Late October my Uncle Bernie, good mate Rob and I went in pursuit of one of the pinnacles of mountain hunting, the Mid Asian Ibex.
Our warm and comfortable base camp
We slowly uncurled our bodies from the Hilux and stepped into the cool night air, camp at last!
It was around 7 pm as we met our guides and camp staff, everyone was friendly and happy to see us, we were just glad to be out of the truck!
We had left Almaty that morning at around 3.30 am, 300 km of driving on a nice highway were followed by 200 kms of one of the worst roads you can imagine then we topped it off with a leisurely 200 km of bone crunching off road driving. Our driver Yerdos put in a super human effort that day, but it seemed pretty normal to him.
With 22 hours of flying and a 14-hour layover in Dubai the days previous we were well and truly over travel and glad to sit down to a proper meal.Our team was made of myself, my Uncle Bernard and Rob, and by the look on the faces of the Airport staff in Almaty it was fairly evident they do not get many Kiwi tourists in Kazakh.
Mid Asian Ibex……it seems like this trip has been in planning for my whole life, my uncle Bernard had planned this trip for his 50th birthday, I was going to be the bag boy…
10 years later we were finally there.
Asian hunting to a lot of people is the final frontier, the great unknown. So many horror stories circulate the hunting community, lost rifles and bags, people being interrogated and charged multiple ‘fines’, no translators, no gear, no Ibex……
I was confident this was not going to be one of those trips.
Last year I began to research Ibex and Asian hunting more seriously, my Uncle Bernie was coming up 60, I knew we had to make this happen while he was still in good shape and able.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, these are the 3 main countries people talk about when hunting Ibex, which is which? Aren’t they all the same? Over the last 2 years I had sent out inquiries to all the guides and outfitters I could find in these countries, and we settled on ‘Pro Hunt Kazakhstan’ for our Mid Asian Adventure. One of the owners (Kazhym) of this company joined me mid 2018 for a Tahr and Chamois hunt. This gave me a lot of confidence on this trip, Kazhym was an honest and genuine guy, and I was sure we would have a great hunt.
Kazakhstan is by far the largest of the ‘Stans’, being the largest land locked country and 9th in the world for size. Compared to other ‘stans’ Kazakh is relativity rich and modern, and considered a 2nd world country. Huge reserves of oil, gas and minerals have boosted the economy since the soviet collapse resulting in Kazakh being the biggest economy in central Asia. Hunting wise Kazakh has good populations of both Mid Asian Ibex and Maral (Elk) as well as Siberian Roe deer, Wild Boar, Wolf and upland birds (Chukar) and many waterfowl species. There are also Eurasian brown bears and a few species of sheep (Argali and Urial species, 3 Argali hunts are just opening in 2018 for their first season in 15+ years).
The Mid Asian Ibex live through-out the Tian Shan mountain range, some 3000km long it stretches from where it meets the Pamirs in the South (Tajik) through Kyrgyzstan and along the Kazakh and Chinese border to where it joins the Altai mountains in the North East(Mongolia). There are many other species and sub-species of Ibex, but Mid Asian are the largest and also the most commonly hunted of the Ibex species.
Dark chocolate brown, 100+Kg, long beard and curving horns 40-50 inches long, a mature Ibex is a truly impressive animal.
Hunting for Ibex normally starts late summer (August) and runs through the winter in some areas. We had planned on late October, which would hopefully see the very start of the rut, yet avoid major snow falls.
The area I hunted for the first 4 days
As we sat down for our first dinner in base camp, we were all a little excited and nervous, Tatyana (our cook) bought out what can only be described as a restaurant quality 2 course meal for us, we soon learned this was to be the norm.
We chatted with Dennis (translator) and Anatoli (area manager) over dinner and soon had a plan figured out.
Our hunting area was 32,000 odd hectares (80 thousand acres) within a greater 187,000-hectare (462,000 acres) wildlife area. Anatoli explained there were around 3000 Ibex in our area, with an annual harvest of only around 10-15 billies. Such a low harvest rate ensured there would be plenty of mature billies around.
We planned to leave the base at around lunch the next day and camp out for 3-4 days, with each hunter heading into his own area with one guide and one assistant.
With the plan sorted we crawled into bed for some much-needed sleep.
I was up early the next morning, it was cool outside and nice to try and get my bearings, I always get pretty disoriented when I travel to the northern hemisphere, once you realize south is north and north is south then it all makes sense.
