A buffalo down under
Derek Stimpson recalls a very close first encounter with feral Asiatic water buffalo in Australia's Northern Territory.
Most of us are familiar with the scene in Crocodile Dundee when Mick puts to sleep a large water buffalo blocking the road. I have heard all sorts of stories about these feral buffalo, introduced from Indonesia by the British some 150 years ago. But are they aggressive, or relatively tame? Are they difficult to stalk, difficult to kill?
A big game shooting match invitation from the Big Game Rifle Club of Victoria, to be held on their fine range near Melbourne, brought me to Australia in the first place, where I was to meet Matt Kelman of Australia Wide Safaris, from Carmor Plains in the Northern Territory. It was through Matt that I was able to go and find out more about these impressive animals.
Matt has 102,000 acres of natural wetland, bush and forest, roughly a two-hour drive east of Darwin. Part of his land borders Kakadu National Park, of aboriginal rock painting and estuarine crocodile fame. Indeed, on our journey from Darwin Airport to Carmor Plains we stopped for a sandwich at a bar that had a cased skull of an 18ft estuarine crocodile – a truly spectacular specimen!
After an early first night, often punctuated by sounds of the bush, a hearty breakfast set us up to explore the estate. Birdlife is spectacular in Australia and the wetlands attract masses of birds, including very large numbers of magpie geese. Agile wallabies are common and can be seen hopping away as one drives or walks through the woodland.
At this point I should explain that I had not taken a rifle with me to Australia as we were doing quite a lot of travelling which made it impractical. My preference would have been to use one of my own vintage rifles, so when Matt explained on the telephone that he had just acquired a .404, we quickly agreed that I would use that. It is a lovely Westley Richards, which had been a .318, but having been shot out, had been re-barrelled to .404 to get some big game use out of it. The open sights had been retained, as had the typical Westley flip-over sight protector and moon sight. A shot on the range with one of Matt's hand-loads confirmed that it shot to point of aim. We were using 400-grain Barnes TSX hollow point bullets. At around 9lb it was comfortable to carry and shoot. The safety is the typical Mauser three-position flag type.
Our first view of the buffalo at a distance out on the plains didn't really instil in me a true appreciation of their size.
We got out of the car and started walking, and spotted a small herd through the trees some 70 – 80 metres away soon after. Young bulls, cows and calves. To my surprise, Matt called, imitating the sound of a calf, and the group moved nearer. Another call – nearer still. They came within 25 metres, offering us a closer view before becoming suspicious and moving off. That evening, whilst stalking in the woods we also had a close encounter with a dingo.
Thereafter we saw many buffalo – including large bulls – in the woods, on the tracks, or out on the wet plains, feeding on the succulent grass. Although the water was generally shallow, there were, as we subsequently saw, plenty of crocodiles about.
After a number of trial stalks, and a couple of other meetings with bulls on the road, I was becoming more accustomed to and familiar with the buff. There were lone bulls, groups of twos and threes, and family groups which included bulls as well as cows and calves, plus larger herds. Some were more nervous and moved away as we approached. Other bulls stood their ground.
I had said to Matt that my wish was for a good close stalk rather than a long shot, and indeed I was carrying an open-sighted rifle. I would also by preference shoot an old bull and not seek a younger one with perfect horns.
Over lunch we discussed a particular bull that Matt knew of in an area we had not yet visited (not difficult on 100,000 acres).
We drove there shortly after and left the vehicle to continue on foot. We had to cross a couple of small creeks (carefully) – as is necessary with all water in the NT – before eventually arriving at a swampy clearing where we spotted buffalo on the other side. The wind was in our faces as we watched a cow and calf, and a large but young bull. They moved into the trees and a call or two had no effect.
We began our approach, moving to the right, around the swampy clearing and hence keeping the wind as favourable as possible. Reaching the trees, we followed a game trail, and as we neared the area where we had first seen the buffalo we paused and saw two cows moving off to our right. Matt whispered that he didn't want to lose them and called, again imitating a calf.
The result was explosive! “Step aside!” Matt exclaimed as, with the sound of thundering hooves, a bull appeared from the bushes no more than 25 yards away. We quickly identified the beast as the bull. “It's him – shoot him!” I was on Matt's right and had to step around a sapling. The bull was shaking its head up and down so I took a further step to the right to get in a shoulder shot, and fired – my quarry by now just 15 yards away. He turned 180 degrees and having reloaded I shot him in the hip. He went 10 yards away from us before going down. I stepped forward and shot him in the neck to make sure, and he slumped – dead.
Matt had thrown down the shooting sticks and the bull had marked the ground as he turned, so the distances were clear. My first shot had gone in just behind the shoulder and travelled diagonally through him. It would have killed him, but not instantly. The one bullet that we were able to recover had performed perfectly, as can be seen (above).
Of course, all of this happened in seconds. Matt had mentioned earlier that he thought the old bull we were seeking might prove to be aggressive. And so he did! We debated what the charge meant. Matt's view is broadly that if a bull really wants to press home a charge, you have to kill or at least put him down to stop him. My shot turned him so we will never know, but 15 yards is rather close to wait and make a judgement as to whether the charge is really serious or not. This is also a good reason for using a larger calibre on large animals – you never know what might happen! There is no question that the 400gr bullet of the .404 told well – in my opinion all the .400s are ideal for buffalo.
The bull did prove to be old – 14 or 15 years – and with heavy, thick horns, worn down at the tips, it was a trophy with character.
So that was my introduction to hunting feral Asiatic water buffalo. We had had some good stalks – both close-in as well as those offering potentially longer shots – so from the hunter's point of view a variety of possibilities exist.
I have a friend who was charged after wounding a bull, and that isn't surprising, although I was told that they generally run away. As with all game, there will be people who go and shoot one at 70 yards without any problem and then other cases such as mine. What is certain is that these animals are not to be taken lightly and are a worthy quarry.
We hunted in September – the dry season – and the scent of the eucalyptus woods was delightful. We discussed other seasons and I believe that just after the wet season would be interesting as tracking would then be more of a possibility and one would be able to follow specific animals.
We stalked boar the day after our buffalo hunting success. Once again I took the .404 and we made a couple of stalks into boar feeding out on the open plain. With care, one could approach them but not always get a shot. The partially dried ground on the perimeter of the plain is ploughed up by feeding boar.
Later, Matt and I headed for an area in the bush which is left largely undisturbed and is favoured by boar lying up in the heat of the day. Moving very carefully and with the wind in our favour, we were able to stalk into the middle of a large group. A sow and her piglets approached us, coming within 20 yards. We froze and she eventually turned away after considering our presence for a short while, perhaps slightly suspicious, but not enough to raise the alarm. We were finally able to select a decent-sized boar which the .404 anchored with a heart/lung shot at 20 yards. My wife was also able to shoot her first boar – a good clean kill at 80 yards.
In addition to buffalo and boar, Matt has banteng and feral cattle – scrub bulls as they are known – on his land, and can make arrangements to shoot sambar and other deer elsewhere. Carmor Plains is part of a lovely area which stretches right to the coast, and air boat trips are very worthwhile both for shooting and watching birds and wildlife. There is plenty of local flora of interest, and the neighbouring Kakadu National Park is worth seeing for the aboriginal rock paintings. We were even lucky enough to see rock wallabies. It was altogether a remarkable experience – the hunt, the beautiful area, the other wildlife – a return visit is a must...