Thursday, November 5, 2009

1630 Friday July 31, 2009 Belgrade Serbia

Sarah and I step off the Lufthansa A320 onto the tarmac at a modern airport facility. There are many Western looking ground support vehicles, but also many Russian machines; UAZ jeeps, Kamaz trucks, tractors etc. Customs presents no troubles, and we are met immediately by Istavan Ham our guide, a fit looking 62 year old. He comments immediately that he was expecting someone older. I get that a lot. We get our gear right away and then the red tape starts. It is definitely good to have a native speaker to help with the police and customs officials for the gun and ammunition permits. There are no problems, just a $30 fee, several official looking rubber stamps and a maze of offices around the airport. When all is in order, we wrestle the baggage out to Istavan’s Mitsubishi Montero. The parking lot is filled with all manner of tiny cars. In the US the Montero is modest sized, but here it is huge compared to the VWs, Yugos, Citroens, Peugeots, Fiats, Trabants and Ladas. We are to take a 90 minute drive Northeast to the hunting area. Istavan is from Hungary originally and was a university biologist researching raptors until he became unemployed like so many others during the fall of communism and the last decade of turmoil. Our path winds through new and old Belgrade separated by the Danube River. There are modern looking buildings, but they are shabby and in serious disrepair. Graffiti covers most flat surfaces and surprisingly a great deal of it is in English instead of Cyrillic Serbian. The old section of town actually appears in better shape despite being hundreds of years older. The unemployment rate is over 60%. People are walking all over. They look happy and well dressed, not poverty stricken. The vehicles emit a great deal of pollution. The Danube is a very major shipping avenue and there are many ships that we can see from the bridge that have made their way to the interior from the Mediterranean Sea
. The city quickly gives way to farmland consisting of small strips of sunflowers, corn, melons and large garden patches. The homes and farms look typically European, but not as clean as many other places I have been. Most road signs and many billboards are in Cyrillic Serbian and also English. Istavan speaks English fairly well so we have little problem communicating. The daylight gives out as we arrive in the village of Ecka in the Northern plains area. Istavan pulls into a nice looking hotel called KASTLE Ecka and we check in at the desk where a Serbian girl speaks perfect English. Sarah and I head to our room to clean up. The hotel has had extensive renovations and is quite modern, but the shower is European and the air conditioner does not work. The place actually was a palace built 150 years earlier and has had several attempts at being a high end hotel. We head to dinner at the outdoor restaurant. It is still quite warm and humid with many mosquitoes. The menu is in Serbian and English, so I am able to make an easy choice of Roe deer leg, Serbian salad and a plate of local cheese. Sarah chooses a burger and fries, which is actually a ground pork patty and potato wedges. We are exhausted, but I am quite excited to get up at 0400 to begin the hunt. I take a shower (spit bath) and get my gear ready. It is very hot in the room, but I manage to get a little sleep before we are woken up by loud night birds calling back and forth outside our window. Then I just lie awake and wait for the time to get up which comes soon enough.

