Looking back

Matthew Cameron reminisces about hunting ‘the real Australia’ over two decades

Sometimes we come across issues in life that have a permanent effect on our lifestyle, although it may not be evident at the time. The year was 1980, when me and a mate were looking for an Outback property to shoot on, so nothing unusual about that.

We pooled our resources and success came when I remembered that a friend of my father came from an Outback area. Did he still have any contacts there? The result was a couple of names associated with large estates.

Travelling to such places 40 years ago was not to be taken lightly. The hard-topped roads disappeared just over the border and weather was a continual consideration, as an inch of rain could stop you for literally weeks. We plotted and planned and eventually came up with an idea. Two vehicles with trailers, as we had to be totally self-sufficient.

Firearms wise, there were several .22 Long Rifles. Personally, I had a Midland bolt-action rifle in .243 Winchester which I had handloaded for. My mates had shotguns, the inevitable .22LR and if I remember correctly a .303 British. Another member borrowed a lever-action .243 Winchester from within his family.

It was a long full day trip and dark when we drove into the station yard. Introducing myself to the owner, I mentioned my father’s mate who had given us his details and that we were just looking for a place to shoot. Quickly we were given instructions as to where we could set up camp. It was the beginning of a 20-year association. We had the distinct impression that he was glad to have someone to attack the feral animals, mainly pigs. At the time we were just unaware of what the floating population was in terms of numbers.

We awoke the next morning in a different world. It was dry, dusty and basically flat. We worked hard that week and our pig tally was about half-a-dozen spread between the four of us. It was a large property and the variation was immense. The first item of interest was the vast tracts of lignum, hundreds of acres in area, so thick that only a match or a tank could penetrate. There were enormous plains that were inundated with thousands of kangaroos. Further out were sandhills while the sparse lignum contained untold hordes of rabbits. We ran out of .22LR ammunition long before the week was over. A short session with the spotlight showed up many foxes, so it was a shooter’s paradise.

We explored every day and, on each occasion, we discovered something new. There were isolated dams scattered throughout the property, another haven for pigs in the late afternoon. We talked a lot on the trip home about what we were lucky to find. The first lesson was that pigs can carry lead, depending on just where they were hit, sometimes considerable amounts. The first item was to upgrade the firearm calibres. In my case we commenced a long love affair with the .270 Winchester cartridge, which was and still is a good pig round.

Subsequent trips increased the pig tally. Usually for a week it was not difficult to eliminate at least 50 of them. Sitting on any one of the many isolated dams from late in the afternoon became a favourite pastime and continued until after dark.

Most nights were spent spotlighting along the station tracks, the man with a self-loading .22 rifle was paired with something heavier on the back of the truck, usually a .243 Winchester or a .303-25 for the foxes we came across.

On one trip in the mid-1980s a mate took 40 foxes in a week, spotlighting with his .303-25. Oddly enough over the 20 years we shot there, the number of pigs in the light at night was minimal while spotlighting. Off the dams it was another matter entirely, as in the hotter months they just had to have water and kept coming back.

When it was cool enough, we walked the swamps, both wet and dry, for pigs. Again, in the cooler months I became fascinated with shooting the untold numbers of rabbits at long range, initially with the .243 Winchester which was quickly followed by a .22-250 Remington. There were so many targets it was necessary to limit your rate of fire to keep the barrel temperature in reasonable limits.

Associated with all of this was an increasing amount of handloading to feed the rifles. Both with the handloading and the game it was a continual learning curve that continues to the present day. The numbers of rabbits dropped dramatically mainly due to a drought in the mid to late 1980s. The pigs seem to survive but we noticed that the layer of fat they normally carried around the rib area soon disappeared.

At about this time another mate and I decided it was time to introduce our sons to the real Australia. We left the city behind early and arrived at the station about mid-afternoon, with the boys itching to shoot. We took them down to a patch of rabbits on the edge of the lignum. They bailed out pronto, two with self-loading .22s and the third with a pump-action shotgun. Within minutes all were calling for more ammunition. Us dads knew what it would be like before we arrived there. Oddly enough there were no pigs taken on that trip, but we did see a couple. Naturally, all the sons wanted to know when the next visit would be and my two hunt with me to this day.

The hunting on the property varied considerably. The day usually opened with a discussion over breakfast as to exactly where we would shoot in the cool of the morning. We would split into two groups with each tackling a different swamp or patch of walkable lignum. It was unusual not to bag a few animals in each location.

The same followed after lunch in another area, as there was plenty to choose from. If the weather was warm enough, a decision to sit on a remote dam until after dark always produced more pigs. Because of the ranges involved, we tended to favour heavier calibres when dam sitting.

Certainly the .270 Winchester cartridge was a personal preference coupled with a 130gr soft-point projectile. Another mate used his .303-25 with good effect under the same conditions, then much later a straight .303 in a Jungle Carbine rifle was also productive. Over time many other suitable calibres were used.

For a bit of variety after leisurely dinner at night there was spotlighting for rabbits and foxes, plus the occasional pig. Oddly enough in the 20 years we shot the property almost invariably we despatched at least one feral cat per trip, even in this very remote area. It was noticeable that the canine teeth on all of these animals were longer than in the domestic cat.

For the rabbits the preferred rifle was a self-loading Ruger 10/22 with a 10-shot magazine. We kept a loaded spare in someone’s shorts pocket. No matter how much .22LR ammunition accompanied us on the trip we still had to ration ourselves each night.

Our most memorable treks in terms of numbers occurred after the property was unshootable for some eight months. An unusual amount of rain had isolated large portions of the station and many of the local access roads were also shut, as they were simply impassable. When we finally gained access again there were large areas which we could not penetrate except on foot.

Shooting under such conditions required much wet walking in the low-lying swamp areas. The reward was there were literally pigs everywhere and we took 17 the first morning before lunch. It quickly became evident that this was no ordinary outing. In one swamp at the sound of the first shot another 12 or so heads popped up. It was unbelievable.

Although we were more or less gentlemen shooters with a laidback attitude and limited in shooting area compared to what was normally available, we did despatch some 97 animals in a single week, without really trying.

Drought decimated the property over time and the rabbits were virtually wiped out with both the drought and the virus that was released by the government at the time. We actually reached the stage where the sighting of a single animal was commented on, in an area where in the past there were thousands. But the pigs were still there.

Our pig education began on that first trip and continued over the 20 years. We were indebted to the owner and his family who always made us welcome. The property was sold in the year 2000 and we lost our shooting paradise, but the memories linger on.

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