It’s been years since I've headed up in a chopper on a deer muster. As a teenager I worked for a couple of years trapping possums in the bush and spent some time jumping out of helicopters to recover live deer.
People who know me now can’t believe I was once such an adrenaline-seeking adventurer. In fact I can't believe it myself – my interest in engaging with adrenaline these days amounts to a big fat zero.
Back then I did all my cooking over an open fire and, as I say in my book Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures, I think during those years in the bush I earned my PhD in cooking game stew and brown rice!
My chopper job involved sitting in the back end of the machine as it whirligigged around the sky, waiting for the shooter to dart a deer. Once the animal had succumbed to the anaesthetic, I jumped out of the hovering machine from some height. The chopper would disappear off for the next chase and I would be left to figure out how to get the deer into my net and rigged for a safe lift-off back to home base – all the while hoping like hell they would remember where they had dropped me!
At the time it was very exciting and also incredibly lucrative. I bought my first house when I was 20 with the proceeds of my wilderness endeavours. Those were the days at the very start of the deer-farming industry in New Zealand, and all over the country helicopters manned by devil-may-care pilots, shooters and jumpers were heading into the bush to capture live deer for farming. It was like a gold rush and the stakes were high. Many pilots were lost in accidents due to overloaded machines or terrible weather conditions or just crazy mad helicopter antics through the bush in a bid to catch an animal.
As the godfather of the New Zealand deer-farming industry, Sir Tim Wallis is famous for his many brave (you could say crazy) escapades into the wilderness of Fiordland, which saw thousands and thousands of deer captured.
Some years back, Tim and his wife Prue bought the 26,000-hectare Minaret Station on the western shores of Lake Wanaka at the heart of the Southern Alps. When we filmed the deer muster there for the second episode of my Simple Pleasures TV series it was a real buzz for me to experience the magnificence of this country. I have known the Wallis family since we came to Wanaka 15 years ago and have often enjoyed their wonderful hospitality, but this was my first visit up into the back of the station.
As we were whizzing around the sky, in the whiff of deer running underneath me I was taken back in a flash to my days in the bush. This time I didn’t need to put my knees to the test (lucky as they are now completely wrecked!), and it was a great relief to be landed down safely on terra firma without having to leap in blind faith into the bracken or onto some rocky, icy knoll – and also to know that at the end of the day I could go home and enjoy a hot shower and a comfy bed back in my cabin.
But being back there in the mountains reminded me how lucky I am to have had this chapter in my life and to have shared in some of the adventures of that wild west bush life. It’s so humbling to feel the raw, wild power of nature in the mountains, and it makes you feel so insignificant.
I've often thought that this is what makes New Zealanders – the powerful connection we have with this amazing land, the mountains and the sea, is just so grounding. And it’s all right here on our doorstep. To see behind-the-scenes photos, recipes, video clips and the menu from this episode see the TV pages of my website.