The kernel of an idea
Over the second half of 2022 I had been contemplating finding an area large enough for me and a few friends to do some archery flight shooting. Generally that means somewhere big, remote and safe enough where you can aim for the sky and see how far you can send an arrow.
Archery flight shooting has a long history as a sport in both the west and east. The version of it that I’m drawn to has its origins in the middle of the second millennium CE in the Ottoman Empire. As archery began to decline as a military discipline, there arose at the same time forms of archery for sport, meditation and mindfulness – a martial art rather than a strict military discipline. Archery has deep roots in Islam, and believers are exhorted by the prophet to practise archery, for both mind and body.
Anyhow, as my thinking progressed, I talked to a few others, and it quickly became obvious that there was both a lively interest in and appetite for an organised flight shooting event along Ottoman menzil lines … or indeed along any line!
It seems to have been at least a decade, in some parts of Australia several decades, since any kind of western flight shooting event had occurred.
Finding a venue
So I started looking around in my part of central Victoria, for a suitable airstrip. Rural airstrips are ideal, because generally they have at least one runway that is around one kilometre in length. The runway surface is generally earth or gravel, and there are wide grassy verges. And they are ‘no go’ zones for general human or livestock activities. The first one I looked at was too busy – home to a very active gliding club. Next I looked at a small seldom used – but maintained for emergency landings and navigation exercises – airstrip near home. The Castlemaine airstrip at Yapeen. I contacted the owner/manager and he was quite relaxed about well controlled flight shooting on the airstrip. We just needed to get out of the way in the event that a plane needed to land there!
I practised out at Yapeen a few times and started to get a feel for how far an inexpert flight archer could send an arrow with non-specialised archery gear. In my case that was about 240m. In international competition with specialised gear, some archers reach 550m. Historical Ottoman records in the region of 800m are known, but it’s not very likely that I or anyone I know would get anywhere near that kind of incredible achievement. Well, not on first try anyhow!
Let’s get organised
Once I started to put out feelers about a date to shoot at Yapeen in a bigger group, the interest snowballed. I had a few weeks to get organised, and large numbers interested. Time to bring in some experts in archery event management.
Enter Omar Haniffa from Archery Ascension – an Ottoman style archery club from SE Melbourne, about 2 hours drive from Yapeen. Quickly we decided to cap the event (at 25 archers) and make it a pilot, so we could learn from the experience and plan for bigger events in the future. Traditional bows only, mostly thumb-shooters (but not exclusively), any kind of arrows allowed for this pilot event – no compound bows or crossbows!
I set aside about a dozen places for people from the Thumbshooters_ANZ group on Facebook that had expressed interest from the start, and then we opened it up to members of Archery Ascension and Maydaan Archery Club (from Sydney). We had ourselves some hot property, and the 25 slots were gone in no time at all.
As the 25 archers started to plan their trips, it quickly became obvious that nearly all the regular accommodation in the region was booked out, or booked out before our eyes as we searched. It’s perhaps a criticism of my somewhat narrow focus on other matters, that I was unaware that the weekend we had selected had (a) the Castlemaine Truck Show for two days, and (b) Nick Cave and Warren Ellis opening their Australian tour at Hanging Rock just to the south. The ‘Maydaanis’ found somewhere in Bendigo, around 30-40 minutes north. I stayed at home in Castlemaine and a couple of others parked their campers at the main caravan park in town. Most others camped at the beautiful campground in the crater of the volcano at Lalgambuk (Mount Franklin) south of Yapeen towards Daylesford. We were ready to go!
The day finally arrived
Early on the morning of Saturday 26/11/2022, I received sad news from Omar that there had been a death in his close family, and that he would be staying home to be with them. He had delegated Issam Ben Mansour to be his replacement in helping me run the event. The Archery Ascension (AA) team was ready to step in for Omar, and they did the club proud.
Tom Panic and I caught up shortly after for a quick Turkish coffee at Das Kaffeehaus in Castlemaine. Tom had travelled down some 1,600km from Brisbane for this event. I think that’s the definition of ‘keen’.
Then I made my way to Lalgambuk campground to meet the rest of the group. A convoy of AA members arrived from Melbourne. The Maydaan archers arrived from Sydney (~850km) via Bendigo, and a few others from parts of Victoria arrived a little later to the airstrip in Yapeen. After AA rustled up a delicious lunch it was time to head to Yapeen and start flinging arrows.
Yapeen, day 1
Under a threatening stormy sky we gathered at the airstrip in Yapeen – 25 archers, and nearly as many again onlookers. From that moment on the tone was set. Smiling faces, joyful greetings. It was without a doubt the friendliest and most supportive group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend time with. It’ll live in my heart for a long time yet.
After a few preliminaries about safety and the order of business, it was time to start flinging arrows down range. There was a reasonably strong and gusty northerly breeze blowing, so we set off for the North/South runway. The shooting line was marked and archers started to step up and shoot!
