Frank Erceg could shoot two tahr with a single bullet, we’re told, their bodies sliding down icy faces into river valleys below. There was the time he was bowled over by an Arawhata red stag, destroying his prized camera. He liked eating brains for breakfast, and stuck pigs with a spear tipped with the blade of a pair of dagging shears. Erceg loved to go barefoot, and could carry a stag on his back for a mile downstream. He could shoot the ash off a cigarette, but by the early 1960s increasingly stalked with a camera rather than his .222 rifle—sans tripod, which he only found useful for propping up a tent.
Erceg was one of the last of the government’s backcountry deer cullers, men who roamed remote mountain ranges and river valleys for months at a time, shooting thousands of exotic game animals “liberated” by the acclimatisation movement. Deer had since become destructive and invasive pests with no natural predators. Erceg’s skills were legendary within the tight-knit community, and he had a burgeoning career with the camera, but in 1965 he and a hunting partner were both killed in a freak accident (the photo below shows their bodies being removed from the scene). The two men were only 30.
Decades later, while driving through Central Otago, Erceg’s niece Louise Maich had a visitation of sorts, feeling a spiritual presence pass through the car and experiencing a deep feeling of connection to Frank. It inspired her to learn more about her uncle, renowned to cullers and outdoorsmen, but a distant memory within her own life. Decades after his death it wouldn’t be easy. Deer cullers worked alone, and they were often taciturn characters.
Fortunately, some of Erceg’s old hunting mates were still alive—and deer cullers had a habit of recording their own history: by writing on the walls of the huts they camped in, and in government bulletins, and through the names they gave to hunting blocks. Maich knows that Erceg’s first season was in 1956 because it’s etched into a beam inside the Landsborough Rangers Hut. She knows that three years later Erceg got bluffed near a glacier because he told his girlfriend in a letter—before moving onto the more important business of recounting his tally for the next day: 47 tahr, 17 chamois and eight deer.
When Erceg wasn’t in the bush, you might have found him in Queenstown sighting-in a rifle near the main street, or finishing a fight he didn’t start. Erceg bet a travelling insurance salesman he could bag a deer and be back at the pub inside an hour. After a mad dash to Glenorchy and back, Erceg collected his £10 and treated the boys to a night of top shelf. In less happy times, the pub was Erceg’s refuge for two- or three-day benders.
Erceg’s parents were among the thousands of farmers and viticulturalists who fled then-Yugoslavia at the turn of the 19th century, headed for the gumfields of the Far North. His father, Petar Erceg, suffered the lifelong effects of mustard gas and bullet wounds received defending Greece in World War I, and his mother, Anke, was committed to a psychiatric institution for “involutional melancholia”.
In 1961, Erceg lost them both in a murder-suicide. He took to retreating deep up the Arawhata Valley in Westland, pitching a solitary tent beneath a tree. Many of Maich’s interview subjects are gone, too, and will never see the book. The days of the backcountry deer culler are over, replaced with poison drops and airborne marksmen. The book is a eulogy to them all, and to Erceg, cut down by the rotor of a helicopter which replaced that iconic way of life.