Thomas Nissen experiences what must be one of the world’s toughest hunts: mountain hunting in Russia for the West Caucasian tur.
We’ve covered many miles over the hours since daybreak. Slowly, following a small river through the valley, we are approaching our destination. We’re carrying all our personal gear in our backpacks.
In short, it’s tough as hell. We could have travelled on horseback to make it easier, but if there’s one thing we know about our 41-year-old chief guide, Kemal Batchaev, it’s that he doesn’t like horses.
It’s time for a break. We pick wild raspberries on the banks of the river. Kemal unpacks some cold chicken and a little bit of dry bread. He arranges the food on the ground, calls us towards him, and points to the chicken.
“Eat chicken,” he mumbles, before lifting his arm at a steeply rising angle, bringing it to rest pointing to a mountain plateau far above us.
“Where we will go,” he continues in exactly the same tone. I chew on a dry piece of chicken, wondering whether it may have been a mistake to agree to follow the two hunters, Jens Kjær Knudsen and Mike Quist, on their mountain hunt in this part of Russia’s Caucasus mountains.
I might not have a rifle to carry, but I do have 20kg of camera gear instead. It will be a damn hard ride up this mountain, but I’m ready.
The sun burns in a cloudless sky and the temperature has risen, despite the season, to what you might get in an average British summer. We climb, every step releasing lactic acid into our muscles and sweat beads onto our foreheads.
Nevertheless, we are approaching the plateau metre by metre, minute by minute, thoughts of eating a can of beef with noodles and getting a few hours of sleep growing in our heads.
There is still around an hour until sunset, as the guides, in an organised and calm manner, assemble the five small ‘festival tents’, as we have come to call them, in the flat area. It’s five hours since we turned away from the river below and started the steep ascent, and through all those hours I was wondering where we would camp – whether I would be sleeping on an incline.
As they set up the tents, we see the first Kuban tur above us. They are way up above us – not near enough that we will be able to reach them this evening. But we spot that they are descending to find food on the lower-lying grass slopes, so we have an idea where to look for them the next morning.
So close and yet…
The guides brew some tea, hours before the sun will fire up the sky in the east. It is still dark, but we need to get ready, packed and start our walk up the mountain while it is still night. The higher we can get up in the peaks under cover of darkness, the better our chances are.
Jens, Mike and I strike out up the mountain, and by early morning we reach a ridge that falls away into a rocky valley. Almost at the exact moment we reach the top, Kemal notices the movement of four tur under us.
As they disappear under a rocky outcrop, Kemal quickly lines up Jens and Mike so they can identify and shoot a ram when the animals appear again, just 70 metres below us.
Unfortunately, the tur don’t appear again. They choose a hidden path up the mountain. We can hear them move up a gorge a little to the left, but we don’t see them until they break the horizon more than 400 metres above us. As so often during mountain hunting, we got so close and ended up so far.
Classic mounting shot
The tur is a special and interesting mountain-dwelling animal. There are three subspecies: the East Caucasian tur, living in the Eastern Caucasus in Russia and in Azerbaijan, the West Caucasian tur and the Mid-Caucasian tur.
The kind of tur we are after on this trip is the West Caucasian tur, also called the Kuban tur. Common to the three subspecies is a particular horn shape, a massive body structure and the fact that they live in some of the world’s steepest and most impassable mountains.
We are hunting in an incredibly large, state-owned area, where there are many animals. In this area, about 10 tur are shot per year, 10 Caucasian chamois, three brown bears and some wolves and golden jackals.
The hunting area is varied, with dense forests on the mountainsides down to the valley and large grasslands under impressive mountain tops. In the area, besides the above-mentioned game species, you can also meet the lynx, which is completely protected.
Later that day we find ourselves – after a gruelling descent and ascent – on the other side of a large valley. We are in the same situation as earlier, with the animals approaching. This time, we have some luck with us, and Mike manages to take an old ram with a classic mountain shot from 300 metres.
With every step we take, we displace big rocks that slide a few centimetres down the hillside before our feet find some purchase and get us ready for the next step.
We are making our way slowly back to camp when Kemal sees two tur coming down from the higher mountain massifs. He knows from experience where the animals will search down the valley, and brings Jens into position.
Kemal lies beside Jens as they wait for their moment. Right at last light, the two rams come over the nearby ridge. Their large heads rock from side to side, but they have perfect balance, moving with controlled, economic movements.
Two minutes later they are close enough – just within 200 metres – and Jens, well set in his prone position, takes the larger buck with a well-placed bullet.
It has now become so dark that there is no time to skin and butcher the ram, so hunters and guides work together to collect large stones and cover the animal. This should prevent bears, wolves, eagles and other carnivores from finding the animal before we get back in the morning.
Mike’s tur also fell somewhere where it could not be recovered on the same day – it had rolled in an unexpected direction and gone far further down than we hoped. So we had another day’s work ahead of us collecting the beasts – which, of course, is as hard as the hunt itself.
A mountain hunting trip like this is among the toughest excursions you can book anywhere in the world. It is a type of hunting that should be experienced while your physique is up to it.
Mike and Jens are now 50. Mike has now taken all three tur sub-species, but by his own admission, he is getting too old for such hunts.
This trip would be the last hard mountain hunt for him. Or so he said…
WANT TO GO ON THIS HUNT?
The hunt was arranged directly with Anna Chepiga, co-owner of the Russian hunting tour company Stalker Group.
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