I’d been there a couple of times before. Greg Pennicott’s buffalo concession in Australia’s vast Northern Territories encompasses, literally, millions of acres, from eucalyptus forest to floodplain to coastline. Water buffaloes like the open floodplains with plenty of Continue reading Big Aussie Buffaloes!
Australia: a beautiful and rugged land where the terrain is tough and the animals are dangerous. Depending on your reference, six or seven of the world’s deadliest snakes slither there, and it’s home to one of the deadliest Continue reading Australia Water Buffalo Hunt
How to keep cool and comfortable under hunting’s most challenging conditions.
FOREST OR JUNGLE?
From a biological perspective these terms are not interchangeable, but we hunters mix them up all the time—and I’m not sure it makes a lot of difference. Technically, for instance, a tall-tree climax forest, not jungle, covers much of Central and West Africa. I’ve now done three hunts in Mexico’s Yucatan with three different outfitters, and all three referred to the habitat as “jungle”—but to me the vegetation and terrain look amazingly similar to what I’ve seen in Africa’s forest zone, whether the Congo forests of southern Cameroon and CAR, or the western forests of Ghana and Liberia.
In April I hunted Luzon, largest island in the Philippines, with outfitter Jay Carlson. Jay characterizes his hunting as a “jungle hunt,” I guess as opposed to, say, a “plains” or “savanna” hunt. Realistically, we were hunting islands of very dense tropical vegetation separated by clearings. Some of these seemed natural, while others were obviously cleared for cultivation. In the thick stuff, well, the specific plants were different—but the effect and appearance differed little from West Africa, southern Mexico, or, honestly, a briar patch on my place in Kansas. Except for this: In Kansas I wouldn’t consider going into the thickest cover and trying to root out a whitetail. All tactics are based on catching a buck feeding elsewhere or moving to or from!
Whether you prefer to call it forest or jungle, the big difference is you have no choice but to go into the thickest cover after the animals you seek. There is close-cover hunting elsewhere in the world. For instance, the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest are classic, and other than chill and damp there are similarities. However, I’m primarily talking about situations that combine close cover hunting with tropical heat. These conditions coincide on every continent except Europe and, obviously, Antarctica: Southernmost North America and northernmost South America; and the entire forest zone of Equatorial Africa. Oddly, when I was a kid “jungle hunting” was the most prevalent opportunity in Asia, whether the Terai forests of Nepal or the jungles of India. Today those opportunities are long gone and Asia is mostly about mountain hunting. But I found hunting in the Philippines quite similar to hunting the African forest, and there are other opportunities in Southeast Asia that are also similar. Australia’s Northern Territories are plenty tropical as far as weather goes, but in my experience the water buffalo are generally hunted in reasonably open country—“savanna woodland” as opposed to “forest.” However the thick cover of the Cobourg Peninsula, where most banteng are hunted and where, just occasionally, a sambar might be encountered, is very much a “jungle hunt.” So let’s look at what these diverse situations have in common.
First off, the hunting is difficult. Second, it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Some will like it and some will hate it…but relatively few hunters will love it enough to subject themselves to such conditions over and over again. Instead, we do it because we want the experience of hunting certain animals only available under such conditions. The good news is that, for most of us, these are “post-graduate” hunts, conducted after considerable hunting experience elsewhere. I do know a few hunters whose first African experience was bongo or forest elephant, but that is unusual, and I suspect it’s even less common for a hunter to go after brocket deer without a lot of other American experience. In some ways that is good. A well-rounded body of hunting experience teaches a bit of patience and the ability to roll with the punches. On the other hand, forest hunting is so different that I’m not sure anything else offers proper preparation!
The biggest difference is that, because of the thick cover, you will probably see relatively little other game. If you are successful, the only animals you see may be the ones you take…and if you aren’t successful (a real possibility!) you may see little or nothing. Most probably, however, you will see some variety of non-game species: Monkeys, exotic birds. In southern Mexico I’m amazed at how common the tapir is; in southern Cameroon you’ll probably see gorillas. Not all sightings are pleasant…you don’t want a close encounter with an elephant, and around the globe some of the worst snakes inhabit tropical areas. Caution is always required, but that said, true forest tends to have fairly low density of wildlife, and I’ve actually seen very few snakes.
The main thing, however, is that the forest is what it is. You cannot expect to see a lot of game. You can expect to get hot and, as you fight your way through vines and creepers, more than a little frustrated—if not exasperated! There are some specialized things you should bring, but the most important thing to bring is a positive attitude. You can’t change the forest, and you may or may not like it…but you must deal with it in order to take the game you seek. Be patient, hunt hard, and keep an open mind. The hardest part is keeping your attention level where it needs to be as fruitless days go by.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
You will be hot. Period. As a matter of personal preference, in much warm weather hunting I prefer shorts and short sleeves: Cooler, quieter, more comfortable. But that depends on the forest! Usually I wear long trousers and long sleeves as protection against both thorns and insects. Sure, you’re going to sweat—but the biggest nuisance I’ve seen in numerous forests is biting ants, horrible things. I’m happy to report that I haven’t seen a lot of leeches, but they are also endemic in many tropical waterways. So I often wear long sleeves and button them tight, and I seal my trouser cuffs. Tight-fitting gaiters work, but I usually use military “blousing bands” that I fasten around the top of my shoes, and then turn the cuffs under.