0400 Saturday August 1, 2009 Ecka , Serbia

4 am comes as early as it sounds. I do a quick rinse in the so called shower to remove the sweat accumulated on my body while lying on the bed in the thick 90 degree air. Sarah foregoes the shower and drags herself out of bed and gets dressed. I grab my rifle, down a bottle of water and head for the lobby where Istavan is waiting. It is already quite humid and muggy, so later in the day it will really be hot and thick. A short 20 minute drive west to pick up the president of the local hunting club who will ride along with us and guide us in the area he farms. It is a real contrast to the previous evening. There are no people up early. The town seems deserted, but the farmer hears us arrive and comes right out. Pallo is a big time farmer for these parts, working 2000 hectares. He owns several New Holland, Case and JD pieces of equipment. He speaks no English. We head out into his croplands and the mosquito onslaught begins. It seems that the crop rotation here is quite different than in MN and SD. They have perhaps 12-18 rows of a crop a ½ mile long and then alternate for soil conservation with many crops, like sunflowers, wheat, corn, and soybeans. There are huge rabbits hopping among the crops, and many raised deer hunting stands. This area is supposed to be the best for Roe bucks in East Europe. We will see soon. After a short period we begin to spot deer as we bounce over the plowed fields in the Mitsubishi. Many does with fawns and a few bucks in the 300 gram class. I am looking for something bigger, so we wait, glass and drive around some more. Later, we spot a fox and I take a shot out the window at 250 yards. I miss of course and decide to check the zero on my Weatherby .300 Win Mag. It is dead on from prone at 100 meters, proving I just more practice at the car door method, which was not for some reason covered at the FTW SAAM shooting school. Off we go again grabbing a huge sunflower head to pull seeds out to suck on. Another fox is not as lucky as I roll it over at 80 yards. It is stifling in the truck, but when we open the windows, we are attacked by man eating mosquitoes intent on sucking us dry of blood. There are lots of huge Storks around in the fields, raptors, herons, cranes and others native birds. We also see many large stacks of bee hives. The morning ends by 1000 as it is too hot and the sun is high so the deer are lying safe in the shade of the high crops. This is a bit early for the late August, early September rut, but the signs are starting to show with a few interested bucks chasing unwilling does. We head back to Pallo’s farm and stop for a quick visit with Sonja, his daughter, and Martin his 10 year old grandson. Martin practices a bit of his English on us and Sonja is pretty good, being a teacher at the local school. We have a Coke and then move on to the hotel to have a breakfast of cheese, bacon and eggs, then nap until 1700 when we go back out. There are many deer, and beautiful farmland, but nothing that looks intriguing enough for me to shoot on the first day, but Sarah’s trigger finger has been working overtime, and her camera seems to be smoking from the near constant use. Back after dark, we meet Pallo’s son and wife. We have a monstrous slice of Watermelon and another Coke. Pallo shares a dozen or so trophies he has taken over the years and his wife shows us many beautiful projects she has sewn like her wedding dress, and intricate patterns embroidered on clothes and blankets. The craft seems to transcend spoken language. Sonja, Sarah and the woman get on very well. Then back for rabbit dinner with a side of cheese. There is a wedding going on in the ballroom, so we sit outside again in the muggy heat. I fall asleep easily when we return to the room. Unfortunately, the birds are back and it is still very hot for sleeping. Luckily our nap helped make up for the lack of night sleep.

0400 Sunday August 2, 2009 Ecka, Serbia.

Istavan meets us and I drink a liter of water as we head north to a different area where we pick up Anti, another farmer and bird hunter who has been scouting the area we will hunt. We pass a gravel pit and large artificial lake stocked for fishing. We travel over a bridge designed and built by the Frenchman who built the statue of Liberty before his fame. There are many people headed there to fish both walking and on bicycles. Anti claims he saw a monster buck in the range area close by town. This area is more like western South Dakota range land with poor salty soil. Some cattle graze, but vegetation is very sparse. We spot a few cervids right away, and then only 30 minutes into the day the Serbs get extremely excited and the truck slams to a halt with Istavan and Anti both yelling SHOOT! I do not even have time to look through the Swarovskis, but the .300Win Mag comes up and rests on the truck mirror as I spot the tiny fawn sized animal through my 14.5 power Zeiss Conquest scope. The antlers look massive and long. I struggle to get the focal setting to see through the scope and take a hasty shot. Right over the back. #$%^&*!!! � Strangely the buck did not even move. The next shot BANG! and he fell right down as the 180 grain Hornady jacketed bullet struck him in the neck at 250 yards. Istavan gunned the truck and raced over to the spot. Anti leaped out and ran to grab the deer while hollering at Istavan in Serbian as he dragged the tiny animal out of the short grass. I was a bit embarrassed as the shot had not been as good as I wanted, but it did the trick. Istavan started shaking and was tremendously excited. I saw a mass of antler that looked nothing like I had expected. It was a true mutant growth. 3x3 with heavy pearling and a mess of burls and gnarly growth. “Very Special!� Istavan kept saying. We took some pictures with congratulations to all and as quickly as that the hunt was over. Later when the antlers were weighed, they were 535grams, a very good gold medal trophy. Thanks to my serendipitous tendencies I lucked out again, even as I sweated what the trophy fee would be for the next several days. “Very Special� means very expensive!

