This story is based on truth, and it’s my longest I’ve presented on this website. You’re looking at part 1, and you’ll find part 2 under the “Heavy Stories” tab on the homepage; each part should take about twenty minutes to read, and they’re sequential. The people in this story are NOT real people, but the events are based on truth, and the narrative has been crafted to introduce you to a wonderful place: Australia’s favourite neighbours, the Kiwi’s.

 

Cull: The History of Deer in New Zealand

Part 1

 

1966

There were over a thousand severed deer tails in a huge, stiff net in the corner of the office, and both men glimpsed over to them before the conversation began. The little fellow with the big black moustache leant back in his wooden chair and asked, “I’d know your face if you were a local. How long have you been here in these parts?”

Before he answered, the other man peered down towards his lap through thick orange eyebrows. Every piece of hair on him was orange, and when he pushed back the cuff of his sleeve to look at his watch, more of the ginger filaments showed on his arm.

“About an hour and a half.”

“What? You got to Otago today?”

“Yes sir, I got to New Zealand today. I called you from the airport.“

“From the airport? Where are you from?”

“Maine, sir.”

“Main what? I asked where.

“No sir, Maine is a place in America, above New York.”

“Oh, New York. Sure, so you’re a Yankee?”

“Yes sir, I-“

“Stop calling me ‘sir’. There aren’t any ‘sirs’ out here in these mountains,” the little man insisted, and the Yankee nodded along as he continued. “This is a job interview, and I’m no friend of yours, why would you call me first? What are your plans out here?”

“Actually, my plans out here are to work for The Forest Service.”

“That’s the reason you’ve flown all the way down here? To work in the bush?”

“Yes. I’ve always loved hunting; it’s all I’ve ever done, and I heard you’re real serious about it.”

“We have to be. The deer are destroying our mountains so we’re culling them. We’ve been doing it for about fifty years.”

“Alright.”

“So, if you get this job, you’ll be dropped off at, or near, a remote cabin by a four wheel drive. You’ll live there for five weeks with a couple of other blokes before you’re picked up. You’ll shoot as many deer as you possibly can, and we’ll pay you a bounty for every tail you bring back. We’ll airdrop you supplies, but these will be very rare, so don’t count on them.”

“Sounds good.”

“You need to be able to survive on your own, understand? No one is going to hold your hand out there.”

“I understand. That’s not a problem.”

“How can you be sure? Have you lived away from civilisation? Have you camped in the snow for weeks at a time? You cannot be picked up early unless there is a dire emergency. We will not come get you for any soft reason.”

“I haven’t lived in a city for a whole year. I prefer solitude.”

“Why’s that? Why did you move into the wilderness?”

“I’d rather not talk about it. I just got fed up with big groups of people,” the Yankee said, and the little man just frowned.

“Alright. Well, how do I contact your family then if you get hurt? I don’t want to be making long distance phone calls.”

“No, I have no family.”

“None at all?”

“None. I had a little brother, but he’s passed.”

“So when you get killed, I mean if you get killed, I won’t have to call or visit any crying women? No wife or mother?”

“No, when I get killed, that’s it.”

“Damn, well you should have told me that to begin with, I would have given you the job over the phone.”

A few days later, the Yankee got out of the four-wheel drive and breathed in the cold air. He let it slip out of his lungs as a heavy steam, and he looked over to the cabin. He reckoned the building was about the size of the office where he’d had the interview, and he knew he’d be living there with two other men.

The forest around him was dense with low, light green foliage and thick brown spears of tree trunks erupted from the earth every few meters. The Yankee couldn’t smell or hear much of anything, and he knew this was because the snow was muffling the world around him. He felt at home as the frost burnt his cheeks.

The frozen white powder was almost piled up to the window of the cabin in front of the Yankee, but he saw a face quickly peer out at him, then vanish.

A moment later, the door opened on a man wearing tiny little canvas shorts, the kind the Yankee had seen local football players wearing. The man’s bare legs were covered in goose bumps as he stood smiling above the icy ground.

“Welcome!” he called out, “Get your stuff and come on in.”

The Yankee had to duck to get through the tiny doorway, but he only carried a single military duffle bag with one change of clothes, so he was properly installed in the room in seconds.

“I’m Greg Kolmes and that’s my son, Tim, in the corner there.” Greg pointed a skinny finger to a younger man sitting at the far side of the room, three meters away.

“I’m-“ the Yankee began to reply, but Tim cut him off with, “Wanna hear somethin’ sad?”

