The Toughest Mountain Hunt in the World!

By Mike Knowles

Or at least that is what fellow hunter Chuck from Virginia, USA told me hunting for Dagestan Tur in the Caucasus Mountains was considered when he rocked into the Stalker Base Camp Lodge in the foothills of the rugged mountains. I didn’t know if what Chuck said was correct given I hadn’t done any real mountain hunts before, but the way he described the mountains and how steep they were, and from what I could see of them from my bedroom window, it sure had me worried! I immediately thought back to what John Coll had said in his Alaskan mountain grizzly bear hunt story, that fitness, or lack of it was the main reason for hunters failing on these type of hunts. While I was pretty fit from a regime of running and swimming, a lack of handy mountains to climb in my home town of Tauranga was a concern to me, you can hardly call a walk to the top of Mount Maunganui at 250m adequate training for hunting in the Caucasus! Perhaps I should have done more training?

This whole hunt started two years before when I attended the SCI show in Las Vegas with fellow SCINZ member Peter Holmes. I had no idea what a Tur was until Peter introduced me to Chris Bilkey of Track n Trail Safaris. Chris told me about the hunt he had done with another SCINZ member, Tyron Southwood for Tur in Azerbaijan, the southern side of the Caucasus and how good it was, from a value perspective and for being a very challenging hunt. Chris kindly introduced me to Bala from Extreme Mountains Hunts based in Baku, Azerbaijan who was very obliging. Later I also met Anna from Stalker, a Russian outfitter who had a good reputation also and offered Tur hunts from the Russian side of the Caucasus. After numerous emails with both I chose to go with Stalker, mainly because I thought I would be in Russia for business so it seemed logical to go that way and also that it didn’t seem so popular as from the Azerbaijan side, a little difference, which appealed to me. I had also had further discussions with Tyron who had hunted recently with Stalker for ibex in Kyrgyzstan who gave them the thumbs up for his hunt. I found working with Stalker to be very good, initially with Anna and later with Yulia who did an excellent job of organizing my hunt itinerary.

Finally the day arrived and I flew into one Moscow airport, met my interpreter Vadim without any problems and then spent the next 3 hours in bumper to bumper traffic as we travelled to another Moscow airport where we were going to stay the night in order to catch an early morning internal flight the next day. Eventually we reached our hotel after a very long and slow drive, I would not recommend travelling on the motorways around Moscow in rush hour on a Friday night!

The next morning we caught a flight to Vladikavkas, the capital of North Ossettia, an autonomous republic in the North Caucasus region in the south of Russia. After a 2.5 hour flight we arrived to very warm weather, about 30’c which was a nice change from the cool 14’c in Moscow. A waiting driver picked us up and we drove about 40 minutes to Stalker’s Base Camp, which was a nice lodge where all their hunts started and finished. The lodge was in fact owned by the local Government’s Hunting Department and was purpose built for hunters.

Later that evening I met the Director of Hunting for the area who seemed to take an active interest in visiting hunter’s welfare. It was a very comfortable setup without being over the top and I had my own room which was nice. That evening we enjoyed an excellent stew of Tur meat washed down with a couple of vodkas! After dinner Chuck and his interpreter arrived back from their hunt. Chuck was pretty keen to speak some English and seemed happy when I raised my hand in answer to his question. ’’Anyone speak English here?“ We had a good catch-up with a few more vodkas being sunk. Chuck was also a member of SCI and showed me photos of his trophy room back in Virginia, which was very impressive and seemed more like a house to me, it was huge! Chuck had booked with ProfiHunt and had done his Tur hunt in what seemed to me to be the hard way, going up and back in one day. Unfortunately, due to confusion over which animal they were looking at in misty conditions, Chuck had shot the wrong animal with the big ones getting away highlighting the communication risks in this situation where English is not the first language. This strengthened my resolve that when the time came to shoot, to make sure I was perfectly clear and happy with the animal I was targeting.

