Where the trail leads

Frank Erceg kitted out for a climb in the early 1960s. Photo: Finding Frank
Frank Erceg kitted out for a climb in the early 1960s. Photo: Finding Frank
Author Louise Maich spent more than two decades piecing together her uncle Frank Erceg’s story, a deer hunter of rare talent. This is an edited extract from her new book.

Deerhunter Frank Erceg’s few existing letters to his girlfriend Margaret Collins, like this one written in February 1963, give some idea of the solitary and dangerous life of a hunter in the high country many decades ago.

"Here I am again too early to get a deer, so I’ll tell you a little story about one of my trips over the Main Divide in search of deer and excitement.

"It was in the Dobson Valley 1958–59 season about the middle of February 1959. I was heading for the Landsborough West Coast on one of my many poaching trips. I decided to leave on the spur of the moment fairly late in the day, well late to be going anywhere — around about one o’clock. I threw a bit of gear into my pack: a sleeping bag, Swanndri, tea, sugar, salt, milk, 1 lb rice, piece of bread, 1 lb butter, small aluminium fry-pan, billy, spoon, plus matches. Also, my camera plus 400 rounds of .303 ammunition — I was expecting a bag full.

"I wore a pair of well-nailed boots, shorts ripped and threadbare shirt no hat also my belt with 100 rounds ammo, knife and a steel. I shouldered my worn old pack, picked up my well cared for rifle, shut the door of the hut and away up the riverbed."

After an hour he was at the foot of the Barron Saddle leading on to the Mueller Glacier.

"I reached the top in good time, one and half hours from leaving the hut. It’s fairly flat on the other side of the saddle until one reaches the icefall at the head of the Mueller Glacier. I just about turned back when I saw what it was like. The hot sun during January and February had melted all the soft snow and left only the old, original ice of the Glacier, it was as hard as iron. Also had crevasses something terrible, gaping blue holes which you couldn’t see the bottom of.

"I picked my way up the north side where the going was a bit easier, only struck one sticky patch on the actual fall and I managed to chip little steps with my knife, it was slow work but the only way to get there. Arrived at the top of the fall and what a sight there was about 400 yards of flat ice in front of me and then the climb up to Fyfe Pass 7700 feet [7434 ft/2266 m], the climb looked okay what I could see of it through the fog, but the flat ice was a mass of crevasses with just the odd flimsy looking snow bridge spanning them.

"I wasn’t very happy but still, I pushed on. After a bit of messing about, I managed to find a path through the worst of it and reached the foot of the final climb to the pass. One part of it I didn’t think I was going to make as one particular crevasse was about 10 feet in width at the narrowest place and when you peered down into it, all you could see was blue-green ice disappearing into nothingness.

"The bridge didn’t look any too safe, but I finally plucked up enough courage to crawl very carefully across it. I had ‘the wind up’ too, but one must go on. When I reached the other side, I dropped my pack and rifle and had a much-needed rest, I was shaking at the knees a bit. More so when I had a good look at the bridge, it only looked about 6 inches thick in one place, how it held me I don’t know. The Devil looks after his own so they say. He must.

Photo: Finding Frank
Photo: Finding Frank
"I picked up my pack and plugged onwards, had to make the floor of the Landsborough by nightfall. I made the pass okay, a bit steep but otherwise a piece of pie. Looked down the other side and couldn’t see a bloody thing but a sheer rock face dropping away into the fog. Real West Coast weather with fog swirling up from the valley floor, a strong wind and light snow high up. I thought what a bastard because I’d heard that there was only one way down and if you missed that you were buggered."

Erceg finally found a route down to the Spencer Glacier through a small gut alongside a bluff and then a very narrow ledge.

"Pretty sticky going down the ledge but finally made the end of it. ‘Whoopa’ I yelled and whooped I did and away at a run down the Glacier quarter-hour and I had made the tussock in the floor of the valley.

"The first thing I saw was a mob of bull tahr feeding about 200 yards beyond me on the tussock slopes. Was I happy. I forgot all about the climb, funny isn’t it? Shot them, 25 of them all told and then found a good dry rock where I camped for the night. The weather was improving so things looked very promising.

"Weather not bad next day, up early boiled the billy and then away on the hill. Had a good day chasing tahr most of the time finally ended up the day by getting 47 tahr 17 chamois and eight deer. Lightened the load a bit as I fired away a fair amount of ammo.

"I had a good boil up when I arrived back, gutted some venison steaks, packed my gear and away down the valley about one and half hours walk. The destination being a dry rock used by shooters in the Landsborough Block during previous years, now having finished due to the government deciding the deer didn’t need shooting there any longer, Hi Ho, all the better for me.

"Arrived just by dark and had time to get in a supply of dry wood and get the fire going. Had a poke around and found a few things, ammunition still in good order, billys, lamp, oven and a fair supply of tinned food. Bloody good show. Had a big fat feed and went to bed. Up next morning daybreak as usual and onto the hill. Did the same for the next two days and then as there looked to be a change in the weather decided I’d better be on my way back.

"Set off daybreak up Arthurs Creek and over into the Hopkins Valley, which is the next valley south of the Dobson. Had a good day, shot 41 animals making the total for the trip 138. Not too bad. It was reasonable going from there, a bit of a climb down into Richardson Glacier from the Main Ridge otherwise beaut all the way.

"Away down the valley flat and stayed a night with Vic, he has the Hopkins Block (yarned most of the night). Next morning beginning to rain said Harrah to Vic and up over the top into the Dobson. Hi Ho and Ho the poacher returns to his Nye — and family, with one big smile on his dial.

"Brian Smith the field officer arrived a few days later and when he saw all the tails he said, ‘Hell you must be getting a few.’ I replied, ‘Yep, the odd sick one or two.’ ‘Bloody bullshit artist,’ he said, ‘where have you been?’ I said, ‘Where the hell do you think,’ and left it at that ..."

A talk

 - Hear Louise Maich talk about her book Finding Frank today at 1pm, Paper Plus, Golden Centre, 251 George St, Central Dunedin.