“Sure.”

“I got a mate with two kids and a wife. A local Queenstown bloke who was knocked back for this job because a few outsiders have been taking all the spots.”

“You’ll have to excuse the young fella,” Greg said, “He’s been out here without his mates for a while. You’re the Yankee, right?”

The Yankee just smiled at the young man, and nodded to Greg, and made up a bedroll on the other side of the house, three meters away.

No more snow fell in the night, but when the men rose at dawn, there was a dense fog through the bush around the cabin. They stood only a few centimetres apart so they could still see one another as they discussed the plans for the day.

“I’ll head west; there’s a wide valley out that way where the deer like to feed in the morning,” Greg announced.

“I’m going to the brush over on the eastern side of the mountain, I think they’re getting more skittish and moving into cover,” Tim added.

“Want to come with me?” Greg asked the Yankee. Tim blew his nose into his fingers with a wet, trumpeting exhale and wiped the snot on his jeans.

“Nah, thanks, but I think I’ll follow the stream down there.” The Yankee pointed with gloved fingers.

“When did you go down there? How do you know about the stream?”

“I haven’t been down there yet; I can hear the water.”

“You reckon you can hear it?” Tim asked, “You’re a liar, the thing’s frozen over.”

“It’s only frozen on the surface.”

They departed, and the Yankee found the ice in just a few minutes. He followed a thin little river and listened to the strange call of the new birds, and the only thing that seemed familiar to him was the weather. The trees and the distant sounds of animals, and even the rocks were totally alien to the Yankee as he stalked through his new home, hoping to find something to kill.

On the first day, the Yankee shot nothing, Greg shot one deer and Tim shot two. On the second, the Yankee shot nothing, Greg shot two big red bucks and Tim shot one little fawn in the same area that the Yankee had failed the day before.

When the Yankee returned empty handed again, Tim said, “You reckon it’s hard work, but maybe you’re just not cut out for this. How are you going to keep this job if you’ve got nothing to show?”

On the third morning, the Yankee was up early, and he left the cabin long before the others even woke. He moved slowly through the bush, crouching in the dark, pre-sunrise morning like some kind of desperate villain. He saw the creatures he was hunting, and he watched them for a moment as they fed. The animals had their teeth pushed to the frozen soil, and their jaws worked to steal the grass from it as the Yankee tried to relax.

He knelt in the snow and pressed the rifle butt to his left shoulder. He breathed slowly, and the air from his lungs hung in a pulsing fog around his head. Three deer continued stepping over the dead logs on the ground, and they dipped their heads to sniff curiously around their hooves.

The Yankee watched the animals through the sight of his rifle as they cautiously moved away. They were at least one hundred meters ahead of him, and he was shooting between tree trunks and the animals were facing the wrong direction. He knew he’d hit one in the hindquarters or he wouldn’t hit anything and he wondered if the loud shot was worth revealing his attendance in that silent, peaceful place.

Slowly, the Yankee took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. A “CRACK” sounded through New Zealand’s frozen Fjordland, and the echo returned back on the hunter from the surrounding high mountains. He leapt to his feet and drew a long hunting knife as he pursued the scattering family.

Two deer skipped up and sprinted away while the last twisted and took a moment to look around. Then the wounded thing was off, bucking forward with three legs as the fourth crimped up and bled from a single hole above its knee.

The deer lurched to the left; then it saw the Yankee charging towards it, and the terrified animal tried to avoid him. The predator was on it in a second, and he grabbed at the skin of the deer’s back with his free hand. It turned and kicked, and the Yankee felt the solid, pointed hoof scrape down his shinbone.

He screamed out in pain, hearing the echo of his agony return as he thrust the knife through the deer’s neck. He pointed the sharp side of the weapon away from the prey’s spine and tore it forward, cutting out through the arteries and windpipe.

The Yankee held the jerking back leg of the dying animal so that he wouldn’t have to go chasing the bleeding thing again. Its breathing slowed, and the animal expired after thirty seconds in the soft, red-stained snow.

Once again the forest was a silent, peaceful place with just a little more blood draining into the frozen turf.

A sting in the Yankee’s leg reminded him he was injured and he looked down on a deep gash in his pants. His own blood was running out over his boot to mingle with that of the deer’s, so he limped away to appraise himself.