As far as material goes I think cotton is still king, but no matter what you wear, you’re going to get soaked. Here’s a funny thing: When you’re wet it doesn’t take much temperature change to cause a chill. So whether rain is likely or not I carry a light Cabela’s rainsuit—and I slept in it several nights in the Liberian forest.
Footgear is open to argument. Philippine outfitter Jay Carlson wears flip-flops (!), but high-topped canvas is probably the most popular. I generally wear Russell’s canvas-and-leather PH boots because they’re comfortable—and on most forest hunts you’re going to cover a lot of ground on foot. However, leather is unlikely to dry, so if you have footwear you really like, consider taking two pairs that you can rotate. I carry a headnet against particularly buggy spots, but rarely use it. I do wear a baseball cap. Forests are shady places, so protection from the sun isn’t as big an issue as in open country…but a baseball cap’s stiff brim protects the face and eyes from branches and vines.
Forests differ, but a small pair of garden clippers is often really handy for cutting vines. A light hammock is invaluable. In spike camps in both Mexico and Liberia I slept in it—it gets you up off the ground and away from the creepy-crawlies! If you’re calling or waiting in ambush at a waterhole or feeding area a hammock is great way to get comfortable and stay still.
I’m not big on carrying supplies and goodies; I’m not a picky eater, and in most cases it just isn’t necessary. But the forest is different. Despite best intentions, it is sometimes impossible to carry enough bottled water. So take purification tablets or a filtration system and a water bottle, and use them if you need to. And use common sense. One of the hunters in Liberia just before me drank local palm wine and had to cut his hunt short; another friend of mine tried the juice from a water-storing vine. It tasted fine, but he was sick for days. If you’re walking hard in tropical heat it is very difficult to force enough fluid down to avoid dehydration. You need to drink constantly, and powdered Gatorade or other sports drink can really help keep the electrolytes up. Just in case, a small cache of freeze-dried meals is also a good idea.
Malaria is present in most tropical areas, although human habitation greatly exacerbates the problem. But here’s a fact: You absolutely, positively must get bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito in order to get it. Again, long sleeves, long trousers…and use a good insect repellent. You are probably much more likely to get nailed in town before or after the hunt, so be careful at all times.
Despite your best intentions you’re going to get minor scratches and abrasions from thorns and sharp grass and such. In many tropical climates infection can be almost instantaneous, so carry a good antibiotic ointment like Neosporin…and use it. Historically I’ve always had a chronic problem with chafing in extreme heat and humidity. This year I used an antifungal talcum powder and had absolutely no problems. You learn as you go… .
In some areas it cools off at night…and in some areas it doesn’t. If the latter, one of the best gadgets in the world is a small battery-powered fan…just a little bit of moving air can give you a good night’s sleep. But don’t forget the batteries!
Obviously you can weigh yourself down with all sorts of things. In Liberia I had the privilege of sharing camp with Ralf Schneider, an interesting character who has done “do it yourself” hunts all over West Africa. He carried a very complete and well planned “forest survival package.” In addition to most of the items mentioned (not the fan—Ralf is ‘way too tough to need one!), he brought a backpack stove with fuel and some coffee, tea, sugar and an assortment of light emergency rations. I thought I was prepared…but I wasn’t nearly as prepared as Ralf Schneider!
LET THERE BE LIGHT
On some forest hunts—Ghana and Liberia, for instance—much hunting is done at night. In all cases some movement at night is required, so good lights are essential. I’ve tried just about everything, and there is no substitute for a good headlamp. There are plenty, but the one I’ve been using lately, the Cyclops brand, is the best I’ve seen. But even with the best headlamp there is also a place for a plain old flashlight, so I carry either a Brite Strike or a SureFire—or both. Just make sure you have plenty of batteries…if night hunting is part of the deal, you’ll go through a bunch! Another really good illumination tool is Brite Strike’s APALS (All Purpose Adhesive Light Strips)—inexpensive and packed 10 to a box, they’re great for lighting up a dark tent or spike camp.
Forest shooting is almost always done at close range, and it usually isn’t a perfect science. Whether in West Africa or Yucatan, smaller animals are usually taken with shotguns. Rifles are used for bigger animals like buffalo and bongo, but the ranges are very short and, in fact, the shooting is much more akin to shotgunning than the deliberate riflery we pride ourselves on. In other words, it’s often more pointing than aiming—even when you’re using a rifle! Some people are very good at this and others are not. The very best practice is probably shotgunning—of any kind—but if you could stand on a sporting clays station that has a “running rabbit” target and shoot until you achieve consistency, that would probably be the best of all.
It isn’t easy; the light is often terrible, and only rarely will you have a full view of the target animal. I actually thought I was pretty good at that kind of shooting, but in Yucatan this year I missed a brocket deer, which is something you really shouldn’t do! That’s the other problem in the forest. You have to make your chances count, because there probably won’t be many opportunities. I felt terrible, bad for myself and worse for my guide. But I do believe that things happen for a reason. The very next day I had a chance at a monster brocket deer, and that time I did it right.– Craig Boddington
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