I knew a hunt in Pakistan in these post 9/11 times would be a hard sell to get my wife and I was right – after her initial reaction, the negotiation process was long and arduous. Frequent reports of Pakistani government instability, political assassinations and anti-American sentiment swept the news daily; it was hard to blame her for being concerned. If I were the one staying behind I probably would have felt the same way. Finally, after much discussion, she said, “Go, but try to come back.”
Armed with her trepidation, I landed in Islamabad where, to my relief, the “meet and greet” process by the outfitter, Karakurum Treks and Tours, went smoothly. My first positive report for my wife was already in hand. Little did I know that in a few more minutes I would have a report that would make me equally, if not more, happy. While collecting my luggage I received a call from Bob Kern, the booking agent who runs The Hunting Consortium. We entered into a deal to hunt a legally importable Kashmir markhor, something I thought I would never have the opportunity to do.
The markhor would come last in the hunt. For now, we were off to Multan in the Punjab Province for hog deer, blackbuck and nilgai near Khanewal on federal lands belonging to the Forestry Commission of Pakistan. The Punjab Wildlife Authority had just allowed hunting for these species after being closed for an extended period. It was an estate hunt, less than 2,000 acres, but the cover was so heavy it came close to free range. I was able to take a blackbuck and nilgai but never saw a hog deer.
Leaving Multan and the elusive hog deer, we drove to the Jelhum District in the Salt Mountains to start the hunt for Punjab urial. Still in the Punjab Province, the Salt Mountains are very dry with a decent amount of brush and trees, but are neither high nor rugged. The mountains are easy and the accommodations comfortable at the Forest Service lodge.
On the first day to hunt Punjab urial, we picked up various people along the way–employees of the wildlife department, a local guide and several people whose function I never understood. By the time we started hunting, our group numbered at least 10 and we were dressed in everything from hunting clothes to white flowing garments that could be spotted from miles away. You would think that was bad enough, but almost everyone had a cell phone and they were literally ringing by the minute. We didn’t get an opportunity at a urial all day because the ones we saw spotted us first and headed out. Imagine that.
Naeem, my translator, and I discussed the situation and the following day we cut the hunting party to six, but cell phones continued to be a problem. The locals said the sheep were used to people, but based on yesterday’s experience and the fact that Bob Kern had warned me the sheep were subject to local poaching, I wasn’t buying it. Bob had advised me to take the first decent ram I encountered and I clearly understood his point. I took a ram that afternoon. It was severely broomed, which I hadn’t noticed when I shot. Although somewhat disappointed, I was happy to complete my personal goal of all four urials–Blandford, Transcaspian, Afghan and Punjab.
After another night at the lodge in Jelhum we drove back to Islamabad, overnighted, and then started out for Gilgit in the Northern Areas near the China border. In Gilgit, a new translator, Irfanullah, and a camp cook, Mirza Dad, joined our group. Both spoke English and their company really added to my enjoyment of the trip. We were headed to Bar Village to begin the hunt for Himalayan ibex. After three more hours we reached Bar Valley and picked up our local guides, porters and a representative of the Wildlife Department. We would hunt the Bar Valley Nagar II. Bar means narrow and the name was an understatement. Having done my share of mountain hunting, I can honestly say that the mountains that lined the valley were some of the steepest I have ever hunted.
The hike into our first camp took four hours. I was wiped out by the time we arrived even though the only thing I carried was a water bottle and a walking stick. That afternoon and the following morning, while I rested at camp, the local guides scouted without success for a mature ibex we could get to. Moving on, we gathered our gear and hiked more than six hours to camp two. This hike was so difficult that at one spot the locals had to tie a rope around me and haul me up an unstable cliff as the loose rocks I used as footholds crumbled under my feet.
This wasn’t hunting lodge country and both camps’ shelters were crude stone huts used by shepherds in the summer. The roofs were porous and I slept in a tent that was set up inside. The following morning we were on foot in the dark across snow that was hard packed and glazed over in some areas, while in others it was drifted and offered no support as we sunk in past our knees. After 2 1/2 hours, the sun came up and we started slowly climbing while one of the guides went ahead. Several hours later we met up and he told Irfanullah that he had spotted a small herd of ibex with two trophy males.
Unlike in the Punjab experience, these people knew how to hunt. A stalk was carefully planned and executed so that we were soon within 300 yards of where the guide had seen the herd. The translator said “shoot” but there was a major problem – I couldn’t see the ibex. The color of the rocks and the color of their capes were a close match. After several more pleadings to “shoot” I finally saw movement and spotted a mature male that moved behind some large rocks just as I fired.
Irfanullah said I shot the second largest ibex. I never saw the largest until the rest of the herd ran off. The head guide said I hit the one I shot too far back and he indicated where he expected it to reappear if the ibex was capable of moving. We waited for what seemed a very long time before we saw him about 900 yards away in a different spot. It was evident that he was hit hard and would not live long, once recovered one horn measured 38 inches while the other was an even 37.
