Davey Hughes takes an incredible global journey covering his favourite hunts outside of Australia
When people ask me to select my favourite hunt, I typically answer: “My next one!” The allure of an adventure in truly wild, remote places, along with the animals and people who inhabit them, has always been a passion which ignites my wanderlust to travel and hunt.
Over the years I’ve often posed myself the question: If there were just three hunting trips I could go on, which would they be? It’s not an easy one to answer. There are places I haven’t been to yet, so how could I faithfully give a straightforward and honest opinion?
My solution to this problem was to make a mug of tea, sit down in front of an open fire and then whittle a long list down to a mere three. Here they are then, in no particular order. They are my personal choices. Some may agree with them, while others will dutifully point out I’ve missed the best hunt of all time. So be it.
Much has been written about hunting the mbogo (Cape buffalo) by far more celebrated writers than me. My experience so far has been in four countries, with each hunt different in its own way. I’ve hunted herd bulls and I’ve hunted dagga boys ‑ those grumpy old bulls who live either by themselves or in small bachelor groups. Both hunts have their merits. Hunting the herd, in some ways, is less taxing on the nerves. You see plenty of animals and will have some up front and close encounters should you ensconce yourself in the middle of the herd.
Dagga boys, on the other hand, are an entirely different story. Here, the skills of your tracker will astound you as hour after hour you follow the prints of one particular bull. When tracking buffaloes, it’s amazing how you become a poo expert, gently scraping your boot across the still-wet pile, studying the thickness of the semi-dry skin on top and making a guess at just how close you are to your quarry. It’s quite revealing how excited grown men can become over dung.
The other benefit of hunting lone bulls is the array of species you interact with while tracking. For pure adrenalin, nothing comes close to following an animal classified as the most dangerous of all game through narrow tunnels of elephant grass where at any moment you could be outmanoeuvred, ambushed or blown off.
The trophy is the hunt with dagga boys. Horn measurement does not even come into consideration. An old bull, well past his breeding life, carrying horns worn off to his boss, can be considered the ultimate trophy of a lifetime.
It’s important to choose the best period. Going in the wet season means you will be spending a lot of time extracting vehicles out of a bog, so avoid going at that time of year at all costs. As for gear, obviously it’s going to be hot, so shorts and a tough cotton shirt will be your main wear. A set of puttees or ankle guards are a must, as is a wide brimmed hat. You’re not climbing Kilimanjaro, so boots don’t need to be of the alpine variety but do need to be comfortable.
Don’t leave it to the last moment to choose a pair. Break them in at least three months prior and wear them as often as you can in the months leading up to your hunt. Mornings can be deceptively cold, so pack a windproof fleece and even a balaclava, as often you’ll spend a few hours on the back of a vehicle heading out to where the hunt will begin.
Two boxes of ammo should suffice. Big calibre rifles aren’t the nicest of beasts on the range, but again, this is not a muntjac hunt. Learn to know your rifle and what it’s capable of. Then shoot it as often as you can. In fact, take it on your muntjac or fallow hunt. You’ll not regret it. I tend to leave my sling behind and just carry my rifle, a Rigby Big Game in .416. It is definitely one of my favourite guns. Yes, it’s heavy, but for all the right reasons. If you must, grab a Kifaru GunBearer attachment for your day bag. It supports the rifle and can have it in your hands surprisingly fast.
As I write this, the New Zealand government is undertaking a tahr eradication program of huge proportions. It’s a crime. The tahr is one of the most majestic game animals on the planet. For sure, we have abundant numbers, but rather than shoot them out of helicopter gunships the government could do better by actively encouraging more people to hunt tahr. That said, there will always be tahrs in the mountains. They’ll just be harder to find.
What makes this one of my top three animals? It could well be their range that inspires me. The lofty peaks and huge river valleys that sprawl below you when perched high on a mountain are incredibly stimulating. You feel alive in a way I cannot compare. It’s tiger country though, not a place for the tyro on their first excursion, not at least without a guide to help you ford rivers and traverse glaciers. Even in summer months, the backcountry can be treacherous to the uninitiated.
Of course, it could be the animal itself. To watch a mature bull, his lion-like mane flowing as he easily descends 1000 feet at breakneck speed, never ceases to hold me in awe.
