Back Ridge Biv was a mythical place that I had only ever ventured to on maps, or gazed at in old, weathered hunting books.The little orange NZFS Biv, built in 1962, has a bigger brother, the old Forest Service Back Ridge Hut, tucked away under the main Kaweka range. This hut was airdropped in and put together like a Meccano set in 1957.
The psychological barrier that stopped me in my tracks, from going over the other side into the unknown, was the 5,656 foot (1,724 m) main, sub-alpine Kaweka Range. This was the promised land for many young Kaweka hunters, and literally a bridge too far for me. I didn’t have the skills, fitness or knowledge to safely get there and back.
In October,1994, I finally took that step, following the guy in front with the praying mantis legs. Keith ‘Gotman” Frankum just gobbled up the ground like a Sunday walk to church, while I sprung holes that leaked water. The sweat poured from me after our big climb up Makahu spur.
We crested the top of the ‘J’ about 2pm in light winds, standing there in silence with our packs on, as if we were seeing Mecca for the first time. I almost dropped to my knees – from exhaustion! I gazed down the massive western flanks of the main range, magical looking as they dropped away beneath us, enticing us on.
Little did we realize that the weather gods were about to teach us some high country lessons.
In light snow flurries, we opened the door to the little orange Biv at 4pm, hardly taking in the surroundings as we sought shelter from the elements.
Pushing open that same door the next morning, our two dogs jumped out to be greeted by another world. Thick snow blanketed everything, we were trapped in wonderland for my first Back Ridge experience!
One sunny Saturday morning in 2007, the phone rang. Greg Duley introduced himself, explaining he was setting up a NEW hunting magazine, and would I be interested in writing a butchery article?
Hesitantly, I explained I didn’t pass School C English, and there wasn’t a hope in hell of this happening. Greg wasn’t perturbed at all. Selling the dream of his NZ Hunter magazine, he wanted a new breed of writers who could pass on the knowledge in their chosen field of expertise. Greg sold the dream all right! Once he got off the phone, I was already the next, ‘Philip Holden.’ The bastard made it sound so easy, but then cold, hard fear set in! Good god… I had to write an article, and confident I was not!
We had negotiated that I could scribble a hunting yarn first, followed by some butchering tips and tricks. He smoothly explained they could work some magic with the spelling and grammatical issues. I was thinking they would need more than magic, witchcraft sprang to mind.
I had recently returned from a successful solo hunt to Back Ridge, with my big hairy wookiee, Flint, the German wirehaired pointer.
This adventure was hastily written up with old school pencil and paper! We didn’t have anything that resembled a home computer at that stage.
After a few nights writing, and wearing out a couple of erasers on the mistakes, I finally dropped off the first 1500 word article, with accompanying photos to be scanned. With doubts he would even publish it, in November 2007, Issue One turned up in the mail! There on the front cover, down in the bottom left, in small print, were the now infamous words, ‘Backridge Butcher!’ Little did I realize where Greg’s play on words would take me. NZ Hunter magazine took off like a runaway train, taking the Backridge Butcher along for a thirteen-year ride,that hasn’t pulled into the station yet…
My love affair with Back Ridge in the Kawekas only got stronger, as I continued to visit the special place with different mates, slowly building my fitness, knowledge and with better gear. The ridge itself is very exposed to the weather.
This is the biggest single contributing factor to the success of hunting the wily sika deer that call this place home. I have had countless trips where failure has been normal. Not even spotting any animals can be a hard pill to swallow, while some trips our luck has run hot and others it’s been as cold as the ice hanging off the Biv.
I’ve been lucky to have been in on the action on two trophy stags while camped at the Biv. The first was with the Gotman in 2013, securing a beautiful 9 point sika one evening right at last light. We had flown into the Biv with East Kaweka Helicopters on a gloriously hot February afternoon. We headed out that evening around 5pm. In half an hour, Keith and I, with a team effort, harvested a scrubby hybrid stag on a big shingle face. It tumbled down into a gnarly dry creek bed in a cloud of dust.
A couple of hours later after climbing back up to the ridgeline with our harvested venison, Keith spotted another animal in the golden hour of sunset. We quickly closed the distance, and Keith generously insisted I take the 317 yard shot with ‘Hellboy,’ my bigger 7mm STW. In behind the rifle, I picked up his antlers waving around, as he fed hungrily. With the scope wound up to full power, I picked up his ‘top’s and this only added a bit more spice to the moment. I was extremely relieved to see him tumble down the face, after the shot echoed around the surrounding hills.
We found this magnificent stag later by head torch and the bourbons flowed freely at camp well into the night! While not a record book head by any means, he holds a very special place in my heart. I often reflect back on how many hunters he had dodged over the years to become a mature, public land stag.
The second stag was secured in 2017 by my very good mate, Jeremy Hanaray, having again flown in with East Kaweka Helicopters in late February. Jeremy’s outdoors store, ‘Rivers To Ranges,’ was running a promotion at the time, and Sam, a young potato farmer from Auckland, had won the trip.
We had struck the jackpot, the Back Ridge hadn’t had any hunting pressure for a month, while recent rain had exploded the growth up high.The first evening, sika were popping out all over the place, and it was a sight to behold!
Sam had no trouble securing his first sika deer so the pressure was off. The next afternoon had us venturing further south down the ridge to try and get some more venison for the trip home. I managed to knock over a tasty sika spiker, with a beautiful spotted coat, before we snuck around a known feed face.
Jeremy was in front, slowly picking his way across the head of the gut, as the view unfolded before him. Suddenly, his head whipped around, with eyes as big as saucers, mouthing the words, ‘Big stag!’
Using the 300 WSM he had recently built for me, must have been particularly satisfying, as a solid “whack,” came back from the tricky, front-on shot! The stag was hit hard, low in the brisket, and it disappeared off the face into the nearby beech forest. With no dog, the tracking of the animal was challenging, but Sam turned out to be part bloodhound, and Jem soon dispatched another wonderful Kaweka trophy, to finish off a trip to remember.
Not much has changed at the Biv since my first trip in ‘94. It is pretty much in the original condition in which it was built 58 years ago. One of the higher shelters in the park, at 1360 m, the water supply is from a small, summer safe creek, a few yards from the Biv. The forest park has a great system of tracks with the Biv located just off the ridge on the eastern side, at the junction of Back Ridge and Rocks-a-head tracks.
These slopes are home to our intriguing native snail, genus Powelliphanta, nestled in amongst some idyllic beech trees, that often chime to the sound of tui, bellbird, and even a kaka, from time to time. If you follow the ridge south, it drops down steeply to Kiwi Mouth, where another great hut is located. DOC maintains a good long drop and meat safe, while there is a helicopter pad just up the hill.
If you’re looking for a challenging hunt, Back Ridge could be the place for you… let’s just keep it our little secret and don’t tell too many mates.