Daryl Crimp finds himself praying to the goddess Diana on a four-day roebuck hunt in Hungary.
We bobbed along in a frozen ocean. A golden sea of sunflowers bordered by a foamy swathe of maize. The troughs and gullies were choked with trees and tangles of rambling blackberry whose succulent fruits highlighted the region’s rich wild tapestry.
Tiny butterflies distracted the unfocused and a distant ridge-line stalled the march of an ancient forest that stretched 40km to the east. In it roamed monstrous fallow bucks and huge reds with tree-trunk racks.
A smaller, but no lesser, game animal erupted from the row next to the one we were stalking along – literally at our feet – and stopped, unsure of what had spooked it.
Roland froze but allowed a smile to light his face. A tiny female deer the size of a dog stepped from the sunflowers and fed into the open.
“Shooter!” my guide whispered, so I cocked the rifle and hefted it to my shoulder.
“What the hell bloody are you doing, Crimpy?” he spat at me in tangled English.
“You said it was a shooter!”
“Yes, Suta – female deer – don’t shoot!”
Then a minute later another deer followed the first.
I did nothing, and then I caught Roland’s wild eyes.
“Shooter, Crimpy… nice roebuck. Idiot, shoot it!”
And so I did, quickly, and off the sticks, and that was my introduction to roebuck hunting in Hungary. My young son Daniel and I were an hour into our first of four days hunting with our PH, Roland Koller, and I knew I was in for a magic week. Notwithstanding language idiosyncrasies, I already had a beautiful old buck on the ground, but more importantly, Roland and I had gelled.
He’s very skilled, passionate, and knowledgeable, and goes to incredible lengths to give his clients the best possible hunts. On top of that, he’s got a wicked sense of humour that saw the pair of us sparring all week.
“You don’t like my rifle, Crimpy?”
“Your head’s bleeding – I think you headbutted the rifle,” he remarked, mocking the fact that an experienced hunter could still fall victim of the ‘magnum eyebrow’.
Roland has hunted throughout the world, including New Zealand, so understands the ‘Kiwi’ hunting style. Europeans enjoy hunting from stands but Roland knew I’d want to stalk my game, so chose an area that would both challenge and delight me: 6,000ha of undulating arable land with wild vegetation and deer scattered in pockets.
The method of hunting was essentially drive, sight, and stalk. A medal-class trophy was not a priority – it was more about the overall experience for me. Ever since I’d first hunted roebuck in Scotland in the 1980s I’d been bewitched by the little devils, so the opportunity to hunt them on European soil was alluring.
Steep this with the rub of a new culture, deep hunting traditions, kindred spirits, and the Hungarians’ obsession with soup, and the adventure was always going to eclipse a number on a score sheet. Plus, it was a whole new experience for 10-year-old Daniel and I had a wee surprise in store for him.
Early starts were a prerequisite to success, which meant our midnight bedtimes would be followed by 4am rises.
“Well, I suppose we are not here to shag spiders,” I retorted when learning of the schedule.
Roland looked gravely at me and muttered, almost to himself, “Head-butting Kiwi could do much more damage than I thought…” He retreated to his mate’s hunting ‘lodge’ while Daniel and I retired to our rural pensione or boarding house to sleep briefly before breakfast, which started with, as every meal, soup.
I never knew so many flavours of soup existed. And while they were all delicious, by the end of the week we were slopping as we stalked and Daniel was pleading to have his ‘soup sentence’ commuted. The days were repetitious but busy; Roland gave our money’s worth.
Many local guides finish the early hunt by 9am but Roland keeps working until around midday and then has you back on the march by 5pm. While evenings are productive for deer stalking in New Zealand, here Roland tags mornings as more productive for roebuck, with 70 per cent of animals taken then.
We’d seen numerous deer by the time I put my first buck on the ground, including a promising animal that sported antlers with height, mass, and space between. With morning ebbing, our focus switched to Daniel.