In this modern world time is the enemy, so many of my tahr hunts involve the use of a helicopter to fly me into the mountains, saving a two to three-day hike. My best time on the calendar to hunt tahrs in New Zealand generally falls in the winter months because in that part of the year the mane on the bulls is dark as ebony. That’s the trophy. I don’t measure horns or antlers – never have, never will – so a mature bull with a huge mane is to me the ultimate of our game in New Zealand.
Of course, winter presents its own challenges. Nasty weather for a start. Packing the right gear is not just a matter of comfort, it’s survival. Good base layers that breathe, a set to wear and a dry set for camp, coupled with thermal mid layers and a shell are a must. I look at my clothing as a system rather than individual items.
My rifle of choice is a lightweight (3.28kg) .300WSM. Calibres, like religion and politics, can make for lengthy heated campfire discussions. Needless to say, my choice of gun is one which I use on many continents for hunting moose, mountain goats and black bears. It’s simply a gun I’ve become used to and know how to employ.
Good optics are a given. If you can’t see it, you can’t hunt it. Over the past decade I’ve swung towards the Leica brand. My binos are Leica Geovids in 10×42, my spotting scope a Leica Televid 65 and my riflescope also a Leica ER 2.5-10×42.
Decent alpine boots are a must. They must be well broken in with plenty of ankle support. I’ll also throw in crampons and an ice axe, though nowadays (you can read that as now I’m older and less bold) if I need crampons I’m probably hunting in the wrong area. I always pack a PLB (personal locator beacon) and on longer trips where rescue may not be so forthcoming, a satellite phone. It’s hard to ask a doctor for medical advice on re-setting a dislocated shoulder with a PLB.
Ursus Arctos Horribilis. Brown bear and grizzly are the same beast. It’s actually where they live and what they eat that determines which is which. Generally, brown bears live near the coast and will be bigger due to more abundance of food. Grizzlies live inland, where their diet consists of grass and berries along with whatever meat they can kill or scavenge, including moose, caribou and sheep. I’ve always found grizzlies to be more aggressive, although brown bears have also given me a few dicey moments on more than one occasion.
When hunting brown bears in Alaska, there are basically two seasons – autumn and spring. Each has its own merits. Autumn is when salmon are spawning and the bears will be congregating around rivers and streams, fishing at pools as they gorge themselves in preparation for hibernation. Hunting these Pacific giants can present some close encounters, especially in smaller streams and rivers. I once shot a brown bear during autumn, just before dark, at six-and-a-half yards, standing absolutely still while the bear walked straight down the stream towards me.
Spring heralds the end of five to seven months of hibernation and the bears leave their dens in search of food and a mate. It’s this latter pre-occupation that often can give away the presence of the boar, or male brown bear. If you observe a female bear hurtling along, cubs in tow, down a beach or mountain side, be ready. More than likely there will be a male bear in hot pursuit.
One drawback of the spring hunt can be timing. If the winter is longer than expected then bears leave the dens late, and you’ve arrived too early to see much action. Leave your hunt too late and the bears will be rubbing hair off their hides. I’ve seen bears that more resemble poodles at that time of year. It really is a hit-and-miss scenario, though I still favour spring over autumn. Hang on… what about the salmon fishing you’ll miss by going in spring? I guess you’ll have to make up your own mind on seasons.
One thing is certain. The coastal weather of Alaska is wet. It’s going to rain and rain. And then some more. In spring, snow is also a big possibility. Good base layers that dry quickly, mid layers that trap air and a good long raincoat to keep your derrière protected are a must. In autumn I also take along a pair of overtrousers, as you’ll be in and out of salmon spawning streams that are full of decaying fish.
Again, good (preferably great) optics may play a huge part in the success of your hunt. Don’t scrimp at this stage, especially given the overall cost of the hunt. As for as choice of calibre, anything from .30-06 should enable the job to be done. I usually take the Ruark approach of enough gun and will opt for either my .375, or as the occasion on Kodiak Island last year, my Rigby .416, shooting 340gr Woodleighs.
That’s my list of three great hunts. Notwithstanding, all hunting excites me. Red stags in the rut, wild boar… they all start my juices going. In this ever-changing world, with the pressure on hunting as a chosen pastime, you cannot be certain those choices will be around forever. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to travel to each location and participate in what in each instance has been a life-changing pursuit of game in its natural habitat. It has been a privilege. Long may it last.
Davey Hughes is the founder and hands-on creative director of Swazi Outdoor Clothing.