South Pacific

A Quarter Of The World And With Great Hunting

By Craig Boddington

Originally published in the march/April issue of Safari Magazine. 

Australia is the only one-country continent. It doesn’t look very big on a globe. But before tackling the South Pacific, it’s important to grasp the scale. The first time I hunted water buffalo in Australia’s Northern Territory, Dave Leonard, Steve Fullerton and I drove northwest from Katherine, up to God-knows-where in the Top End. Many hours of good roads, and then poor roads and then none. We got stuck a couple of times, and dawn broke before we reached camp — the next day.

That was 30 years ago. Since then, I’ve been back several times. I’ve driven it again, but mostly I’ve used a mix of commercial and charter planes. Every time, I’m struck by the hugeness of Australia’s vast Outback. That’s just one hunting area in the massive region we call “South Pacific.” From Darwin up on top, it’s 2,300 miles to Melbourne in Victoria, within striking range of good hog deer and sambar hunting.

Australia has feral cattle in some areas. Our record book category is “feral ox,” in Aussie-speak, “scrub bulls.” Some of them grow huge, like this monster taken by Chub Eastman, standing with outfitter Bob Penfold, both sadly gone.

The South Pacific holds three primary hunting destinations: Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. There could be more. Papua New Guinea has been on-again, off-again. Indonesia, with 17,000 islands, has awesome potential but, despite many attempts, no outfitter has successfully waded through the murky politics. So, there are just three primary hunting destinations in this huge region. 

New Zealand lies about 2,000 miles of blue water southeast of Australia, depending on where you fly from. Similarly, New Caledonia is about 2,000 air miles from Darwin. Any of the three are worth hunting, separately or in concert. If the latter, good planning is essential because of seasonality and vast distances.

Early European seafarers to the South Pacific found rich land with favorable habitats, occupied by a wide variety of birds, marsupials and reptiles but no large hoofed mammals. Captain James Cook probably made the first introduction in 1769. The English explorer released pigs to provide a meat source for passing ships. Goats soon followed, and both species quickly establishing feral populations. Early settlers continued the practice, with various species introduced until the early years of the 20th century. In some cases, familiar species from “back home” were tried, such as Alpine chamois and red and fallow deer. In other cases, experimentation depended on availability, such as banteng, rusa deer and sambar from not-so-distant Southeast Asia.

In the early 1900s, the word was out, that New Zealand was interested in filling her habitat niches. The first Himalayan tahr were a gift from the King of Nepal. The first whitetails, in 1905, a gift from President Theodore Roosevelt. In all, at least 15 species of deer were introduced. Most were successful but not all. Mule deer were brought in about the same time as whitetails but did not survive. Canadian moose initially did well in the South Island’s wild Fiordland, but gradually vanished. Although rumors still abound, the last confirmed sighting was in 1957. Our SCI Record Book currently maintains listings for about 18 South Pacific big game animals. All were introduced.


Unless Indonesia should someday open, the primary likelihood for a native-range big game species is Australia’s huge saltwater crocodiles which, despite much discussion, have not been open for sport hunting. “Introduced” implies that the same animal probably exists elsewhere. It’s not my place to suggest to any other hunter what should be of greatest interest. However, among the South Pacific species there are several exceptional opportunities, either because the quality there is unusually excellent or because that animal is not readily available to hunt anywhere else.


Water buffalo are hunted somewhere on all the continents, but if you’re into big, bad beasties, Australia’s water buffalo produce the world’s largest horns. The first introduction was made in 1824, as a meat source. By chance, the gene pool had wide, sweeping attractive horns, like the wild water buffalo once hunted in India. Over time, they spread across the Top End, once roaming in hundreds of thousands. In years gone by, market hunting for hides and meat greatly reduced them. More recently, helicopter gunning to control bovine disease essentially eliminated buffalo west of a certain line. Today, because of cost-versus-gain, this is pretty much over, and Australia’s water buffalo are on the march again, increasing and reoccupying lost territory.

In water buffalo, we look for spread, but the length is always in the curve, not the straight. This is one the best water buffalo bulls Boddington has seen.


Of equal interest to me is the banteng, apparently introduced from Bali in the mid-19th century. Although native banteng occur at least on Java and Borneo, northern Australia is the only hunting opportunity. The banteng is a small, colorful bovine. Dominant males are often jet black. The banteng is a close-cover animal, considered more aggressive than its larger water buffalo cousin. For many years Australia’s population was confined to Cobourg Peninsula, held by a fence where Cobourg joins the mainland. This fence is long in disrepair, with banteng currently expanding southwest toward Darwin. Primarily found on Aboriginal lands, the tricky part about banteng is some outfitters have access and some do not. Opportunity is thus limited and trophy fees are high. However, as a buffalo freak, I consider the banteng one the South Pacific’s primary crown jewels.