Back to Anti’s place where he would to clean up the buck skull and antlers, the hide being too poor to try and save. The deer had hair falling out all over and many gashes and scars from fighting. It was clearly a dominant animal, but malnourished and injured from fighting and chasing competitors out of his domain.
We had bacon and eggs as well as cheese of course for breakfast and discussed the next plan of action. I had only planned on taking one deer, so I figured we would just hang out for a couple more days. Istavan mentioned that I could hunt something else if I wanted. Chamois perhaps? OK twist my arm. A mountain hunt. Not an old man’s ride in the country to whack a deer out the car window. Count me in. Sarah looked dubiously at me while she calculated the extra cost and how she could use this to her advantage later. Perhaps an Alaskan Cruise, Mexico, maybe a scrapbook shopping spree. Istavan began to make calls and contacts to arrange the impromptu expedition. I guess technically the season was not open yet, but apparently things are malleable for VIPs such as myself. We would rest for a couple hours while things were put in order and Istavan went home to get ready. We packed our stuff and then went on a tour of the 30 hectare estate. A good bit of the palace is not yet restored from its 1859 origin and in quite a state of disrepair. There are several beautiful fountains, statues and a rose garden. We sipped Cokes and I posed by an ancient suit of armor in the lobby. Then we began the trek south. We expected six hours to make the 250 mile drive, but it took ten. The roads are not so good in the countryside. Very narrow and winding, with agricultural traffic like tractors, pulling wagons heaped with melons and broken down Yugos being towed by horses. The parks were full of people enjoying a nice day outside and celebrating a holiday something like Labor Day. With 60% unemployment I am unsure why this holiday would have much significance. A couple hours driving cross country where we passed a new ship building facility financed by Norwegians on a Danube tributary, a memorial on the site of a slaughter of Jews in early WWII, and then we connected with the major North- South toll way going from Hungary to Greece. The speed increased to 160kph but the road was in seriously bad shape with lots of cars broken down on the road, deep ruts from heavy truck traffic and potholes jumping up to suck us in. We leave the farm land behind and get into the start of rolling hills, passing a massive four mile long USS steel plant on the Danube financed no doubt by the US taxpayers, a military aircraft manufacturing plant that is abandoned and many more major defunct once major military industrial complexes. We stop for lunch at a truck stop and have cheese, soup and eggs. The people are nice looking, clean, many families with kids. Darker complexion, brown eyes, some Slavic with blond and blue eyes, but not many. No English here. The towns become more and more Muslim with mosque towers sprouting up in every village and town. We approach the Kosovo area and see many KFOR vehicles, NATO trucks and armored fighting vehicles. The war torn region is just on the other side of that mountain range 20 km away Istavan explains. The area is being taken over by the followers of Mohammed and the Christians being driven out. As we approach the border to Macedonia Istavan gets very nervous about the red tape required. Things go fine though. Only 90 minutes delay to take care of the gun permit. The officers are quite intrigued by an American hunter. They have never seen one before. In fact only five privately owned firearms have crossed this border checkpoint in the past nine years. Istavan is able to talk them into waiving all the fees since they have no idea what papers to fill out or what forms to stamp. They smile politely and make some notes, stamp our passports and then wave us along. Istavan nervously smokes a few cigarettes, happy to be on our way again in the land of Alexander the Great. I begin to recall tales of conquests and remember the history that this land has seen. War has ravaged this land for over 5000 years. The Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Muslims, NATO, the Serbs, the Nazis, the Russians and many others have marched their armies over this landscape. The temperature has risen to 115 degrees. Very dry Mediterranean scrub covers the low rolling mountains. We pull into Skopje the capital of Macedonia which is pretty rundown with lots of litter, exhaust fumes, smog, pollution, loitering thugs, abandoned buildings and wrecked vehicles. We passed several signs for the road to Thessalonica and Athens. Istavan takes a circuitous route through the industrial area of the city and up into the mountains surrounding the capital city. It is a narrow winding paved path going up and up and up. Even though it is supposedly a two way road, there is a great deal of holiday traffic headed down back to town and we need to move over to the side for each load of travelers. There is a huge artificial lake created a few years back by a dam built by a Chinese company. Many of the newly wealthy citizens have built cabins and boat launches on the lake. We continue past all of this and come to a one track path where we get stuck behind a slow tractor as the sun sets. Istavan honks, blinks his lights and tries to get past. Finally the man moves over and we rocket past into the Jacen military reserve once the private hunting area of president Tito and government VIPs, only recently opened to private hunters. Jacen Reserve is 200,000 hectares of mountains inhabited by brown bears, wolves, chamois, mouflon, red deer, roe deer and Istavan informs Sarah that there is a venomous snake in the area so wear boots and long pants if she walks around tomorrow by herself. We arrive at the hunt camp at 2200. The lodge is a small concrete A-frame house with 3 tiny loft rooms for hunters. A nice dining/trophy room with a big screen TV occupy the lower level. There are several chamois skulls, pictures and articles written about the area once reserved for the elite. My mind is exhausted, but I am too excited to sleep.

