On the first evening in Greg Pennicott’s buffalo camp, we came to a vast floodplain stretching away across miles of short grass and heat waves to an invisible ocean. The buffalo were already there, grazing in singles and small groups as far as the eye could see. I worked my binoculars across the horizon and quickly lost count in the high nineties. I started again, but it was hopeless. The most distant buffalo were magnified by mirage, stretching toward the sky–and unless they were moving, it was impossible to tell bush from buffalo from termite mound. There were probably 300 buffalo in view, the most water buffalo I have ever seen in one place at one time.
The historical record doesn’t seem totally clear, but according to the most-repeated legend, water buffalo were introduced into Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1830s–apparently a very small number released near the mouth of the Mary River. From there, over bovine generations, they expanded down the Mary, then, in the wet seasons, across to the next river, and the next. Buffalo long since reached the ocean on the northeast coast, but those are sparsely inhabited aboriginal lands. My belief is that buffalo are increasing in that region, and probably continuing to extend their range on to the south.
On the west side closer to the original release, well, I’ve read that settlers in the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries found thousands of undisturbed buffalo. Within some proximity of Darwin and Katherine, the buffalo were first commercially hunted and then, in our generation, nearly eradicated out of concern for the bovine diseases they might carry. The good news, at least for the buffalo and sport hunting of buffalo, is that helicopter gunning is extremely expensive. Also, it’s really big country with the largest numbers of buffalo now found in areas too remote for either meat or live-captured buffalo to be brought to market. It isn’t like the chopper boys gave up, but in recent years it seems like there’s a bit of a truce.
Water buffalo still occur and are probably on the increase on both private stations and crown lands relatively close to both Darwin and Katherine. Some of the more accessible areas produce big buffalo, but I tend to think that is a matter of time as well as numbers. Absent almost all predators save man, water buffalo are long-lived, slow-growing animals. It’s not impossible for a salt-water crocodile to pull in a buffalo. I suppose dingos could take the occasional newborn calf, and there are several local snakes with venom potent enough to kill anything–but a full-grown water buffalo will weigh a ton, and there are no tigers in the Outback. These buffalo live much longer than African buffalo, and may be 25 or 30 years old before they achieve maximum horn growth.
This is why, at least in my opinion, modern hunters almost never see the monstrous “sweepers” that you see in old books–not enough of today’s buffalo have had the decades required to reach their full potential. But there are still lots of buffalo, and in the aboriginal Arnhem Land there are buffalo that have never heard a helicopter and have experienced very little hunting pressure.
I don’t have the amount of experience with Australian buffalo that I have with African buffalo, but in the past 20 years I’ve made several trips to the Northern Territory and thought I had a pretty good handle on the situation. Water buffalo don’t gather in big herds; their normal unit is a family group. Even where plentiful, they tend to be scattered, so seeing lots of them is a matter of covering ground, and seeing big buffalo is somewhere between a numbers game and process of elimination.
In general, these theories remain true, but they pretty much went out the window when I saw the buffalo scattered on that floodplain. Obviously, that was an exceptionally good area…but I was also seeing it at the very best time, in August. There isn’t much to be done about the weather–Australia’s Top End is tropical and days are hot, even in the dead of winter. But all my previous Northern Territory hunts were much earlier in the winter. Like much of Africa, winter and summer are more matters of wet and dry than hot and cold. So in late May and even through June, there are areas where it’s still too wet; full access is impossible, and time will be lost winching vehicles out of mud holes.
In August, we could get around almost without restriction. Rivers that remained could be crossed or driven around, and all that remained of most waterholes was cracked earth. Compared to anything I’ve seen before, the sheer numbers of buffalo we saw were shocking…and within those numbers there were big buffalo. The current “gold medal” standard is 101 SCI points, and that should define a pretty good buffalo. Water buffalo are hard to judge, with lots of length in the curve and an inch of circumference one way or the other easy to miss, but I believe we saw at least half-dozen “100-plus” bulls every day. This was pretty much proven by the ones we shot measuring almost exactly what they were judged to measure.
Although that area has produced some very big buffalo, we didn’t see any of the legendary monsters in the 120-class, if they exist. But we saw plenty of buffalo, and plenty of good buffalo. It changed my opinion of Australian buffalo hunting…which is still one of the world’s great wilderness adventures but like pretty much everything else, best enjoyed at the right time as well as place.– Craig Boddington