A risky reality

Don Caswell is reminded of the importance of caution, not complacency, when out hunting

I am lucky to live in a game rich area with hunting opportunities right on my doorstep. I take advantage of that and, depending on the weather, I hunt multiple times in any week.

It is convenient and easy being able to conduct quick half-hour hunts at dawn or dusk while having the rest of my day clear for other activities. Being in such constant and close contact with my hunting locations, it would be easy to slip into a sense of complacency as to the ever-present risks involved in my undertakings.

The most obvious risk, and one that I am well aware of, is of snake bites. Our area has an abundance of snakes, both harmless and deadly, and I encounter them regularly. For years now, when out in the bush, I have worn knee-high, heavy-duty gaiters. I also carry a small emergency kit with a pressure bandage and a personal safety beacon. Most of the places I hunt offer no mobile phone coverage, so there is usually not a chance of calling the cavalry in the event of a mishap.

One week, in the space of two days, I was graphically reminded of some of the other risks that can arise, for any hunter. I had walked into a spot where I planned to try and call in the area’s pair of alpha wild dogs. There had been a series of attacks on calves on this and the neighbouring properties. The farmers, and myself, had sighted a pair of large wild dogs. I secreted myself in among a fallen tree, after checking for snakes, spiders and scorpions, then began to call.

Almost immediately, a pair of wild dogs appeared and headed in my direction from a few hundred metres away. There was a red male dog and a smaller black bitch. I did not need to call again as they had read the bearing of my call perfectly. Slowly, I chambered a round in my .243 Win rifle and raised it to the shooting position on my Primos Trigger Stick. The dogs had not seen me and continued to close in. As has often happened, the female then slowed and held position about 200m away while the male jogged on straight towards me.

When he was within 100m and in an open patch of pasture I gave a little yelp. He stopped and lifted his head to investigate. My 100-grain Nosler Partition killed him instantly with a front-on chest shot.

The female bolted at speed for the heavy jungle a few hundred metres away. I gave a few calls, hoping to stop her before she moved too far away, to no avail. I have noted that most fleeing dogs will briefly halt for a quick look before they enter cover. I prepared for a long shot and gave a strident howl. On the edge of the jungle, she slowed and stopped to look back. She was a fair way off but it was a dead calm early morning. I only ever take long shots at dogs with an adequate calibre. I held about 300mm above her chest and squeezed off a shot. The bullet took a noticeable time to cover the distance. There was the smack of a solid hit as she took off into the jungle.

I set off, detouring past the male to confirm he was dead. I made my way to where she had been when I shot her. I found a blood trail and made ready to go after her in the thick tropical jungle. I was a little apprehensive about that. I had not brought either my compass or GPS as I was not expecting to leave the pasture and this was the edge of an enormous swathe of rough country cloaked in the heaviest jungle. It would be easy to become lost.

I took note of the sun’s position before entering the thick stuff and figured that would guide me. Plus, the blood trail was copious. I expected the dog would have bled out in a few seconds and should not be too far into the undergrowth. After the shot at her companion, I reckoned her adrenalin was high and that had enabled the dash into cover.

The vegetation was of lawyer cane, wait-a-while and heavily thorn-encrusted small palms, that filled the understory below the larger trees. I was pleased to find that the sun, seen dimly through the heavy leaf canopy above, was indicating a steady south-west direction. It was slow going, staying on her trail, constantly fighting the clawing vegetation and trying to keep track of where I was.

After slowly tracking through and fighting the thorny scrub I found the bitch dead. She had already begun to stiffen, having died within seconds of my shot. Distance wise, she had not gone too far and would have covered that much quicker than my slow going. I looked up. In the meantime, clouds had rolled in and I had lost sight of the sun. However, I thought I knew the direction needed to backtrack directly to the nearest area of farmland. I figured that should not take long at all, now I was freed from tracking the dog and only had to contend with the undergrowth.

After half an hour, I was in even heavier jungle and much more rugged terrain than I had passed through earlier. There was no denying it, I was bushwhacked. A time-out was required to think carefully through my situation and the best response to it. In seeking to gain my way down to a steep gully’s floor, to grab a drink of water, a combination of my foot slipping in leaf mulch and a tripping creeper sent me crashing down. Luckily, the only thing broken was my Primos trigger stick, but I did add a few more abrasions and bruises to my growing collection.

I had a thermos cup that I had brought my coffee in with. In the trickle of water running along the gully floor, I rinsed the cup then had a big drink. It had been a strenuous effort and stressful. I was a lather of sweat and needed to guard against dehydration and the confusion that comes with that. I refilled the flask and put that in my small daypack for later need. I sat and focused on my breathing and went through a mental relaxation routine. When I felt that I was calm, I took stock of what I had.

I had my emergency beacon which I reckoned I would activate by mid-afternoon, if I was still lost at that stage. There was no signal on the phone, but that was expected. The phone did have a compass but, having previously found it to sometimes to be badly in error, I was not willing to use it. I did remember sending a satellite photo of this area to the farmer, showing him where I had only recently shot a big boar. I pulled that photo up and studied it. I realised my mental vision of the terrain was a bit out. Clearly, I had been tracking slowly away from the farm and deeper into the jungle. Distance wise, I would be no more than a couple of hundred metres from the farm boundary.

As if on cue, a feeble sunbeam lit on me. The clouds had cleared a little. It was now mid-morning and, allowing for that and direction of the sun at that time and season, I estimated I only needed to walk towards the sun to find my way back. I deliberately took my time, carefully placing every step. Straining an ankle or breaking a leg would be disastrous. I was never so pleased to see the open pastures that I had left a couple of hours earlier. I had ‘dodged a bullet’ on that one as they say.

Two days later, I was back on the horse, as it were, in pretty much the same location. I had a multitude of scratches, leech bites and few good bruises as souvenirs from my previous trip. In addition, I carried a raft of strict admonishments from my wife and family about staying on the pasture, no matter what, and being home by a set time.

It was a late afternoon and I was hoping to see, and shoot, a particularly large boar reported by the farmer at that time and location. I had only just sat down and become organised when I saw a good-sized sow and two half-grown pigs, a few hundred metres away. I watched them for a while, taking photos and hoping they would be joined by the big boar.

With my allotted time frame starting to narrow, I decided to sneak closer for some better photos, then shoot whatever pigs were available and head home. It was an easy stalk into the wind to be within 100m. I sat on the ground, rifle in my lap with the bolt half-open, taking photos. However, the sow was busy feeding and most of the time her head was obscured by grass and weeds. I wanted to grab a few photos of her with her head up.

I was carrying a pig squealer which invariably gains the attention of feral pigs. I thought I would give that a toot and then manage plenty of photos while she looked about in response. I gave the squealer a toot and the sow launched instantly into a flat-out charge towards me, grunting angrily with all her hackles up. I dropped my expensive camera unceremoniously in the dirt, snatched up the rifle, slammed the bolt home and aimed at the pig hurtling toward me. Click! In my haste, I had not chambered a round. Luckily, the sow stopped to huff and puff only 30m to 40m distant. I hurriedly chambered another round and shot her between the eyes.

In my entire hunting career, of more than 50 years, I have never been seriously charged by anything, so this was a first. When I lived in the Territory, I shot hundreds of buffaloes, wild cattle and some big boars. A few times, some of the buffaloes and bulls looked like they might be considering a charge, but I was able to ballistically persuade them otherwise.

If I had been photographing a scrub bull or a buffalo, I would have made sure my rifle was ready to shoot before playing with the camera. The takeaway lesson was that all wild animals are potentially dangerous to the hunter and it is wise to treat them all with respect and due caution.

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