An unforgettable wild French boar hunting trip to Aude with Totally Boaring.
The boom was so loud I thought the sky was falling in. I crouched down, so adamant something awful was about to unfold I was in the first nanoseconds of bolting down into the belly of the valley below. My eyes struggled to adapt to the shock of the explosion. My ears felt soft and stuffed, my very skeleton was shaking. A bullet had just blown a thunderous rage through the tree straight in front of me; the exposed splinters bright and raw, the fragments goodness knows where. Where was the beast? Where was that shape, that grotesque, uneven bulk I had caught sight of only a few moments before? Had it fled, out there into the shadows, breathless and on a frenzied course? I couldn’t say. I was checking exits I’d guarded those few moments before that killing machine had scraped its thick greyness across my eyes. Even beforehand I was truly afraid, my heartbeat unsteady as the clang of cowbells affixed to the necks of hounds swarmed around our post. My throat was arid and closing in on itself. Every innocent sound was a taunting jab at my body.
Forty-eight hours earlier
All but two of the check-in desks at East Midlands Airport were vacant, black rope lines guiding no one to nowhere. I was part of a three-person delegation consisting of BASC vice chairman Mike Sherman, Emma, a former PR turned entrepreneur who set up our hosts Totally Boaring a year ago, and myself. Emma spoke with enthusiasm about the experience we were embarking on in Aude near the city of Carcassonne. She was realistic about the number of beasts we would come across in this expansive, boar-abundant countryside, and was quite proper on personal security; some 300 boar are taken by Servies chasse (our hunt) each year but it can come at a cost – one of their number was killed by a charging boar some years ago.
“I hope you like pastis!” Emma had written before we met, rousing my hopes we would be amongst buoyant company; I was determined to come away with an understanding of what “liberté, egalité, fraternité” really meant to the hunting peoples of southern France. I discovered from various sources that French hunters (chasseurs) – in this case “very hospitable, real salt of the earth types” – suffer the same stigma from the urban population as we do at home, the critics often being idealists who move to the countryside and then seek to change it to satisfy their disillusions about rural life. French hunters even have a derogatory nickname, “Les Sangliers”, but they seem to enjoy using it themselves (if only to rub detractor’s noses in it).
We were collected from a baking Carcassonne Airport by David, a friend of Emma’s who has called France home since the turn of the millennium. An artistic and intelligent man without any pretence, the Scotsman has fully embraced every aspect of the lifestyle here and seems to know a little something about everyone and everything in his enclave – the ideal person to have around in a crisis and celebration. Warm air bathed the vineyards and olive groves along Route 20, a network of five lengths of curling highway built into the sandstone valleys leading towards Lagrasse, wherein later that afternoon we drank reds and whites from Corbières vineyards in Les Vins Sur Le Fruit, a little wine shop set back off the cobbled streets of the square. Emma and David know owner Lauren Jamois well, and although their knowledge of local food and wine is impressive, even they could not have planned the digestif supplied by a tiny local on our way out – it turned out to be the former mayor – who described in enthusiastic detail the pleasure British pubs had provided during what sounded like pretty heavy rugby trips over the years.
We ate well at Emma’s house later in the evening, David engaging us with tales of the humorous jams and colourful characters he has encountered. Our feast was a three-course meal including fresh local hams and cheeses, all prepared by Helma, whose smile lit the evening as the sun fell below the mountains surrounding our tree guarded pile. We clinked glasses to what lay ahead.
Into the darkness
We headed out into the black of the early hours towards the hunting lodge around 12km away, eventually arriving in a large yard full with Frenchmen in camouflage trousers and orange gilets. The harshly lit lodge, like a small church hall, had a chipped green table surrounded by an assortment of wooden, steel and plastic chairs running through its middle. Cigarette smoke masked photographs of hunts past on the wall. Mike and I remained on the outskirts of conversations as everyone shook hands with us or kissed Emma twice. David translated the briefing affixed to a wall: we were shown exactly where we’d be hunting, and reminded about the etiquette – much of which is similar to that on driven shoots at home; my only unease the thought of being on ground level with our quarry.