0200 August 3, 2009 Jacen Reserve Skopje, Macedonia

We are woken by a couple soldiers who will guide us up the mountain. We will climb for four hours before the sunrise to get some hunting before the sunlight and heat drive the chamois into the shade. We start with a 45 minute drive in a rickety old Land Rover up 30% grades as high as we can go on very narrow tracks clinging to the side of the rocky slope. At the end of the road Istavan, Andre and I get out and begin the hike up the winding goat path past the tree line and gaining 4000 feet of elevation. Andre can not speak a word of English, but Istavan must have counseled him to take it easy, as he walks slowly and I can easily keep right with him. Istavan brings up the rear. After several hours we come to a rest house built for president Tito to have a break and drink Vodka. We do not stop, as the sun is coming up and we have limited time. We begin to spot chamois all around us and they even run right past in the shadows 20 yards away. As we leave the cover of the trees behind we proceed very slowly and cautiously, as there are animals right above us watching from 400 yards away. A good looking young ram comes over a crest 200 yards away and we scramble to get into a position to shoot before he runs down the mountain away from us, but he is too quick. As the sun continues to rise behind the mountain we are climbing, our time is waning for an opportunity. Another 100 yards of stalking and we spot dozens of chamois scattered among the crags. It is a huge group of more than 75 animals 800 yards away beginning to run from the sun over a distant ridge into the shadows. We watch through binoculars and I am hoping they do not all leave. We move into a position where I can lay down and take a 250 yard shot at a medium size female. I settle down, do a dry fire, try to remember everything that they taught me at the SAAM course, and then squeeze the trigger. I miss high and the ewe scampers away. I am quite upset, but 20 minutes later two young males and a larger ram come into view from behind a ridge 265 yards away standing broadside and unaware of our presence. I try again and this time it all works out. The .300 Win Mag barks and the big goat hops forward 20 yards obviously hit hard. The second shot, also in the forward ribcage knocks the chamois down for good. It rolls 50 yards and Andre rushes down to retrieve it. It is only 0900, but hunting would have been just about over, as the sun is up now and the chamois have all left the area. I am elated at the huge ram. It is lucky I did not hit the first one, because this one is much bigger. It is a fun photo modeling session and then no real hurry to trek back down the mountain. “Pachunka� says Andre as he points to the hooves of the chamois. I come to realize he is saying we need to “hoof it back to camp� “Pachunka� I echo back and away we go. It starts to get very hot as we head down into the shade of the treeline. Five hours and we are met at the trailhead by the battered Land Rover. I consume at least three liters of water during the descent as we inch along back down the mountain track to the lodge. It is past time for lunch so we have a “snack� of soup, salad, biscuits, meat, and of course cheese prepared by our cook Drago. Andre will take care of the trophy right away, but we will need to stick around one more night for the salt to do it’s job. Sarah and I visit and relax for a few hours and then we head to the larger, older presidential VIP camp that is in a state of disrepair and neglect, but has a proud tradition of hunters. Later we take a boat ride out onto the reservoir. It is really swampy in the area that we launch from, with treetops sticking out all over. The Chinese engineered and financed the project only a few years prior and new condo cabins are popping up around the artificial lake on the non reserve side. The boat is a leaky flat bottom scow with hard wood seats and an untrustworthy old Russian outboard. For most of the trip we are under power, but the last few hundred yards it is Istavan and me paddling. The fish warden giving the tour curses and grunts as he struggles with the motor. We come to a pontoon platform and get off for a Coke and bottle of wine to watch the beautiful sunset. We hear owls hooting in the distance and study the shoreline hoping to glimpse a bear, wolf or goat coming for a drink. We finish our beverages and then row back to the landing site. Back at the lodge we have another great meal and then we are off to bed.