The Yankee was cut in the soft patch of flesh between bone and calf muscle, and he poked around for a second to make sure it was only a flesh wound. The injury was long, but not too deep. When he was satisfied with his own safety, the Yankee wrapped the slash in a thin bandage and re-loaded his gun. He limped forwards, following the survivors of the attack.

Eight hours later, the Yankee returned to the camp dragging six carcases behind him. He’d already cut off the forelegs and gutted and beheaded the animals to lighten the load, and they were all small, but the haul still weighed a lot.

Greg was lighting a fire, and his mouth fell open when he saw the Yankee returning. He looked down at the injured limb and asked, “Yankee, what happened to your leg, mate?”

“Nothing special, I got kicked.”

“Oh no, your swimsuit modelling career is over.”

The men chuckled as the Yankee dropped the animals and sat beside the growing flame in the dying light of sunset. The shadows of trees ran long across the campsite, and Greg tipped some kerosene over the blaze to get it going properly.

“Why did you bring the whole animals back? We only need to show the tails to collect the bounty,” Greg queried.

“I don’t like waste. How many did you get today?” the Yankee asked.

“I shot two, but one fell off a cliff, and I couldn’t recover it.”

“I got lucky this time, but we need more kills.”

“Relax, this is your first trip. We’ve still got four weeks before they pick us up. We can lift our game.”

“The deer are harder to find than I thought they’d be.”

“They’re going deeper into the bush; they know we’re here,” Greg said.

“Well, what are our options? Can we move deeper in after them?”

“We can’t just keep moving the base. There’s twelve thousand square kilometres to cover out here; it’s a quarter of the bloody south island, and every cabin we build costs money. And every cabin needs a road to go with it. We can’t clear tracks for vehicles over the ridges and across the rivers. So what do you suggest?”

“I don’t know. I’ll think of something. What do we have to eat?”

“Is that supposed to be funny?” Greg finished as he fetched a pair of venison steaks.

“Are you happy to handle the chef duties tonight? My clothes are starting to stink,” the Yankee said.

“Sure, but you can’t wash your clothes, they’ll freeze if you wet them.”

“I’m not going to wash anything,” the Yankee finished as he started his evening chore.

About an hour later, the Yankee and Greg were going about their business and drinking coffee from enamel cups when Tim returned.

Tim said, “This is nice, you old fellas get any work done today?”

“We did,” Greg replied. He was about to continue when Tim shouted out, “What the hell are you doing?” and pointed at the Yankee.

“I’m making clothes,” the Yankee replied. He had a leather working case open on a nearby rock, and he was using huge sheers and needles to cut, and then thread, a deerskin into a giant poncho.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Tim burst out, “Don’t you have any bloody clothes?”

“I will soon,” the Yankee replied, pointing to a place in the bush where five more pelts hung rubbed with rock salt, and still steaming in the cold.

It was a full six months before the Yankee felt the need to explore the cities in the area. After his fourth patch in the bush, he visited Queenstown.

He moved through the narrow brick streets of the riverside settlement in his swathe of deer hides and crafted attire as if he was some kind of druid, only concerned with matters of the forest. His beard was entirely out of control, with diamonds of hair falling out below his chin and pyramids of orange wire poking up beside a possum-pelt cap. People moved out of the way when they saw him coming, and mothers attempted to distract their children when this strange, beast-man approached.

The Yankee just smiled and said a polite, “Good morning, how are you?” to anyone who would make eye contact.

He sat on a stone beside the river and watched the steamboats carry supplies across the glassy water. The Yankee spent five minutes in a bar, fifteen in a post office and an hour and thirty-five minutes buying two pairs of new boots. Around about lunchtime, he visited the airstrip.

There was only one plane in attendance, but six helicopters were sitting idle in a hangar. He stood around and watched the men who worked there filling in papers and moving boxes; then he found the radio room. As he walked towards the building, he could see the operator through a window. She had long blonde hair and brown eyes. She leant back in her chair as if the little office was her living room, and she was laughing as she joked with whoever was on the other end of the receiver. Somehow, the Yankee felt the ping of jealousy creep into him.

The Yankee turned and walked away, frightened in that place of absolute safety.

“God Damn! The wild man from Borneo is here!” someone shouted out, and the Yankee turned to see three men laughing at him. Two of them were moving away from a chopper as the rotor blades slowed, and the third had pulled over a milk crate full of tall, brown bottles. The men stood, brushing the snow off the beers and pointing at the Yankee as he quickly moved away.