The plan for my hunt was to head up the next day but when morning dawned, I noted Vadim was on his phone a lot. It seemed that he was unable to contact our guide from the local village to confirm departure details, apparently he was still up in the hills checking out the Tur locations, which was a good thing I suppose! As can often happen in these situations, we waited, and waited. The day moved on and I had viewed the trophies hanging in the lodge to death, analysed all the photos on the wall from previous Tur hunts ten times over, explored the forested grounds around the lodge several times and we still had no contact with the guide. I did repeatedly check out the head-skin from Chuck's Tur that was drying on the line and noted that it was in excellent condition which reassured me in that respect.

Eventually Vadim did make contact with our guide who was called Aslan and plans were made for a 9am departure the next day. To make use of the rest of the afternoon I suggested to Vadim that I fire my rented rifle as I was keen to see what in fact it was, as well as familiarize myself with it. Stalker had advised they had good quality rifles and scopes for hire and Tyron had also confirmed this as a member of his ibex party had hired one from Stalker. I was pleasantly surprised when Vadim produced a Tikka T3, the most common hunting rifle in NZ and most importantly, it had a quality German Docter 3-12 x 56 scope on top. Calibre was 30-06 and ammunition was 180grn HPC Sellier & Bellot, a brand I hadn’t heard of before. The total rifle set-up seemed like it would do the job!

There was a 100m range just outside the car park with a rough benchrest of sorts fashioned from a tree stump. While this was sort of OK, the bench didn’t come back far enough to support my rear elbow when shooting so I was quite happy with my 2’’ group, which was also 2’’ high corresponding with the rifle’s zero at 200m. Overall, I was satisfied with the rifle and my ability to shoot it, a good place to be. Chuck had departed that day so it was just Vadim and myself for dinner that night which was Chamois stew, delicious and washed down with a couple of nice vodkas.

The next day dawned and I had all my gear ready when a driver came to pick us up in a jeep. A short 40 min drive and we were in a local village at the home of Aslan where we transferred our gear to a military style small truck. It was at this time that I was told we were going up for an overnight hunt and to dump all unnecessary gear, including the spotting scope I had specially borrowed and carried all the way from NZ! I was somewhat concerned at this stage as my hunt was meant to be for five days though as normal, once an animal was shot, the hunt was over. Again though, when you are in this situation, you just have to go with the flow as there is nothing you can do. I still resolved to only shoot an animal that I was totally happy with and if that meant having to come back down for more food and going back up again, so be it. Aslan had two other guys with him as well as the driver so with Vadim and myself we totalled six as we rolled out of the village in the truck and started winding our way up into the mountains.

The next stop was at a border control which appeared to be more like a small military base in the middle of nowhere, complete with CCTV everywhere and plenty of razor wire. Apparently, we needed to have our passports and paperwork checked here so that everything was in order as the area we were hunting was very close to the border with Georgia. About 40 minutes later we were given the all clear and continued our journey driving along a metal road before heading up a dirt track along a leading ridge for as far as we could go until Aslan suddenly stopped the truck and said this was it. We were on the side of a valley with towering peaks all around us which had me wondering about my fitness again. Last minute adjustments were made to packs before we headed off stopping after five minutes at a small spring that flowed out of some rocks. Vadim announced that this was the last water we were going to have access to so fill up now! I filled my 2l water bladder to the brim plus another 600ml plastic bottle and that was it, 2.6l for the hunt and it was the middle of the day, near 30 c in temperature, not a cloud in the sky and huge mountains to climb in front of us! We climbed on up into the valley proper which appeared to be an old glacial valley covered in exposed rocks and short tough grass. The walking wasn’t hard at this point as we picked our way through the rock fields climbing ever upwards. I had asked what animals were present in these upper reaches of the mountains and found that as well as Tur, there were bears and wolves with snow leopards being present but extremely rare, and also yaks. Suddenly I saw the unmistakable shape of an animal on the far ridge, which the binos revealed to be a yak! I had no idea that wild yaks were present in this part of the world but there was one. We continued moving up the valley in the heat and sun but the rests were frequent as we had plenty of time. I was sipping on my water fairly regularly but without going overboard, wanting to avoid dehydration but not knowing how much I would need to last me for the hunt, especially with the hard climbing still to come. When we came to the opening of the head of the valley, we stopped for a decent glass as we were surrounded by craggy cliffs and peaks, in what seemed to me to be perfect Tur country.