0930 August 4, 2009 Jacen Reserve Skopje Macedonia

We hang around for a few hours until after lunch for my chamois papers to be prepared, then drive across the country to a private game reserve. It is only a couple hours away, but the temperature has increased to 125F, and the wind blows strongly in the Mediterranean hills. We meet the owner, an import/export “businessman� who seems to have more money than he knows what to do with. The lodge is very nice, and being renovated for the season which is not quite open yet. We do a tour of the grounds, looking over mouflon, wild pigs and fallow deer. I am hoping to get a glimpse of an ibex or markhor, but they live only in the most remote areas of the mountainous 20,000 hectares. I am impressed, but not really excited about hunting fenced animals. We have a great dinner of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bread and mutton, then try to sleep for a couple hours before the ride back up north to Belgrade. In the night I am stung in the leg by a villainous millipede in my bed and after that I can not sleep a bit. I put my clothes on and lay waiting for the time to leave.

0200 August 5, 2009 Stiep, Macedonia

We head out into the darkness, crossing the border 0500 and then arrive at the airport by 1100. We meet with a representative of the outfitting company that has my deer trophy, settle my bill and then walk across the grounds to the Yugoslavian Aerospace museum. It is a huge glass orb surrounded by dozens of decaying carcasses of once proud aircraft. There are many helicopters, including a KA-25 Harmone coaxial rotor craft, a Ford tri-motor, and many vintage 50s, 60s and 70s warplanes. Inside it is stifling, but the displays are very well done. MIGs and Sukhois mix with P40s and ME109s, and most interesting to me are the more modern trophies from the Bosnia/Kosovo conflict. There is a Predator drone that was shot down, a huge bunker buster bomb recovered from the communist headquarters building, a joint standoff weapon recovered unexploded, a shot down F-117 stealth fighter wreck, F-16 wreckage, Tornado wreckage and Blackhawk helicopter parts. It is a strange feeling to realize that we were at war with these people only a few years ago and now they are welcoming us to their country. The insults chalked on the unexploded ordnance are luckily not reciprocated towards us. The economy is wrecked, most people are unemployed, everything is in disrepair, and the world opinion against these people is quite bad, yet they seem happy enough with their meager lives, talking and texting on cell phones and wearing new fashionable clothing. Sarah and I say goodbye to Istavan and board our plane for Frankfurt, having made a new friend and explored another misunderstood corner of the world.