That same day, he bought a pair of scissors and a shaving razor, and he took them back to the little spot beside the water. The Yankee squat there on the rocky beach, and dipped the razor into the water and ran the blade over his dry chin. His face broke out in goose bumps as soon as the covering of the beard was trimmed back, and he cut himself over and over, but before long, he was clean-shaven.

The men who had laughed at him were still standing in the same place at the airstrip, still drinking, when he returned. The Yankee had dressed in a brown suit from the local thrift shop, and he was carrying all the deer hides he usually wore under his arm in a morbid parcel.

One of the old bullies shouted, “Big foot’s been to the salon!” and another, “You look lovely darling, good luck!”

The Yankee saw the woman through the window again and stopped.

“Get in there, lover boy!” the men called, and the Yankee turned and walked away.

Back in the hut on the next hunting run, Tim snickered whenever the Yankee came near him.

“Is there something in particular you’re laughing at?” the Yankee asked.

“Me?” Tim began, “No, but it helps if you speak to women, don’t just stare at them, you bloody coward.”

Tim kept on like this every day of that trip until, finally, the men were picked up in a four-wheel drive and returned to civilisation with a wooden chest of deer tails. Greg carried the trophies into the New Zealand Forest Service office, and claimed the culling bounty like a man with an envelope of receipts asking for a month’s worth of refunds.

As this business was conducted, the Yankee stood on the cold street outside.  Suddenly, he heard a drumming sound rattle through the small town, and he looked up to see a hospital’s helicopter race overhead and disappear behind a neighbouring mountain.

Greg stepped out of the building and began to speak. “The government boys reckon they can take us out again in three days, or nineteen days. Same deal as always, we’ll be left out there alone for five weeks before they come get us. I want to make some more money soon, but I need to find a woman. I reckon Tim probably feels the same way. I’m serious, three days in the pub after five weeks in the bush is cutting it pretty thin.”

“When do you have to let them know if you want to leave straight away?”

“Tomorrow morning, first thing. Why do you ask?”

“Because if we hurry, we can find you a woman tonight.”

“If hurrying was the only thing the ladies were looking for I wouldn’t have a problem. Damn, if all I needed to do was hurry I could have ten women tonight. I need some style and some charm. I haven’t even showered yet.”

The Yankee laughed and slapped his buddy on the back, and said, “If you need style and charm, you’ll need longer than nineteen days.”

 

1967

A week into their seventh hunting run together, the Yankee, Tim and Greg were camping a couple of days away from the cabin to try and broaden their base of operations in the area.

The Yankee had convinced them to keep a load of pelts, and they were moving some together, carrying one bundle of the skins on a stretcher while each of them wore a handmade backpack that poked up far above their heads. These packs looked like huge pieces of headgear as they held the bundles of furs above the men, letting the longer hides drape down to their hips.

They were moving over a steep hill in the forest, taking their time to find proper footing. The Yankee looked below them to see an extreme, but short, drop to a slow flowing river, and his heart raced as he concentrated on his balance.

The three of them, with the pelts and the stretcher, must have weighed at least four hundred kilograms and when Greg stepped on a dead tree root, the earth shifted beneath them all.

The deer had destroyed the grassy top layer of soil, and there was nothing holding it together. One tree fell and knocked another, then another and another, and soon it was an entire tree-avalanche coming down around them.

All three men screamed and tried to rid themselves of the pelts, but the skins of the deer clung to them as if they meant revenge, and the men were at the mercy of the falling greenery.

The Yankee was thrown face down in the rolling dirt, and his load of leather flapped over the back of him; it protected him from the smaller moving branches like a medieval suit of armour. He could see nothing, and something was holding him down as the sound of screams and snapping wood filled the world.

Soon it was over and the Yankee could only hear one voice, screaming out, “Tim? Tim, where are you son? Please boy, please answer me!”

The Yankee crawled and squirmed free of the foliage, and stood gingerly in the murderous forest.

He followed Greg’s voice over broken trunks and under torn sheets of moss. The Yankee found Greg trapped between two stones with a single snapped branch spearing through one of his calves. The wound was eerily clean as the wooden piercing seemed to plug the hole.

“Jesus Christ, are you alright?”

“Find my son!”

“No, wait, you need help. You need-“

“Find Tim! Do it! Get away from me!”

The Yankee was up and calling to the boy, but he got no answer.

Whole minutes passed.

The Yankee moved over the sea of shattered lumber and searched for clothing or blood, but he found nothing. Eventually, he made it all the way down to the river. Tim was held in the water by two whole trees, one on top of the other.

