Hunting trip in Macedonia with Thomas Nissen

Thomas Nissen joins Jens Kjær Knudsen in Macedonia for a hunting trip, discovering some of Europe’s most beautiful mountains and a large population of Balkan chamois

For a second it looks like my travelling companion lets his hand slip over his knife. Jens Kjaer Khnudsen wears it on the right side of his belt, and he appears to move towards it as we step in.

We enter the ski hotel restaurant, which is like stepping back 50 years in time. Here, smokers are not considered pariahs and the focused enjoyment of alcohol is the principal diversion. It is like visiting a time when lager was something that could be drunk straight from the bottle and gender roles were sharply divided. 

Whether it is a modern man’s insecurity at entering into such a simple and strangely old-fashioned place, or the fact that the tobacco smoke in the room is so thick that one can cut through it, that makes Jens slip the knife, I don’t know.

In fact, I doubt whether he touched it at all, and basically it doesn’t matter, because tomorrow we will be hunting, we will be going after one of the few chamois subspecies that Jens has not yet hunted – the Balkan chamois.

Hunting trip in Macedonia: white hell

To find this subspecies, we have traveled to Macedonia, which is one of Europe’s poorest countries. The country, which has about two million inhabitants, is located on the Balkan peninsula and borders on Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Serbia and was formerly a republic of Yugoslavia. Beside the chamois, you will also find ranging free wild boar, red deer, roe deer, fallow deer, wolf and brown bear (which is completely protected).

There are no statistics for the numbers of different species numbers, or of how many are killed each year, but the most interesting species for visiting hunters are clearly chamois, roebuck and, to some extent, wolf.

While we eat dinner in the restaurant, it starts to snow quite heavily. The snow is not a big problem for the hunt, as the quantities that fall will not create an avalanche risk, but as it is also windy there is a risk that we will not be able to drive the 20km along the mountain roads to where the chamois are found.

It took several hours to get into the mountains, but in the end it was all worth the trouble

As we leave the next morning, we are already more than an hour late. The guides will be sure that we have enough light to see where we are going, as the road is hard to see in some areas along the way.

In some places there is a very steep drop just half a metre from the car’s outermost edge, and we now understand – and welcome – the guide’s decision on a later departure, even if it means shorter hunting time before darkness.

Time and time again the car must be pushed back or forward, or to the side. The shovel is constantly at work. For an hour, we work our way through the snow on the road; we are the only vehicle using the road today.

After an hour we drop down through forest, cross a valley and “climb” again through a wooded area before the car suddenly slips off the road and gets stuck against a large stone.

We have near enough reached the place where we are going to climb the mountain on foot, but first the car must be shovelled free and pushed loose from the big stone so that we know we can go back out again when the hunt is finished.

Fortunately, there are six men in the car – yes, we have been sitting like sardines – but now our numbers are welcome. By communal effort we get the car out, then the hunt can begin! 

Hunting trip in Macedonia: squeaky bum time

With laboured steps we follow our guide, Zemri. We have not walked more than a few hundred metres in relatively steeply rising terrain and with snow over our knees, when we see the first chamois.

The night’s snowfall has caused the animals to pull down from the highest mountain peaks, and in a short glance Jens sees a large buck between the tree trunks on the other side of a deep gorge. We stop and let the binoculars work for us, but even though we sweep the area for another half an hour, we never get a glimpse of the buck again.

We reach a large valley where the mountains rise steeply on both sides. In the middle of the valley is an old farmhouse where poor shepherds stay in the summer. We walk to the shed, which is actually more of a cabin, and begin to spot.

The chamois had moved down the mountain over night, due to the snow fall

There are chamois in many places on grass hills above the rocks in front of us. 400 yards away we can see a small bunch of animals with a nice buck among them.

As the day is already quite advanced and the trip back along snowy roads is going to be challenging, Jens decides that we will go after this apparently easy one.

From below, it looks pretty simple to get to, with a short ascent over the grass slope and a small climb up some not too steep cliffs. It looks straightforward: we soon discover it is not!

As we reach the cliff that seemed small from below, it becomes apparent that it is steeper and higher than we thought. But as we have already got here, we decide we must push on.

Macedonia is no place for the fainthearted, so there is nothing else to do but to follow the guide. For Jens, there’s no problem, he is fired up by hunting lust and adrenaline. For my own part the steps are taken a little more carefully, as I don’t want to end up with an “accident” in my hunting trousers. I’m very scared.

