Days under the Northern Territory sun

Having lived in the Northern Territory in the late-80s and early-90s for some eight years, it continually draws me back for more Top End adventures. Under a hot Territorian sun, it boasts some of the world’s best barramundi fishing, along with great pig and buffalo hunting, representing an outdoorsman’s paradise.

The allure of days under the NT sun while hunting the Asiatic water buffalo is our incentive when travelling in a vehicle for three long days. Those hours of seemingly endless straight, flat bitumen roads with white lines flashing past. Or the bull dust almost overwhelming us on corrugated trucking roads of the north. Dodging sharp rocky extrusions and pot holes, with providence on our side, we experienced only two punctures but this all became a distant memory as we reached our destination.

Having first hunted buffaloes during the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC) in the mid-80s, I was eager to see how the species had fared. I returned to the Territory on a number of occasions but had never managed to acquire a quality bull. It always amazes me how these animals had survived so many onslaughts on their being. This includes the BTEC project and of more recent times, their capture for the live export market. 

Our party of four hunters consisted of Tobias, his father John, Binga and me. Buffaloes are large beasts and can present a threat to any hunter’s safety. Ross, the brother of the Traditional Owner, escorted us for the first few days until we became acquainted with the wilderness area. Then he left us to our own devices.

Binga and John, new to buffalo hunting, had been elected first cabs off the rank. Hunting in the NT is so different to tracking deer in the southern states. Hunting areas are massive, often measured in hundreds of square kilometers, with game sparsely spread to accommodate for the lack of water and feed.

Our party were all normally deer hunters, often backpacking into rugged zones to chase samba and red deer. We were hardened by roving the craggy mountainous country of Victoria and Queensland so we employed a spot-and-stalk method for our buffalo outing. This required traversing bush tracks by vehicle until buffaloes were spotted, which was often a kilometre or more away. Then we would disembark the vehicle, make a plan, don our backpacks and begin a stalk.

Two days had passed before we had an old bull on the radar. A flurry of wind blew across our path enabling us to move within 40m. As Binga looked for a tree to rest his rifle, the breeze changed direction by 90 degrees. Suddenly the gust was coming from behind us. Instantly the bull stood and looked directly at the source of its disturbance, positioning a shrub between Binga and its vitals. Quickly dropping to one knee enabled Binga to fire under the foliage. The bull hunched over, ran 30m then stood for a few seconds and fell to his well-placed shot. Binga had just taken a very good bull, one to be proud of.

We spent several mornings chasing some fine buffalo bulls but due to the fickle nature of the wind or the dry undergrowth they were alerted to our presence and disappeared. For the third straight day John had not been able to close the deal, due to these winds and scrub as well as some grief inflicted by an injured toe. On the fourth day, it needed all the persuasive powers of Tobias to encourage John to leave camp and continue hunting.

Once again bad luck plagued John. We had seen an impressive bull which Tobias, John and I had pursued for a couple of hours to no avail, having left Binga and Ross at the vehicle. On our return Binga informed us he had spotted another bull with a couple of cows in tow. Tobias, John and I headed after the bull. We had the breeze in our favour yet for some reason the bull began to push his cows. Unperturbed we followed, through open bloodwood forests to a grassy plain, always just too far away to set John up for a shot. Finally, the bull began running while cajoling his cows, ending our stalk.

Tired, we headed for the vehicle. While crossing the plain we came across a hidden valley. As we began to walk down into the drop we spotted sleeping buffaloes. Using the walls of the valley to our advantage, we glassed the dozing group. There seemed to be a buffalo under every stand of available shade, but no bulls. I am not sure how long we were there; it may have been an hour or more.

As we called the hunt off the wind changed direction, alerting the buffaloes to our presence. One cow made a break for it, the rest followed. I gave up counting the herd as the bulk of them disappeared through the scrub but my estimate put it at 75 buffaloes charging along the valley floor.

By the time we arrived at the vehicle John was suffering, so we headed for camp. Driving along an open plain, a large bull was seen meandering towards a shaded area. Quickly out of the vehicle, the hunt was on with some 400-500m between us. The bull stopped ambling and began walking with some intent diagonally away, with little chance of us keeping pace. Unexpectedly the bull reached a shady tree and stopped for a nap, enabling us to close the gap.

Tobias, who had been encouraging John all along, now had him resting on a tree 60m from the bull. John raised his .404 Jeffery to his shoulder firing a fatal shot into the bull. Expecting a victory salute, I was mystified as John buried his head into his available hand. The scope had bitten with its recoil, leaving John with an unforeseen reminder of hunting buffaloes ‑ a Weatherby eyebrow.

On approaching the downed bull, it was obvious another first-class animal had been taken. The Weatherby eyebrow was distracting John from the discomfort of his foot as the relief of achievement overtook him and he returned to his jovial self. If ever a man had earned his trophy it had to be John. Through plain discomfort John managed to remain upbeat making it a pleasure to be with him when his .404 did the job.

When dressing the buffaloes, we had removed the cheeks of the two animals. Once back at camp Binga placed them in his oven to slow cook over coals the next day. Eleven secret herbs and spices created a treat, as the meat was beautifully tender and sweet. Our hunting group feels strongly about looking for ways to utilise any animal taken, preferring minimal waste.