He was lucky; the trees had pinned him in the shallows, so his mouth and nose were free. The Yankee looked down at him shivering and panting and dying in the water, and the Yankee thought about all the horrible things Tim had ever said. He wondered if anyone would ever know how this kid died in that place without witnesses or ramifications or justice.

The Yankee stood on the tree holding Tim in the river, and the extra weight moved Tim a little further out, into deeper water. It wasn’t regret or sorrow or any kind of passion that the Yankee felt as he killed the young man, only disdain.

Tim sank below the water with a single free hand clutching up into the air as if he expected one of the deer he had been culling to appear and save him.

As the Yankee returned to Greg, he announced, “I can’t find him, we have to go.”

Greg refused to move and punched at the Yankee when he leant in to help him. The wound had started to bleed even though the wood remained to plug it up, so the Yankee used a deer pelt to tie Greg to the stretcher and abduct him from the scene of destruction. The tortured father protested and screamed like a doomed prisoner being dragged deeper into the womb of some terrifying dungeon.

The Yankee carried the weeping man for eleven hours, straight back to the cabin. Greg sobbed and asked to be left there to look for his son in the snow, but the Yankee just said they could go back for Tim later.

A helicopter was sent for Greg, and the Yankee rode it back to the Queenstown airstrip. They gave him a huge headset to wear as the aircraft took off, and as soon as he had the thing clamped over his ears, he heard a woman’s voice.

“This is air traffic control, aerial ambulance E3-7-4, you are clear to land in Queenstown ASAP,” the voice began before it faltered. She said, “For God sake boys, just get home now. Everyone get home safe.”

They landed, and a wall of hands appeared to carry the wounded man to an ambulance.

“Come on, you’re coming too,” a paramedic told the Yankee.

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“We need to check you out.”

“Nope.”

“What? You could have a concussion or internal injuries. Get in the ambulance.”

“Nope.”

“This is ridiculous, stop being a child and come with me,” the paramedic said as he clutched the Yankee’s elbow and tried to steer him towards the emergency vehicle.

The Yankee jerked his arm away and shouted, “Get your God damn hands off me! Do I look like I need your help? You touch me again and break your arm. Then we’ll see who needs the damn treatment.” After a moment of silence, the paramedic just walked away.

The Yankee stood alone in the cold air and scratched at his chin. He was tired, and he didn’t have any money with him, and he didn’t have a place to stay.

“Damn it,” he muttered before he heard someone whistle.

The Yankee looked behind him to see the group of drinkers as he had seen them at the airstrip before; huddled around the milk crate. They called to him and beckoned him to join them, but the Yankee looked away. When the Yankee looked back, he saw them carrying the beers towards him.

“What do you want?” he asked them.

“What the hell happened to you guys?”

“Some kind of avalanche.”

“Did you carry Greg out of there?”

“Yep.”

“Jesus, you really carried him? How?”

“With difficulty.”

“Difficulty?”

“Yeah and we had a stretcher with us.”

“Well, thanks. Jesus, thank you so much. You want a beer?”

The Yankee looked at the man who spoke and saw the others had taken off their hats as if to show him an anxious, apologetic respect.

He didn’t say anything for a moment, so the man asked, “What’s your name?”

“Trent Thin. Give me two of them beers.”

“Two? Alright. OK, Trent. Take as many as you like.”

Without another word, Trent took two bottles and walked towards the radio room. He knocked, then stepped inside.

It was heated in there, and he drew the hot air into his lungs to warm his chest as he felt the ice in his hair turn wet.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked. She looked uneasy, and her eyes were wet with tears, but she leant forward towards him.

“So far, today was the worst day I’ve had in your country, but I reckon if you’d agree to drink this beer with me it might end up being the best day of my life.”

“That’s a pretty serious introduction. Are you the man who saved Greg?”

“I am.”

“OK. I would love to have a drink with you.”

Tim’s body was recovered three days later. Greg swore he’d find a safer way to do the job and Trent fell madly in love with Beatrix, the radio operator.

 

It’s important to note that I didn’t find any evidence of murder in my research, but a casual drowning adds a bit of BANG to any story. The biggest problem that the deer in New Zealand created was erosion. The animals would eat the plant matter on the ground, and the top layer of soil was no longer firm enough to hold the sides of the mountains together. Tree avalanches were common (as they are today) and you might even say that the deer’s caused the avalanche that landed our friends in so much trouble.

Click this link to be taken directly to part 2.