John Dunn continues his Cobourg Peninsula adventure in the second of a three-part special
By Top End standards the morning was remarkably quiet. While the adults sat around talking and planning, Dylan and Noah took a stroll along the low tide shoreline and returned with a mud crab they’d speared in the shallows. In the middle of the afternoon we went back to the flood plains of yore and, as they had the day before, groups of horses ruined our attempts to approach the edge of the timber quietly. Muttering dire threats about the horses’ doubtful future, Rob Tritten stopped the truck and we waited in the shade for things to settle down around us. It was good to sit without being bounced from pillar to post ‑ a bone-shaking reality when traversing the flood plains no matter what sort of vehicle you’re in.
When the ground’s wet at the start of dry season the horses, banteng cattle, buffaloes and pigs walk all over it and if they’re lucky will only sink hock deep. The pigs and buffaloes also wallow and just to keep things interesting the former turn over hectares of country with their snouts. As the season progresses the disturbed ground dries out and sets as hard as concrete under a concealing cover of dry grass. Consequently vehicles bounce and rattle and in many places it’s difficult for even a nimble hunter to walk comfortably. To try running incurs the possibility of broken limbs.
A banteng bull appeared in the timber some 300m away and looked us over carefully before prancing away. He looked like he was running on his toes, his gait more akin to a deer than a very bulky bovine. Through the trees we could see other animals out on the flood plains proper ‑ big and bigger, reddish brown and black animals with stark white caudal patches, easily recognisable as bulls by their size alone.
Way, way out the grey backs of buffalo bulls were just visible above the para grass horizon, all of them accommodating white egrets which continuously lifted and settled as they fed on insects disturbed by the bulls’ movement. Leaving the truck behind we paralleled the edge of the timber for a kilometre or so, heading towards a group of banteng bulls not far out on the plain. All but one was black and, as luck would have it, he was also the best. Rob looked at him carefully and nodded appreciatively with raised eyebrows.
You ‘guesstimate’ the length of a banteng’s horns by comparing them with his ears which, on a mature bull, will be around 10^ (25.4cm). A horn approaching two-and-a-half ear lengths or better is looking pretty good and while the tip-to-tip measurement adds appeal to the appearance of the trophy, it doesn’t contribute to the final score. We crabbed a little closer behind some termite mounds and looked again. With a grin on his face Caleb quietly reminded me I’d told him I wanted a black bull. He was right. I had and I did but right there and then the brown bull was the best on offer and there was no way I was going to pass him up.
At a little over 170m I shot him behind his right shoulder. He turned and lumbered away, clearly hit hard and not dancing along like the other bulls running with him, progressively falling back through their ranks until he was the tail-ender. We followed the dust and found him among the timber more than a kilometre away, his head down and wobbly on his feet, stubbornly resistant to the idea of falling over. Moving round to one side I put him down. He was an old bull, the growth rings on his heavy horns giving him an age of at least 13 years, teeth worn, face grey with a huge and heavy body which Rob reckoned would weigh at least 650kg.
Surrounded by a swarm of buffalo flies Rob began the job of caping my bull and at my request used a knife I’d made for him (I wanted his professional opinion on its design). He finished the job happy with the way it handled, cut and held its edge, a compliment I was happy to accept and by the time we made our way back to camp I’d already decided the bull would have to be pedestal mounted.
The following morning was another leisurely start as we didn’t have far to go. Perhaps 20 minutes from camp we turned off the main road on to a track little more than wheel marks through the burnt bush, heading for some spring country where Rob and Caleb had seen buffaloes and bantengs a few days earlier. Rob, Larissa and Noah headed off with their water bottles towards a creek line the dry season had reduced to a muddy string of spring-fed waterholes. Ostensibly they were after a buffalo bull for Larissa but in a plan that’d been hatched overnight, that wasn’t necessarily true.
Above the last springs they found a mob of bantengs including a couple of good bulls. With the breeze in their favour they eventually stalked to within about 80m at which point Rob asked Noah if he’d like to shoot the bull on the edge of the creek. Apparently the boy’s eyes lit up when Larissa said he could and with some gentle coaxing from Rob he was soon behind the rifle over the steady rest of a termite mound, the shot a good one with the bull moving no more than 30m before going down.
Then the excitement really set in. We all trooped down through the bush to help with the congratulations, caping and carry-out. Even now I’m not sure who was most pleased ‑ Noah, Larissa or a very proud grandfather who may or may not have had the faint glint of a tear in his eye when he stuck his hand out to congratulate the boy.
In the afternoon as the heat began to go out of the day, we left camp in search of a buffalo bull for Larissa. Parked in a skinny patch of shade just inside the tree line we put the binoculars to work and before long had picked out half-a-dozen buffaloes scattered across the plain among the bantengs. Two of them had broken horns, another was too small, a couple were too far out to see clearly which left only one that seemed to fit the bill, even if he was a couple of kilometres away.
We drove out on to the plain as far as we could safely go before Rob, Larissa and Caleb set off on foot, not an easy walk. The ground around the edges of the plain was cracked and fissured, hard on top but soggy underneath. The bantengs and buffaloes had worn dusty pads where they walked single file until reaching the softer going and spreading out to feed but even then it wasn’t easy.
Damp ground turned to mud which soon became waterlogged and sloppy, the depth of the moisture varying from sole shallow to knee deep. More water grows longer grass and as the hunt progressed visibility became increasingly limited. They had to work with the wind and sneak around other animals they didn’t want to disturb or antagonise as they passed and if anything went wrong, there was no hard cover to turn to.
Almost an hour after they’d started stalking, Larissa claimed her trophy ‑ a classic, big-bodied flood plains bull with the tips of his horns sharp and almost miraculously intact. With the sun dropping like a stone the decision was made to take the head only and leave the cape behind as it wouldn’t do to be caught on the plains after dark.
There were other buffaloes and bantengs to bump into, pigs, snakes and probably crocodiles so they had to start moving while they still had light to work with. The sun was almost gone when they reached the truck, hot and sweaty, worn out and wet and just in time to be welcomed by hordes of mosquitoes swarming out of the grass and cracks in the ground. Larissa had earned her bull the hard way, an experience I doubt she’ll ever forget.