Thrill of the chase

Mark van den Boogaart had to hunt tough for an NT buffalo

It started over a podcast chat with Brian, a fine bloke with encyclopaedic knowledge of hunting and practical experience to match. He suggested Ian, Jono and I should head to the Northern Territory to hunt buffalo so a date was set and thoughts turned to the build-up. Getting hotter, getting dryer, not bad for the hunter or for game concentration. The location was a cattle property near Elsey Station, the setting for Jeanie Gunn’s autobiography We of the Never Never.

Attention then turned to gear and luckily with a Territory connection we’d have access to camp equipment though we’d still need to take plenty, most importantly rifles. We agreed to take one large expedition bag and a rifle case each so ended up with a single rifle case, a double and our audio/video equipment filling the third. In those cases were a 9.3x62mm Sauer 100 topped with Swarovski Z6, a Sako 85 Hunter with Steiner Ranger 6 (also in 9.3) and a Beretta BRX-1 in .30-06 with Aimpoint Micro H1. Ammo was a combination of Sako and Sellier & Bellot, 180-grain for the .30-06 and a selection of 250 to 286-grain for the 9.3s.

We landed in Darwin and hit the road and on meeting Brian, Matt and Martin headed south. Arriving after dark we met the Station owner then established an overnight camp along the Roper River. We had five full days of hunting in front of us, the plan being to camp up on the hill for a couple of days then move to a wetlands area. Monday morning found us walking the Roper on an acclimatisation hunt along a sandy creek bed where we spotted a couple of pigs, but couldn’t get it together so around 11am we packed up.

Next morning we were following a dry creek bed close to camp and about 30 minutes in spotted our first fresh buffalo sign along with prints and harsh indentations in the dirt, so they were in the area. Eventually we came across water with several freshwater crocodiles. Local knowledge told us if there are lots of freshies it’s unlikely there’s a salty about, even so we gave the water a wide berth.

We split up with Matt and Ian cutting wide while Jono and I dropped into the dry creek wash-outs until a couple of shots filled the air. We stopped, listened then slowly headed towards the sound where standing under the trees were Ian and Matt with a monster pig, a huge sow which had been stopped in its tracks by a 180-grain pill. Changing teams, Matt and I bumped a couple of pigs though again without firing a shot, while Jono and Ian dropped another good-sized one, the kind which in most instances you’d be talking about for days, yet after ‘Hogzilla’ it was decidedly second tier.

A while later we were back at camp and making plans for a hunt around the Roper River. After a dusty drive we arrived at a series of now dry billabongs which drained into the main body of water and so began what would be a long walk in hot afternoon sun. We moved north with the sun to a low escarpment on our left and 20 minutes later spotted a lone domestic cow then, out of nowhere, a buffalo herd. None of us had seen them before so it took a while to comprehend what stood about 200m away, a true herd with at least one dominant bull and a few contenders.

We approached but 20 to 30 pairs of eyes are hard to sneak up on and at one stage the head bull turned and looked straight at me. I promptly moved behind a termite mound but raising his head he winded me and, in doing so, adopted that quintessential pose with chest forward, nose in the air and massive horns spreading from both sides of a brutish head. I lined up on the boiler room and considered the shot until he turned slightly, placed a foreleg and shoulder in the way and with that move I’d lost the shot so lowered my rifle. With the herd moving off we turned away from the afternoon sun and back to our starting point.

The following days were tough going. We covered plenty of ground and experienced some true Territory wonders but game was nowhere to be seen so the decision was made to head for the wetlands. The move took a while and it was early afternoon when we arrived in a country of contrasts with rocky ridge lines to the west and huge lagoons to the east. Surveying the skyline you could picture vast amounts of monsoonal rain being channelled by ridge lines into the lower basin but for now, the ridges and much of the foreground was bone dry.

We camped along a smaller lagoon, more of a wetlands system where we could hear geese and one afternoon while climbing the ridge lines we were able to see pigs which were absolute monsters. Amazingly the kilometre-wide corridor between the rocky, dusty ridges and wetlands was frequented by buffaloes with fresh sign everywhere. Next morning in the slowly increasing light we spotted a big pig on the safe side of the wire and later the buffalo which had cut our tracks from the previous evening. Following the sign we first heard then saw the birds – this was a poached buffalo and only hours dead.

That same afternoon Jono, Brian and Martin put in the hard yards and managed to take themselves a couple of buffaloes. After spying a large saltwater crocodile they decided to move away from the water and with the day almost done, spotted movement which turned into two buffaloes. Opening up they put down one on the spot. The second disappeared into the fading light and after another 30 minutes of searching they decided to pull out and return in the morning. They looked around and found the dead buffalo not far from where they’d lost it the previous night.

With Jono adding to the total it was turning into a successful hunt though for my part I hadn’t even closed the bolt on a game animal. Heading out that Friday afternoon Jono, Ian and Matt pushed east while Martin chauffeured me and Brian directly north of camp. Pulling up we cut into the scrub for a couple of kilometres, eventually hearing red-tailed cockatoos so we moved towards their sound.

On spotting them we assumed they were roosting above water and while that turned out not to be the case, after a little more searching we found our first puddle. With that we turned into the wind in search of more water and arriving at a deep creek line, crossed over to find more puddles and patches. A little further on the water formed into a single, winding line along which was buffalo sign, most of it old but we stuck with it.

Eventually we cut very fresh sign as around us the creek line first pushed right then back in front and we could see where the game track dropped down, before rising again on the opposite bank. Suddenly we took a nostrilful of buffalo. Sometimes when hunting you smell game, your nose tells it’s about, while other times you’ll catch an odour that says there’s game right here, right now. This was unquestionably the latter.

Looking at each other, Brian signalled to load-up and cycling the bolt I flicked the Sako to safe and moved further down the track. Within sight of the edge I saw a large wet stain in the dirt, put my hand to it and the water lifted. They’re here. Just a few steps more and I saw it, a small bull in the water facing away from me at roughly 50 yards so I sat down, took aim and fired the 9.3, striking it in the base of the skull.

Sitting there I was playing it back in my head when the second buffalo, the bigger one, burst from wherever it was standing and began moving up and out of the water towards the steep slope of the far bank. I immediately fired, striking it in the heart/lung zone for a double success.

I’ve come to think of hunting as the pursuit of a moment of chance, countless hours, energy, practice, money and the rest all compressed into a few moments. But that moment’s not assured, not guaranteed as all you’ve done is create a chance and now you have to take it. Our trip to the Territory really was just that, the compression of so much effort into the chance to take a buffalo. We grasped it and like the ever-hopeful punter with winnings burning a hole in their pocket, we’re already thinking about next time.

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