The Prince Of The Infernal Valley

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Sometimes, hunting can take an unexpected turn. Arriving in the southwest of France, we had no idea what an adventure was awaiting us. Our quest was to find a roebuck, but it was a beast with horns that offered us a devilish hunt. Seated at a table with Marc Torrejos, the energetic president of the Sougraigne’s local hunters association, we sampled a delicious glass of homemade Carthagène. It was the beginning of June and although the temperature was still reasonable, it was muggy. The spirituous beverage was sufficiently refreshing, that we were tempted to drink more of it… without abusing it. One had to keep in mind, our host was a retired police officer!

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We were soon joined by Rémy, the town’s “whipper-in” (a huntsman in charge of keeping the hounds from straying). The young man was responsible for a pack of dogs that was used three times a week. From October until the end of February, they tracked in the 5000 hectares of the communal hunting area. It would be redundant to say that he knows every nook and cranny of the area like the back of his hand, as well as its inhabitants. Rémy interrupted us in a slightly abrupt fashion and commented: “So you’re going to rid us of these nasty goats?”. Seeing our surprise, Marc recapped the phrase in a language a bit more comprehensible for us newcomers: “Here we call the roe deer “goats”, regardless whether they’re does or bucks.

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To be perfectly honest with you, the local hunters don’t really like them since they prefer to hunt wild boar. Each time their dogs stumble upon roe they take up their track and leave that of the black beast behind.” Seen from this perspective, things were as clear as day. With no less of an enthused attitude, we changed into our exorcist’s clothes, ready to confront Satan’s beasts, who prevented our southern friends from easily conducting driven hunts with their favourite dogs. In the name of Zeus, down with the roe deer and long live the Sus scrofa!

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In less time than it would take to empty two glasses of Carthagène (since three would welcome disaster), we found ourselves crammed in Marc’s old Land Cruiser, climbing the one and only street in the valley. It was raining cats and dogs. Torrents of mud were coming down what was left of the forest trail that was devastated by last week’s storms. The windows were rendered opaque by a stubborn, thick layer of mud. We were undecided between the “can-of-sardines” version, or the “Turkish-hammam-on-wheels” version, but after a stretch of ten kilometres it was with great pleasure that we took in a breath of fresh mountain air. Our spirits were lifted.

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However, the ceiling was low, very low, and we found ourselves pawing through thick fog. It was definitely not a side effect of the Carthagène though, since our cop friend seemed as disoriented as we were. We stood still for a few moments and listened to the silence. It was interrupted by the flowing of water, dripping from an old gutter fixed to the wall of a ruin, featuring a gloomy silhouette. It was time for Marc, a real live encyclopedia, to enlighten us with a brief geology and history lesson. 215 million years ago, in a geologic era named the Keuper, a sea covered the Sougraigne region.

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Large quantities of salt accumulated here due to successive dry periods linked with evaporation. Geologic evolution followed its course by modelling the subsoil. In modern times, with the salt layer buried quite superficially, rainwater infiltrated the rock and dissolved the salt. The water then brought the salt to the surface, where it flowed into the waters of the Sals River, whose source was 100 meters from where we were standing. Throughout the centuries, the local populations profited from the salt, which was gained by water evaporation. Until 1383, it was used primarily for food preservation.

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After that, salt became a royal monopoly. In 1806, Napoleon re-established a tax on salt, rousing a rise in prices and in contraband; it was the only method of survival for farmers in the valley. Customs officers called “gabelous” controlled the area until the end of the 19th century. They were accommodated in a guard post, of which nothing remains today other than the famous ruin standing beside us.

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After the history/geography lesson, we moved onto botany, by plunging into the flower cloaked meadows. Especially numerous, were wild orchids. Suddenly, a strange noise rung out in the mist. Marc and Rémy stopped to have a listen, as we heard a new bleat to our right. “It’s the goats!” exclaimed Rémy. We couldn’t keep up with the story, since we didn’t know whether he was referring to roe whose vocal expressions had a particular accent from the south of France, or goats in the true, barnyard sense of the word. Seeing our confused faces, Marc informed us that a small group of domestic goats had escaped ten years ago and sometimes frequented the cliffs that loomed over the valley.

This was confirmed by Rémy, who added that the feral goats they were referring too, who sport the same title as the others (the roe deer), are a real disaster for the whippers-in, whose dogs had the tendency to be charmed by the caprine aroma. This temptation had already cost the lives of several of his good canine companions, who were pushed into the void by an enormous billy goat who loved to battle in vertiginous spots.