It wasn’t long before it was announced that some Tur had been spotted, on the highest peak with what looked like a master ram sitting right on the very top. His horns were visible from some 1.5kms away as he surveyed his domain, Vadim proclaimed him to be a ram of at least 10 years of age which sounded great to me. It was a promising start to see some Tur but their location seemed to be unhuntable as they would see you long before you got anywhere near them, that was if you could even climb up to where they were. We continued moving up to the very head of the valley at the base of the imposing rocky cliffs when we stopped by what was a collapsed rock hut or shelter that we sat inside and had some lunch, which included some interesting local food, all tasty and worth trying though. We could still see the Tur on the rocky peak and now more were evident as they moved around. Vadim advised we were going to stay put until the Tur moved off for evening grazing. For the next couple of hours, we watched them closely while also resting and sleeping, very similar to hunting in NZ. At 3.45pm the first one stood up and moved off over the far side of the peak and by 4.30pm, the last of them including Mr Big had also moved off over the side. Instantly Aslan stood and motioned that it was time to go, but where to I thought looking at the formidable cliffs in front of me! The approach they took was not the way I would have followed to get to the tops with my preference being to climb up one of the leading ridges further back and walked right around the head of the valley rather than the direct frontal assault we were going to take, but I guessed they knew the country up here so followed them up across the scree slopes and into the cliff systems. While I was resting after lunch I had cooled down and put some extra layers on to keep warm but as we climbed up and up, they all came off very quickly till I was back down to my base hunting shirt. On and on we climbed going across scree chutes and then following a steep rocky ridge up before crossing over a chute to the next ridge. I was finding this quite hard going and my water supply was taking a hammering, however by taking my time and picking a way up the cliffs I was steadily making progress.

By now the sun had gone down and the shadows were already lengthening yet there still seemed quite some distance to climb to the top. There was nothing to do though but keep pushing on and eventually, after climbing through some nasty gutters, I popped out onto a small flatish ridge which lead about 20m to the top main ridge. Yeeha! It was now dark as we dropped down over the other side of the main ridge for about 100m where there was the only flat space around and obviously where they had camped before. We rolled out our sleeping mats and bags before congregating for some cold dinner, much the same food as we had for lunch. I must say I was feeling very knackered at this point and not feeling like eating at all when suddenly a bottle of vodka appeared! After a couple of shots I felt as good as gold and had some more food to set me up for the hunt tomorrow. The idea in the morning was to get up at daybreak, climb back up to the top and wait for the Tur to return from their nighttime grazing, which seemed like a good plan to me. Lying in my sleeping bag I marvelled at the panoramic starry night above me, the northern hemisphere stars were absolutely stunning, a sight I had not seen before in such clarity and abundance. I didn’t get the greatest night’s sleep waking up regularly for more water or just pulling myself back up my sleeping pad after slipping down the slope. I was feeling really confident that if I saw a good Tur in the morning, I would make the shot. Soon enough dawn started to break and we all jumped up, rolled our sleeping bags and mats up then climbed back to the top of the ridge. While it was cool, it wasn’t too bad by any means and I felt good in my down jacket though I did notice for the first time a very high peak directly across the valley with a massive glacier running off it, luckily the wind was blowing from us to it. Vadim advised this was Mt Kazbak which at 5000m was a major peak in the Caucasus and very spectacular. Aslan motioned for me to come with him and we moved along the ridge towards the peak we saw the Tur camped up on yesterday.