Our base camp was a collection of 2 houses with various add on huts and stables, nestled among some large poplars in a tight valley bottom. A small creek ran behind the houses and 6 inches of dusty powder lined the valley.
I chatted with one of the guides in a mixture of broken English/Russian/Spanish/German as he bought the horses in to be fed and saddled up.
Back inside Tatyana had a cooked breakfast and endless cups of tea prepared for us. Our base house was very nice, central heating, running water and a hot shower was a great surprise!By lunch we were packed and ready to go, the guides had left with the horses an hour earlier and we soon caught them up in the wee Russian jeep. Bernard and Rob headed off with their guides and I continued on in the truck to a different valley. My guides Sergan and Ali were waiting.
As the guides packed the horses I glassed into our valley, a small group of Maral sat in the open snow and not far off a mob of around 25 Ibex grazed in the rocks.
Translator Dennis(L) and Guide Sergan(R)
Our Kazakh horses were not the small ponies I had imagined, but fair-sized mountain horses, well fed and with good saddles they carried us easily down the steep track to the valley floor, after a couple of hours of riding we found our camp, marked by an eagle feather stuck in the ground.
Tents were quickly made and a meal of dry rye bread and sardines with Coca-Cola was had.
The horses were left pegged out on the ridge, as we made the last couple of hundred yards on foot. We knew exactly where the Ibex were and our short stalk put us within 500 yards of the mob.
The group was mixed females and young, with about 5-6 billies among them. I wrote out 110cm (43″) on my hand and Sergan nodded his head.
I was confident we would have more opportunities so we sat and enjoyed the views. By the time it was dark we had seen 3 nice Maral bulls with their respective cows, and around 20 Argali were spotted in the distance. The Maral let out a few lazy bugles as we headed back to camp..
Typical Mid-Asian Billy
One of the Maral bulls we looked over. Bulls of this size we quite common and they took much larger bulls during the main Maral Season.
Day two of the hunt never really dawned. I un zipped my tent to a complete whiteout. Most of the day was spent in the tent, eating and learning a few Kazakh words. Sergan and I slow stalked some bluff systems in the evening but it was a frustrating exercise in the low cloud.
Sergan and Ali were up early on day 3, it had snowed about 6-8 inches over night and there were still a few flakes falling as we headed up the valley. We rode steadily from camp to a high pass, once we reached the top the terrain opened up to a large plateau. The wind was rather brisk and snow steadily fell.
We soon dismounted and started to glass. Not 500 yards off Sergan and I spotted a lone billy. Around 110cm (43”) we figured. After a few minutes he got sick of us and trotted into some nasty cliffs, as I was just thinking he’s probably not alone, 6 more billies came into sight and followed him. Two of them caught our attention and as soon as they were out of sight Sergan and I took chase.We followed their tracks into the bluff system, but to no avail.
The Ibex soon lost us in some real goat country
A little disgruntled we made our way back to Ali and the horses. Off again across the plateau we rode for maybe an hour to our next glassing point.
The conditions were best described as ‘blizzard’ as we sat on a windy nob trying to glass. The wind and light powder snow made glassing a rather fruitless task. Sergan and Ali were pretty concerned with getting lost in a whiteout (which was fair enough) so we headed back to the ponies. We had a slight moment of panic as the horses had pulled their stakes and headed for some shelter, but we luckily found them not a hundred yards off. Amazing how quickly their tracks were covered up with the wind and light snow.
While the boys sorted the horses, I took the opportunity to look into a far-off valley. I spotted a lone Ibex. Despite the wind and snow, he was a standout, the best billy we had seen by far. I quickly showed Sergan. After a bit of discussion, the guides explained they could not ride there, and didn’t want to die in a whiteout. I was pretty keen to head after him, but I accepted the call and we rode back to camp.
It was a slow and cold ride and I was glad for my good gear.
Our camp luckily was very sheltered and after a good warm meal camp was dropped. I was hoping we were heading back to the good billy we had seen, but Sergan had another valley he wanted to check out. It was a little confusing to figure out their plans with the language barrier, but I tried my best to trust their judgement. I know as a guide we often might seem to be doing something the wrong way around, but most guides I know do their very best to ensure their hunters have the best success possible. Sergan and Ali were no different. They had hunted these areas for years and knew the terrain and game well.
We headed off back toward the base camp, re tracing our tracks from the days previous, the high wind and snow had pushed a lot of Ibex low into the valley, and we passed a few small mobs in the creek bed.
As we made our way up a tight gorge, I spotted some movement in the rocks not 500 yards away, BIG BILLY!
