First blood

02:19, Feb 17 2013
tdn wa
Matt Rilkoff's sleeve soaked in pig blood

There is another life out there.

It's an existence hidden by the rugged hills of the Taranaki back country, by the whispers of secret hunting grounds by rifle toting men and women, behind the horizon of an unpredictable sea and by the suffocating convenience supermarkets provide.

It's a life where the land and the ocean can provide everything you need and, for 12 days, I lived that life, relying on what I could forage and kill to fill my plate.

Having no idea where to start or if I had the stomach to do what was necessary, I relied on the experience and enthusiasm of others to show me the way.

"I haven't bought supermarket meat for years," Stratford's Steve McEwen says as we cast our lines from a Mokau cliff top into the unusually lazy and clear waters of the Tasman.

It was 6am Monday morning and to our left the last of the early morning stars hung above the bare slopes of Mt Taranaki; before us a horizon of pinks, purples slowly faded to pale sky blue.


"I've got a garden and I get most of my vegetables from that. When I go to the supermarket it's just for toiletries and things. I can't wait to get out again."

A former forestry worker, publican and gym owner Steve now makes his money as a one man contractor and deer stalking guide. It's a lifestyle that gives him the freedom to hunt and fish whenever he wants - a lifestyle I am trying to emulate.

"I'm back doing what I was doing what I did in my younger days," he says "I couldn't be happier about it."

The next day I am huffing and puffing my way up a ridge line in the Uruti Valley, just a stone's throw from the cliff where I caught kahawai and gurnard with Steve. I am chasing a pig for the pot with dairy farmer and aspirant hunting guide Ray Potroz.

It's hot. So hot if you stand still you can see the sweat forming on your arms and it is this heat that makes it unlikely we will find a pig. But against all odds we do. Four piglets in a thicket of thistle bushes and reeds.

"This is a stroke of luck," says Ray as we creep our way down a grass hill to within 50 metres of the pigs.

Sweating and tired, I am not surprised when I miss my shot but Ray is more reliable, his bullet suddenly ending the rooting of a young boar.

"It absolutely stinks," I say as I sling the disturbingly warm body over my shoulders, blood from its fatal and gaping bullet wound soaking my sleeve. "It's like a primary school urinal."

"That's the reality of it," Ray says. "You wait till the lice start jumping off him."

Later that night, showered and in bed, I feel two crawling from my hair to my neck and pop them between my nails.

Ukrainian born Alex Wolf came to New Zealand seven years ago from Israel, searching for a life free of suicide bombers and reminders of sniper service in the Israeli army. He found a home in New Plymouth.

"When I first came here, if I was driving and I was following a bus I would stay just a little bit back from it. It's just a habit. It took me a long time to adjust. In Israel any bus can blow up at any time. You have to always think about that," he says.

A hunter by nature it was only on settling in Taranaki, a "hunting paradise" that he has been able to relax into his instinct. Guiding me through the tall dry grass of a Department of Conservation reserve in east Taranaki in the hunt for goats his senses are on full alert, despite the fact he hardly stops talking.

"Some people like to go to the pub and get drunk to relax," he says."But I like to hunt. That is my holiday."

Alex, or Wolf as everyone knows him, hunts only for meat. His four shots that day bring us four goats. With a small tornado of blowflies buzzing around us we skin and remove the legs of each goat where it fell, packing the meat into surprisingly small mutton cloth bundles. Wolf also removes the liver but leaves the rest for the pigs.

"They will be saying 'thank you very much' for that," he says.

Throughout the day he points out piles of goat bones, few enough to pick up with one hand. The pigs let little go to waste.

There were similar natural efficiencies in the sea the day before, where kayak fishing veteran Herb Spannagl had taken me six kilometres off Port Taranaki in search of Albacore tuna.

"Look at the fin here," he says an hour into it, holding up a glistening, fat speciman.

"It fits perfectly into it's side. That's how aerodynamic they are. Like a torpedo."

