Becoming President? Not gonna happen.
Winning PowerBall? Statistically impossible.
Smashing three homers in the World Series? Nah.
Hunting dragons in New Zealand? Way more attainable than anyone thinks.
I ought to know. I just did it and kept track of my costs along the way.
First, an overview of this amazing place:
It’s like a temperate jewel floating out there in mid-ocean that’s brimming with friendly people you can barely understand, gorgeous scenery you can’t believe is real and more majestic big game animals than you can shake a thorn-encrusted Matagouri bush at.
Yes, big, free-ranging animals abound in certain parts of Kiwi country because, well, back in the 1860s they let a bunch of them run loose in this predator-free zone, and they took over the place.
New Zealand’s South Island is teeming with giant red stag boasting 500-pound bodies and racks that consistently reach 340-plus inches SCI. There are also throngs of cliff-hugging tahr with sturdy, stumpy horns and long, dark capes as well as fallow deer with spotted backs and prehistoric, palmated racks plus finely appointed chamois and twisty-horned Pacific Island goats among other species.
And, because New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, the best hunting is in March and April, which is the equivalent of our September and October. So while you’re back home wrenching on your snow blower, other folks are running around in shortsleeves chasing more bone than you’ve seen in your wildest dreams.
“People think New Zealand is out of reach,” says Jordan Cook, President of Absolute West, an adventure travel and international hunting firm hooking folks up with unforgettable domestic and international experiences. “But if you put it side-by-side with, say, a private land elk hunt in New Mexico, it’s actually a lot less.”
How can that be?
Well, let’s compare New Zealand against the average New Mexico private land rifle elk hunts, which offers the highest success rates in the U.S.
Two-on-one guided hunts range from $6,000 to $8,500 just for the lodge and guide (although some outfitters charge up to $11,000!) Next, a New Mexico Game Hunting License and Private Land Tag will get you for about $650. Then you’ve got to travel to and from a frequently remote location (say about $600 - $900) and, if you’re among the 25 – 60% of hunters who succeed (depending on your unit), you have to get your trophy back home and to the butcher and taxidermist. Other costs include airport transfers and out-of-pocket expenses like food and beverage, tips, etc.
And you pay American dollars there, right mate?
But in New Zealand, a U.S. dollar is worth $1.38 Kiwi (as of this writing) so it’s like getting a 38-percent discount on every meal, taxi, tip and merino wool undergarment that you pay for with those multi-colored Kiwi simoleons.
Absolute West connected me with their partners at Glen Dene Station on the South Island’s Lake Hawea. It’s a family-run, free-range hunting operation with thousands of private acres where the trophy density is astounding and the hunting pressure is minimal.
And, best of all, if you don’t slay, you don’t pay. But, trust me, you will slay.
At Glen Dene, an early season free-ranging bronze stag package including full, deluxe lodge experience plus guided hunting costs $6,150 U.S. A bronze stag has a rack that is 330 inches SCI or less, which is a slammer by any account. No hunting license is required in New Zealand so there’s a good savings right there. And if you want a more do-it-yourself camp experience, you can get the cost down to $5,000 during the early season by staying in an efficiency unit and making a few of your own meals each day.
Hunts during the roar (late March through April) cost more and bowhunters pay an extra fee per day for one-on-one hunting. There are also extra costs for high mountain helicopter tahr hunts and, of course, you can always upgrade your package if a silver stag steps into your crosshairs or if you decide to add a fallow buck, Pacific Island goat, chamois or arapawa ram.
I flew from Boston so my journey was one major flight longer than most. But roundtrip, direct flights to New Zealand originate from Houston, LA, San Francisco and Seattle and they seem to average about $1200 - $1500 (roundtrip) including a short hop from Aukland on the North Island to Queenstown on the South Island.
I spent my ‘jet lag’ day in charming little Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu so that cost me a few extra bucks. But Queenstown is a fun and friendly party town geared toward the tourist crowd without the schmaltz we find in our tourist-meccas here at home. Absolute West handled my transfers – trucking me and the others in my party the hour-plus to and from Queenstown to Glen Dene’s big slice of heaven on Lake Hawea.
It cost me $375 American to prepare and ship my stag back home and another $400 to get it received and cleared by a USDA certified receiving station (mandatory for all imported animal parts). Skulls must be clean to get through customs so the European-style skull mount I ordered was done by Glen Dene’s resident caping crew and my costs will be complete once I pick up my trophy from the receiving station. I also paid an extra $100 baggage fee to fly home with 50 pounds of prime venison (the most you’re allowed).
So if you put those two stacks of numbers side by side, New Zealand stacks up as the less expensive option, and certainly less than most people expect. And if you like guarantees, New Zealand is a guaranteed eye-popping experience with 99.9-percent certainty that you will be gripping and grinning with a huge red stag before the fat lady sings.
Now I stridently believe there is no greater big game pursuit than taking a wild and free Rocky Mountain elk. So I can’t bring myself to say anything negative about that mystical pursuit – which consumes me every fall – and is worth every cent I have squandered on it. Just ask my wife.
But I can tell you that my trip to New Zealand is one of the great travel memories of my life. I was honored to get to know so many Kiwis, who are a proud and spirited people in love with their beautiful country.
And, surrounded by good cheer and gorgeous surroundings, I scaled some daunting mountains, put the sneak on several shooter stags, and ultimately smote a studly, 17-point silver medal slammer on my own terms, at close range after a demanding stalk. (But you don’t have to do it the hard way like I did!)
And I didn’t spend my plane ride back to the States justifying all the money I spent to come home empty-handed.
I came. I saw. I slayed a dragon my way. And I had a great time doing it for less than $10,000.
You can, too.