Buffalo Breath

Friday, April 24, 2009
“Buffalo Breath�

June 6, 2006

My PH had his mighty .505 Gibbs resting heavily on my shoulder, and I was armed with a 110 pound draw Mathews held at the ready. I was locked in a stare-down with a 2,500 pound black stinking mud covered leviathan. Luckily, the wind was in my face and not his. At 10 feet you actually can smell the breath of a water buffalo. Regurgitated bile eminating from the mammoth wafted into my nasal cavity and mouth as I tried to remain calm. These beasts look big at a distance, but when viewed from your knees at near milking range they appear more like a monstrous locomotive. I felt like I was tied to the tracks hoping the train would not run me down. My heart was racing and cold sweat was running down my back as the huge bull and his six compatriots studied me at close range. The odds of surviving a charge from these huge beasts seemed slim, but I did my best to think myself invisible.

After stalking through sparse cycad brush to within 25 yards of a herd of massive Asian water buffalo and making a pretty decent shot on the largest, I had expected a slightly different result. “TWANG!� went the string. “Thud!� went the arrow as it disappeared into the armpit of the creature and then….. nothing. I stealthily nocked another arrow and waited for a clear shot. Several minutes later and ….. still nothing. Seven brutes calmly grazed closer and closer. Scott McClaren, my PH from Mary River Outfitters in Northern Territory, Australia, was also a bit unnerved, I later found out. The arrow seemed to have had no effect. The bull did not flinch, jump, or even groan! Then, I saw blood foaming out of his nose and mouth. The titan staggered a step or two and laid down 15 yards distant with all his cohorts wondering what had happened. He was not angry, confused, or aggressive. It just looked like he was planning on taking a nap. After the stories I had heard about these animals being extremely aggressive, I was pretty happy not to see a personal demonstration…… Only his pals did not leave. They just hung out and watched us for what seemed like hours. We did not dare to move for fear of raising their ire. The huge rifle was becoming quite a burden and I worried that if Scott decided to fire a massive Woodleigh solid into the brain of the closest behemoth, I would be deaf from the muzzle blast and stunned, which may at least have lessened the shock and pain of the charging monsters goring and stomping me into the hard dirt. The terrible great black horns seemed to spread 10 feet wide as the bull rocked his head back raising his huge wet nose to try to smell this strange little creature masquerading as a bush. I was getting terrible cramps in my legs and realized I was holding my breath, hoping that my heart slamming in my chest would not give me away as the creature moved closer.

Then it happened!!! My bull grunted, snorted and struggled mightily to his feet! Oh $%#$^!! Here we go! I thought. Blood poured out of his nostrils and I began to contemplate what my mangled body would look like all over his horns and face. Miraculously, all the members of the posse turned to watch their patriarch rise to his feet just as I felt the wind on the nape of my neck. Again, I could imagine painful death as a hapless matador as the wind shift betrayed us, but then they all just swiftly moved off. As the danger disappeared in a cloud of dust, just walking quickly, but far faster than I could run, the herd masked the stricken leader that I had chosen for my trophy room. I got to my feet unsteadily and caught my breath. Scott did the same as he flicked the safety back on. He admitted that if things had gone wrong we would have been in real trouble. He could have stopped one bull with a 500grain slug to the brain. Probably….? But the others could have run us over at the roar of the shot. At 10 yards there would have been no time to even react or throw the bolt for a second shot. I would have tried to fire an arrow, but the stopping power of my Mathews was no where near adequate.

The quarry vanished down a nearby ravine with a tributary of the Mary River at its bottom. Any trace of a blood trail was obliterated by the dust and hoof prints. We ran to the edge hoping to catch a glimpse of the animals. Perhaps Scott could get a shot at the wounded bull and anchor him. No such luck. The brush got very thick down there and it was getting close to dark. The sun sets extremely quickly close to the equator. Stumbling around in the inky blackness hoping not to encounter a Taipan viper or western brown snake, let alone a wounded angry buffalo bull or hungry crocodile, was not all that exciting to contemplate, so we decided to retreat and come back tomorrow at first light. We headed back to our Polaris ATVs for the 20 minute ride to camp. By the time we reached the machines, it was totally dark. Yes, there were billions of stars overhead, but it was totally black on the ground. The night seemed to close in around me. When the quads were started and moving, I felt a bit safer. The earth actually seemed to be slithering in the yellow beam of my headlight, with wriggling snakes chasing cane toads and other prey. I had been warned not to leave the lodge at night and wander around in the yard. I now saw why. The reptile book on the coffee table in camp listed several species of deadly venomous snakes native to this area, and dozens more listed as not “dangerous� even though they may have killed me from a heart attack. Hundreds of serpents raced ahead of me to escape the oncoming light. We came to a muddy area where Scott easily motored his large machine through the bog. However, my quad had worn tires and much less ground clearance. I wrestled the veteran Polaris through the morass and just as I cleared the muck, I saw the shining eyes of a pair of buffalo trotting towards me. Shaking with the thought of being charged in the dark, I gunned the throttle and raced after my PH. That night, after a great steak dinner, I literally fell into my bed. I had no intention of wandering about in the yard. In addition to the snakes and spiders, the lodge is only a few dozen yards from the Mary River and the border of the famous Kakadu National Park. Along the highway at all low spots and culverts there are signs that warn travelers to not swim, fish or let pets near the water. I guess that has something to do with the huge saltwater crocs that live in just about all the wet spots around, like the river only yards from my bed. What a great spot to hunt, I thought. I must have been too tired to dream, because if I had, it would have been a nightmare.