Alive they are a truly beautiful fish. Big, powerful, an iridescent dancing silver. Dead, they are dull slabs of meat with eyes eerily frozen in incomprehension.

"I don't understand people who catch fish for sport, just for fun. Why would you do that to an animal," says Herb as we bob up and down on our kayaks drinking water and eating apples.

"You know the prey is only ever one step ahead of the predator and if you give the predator an advantage, like releasing a fish you have just played out, it will take it. You have killed that fish just as good as if you killed it yourself."

Half an hour later nature was proving Herb's words, a six foot mako shark taking two bites to devour a tuna he had reeled to within metres of his kayak.

"Come and have a look at this," he yells as the shark thrashes around his boat making sure no morsel escaped.

Just when I had had enough of killing, New Plymouth's Connie Bethell showed me around her 20 acre farm and let me pull the teets of her Jersey cow Madeline.

"This isn't too hard," I said squirting hot yellow milk into a bucket just a minute before my hands, quite unused to such nipple gripping, cramped up in a painful curl.

With the milk I had managed to extract Connie showed me how to make cheese, how to separate the cream to make butter and curdle the milk to cottage cheese.

"I like to keep everything simple," she said slopping milk on her kitchen bench as she transferred Madeline's morning offerings into refrigerator friendly bottles.

"If it isn't simple you aren't going to do it."

Her philosophy touches every part of the property. The vegetable gardens are far from neat and tidy but a picture of exuberance where the sheer fecundity of edible plants crowds out weeds. The fledgling plum trees are fenced off from the wandering sheep with old wooden pallets. Madeline's milking stall is just two old fences and a piece of pipe.

"I wouldn't say I'm a hippie," she says as we eat fresh cheese lasagne and garden greens beneath the shade of what might have been a walnut tree. "I'm just living the way I want to."

Neither would Fiona and Stephen Black believe themselves alternative lifestylers, despite turning their backs on high paying oil industry jobs in Aberdeen and starting a business making honey.

"I equate it like being in a cowshed. Dairy farmers raise cows for milk. I raise bees for their honey," Stephen says.

As a beekeeper, he has developed an astute awareness of the environment around him. He knows when the clover will flower, when to shift hives into the bush, when to move them out again and how to live by the heartbeat of nature.

"It has got times when you have big bills and no money to pay them," he says. "But we are all definitely happier for living this way and I have the flexibility to be part of my children's lives."

O ne week later as I squinted through the rain and lined up my rifle sights with the front shoulder of a fallow deer in the south Taranaki hill country, my thoughts are stuck on one word: incongruity. Even as I push my breath out, hold and squeeze the trigger it is there and when my guide Phil Mohi thrusts his hand out in congratulations on my first kill it has pushed every other thought from my head. Incongruity, a disagreement, an imbalance.

A hunter, I have learned over the previous seven days, is privy to New Zealand's most spectacular landscape, its most picturesque countryside and Paul Bielski's south Taranaki farm where I shot the deer fits this bill. It has a deeply spiritual beauty of nature in harmony.

And to that beauty, to that harmony, I brought death and destruction.

To deal with that you must apply Orwellian doublethink because killing a wild animal is a messy and brutal business.

First there is the rifle shot , so jarring and explosive your ears ring long after the echo of the bullet crack has disappeared. Then there is the gut wrenching death rattle of the animal, its final quiver of life.

After that the animal must be butchered, its belly split open, its steaming guts cut out, its lifeblood spilled on the grass and its head hacked off. Within minutes your hands are covered with blood and if you carry the animal out of the bush your back will be covered too.

Killing an animal in the bush is a messy and brutal business but I have been complicit in the brutal deaths of thousands of animals over my last 36 years of eating meat.

Until killing that deer it was easy to convince myself there was no blood on my hands each time I picked up a plastic wrapped steak or a frozen chicken from the supermarket. But of course there was.

Taranaki Daily News