The lush landscapes of the Croatian Baranja are rich in game, and the locals are renowned for their hospitality. Oliver Dorn visited the region on the Hungarian border with two friends during the red deer rut.
“If someone takes a journey, they can tell a story” – as the German poet Matthias Claudius said in the 18th century. Since then, the connection between travel and writing has given rise to a whole literary genre. What today allows the traveler to reflect on his or her experiences will tomorrow give the reader both entertainment and food for thought. This is especially true if the journey was in the company of friends – in my case, Patrick and Boray. Our adventures come back to life as I write…
The alarm clock rings at 4:15 a.m. Quite a struggle on our first day, but also necessary because we have to drive for a while to get to the hunting grounds. The property is around 2,800 hectares and, according to our hunting guide Miro, is considered to be very rich in game, and well-accessible thanks to old hunting paths. It is already dawn when we meet in the hunting ground and prepare for the morning stalk. The rut should already be in full swing here, so we stand quietly in the dark, listen intently, and hear – nothing. It’s too warm. But no matter, it’s only our first morning and we’re in good spirits. Patrick is stalking with Miro, Boray with a local hunter named Istvan and I with the hunting guide Stipe. We wish each other a successful hunt and disperse in a star shape, taking three distinct directions. It’s still quiet among the trees, so we walk slowly, step by step, against the wind, along a wide, mown path, deeper into the dark forest. Every now and then we pause, listen and use the thermal cameras to avoid accidentally running into game. The paths remind me of hunting in Sologne, where the hunting grounds are maintained in a similar way for driven hunts or venerie on horseback. Here in Baranja, however, hunters only go stalking, or climb the massive raised hides that stand at large forest crossings and listen, or come across game grazing on the fresh grass in the paths.
And so we go from path to path. Some of them are maintained as “wildlife fields”, and this morning we come across roe deer and wild boar grazing or digging for food in these areas. As the sun is already burning down from the sky, we come to a canal that is dry, but in some places has so much water from solar-powered pumps that boar and red deer use it for wallowing. This morning, however, we don’t see any deer, nor do we notice any rutting activity. At around 9:30, we meet our friends at the old Tito hunting lodge for breakfast. We enjoy the strong coffee and chat. Only Boray, led by the elderly Istvan, got to see any red deer – including mature stags. However, they were all standing in dense vegetation and thus unsuitable for an ethical shot. Patrick and Miro, like us, only saw roe deer and boar along the paths. Better than nothing. We say goodbye to catch up on some sleep. Miro promised us that he would pick us up for lunch at a small, rustic restaurant.
At around 4 p.m. we should then head back to the district. Freshly rested and well-fed, we split up again in the late afternoon and follow the same tactics as in the morning. However, it is still very hot. With our hands formed into large shells on our ears, we listen intently into the forest. Nothing. The sun struggles through the dense forest with only a few rays until it finally disappears completely. Stipe and I are slowly making our way back when there is a crash some distance away. Silencers are still banned in Croatia, so we can hear the shot very clearly.
Stipe excitedly grabs his cell phone and taps in Miro’s number, because the shot came from his direction. A happy grin spreads across his face and he whispers, “Patrick.” We hurry, and after a while in the dark we are guided by the frantic movements of two flashlights and finally come across two happy hunters. After a short stalk, Miro and Patrick had set up on one of the raised hides at a forest crossroads. At first nothing came into sight, but then, shortly after sunset, they heard crashing noises in the trees and a large stag stood about 150 meters in front of them, wide as anything. Miro released it, and Patrick got a good shot, which the stag acknowledged with a brief flight. In the meantime, Boray and Istvan have joined us with the pickup truck. We hug each other and celebrate the successful outcome of the first day’s hunt. Together, we recover the stag and prepare it at the hunting lodge, where we drink to its honor.
The next day is hot, and after an unsuccessful morning stalk, the evening stalk doesn’t feel promising either.
Stipe and I move through the forest to the edge of the field. Boray and Istvan want to have a look around the canal, and the two successful hunters take the path where the other team had previously seen a lot of game. We pass a large wallow, which we can see and smell has been recently used. Out in the field, the oats are still standing, and Stipe is confident that we will glimpse red deer there. A newly-erected large high seat at the edge of the forest offers enough space for both of us. We clearly make out where game enters and exits the forest as well as grazing tracks in the field. As the sun sets, we hear stags calling far ahead. Tensely, we scan the wide fields.
As the sun sets, we swap binoculars for a thermal camera so that we can peer into the distance. And sure enough, we spot red deer, a few hundred meters ahead. But it’s already too late and the animals are too far away, so we meet up with our friends at the hunting lodge – again, without any game. Stipe, Miro and Istvan sit a little apart and discuss tactics for the final morning’s hunt. A wine tasting is planned for the following afternoon and a farewell goulash dinner at the hunting lodge in the evening. The three of us are relaxed about it, as the trip has given us so many great experiences and shared moments so far. It seems our attitude prompted a divine authority to turn the thermometer down a few degrees overnight. And so, early in the morning, surrounded by an impressive rutting concert in the dark forest, we stand by the cars and hurry to get ready. So we set off into the trees, the wind in our faces, towards the calls. We stop after two bends.
A stag suddenly calls from nearby. I switch on my Leica Calonox View to see if I can recognize anything. Although his calls sound powerful, the stag that emerges from the forest is very young. I switch to video recording and watch as he approaches us, catches wind only at our backs, and finally jumps off. The calls grow stronger and stronger, and morning slowly dawns. A quarter of an hour later, a shot erupts from where we know Boray and Istvan to be. We briefly look at each other and move on. Miro has no reception, so we keep stalking, unsure of what has happened. Now it’s morning and the forest has gone quiet. We decide not to go any further and choose a raised hide. Stipe stands below and tries the cow horn again. At first, nothing. Then there’s a crack from the right. I raise my gun. A young doe is crossing the path ahead of me.
Not far away, maybe 150 meters. With a little delay, a red stag follows her. It doesn’t take me long to realize that this could be, will be the one. The shot rings out, the stag takes off and collapses in the undergrowth after a brief flight. Now Stipe’s phone buzzes. It’s Istvan – Boray has managed to bag a very mature stag with surroyals, at the canal by the wallow. I am elated. We briefly consider which piece to retrieve first. Stipe calls a colleague with a suitable vehicle, whom we meet at the canal. Together with the overjoyed shooter, we retrieve the strong stag and transport it to the hunting lodge. On the way there, we load up my morning prey and prepare both animals together. What a morning – and what exciting, thrilling days we’ve had!