Five arrows each, 25 archers
125 arrows later the task began of finding the arrows that had mostly landed in short grass. A few took longer to find. Arrows were spread out along the airstrip from about 150 to 350 metres from the shooting line. Mine were just short of 260m!
When I first started contemplating a friendly, informal flight shoot, I hadn’t quite thought far enough ahead to realise that this would be a significant history-making event. The first official Australian menzil flight shooting records were being made. Right there in Yapeen, Mount Alexander Shire, Victoria.
All the archers went to stand beside their longest shots, to wait for me to come and measure the distance.
All throughout, people gathered in groups to watch or offer assistance. The mood was like a giant family get-together, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many smiling faces.
Just as we were coming to the end of measuring the first round of arrows, the storm that had been threatening from the west arrived. The rain managed to drive most of us into the shelter of the lee side of the aircraft hangar building, and so there we made some presentations.
Longest shot of the round, and therefore the first Australian menzil distance record holder, was by Mesud Sinanovic (Maydaan Archery Club) at 350m.
Second place went to Issam Ben Mansour (Archery Ascension) at 302m.
A beautiful gift from Paul Handley and Maydaan Archery Club was a commemorative medallion for all the participants, and special ones for first and second place distance.
As it was just rain but no lightning, a few crazy people went back out on to the runway and shot some more. Others started to make their way back to town or camp to get warm and dry.
After an action packed day, the first day of menzil competition was over.
Yapeen, day 2
It rained a little more overnight, but not much. Day 2 dawned with sunshine, and still a bit of a breeze, but really not too bad.
We were scheduled to go down to the roving/stumping course in the forest, but overnight Ahmed Karat made the suggestion that we instead go back to the airstrip for more menzil. Given how far many had come, and how rare the opportunity is to flight shoot on suitable ground, it was a great suggestion.
So we gathered again at Yapeen, and in much better weather proceeded to engage in a few hours of much more relaxed flight shooting. Some people had gone back to Melbourne the night before, but we still had about 20 archers shooting.
The occasion was right to try a few different techniques and items of equipment. Yesterday had all been shot with fairly standard bows and target arrows, with some tweaking of arrows to make them lighter and with adjustments to weight distribution, etc. Today we’d be doing more of that, but also seeing some use of overdraw devices such as majra and siper, and some highly specialised flight shooting arrows. Beautiful, delicate, hand-crafted wooden arrows with integral nocks, little paper fletches, and minute bone or horn points.
Archery scholar Bede Dwyer talked about various aspects of historical Ottoman flight archery, and demonstrated use of the majra and siper. Others such as Mesud Sinanovic and Ustadh Ahmed Karat joined in and shot majra, siper and tiny menzil arrows. Oscar shot his majra too. Many looked on, lots of questions were asked, much learning occurred. Those of us who had little direct flight shooting experience learned and practised new tweaks to form, and got ideas about making better arrows for next time. The friendly collegial atmosphere was awesome.
A new Australian menzil record was set when Issam shot 371 metres! Mesud lost a menzil arrow somewhere past there (it will be the stuff of legends!).
By about 11am it was time to close the flight shooting. Some travellers were heading straight back to Tumut and Sydney in NSW and needed to get on the road. Others needed a rest. Lots of friendly farewells, and enthusiasm for the next one!
The balance headed off south to Franklinford for some roving and stump-shooting in the forest.
Day 2 epilogue – roving in the forest
A much smaller group made it to the roving site near Hunters Creek in the Upper Loddon State Forest.
For most this was an even less familiar aspect of archery than flight shooting, with a whole different set of challenges. Every shot is at a different distance and elevation, and the extent that you’ll need to thread a shot through gaps amongst the trees. Not to mention that in bright sunlight, some of the tags I’d placed were hard to see (yellow) – maybe a different colour next time!
I had set out 10 shots in the forest, ranging from about 20 – 80 metres in length, criss-crossing a gully. Off we went, and people started having fun. Most took to it pretty quickly, and enthusiastically.
We spent a little bit of time looking at wildflowers (smelling the Chocolate Lilies), signs on the forest floor like the foraging marks of Echidnas and White-winged Choughs. We saw a group of half a dozen kangaroos stream by at close range. We talked about walking mindfully, feeling the changes in the ground for places where tracks and other signs might be more visible. We looked for pathways through the forest, and at how the gullies and hills influence the movement of animals.
I think we have converts to this distinctive, enjoyable and relaxing form of archery. One which is much less commonly performed with Asiatic reflex bows and thumb rings … but that might change over time.
After some farewells, and cries of “… we must do this again, really soon …” … the weekend activities were over and it was time to go home.
I think by any measure the inaugural Australian flight shooting event was a huge success. Sure, the archery was awesome, but the vibe from the big archery family coming together to practise and learn together and make new friends was simply wonderful.
We certainly must do this again, and soon.
Watch this reel from Archery Ascension for a sense of how wonderful the weekend was.
My archery account on Instagram is here.