.

I beat that shrub again. Then again. Sleepy goes ballistic.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Then beat the shrub again.

Here he comes. The bushes shake and his antlers clack against tree branches. He pauses on the edge of the tangle of tight low scrub and then he’s forging through it like the proverbial freight train. I’m ready.

I’m not casual or offhand about it, nope, my heart is hammering out of control and I’m all too aware the rifle in my hands is a lightweight calibre. The stag coming at me is a master stag, he’ll be big, and he’ll be super-charged with testosterone and adrenalin. Still, elbows on knees, rifle raised, breathing steady – I AM ready.

Head down, antlers laid back, Sleepy charges through the scrub. I let the bulging eye pass through the cross hairs, then the enormous swollen neck. I send my bullet into the triangle between the shoulders before screwing sideways on my roost. Another bullet, quick-smart, behind the elbow as Sleepy lunges past.

The setting sun tints the clouds’ bellies pink as I step eight short paces to assure myself that that really was as close as I thought. I did it, a real roar hunt, just like a real roar hunter. Sleepy will sleep forever now, but, after that close call, I won’t sleep till well after bedtime tonight.

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