Mike Hagen and outfitter Greg Pennicott with an awesome banteng. Only dominant bulls tend to show the attractive black color, often fading back to tan with age.


If you’re a mountain hunter, then chamois and, especially, Himalayan tahr, on New Zealand’s rugged South Island, are essential pursuits. Chamois are more widespread, often found at lower elevations. Despite recent government action to reduce tahr by helicopter gunning, there are still plenty of Himalayan tahr. Although hunted in their native range in Nepal, New Zealand is easily the best place to hunt this magnificent wild goat for both quality and quantity. To me the tahr is a bit like our Rocky Mountain goat: The long, luxurious winter coat is as important to the trophy as the short, thick horns. In mating display, the bull tahr often stands proudly on a rocky point, spreading its long, golden mane, challenging you to climb to him.

A fine Himalayan tahr, taken on a walk-up hunt in high country in the central part of NZ’s South Island.


Now, if you are into antlered game, the South Pacific is your oyster. New Zealand produces the world’s largest red deer. The first red deer introduction was in 1851. Finding ideal habitat and no predators, red deer quickly expanded. In the mid-20th century, they reached nuisance numbers, leading to a large market hunting industry. 

Those days are over, with free-range red deer once again widely distributed. The fly in the red deer ointment: Original releases were mostly from England, with modest antler genetics. New Zealand’s big stags stem from selective breeding by a once-massive deer farming industry. Escapees and purposeful releases are improving “wild and free” genetics, but it must be understood that New Zealand’s extra-large stags are almost always “estate” animals.

About to drop the hammer on a fine red deer stag. Red deer are easily New Zealand’s most widespread and populous big game.

Red deer made it to Australia just a decade later, the first introduction in 1862. Australia’s red deer have generally been an “insider” thing for Aussie hunters in the know. Populations are expanding, and opportunities for red deer in Australia are increasing.

For me, the South Pacific’s crown jewels of antlered game are the three Asian deer almost unhuntable elsewhere: Hog deer, rusa and sambar. All are theoretically hunted elsewhere but with great difficulty. The South Pacific easily offers the best opportunity. Like many Asian deer, all three are carry typically three-tined antlers, with populations widely scattered. Hunting these deer will run you around the region!

Introduced in 1858, the hog deer is confined to a small range along the coast in southeastern Victoria. The hog deer is a blocky little deer preferring heavy cover. They are subject to seasons and licensing, with hunting typically in March and April.

Probably originally from Java and Bali, rusa deer were transported by seafarers for centuries, so exact origins are murky. No matter, the rusa is a medium-sized deer with enormously long and attractive antlers. Although isolated and widely separated, there are numerous populations with several in Australia and New Guinea, on New Zealand’s North Island and on New Caledonia. Although distant from all else and difficult to reach, my old friend and famous South Pacific outfitter Bob Penfold consistently described New Caledonia as “the world’s best deer hunt.”

When I went to New Caledonia, Penfold was ill, so I was accompanied by the redoubtable John Berry. New Caledonia is a gorgeous island paradise and, in July, when the rusa are full rut, it was indeed the world’s best deer hunt. Stags screaming, lots of deer in evidence. It wasn’t easy to find a good one, but definitely a matter of “when” rather than “if.” My only criticism: New Caledonia is a long way to go for a deer hunt unlikely to last more than a few days. July is a good time to combine with water buffalo in Australia’s Northern Territory, but a bit late for most other antlered game. Today, rusa populations have expanded in Australia’s Queensland, making this an excellent option for this attractive deer.

To each their own, but for me the sambar is the South Pacific’s premier deer. Big, dark, with short, massive three-tined antlers, the sambar is widespread from India to Southeast Asia. But native-range opportunities are few. The South Pacific is easily the best place to hunt sambar. 

The sambar is Boddington’s favorite South Pacific deer, always one of the difficult prizes. This is a good—but not huge—sambar, taken on NZ’s North Island, not far from the site of the original 1875 release.

They are widespread in Victoria, the favorite game among local hunters but never easy to take. Sambar also occur on the Cobourg Peninsula, where they are legendary as being like ghosts. They’re there, but few have been taken. New Zealand’s North Island has two separated populations, in the southwest, near the original 1875 release and in the north. After failed attempts in Victoria, a sambar was my last South Pacific animal, taken in the southwest corner of NZ’s North Island with Chris Bilkey. I consider it my best and favorite South Pacific animal.


Just about all South Pacific animals are available both free range and estate. To some of us, this distinction makes a huge difference but not to others. And, with some animals — but not others — it makes a major difference in quality of experience. In this region, estate versus free range merits discussion. The South Pacific has had, and still has, many great outfitters. Among the more colorful was my old friend the late Bob Penfold, who did a fine job of promoting the South Pacific and all her animals. Many years ago, Bob egged me to accept the challenge of hunting all the South Pacific species free range. Or, in Aussie parlance, “wild and free.”