I jumped off my horse in a bit of a panic and started walking up the horse track, the Ibex were out of sight now, behind a small crag, Ali and Sergan had not seen them and wanted me to get back on my horse. I tried to explain what I had seen, but I don’t think they got the jist of it.
With the horses hot on my heels I plodded up the track with rifle at the ready. I veered off the track to get a wider angle on the face as Sergan and Ali continued on.
Sergan and I both spotted the billies at the same time, not 200 yards up the face a group of 6 billies were staring straight at us.
I was sitting in the snow ready to shoot, but the guides and horses were between me and the game, Sergan quickly pulled the horses back and the Ibex took off. I fired two shots in anger at the lead billy as he ran across the face. He had big curling horns and was a very impressive billy. My two shots ran wide and the Ibex were soon over the skyline.
A few stern words were spoken, but it was what it was. Communication can be difficult in such a situation. After a few minutes I started to relax and we carried on. Both Sergan and Ali realized their mistake and if I could speak Russian or Kazakh I think things would have been a little easier.
An hour later we set up camp on a high plateau, we bumped 4 mature Argali rams on the way which was cool to see.
From camp we watched as a mob of around 100 Ibex fled from the valley below camp, 20 Maral soon joined them. There was game everywhere, we just needed to find some that hadn’t seen the horses first!
Late afternoon saw us looking into a new valley, we had left the horses and approached on foot, the wind was blowing hard again, but we spotted plenty of Ibex.
Across the valley were two groups, about 25 in each, and further up the valley was a smaller group with one large straight horned billy.
We watched them until we were too cold to glass, then headed back to camp.
It was a nice valley, a few trees, rocky outcrops and nice grassy faces. We had hatched a good plan for the morning…….
Day 4 dawned white.
With a good breakfast under our belts, Sergan I headed off into the cloud. As we neared our valley we came out of the low cloud into a beautiful sunrise. We pegged the horses out near some fresh pig rooting and headed down to our glassing spot from the night before.
Within a few minutes Sergan and I were looking at a good mob of Ibex not 500 yards below us. The straight horned billy had moved down the valley overnight and he was right below us.It was a perfect situation. The Ibex were happily feeding below us, the slight breeze was in our favour. All was required was a slow slither down the face into range…
My range finder was rather slow to get going, I think the cold and partial mist was to blame, so we got to a position both Sergan and I thought was around 300 yards.I got into a bit of an awkward position and a final range confirmed the shot was about 350 yards.The old straight horned billy was busy feeding on a tussock as I gently squeezed off, the shot felt good, but the reaction wasn’t…..
The Ibex milled about confused and the big billy stood shaking his head, he trotted off a few yards and stood again, this time I aimed low on his brisket, anticipating him to walk forward. The shot broke clean and the billy dropped with a broken neck.
Sergan and I were both happy, a quick replay on my phone showed my first shot was high and caught him through one horn. Sergan was quickly on the radio to Ali to share our success.
After a short walk Sergan and I sat with our billy and enjoyed the warm sun as it entered the valley. Ali soon joined us with the horses. After a quick photo session, we began to process the billy. The guides were both efficient with their knives and we soon had all the edible parts in the saddle bags. We were back in camp before lunch, this horse hunting sure made things easy!!
As we were sitting in the sun enjoying some warmth the radio crackled to life, it was Anatoli, my uncle was back in base camp and they were heading this way in the truck to see how were getting on.The wee Russian jeep crawled up through the snow almost making it to our camp.A quick meal and we soon were headed back to base camp with the gear in the truck and horses not far behind.Bernard and Rob both had good success over the last few days, both taking mature billies, we spent the rest of the day sharing stories and enjoying some more great food.
Day 5 dawned a crisp clear morning.
I checked my rifle after breakfast and was glad I did. Despite sighting in a few days earlier my rifle was shooting around 3inches high at 100 yards, with dialing up this was only exaggerated at longer distances. A couple more shots and I was feeling a lot more confident. Sergan, Ali and I headed off up the main valley from base camp mid-morning, I was happy with my Ibex, but wanted the opportunity to do some more hunting and explore some new country.We rode our way up the valley for about 2 hours, most of the ride was through mature Poplar trees, and then into smaller pines and spruce as we gained elevation.The Maral sign through the valley was impressive, huge areas churned up, and rub trees everywhere. Several of the rubs were taller than my head, while I was sitting on the horse! What a sight it must be during the rut.The valley soon narrowed and began to gorge out, a small log herders hut marked the end of the trail. The horses were unpacked and Ali began to set up camp as Sergan and I worked the surrounding country with the glasses.
