Ben Taylor recommends a trip to hunt chamois in Slovenia for a thrilling experience in a beautiful setting, where hunting is at the heart of the region and its people.
Well, I’m not sure who first suggested it, but it was in the course of a long evening following a day spent watching wild boar speed by me, unharmed by my attempts at marksmanship. It was an evening involving a certain number of beers and a further number of shots of rakija, when someone said, “Chamois hunting, that’s really good.” Or words to that effect (my recollection is rather hazy).
And so, after some email enquiries when I got home and some internet searches on destinations, I booked my trip to Mezica, a town on the Slovenian/Austrian border, to hunt these gymnastic and challenging beasts. My package with the agent included one trophy, transfers, food, accommodation and all non-alcoholic drinks. The flight, parking etc. I arranged myself via the internet.
The practicalities were sorted easily: return flights from Stansted to Ljubljana were available until the end of October (an excellent time to hunt Chamois I was informed) for a relatively small sum with Easyjet. Their website made booking the rifle through as easy as implied by the name. The same can be said for their organisation when it came to booking in firearms at the airport, which far exceeded that of other airlines I have flown with. Both Stansted and Ljubljana were relatively rifle friendly; though it was with some consternation that, whilst waiting obediently at the special baggage door, I saw my rifle coming around on the carousel with the rest of the luggage! This is not the first time this has happened to me in Eastern Europe.
I was travelling with Philip, a mate of mine and this was his first ever hunting trip. This would not be my first choice for an introduction to the world of hunting, but more of that later. We arrived with our English expectations of maximum security and prompt service. After the carousel surprise, our introduction to the alternative, more relaxed, Slovenian approach continued with twenty minutes drinking excellent coffee at the airport waiting for our lift to arrive.
Actually, that’s a bit of a lie: I had met our contact Gorazd in Croatia on the night that chamois hunting was first mentioned (thinking about it, he may have been the one to tell me it was a truly brilliant idea). I was, therefore, somewhat used to the unhurried approach to timekeeping. What had also impressed me was his deep love of the countryside and of hunting, which clearly runs in the family. His father, who is seventy-four, has only recently stopped hunting after a lifetime spent in pursuit of his quarry, and he has the myriad trophies to prove it. Gorazd organizes boar shooting in Croatia, chamois hunting in Slovenia, has a fish farming business, sells the best tasting sausages in the entire universe and has the most advanced sense of irony and mischievous humour in Europe. He had me ring the hunting agent, Sam, from the road and tell him we were still waiting at Zagreb airport. After the panicked initial response at my being in the wrong country, Sam quickly cottoned on to yet another wind up.
A two-hour drive to Mezica took us within a couple of miles of the Austrian border and to our guest house lodgings. We spent an extremely pleasant – and rather hazy – night at the local hunting club. These places are wonderful, complete with trophy covered walls, evil spirits (of the alcoholic kind) and the sound of bullshit – a truly universal language within the hunting community.
We restrained ourselves enough to awake with clear heads at 5.30am, ready for our lift at 6.00. Or 6.20ish in Slovenian time. With that we urgently rushed to the nearest bar for a rousing cup of coffee and to discuss the day’s tactics. We ignored the chain smoking gentleman at the bar who had apparently been drinking beer since 6am and settled at a table.
Philip and I were to hunt separately with a guide each; they took him off to check his marksmanship and get him used to the rifle he would be using. We were unlucky with the weather that morning, as fog had rolled into the mountain. My guide, Niko, and I could do nothing but wait for the skies to clear a little. We spent a leisurely hour or so chatting, drinking excellent coffee and looking at photos of previous clients’ triumphant trips. I was impatient, but everyone around me seemed calm and assured. They know their area and they know their hunting. There is no point stressing if the locals aren’t.
At 7.30ish we had a short drive out of town and stopped on the roadside by a precipitous hill. After a quick glance with the binoculars Niko pointed out a good-size chamois perched on a virtually vertical slope. It stood out starkly against the chalk. He jokingly offered me the opportunity to have a shot, but we all quickly agreed that taking it from a layby using the truck bonnet as a rest was not exactly sporting! A good omen, or the only chamois we would see all day?
We struck out on foot along a rapidly ascending and narrow path. Each glance to my left saw the road diminishing as my jacket filled up with sweat. This is not sport for the unfit or infirm. The mountains in this area are steep and the paths narrow. I am fifty-one but have been long distance running for twenty years. I was very grateful for the level of fitness that has given me. Philip is ten years older but cycles epic distances, often in the mountains of Europe. If you are going to hunt chamois and get the best out of it, a good level of fitness is required.
Niko and I climbed to about 700m and threaded our way along goat-friendly paths to a small hide overlooking an area of bare rock, which is apparently a hotspot during the rut. The fog came and went continually and we saw no sign of chamois for a couple of hours. The warm weather is a bit of a turn-off apparently.