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According to the whipper-in, local hunters had tried several times to deliver a few grams of lead the billy’s way, but the precision of their “escopettas” (rifles), wasn’t sufficient to hit an object poised on an overhang 400 meters away. The horned animal was just shy of being attributed with magic powers, nay, evil powers, for his “immortality”. An innocent reflection by a naive tourist: “Can’t we just approach him?” The whipper-in’s response stung, “Think man! It’s too thick, too craggy, and laced with abysses!”

Unbelievable! We came here for a summer roe buck hunt and we found ourselves in thick fog with a supernatural billy goat, perched on an invisible and inaccessible cliff. We had made up our minds, we would come back tomorrow and try to end this legend.

The next morning at 5 am, we held our position far from the front line in the Gabelous’ ruin and waited for daybreak. The mist dispersed and we took a good look at the valley’s topography. Enormous cliffs, covered by thick forest, stood erect before us. After a four hour wait, a shape caught out attention: it was a goat. A real goat! The young female goat meandered along the ridge next to the void, swiftly followed by several colleagues as agile as the first. Rémy was feverish, torn between the longing to finish these dreadful beasts and the danger which would come with a stalk in this hostile landscape.

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As soon as the billy stepped out, his restlessness turned into excitement and we found ourselves behind the whipper-in, rushing into a patch of trees. We were quickly engulfed by a vegetation as thick as the skin of an old boar, and the slope transformed into a vertical wall. The rain from the previous days hadn’t compressed any of this green hell, which seeped from all sides. Within a few minutes we were soaked, covered in mud, and tangled in interlacing branches, brambles, and vines. The plants were winning.

After an hour of face-to-face battle with the nearly amorous plant life, that the mud had glued to our pants, we conquered the forest and arrived at the foot of the cliffs where our Beelzebub and his harem stood. We attempted to locate the horned beasts by listening, but not a sound disturbed the area’s silence, other than the explosion of a sounder of wild boar that certainly hadn’t seen the silhouette of a human the past three generations.

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We were faced with the task of finding a passage over the vertical wall that stood before us. This was done in twenty minutes, thanks to a trail used by wild game. Their hooves had luckily cut out distinct stairs in the wall. The mission was still just as dangerous, since one wrong step would mean a fall into one of the numerous chasms below. When we reached the plateau above us, the conditions became nothing but worse. Here, the wind had prevented any “normal” growth of the vegetation.

We expected to see Merlin emerge behind every malformed stump. We made better progress on all fours, occasionally crawling on our stomachs, after which we arrived at the edge of the cliff. From there, we could see all the way to the Corbières Massif. The location was ideal to take a short break and regain our strength, before continuing our attack on the diabolic billy. According to Rémy, he should be approximately 200 meters further to the west. This would place the wind in our favour, a great advantage that would allow us to surprise the goats, who had long regained their primal instincts. We were making progress, at times through the trees, at times on the crest, when Rémy finally hit the soil. The billy and two nannies were bedded 120 meters in front of us, to the right, on the edge of the cliff. We crept along the brim, avoiding the 80 meters of empty space to our right, until we discovered a window to shoot through.

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The animals hadn’t noticed anything. The billy was enjoying his cat-nap and soaking up the few stray rays of sunshine that pierced through the clouds. Two whistles should have provoked him enough to stand up, however, the years had had their impact on this old billy’s hearing. Finally, the 7×64 EVO flew towards the billy’s shoulder, who then rounded his back and disappeared behind a boulder! We remained stoical, and advanced towards the spot where the large horned animal had been, to search for clues… in vain.

We found fur, but no blood. How could it be?! We would try our best to clarify the situation before giving up. Rémy couldn’t bring himself to believe it, and searched the near-by brush, certain he’d find the quarry. We stayed behind, since it was useless to taint the trail with our scent. This would just complicate the job of the blood hound, who seemed more and more necessary with each second that passed.

Suddenly, we heard Rémy yelling, and watched him coming back, bounding along the edge of the precipice. He was running towards us and his face was pale. His speech was incomprehensible, but very quickly we put two and two together. A dozen goats, trailed by the billy, were chasing the whipper-in! Desperately, he threw himself into the undergrowth, to allow us to engage in a counter-attack against this troop straight out of hell, who seemed to want nothing more than to confront the intruders who had invaded their valley. Once again the RX Helix let a bullet fly, and this time grounded the devil, saving the whipper-in’s behind!


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Author:
Philippe Jaeger
Philippe Jaeger is originally from Alsace and in his youth he was opposed to hunting. He changed his opinion when he met people who explained to him that the foolish behaviour of some hunters had nothing to do with real hunting. Philippe got his hunting licence and bought a hunting dog, which he trained himself. Today he can’t imagine his life without hunting. He is now 46 years old and has a son, and, when he is not travelling around the world to go hunting, he enjoys his family life in the Vosges Mountains.
 

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