John’s injured foot precluded him from participating in further hunts, so he chose to remain in camp as we drove out across the open plains to look for buffaloes. The mercury slipped past the 30C mark by 10am with no hint of a breeze. Fortunately, humidity remained low as expected during the dry season, confirming our decision to hunt the NT in July. Nights had been cool and comfortable, helping us recover from long hours under the burning sun.

For the first time since our arrival buffaloes were scarce. Along the long dusty plain, countless times we stopped to glass a distant black object, only to be engulfed in a cloud of bull dust. Once the bull dust cleared, came the realisation that the dark object shimmering in the heat invariably was an ant hill or a stump. The track we drove along eventually took us to dry swampland that extended over kilometres of country, where the buffaloes were known to congregate in vast numbers. Generally, on our arrival it was normal to see black dots widely distributed over the swamp. Today the naked eye could find nothing through the shimmering haze, though when we raised our binoculars one or two cows with calves were located, but no bulls.

Suddenly Tobias, who was off to our left, whistled for our attention. We looked over as he raised his arms to indicate he had found a bull. There was no doubt this was a bull worth investigating. With much open ground between us and the buffalo it was decided Binga would stay put in the shade and glass. If we couldn’t see the bull, Binga would hand signal, directing us.

Ensuring the breeze favoured us, we began our stalk with the bull facing our direction. Trees were sparse between us and the bull with 50 to 70m gaps. The ground undulated slightly, allowing us to crawl along on hands and knees. Then the animal decided it was time for a nap, lying down facing away from us.

We seized the opportunity, closing the distance to 50m hidden behind separate trees 20m apart. As the bull was sleeping Tobias raised his rifle and studied the animal through the scope, ready to shoot.

With the bull in his sights and squeezing the trigger, our zephyr changed direction. Immediately, the bull began to rise at the instant Tobias’s trigger broke, sending off an errant projectile. Stunned the bull ran 50m in a semi-circle before stopping, unsure of what had disrupted his sleep. That was a fatal mistake, as Tobias fired a well-placed shot into his engine room, killing the bull on the spot. As we closed in we saw heavy horns, broomed and chipped from years of defending his territory, on a first-class trophy any hunter would be proud of. We butchered the bull after our photo session. Nothing was going to wipe the smile off the face of Tobias ‑ he had achieved what he had set out to do.

It was roughly 2pm when we finished with the bull, too early to head back to camp so we drove the length of the swamp. A few buffaloes were seen but all ran at the sight of the vehicle, a repercussion of bull catchers having worked the area in the past. By mid-afternoon a swirling breeze developed due to the heat of the sun on the baked dry swamp, making it difficult to close in on buffaloes. We had several starts but all finished with buffaloes, the winners.

Our day was coming to a close as we began the drive back to camp. Feeling weary, it was difficult to stay awake listening to the rhythmic hum of the motor while rocking to the gentle motion of travel as we left the swamp for the plains There was about an hour of light left when Tobias spotted a buffalo away in the distant cleft of a valley floor where two hills were separated by an opening to yet another plain. Tobias quickly surveyed the bull using his 15x binoculars and said: “This needs a closer look.” Binga parked the vehicle at the foot of a rise, so using the incline for cover we started our stalk.

Descending to the cleft at the base of both hills, we arrived at what looked like buffalo paradise. There were wallows still holding water and green pick everywhere, yet no buffaloes to be seen. Daylight was quickly fading as we pushed on. We wouldn’t have moved more than 50m when Tobias signalled. Slipping up beside him I saw something I had been waiting years to behold. It was a huge old buffalo with long heavy horns, feeding without a care in the world. This was my chance, so I moved over to a tree for a rest, only to be blocked by another tree, forcing me to swing left. Now behind a tree I could use as a rest, with the buffalo in front of me I raised the .416 Ruger and released its deadly medicine.

One shot was all it took and the buffalo was mine. As we closed in I took a closer look at the buffalo’s body. Its skin hung loosely like an old sheet hanging over a clothes horse, hip bones protruding and ribs visible. On closer inspection its left eye was blind and the right eye had begun to cloud over. Opening its mouth there were stumps where teeth once stood proud. This old fella was on his last legs. I had done him a favour.

If ever an animal was a trophy this old boy met the criteria. Well past his prime, he was probably destined to suffer a slow and hungry death had it not been for the merciful bullet of a hunter, making me proud to be that hunter.

We returned to camp quite a satisfied bunch. With the hunting finished, it was time to break out the fishing rods and relax on the Roper River and catch a barramundi. Regrettably as fishermen we make very good hunters. The motor on the boat we borrowed played up, forcing us to use the foam we had as cushions and the landing net, with plastic bag wrapped around it, as a paddle. That’s exciting when you have been told you are in the domain of a 4m crocodile.

No fish were caught but my camera had a workout as the wildlife was prolific. The laughs and company were the best part of our final few days as our trip dwindled away. A day or so later I would look in the rear-view mirror and watch the last Northern Territory sunset we were privileged to see, as we passed the Queensland border sign. Hopefully it won’t be long before I am back again in the great hunting ground of the Territory.

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