The view, however, was absolutely beautiful, with the deciduous woodland turning copper and bronze and the conifers contrasting their dark green against it. I was happy to watch the sun and the mist in the distant mountains. Slovenia is a very beautiful country. I mentioned this to the woman behind the enquiries desk at Ljubljana airport and she just smiled and replied, “I know.” She’s right to be proud: it’s a fabulous place.
After a couple of quiet hours we threaded our way back and then on to another spot at the side of a small waterfall to wait a while. With nothing showing the only option seemed to be lunch and a welcome beer. So I chewed my way through the worthy and essentially functional bread and meat sandwich with which I was supplied and tactics were discussed. We descended to the vehicle and moved on.
The fog had well and truly lifted and, after a hair-raising drive into the hills along a road comprised mainly of rocks, we headed further up onto much more forbidding territory. Here the terrain requires scrambling, sometimes up near vertical slopes and out on to crags with, what might be described as an ‘airy’ view. I have to confess I did ask to move when I realised that, as I was clinging on to the rock with both hands, I was unlikely to be able to mount a rifle successfully – let alone survive the drop when the recoil bounced me over the edge! We had been climbing around these crags for perhaps an hour-and-a-half when we spotted a group of chamois about 100 metres below us. No shot was possible from our position, so we scrambled down and around, trying path after path to find our way to a suitable promontory. The tension was quietly building, focussing our attention on the task in hand. The network of paths which the chamois had made seemed designed to frustrate us into dead-ends at vertical drops, from which only that nimble creature would be able to extract themselves.
The mountain has a number of craggy outcrops along its side, at 90 degrees to the main slope. We positioned ourselves on one and looked across the valley to another, about 100 metres away. A beautiful buck came to survey his manor, miraculously clear of the scrub around him and broadside.
With the rifle supported by Niko’s pack I took the shot, placing the bullet from my Blaser 300 Win Mag into his chest. He fell instantly and I received a massive slap on the back followed by a fierce handshake. It had been a challenging day, physically demanding and involving a great deal of knowledge and expertise on the part of Niko, but we had found what I had been looking for.
Foolishly I began to relax. What had not occurred to me as I pulled the trigger was that my chamois was on a rocky outcrop 1500 metres up a mountain, and the larder was a very, very long way away. We had to head in the opposite direction to the animal, scramble down the mountain a couple of hundred metres, then back along and up it again to find the right slab of rock. With my lungs busting and my legs killing me I eventually found him. Niko, despite having been chain smoking all day, seemed in much better shape than me. It must be the rocket fuel he drinks.
Photographs were taken, I said my thanks to the animal and Niko placed a sprig of fir in its mouth. This custom of giving the animal its ‘last meal’ is one I find touching. These ceremonies acknowledge that one has taken a life and the traditions help to bind together a hunting community which is fiercely proud of them. I was permitted to wear my fir sprig in the right side of my hat for the rest of the day and was proud to do so.
The process of half carrying, half sliding the buck down the mountain began, until we found a suitable spot to gralloch him. This done, Niko then tied up his legs and we carried him on a long pole to the road where our lift was waiting.
On the way down we received the very welcome news that Philip had also shot a good trophy – very likely the animal we had seen earlier from the layby. His had been shot perfectly through the heart and had rolled down the mountain into the river, which, in turn, had taken it 300 metres downstream. Ambrosz, Philip’s guide, had the unhappy task of wading in and carrying the animal back to the roadside. As an aside, I would like to know why our guides have better mobile reception in the mountains of Slovenia than we get in our kitchen in Norfolk?
All that remained was to drive back to the larder and then to the guest house for a shower in preparation for a night celebrating at the hunting club. That night the place resounded to the sound of laughter and multi-national piss-taking. We were made to feel very welcome. The club is one of the most popular venues in Mezica. I did momentarily contemplate how popular a hunting club would be back home. I don’t imagine that it would be a welcome addition, even where I live in Norfolk. That is one of the wonderful things about hunting in these parts of mainland Europe: the traditions are strong and there is cultural acceptance. People are proud of their hunting and advertise what they do. We stopped at a roadside cafe on the way back to the airport which has hunting trophies proudly on display. You don’t see that at Clacket Lane Services.
This is a hunting trip I would heartily recommend to anyone wanting a challenge and the knowledge that you have really earned your trophy. It is not for the fainthearted or casual, but the country, the people and the experience are truly memorable. We were made to feel very welcome, had dinner with Gorazd’s family, visited hunting lodges, gunshops, shared jokes, hunting stories and copious amounts of beer and rakija on a trip that felt very special, not least because of those extraordinary, athletic creatures we came to find. I do feel sorry for Philip though: he has started at the top and I suspect my offer of a bit of muntjac stalking may seem a bit tame.