Sheep Hunter’s Rite of Passage

A young huntress learns what it means to hunt tur and ibex in Central Asia.

The mountains of Azerbaijan proved to be a challenging obstacle.
The mountains of Azerbaijan proved to be a challenging obstacle.

After what seemed like an eternity in the air, I planted my size six feet on the soil of the first of many forgotten countries that would be along my sojourn–Azerbaijan. Hidden faces stared at my exposed, pale skin, round eyes and camouflage luggage. Then I met the men who would have my life in their hands for a week, and I suddenly felt at ease.

With irrigation boots on, we piled into a Russian jeep along with twine, wire and gallon sized bottles holding the fluids and parts together. I clung to a handle and I poked my head out the window, gazing at the unforgiving mountains outside and wondering what I had gotten myself into.

I asked my guide, Şendoğan (pronounced “Shawn-do-juan”), what tur hunting was like. I expected the adventure of a lifetime as hunters such as Butch Kuflak, one of the most well-known sheep hunters in the world, says, “You are not a sheep hunter until you’ve been on a tur hunt. It is one of the hardest hunts there is.”

We bounced along the riverbed with fluids spilling out from under the hood and Şendoğan’s warm face and wise eyes occasionally glancing in the shattered rear view mirror to meet my smile. We communicated through hand gestures, not actual talking, yet I felt comfortable. These people live in the mountains; their only clock is sunrise and sundown and they have to prove themselves each and every day. Waking up to black tea and walking miles is a part of daily life and I felt honored to be welcomed into it with open arms.

The jeep rolled across boulders the size of my body until we reached the river where the bald tires finally had enough and forced us to horseback to get up the mountains. The horses were some of the smallest I have ever ridden; yet despite their size, were the strongest I have ever been on. Even at 10,000 feet it was difficult to breathe and my gaze followed the ridgeline as I considered what my lungs were in for; we would be climbing four thousand feet higher. After battling flies and rugged terrain, we eventually made it to base camp.

riteofpassageAzerbaijanTurI watched as blood dripped down my walking stick from my hand that had been sliced open by the sharp shale. Blisters had formed on my feet, sweat glistened on my forehead, and tears fell down my sunburned face as I realized this was the hardest hunt I had ever been on. I kept telling myself, “Take three steps and rest.” The miles passed by as my legs grew more and more exhausted. Six hours later, we made it to the top of the mountain where my guides excitedly motioned me to the edge of a cliff. They pointed down the mountain and motioned me to follow.

As I crept down the mountain, my guide told me to leave my walking stick, climb on his back and hang on tight. I winced around every rock as they crumbled under my worn boots and prayed they would not take me down the mountain. My hands trembled and my body became hesitant on every step. I knew if I made one wrong step, I would fall to my death.

Seeing the fear in my eyes, my guides backtracked and held my hands through the cliffs. This not only gave me the confidence I needed to get through, but also the speed needed to reach the tur before they moved. I wiped the tears from my eyes, thanked the sweet Lord for getting me to the majestic animals in one piece, and steadied my .260 on the jagged cliffs. Just 120 yards away was my tur. It dwarfed the others. These animals are unlike any other I have hunted. The way they carry themselves through the most dangerous terrain, claiming dominance and making the cliffs appear to be flat with the grace they walk through them. The men who risked their lives to protect mine gently said, “Make it count girl!”

The author celebrates a successful end to a grueling hunt.
The author celebrates a successful end to a grueling hunt.

I placed my finger on the trigger and gently squeezed off, knowing I had to make this shot count. “Thawack!” I knew I had just taken, and very much earned, this incredible animal, as I heard my shot echo through the mountains. The herd turned the corner and down mine went, tumbling even farther.

You know it’s a dangerous hunt when your guides tie a rope around your waist and hold your hand up and down the cliffs. I became one of the guys as I followed these nine amazing men around the beautiful and ever so dangerous Azerbaijan Mountains. “Thank you Lord,” I prayed, “for guiding my steps and listening to my prayers as I spoke to you every step of the way, praying that I would make it. I’m alive and have a tur down!” Not only had we conquered the mountains, we all built a bond of trust that we all had to maintain to reap the rewards. Tur hunting is a hunt in and of itself. You put your body to the test and examine every step you take as your heart beats so fast it echoes throughout your body beaming through your ears to the rhythm of sweat pouring down. I know now I am a true sheep hunter.

After two weeks tur hunting and traveling some of the most uninhabited territory, we packed up and headed to the most forgotten, desolate place of all: Mongolia, home to 2.8 million people (which is less than the capital of my home state). Mongolia is unlike any country I have ever been to; it is home to some of the most gentle, yet gruff people. Driving is a guessing game because of its dirt roads. Potholes are the size of my car and there are no street signs. The country is loaded with deserts and high mountains holding some of the most beautiful, and graceful animals—including the Altai ibex.

The friendly faces of Mongolia.
The friendly faces of Mongolia.

