Taranaki backcountry is in Fred’s blood. But there wasn’t much bush to be seen from his parents’ dairy farm at Huinga, inland from Stratford. “When we were kids we’d go to Toko to get fishing meat from the butcher there. One day he said to me ‘See that bush way up there?’ you could just see the tops of the Matemateonga Range, ‘I’ve been up there!’ he said. I was about seven or eight years old and I remember thinking ‘Gee, I’d like to go up there’. I think that’s what got me started, that desire to explore the bush,” he recalls some 70 years later.
Fred got his first rifle when he was 16, just after the Second World War when weapons and ammunition were in short supply. The teenager made a special trip to Christchurch where he bought a .3030 and a .22. “Ammunition was still in short supply. You were only able to get it in small quantities – so you wanted to be a good shot!”
But it didn’t really matter – in those days you only shot the pigs that the dogs couldn’t get at to hold. The rest were all stuck with a knife, with the help of a good set of dogs. Shaping an imaginary pig in the air with his hands Fred describes how good holding dogs will grab a pig’s ear each and lay back alongside the animal to keep out of reach of its tusks. “They learn by doing. They soon learn fast enough! Then you go in with a knife – I didn’t bother trying to flip the pig over, just stuck it straight into his heart from the side.”
Once a pig was caught and killed Fred would cut off its snout and tail, threading the thin end of the latter through the nostrils of the snout. “You’d get a shilling for that. If it was a good set of tusks I’d take the jaw out too – could take a jaw out in about three minutes flat. In the shed at the farm I had all these four inch nails with tusks hanging on purloins.”
That was when you could easily get 25 to 30 pigs in a three day weekend and take home seven good tusks. Pigs were a menace: they rooted up pasture and killed new born lambs and ate them. “Farmers wanted everything killed, but nowadays the pig hunters when they catch a sow they let it go, keeps them in pigs for the future you see?”
Those were the days of ‘good keen men’ when a hunter would go into the bush with little more than a rifle, his hunting knife, a little food and a good set of dogs. Fred hunted in Central and South Taranaki, covering the Matemateonga Ranges, along the Whanganui River, in the back blocks of Stratford, ‘out the back’ of Eltham and inland from Waverley.A pig hunter would be nowhere without a good set of dogs. In the bush man and dog had to rely on each other. Fred’s best dogs were a mastiff staghound and an Australian Blue Heeler, both good holding dogs. “Your dogs are your best mates out there – they’d never leave you. They take care of the pig for you and keep you warm at night when you have to sleep rough. Some times it would start to get dark. To travel in the bush at night time is sheer madness, so I’d just find a spot to curl up in for the night. Rata trees are good. You pack your dogs around you to keep you warm, light a fire, maybe cook a bit of meat if you’ve caught a pig.”
Simple cuisine suited the bushman. “The quickest way to cook pork is just cut a bit off the hind leg and cut it into little squares, thread it onto a piece of green supplejack stick and hold it over the fire – simple but effective!” Drinking water out of creeks, living on pork, baked beans and bread and jam was the regular diet for a hunter.
Once you get Fred warmed up on hunting stories it’s hard to stop him – the tales come tumbling one after another like an eager pack of dogs on the scent of a pig.
“One time I was way out the back of Eltham in the bush, just coming down to stop at this old house. The dogs must have slipped away it was just starting to get dark. I got the fire going, dried some clothes, looked outside and it was pitch black – still no dogs. About 10pm the moon had come out and it was quite bright so I went to the top of the ridge to see if I could hear them. Sure enough I could hear this faint barking. They were away to blazes up somewhere called Rata Flat. Well I wasn’t going over there in the dark! I went back to the hut hoping they’d give up.
“I got up in the morning – still no dogs – can’t hear anything at all. Walked around the ridge a bit and heard a chorus of barking, went quiet, then started up again. They still had the pig bailed up! They were getting pretty tired and hoarse ‘cos they been there all night. As soon as they heard me coming they went in and got him. He was a good size too!”
Fred and his dogs went back to the hut, packed up and headed for home. But it wasn’t long before the hunter realised his mates weren’t with him. “They were still lying back at the hut! What had happened was they’d had that pig bailed up on a shell rock ledge all night and torn their feet to blazes, they could hardly walk.” After a slow trip home Fred took the dogs to the vet who suggested he soak their feet in alum and give them plenty of rest. It was three months before the trio went pig hunting together again.
Another time he was out in the bush “It was pouring with rain a real cloud burster. I was soaked and the dogs were that wet they were miserable. I saw this old rata stump and thought – I’ll get into there and shelter. So I went in – and there was a pig! He’d had the same idea as me. Well, he didn’t last long!”
“Ohhh here’s a good one! I’d been pig hunting and was coming to a hut I knew was there. It was a bit of a day like this one, overcast and a bit drizzly. Anyway we got to the hut and the door was open. You could tell the pigs had been in and dried out after wallowing in the mud. Anyway the carpet fern was too wet for me to make a bed out of so I flipped this old table upside down, curled up with the dogs and slept there.
I was wearing an old oil skin and during the night I felt something hopping on my jacket like drops of rain – I checked but there was no hole in the roof. Then I noticed the dogs were scratching away and I realised it was fleas! The pigs had left all these fleas behind and we were covered in them! I got out of there early the next morning!”
On another memorable trip Fred was camping overnight in an old farm house down in Whenuakura. Inside the house the scrim and paper on the ceiling had come down and there were rats roaming around. “I lay down on the floor looking up and this rat came along and looked down at me through the hole in the ceiling. Every time I moved he’d shoot off but he’d always come back and look down at me.
So I thought ‘How can I get rid of him? So in the end I lay there with my 3030. Sure enough next time he poked his head over the edge of the scrim I got him! I wasn’t going to have him annoying me all night!”
Tramping alone through the bush with just a pack of dogs for company Fred never got lonely. But he did sometimes wonder if he’d ever be found if he had an accident. “They were pretty isolated places.
“But one day I was out the back of Mount Humphries sitting on a remote ridge having my lunch thinking I was probably the only person to have been there – when I looked down and there was an old sardine can! I don’t know how it got there, maybe a hunter, maybe fell from a plane?”
As a teenager in the bush Fred didn’t use a compass, but was never lost. “I don’t know how I used to find my way around the bush in my early days. I seemed to follow the dogs they seemed to know where to go. But you get a sense of direction – develop a memory for a funny looking ponga or a tree with twisty branches and remember it for next time.” Nowadays he takes a compass and a GPS with him.
“But there’s no substitute for the man that knows the country and knows the bush – he’ll beat the GPS every time. And you’ve got to know how to work a GPS there’s no point taking one if you don’t know how to work the damned thing!”
Fred gave up pig hunting when he was selected to ride his motorcycle in the Isle of Man race in 1955 – but that’s another tale.
On his return farming and family became his priorities and he’s never really been back since. But every Labour Weekend he helps out with the weigh in for the Toko pig hunt at the Toko Tavern. “It’s a good day. You still see some good sized pigs, get a chance to hear some hard luck stories and tell some yarns yourself. I like talking to the young fellahs.”
These days Fred’s into tramping through the bush he hunted pigs through as a young man. “I’ve been back to some of the spots I used to go to and wondered how the hell I did it! But you just did in those days – you were young and fit. I reckon at my age now the ridges are getting higher and the gullies are getting deeper!”