Eventually we reach the top of the cliffs and spot the chamois before we climb over the edge. The guide cuts a couple of holes so that Jens can find a secure foothold and sticks his head over.

From here, he takes his first Balkan chamois with a perfect shot from 130 metres. I get some nice photographs of the act, although it is hard to stop my hands from shaking at the thought of the drop below me if I should slip.

Hunting trip in Macedonia: social media contacts

The first successful day is followed by two days of rain, wind and zero visibility. The time comes to visit our hosts Brane and Kostas, our Macedonian contacts. The trip was planned after a random contact from them via Facebook.

Kosta had posted a message the year before to Jens, who he had seen in the Wild Boar Fever films, to ask Jens some questions about bullets and calibre. Jens answered and then asked Kostas if he knew anything about the possibilities of hunting chamois in Macedonia.

He did, and as it happened his hunting companion Brane is one of the country’s foremost hunt organisers for chamois, and so this trip had come to be.

On the fourth and last day, the weather finally cleared. The snow almost melted on the mountain roads and the drive up the mountain was fast. We arrived relatively speedily in a new valley and shortly after we started a stalk on one of two chamois groups we had spotted.

On the way up, we crossed a bear track that we enjoyed for a few seconds, before Jens suddenly saw a monster-sized chamois buck standing over a thousand yards away, on the other side of the valley and he wanted to go after that instead of the group we were on the way to.

The hunt had to be done in steep terrain

We climbed down again across the valley and began the second ascent of the day. When we were almost at the top, we spotted a small chamois buck, which is on its way up. When it reached the top about 400 yards above us, it bumped into the giant buck we saw earlier, which spends the next half hour chasing the poor creature off.

We can’t get out of the place without showing ourselves, and when the monster buck comes back, we are still not at shooting range. He disappears over the top, we follow him as quickly as we can, but suddenly we spot him climbing the mountain half a mile away – he is after some females.

We climb up where we last saw him, follow his tracks in the snow and some time later get in contact with him and the herd. However, we never get close to him during the day, even though we follow him over one gorge after another and reach summit after summit.

It’s about sunset, and we’ve actually abandoned the hunt when we see him sit down to rest 700 yards above us. We are both hungry and exhausted, but Jens decides to make a final attempt, and half an hour later we stick our heads over the last peak, near to where we last saw him, and there he is – just sitting there.

The distance is less than 300 metres and Jens is able to lie flat to take what ought to be a certain shot. But Jens puts the bullet slightly back and only wounds the beast. It’s a shot he would never normally fail to take, but in this case he does.

Whether this is because Jens is tired, whether he is exhausted after the ascent or too much up on adrenaline because of the old animal’s impressive size, it is hard to know, but what happens to everyone who hunts a lot just happened to Jens – and the buck disappears over a small peak to the right.

Hunting trip in Macedonia: the final ascent 

So now we are not only following a wounded chamois, but time is running out so we start the ascent immediately. We have about half an hour until it gets dark, but fortunately there’s plenty of fresh snow, as we are so high up, so we can easily track the animal over an otherwise grassy slope.

The chamois has disappeared down through some uncomfortably steep cliffs, which Jens and Zemri in their adrenaline rush easily pass, while I take it a bit easier. The track ends where the animal has fought its way up again, up into some very steep cliffs. We spend a quarter of an hour trying to see if we can spot the chamois, but without success.

Just as Zemri starts to explain to Jens that the battle is lost and we have to turn our noses homewards, the chamois jumps about 80 metres above us. Jens finds a position from which he can shoot while the animal carries on trying to climb but runs out of options.

The buck turns around, stops between two rocks and a second later his legs are swept from under him as the bullet hits his shoulder cleanly. The fall the animal makes down the steep cliffs is just as dramatic as the hunt and the finale. The chamois is the oldest chamois buck of any Jens has ever hunted. We judge it to be 11 years old.

At this moment it feels that this Macedonian hunt has been the best ever, but we felt the same way in Russia, Spain, New Zealand and all the other countries we have visited in the hunt for the many subspecies. When it comes to hunting trips it is almost always the case that when you are in the middle of it, it’s the best experience ever. ν

The hunt was arranged with a local organizer through a Facebook contact. If you want to go hunting in Macedonia, contact Kosta Tasevski, who will put you in touch with the organizer. Contact: kostatashevski@yahoo.com

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