After a harrowing 5-day/900-mile, (1,500 kilometers), drive across the amazing expanses of the northern Gobi Desert, (see previous blog), we arrived at the site of the 16th Annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival just outside of Bayan-Olgii in Western Mongolia, (You recall, this is the “middle of nowhere”.), and parked to join the growing crowd of spectators. We knew there were a couple of problems with the rear suspension, but nothing that needed our immediate attention. The sun was shining in a futile attempt to warm an icy wind gusting across the field of competition. The temperature was hovering around freezing.
Things were just getting started with the first big contest. Ethnic Kazakh eagle hunters from all over this part of the country had gathered, reportedly some 72 of them. Dressed in their finest attire, they were a fierce bunch indeed. The real stars were the Golden Eagles, huge birds of prey, some weighing over sixteen pounds with wingspans up to 8 feet. In these mountains of the Mongolian Altai, eagle hunting has been a tradition for over 2,000 years.
In turn, each hunter, mounted on a stocky Mongolian horse, would start at the end of the field and call to his eagle, which at that moment, timed by the officials, would have its hood removed and be released by an assistant from a nearby hill. If the eagle was well trained and in tune with the game, she, (yes, females are normally used because they are larger than males), would hear the call of her owner and spot the dead rabbit or Corsac fox pulled behind his horse at a full gallop.
Approaching at speeds up to 150 miles per hour, (241 km/h), the eagle would zero in on the bait, and braking slightly at the last few seconds, hit the target, sharp talons extended, with up to 700 pounds of impact. Normally, in a real hunt, this would kill or at least stun the prey instantly. At this point, the trainer would quickly dismount and retrieve his bird to its perch on his thick leather glove, offering some tasty pieces of mutton or perhaps a rabbit leg. For the eagle, it may be sport. It may be a challenge. For sure, it’s about getting food, so in the mountains where hunting is done in the winter, the trainer must remove the eagle from the dead prey before the pelt is damaged.
If you look at the series of photos below, you may get an idea of the action which took mere seconds to photograph at a “high-speed continuous” setting. It was a very impressive demonstration of speed and power.
Each eagle contestant was timed from her release to final impact on the target. A fast kill could be 14 seconds from start to finish. In some cases, the eagle would circle for a few minutes, just enjoying the freedom of flight. In one case, spotting the dead rabbit drug behind her trainer’s horse, as the eagle came in for the kill, her attention strayed to a small dog in the crowd of spectators and, looking for something more filling, suddenly veered off and hit the poor dog. The trainer quickly rescued it, but we don’t know if the dog survived. The eagle was just doing what her instincts told her to do……get food.
Exhausted from our drive, we retired to the warmth of The Turtle V to take a shower and cook dinner. A nasty wind whistled outside. As we had many times on this trip, we were very glad to be in a warm hard-sided camper with the luxury of hot water and the convenience of our Thetford Porta Potti. The Espar Airtronic air heater purred away at its “maintenance” mode and our Espar D5 Hydronic, working with the FlatPlate fluid heat exchanger, gave us all the hot water we could use.
After a shot of Genghis Khan vodka, we slept soundly, glad to be off the road and looking forward to the next day’s competition.
Note: Click a photo for a bigger picture and then scroll quickly through the hunting scene to get a feeling for what transpires in just a few seconds!