“How would you like to have a crack at a deer, son?”
The eyes glittered and the mouth moved but nothing came out. Our hunt was taking place just before the rut, with the roebuck yet to become fully active. We’d watched one young buck careen and cavort back and forth over a long field of stubble in pursuit of does, passing within metres of us, oblivious to our proximity.
“When they are truly mad for the girls, you can whistle and they’ll jump through the car window,” Roland said.
“Back home we like to at least step outside the vehicle before pulling the trigger.”
Ultimately, we found a lush meadow fringed with trees that provided the perfect ambush.
“We shall try calling one in,” Roland announced. With Daniel calmly positioned over the sticks, Roland issued a doe call and, incredibly, a roebuck burst from cover across the narrow gap. Another call and it pronged and bounced through the sea of green until it stood, quarter on, 25 metres from where we were frozen.
Time hung in the air, then the rifle cracked and an elated 10-year-old had his first deer: a roebuck in Hungary. That evening I returned and stalked the promising buck, sneaking within 60 metres of it right on dusk. I was using Swarovski optics and the animal was crisp against the gloom, but its antlers were obscured against a thin band of vegetation in the distance.
I waited for visual confirmation that I had the right buck but darkness moved first and I was robbed of the shot.
I slipped away, confident that it would be in the bag by morning. However, during the night a mysterious seductress slipped under the covers and threw me off my stride.
“That Diana, the goddess of hunting, she blow in your ear, Kiwi?”
Roland and I had executed a tortuous stalk in heavy rain to put us within 50m of the promising buck, only for me to duff an easy shot.
“Yeah,” I muttered, “now what did I do to upset that woman?”
Roland later called in a rutting buck from 400 metres, which I clean missed at 80 metres and then again at 30 metres. I was shooting like a teenager on my first date.
“In Hungary we have a saying,” said Roland, “that the luck of the hunter depends on the goodness of his heart!”
The following morning, I practised dryfiring from the sticks until my confidence returned. Then we hunted again, but the big bucks had vanished. It was like a switch had been flicked.
“We have another saying,” Roland said. “If your sword is short, lengthen it with a step!”
“I wouldn’t need a sword if this bloody rifle of yours would shoot straight,” I muttered back.
“What’s that?,” Roland exclaimed minutes later, swinging his Swarovski binoculars to his face. My heart skipped a beat.
“Nah… just a stick!”
But then he looked past the stick and let out a low whistle. “We now hunt quickly, Crimpy!” And just like that, the hunt changed in a heartbeat. A field of wheat stretched golden in the sunlight and above a sea of ears, a buck’s head popped up.
Diana blew on my neck and my heart raced. Daniel and I hunched over and followed Roland to cover: a line of maize against the wheat.
“He is moving off to bed,” Roland hissed, “we need to be quiet and quick.”
The stalk was tense: full of uncertainty, suspense, anxiety, and drama. I wanted this buck so badly, I tasted bile. I had buck fever, bad. I cursed Diana.
Then, with 80 metres separating us from the buck, Roland declared: “That’s it – I can’t get you any closer. One more step and he’s gone.” The buck was staring back at us, ears pricked, poised. His thick, pearly antlers jutted way above the ears. He was what I’d come for and now it came down to putting my misses behind me and executing the shot. “He’s big, Crimpy. Take him!”
Only the head and neck were visible above the wheat and, on an animal that only weighs 25-30kg, that is a tiny target. But I dug deep and found confidence. Settling on the sticks, I breathed out and surrendered to the seductive charm of my femme fatale.
The rifle barked and Diana smiled. We all bathed in the euphoria of the afterhunt. There were handshakes, hugs, photos taken, and homage paid to the great game animal. This hunt certainly measured up because it contained the three elements that must always be present: difficulty, uncertainty and effort.
As Roland put it: “In Hungary we have a saying: If you want to see a rainbow, you must first sit through the rain.”