It looked a good place to me so we waited for a short while, then we heard some stones rattling down below us in the cliffs. Aslan went and looked over the side and quickly motioned for me to come across. Down below some 180m away were four Tur trotting across a shingle gully. I moved into hunting mode and took a rest aiming steeply downhill picking the mob up easily in the Docter scope. The leading Tur ram was big, he looked very big in fact to me. I had a rock solid rest and was holding steady on the group waiting for them to stop but the big ram kept trotting over the side spur and out of sight. The next two were immature rams who also didn’t stop so my attention swung onto the last ram. He also looked big and had huge mass in his bases as he trotted along and then paused on the spur. In that split second everything I had mentally agreed to do on my hunt was forgotten as I held steady on his shoulder slightly back as he was quartering away and squeezed the trigger. I was confident in the shot and saw him stumble before he went over the spur, he looked hard hit. Aslan shared my confidence as well and shook my hand before heading down into the cliff face to locate my ram while I rejoined Vadim and the others. Vadim then gave me a moment where my stomach fell through my feet as he showed me a video replay he had taken of the group of Tur that I had shot at. There were four in total with an impressive ram leading the other three, which were all immature rams. I couldn’t work it, had I shot an immature ram? "No way" I thought as the one I shot definitely had far more mass in his horns that the ones in the video who resembled young goats. My emotions went through a roller coaster for the next ten minutes as I tried to reconcile what had happened. Then Aslan radioed through that he had found my ram and it was nice 10 year old Tur trophy, happy days again! Obviously there had been two groups of Tur in the cliffs and Vadim had videoed the other group, a simple mistake but it sure had me going for a while. We all then moved down into the cliffs picking our way through the rock gullies till we hit the top of the shingle slides and then it was easy-peasy as we quickly motored down the scree all the way to the bottom where we found Aslan and my ram. He was a real beauty, mature and heavy with good length and both tips of his horns broomed off, a ram of character I was extremely happy to have taken. Yahoo! After the photos, the skinning began and I was very impressed with the bullet damage the projectile had done with the whole entry side of the animal showing massive damage, it was unbelievable. The combination of 30-06 and Sellier and Bellot ammunition had proven to be very impressive. The ram was in prime pre-rut condition with heavy fat deposits internally, which all went into a bag to be taken back home by the guys. In fact, they didn’t waste anything from the ram taking all meat including the bullet damaged side as well. Pretty soon the skinning and butchering process was completed and we were making our way back down the valley to the truck with my Tur hunt over.

We drove directly back to the base camp, making a quick stop on the way at a local shop to pick up a few cold beers to celebrate my success. After the celebration had finished, Vadim head-skinned and salted the cape which was in very good condition. That evening another two hunters turned up, James Bryon from Montana, USA and Matt who was from Alberta, Canada. James was making a hunting program for True Magnum TV back in the states and Matt was his videographer. It was very interesting talking to them that night over dinner, an unexpected bonus from spending time at the base camp. They were also hunting with Stalker and had just completed a Mid Caucasian Tur hunt and shot a whopper by all accounts, all on film (you can watch their programs on YouTube).They were going to hunt for a Dagestan Tur the next day but had encountered a problem with Matt's permit to enter the hunting area, it hadn’t been approved for some reason and he wasn’t able to go with James so it was a crash course in video filming for the Stalker interpreter! Because Matt now had no commitments the next day he joined me in celebrating my hunt with the vodka flowing freely which was great at the time, but as always, the next day was a bit slow.

We didn’t have to leave till late in the next day, so we went on a sightseeing tour courtesy of the wife of the hunting director into the centre of Vladikavkas. We then went to the town of Beslan which was infamous for being the site back in 2004 where Chechan rebels took about 1200 children and teachers hostage from the local school. They held them for 3 days inside the school gymnasium without food and water which was extremely tough and cruel. The hostage drama ended when fighting broke out but about 300 people lost their lives, again mainly school children and teachers. The memorials to those who lost their lives were very moving. I found the bottles of water at the flower wreaths especially so as it symbolized that the children need not be thirsty again while the soft teddy bear toys lining the broken windows was also very moving. It made me think of my own children and how lucky we were living in NZ.

Eventually the time came to catch our flight to Moscow and for Vadim to return to his family and myself to begin the long trek back to NZ so ending a hunt that ticked a lot of boxes for me and will rank up there as one of my best adventures.

Originally published at Safari Club International, New Zealand Chapter. Issue 87, October 2017

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West and Mid Caucasian Tur Hunting  Caucasian Turs  First time tur hunting