We flew into one of the smallest airports where we were picked up in a Russian jeep that was the driver’s pride and joy. As we drove and the temperature dropped, the cook and I began to get to know each other, as we had to hang on and keep warm. Her smile did more talking than words could have ever done. She communicated with me through her eyes when I gave her things to bundle up with like blankets and scarves. I tried to sleep, but the road was way too rough, so she slept and I was hung on! The 100-mile trip on unpaved roads through deserts and mountains that form the border between Mongolia and China took the five of us thirteen hours. There are no cities; we passed a total of 10 cars the entire drive and experienced only one flat tire where the rim came apart!

We made it to camp at 2:00 in the morning where we were greeted with a warm fire and our very own yurt. It has a stove, a little sink and beds–it’s like a hotel room in the middle of nowhere. Mongolia! The people in camp are incredible! We have one guide who speaks okay English, one cook who is such a sweetheart, one younger girl who’s my age, one driver and two guys who are just chillin’ (I think)! I lay down in anticipation of morning not knowing what any of the terrain looks like and too excited to sleep.

The next morning, we roared downhill in the Russian jeep with the driver smiling as we bounced through the rough Mongolian terrain. With the wind howling more thirty miles per hour, I hunkered down, buried my pale face and dozed off until the wind startled me awake. Trained eyes soon spotted a group of ibex and we quickly went after them–sliding down boulders, almost twisting ankles; and yet when my guides turn and ask the popular question, “Are you doing okay?” I reply with a simple smile and nod of the head.

The author poses with her ibex, taken with a downhill shot at 120 yards.
The author poses with her ibex, taken with a downhill shot at 120 yards.

When I first spotted these beautiful Altai ibex, they flashed in the sunlight, horns beaming, running across cliffs that would take me hours to conquer. I appreciate them even more–what a level to be on when you’re after something that moves with such elegance as they ease over the rocks. It’s a group of five ibex, with one absolute giant amongst them.

After a few failed stalks, we made our way back to the jeep. I have never been so exhausted–mentally or physically–and it was hard to recover from watching the giant ibex slip away. I knew my chances were slim to reconnect; however, my hope grew when I watched the men and their hunting techniques that had passed down through many generations. Hunting was more than hunting to these people—it’s survival—it’s how they feed their families and live the nomadic life.

I woke up to the ladies from camp jumping on my cot handing me a chocolate bar and hugging me. It was my twentieth birthday, and one I would never forget. It was 4:00 am, but I had a different kind of feeling instead of being groggy and sleepy, I was wide-awake! For some reason, I knew this was the day!

We headed up to the high mountains and got stuck in the mud at 5:00 am. Whew it was a booger to get out, but we finally made it to some nearby cliffs where we all snoozed while the two main guides looked for ibex. We woke up to the driver saying, “go, go, go,” and pointing down the mountain. We went so fast I’m surprised we didn’t twist an ankle or two! We sat at the base of the mountain as my guide told the interpreter, “Tell Sara ‘Happy Birthday.’ The big one is back!” My heart thudded and I smiled up at God!

We made a game plan to bail off the side of the mountain and crawl out of sight until we got close enough for a shot. With the big guy still in my mind, I prayed as we hiked along the ridge. My guides motioned me to sit down as my heart began to pound. The group of three ibex bedded down and we crept our way down the mountain hiding ourselves until we belly crawled to the ridge across from them. At 520 yards with a downward slope, we ranged them to be 120 yards downhill. I gave my guide the nod as he counted to three. On “three” I squeezed the trigger and my Nosler ammo struck. The ibex ran up the hill; the lead one definitely hit. I followed the ibex in my scope as hopelessness filled my heart and watched them trail over the mountain and on to the next, losing the herd in the crosshairs. My guide quickly got on them with my binoculars and excitedly motioned me to come. We ran up the mountain. It was not an ordinary jog up the mountain–I’m talking lungs feeling like they’re bleeding and legs that cannot bear to take another step! Just when I thought I needed a break, I was granted with a spurt of energy because I knew what was at the end of this run!

My legs rejuvenated, I started sprinting faster and practically fell into my guide when he stopped while I was still going full speed! He motioned for me to grab my gun and pointed toward the cliffs. I crept up steadying myself on some jagged rocks and placed my crosshairs in the middle of the ibex’s chest. Just when I got my breathing controlled, I looked back to see my dad, my hero, best friend, the one who pushes me to my fullest potential and the one who introduced me to my greatest passion. With his smile and an “Atta girl” I turned back to reality, squeezed the trigger and watched my ibex collapse. Through countless hours, miles under my blistered feet, sweat, blood and tears, I proved myself to be a true ibex hunter. My nickname for the rest of the trip was “Tom Sara Tom Tom!” (Tom meaning “big” and Sara to get my attention): “Big Sara Big Big!”

riteofpassageMongoliacamelsMy life has been deeply touched by the people of Mongolia and what appreciation they have for each other. They take nothing for granted; they value family, friends, honesty, hard work and truly love hunting. The Mongolian’s forever changed my outlook on life. We have all been blessed with one chance to live, and it is up to us to decide how full our glass will be. These people live life to the fullest every day. They cling to their loved ones, value companionship from their herds and truly live off the land. What an unforgettable experience. Despite the language barrier, I made some friends that will last a lifetime and even got to hang out with camels! Thank you, Mongolia; I’m headed home.–Sara Brandenburg

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