A small Boar was feeding high on a ridge, 2 billies sat in the crags above a digging Brown Bear, a mob of nannies and young fed in the gorgy cliffs. Animals everywhere! Then across the valley Sergan spotted a group of 20 odd Ibex with two billies that soon caught our attention.With the spotting scope fixed on them Sergan and I soon agreed that one of the billies was worth a closer look. He was dark chocolate brown and his horns had a very impressive deep curl.They were feeding in a steep snowy chute, one side was open grass and rocks, but a finger of spruce grew up the other side. A good place for a stalk.
We set off quickly, crossing the creek involved a few gymnastics over frozen rocks and 2 fallen trees covered in snow, luckily, we were both light on our feet and were soon crawling up the frozen river bank.For the first time we were both dripping sweat and soon had a break to lose some winter layers. The sun was shining strong and it was a beautiful day to be in the mountains.We soon made the edge of the spruce trees and a sneak peek into the chute showed the Ibex had started to bed down on the grassy face, as we had planned.We plugged our way through the knee-deep snow, just inside the edge of the trees. I poked my head out a few times to try and get a range, I knew if the wind held, we should have no issues getting into a good position.Eventually we got to a nice flattish spot and prepared to shoot. The big billy was bedded in the long grass, but his curling horns were easy to distinguish from the other billies there. Sergan sat in the edge of the trees, while I slithered out into the snow. I knew as soon as I left the trees, they would see me, and the Ibex were soon up milling about. I loaded the rifle and settled down on my pack….
The big billy was last to stand, not long after 180 grains of hot lead zipped through his chest. The shot felt perfect and I watched in the scope as he took a few steps forward then reared over back backwards.
Sergan and I were both pretty ecstatic, a perfect stalk and perfect shot, and it was not even lunch time!After a short steep climb, we were sitting with the big billy. He was much bulkier in the body than my last billy and his cape was almost black.
We enjoyed a couple of Tatyana’s pastries and then caped the big billy out. With a slight push he started off down the chute and didn’t stop until the snow ran out. We half skied down the snow chute and soon caught the billy up. I added his back legs to my pack and we carried on. By the time we reached the herders hut Ali had the horses packed up again and a warm meal cooked for us, what a guy!
We trotted pack into camp by 5pm after an awesome day of hunting.
Kazhym had joined us in camp with a couple of Russian hunters, who had also taken some nice billies. So, a few vodkas were in order that night!
The next couple of days were very much a case of hurry up and wait, our driver was heading in from Almaty, but had some mechanical issues on the way, and our wee Russian truck had broken a steering arm and punctured a fuel tank while collecting some fire wood. So, we ate and rested, boiled our Ibex heads and explored around the camp. There was some form of old Military base in the valley, which was rather funny to see.
A good line up back at base camp!
After 2 days our driver arrived with a ‘mechanic’ and some parts in another truck. 6 of us and gear crammed into the new Land Cruiser and bid farewell to our camp. Our guides had left the day before on their 200+km horse trek to their village, this was the last hunt of their season and after 3 months away from home they were understandably eager to see their families.
Our drive out of the hunting area was rather uneventful, we bumped into a lone wolf on the track but with our gear packed up there was nothing to do but watch as he trotted off into the vast landscape.
We changed into our familiar Hilux half way out and then started again on a very long and slow drive back to Almaty. Our poor Hilux was only running on 3 cylinders and it was the early hours of the next day before we made it to the city.
We explored the city for a few days before our long flights home began. Almaty is a very modern and rich city, not at all like you would imagine. The city was very clean and seemed very safe (the parts we saw anyway). Our driver took us one day into the mountains behind the city, there are a number of ski fields within an hour of so of the city, which is pretty awesome to see. The Kazakhs are very friendly and welcoming people and I think their country has a lot to offer as a tourist destination.
Bernard, Rob and I were all very happy with our trip and things went about as smoothly as you could expect from such a trip.
A big thank you to all the staff at Pro Hunt Kazakhstan, everyone was pleasant to hunt with and did their best to ensure we had a successful hunting adventure.
The quality of the game and hunting was very good and there are a few rumors of a return trip to see what those Maral get up to in the rut………
If anyone is interested in this hunt feel free to send me a message or contact Pro Hunt Kazakh directly at-http://safarikaz.com/