It had been five days of riding around, walking, stalking and trying to get close to a big buff. I shot a very nice Banteng on the second day after a 45 minute stalk that went right down with a 35 yard shot to the lungs and we saw buffalo everywhere we looked. “How hard could it be?�, I asked myself. It had been an interesting time so far on a ranch about as isolated as can be three hours east of Darwin, NT, with a 20 mile long driveway and three river crossings where the snorkel of our Landcruiser was actually necessary. During the wet season the area is impossible to traverse by land and the only way in or out is by air, hence the 3,000 foot airstrip and single engine puddle jumper located near the lodge. I had seen wallabees, kangaroos of all sizes, wild horses called “Brumbies,� and beautiful country covered with cycad, termite mounds, etc. and not just a few snakes. I had seen more slithering reptiles than I had imagined there could be. I sampled a few bush treats that Scott pointed out to me. I would have been dubious of trying them, but he popped them in his mouth and did not even glance to see if I followed his lead. I figured I should get the full experience. Some of the leaves, stalks, roots, and berries were not too bad; others were pretty awful. How can people live here? Why do people live here? I wondered.

The next morning it was our mission to discover where my buff had gone. I was all hyped up, the fears and dangers had vanished from my mind. All I wanted was to find my bull. As we left the ranch we took a different route to the area where I had shot. We decided to do a search by ATV as the area was relatively flat except by the river ravine. There was no sign of any huge dead colossus. The only way they could have gone we saw was through the river at a crossing roughed out of the hard earth by the passage of thousands of hooves. It looked about stomach deep, too deep for the ATVs. Only 30 feet across. We had to cross here. The only ford we could drive across was over a mile away. We dismounted and walked closer to the water. In Crocodile Dundee, I remember a massive reptile erupting from the water and nearly devouring the star of the show. The movie took place right in this area. I longed to see a monster Saltie in the wild, just not too close. I decided Scott should go first. He assured me that this area was safe. Only “freshies� ventured this far upstream, and they are much too small to bother us, or so he said. Great. I thought acidly. He tested the water ahead with a long stick and ventured forth. I raced across behind in a blind panic. We shared a laugh and then resumed the search. Many hours later and no sign. I shot a nice big wild boar feeding on maggots in the corpse of a raunchy two week old dead buffalo shot by a client from Russia. It was exciting, but not really the reason I had come here. I wanted a buffalo! All day we searched and later a helicopter was brought in from cattle roundup duty. The pilot located the dead animal from the air in a part of the ravine we could not see from the ground. It was less than 100 yards from where I shot it with the entire arrow having passed through both lungs. The bull had separated from the herd in the confusion as they ran from us and we just plain missed it. I was elated at this magnificent beast. The recovery operation was impressive. It took a Land cruiser with a pretty big winch to get the monster onto the flat ground where we could cape it. It was huge! I had done it! I got what I came down under for!

With four days to go, I shot two more buffalo. One went down with a single arrow from 45 yards and the other took seven arrows to the chest before succumbing. I did not get to smell buffalo breath again, but I did see dozens of prehistoric looking, massive jawed saltwater crocs from the safety of a boat tour through the amazing Kakadu park. There were dozens of species of beautiful birds. The tidal monsoon marshland was a place I will never forget.

A last stop at Amazing Jumping Crocodile Adventures on the Alligator River was unbelievable. Those armored leviathans actually came out of the water 6-8 feet to tear chunks of buffalo meat from a line hung over the side of our boat. Crashes and thuds from beneath made me wonder if our boat was big enough, and when a massive ancient croc was coaxed next to the 20 foot pontoon boat, I realized that I was only 5 feet from the biggest crocodile I could imagine. It’s head was three feet wide! It was longer than the boat!

As I was about to get out of the Toyota Land Cruiser at the airport Scott mentioned that the neighboring ranch was for sale. Hmmm…… I wonder if I could convince my wife to become a cattle rancher.