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Don’t know about you, but at the start of 2020 I had no idea of the random skills I’d have assembled by the end of it. Some people took up baking, gardening ... Those people are not me.
After a first date combining the world’s highest waterfall climb, paragliding and the Nevis swing (of course it was a test), the Casanova of Wanaka asked me to accompany him to the South Westland Bow Hunters Christmas Shoot in Harihari. As you do. Harihari meaning "to come together" in Maori, bowhunters from Motueka, Canterbury, Wanaka and the West Coast would do just that to compete on a course which included specialties such as shooting backwards looking in a mirror and trying to hit targets stapled to silage bales while standing in a trailer being towed by a quad bike.
When it comes to the terminology of archery there’s only one word to remember: nock. Everything is a nock: the thing on the end of the arrow that sticks it to the string, the place you rest the end of the arrow (the nock goes on the nock) and the tip of the bow where the string loops around. You’ll take plenty of knocks too, if you don’t lift your elbow up out of the way. Everything is measured in imperial, so your bruises will be inches wide.
Soggy grey pillows filled the sky and raging torrents of brown water spumed against boulders at the Gates of Haast. A Coaster born and bred, I felt a ping in my heart at the real weather. Non-Coasters are always saying "torrential" like they know what it means. Waterfalls streaked white down the dark green hills. It bucketed. It hosed. Ferns laid a deceptive carpet over the roadsides. Slip scars like talon marks called a warning. There was absolutely no traffic, no tourist vans; we were still a country left to our own devices.
Harihari is most famous for the upside-down landing of Australian aviator Guy Menzies. Completing the first solo flight across the Tasman, flying over the mountainous terrain looking for a place to put down, he must have thanked his lucky stars when he spied swamp disguised as a paddock.
We popped over to visit the rest of the Wanaka contingent, in their motel unit assembling arrows. Sharpening shafts into points, seated around a table hosting a block of resin, goose feathers all from the same side of the bird (mixed won’t fly straight), a candle and a box of steel arrow tips, they looked like a Pinot-loving terror cell. A terroir cell, maybe.
Saturday afternoon the bowmen assembled as water cascaded over the clubroom veranda. White gumboots met shorts and camouflage jackets, bows were things of beauty: yew, bamboo and fibreglass, pressurised by a fire hose. The weight required to draw mine was 32 pounds and I’d be doing that quite a few hundred times over the weekend. I was nervous, the bush looked impenetrable — some people take a second date to a restaurant.
We set off into sandfly land. Mud sucked boots and targets were varied, as was the scoring. If you hit Rudolph you were penalised 100 points. I shot a lot of things in the arse and couldn’t get within cooee of the lion in the field, a long-distance shoot of 120 yards — the ideal distance to try to shoot a lion from, because there’s a slim chance he might not notice. The famous archer Howard Hill once hit a bull elk at 185 yards; his party trick — shooting a polo mint thrown into the air. The Casanova of Wanaka shot the lion and came third overall. I scored 222 points. There were people who scored fewer, but they may have been children.
By the end of the weekend the whole inside of my left arm was green and red and purple. I smelt gamey. I ate roughly 100 pounds of chicken nibbles at dinner. Cheeks red, I felt part of the camaraderie, the clan. We smiled at each other as our pant cuffs made puddles on the clubroom floor. The bowhunters’ Christmas shoot was all about community, about coming together. I hadn’t been a member, now I was. "You’ll be addicted," said Deb. True. And you know why? Because for the first time in this whole bloody year, I hit something I’d been aiming for.
The importance of community has been the lesson of 2020 for me: despite the continual railroading of plans and dreams ... despite the fact that things aren’t going to magically get better at one minute past midnight on January 1, we’ve got each other and that’s a lot.