The hunting party was joined by the large pack of hounds barking around a pen adjoining the lodge. All would eventually be fitted with tracking devices and cowbells, crucial for their survival in the woods and mountains against both the hunter’s bullet and the boar themselves. The assembly hushed as Gerrard, the president of the Servies chasse, called them forward. A 50-year veteran of the region who has shared his experience with an international audience, Gerrard is a small, stout man who knows every kind of boar trait imaginable. There was a gleam in his eye while explaining what would happen during the day.
Mike (the only gun on our two-man team) and I rode to our post high up in the mountains with Francois, who communicated with laughter and passionate hand signals. From our perch not even halfway up the mountain we could just about work out where the yard was amongst the sprinkling of sun-bleached buildings as the morning mist began to choke the valley. A horn sounded way in the distance: the hounds and their handlers were loose.
For the first time in our trip Mike and I were completely cut off from the familiar. The range finder around Mike’s neck gave us an idea of the distance to the potential gaps boar might exploit; getting a sense of our position and being alert to these gaps were important aspects of our introduction to wild French boar hunting. Redwings, swallows and finches circled our post while we played our waiting game. Sometimes an hour would go by with only the sound of our own whispers for company, sometimes we would shoot up at the distant hound’s jangling neck or the orange flash of a handler, all the time bracing ourselves for a panting boar’s heavy footsteps. There was occasional muffled rifle fire, and while a tiny boar and even a roe deer sprang out metres from our post neither presented a safe shot. Although we came down from the hill with an empty bag later that afternoon it transpired others had been busy, with seven roe deer and two medium-sized boar having been taken.
That night we ate like kings amongst these peasant farmers and I truly began to understand just what the hunt meant to the hunters. The international language of hunting doesn’t often suffer from mistranslations, and even when it does the love of the outdoors, dogs and a respect for sportsmanship shines through. After a short chorus of horns in respect of the quarry we began our celebration of the day. My pastis was something I’ll never forget and it was ironic that I croaked “fire” when Mike asked my opinion, as at that same moment a pyre of hay bales packed with salty muscles was lit in front of the assembled crowd. It felt like Christmas at the dinner table, each of us on a chair slightly higher or lower than our neighbours’. Emma and David joined us for our three courses including cassoulet, a peasant dish of haricot beans, sausages, duck and pork skin named after the large vessel from which it is served. We even drank luxuriant Castelnaudary red from a recycled Coca-Cola bottle.
It was while sampling a neighbour’s tarte tatin that Mike and I realised we were truly amongst friends. As others wiped crumbs from their lips or pursed them to take in more champagne we sensed a presence at our backs and turned to find Gerrard with a hand placed lightly on our shoulders. I gulped when someone shouted “sing!” but as Emma translated Gerrard’s words we couldn’t help but feel humbled.
We were thanked for our attendance, there was hope we’d enjoyed our day’s hunting and were looking forward to the day’s hunting to come, and as a token of our new friendship we were presented with wines from Corbières on behalf of the chasse and a hunting knife on behalf of the Fédération Départementale des Chasseurs de l’Aude which controls the eight hunting societies that hunt across 24,000 acres in the region. Mike, visibly moved by this gesture, made a short speech on our behalf, mirroring the sentiments expressed by Gerrard, and received a huge round of applause.
I’ll never forget the day that followed. I’ll always tell anyone who’ll listen that the boar was the size of a fridge and as fierce as a pride of lions. Mike would have taken that boar cleanly save for the tightly knitted trees, and it was with wide eyes and much gesturing our fellow hunters described what they had seen after his shot rang out. As we bade farewell to David at the airport we were sincere to Emma in our wish to return to Aude, and not just for the thrill of the hunt but to once again be amongst French country folk it will be impossible to forget.
For more information on French boar hunting with Totally Boaring, visit totallyboaring.com