I reached the summit of Ben Nevis around 10.30 in the morning. I wanted to get there early to beat the crowds. It was ANZAC day and Ben Nevis is a popular walk amongst locals.
I wanted to beat the clouds too. As the sun rose up and heated the mountain side, a thick fog lifted from the cold Wairoa Valley, ascending the slope with swirling vaporous claws.
The way up, a solid 800m climb mostly sheltered from the elements, felt like a summer hike. At the top, however, a biting wind reminded me with full intent that winter was just around the corner. I stopped for a while, taking in the scenery: a sweeping view of the region framed by Tasman Bay, Mt Arthur Range, Mt Owen and the magnificient Red Hills.
The cold touch of the wind on my face was envigorating. Behind me, the weather-beaten trig rattled gently. The atmosphere was peaceful and quiet. I suddenly realized how long it had been since my last hike, and how much I had missed the wilderness. It felt so good to be back. As if I was home again.
I smiled, strapped my pack and walked on. I had the whole day before me and an attractive ridgeline to explore.
I didn't go far; only to the unamed peak half a kilometer away from Ben Nevis summit. A man was walking up the track at a good pace, wearing a thick dark green fleece and heavy boots with high gaiters. His dark brow was pearled with sweat and he arbored a broad smile on his young face.
"Sorry to scare ya" he said when he came closer.
"Pardon me?" I said, not sure what he was talking about.
"The shots. You must've heard 'em. Got two chammys down there." He pointed down the slope where his mate was standing on a rocky outcrop, a rifle in his hand.
"Gotta walk down to go get 'em now, I'll get my pack first. T'is rough country 'round here." He said laughing, and hurried on.
A lump in my throat kept me from answering. I took another look at the other hunter for a short moment. The chamois must have been on the other side of the outcrop and I couldn't see them, thankfully. I had not heard the gun shots and didn't expect any hunters up there that morning.
I never expect hunters when I hike. I tend to forget that people go into the mountains for other reasons than finding peace, silence and connection with Nature. Some go there to kill.
I turned away and walked back along the ridgeline towards Ben Nevis Summit. I had to try and get some food in my knotted stomach. I found a spot sheltered from the wind on the East side of the ridge and had lunch, brooding over the unwanted encounter. My eyes scanned in vain the foggy slope in search for more chamois.
Where I come from in France, these strong and graceful goat-antelopes are considered the emblem of the mountain range.
I am a strong advocate of anti-hunting in France, where the reintroduction of the big predators such as bears, wolves and lynx, which have been pretty much eradicated by decades of persecution, would be the solution to the regulation of ungulates populations. In New Zealand, the problem is different. The chamois (or any animal other than birds or lizards) shouldn't be here in the first place. They have been thoughtlessly introduced in early 1900s and now have to be hunted to control the populations as no predators can be introduced.
Despite that knowledge, the death of these two chamois was a black cloud darkening my experience in the mountains. A little later, two more hunters walked by, their rifles gleeming in the sunlight. I looked at my own weaponry: a pair of binoculars, a camera and a notebook. I smiled again. I was a hunter too, trying to capture the moments. The only bursts of sound coming from the shutter of my camera. My only trophies: images.
Suddenly, a few loud bleat snatched me from my brooding reverie. I stood up and stared down in the fog, but it was too thick. It could have been a goat or a young chamois.
I looked up towards Ben Nevis Summit. The clouds were rolling up and down the east side of the ridgeline just like waves on a rocky shore. At times they reached up to the sun, turning it into a faint silver disc. I could see silhouettes of people by the trig in the distance. A father, a boy and a little dog. They ran, they jumped, they celebrated the satisfaction and the feeling of being alive at the top of a mountain.
The dark cloud had lifted up and I felt at peace again.
It was time to go back down. As I left behind Ben Nevis, the battered trig, the elusive chamois, the biting wind and the inviting ridgeline, I knew they would always be there. Just as the hunters and theirs guns, there also always will be fathers and sons climbing mountains, and people hunting for fleeting moments of peace and happiness, armed with binoculars, cameras and notebooks.