After leaving the Bar Valley, Irfanullah, Mirza Dad, and I returned to Gilgit, where we picked up another hunter, SCI Member Larry Reynolds, and took off for the Hunza Valley to hunt blue sheep. Our first stop was in the small town of Sost where we meet the well-known hunter Saeed Khan, his client Eric Stromberg, and the artist John Banovich, who hoped to take photographs of snow leopards. Both groups had permits for sheep, but ours were dated earlier and Khan’s group, fortunately, had ibex to hunt. So we gathered up porters and guides and headed to the first sheep camp while they went off in pursuit of ibex.
By the next afternoon, we were in camp two in an area known as Sokhtar Abad. On the way, we came across the tracks of several snow leopards and the remains of one that had been caught in an avalanche. While we were setting up camp, the head local guide, Farman Riza, and several of his assistants went off to scout for sheep. Just before dark they returned with good news – they had spotted a large herd in the distance.
Very early the following morning, as we listened to several rockslides along the way, we hiked over a small frozen stream that was glacier and spring fed. At about 6:30 a.m. Farman once again spotted the herd of about 40 sheep that were bedded down on a grassy slope above us. After a short climb, we were about 350 yards from them, but made the mistake of trying to get closer. We went to the left with no luck and then to the right where we still didn’t close the distance. By the time we went back to where we started, the sheep had spotted us and were moving rapidly up the slope as I chambered a round. Larry quickly got out his range finder and said they were at 550 yards and moving fast.
We followed their exit route for several hours and went as high as 13,200 feet. Although I have been higher in Tajikistan and China, both of those hunts were on relatively flat surfaces and didn’t involve so much climbing and hiking. Where I live is only a couple of hundred feet above sea level and by the time we called it a day, I was beat.
Farman told Irfanullah that the best grass in the area was where we had seen the sheep. With that in mind we decided to set up a spike camp about a mile down stream and Mirza Dad went back to camp two to summon several porters with some of our gear.
The next morning, after a short hike, we got on the sheep once again at the same spot. And once again they spotted us as we were getting into position. But this time the results were different. My ram was 20 3/8” with decent mass and Larry’s was 24” and carried very heavy mass throughout.
Unlike in some of the other regions in Pakistan, the people of the Northern Areas were some of the friendliest I have ever met. It seemed as though they couldn’t do enough to make sure I was comfortable and safe. They were fun to be with and I was sorry to say goodbye.
After returning to Gilgit we split up with Larry going to the Bar Valley for ibex while I started the journey to one of the more unfriendly areas for Americans, the North West Frontier Province, to try for the Kashmir markhor.
My luck being what it was when it came to transportation, flights between Islamabad and Gilgit were once again canceled and we had to drive. After over nighting at one of the better hotels in Islamabad, we drove three hours to Peshawar in the N.W.F.P. where I met my new translator, Sikander Ulmuik, and spent the night.
The next morning, we drove to the airport for the 35-minute flight to Chitral. Ten minutes from our destination the flight was aborted due to technical problems and we returned to Peshawar. The pilot didn’t have confidence that the Chitral maintenance operation could correct the problem for it was a very small airport.
The following two days’ flights were canceled due to weather and the delays added to my anxiety to get home. There was a road between Peshawar and Chitral and it wasn’t a long drive, but annual avalanches blocked the road and it wasn’t scheduled to be cleared until May.
Finally, after four nights in Peshawar, we were cleared to fly to Chitral. As we came in for a landing, I saw firsthand that even overcast skies could be a problem for landing safely. The tiny airport was just outside of town and nestled tightly among some extremely steep mountains.
Once on the ground, we hustled to a small hotel in town where I changed into hunting clothes and grabbed my rifle. Then we were off to the police station where the district chief assigned two policemen armed with what appeared to be AK47s to be my bodyguards. We were very close to Afghanistan as well as al- Qaida strongholds in the tribal lands. The newscasts I had seen before leaving the U.S. about anti-American sentiment in Pakistan were a reality in this part of the country.
After picking up our head guide, Siraj, we started hunting less than two hours after leaving Chitral in an area called Gaihrat. The area had been pre-scouted and more local guides joined our party as we hiked along. We soon had a hunting group of about 10 including the two policemen, the translator, the guides and myself. At least there were no cell phones constantly ringing. Unlike the ibex and blue sheep terrain, I was surprised by how easy the trail was.
The guides said there were three mature male markhor in the area and they all looked similar. Within a short time we saw several females. After about two hours a mature male appeared outside a cave about 250 yards up a steep mountainside. Both Sikander and I agreed it probably wouldn’t exceed 40 inches, but because of canceled flights and the problems at home, I was now very pressed for time. Hearing the locals say that the other two mature males in the area were about the same size made my decision easy.
Even though the sun shone directly in my eyes, I went for it. The markhor went down and stopped sliding just before going over the edge. After much hooting and hollering the guides retrieved it. When they came down I saw for the first time that the right horn was heavily broomed while the left was 37 3/8”. It was nine to 10 years old and outside of the argalis I have hunted, the most impressive mountain animal I have ever taken.
Back at the airport we were told I would not be able to fly out for several days due to the passenger backlog from the many previous flight cancellations. Sikander found a passenger he knew and after some discussion and lucrative financial incentives, I bought his ticket and was soon on the first step of my journey home.
Heeding my wife’s good advice, I did indeed “come back” from a trip that will vividly live on in my memory.– Ed Yates