It took years and multiple hunts for several species. I wouldn’t have missed the experiences, and I am glad I did it that way. But let’s examine it realistically. Like South Africa, New Zealand offers a mix of free range and estate. All species are available both ways, and on large acreage in natural habitat it matters little to the experience. Except, as previously stated, if you want a big red stag, it will probably be an estate animal. My South Pacific red stags, taken free range, are good for what they are, but are modest in antler size. I’m proud of them, but if I wanted a big one, I’d hunt estate.

New Zealand also has wapiti (American elk), but the biggest bulls will always be estate animals. At one time, it might have been possible to find free-range pure wapiti, but they have long since mixed with red deer. The animals in Fiordland are definitely red-wapiti hybrids, and are accepted in our book as wapiti, since that is the larger subspecies. The only genuinely pure wapiti — there are big ones — are estate animals that have been kept clear of red deer influence.

Throughout the region, excepting islands north of Queensland, New Zealand is the primary place for a multi-species hunt, which generally means at least part will be estate. Because I was fixated on free range, almost all my South Pacific hunts were single-species endeavors. I went to NZ’s North Island for sika deer. Then several times to the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu (north of Queenstown) for whitetail. I went twice to Victoria just for hog deer. And so forth. 

I am happy I did it that way, but I have observed many great hunts on large, natural properties that just happened to be fenced — no different than in South Africa or, Texas, for that matter. It required “real” hunting.

Fenced areas are less common in Australia but do exist. Because of limited access to Cobourg and Aboriginal lands, some of the best banteng hunting is on private estates. Whether Australia or New Zealand, all of the antlered species are available both estate and free range. 

It’s a personal decision for you. Our Record Book requires a signature certifying free range if so claimed. Other than expecting honesty, I make no judgment between the two but, if you want all the South Pacific species free range, you’ve got your work cut out.


Well, depending on conditions, local density — and your luck — any animal can be difficult. Or, taken easily the first hour of the first day. I’m pretty sure the good old American whitetail is the South Pacific’s most difficult quest. Although available on a few estates, there are just two established populations: A small, isolated pocket at the head of Lake Wakatipu, and a much larger population widespread on cold, windy Stewart Island south of the South Island. The former is tough because there aren’t many, and they are hunted hard by locals with little regulation. Stewart Island is better, but is managed by block system by reservation, so it’s problematic for outsiders.

New Zealand’s whitetails rarely grow large antlers so, unless you’re driven to have at least one of each, it’s a foolish quest. I tried three times, honestly thought I would never get one. I passed some spikes, and never saw a branched antler. Then, as sometimes happens, I got lucky. During a steady rain, a respectable buck marched across an open pasture. We hustled and managed to intercept him at the tree line.

Although plentiful and widespread across Victoria’s high country, sambar is always difficult. Cover-loving, wary and pursued hard by Australian hunters through a long season, sambar in Victoria is one of the South Pacific’s toughest hunts. As tropical deer, some are in hard antler year-around, but there are “best times.” Bob Penfold and I tried in April, a period preferred by some Aussies. I saw a couple of “cast” stags, big pedicels showing, and saw one hard-antler stag with a weird spike for one antler. Knowing what I know now, I should have shot him!

Other Australian hunters prefer late in the year, others earlier. Truth is, I don’t know! I do know sambar takes hard hunting and a bit of luck with no certainty. I hadn’t given thought to sambar in New Zealand until Chris Bilkey found a pocket on private land near the original release. Dense vegetation, but the sambar would come into small clearings to feed. We went in April and found most stags in hard antler. Amazingly, we saw several before I took mine. Like my Aussie friends, I love this big, dark deer. It’s still a bucket list item to take one in Victoria, so I’ll have to try again soon.

Like all wild goats, the Himalayan tahr likes it steep and rugged. Helicopter hunting is legal in New Zealand. I’ll make no comment on that. However, on the South Island’s west coast the Southern Alps rise so precipitously that hunting by helicopter drop-off is the safest and most sensible approach in some areas.

I’ve done this, for both tahr and chamois. In the north-central of the South Island, the mountains aren’t as steep, and walk-up tahr hunting is practical for people in reasonable condition. This is by far my preference, and I love it. I’ve done it for myself, but also with Donna, both my daughters, and friends. In 2011, I did a walk-up tahr hunt with outfitter Chris Bilkey and friend Bill Jones. Exactly 90 days after my heart attack. This suggests it’s not all that tough, and it isn’t, nothing like hunting tahr in Nepal!

I’m not crazy about helicopters, but I love mountain hunting. New Zealand’s walk-up tahr hunting is easily my favorite South Pacific pursuit. I have no reason to take another tahr for myself, but I love seeing them on the skyline above me, golden manes glistening like lions in winter. It’s been a couple years. Probably time to do that one again.

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